The Downton Abbey Guide to Irresistible Narrative Marketing

image of downton abbey

Every content marketer needs to build relationships with readers.

To have a chance at achieving your marketing goals, you need readers who love what you do.

What if there were a blueprint for telling irresistible stories, for making almost everything you write have an impact in the hearts and minds of your readers?

Look no further than Downton Abbey for that blueprint.

What can a once-obscure period television drama teach us about effective writing, content marketing, and engagement online?

Turns out, just about everything …

What is Downton Abbey?

The British television mini-series is a true phenomenon, captivating millions of ravenous viewers around the world.

In only its second season, Downton (as its fans call it) has earned 32 award nominations (with 12 wins), including six Emmy Awards most notably for “Outstanding Mini-Series or Movie Made for Television” and “Outstanding Writing for a Mini-Series.”

Recently, it was honored with four Golden Globe nominations and won “Best Mini-Series or Movie Made for Television.”

The USA Today recently published a glowing feature of Downton beneath the headline, “Loyal U.S. subjects return to PBS’ Downton Abbey,” in which they report “Season 1 attracted 5 million [US] viewers to each new episode.”

Not bad numbers for a show with no car chases, no bathroom humor, and no Kardashians.

The New York Times is hooked too, stating recently “The British melodrama Downton Abbey is already the darling of American public television.”

What’s happening here? How did Downton Abbey — a British period drama about the lives of lords, ladies, housemaids, footmen, and valets — become the darling of so many hearts and minds so quickly?

According to executive producer Rebecca Eaton, “It’s just a damn good story.”

That’s putting it mildly. The storytelling is obsessively enchanting.

As copywriters, authors, editors, and other writerly kin, we’d be foolish not to pay attention to Downton’s phenomenal success. After all, winning hearts and minds is what we’re all after, and Downton can be our guide.

Here are 5 lessons we can all learn from this show’s amazing storytelling skill …

1. Launch with identifiable characters

All good stories start with great characters. In Downton Abbey, there are more than 25 of them. The dowager countess, played by a scene-stealing Maggie Smith, even has a Facebook page.

The adoring Downton fan base is in love with these characters for precisely the same reasons why readers come to love literary fiction characters, non-fiction writers, bloggers, and thought leaders.

Downton actress Siobhan Finneran (Ms. O’Brien) reveals the secret: there’s “a character for everybody” and in those characters “you recognize something you know very well.”

This is what’s meant by identifying with a character, fictional or not.

These characters face similar surprises as the show’s viewers do in their own lives, and are grieved with the same regrets. They have hopes and dreams that fade to ash, but they continue to fight. Just like us.

Ultimately, the good characters — those that are identifiable, memorable and special to us — are real to us in powerful ways. They’re strong, either in good ways or bad. And we like or dislike them enough to follow their journeys to the end.

Flaky characters, by contrast, are always forgotten.

The takeaway …

When you’re telling the story of your latest product or writing your next post, make sure your characters are vivid, bold and easily identifiable. You are a primary character. Your reader or customer is another.

Tell your audience’s story and people will always want to hear more.

2. Create incredibly high stakes

Downton Abbey’s first episode begins with the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Including the Titanic in the storyline was genius for two reasons:

  1. Modern society remains fascinated with the Titanic story (thank you James Cameron)
  2. It anchors Downton with high stakes drama

Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey has no sons, so the heir to his title and considerable estate is his cousin James. The first episode’s opening scenes reveal that James and his son Patrick (the latter conveniently engaged to Grantham’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary) have both died on the Titanic.

The sudden disappearance of the “heir and a spare” cuts Mary off from her family’s inheritance, and puts Downton into the hands of a distant third cousin no one has met.

That is how you start off an irresistible story.

It’s crackling with emotion — epic in context and acute in feeling. We can’t help but wince when the hopes and plans of an entire family are shattered to pieces.

Naturally, other high stakes drama erupts around them: scandals, deaths. And the outbreak of World World I, a global fight of good versus evil, altering the social fabric and flow of life forever.

Could there be higher stakes than that?

