The world is bombarded with ads every day, and most of them don’t even register. People treat most ads like noise and instinctively tune them out because they don’t offer us anything we actually need. But by using the seven steps of storytelling, your marketing can captivate the attention of customers and stand out as a beacon of clarity in a noisy and confusing world.
Survival of the fittest ads
Our instincts for human connection, and an understanding of the world that surrounds us, are among the most fundamental predispositions we have. For thousands of years, people have been telling stories to map out the pathways to better lives. The best stories capture our attention and our imagination, because they appeal to our most basic needs. The same is true of successful marketing.
If your marketing efforts don’t directly show people how your product can help fulfill a fundamental need, they’re going to tune it out. Maybe your business has been in your family for generations and you now have the largest auto manufacturing plant on the Eastern Seaboard. As impressive as that achievement might be, your audience won’t care because that narrative doesn’t satisfy their natural interests. You’re telling them the wrong story.
The right story
We immediately recognize a great story – even if it has a setting and characters we have never seen before – because it follows the same framework that great storytellers have used for thousands of years. The hero’s journey is timeless and it’s just as effective for a movie, a TV series, a play, or a novel, as it is for digital marketing. If you follow the seven foundational steps of storytelling, your customers will recognize themselves in your compelling story and will feel an instinctive need to pay attention.
The 7 steps
- The hero
- The problem
- The guide
- The plan
- The call to action
- Avoiding failure
That’s it. Just about every great story ever told follows this framework.
Aladdin lives on the streets and worries that he’ll never be worthy of Princess Jasmine. Then he meets the Genie, who gives him three wishes – but, more importantly, teaches him to believe in himself. He goes on to defeat the evil Jafar, avoiding certain death and going on to become the hero of Agrabah. The story ends as he marries Princess Jasmine and frees the Genie.
Luke Skywalker is a poor boy on a remote desert planet that is controlled by the oppressive Empire. He meets Obi-Wan, who teaches him to use The Force and calls him to action against the Empire. Luke then blows up the Death Star, avoiding a catastrophic end for the Rebellion, and delivering a triumphant victory.
To varying degrees, every story follows these seven steps. Storytellers often tinker with the framework to fit their stories, but they do so at their peril. Stories that deviate from the seven steps, risk becoming convoluted and losing our attention.
Let’s look at the steps in more detail.
For marketing to work, the customer always needs to be the hero of the story. Many brands make the basic mistake of positioning themselves as the hero. That doesn’t work. Everyone is the hero of their own story – and when a brand makes itself the hero, it muddles the story.
Making your customer the sole hero of the story typically involves designing a character as a stand-in for the audience, whom your customers can identify with. Developing that character’s journey means identifying what your customers really want, and what will motivate them to choose your brand.
If your products or services can fulfill a fundamental need – like saving time or money, building a community and gaining status within that community, or finding a life of meaning and purpose – the hero will have somewhere interesting to go on his or her marketing journey.
Now it’s time to introduce some conflict into the story.
The villain is usually one of the story’s most compelling characters. Every hero needs a foil, and the same is true for your customers. Successful marketing campaigns create a tangible villain and often find a way to personify that villain.
Ads for soap often feature living, breathing germs that have come to attack the cleanliness of the kitchen. The cavity creeps are determined to bore holes in your teeth, and they can only be warded off with Crest toothpaste.
The villain doesn’t have to be cartoonish. One of Apple’s most successful ad campaigns ever personified the Mac and the PC, with the Mac being the hip young guy who wants to help you express yourself with simple software while the old wonk PC bores you to death with all his technical explanations.
Elaborating on the conflict can also make it deeper and more meaningful. Most products solve an external problem, but especially clever marketing delves deeper to address the internal and philosophical problems that follow.
Imagine a person with the external problem of an overgrown, unkempt lawn. This simple issue may also mean that they feel embarrassed because their neighbors have nicer lawns than them. They struggle with issues of social status, reasoning that a busy and successful person deserves a nice lawn.
