Story: the best content strategy tool you’re not using

Understanding story structure can help you build your content strategy. Here's how.

Chris Alden, freelance copywriter

So: you’ve decided to get to grips with your organisation’s content strategy. You’ve read Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s excellent book, Content Strategy for the Web, and you’ve concluded that of course (slap forehead): it’s a fool’s errand to keep creating vast amounts of content without working out such things as:

why you’re creating content
how you’re going to structure and promote it
where it’s going to go
when you’ll publish it
who it’s for, and
what in the world it should look and sound like anyway

… which is jolly good news. And if that all sounds like common sense to you, remember that Halvorson herself once tweeted:

In other words, to know that a course of action is sensible isn’t the same as to act on it – and it takes passionate advocates like Rach and Halvorson to get everyone behind a movement as sensible as content strategy.

So let’s all get moving.

Content strategy tools

Of course, asking the right questions about content is one thing; figuring out answers is another. That’s why Margot Bloomstein’s Content Strategy at Work is such a useful book. In it, she suggests you create a message architecture – that is, a “hierarchy of communication goals” – to help you make decisions about future content.

Define what good content should look like, in other words, and you can start to build it. It’s a good idea and a practical one for marketers.

In the book, Bloomstein suggests some ways of creating this message architecture. First, she says, try an adjective-sorting exercise: brand managers are given a stack of cards with an adjective on each, and are asked, via various interventions, to prioritise them. Alternatively, create a two-circle Venn diagram: one circle is marked “brand values”, the other marked “audience needs”; your job is to find brand “attributes” that fit into the intersection of each. Either way, having defined your adjectives or attributes, you can prioritise them and create content to match.

As a brand manager, marketer or content strategist, you’ll find either exercise helpful. Adjective-selection exercises are a popular way to define brand tone, and can help you answer content questions that can cascade through future decision-making.

A common criticism of these exercises, though, is that it can be difficult to select adjectives that set you apart from competitors. Many B2B brands, for example, want to be “friendly”, “confident” or “professional”; these are qualities that are easier to describe than to convey. And there are only so many suitable adjectives around: with a limited verbal palette to choose from, finding a set that defines your individual tone can be harder than it looks.

Moreover, as a copywriter who often refers to brand guidance, I often find myself wanting a bit more information about a company’s relationships with its customers – that is, the real-world interactions that underlie the rules on design and tone. What does the organisation exist to do, and how does content reflect that?

It’s challenges like these that might lead you to seek a wider “architecture” for your content and messaging.

Towards a content strategy based on story

It’s at this point that I think that the parallel discipline of brand storytelling can be helpful.

Good brands deploy narrative techniques all the time. In marketing, as in story, we often try to “show, not tell” – to demonstrate an idea through a case study or an anecdote, rather than simply tell people how world-leading or innovative we are. A sales team, too, will vary the pace of a sale depending on the product or the prospect – just as in a story, an author will manage the pace of a plot depending on who the reader is. A CEO, meanwhile, will tell a story in order to relax a business audience, and you can be sure that that story will have a moral that’s pertinent to the business point she’s trying to make.

If you’re attracted to the idea of deploying narrative technique in your organisation, an understanding of story structure can help get your creative sparks flying. There are many ways of defining a narrative structure, but most include elements such as these:

PROTAGONIST The hero of your story. There may be more than one hero.
STORY WORLD The world the hero inhabits. The “rules” of the story world usually stay consistent through the whole story (but see the rocket scene in The Life of Brian for a counter-example of this).
OBJECT OF DESIRE The hero’s most fundamental need; this drives the story on. There may be a difference between what a hero thinks they want and what they actually need – and a well told story will reveal this tension.
ANTAGONIST Opponent of the hero – there to thwart them from achieving the object of desire. May be a person; an object; or an internal character trait.
INCITING INCIDENT Event that upsets the hero’s stability and sets them moving toward the object of desire.
CRISIS/CLIMAX Event that acts as point of conflict between hero and antagonist; and keeps the story moving forward through time. The final crisis is the CLIMAX, and it brings back stability to the hero’s world, in the form of a RESOLUTION.

That’s the gist of it, anyway. If you’re interested in storytelling, read Bob McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing and perhaps also Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. You’ll find a lot there that’s analogous to marketing and interesting in its own right.

For marketers, it can be useful and enjoyable to analyse ads, websites and PR campaigns to see how successfully (or otherwise) elements of story structure can be deployed. I’ll be discussing some examples in the course I’m running this June on Storytelling in Marketing – but you might like to think about (for example) the New Coke fiasco; the rise, fall and rise of Stella Artois; and the viral Squatty Potty ad for starters.