As Rebecca Eaton puts it, Downton is an irresistible story because there are “good people at the heart of it, evil people at the side of it, and lots to lose for everybody.”

The takeaway …

High stakes are what make readers pay attention. You might be writing a landing page with vivid benefits and features. You might be writing compelling content that pulls readers closer to you. You might be writing compelling fiction such as Downton.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing — the stakes have to be high enough to keep your reader’s attention. They need to allow themselves to become emotionally involved with the story and characters. (Even if those “characters” are real people, like you and your customers.)

Give them high stakes — always, of course, in honest terms.

This balance between high drama and realism is key, and Downton handles it beautifully. The characters are fictitious, but the high stakes are historically accurate. Writer Julian Fellowes even admitted that the sordid scandal from the first season was borrowed from a true historical coverup from the period.

3. Ignite automatic drama

Actor Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) offers amazing insight into why Downton ‘works’ so well: “It’s automatic drama.”

Each episode ends on a cliffhanger. Every character’s vulnerabilities are slowly revealed. Social tensions are rife all throughout the British aristocratic way of life — and those tensions change and evolve in wake of WWI. And the witty dialogue delivers smart social politicking.

Lead actress Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham) explains this ‘automatic drama’ nature this way: “people are thrown together in a situation and they have to bounce off one another, which [naturally] creates stories.”

Smart writers do this in their copy and narratives. They set characters, benefits, events, and arguments into a specific context and allow those elements to drive the storytelling. This makes for genuine tensions and high anticipation, with little effort.

The takeaway …

Are you writing an important sales letter? What truism can you seat beside one of your benefits to bolster its resonance?

Drafting a gripping article headline? What opposing elements can you pair to create a compelling contrast?

Writing a romantic scene? What conflicting social norm can you inject to make the budding romance more tantalizing?

Irresistibility lies at the intersections of these elements. Automatic drama is at its finest when the elements are in intimate proximity and of opposing qualities.

4. Situate everything on the edge of change

Downton Abbey is rooted in the legendary British aristocracy of the early 20th century.

This remains one of the most drastic periods of social change in history, marked largely by World War I. It was, thanks to WWI, a time of violent conflict, great uncertainty, and everyday anxieties.

The realities of the time led the world to the edge of change from which there was no turning back. This is what we experience with Downton Abbey: lives at the cusp of new beginnings; urges to be more and do more; discoveries of what happens when you must go forward into a different world.

This is the atmosphere that every good drama needs.

The takeaway …

Skilled copywriters create similar atmospheres in their own writing. Their product offering describes the shortcomings of traditional tools and why a switch to theirs is in the reader’s best interests. Or, their private newsletter reveals their personal struggles with change and the successful strategies they used to overcome them.

Dan Stevens describes this ‘Downton Effect’ as “waking up to new possibilities of what life could be but haven’t quite got the equipment to bring it about.”

That’s what all good products, services or other solutions in any market do; they present new possibilities in stark contrast to pre-existing options. And while individual results will vary, these new offerings present a strong case for a better future through the embrace of change.

5. Win hearts and minds with realism

With Downton, there is “a truth to the way people behave,” adds Elizabeth McGovern.

If your copy, narrative or other work honors the above ideas of …

  • Identifiable characters
  • High stakes
  • Automatic drama
  • Edge of change moments

… then you’ll likely achieve this effect.

This realism is a powerful force because stories that entertain and convey truth compel readers to take action.

This is Downton Abbey’s ultimate secret to irresistible storytelling. It’s about more than identifiable people. It’s about what happens when identifiable people collide in a believable way. The conflicts and outcomes of those stories are what drive the narrative of Downton. And it’s the very thing that can, if genuine, win the love and loyalty of your readers.

The takeaway …

Tell your story — or your product’s story, or your customer’s story — in a vivid and human way. The closer you write to the tenor of your reader’s feelings and the zeitgeist of the times, the stronger the bond will be.

As Downton’s writer Julian Fellowes says, “allowing characters to speak in their own voice is the trick of screenwriting.” I dare say it’s the linchpin to irresistible storytelling.

Experience the full Downton Effect

US readers can tune into PBS this Sunday at 9PM EST for the next episode, and get ready to be charmed by one of the best modern examples of storytelling anywhere.