This is a simplistic example, but it illustrates that external problems have deeper implications. If your marketing campaign can identify the external problem and convey the deeper implications of that problem, customers will be much more interested in your proposed solutions. Consider that the average person has only a marginal interest in lawns on any given day, but they are acutely aware of their social status.
After the hero, the guide is the most crucial character in the story. After all, that’s where your brand comes in. Always remember that customers don’t need another hero. They need a guide. Besides, the hero is not the strongest character in the story. The hero has a huge problem and they are filled with anxiety and self-doubt; whereas the guide has already established himself as a successful hero in his own backstory, and can provide the guidance and the plan the hero needs to succeed.
As your customer’s guide, you need to demonstrate both empathy and authority. You must show a sympathetic understanding of your customer’s problems. You know what they’re going through and you know how hard it can be.
Luckily, you have all the answers already. You can demonstrate your authority in many ways: testimonials from previous clients, a list of awards, or a set of knowledgeable blogs on your website. Whatever the medium, you need to show the customer that you care and that you’re in the best position to help them.
The plan makes the guide indispensable. If the customer had a plan, they would have already solved their problem on their own and there wouldn’t be a story.
The customer trusts you as a guide at this point, but they want you to show them the way. The plan you provide should clarify the steps your customer needs to take, and should also address any remaining concerns they may have. The steps may seem obvious to you, but they might not be to your customers. Make sure the steps in your plan are as clear and simple as they can be.
Call to action
You’ve identified your customer’s problem, and established yourself as a guide with a plan. They’re onboard with the story so far, but they won’t act on your plan unless you ask them.
Many businesses hesitate to make their calls to action too obvious or overt. It’s true that you don’t want to hector your clients. But if you believe in your products and services, why not make a loud and clear call to buy them?
With social media marketing, the CTA can be an obvious, “buy now” button – but it can also take on more subtle forms, like “call now” or “get a quote,” or “schedule an appointment”.
The direct CTA can also be accompanied by a more indirect version that asks the client to “learn more”, or “watch this video for more info”. If the customer isn’t quite ready to buy the product, the indirect CTA gives them more information to help them make their decision.
If your story doesn’t have real stakes, it won’t be compelling. You don’t want to be a fearmonger, but you do want to show the client what failure might look like if they don’t buy your product.
In 1979, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated in their work on prospect theory that people are more likely to feel worse about a potential loss than they do about missing out on a potential gain. To put it simply, people feel worse about losing 1,000 baht than they do about not winning 1,000 baht. Your marketing can tap into this psychology to show what your customers stand to lose if they don’t buy your product.
If you can tactfully inject just the right amount of danger into the story, your customers’ success will be so much sweeter in the end.
Paint a clear picture of success for your customers. How will their lives look after your products or services have transformed them?
The conclusion of your marketing journey should close the story loop in a satisfying way that leads to your hero winning power and prestige, or satisfaction at a job well done, or the fulfillment of discovering a strength that was inside of them all along.
The final act of your story should appeal to your customers’ aspirational identity. How do they want to be seen by their friends and coworkers? Your product could be a big factor in this equation. If you sell beauty products, you’ve taken your hero from glum and hesitant to carefree and radiant. If you’re a financial planner, the hero has gone from uninformed and anxious to knowledgeable and confident. If you provide professional services, your hero has gone from stagnant and disorganized to agile and laser focused.
Customers should see that your products and services deliver more than just simple success on an isolated issue. They also unlock the door to a genuine transformation.
A good story works on any platform
Marketing platforms have changed dramatically in recent years, and the rate of change shows no sign of slowing down. But people are still fundamentally the same: They want to be safe, prosperous and happy in their surroundings. If your products and services can help them fulfill those basic human needs, the best way to show it is with a good story.
Lexicon is a full-service digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We specialize in corporate storytelling and produce all of our content in-house, including branding, copywriting, video production and graphic design. We bring all of our services together and use Digital PR and social media marketing storytelling to connect our clients with the ideal target audience.