There’s been much discussion lately about the importance of storytelling in good marketing and how we marketers need to embrace it; however, not much has been written about how to properly architect a story for maximum impact.  Admittedly, I’m a recovering English major who spent much of my academic life trying to master the short story, so I geek out on story architecture.  I also spent 3 years working for Disney where masterful storytelling is the lifeblood of the organization.


As you think about new product launches for 2013 and developing content for your community, I’d love to hear if you follow a similar process to what I’ve outlined below or something different.

1. Know your audience

In marketing, one of the first things we need to nail strategically is our target audience. We need to know what they care about, where they hang out and how we can drive awareness that compels them to act.

I use Jive at this stage to help crowd-source ideas from my marketing team and ensure that we’re on the same page strategically.   Similarly, I search for previous campaigns to determine what worked and how I can leverage those learnings for the new campaign I’m developing.

We need the audience to be the core character in our story.  To that end, I like to develop a specific persona that I’m trying to address.  I will create a storyboard with a picture and key facts – e.g. Terry is the VP of Product Marketing, lives by her Outlook calendar and iPhone, has to hire 5 new people in 2 weeks and on-board them, is planning sales kickoff, and needs 3 more hours in the day.

By bringing the audience to life, I can more definitively craft my story to drive relevancy and resonance.  You might be thinking that the above is too specific, but I’m sure that each of you can think of someone who resembles many of these characteristics and can extrapolate accordingly.  The point is not to be too specific so as to significantly limit your audience, but to provide enough detail that the audience can come to life and guide the rest of your story development.

2. Develop your characters

Once you know to whom you’re speaking, you’ll need appropriate actors to carry out your story.  Note that the focus of story architecture and the story itself is foremost on the characters. If you can’t articulate who they are and what they care about, then you won’t be able to put them into a specific situation and have them react. The characters in your story must be relatable to the audience in the context of your product or service.  If you sell technology, for example, you’ll want to think about how Terry might be looking to for advice and how those characters could challenge her current perceptions, swaying her toward interest in your products. Similarly, you need to think about how to make your characters more aspirational for Terry, yet still relevant enough that she would believe whatever these characters are doing is achievable.  How can you stretch their personas to drive Terry to think in new ways about your product?

For this step, I typically look for relevant customer stories in our social intranet that I can leverage to flesh out the story.  By searching for recent closed business and customer success stories in our Sales space, I can quickly get inspired and reach out to the account manager to ask questions.

3. Insert conflict into your characters’ lives

It always sounds more negative than it really is.  Without a conflict – which could be as simple as a decision that needs to be made – you don’t have a story.  You just have a list of characters and a non-existent audience. For marketers, the conflict must eventually resolve to the characters choosing our products and services.  While that piece of the story is formulaic, how you get there doesn’t have to be.  In fact, the strongest conflict and story lines are bred from creating issues that the audience didn’t know they had.

Take the “best in class” ads for Old Spice as an example.  The target buyer is a younger male, but the main character is speaking directly to all the ladies out there (noting that they may be doing some of the shopping as well).  Prior to these ads, I don’t think there were thousands of women complaining about which body wash their significant others were choosing.  Nonetheless, when the ad creates conflict in these women’s minds that they could be doing better in the partner department, a sense of urgency is created to purchase the product.  Again, driving that aspirational response is a key to successful storytelling.

4. Resolve conflict through epiphany

Not to wax total English major here, but one of my favorite tenets of story architecture is the character epiphany.  Here it’s a more emphatic way of talking about resolving the character conflicts and taking the story home.  In our marketing stories, the key is for the audience to experience that epiphany along with the characters – ultimately leading to a purchase decision, if we’re lucky, but we’ll take purchase consideration and call it a win. The best stories will challenge the audience to think about the product or service in a new way.  Think about the original ads for iPods.  We were all stuck carrying around bulky Sony Discmans and suddenly we have 1000 songs in our pockets?!  We should aspire to be so simply elegant in our stories.

Elegant solutions don’t normally appear on the first story pass.  I engage my team in our social intranet to get feedback and refine the ‘epiphany’ across several iterations.  As we prepare for sales kickoff, this process is integral to taking the best products and positioning to market, expediently.

5. Know how the story will end

Knowing how the story will end is a bit of a trick step.  Ultimately your goal for every brand story is to drive a new opportunity or purchase consideration.  Once you’ve set the story into the wild, however, your audience owns it.  There are ways to cultivate your story and encourage its growth – through engagement on a customer community, for example – but you no longer own it. While I’ll save distribution channels and their importance for another post, cultivating your brand story across and within channels in creative ways ensures its survival.  However, without a solid and elegant brand story first, it won’t matter which medium you use.  First focus on your audience, characters, and conflict; figure out later where they will be hashing everything out.

When people at your company are geographically dispersed, it becomes increasingly important to develop and communicate the brand story. Watch this webcast to see how Yum! worked to create and share their brand stories.

How are you leveraging your communities to develop and communicate your brand stories for 2013?