The Most Important Element of Your Marketing Story

image of actor Charlie Chaplin

Robert wrote yesterday about David Mamet’s advice on dramatic tension, the key element that drives every compelling story.

But there’s another element that’s critical to story, and it’s particularly important when you’re telling a story that intends to persuade.

Whether you want to make a sale, gain an email subscription, or motivate a change in behavior, your dramatic story will fail if it doesn’t have one thing:

A relatable protagonist.

In other words, your story needs to be about someone we care about.

Sometimes that can be easier said than done. So here’s how to put together a memorable protagonist who will pull your readers into your story — and more important, will persuade them to take the action you’re looking for.

The protagonist is the actor in your story

I’m sure you remember this from Freshman English class, but the protagonist is just the main actor of the story. We used to say “hero,” but protagonists aren’t always what we would call heroic.

In fact, the archetypal story described by scholars like Joseph Campbell starts out as a very ordinary person, living in an ordinary world. It’s the circumstances of his life that pull him into a “hero’s journey” to extraordinary places and incredible events.

The protagonist might be you

A lot of marketers base their stories on themselves.

You show where you’ve come from, where you started, the difficulties you faced and how you overcame them.

Then you tie that back to what you’re selling. Because you’ve taken this hero’s journey yourself, you know how to defeat the dragons and storm the castle.

Your own experiences make you a dragon-slaying authority. And you can use that authority to persuade your audience to buy or adopt the solutions you recommend.

The protagonist might be your past customer

Not everyone wants to be the star of his own marketing story.

You don’t have to make your stories all about you. It’s often more effective to tell a compelling story about the people you help.

Case studies and testimonials are just good stories about how your product or service solved thorny problems for your customers.

Like any good other story, testimonials and case studies need dramatic tension. Going back to Mamet, there needs to be a gap between what your protagonist wanted and what he attained. His attempt to close that gap is what makes the story interesting.

That means you’ve got to show a “before” (customer facing a tough problem) and an “after” (how you solved that problem for them).

The protagonist is always your buyer

Coming full circle, the reader always needs to put herself in the shoes of your protagonist.

That’s what fiction writers mean by a “relatable” character.

It isn’t always about being likeable. Not every great character is likeable. But we won’t be pulled into a story unless we can relate to the character, which means he has the emotions we imagine we would have in the same situation.

Your potential buyer is the real star of every marketing story. If she reads the story and thinks, “I can see myself doing that,” you’ve won.

Social proof without numbers

A lot of content marketers want to know how they can use social proof before their blogs get big.

Storytelling is one great answer.

We’re a “monkey see, monkey do” species. Many forms of human behavior are contagious. We can certainly be prone to mimic ugly behavior, but we also mimic admirable behavior like generosity and courage.

We unconsciously imitate the stories we see around us, both real and fictional.

So show the behavior you want your reader to “catch.” Sell a product or service by showing how it benefits people, and telling stories about those people.

With a relatable protagonist and a good sense of drama, you’ll be able to craft a marketing story that pulls readers in, keeps them coming back, and makes it easy for them to see themselves as your happy customers.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is CMO of Copyblogger Media and founder of Remarkable Communication. Share your 140-character hero’s journey with her on twitter.

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Comments

  1. My stories are almost always about myself, because i have pretty much done it all online and the pit falls…so my stories give my readers an personal approach that hit close to home.

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

    • I don’t think I could write a very personal post about myself, don’t like to ruin my privacy :D

      • I think you could share a personal post without ruining your privacy, just something that a customer can relate to. People usually buy from sellers they can relate to. If a customer feels that you have no idea what they’re going through because your personal story (however random) has no bearing on their personal problems, why would they want to take the solution you are offering?

        Really great article Sonia.

  2. I like your spin on connecting the story to a marketing message.

    Clayton Makepeace and his merry band of direct response marketing/copywriting writers, do it all the time, over at Makepeace Total Package blog.

    And I have seen it repeatedly in marketing pieces by folks like Clayton Makepeace, Dan Kennedy and John Carlton.

    Here’s the thing. I might read a direct response mail or web piece. I would probably forget the pretty images, facts and figures, bullet points, tables, etc. I might be so dense, as to not pick up the main theme. I may not resonate with the benefits and psychological triggers you’re bombarding me with.

    But I remember the story (or stories), as the case may be.

    So if the buyer (i.e. the protagonist) can picture themselves in your marketing story, you have baited the hook correctly.

    Great piece – it’s compliments the one yesterday.

    Randy

  3. I’m not a fan of making myself the protagonist. Mainly because my ego’s huge enough as it is.

    Seriously though – I try and make my prospective client central to the story. They need to identify with what’s being said after all.

  4. I love this line of posts on storytelling for marketing and plan on using storytelling in my next post.

    Will this be the theme for the entire week? That would be sweet.

  5. Great… this really resonates with me. I have been trying to put a personal spin (story-telling) on my blog posts about the best children’s books and their effect on my two kids as we read the books aloud.

    Indeed, the protagonist is always the “buyer”, or the reader.

