The 5 Things Every (Great) Marketing Story Needs

Image of Little Girl Reading a Story

Here on Copyblogger, you’ve seen us talk many times about how to tell a terrific marketing story.

Why? Because stories are fundamental to how we communicate as human beings. Tell the right story and you can capture attention, entertain, enlighten, and persuade … all in the course of just a few minutes.

Stories are memorable and shareable — and those are two of the most important aspects of the very best content.

So we can all agree that stories matter … but how do you tell them?

What, specifically, makes for a good marketing story?

Today I want to share five critical components with you, and talk about how they fit into your marketing and your business. We’ll start, as every good story does, with the hero …

1. You need a hero

All good stories are about someone (even if that someone is a professional monster or a talking toy).

The biggest mistake businesses make is thinking that their business is the hero of the story. This is prevalent among a lot of insecurity-based advertising (“buy our toothpaste or you’ll die friendless and alone”), but it makes for a selfish, easily ignored marketing message.

To tell a compelling content marketing story, your customer must be the hero.

And what defines a hero? The hero of the story is the one who is transformed as the story progresses, from an ordinary person into someone extraordinary.

In other words …

2. You need a goal

Good businesses are about solving customer problems. To put it another way, they’re about customer transformation.

You need to understand where your customer-hero is today, and where she wants to go.

What transformation is she seeking? Does she want a health transformation, a relationship transformation, a wealth transformation, a career transformation?

  • What will she physically look like when the transformation has taken place?
  • What will she be able to do that she can’t do now?
  • What will she have?
  • What will she believe?
  • What new connections or relationships will she have?
  • Who will she be?

Until you understand your customer-hero’s goal, you don’t have a marketing story, you just have a collection of anecdotes.

3. You need an obstacle

If transformation was easy, your customer wouldn’t need your business.

Obstacles are what make stories interesting. The gap between where your hero is today and where he wants to go is the meat of your compelling story.

There are often external obstacles to your customer’s eventual victory, but the most interesting ones are nearly always internal.

What’s keeping your customer-hero from attaining his goal? What external elements are standing in his way?

More important, what emotional and psychological roadblocks has he created himself? What inner limitations must he overcome to achieve his prized goal?

4. You need a mentor

If your customer is the hero, where does that leave you and your business?

If your customer is Luke Skywalker, you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re the wise mentor who can provide essential information and tools that allow the hero to attain his goal.

As Jonah Sachs points out in his interesting book Winning the Story Wars, one difference between an empowering marketing message and the old-fashioned, insecurity-based toothpaste ads, is that you emphasize that your hero’s journey results from her own effort and work.

Your business doesn’t exist to swoop down and solve all of her problems for her. That would infantilize your customer, which is ultimately unsatisfying all around. (Having a bunch of neurotic crybabies for customers just isn’t that fun.)

Your business exists to guide, coach, mentor, and help.

5. You need a moral

When you’re telling a marketing story, it’s always wise to explicitly spell out the moral of your story.

So yes, use stories to show people just like your customer-hero overcoming obstacles and attaining their goals.

Show how your business can mentor and guide customers to become better versions of themselves.

Show how customers can overcome external and internal obstacles to gain what they’re searching for.

But then circle back around and spell it out. Let the audience know what they should do next, or what their main takeaway should be.

The most subtle and sophisticated stories leave it to the audience to figure out the moral of the story. But the audience for those stories isn’t consuming them in the sea of distraction that is the open web.

Don’t be afraid to spell it out. Be clear and direct. Clarity is golden.

Bonus: You need the truth

There’s one more element of your story marketing tool kit that’s more useful than ever.

In an age of unparalleled digital transparency, you can make amazing wins just by telling the truth.

[19th century copywriter] John Powers had given us all we’ve ever really needed to know. Be interesting. Tell the truth. And if you can’t tell the truth, change what you’re doing so you can. In other words, live the truth. ~ Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs

Marcus Sheridan created a surprising business advantage for his pool business by simply dedicating his content marketing to answering customer questions — including those that were “inconvenient.” (Like “how much will this cost?”)

It takes courage (and finding that courage can be something of a hero’s journey of your own). But the more honest you can be about your business, about who you serve and the problems that you solve, the more loyalty you will find.

