Storytelling: A Lost Art (Online, Anyhow)

I attended a fun event recently—the Chicago Creative Space Awards—where companies in four categories (based on square footage size) were awarded for their creative use of physical space.  All of the nominees were pretty amazing to look at, as you can see on videos at ChicagoCreativeSpace.com.  It’s clear Chicago’s historic inventiveness in design and architecture is being taken to a new level at companies playing in the digital entrepreneurial space. In fact, the goal behind Chicago Creative Space is to highlight these spaces as a differentiator for top technology talent, as a company’s space is a symbol of how they treat their employees and value their creativity…even if it is a bit tiresome to see yet another ping pong table at an Internet startup.
The founder of Chicago Creative Space, Max Chopovsky, spoke to the use of his company’s videos as a form of storytelling in his opening remarks at the awards.  Then Max said that he felt storytelling was becoming a lost art, even with the explosion of content in social media. The message was well received, surprisingly so, given that there were so many digital companies focused on content marketing and social media in the audience.

A great book on storytelling for marketers.

I have to agree, and not just because I’m a wannabe novelist.  (In fact, I finished a first draft of a novel a few weeks ago—my first since a high school sci-fi work—so if you know a good literary agent, please let me know via my contact form.)  I have always felt that good marketing requires storytelling.  I’m a big fan of the Made to Stick philosophy popularized by the Heath Brothers in their book of the same name.  The best marketing messages—and beyond that, the best ideas—usually come in the form of stories.  Stories have the power to move us emotionally, like a mere headline or social media posting can’t.  Emotion motivates us to act more than reason does.

The best advertisers
are storytellers.

Think of the best salesmen you’ve heard—the Don Drapers of the world.  They’re usually telling a story or implanting one in your head.  This is why you go to an auto dealership and can hear the phrase, “Do you see yourself in this?”  That phrase is designed to create a picture of a newer, better you, where you are the rewarded hero of your own story.
I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of my career in the marketing of education, where the story is practically built-in.  It’s not: “Do you see yourself in this shiny, new car?”  It’s: “Do you see yourself in this shiny, new life?”  People dream and fantasize on a constant basis—it’s a big part of what makes us human—and there are few arenas as strong as education and employment that have a built-in story of dreaming of a better life.
So why, when I did a search just now for “business school” on Google, do I see so many AdWords ads that are dry, boring and have absolutely no sense of building a story in a prospective student’s mind?  I see phrases like “Accredited Online MBA,” “Expand Your Knowledge,” and the horrendously overused “Advance Your Career.”  My fellow education marketers, it is not merely about advancing a career—it is about advancing a life.  You have ample space in an AdWords ad or in your site’s title and description tags to inspire people rather than merely describe your institution, your programs and (bo-ring!) your accreditation.  Stop taking the fine print and leading with it.

We all want to be heroes.

Related to this problem is the mistaken notion of who is the hero of a story.  I call this the “It’s not you, it’s ‘you’” problem. Most of the education ads you see when searching on “business school” put the institution at the center, not the student.  I believe the best way to market a product or service is to put the customer first (just as many of us claim to do in our customer service) by putting them at the center of the story.  Whether you’re selling education, insurance, widgets, cloud hosting solutions, or whatever, your customer wants to be viewed as the hero of their own life, workplace, etc.  So stop selling, and start putting your customer in the story.

Don’t believe me?  I recommend some A/B tests on your landing pages to try this out.  I’d be happy to help.  Just reach me via my contact form, preferably if you’re a literary agent.