    Read Aloud Dad

  6. Nice piece. The most important element of the story is the protagonist- also known as the person whose life the story is all about.

    My article is about my readers.
    My article is about me.
    My article is about that stranger who thinks that story is about him.
    My article is about people. Yes, people, plain and simple.

  7. …and if you have actually ‘been through’ the situation you are communicating to your reader, you stand a much better chance of looking and feeling authentic. Authenticity is underrated but is gaining ground in the social relevance landscape. I believe you stand to get across best what you have been through yourself, so for me the protagonist is ‘I’.

  8. Loved this post! The more we engage in authentic conversations as part of our daily implementation of (online) marketing strategies, the more important our story and heroes are! Insightful and inspiring, thanks!

  9. I was lying awake last night thinking about ideas for content. This gives me some great direction on how to write about experiences with past and current clients using a relatable protagonist approach. Thank you!

  10. This is a great informative article.

  11. We’re a “monkey see, monkey do” species.

    Hilarious, but true!
    And when we get online, we start seeing more before we do. For example, people will always look for reviews before trusting. Story telling definitely helps people to relate to you and product and this can be a big factor when selling/persuading.
    And with protagonists, you just showed us how we can make it better.

  12. Well said, without a protagonist there is hardly a story and when you really want to empathize your customer/buyer should be your protagonist. He or she should immediately be able to relate to the protagonist of the story because then it becomes easier to get the real hang of the solution you are providing.

  13. Relatability can also involve a strong element of wish fulfillment. Look at the protagonists in light beer commercials: Always gorgeous, always hip, always cool.

    The standard criticism is, “Am I supposed to believe that if I drink their beer I’ll be that cool?” No. You want to believe you already are that cool. The commercial is just showing you what it is that cool people do.

    In my niche (cooking blogs and cookbooks) it’s the difference between Tyler Florence and Martha Stewart. They both have great recipes for roast turkey. Whose book would you rather people see on your kitchen table?

  14. G’Day Sonia,
    Thanks for your most useful additions to Robert’s post. I’ll be paying far more attention to using stories in the future. But there’s one story that is an immediate turn-off for me.

    I call it the “how the web–or internet marketing– saved me from penury, saved my marriage, enabled me to holiday in Paris, Tangier and other exotic places, built my ski lodge at Aspen, my family home on Long Island and restored my self esteem, all in only sixteen weeks!”

    It’s usually accompanied by pictures of the real estate, snaps of the wife and kids in Cordoba and a poorly made talking head video .Worst of all, we’re forced to endure 15 minutes or more of this arrant boasting before the penury-free marketer condescends to inform us about what he or she is trying to sell. Frankly, I no longer get that far into the story anymore. I’ve pressed the “trash” button before the bit about the unheated cellar in the in-law’s basement is mentioned.

    Don’t get me wrong. I begrudge no one their success. But I think that the important thing about stories is that they Illustrate what’s important to the reader and reflect readers’ values.

    I know that what I’m saying flies in the face of the beliefs of the Social Proof Brigade. and their “Outdo The Jones’ Crusade.”

    Cole Porter wasn’t the first person to ask, “Who wants to be a millionaire?” But he came up with a pretty good answer.

    That’s enough heresy for one day.

    Make sure you have fun

    Regards

    Leon

    • I think you raise a good point, that different stories are going to speak to different people. There’s not one story that works across the board.

      The story you’re talking about has, IMO, a relatively small number of people it really speaks to — but those people are essentially addicted to spending money on “business in a box” products. There are IMO lots more people who want to start real businesses, and are willing to do real work to do that, but they don’t spend as freely.

      Different reader, different story.

  15. This is so true. I’m more inclined to buy a product or service if I identity with the story. Sometimes the line between sales and social interaction is very thin.

  16. Hey there,

    I have been thinking a lot about story-telling and have a client that has a great product but needs a different approach.

    I think I’m going to do a story on it. Thanks for the prompt!

    Us Irish are great story-tellers – especially about others and their story. It’s not really in our genes to talk about ourselves. Today, I’m going to try and change that. Starting with that client of mine. Then I’ll write something about myself!

    Off I go to write something special.

  17. yes yes and more yes. It’s why I started a blog about local businesses and not about me. really who cares about me? yeah my wife and kids ok but make it about them (your potential customer) and that is half (ok 25%) of the battle when it comes to selling.

    • And even when it’s about you, it’s really about them, because they see themselves in your shoes. That’s the angle that the “authenticity” crowd often misses.

  18. I like the way you linked writing persuasive copy with storytelling. As a fiction writer by night, I like to tell stories in my articles and other copy. It’s definitely more engaging to read! Thank you.

    • A good storyteller has such an advantage. :) When I hired marketing writers, I liked to go with fiction writers over other kinds of professional writers. The things they were great at were the things I couldn’t teach.

  19. Sonia:

    I have to chime in here with a question for you I hope you’ll find the time to answer for me. When reading through many of these stories on storytelling, I find myself with a skeptical bent with regard to the protagonist. Why? Because all too often the “success stories” that these marketers are rolling out with are pure, fictional nonsense.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m an intrinsically cynical soul, although I like to believe otherwise. Perhaps it’s because as a copywriter (prior to my current position) I was often approached by unscrupulous marketers to write their story and customer testimonials…before the product had even hit the market. But with Internet marketers regularly falsifying the truths in their stories, a “true story” lacks the credibility that it used to.

