Data-driven storytelling: the intersection of numbers and narrative
Every marketer today wants to be a successful storyteller. Columnist Joshua Reynolds lays out the elements that comprise a story that's likely to resonate and spark enthusiastic sharing.
Storytelling is a fundamentally important marketing discipline.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the most overused buzzwords in our industry. Pundits use “storytelling” to refer to everything from anecdotes and case studies to persona-based marketing.
This model, which has recently become popular in the agency world, focuses on the genuine and well-documented science of persuasion through the use of mythic symbolism and narrative structure.
This approach is increasingly essential because the science of corporate storytelling has evolved beyond merely generating buzz and sentiment to actually motivating behavioral change. What’s more, a new approach to marketing analytics called “explanatory analytics” is what makes this evolution possible.
Storytelling is central to the human experience
Humans discovered long ago that stories are the best way to teach, persuade or entertain. Aesop’s fables, morality plays, world mythologies — all convey deep and complex meaning through narrative. And, as Joseph Campbell explores in his books, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and “The Power of Myth,” those stories follow a universal pattern, which he termed the “Hero’s Journey.”
If you work in marketing but haven’t studied the “Hero’s Journey,” you’re missing out. It will help you understand that storytelling is an organic hack of human cognition. And when you combine this understanding with data outside the human brain — social media, voice-of-customer (VOC) data, spending patterns and internal KPIs — you’ll be able to create more topical and engaging stories. These stories will be pre-engineered to generate not just buzz and sentiment, but also measurable shifts in audience behavior that translate into business results.
To illustrate, we’ll use a storytelling model broadly used in Silicon Valley — my own “viral storytelling” model. This model transposes Campbell’s 12-step “Hero’s Journey” into a more workable five-chapter structure that’s been used by companies ranging from Facebook and LinkedIn to Deloitte and McKesson. And within each “chapter,” marketing analytics optimizes the persuasive power of the storyline.
The viral storytelling model and how data fits in
Chapter 1: The World Has Changed
All good stories start with change. Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire, and he learns his father was a Jedi. On his 11th birthday, Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard and is whisked off to Hogwarts.
For marketers, we start with what’s new in the world, focusing on changes in technology, business and culture that people care about. With technologies such as social media listening, we can tap into evolving trends to create stories that are topical and timely.
But noise should never inform narrative. We need to correlate the buzz around the topics our customers care about against movements in the KPIs our executives care about. That way, we can filter out the oceans of irrelevant data and avoid starting the story with something popular but not persuasive.
Through this technique, we can more effectively grab the attention of people who are most likely to spend money with us.
Storyteller’s Data Tip: Resist the temptation to merely jump on the latest bandwagon. Instead, look to marketing analytics to connect the dots between what’s topical and what’s associated with sales.
Chapter 2: Change Creates Challenge
All good stories resonate on an emotional level. Luke has to decide how to fight a villain who turns out to be his dad. Harry has to learn how to deal with a super-powerful dark wizard who, it turns out, has left a bit of a dark streak within Harry. So in chapter two, we speak to the challenges created by change on a personal level, and play to emotions.
Consumer insights and research teams already do this kind of work on a daily basis. But rather than relying on focus groups, surveys or social media — an approach that assumes that we know what to listen for — an explanatory analytics approach allows the data to talk to us and reveal other motivating elements to pull into our story.
Storyteller’s Data Tip: Look for the pain points and preferences that correlate to your revenue (or other KPI), and use an explanatory analytics model to make sure the challenges in your story echo the challenges faced by the audiences that move your business forward.
Chapter 3: A Shift in Thinking
Every good story has a turning point that usually hinges on the hero redefining the problem they’re facing. Luke eventually realizes he doesn’t have to kill Darth Vader; he can convert him back to goodness. Harry ultimately realizes the only way to kill Voldemort is to let Voldemort kill him, thus destroying evil’s last hiding place — our own hearts.
In Chapter 3, our corporate storytelling takes on the tone of thought leadership, of transformation, of introspection, of something really worth paying attention to because we’re rewiring old assumptions and modes of behavior.
Storyteller’s Data Tip: To make sure you correctly “flip the script” on your narrative, look for emerging trends, topics and themes in the data that suggest a new perspective organically forming in your customer base. Maybe you don’t have to drive change so much as participate in a wave of change already underway.
Chapter 4: Enter the Hero
This is where the real hero of the story emerges — and it isn’t you, it’s your customer.
This is the moment in which we realize Luke’s real heroism springs not from his light saber, but from his ability to toss aside the weapon to defy the Emperor. We realize Harry’s not special because of his magical abilities — he’s unique because of his love for family and friends, through which he accepts his sacrificial role as the Chosen One.
So, in Chapter 4, we emphasize that your brand isn’t Luke; it’s the Force. Your brand isn’t Harry, either; it’s the wand. This “hero moment” is absolutely essential to get right.
The role of the consumer brand is not to be the hero of the story. The brand is the magical elixir, the totem, the Excalibur that the hero uses to carry on the quest.
Your brand taps something consumers stand for — some empowering principle that feeds a fundamental need in customers. But to get this right, you have to do more than listen to voice of the customer (VOC) data. You must listen to the right voices from the right audiences.
Storyteller’s Data Tip: Play to who your audience wants to be, not who they are. Use explanatory analytics to dig into aspirations and high points, as well as complaints and low points.
Zero in on the points most closely associated with movements in your revenue. Use the data to align your own authentic purpose with the authentic purpose of your most desired demographics.
Chapter 5: The Viral Question
In traditional storytelling, the last chapter closes with a “happily ever after.” But in modern storytelling, we want our audience to take the story forward. Even modern movies leave the door open to a sequel (or six).
In marketing, specifically, we want to create revenue-generating word of mouth. But again, if buzz and sentiment don’t automatically correlate to revenue and growth, how can we make sure we’re generating the right kind of word of mouth? The answer is to offer them a powerful open-ended question that they’ll want to discuss with each other — a “viral question.”
Storytellers’ Data Tip: Let the data talk to you and reveal what issues and questions are resonating most strongly with the audiences that matter most to your business. Then close your story with a powerful question that drives the right kind of revenue-generating word of mouth.