Analysing story structure can also lead to jumping-off points for tactics in your own marketing. For example, you could make a list of the different “heroes” you might use for different brand stories. One story might be a marketing message about how well a product performs (eg a Dettol ad in which the product is a “vanquishing hero”); another might be a blog post about the great work of one of your employees; a third might be a “foundation story” from your CEO about how she set up the company against all odds. All these heroes’ stories might point to a moral that captures the essence of your brand.

But wait a minute. Since the explosion of social media, the way that brands communicate with customers has changed. If you interpret marketing as less of a “broadcast” effort and more of a “conversation” between brand and a customer – as social media experts always advise you to do – should you still be seeing your own brand or product as the hero of your story? Should you not also be thinking of the customer as a potential story hero – given, after all, that you’re already creating the “customer persona” and planning the “customer journey”? And when you do, how can this help meet your content strategy goals?

The role of “story architecture”

Remember those goals? We wanted to document a content strategy that answered the “who, what, where, why and when” of content – and, to help us make future content decisions, we wanted to develop a “message architecture” (to use Bloomstein’s term) that acts as a blueprint for what content we create next.

A “story architecture” (to coin a new term) might help you achieve this. You could ask yourself questions such as the following:

Who are our customers? (PROTAGONISTS)
What do they want? (OBJECT OF DESIRE)
What obstacles do they face? (ANTAGONISTS)
How do we help overcome these obstacles? (CRISIS POINTS)
What ideal world would our customers like to inhabit? (STORY WORLD)

Defining the “ideal world” or “story world” is the really interesting bit, because this is where we start to think about the underlying characteristics of our content.

Here’s how a story architecture might look for one example brand:


Our customer is …
… a creative, independent-minded individual who sees possibilities in the future.

He/she wants …
… to fulfil a creative vision, build an independent lifestyle, take risks and try out new things.

The main obstacles he/she faces are …
… the difficulty of focusing on the essential things in life, because of everyday technological inefficiencies. Clutter, poor design and bureaucratic thinking frustrate his/her dreams.

We help overcome these by …
… designing technology that sets our customer free – to think differently, and to focus on individual aspirations and dreams, away from a traditional office environment.

The ideal world my customer would like to inhabit is …
… a clutter-free, paper-free space, allowing room for focused creativity.

So we create content that is…
… focused and clutter-free. We keep communication simple, reflecting our products’ innovative and minimal design. We eliminate unnecessary words in our language. We focus content only on channels that reflect our brand.

Do the example answers I’ve given look familiar? That’s because they’re my attempt to reverse-engineer a “story architecture” for a company like Apple.

Try completing a similar “story architecture” for your organisation, and see where it takes you. (If your audience isn’t a “customer” but a stakeholder or an employee, make them the hero of your story as appropriate.)

One advantage of this approach is that it helps validate the work you’re already doing. To answer the question “Who is your customer?”, for example, you could refer to work you may already have done on customer personas. Or if you’ve done adjective-selection exercises, put them in the “ideal world” section and see how they fit. You might want to tweak them into a sentence that expresses the space you imagine your customer inhabiting.

As you continue to create your story architecture, try to make it hang together as a coherent whole. For example, the “ideal world” your customer would like to inhabit is closely related to your decisions about your customers’ persona and needs – and all, in turn, inform decisions about your future content.

And if you’re comfortable with where you are so far, you might even push the story analogy further – helping you dig deeper into your marketing platform:

When does the customer know they have a problem that needs solving? (INCITING INCIDENT)
What does the customer know already when we approach them? (BACKSTORY)
What does the customer put at risk when buying from us? (CRISIS/CLIMAX)
How do we allay these fears/mitigate these risks? (SOLUTION/RESOLUTION)
How quickly do we approach the customer? (PACE)
How do we present our relationship with the customer? Are we a partner, an assistant, or a guide? (CHARACTERISATION)

Some of these questions may be more appropriate for individual marketing campaigns than for an underlying story architecture, but the principle is the same: use your customer’s own story to help plan content.

Discover more

I’d like to do more to help organisations use story to inform their content strategy. I think it’s a great tool that can support ideation and content planning efforts.

That’s why I’m hosting a small-group course on Storytelling for Marketers, this June 14.

I’ll be working on how marketers can find their “inner storyteller”, in order to achieve two things:
• start developing a documented content strategy
• tell better stories across an organisation.

If you’re interested in finding more about storytelling in business and marketing, please come to the event.

There’s a £25 discount off advertised prices for readers who’ve read this far. Just use the discount code EBCD25.

Hope to see you there.

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