    What’s your take on this? How does this stemmed disbelief in the general public with regard to the credibility of these marketers relate to anyone’s ability to relate their marketing campaign to a story? And what do you suggest we do about it?

    Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.
    Renee

    • I think it’s very easy to see the sleazoid tip of the iceberg and think “that’s what marketing stories are about.”

      But go check out some of the stories Naomi Dunford tells on her blog (http://ittybiz.com). Or the stories I shared back when I had time for my personal blog, http://www.remarkable-communication.com. Or Sean’s stories on http://www.psychotactics.com.

      In fact, click through to most of the frequent commenters you see here. You’ll see real businesses and real people, not sleazes.

      I actually think it’s extremely hard to fake a story over the long haul. That’s one of the many great things about using a blog for your marketing, and supplementing that with social sites like twitter. Over time, people get a pretty strong sense of who you are. Sure, there’s the occasional psycho who can fake it long-term, but that’s a tiny minority.

  20. Hi Sonia,

    I think you nailed an important point: the dramatic tension possible with a before-&-after.

    Writers sometimes look like they are trying too hard, describing the wonderful wonderfulness of the product or service. People don’t want wonderful wonderfulness; they want something that will solve a problem or make things better.

    You need not only a relatable protagonist but also a relatable problem as a reference point. To use your metaphor, you need a relatable dragon.

    Writers would do better to focus on the dragon and not the sword that was used to kill the dragon. People don’t care how sharp the sword is; they want to know that it’s sharp enough to kill the dragon.

    Jack

  21. Fantastic written post. It has made me look over some of my articles to see whether i have a pattern of who i actually base the article on. How strange, after all of the writing you’d think I’d know how i write. But this is such a learning curve and something else for me to think about while blogging.

    After reading this i also need to add some well deserved tension. only trouble is i write about Hypnosis downloads!!! Help!

    I’ll just stick to boring stories about me!

    • “After reading this i also need to add some well deserved tension. only trouble is i write about Hypnosis downloads!!! Help!

      I’ll just stick to boring stories about me!”

      See Mike, that’s great writing right there! That killed me! (how’s that for drama!)

      I’ve enjoyed the post and all the comments, but this is the first time on the page I’ve been inspired to say something.(still laughing)

  22. Spot on post! This also relates to empathy in marketing, or our ability to step into the shoes of others (in this case, the protagonist).

  23. I agree with the post! Why do you think Springsteen is so popular. same reason.

  24. Good idea. I like stories. Everyone needs more storytelling in their lives. Its what inspired us as kids. Now we read on kindles. Yesterday I saw someone reading Tori Spelling’s latest book on the subway.

    Really?

  25. Awesome post. Marketing the right strategy is so crucial for the success of your website or blog.

  26. I personally don’t like the idea of making it about me, when I write, the focus is on making them the protagonist, make them feel important, make them feel like they can relate, and they will find you valuable.

    • I think, though, that if you can write about yourself in a way that it feels like you’re writing about them, then they will find value in what you have to say.
      It’s not so much a “look at me, look at me!” approach as it is a “look what we have in common!” one.

  27. As a veteran Direct Response Marketer, it is also important to have the protagonist address the problem/solution for the sale. Great information. Thank you, Sonia.

  28. There are many stories that happened between my old customers and I, but I can’t write them down in my blog with an easy mind as I am afraid the readers will not be interested in them for too many “I” and “My” in the articles.

    I still remember that one of the articles in this blog told me that “You” and “Because” are the most important words. So how can I get a compromise solution?

  29. Yes, it good to share your private stories online. This will not only tell people around you, that you are legitimate but will also help your followers to spread your story if you have something useful and interesting to be shared!

  30. Sonia,
    You know what makes a great Protagonist? The Struggle.
    Rocky trying to beat Clubber Lane
    Maverick conquering the Loss of Goose
    Roadrunner staying one step ahead of Wiley E. Coyote

    Wondering if the story gets more powerful as you align the story of struggle among your protagonists (you, your past customers, and buyers). You’ve got me thinking – as usual.

  31. Sonia, I think anyone who has the desire to help people must learn how to become a story teller.

  32. This post is so very helpful. It has opened my eyes and given names to the things I often do unconsciously.
    It’s quite true that having a relatable character in your story, makes it more easier for people to connect and quickly make sense of the story. Without a relatable character in a story, it makes the whole story look abstract. In my little experience, I prefer using myself as the relatable character, now that i know better, will try out some third party relatable character soon.

    Thanks for sharing.

  33. Check out the Wordle of this article …. funny things to read it through that lense

    http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/2832084/The_Most_Important_Element_of_Your_Marketing_Story

  34. Really helpful post, Sonia. I’m still a little new to blogging and information like this really helps a lot. I can write “information” for days, but am still working on how to make it effective, inspiring writing. Thanks again!