Every story needs a spark of something remarkable, so it can be remembered and shared. And in the world we live in today, honesty can be one of the most remarkable story elements of all.

More storytelling resources on Copyblogger

Storytelling is an art, and a little research (and practice) on your part will be well rewarded.

Here are some more ideas for you on the art and science of telling a good story:

How about you?

Do you use stories in your content? What do you see as the most important elements?

Let us know in the comments …

About the author

Sonia Simone


Sonia Simone is co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. Hi Sonia,

    I could use point 1. from your post and be really cheesy here with my business name. I’ll refrain from that ;).

    I could not agree more with point 2. though. Having a goal with a marketing story is essential to its success. For me, the key to a good marketing story is to know exactly prior to the production of it what an audience can relate to. Research and preparation therefore is also a very important aspect to the successful marketing story.

    Jakk

  2. Totally agree. What a succinct article laying out what is needed in a great story. (We come to rely on you, Sonia, and you keep delivering.)

    And every VIDEO needs the same thing too. Oh, sure… not a short “hey, I’m over here, let me answer your quick question” video, but the more powerful “here’s my WHY, this is what you asked and here is how I help you solve your problem” video.

    Thanks to Copyblogger for help INSIDE and OUTSIDE our blogs!

    Charlie Seymour Jr
    http://TheVideoMarketingGuys.com

    • Agree, too many people think that video is an excuse for unstructured rambling. Video needs to be scripted (even if it’s a loose framework that can be improvised from) if it’s going to serve a customer purpose and a business purpose.

  3. Wow. Every so often a post comes along that is essential to my business. I am a small start up; just digging my feet in. Though I have experience working for other content marketers, I never got the whole picture. This leaves me to take courses so I don’t miss the mark when giving out my information.

    I’ve been at this a while, but still take several classes per weak, and I’m considering this one of those classes. I broke out the old spiral notebook and mechanical pencil and scribbled away. I even bookmarked it for later use.

    I will be sharing this with my lists–thank you for this valuable piece of information.

    Josh

  4. Sonia–

    I’m a recent subscriber and will pass Copyblogger along.

    I train business people to do their own talk radio shows as a marketing outreach. The biggest challenge I face is a) convincing people that it’s worthwhile telling stories, and b) convincing them that, if they’re going to tell a story, it’s worth it to do more than just shoot from the hip!

    Thanks for what you’re doing–I think I’m going to make you required reading!

    Mickey

    • It can be a real challenge to get people to see that there’s more to content than rambling “here’s what I think” stuff. ;) I’m glad you’re out there fighting for something better!

  5. Awesome post Sonia! This is super useful for me and its 100% customer focused! Anytime you put yourself before the customer it can impact your relationship. My big takeaway – “To tell a compelling content marketing story, your customer must be the hero.”

    Thanks!

  6. I am a little bit confused about “What a Marketing Story Is?” and where is it used? Is this like what you use on a squeeze page to turn a prospect into a client? or is it something you publish on a blog or About page? Can you please clarify?

    • @Sushant,

      I’m not sure if this is the right answer or not, but I don’t see any other posts yet so I’ll take a stab at it. Where do you see it working with your site?

      Personally, I have a strange story, in bullet form, on one of my pages. I could probably go back over it now that I have more knowledge of story telling.

      I also think it could be used in a blog post. I like the part where she speaks about truth. You need it to be true, at least in form, at this day in age. With all of the junk centered on lying these days (on TV and the web), it is refreshing to find someone who tells the truth.

      How could you truthfully help someone, spell it out in a post. That’s what I think, but I’m not Copyblogger…so…

    • They can be used throughout your marketing. In your blog and email content for sure. On sales pages or opt-in pages, possibly, if it’s relevant. And in materials like white papers, special reports, etc.

      You might want to click that Register Today button to the right to sign up for our more comprehensive (free) material — content marketing has a lot of components, and it’s important to have a larger picture of how they all go together.

    • It’s really a story you tell over time with your content. As Sonia said, your prospect is the hero of their own journey, so sometimes you’re literally telling helpful stories (like case studies) and other times the story is simply the change in the prospect’s life thanks to your content and eventually product or service.

