What’s Your Story, Content Marketer?

February 21, 2014 •

What's your story

We make (and hear) comparisons between content marketing and storytelling all the time. And while it’s easy to think of your overarching company story — your history, mission, boilerplate, and messaging — as the only story you need to tell, you have many stories that make up who you are and why you do what you do.

Weave your larger story seamlessly (and subtly) into your smaller stories, and create win-win content. Tell one story without the other, and your content won’t do what it’s supposed to do: attract and engage audiences, build trust, and ultimately boost business.

How can you do the former and avoid the latter? Don’t think of your content as a single story. Think of it as a collection of stories — one that unfolds page after page, story after story, even book after book. The books have common narrators, settings, themes, and even twists and turns in plot. Quite possibly, they have shared characters and motifs.

If we want to compare content marketing to a storybook, an apt comparison might be Nine Stories, published in 1953 by J.D. Salinger, who wrote the classic coming of age story, The Catcher in the Rye. Like many collections of short stories, this one features overlapping characters (the Glass family) and themes (World War II, death, love, children, genius) that tie the tales together and turn them in to a collective whole. Each story can stand on its own — most, in fact, were first published that way — but bound together in one book, they build on each other and tell a broader, more multifaceted story.

In this sense, content marketing is like Salinger’s Nine Stories. Each piece of content, whether a blog post, eBook, white paper, email, or case study, serves a purpose and should tell a cohesive story on its own. Yet each one of those stories also contributes to a larger story, and paints a picture of the how, what, when, where, and why of what it is that you do.

So, how can you do both remarkably — that is, tell a story within your larger story, without ending up with clunky, pedestrian content that doesn’t flow well or tries to accomplish too much? What benefits does multifaceted storytelling bring, and why? Here are some things to consider as you plan your editorial calendar and draft your stories.

Don’t tell everything

Your story within a story doesn’t need to tell your entire raison d’être. It doesn’t need to explain when your company was founded and who founded it. You might, on occasion, work those details in to your story, but only if you have legitimate reason to do so.

Keep in mind that you can link to your About Us page, or include one of your eBooks or white papers as a call to action, or simply include a sidebar that paints the big picture of who you are and what you do. In our own case studies, for instance, we often wait until the very end of the piece and then only relay some basic company information. We don’t try to work our messaging in to the main story because that would detract from the flow and focus.

Mind the funnel

I hope you create different kinds of content depending on where your reader might be in the buying funnel. If you do, your story needs to change accordingly. At the top of the funnel, where you do more general education on your product or service, you probably don’t have the opportunity to put much of your company story or message into your content without having it feel forced. Once a reader is at the bottom of the funnel, however, general education is over, and the time might be ripe to really work your company message into the story, whether it’s within bios of your key personnel or in a proposal. Remember to consider the prospect’s situation, and don’t feel the need to tell every thing every time.

“Show” more than you “tell”

Yes, you have a story to tell — lots of them. But in content marketing, you want to use your stories to “show” your readers, not “tell” them, about your strengths. Old marketing was about advertising and telling your prospects and customers about how much better you were than your competitors. New marketing is about showing them and letting them determine the strongest player. We create a lot of remarkable content here at Right Source, but we don’t usually say that to people. If you look at our work and read our content, you will decide for yourself if we know what we’re talking about when it comes to creating and marketing content. That is showing versus telling.

Be of service

This is a big one, and will keep you from droning on about how strategic, effective, top-notch, and fantastic you are, and from citing your many awards and accolades (a link to that page of your website will suffice). As a rule of thumb, each piece of content needs to be of value to your audiences. What do your audiences want to know about? What questions do clients ask time and again? What topics cause confusion?

Take, for instance, the blog of the grocery store chain, Whole Foods. Their posts fit the range of their audiences — and offer useful advice. There are posts about dairy-free living, posts about gluten-free living, posts about animal welfare, and posts about cooking on a budget. There are plenty of other kinds of posts — a long list of categories. All of these posts are helpful in some way, whether they focus on recipes for the week, tips for healthier living, or things to do with the kids. None of them say, “Buy things at Whole Foods.” The topics address the complexity of their market. They haven’t taken a one-size-fits-all approach because they realize they have multiple audiences, but they offer help and service to all of them with each piece of content.

Find out what your audiences want (or need) to learn more about, and tailor your content accordingly.

Build on other stories

As you create content, one of the easiest, most effective ways to tie your individual stories to your company’s larger messaging is to reference and link to other stories. You’d be surprised at the number of companies that have dozens of posts live on their blog but rarely, if ever, refer to them. These companies are missing a prime chance to drive traffic to those other blog posts — and to build (incrementally) a more cohesive, larger story than can be told in a single piece of content. You can also tie into your company message by linking to FAQs, explanations of services, or “Our Work” sections of your website.

Of course, referencing other blog posts, eBooks, webinars, videos, and so on requires a body of content to actually exist. Otherwise, there’s simply nothing to link to, aside from the relevant content created by people and companies outside of your own. Linking to outside sources is all well and good (and can, in itself, drive traffic and show that you know what you’re talking about), but you also need to link within.

Together, your small stories make a whole and reveal who you are and how you think. If you’ve ever read Nine Stories, you probably can’t imagine the book with four or five fewer stories — each one serves a purpose and advances the bigger picture of Salinger’s fictitious world. The same holds true to the content you create. Treat each piece as a cohesive whole but also figure out how it all fits together. Ultimately, it’s these smaller stories that feed your larger company message, and get you closer to your marketing and business goals.

How do your individual stories feed your bigger story? Let us know in comments — we’d love to hear. And to learn more about creating a body of content that will grow your business, download our eBook, “How to Grow Your Business with Content Marketing.”

About the Author

Emily Gaines Buchler is a senior writer/content strategist at Right Source, where she writes and edits content that aligns with clients’ business initiatives and tells compelling, targeted stories across a number of digital platforms. She holds master’s degrees in art history and English education from Syracuse University, a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a post-baccalaureate degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University. Connect with her on LinkedIn or read her other posts.

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