Special thanks to PBS for their treasure-trove of behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and producers.

Or, if you’ve already been glued to this amazing show, tell us in the comments how its masterful storytelling has informed your own copywriting, content creation, and online marketing …

About the Author: Matt Gartland is the founder of Winning Edits, an editorial agency helping indie authors win reader hearts and minds. For more keen writing insights, join his free DIY Book Development Dispatch, or follow Matt on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. I haven’t checked out Downtown Abbey yet (yeah…even though I’m English) but have heard nothing but good things about it. I don’t get to read other blogs too much but I have to say this was one of the best posts I’ve read in a while. Good job Matthew!

  2. I’ve never actually HEARD of Downton Abbey until this blog post. Thanks for saving me the time it takes to actually watch it (which sounds dangerous… could be addicting) by explaining how strengths of the show can be applied to copywriting… which I probably wouldn’t have even thought of it I HAD watched the show!

    • I still encourage watching the series. It’s phenomenal! Yes, addictive too, but exceedingly worth it. There’s so much you can learn while also being entertained. Thanks for the kinds; glad you found them useful.

      Best,
      Matt

  3. Never heard of Downtown Abbey either – sounds fantastic.

    I love the “create incredibly high stakes…” advice for landing pages. As many as I’ve done, and as many times as I thought I was probably doing that – just approaching things with those 4 words in mind will definitely help bring a new perspective. Great stuff.

    • Thanks Dave! Yes, I think we can all benefit from new, fresh and better “framings” from time to time. Just because we’ve done something before doesn’t mean we can improve. Excellent perspective. Thanks!

      Best,
      Matt

  4. I am a devoted fan of Downton, it is best show I can remember in very long time. One of the most compelling aspects of the show is restrain and subtlety. Everything is incredibly nuanced into a look, expression, quirk of an eyebrow or a slightly pithy remark. Can’t say I’d have made the internet marketing connection on my own, but fantastic analogies.

  5. The copy writing done for this article is as enchanting as the Downtown Abbey it describes. I have not been able to catch a glimpse of it too. But you have generated enough interest in me now to go and watch it as soon as I get the opportunity.

  6. Excellent post. The art of storytelling is a hard one to get right I find and people get confused how it ties into marketing. It’s that fine balance between telling your story and telling your readers story. I’ve tried to bring the craft of storytelling into my blog but I had never thought about the need for tension even though that’s one of the first principles of telling a good story in my opinion. That’s been a big missing link for me. So thanks, it helps a lot.

    • Thank you Sue!

      I love your point about the balance between telling your story and telling the reader’s story. So true.

      Glad this article provided a breakthrough idea!

      Best,
      Matt

  7. I love Downton Abbey, and appreciate this post for its Downton-drenched truth.

  8. I’m proud to say that I have seen Downton Abbey (every ounce of it) and am a massive fan for all the reasons you mention. For me it was compulsive viewing ever Sunday, especially the Christmas Special. Can’t wait for the new series to come out this year. Your take on storytelling is so accurate and timely. I’m launching a new blog soon and have come to the realisation, that if I want this blog to be successful, storytelling is the way to go. Thanks for your insights!

    • Hi Celine-

      Like you, I’m a massive Downton fan (proudly so). The Christmas Special was phenomenal, but truly, what episode wasn’t?!

      I’m thrilled that someone who has enjoyed and studied Downton as closely as I have appreciates my analysis.

      All the best for the new blog.
      Matt

  9. With Downton, there is “a truth to the way people behave,” adds Elizabeth McGovern.

    Yes, and the excellent writing remains (so far) true to the characters. Forced narrative (be it TV show, book, marketing blog) is the first sign of the ship going down, so to speak.

  10. It’s a good idea to watch your favorite shows and movie with these very good points in mind. The ones that have really good stories are typically the ones that follow just what you’ve outlined here–everything from Pretty Woman to Star Wars to The Thin Man has all of these elements.
    Great breakdown of What’s Important, Matt. (Here, by the way, by courtesy of our mutual friend Hola Mindy.) Cheers!