    • Thank you, Sonia, for a rich post with a solid outline of how to succeed with a compelling story. Your questions have me filling in gaps in my message. I can see how I will use your post to guide me toward a richer, more complete story for each of my customer personas from which I can produce all kinds of content. And, more importantly, from these stories I will refine and enrich my offers! Awesome.

  7. Number five is where you leave the realm of literary and enter the realm of commerce. Poets stop at number four to be clever. Killers seal the deal with the CTA.

  8. OMG! Loved the Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan analogy! Very true and very enlightening. Thank you for sharing :)

  9. Sonia, your article nailed it. These are the fundamentals of screenwriting. As feature filmmakers who recently started producing corporate video, we use this principles with great success. An example – https://vimeo.com/74294157

    PS: copyblogger is the most valuable resource we’re using in building our new website. Hope to share when it’s done. And thank you for inspiring and educating!

  10. Sonia,

    I love this post!

    I think the most important part is that the customer must be able to identify with the story.

    That’s why “rags to riches” stories are so popular – these people are just like us! If they can achieve it, then why can’t we?

    I think the ability of a story to make people WANT to put themselves in the shoes of the hero is critical in making that story a memorable one.

  11. I’m really loving the promotion of storytelling. The switch in mindset from “I’m your hero” and “Let me talk about what the more knowledgeable me thinks you should hear” is a major shift. Regardless of the genre or purpose, at it’s core, much of what is written is about leading the reader along a path to a desired end. Not to diminish their importance, but headlines, clever puns, the ability to string together a grammatically correct sentence is just window dressing. Or as I like to say, like a watching a Quentin Tarantino movie that is akin to eating cotton candy. I’m unable to single out any of your points as somehow more valid than the others. They’re all necessary components. Keep up the great writing Sonia.

    • Thanks Kevin!

      I think of a lot of the content that I do as “Bill and Ted” advice — it’s me now, a little further down the path, going back and talking to me in the past & giving her something that will help her get where she needs to go.

      One of these days I’ll write a post about that. :)

  12. hi Sonia

    this post came right on time as I need to improve my story telling … and email marketing is one way to get better at it. in my case.

    Marcus is my guy. Authentic. Tell it as it is. I love it!

    Thank you for sharing those resource links at the bottom, they’re very helpful. I often share relevant links within my content and I’ve noticed readers enjoy ‘em as much as I do…

  13. I write business success profiles at my company and this article has given me a great framework from which to interview my story subjects to create a more compelling story that will inspire those reading it (in our case, our volunteer sales force).

  14. Great post Sonia! I especially liked this take: “emphasize that your hero’s journey results from her own effort and work”. Stories of self improvement are inspiring, and when you are the hero of the story, you feel proud. I believe positioning a brand as a coach or mentor is a brilliant way to tell a story, especially when that’s what a business is striving to become to its customers. Thanks for the thoughtful words!

  15. Hey Sonia,

    Thanks for the post, you’ve actually inspired me to leave my first copyblogger comment. (Long time lurker). Reading your post gave me a much needed shift in perspective when it comes to my landing page. You also helped me make a decision about whether or not to include something on my blog.

    Thanks for being awesome by being awesome!

  16. I have a lot of work to do with this! I believe my business is perfect for the story-telling approach – it’s time to start enacting all of these fantastic articles I keep reading. Thanks for the reminder, Sonia!

  17. “That would infantilize your customer, which is ultimately unsatisfying all around. (Having a bunch of neurotic crybabies for customers just isn’t that fun.)”

    That is an excellent point Sonia.

    By showing your potential future customer how THEY can be the hero by empowering them to do the stuff actually targets the kind of people you would want to work with.

    A much smaller group of people than the masses.

    If you market to the masses, you are marketing to no one anyway.

    Not everyone is going get you.

    But there is a smaller group who will. Those are your people.

    They can handle the truth… in fact when they hear it they may slow down long enough to listen to what else you are saying.

    And that is a worthwhile goal in any kind of marketing.

  18. Hello Sonia,

    What an entertaining piece, I must say! And I really like how you laid it out too, there was a bit of story telling there as well.

    For some reason, customers like reading marketing stories. Even us marketers, are also consumers and we are entertained with marketing stories from other companies too. I guess it is because we all want to see ourselves as part of the story and an important one at that.

