I attended an agency creds presentation last week where the audience of B2B marketers were solemnly told of this brilliant new idea called story-telling. I really thought this idea had had its day but what disappointed me as much as the recurrence of this tired concept in an agency presentation was that the audience of marketing professionals took story-telling as a natural fundamental of all marketing. This is a dangerous view. For the disciplines of marketing and story-telling start in different places.
A focus on story-telling risks your losing sight of who really matters when you design marketing content: your customer.
I’ll explain why. There is a risk that the very concept of story-telling causes your firm to start its content development in the wrong place – that is with your firm. In its purest form, story-telling is the process whereby your firm brand deals out a self-absorbed monologue to anyone within hearing distance. After all stories come from the teller not the listener. But if I’m in the audience for your firm’s story, why should I care? Who gives a damn what your business’s story is? In contrast, good marketing starts not with the firm but with the audience. Marketing is about being crystal clear on who your customers are, what they do, and what they need. It’s about learning about your target audience and supplying valuable content – helpful and relevant quality information – that addresses your audience’s needs. If that content can be supplied in a story-format that aids clarity then great; but the story is categorically not the end itself. Note that, unlike good marketing, the process of story-telling does not focus on building an interaction with a clear, target audience. Story-telling is a one-way broadcast phenomenon. Marketing is not.
I worked for PA Consulting Group for five years. PA as a firm has a fascinating history. It was set up during the Second World War to advise the UK government on how to drive much-needed extra productivity from the munitions factories at a time when it looked like Britain would lose the war. It’s a fascinating history that the story-telling approach could have led me to focus my marketing around. That was hugely tempting. But that’s not where I started. The successful re-branding work I led at PA Consulting Group started with our customers. The marketing team went out and spoke to customers across all of the sectors, countries, and services we operated in. We asked them to describe to us who they were, how their days ran, and where they needed help in their own words. These became the stories we used to focus our business internally in the development of relevant, compelling content for our future prospects. In this way PA Consulting Group is relevant to the needs of today’s audience not to the audience of the 1940s.
So that’s the reason why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling: the disciplines of marketing and story-telling start in different places. Story-telling risks your losing sight of who really matters when you design content: your customer.