    • Hi Yi. Yes, there are many repeatable patterns to great storytelling. This proves, in large part, that there is “luck” or even “gift” to creating such irresistible stories, but rather that it’s a matter of “skill.” Skills can be learned, adapted and applied, as is true to form in the epics you mentioned.

      Great to know you found your way here via our wonderful mutual friend, Mindy. She’s precious.

      Matt

  11. These are great tips! I wonder if we actually start using these types of elements within our own writing what kinds of results that we would see from the efforts to make things more identifiable to the readers. I think I’ve noticed in my own writing that I haven’t made efforts to try to connect my readers from time to time and this was a good reminder to get back on that track towards identifying with the readers.

  12. I love Downton Abbey and so does my boyfriend (and he’s French!) – great post!

  13. Great breakdown of the story elements DA uses (and that we need to apply to our own copy writing). As a recovering English major, I’m always trying to find (or create) the important storytelling bits for a marketing piece, a web page or a blog post. You did an excellent job of pointing out those bits we need to keep an eye on.

    Funny thing! I recently wrote this post on Downton Abbey — they can also teach us a thing or two about building a passionate tribe: http://thewordchef.com/2012/02/the-downton-abbey-guide-to-building-a-passionate-tribe/

  14. Ooooh #5 is spot on! I love this show and your words resonate harmoniously. A pleasure to read this morning.
    Thank you for great copy and connections.

  15. Hi Matthew,

    Smashing analogy!

    I have yet to watch the show but see why it would strike an emotional chord. This is the key, writing something that moves people into action. To hit the Share button, or tell a friend, or take your call to action.

    When you get this down, you can generate a sizable readership and bring in some nice scratch to boot ;)

    Thanks for sharing Matthew!

    Ryan

  16. I think Downton Abbey also shows how important it is to find an under-served market and give it what it really craves. Most television programming has gravitated to trashy “reality” shows because they are inexpensive to make, and don’t require good writing or acting. Reality shows appeal to a large enough segment of the population to be profitable, but they DON’T appeal to everyone. The viewers who love drama, and really well-written/well-acted drama, have been starving for a decade. “Downton Abbey” is not even PBS’ best drama series. There were many far-better series in the past, it’s just that “Downton” arrives in the midst of a drought of television dramas, so it doesn’t have much competition. “The Jewel in the Crown” , “All Creatures Great and Small,” any of the Thomas Hardy adaptations from the late 90s (Tess, Far from the Madding Crowd, etc) were better written and acted. They were only impaired by the lack of continuity. When the entire novel of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” has been adapted for television, there’s barely enough for 3 episodes, much less an entire season, which is barely long enough for the series to gather a following. Basically, early adopters will jump on board, but the series were over before the “idea virus” could spread. “Downton” has the advantage of appealing to an under-served and starving market. It also has the advantage of the soap opera in that as long as viewers keep watching it, writers can keep creating new story lines and the popularity of the show has time to build.

    • Fabulous insights and analysis Vicki. I couldn’t agree more about the contrasts with “reality” TV.

      The under-served and starving market angle is paramount to good business thinking. Nice points!

      Best,
      Matt

  17. Great posts!

    There’s a lot to be learned from good TV shows for character building, storytelling, creating drama – all the important aspects of marketing today.

    Thanks for the Downtown Abbey mention – I went immediately to iTunes to buy it, and the first part is free :)

    • I’m honored to be a force to help spread the contagious Downton Abbey fandom :) Glad you went out to get the series. You’ll adore it, no doubt about it.

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Matt

  18. The actors are great as well as the story telling. I’m a history buff, and I love how they portrayed Electricity being installed in the house, or the NEW phone being installed. So it seems the writers do a lot of research on these technological events and how the people regarded these changes; which finds itself sprinkled lightly throughout the series and gives authenticity to the the story. Not to mention all the other historical events, language, vocabulary etc which gives the viewers a great deal of insight to another era! I just started the second series, I wish there were MORE episodes! Great article post….

    • The electricity scenes were brilliant. And I too wish there were more episodes. Thankfully, season 3 has been approved and is production already. The sensation goes on!