    I definitely have to agree with Point 1, 4 and 5. Marketers have to make consumers feel that they are the hero in the story, that their role is highly significant in the grand schem of things. And that you, as their mentor, has a big role to play in assisting them to be the hero. And of course, all good stories end with a moral.

    If you want customers to listen, make them think and feel that they are part of your company’s story… that they are essential. It’s one of the most important goals of a marketing story in my opinion.

  19. Sonia,

    Love the way you described creating the story here. You have a phenomenal ability to bring clarity to things like this. I know a lot of people (myself included) understand the concept of story telling in content marketing but execution is always more challenging. Your post provides a nice framework for how to incorporate the story.

    I found my self speaking to a group in Dallas a couple of weeks ago and when I got to the topic of goals I encouraged them to think of two goals. Theirs, i.e. what do they want to happen when someone visits a post, and the visitors, i.e. what does their visitor want to get out of reading the post (sidebar: they should know by your awesome headline what to expect and why to click through ahem: http://www.copyblogger.com/magnetic-headlines/.)

    It’s been my experience that when you create content that aligns both of those goals you’ve found the place where magic happens.

  20. I agree with you,telling the truth is one of the most important tool kit in success blogging.Even though your blog postings will be primarily made up of personal opinion, do your research well and check that your facts are accurate.

  21. Very nice, Obi-Wan!

    Excellent way to “market” marketing! You took the fundamentals and presented them in a compelling and easy to understand way.

    I would like to also stress the importance of your “Bonus”. In my experience, being truthful and open with your audience is among the most powerful things you can do. It’s not just good for the soul, it’s good for the bottom line, too.

  22. Sonia, I have to double-plus-agree with your opening gambit. In the rush to become storytellers, too many brands (and the agencies that take their money) have appointed themselves as protagonists of the story. I argue in this piece:
    http://seppin.gs/18mdo3W
    that not only is it misguided, but it’s actually unworkable in practice: which brands would agree to willingly put themselves into Vonnegut’s “man in hole” in order to come out the other side?

  23. Thank you for the tips. I’m always looking to learn and improve my writing and this was definitely beneficial. In the past, I may have chosen the wrong hero so now I know better.

  24. Sonia, I took a class from you years ago. I haven’t kept up with your writing for a few years as I was lost in the corporate wilderness. But this post brought me back to how much I enjoy and appreciate your writing talent. You are gifted.

    I’m guessing the politics aren’t aligned, but I enjoy your writing as much as I do Peggy Noonan’s and, in my world, that’s high praise.

    Thank you for helping us all write better and warm regards.

  25. Great, tactical framework for developing a compelling story! Probably preaching to the choir, but I believe storytelling is the only way to break through to increasingly diverse, content hungry audiences. We marketers can’t afford to be boring any longer!

  26. Great post Sonia. I like the way you talk about good businesses and their need to focus on customer transformation and setting goals. Understanding where the “hero” wants to go is important and so is the way you tell the story to get them to act upon the information you’re feeding them.

    There are some good pointers in the second subheading to follow and these will help any marketing storyteller think about what they need to detail in their own work. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Thank you!! Tell the truth is so important – not only because of the ethics – but because staying loyal to deep human truths keeps you relevant and interesting. Fear fuels inauthenticity. I believe if you can’t find a true story that makes your point, then you don’t have a point.

  28. Great article Sonia,

    As a toddler just learning how to walk in the Internet Marketing world, I feel very lucky to have stumbled across these golden nuggets of information. I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles

  29. Hi Sonia,

    I know that story telling can be an effective marketing tool. Although I have to get better at mine. I’m implementing it through my email marketing to see if I can improve my open rates.

    Never thought about using it on my blog. These are some great tips that I will begin implementing, thanks for sharing.

  30. Sonia, I love your article and the way you tie elements of a good narrative to branding and marketing. I applied your principles to one of my recent blog posts and thought you might enjoy it: http://www.storlietelling.com/2013/10/17/watermelon-grudge-your-customer-is-the-hero-of-your-brand-story/
    Jean

  31. Takes a lot of brainstorming to come up with a good storyline but this is a great help – narrows down the conceptual framework for you. Thanks for this and please keep up with your great posts!