      Matt

  19. What I love about Downton Abbey is that it is just so intrinsically good. The characters, the sets, the costumes, the writing, every single detail is in place. And because everything was so good, it was nominated for awards, and consequently, won a lot of them. I had only heard whisperings of the show when it won its Emmys, but once it did, I knew I had to see it.

    And I was hooked after episode one.

    What’s been reinforced in my writing post-Downton is that putting in the time to create something of superior quality will reward you several times over. This show would not be as successful if production had been rushed and something was “missing.” It’s the same with your content. Following the takeaways here, drafting quality copy, and paying attention to the details will eventually get you the attention your writing deserves.

    Thanks for the fantastic Downton post, Matt.

    • Absolutely Mandy. While it’s important to operate with a high sense of urgency, that’s no excuse to rush one’s work. Especially in our digital day and age marked with an impossible volume of content, producing yours to an impeccable level helps to elevate your work above the noise.

      So glad you enjoyed this article. Thanks again!

      Matt

  20. I agree with every point you made about DA (and every other great epic). That’s the seduction of “once upon a time…” One thing you forgot to mention is that Americans are suckers for British accents and costume dramas. The story is important but so is the storyteller.

    • Oh, I so agree, especially about the accents. Great final point that “the story is important but so is the storyteller.”

      Matt

  21. A few weeks ago I did a post about Downton Abbey too. The Surprising Lessons Downton Abbey teaches us. Can’t wait for Sept. 12, 2013 – Season #3

    http://blog.rumorsofglory.com/2012/01/29/the-surprising-happiness-lessons-downton-abbey-teaches-us/

  22. Clarity of characters and their outcome is very similar to clarity of products and the results they bring, when it comes to marketing. Both characters and products must be irresistible, understandable, accessible, and ultimately create a change of some sort. That’s what a good character story and good product marketing is all about, and Downton Abbey achieves this. I’m also a big fan of Breaking Bad for the same reason — which is another gripping tale with wonderful, evolving characters.

  23. This is really interesting – I think I’m going to have to watch the show now!
    I really like your last takeaway – telling stories in a human way. People communicate with other people and in general don’t like communicating with non-people, so if you show personalities on your blog it’s easier/more likely to be engaged with (from my understanding anyway).
    And of course, the automatic drama ties in very nicely with a lot of Brian’s headlines that he gave away in his headline book ;)

    • The human element is essential and, perhaps paradoxically, the one most folks mess up … IMHO at least.

      Yes, Brian’s headlines tie in beautifully with the concept of automatic drama. I’m sure he appreciates your acknowledgment of such :)

      Matt

  24. Matt,

    For starters, let me congratulate you on a job well done. Thank you for writing this blog post. You are a gifted writer, to be sure, and we truly appreciate your presence here. Your writing makes me want to read your work on a regular basis. We also appreciate links, as always, quite useful. This is a great blog to read for those of us who enjoy learning.

    I am afraid I am not familiar with this show, but your analysis makes me want to check it out. However, I feel that such shows are culture-specific and may not always work in another cultural context. People from other countries may not understand what is going on. They may need subtitles in case English is not their mother tongue. Also, it seems that the show is from another generation, so what about the younger viewers? Would it really hold their interest?

    Shows like this will likely capture the attention of people like us, but what about those who don’t even have access to TV? Or, who grew up in a different environment? Or, who have never visited another country? Have never travelled abroad? Have never really experienced other cultures? For them, I fear, shows like this may pique their curiosity, but they may be disappointed. On the other hand, it also presents a great learning opportunity for them. If only we could build bridges between different cultures and nations by encouraging viewership globally. What a wonderful world it could be. Moreover, viewers can be attracted to programs even when they are not able to relate to the drama. There are so many cases like this. For example, I really enjoyed Jeremy Brett’s acting in the TV series on Sherlock Holmes although I shared very little in common with the character or that particular phase of England. Just a thought. Cheers.

    • Hi Archan-

      I’m flattered by your comments. Thank you! It was a joy to write and pleasure to share this article.

      I do believe Downton can be understood and appreciated by those of other cultures, nationalities, generations and probably any other cultural, geographical or psychology demographic. Yes, subtitles may be necessary, and the “polish” of the effect may be lost in translation. But the human energy will not. Downton is alive and thriving due to human conflict (internal and external) that transcends these boundaries.

      For example, I’m of a younger generation myself (though not the youngest anymore I’m afraid). And I adore Downton with borderline obsession. And it was my younger sister who got me hooked.

      Your other questions are all very intelligent. Yes to them all. Even if one doesn’t understand (or appreciate) English aristocracy in and of itself, the general construct of “haves” versus “have nots”, upper class in relationships with lower class, and the like (again) transcends one culture or period of time.

      I hope all this helps further excite you to see the series. You positively should!

      Best,
      Matt

  25. Mr. Gartland, your first point about identifiable characters combines with Vicki’s comment about reality television to illustrate a glaring flaw I’ve noted in the reality TV I’ve watched. Every series seems to cast, or at least edit, to create stock characters. Dramatic conflict is contrived, leaving the audience feeling manipulated.

    This season of The Bachelor provides a prime example. (I watch it with my daughters only for its mock-worthiness.) Cast: The B*****, The Innocent, The One Who Cries, The Divorcee, The Recently Heartbroken, The One Who Cannot Trust, The Overly-Trusting, The Too-Smart-for-This-Guy, The Girl with a Past, The Girl with a Boyfriend at Home, et. al., ad naseum. Nothing new. If we weren’t so busy making fun of it, we’d be ill.

    In contrast, Downton engages us on multiple levels. We find moments of compassion for even the most unlikeable characters, just as we often can for unlikeable people. Its restrained writing and acting allow for subtlety and nuance. Its themes are timeless: Love, loss, family, class, change.

    Is it perfect? No. See The Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3767) for notes on anachronisms in usage amid its otherwise meticulously researched scripts. Does it benefit from the contrast with the dreck and reruns of dreck that fill television schedules. Yes.

    Intelligent analysis and writing, Mr. Gartland. That’s almost as rare as quality drama on television today.

    • Lady Sturgess, you’re very kind :)

      You illustrate a phenomenal point about the complexity of characters (or, in The Bachelor’s case, the lack thereof). In those manufactured monstrosities (creatively speaking), the individuals never change. The Innocent is the Innocent from start to finish. That’s the fundamentally contradictory to natural human nature.

      Downton is so compelling because each character (even those you initially hate, e.g. Ms. O’Brien) evolve through ranges of feelings and actions. There are times you hate them, love them, pity them, fear for them, and so on. It’s a complex fabric that, I dare say, is more “real” than “Reality” shows.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!
      Matt

  26. I absolutely LOVE how you tied in Downton Abbey with blogging and marketing! I’ve just started blogging and this article has been a great addition to my notes. I can start off on the right foot and get a good following from the beginning by following your Downton Abbey Guide… genius!

    Jas

  27. Great points Matthew!
    as a Brit I did watch Downton Abbey from the beginning and yes, was immediately hooked! I love the tension brought about by simple actions, nothing incredibly complex and daring, just humans being human.
    With reference to your post, what a great way to draw a comparison, it made it so much easier for me to understand your points, great way of communicating the idea with something a lot of people can identify with.

    I particularly liked your 4th point about change. I’m trying to alter my copy so that it helps prospects to rewrite their narrative to one that they aspire to, and can see my product or services helping to facilitate that positive change.

    Thanks Again! Jess

  28. Excellent post. Despite the fact that I don’t watch a lot of TV (anymore), I checked out Downton Abbey because of all the great things I heard about it and I am hooked. What I love most about it is the serenity and the lack of distraction. Despite the customs, the colors are a bit faded and the scenes often take place in surroundings that feel grey and sad. You wouldn’t think that this was going to make an impression on the viewers in today’s world with bright colors and glitz. I think we can learn to be different in order to stand out. If you’re doing what everybody else does, there is no way you will make an impression.

  29. Great post. I’m insanely jealous I didn’t write it (being both a copywriter and obsessive Downton-ite) — it’s spot-on about good storytelling and what makes it work.
    Blerg.