Marketers Are Not Storytellers

Ian Lurie

TL;DR: Storytelling isn’t what digital marketers do. The audience creates the stories. We build the maps they use. We’re worldbuilders.

Storytelling is a great word, but a poor metaphor for what we, the marketers, do.

Before you scroll down and start swearing at me in the comments: I love marketing storytelling. Storytelling is fantastic. It’s an essential part of marketing. But marketers have almost zero control over the story. The audience goes where they want, when they want. If we’re lucky, they read something we wrote. If we’re blessed by the gods, they see our content, on our site, and they don’t stop to look at Snapchat or Kik or Instagram or whatever. It’s like 1000 guinea pigs on a cucumber farm. Chaos. It’s also a big opportunity, if you can jump on it.

Digital marketers are worldbuilders

It’s bugged me for years: If we don’t control the path, control the characters or know the ending, we aren’t storytellers. We’re something else. But what? I never could quite figure out what we do.

Then, one night, while I was buzzed on caffeine and Kit Kats and running a Dungeons & Dragons game, it smacked me square in the frontal lobe: Marketers do exactly what Dungeon Masters do. Only we get paid for it. And get to go outside more often.

Yes, I’ve worked Dungeons & Dragons into my blog post again. My second >D&D epiphany. Maybe it’s an effort to justify 40,000 hours spent pretending I’m a wizard. Or maybe it’s because roleplaying games are a perfect training ground for budding marketers. I say to everyone who scoffs at us pencil-and-paper gamers is HOW YA LIKE US NOW?!!!

We create maps filled with places. The audience writes the stories by traveling from place to place as they please.

We’re worldbuilders.

Why storytelling doesn’t cover it

Storytelling follows a story arc. We draw a path we think the audience will take, and then we try to fit our marketing to the shape:

The Story Arc

The story arc. Worth at least a 10x multiplier on your contract.

But there’s a problem. Here’s a story arc from above. A straight line. Not a lot of flexibility. Zero options. In many cases, audience can’t even go backwards:

Story Arc: Top View

The story arc, from above

The story arc describes a single journey. We still treat digital marketing like traditional marketing: Find a path and fill it with stuff. Marketer-driven storytelling.

That may have worked back in the days of three-martini lunches. There’s no way it works now: Digital marketers don’t control where, when or how the audience hears about us. We don’t control the path. Ever.

Online, traditional, marketer-driven storytelling is backward. We set out the stuff, but this is audience-driven storytelling.

How the audience tells the stories

If I’m looking for your product, I might follow a path that starts with a Google search:

No more story arc

My path. It's mine.

Another person might start with a YouTube video, then find you on Twitter and Facebook, then read a page on your site, then do a Google search and then, after all that, finally take action:

Another person, another path

Another person, another path

Another might do something that doesn’t even end with a sale. Instead, they read everything they can, then write a fantastic blog post about you:

Completely random

Completely random

We don’t create the paths, or tell the stories. We put places on a map, create context, and let the audience do the rest. That’s worldbuilding.

How we make the map

A map is all about places. In digital marketing, anything that’s a noun is a place:

  • A Twitter profile
  • A tweet
  • A Facebook post
  • A search result
  • A blog post
  • A product page
  • A home page
  • A video
  • A comment or question posed by the audience
  • Any other thing

The “center” is always the most desirable conversion. We usually create clusters of owned content, like pages on our site or e-mail promotions around the center:

We create our own places...

We create in owned media

We create other places in earned and paid media, like Facebook and Adwords. Every post is a new place. So is every comment we make on our own posts or on others’. By the way: That’s why employees need to think about their social media commentary. They create places, too.

We create in earned and paid

We create in earned and paid media

Not all places about us are ours, though

We create many places. The audience creates others. The most common audience-created places are social media posts and comments:

The audience creates places, too

The audience creates places, too

Not all places are ours. The audience creates them, too. Never forget that.

But watch for third-party blog posts, reviews and whatever else the Internet comes up with next. Watching doesn’t require fancy software (although it helps). Use Twitter search, and BuzzSumo, and Talkwalker to do basic monitoring. We’ve caught a lot of new content that way.

Creating kick-ass places

Put careful thought into every place you create: The tweets, the Facebook posts, the product pages and the other stuff can all drive or stop the audience. Kick-ass places are easy to access and great to visit. You need to create kick-ass places, because there’s always another map, and the audience moves on if they don’t like what they see. Five-star places are:

  • Fast
  • Compelling
  • Polished
  • Responsive
  • Relevant
  • Valuable
  • Clear
  • Consistent
  • Appropriate

Read this post for a few tips.

Not content marketing

“Hey, Ian! This is content marketing!” Content marketing is one slice of place creation and worldbuilding. But there’s more to worldbuilding. Keep reading.

Places need context

Marketers aren’t mapmakers, though. The difference between a map and a world is context.

Context transforms the map into a world by connecting places. If you set the context, you make all places relevant to your business. If you don’t, you chase tactics without any strategy.

Say you build your whole plan around “rank higher on Google”, but your website makes puppies cry and your social media presence is a list of special offers. You get a top ranking. Congrats! You stick a pin in the map. But there’s no deeper experience. That one place—your high ranking on Google—is isolated.

Say you get 500 top rankings. Awesome! But they’re still disconnected places on the map.

People may move from the ranking to your site. If they don’t buy right then and there, though, there’s little chance they’ll come back. There’s even less chance they’ll tell others about you. Unless they say, “Neat product, but it was the worst website I’ve ever seen.” Not exactly high praise.

And you’re vulnerable. Lose the rankings, lose the business. That’s not worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding combines places with context. Places are nouns. Context is the adjectives and the motivations that link the places together.

You want the audience to have a specific experience when they encounter you. Those are the adjectives: Friendly. Funny. High-quality. Fast. Purple.

You have certain things you’d like the audience to do:

  • Subscribe to a newsletter
  • Follow you on Facebook. Or Snapchat. I have teen-agers. I keep up with this stuff. Actually, I have more friends on Snapchat than my teen-agers do. Nyah nyah.
  • Buy something.
  • Vote for you

That’s the motivation.

Setting context

You can set context by listening and responding: When someone asks a question in social media, leaves a comment or writes a review on their blog, they create a place. But that place may not have context. Go there. Answer the question, or say thanks for the compliment, or ask how you can help. Your presence puts that place in context, enticing the audience closer to your brand.

Consistent tone, voice and visual elements set context, too. That’s the whole branding thing.

Conversion rate optimization improves context, making it easier for people to act on their (and your) motivation.

Context encourages customers to build paths from one place to the next.

The final ingredient: Paths

You have kick-ass places. They’re in the context you want. Now, it’s up to the audience: They navigate, creating the paths.

Now and then, the audience loses its mind. They latch onto a story about worms in fast-food hamburgers and won’t let go (in that case, worms might be better, but that’s beside the point). Avoid railroading. If you’ve set context, others will defend you, creating happier places. You can do the same. Or go 100% transparent, get ahead of it and explain how hilarious the whole thing really is. That entices the audience to build paths to your door, instead of someone else’s. You can also engage in things like reputation management, creating new places and strengthening context around old ones.

Pro tip: You have to learn to let go. Don’t force your audience down one path, or try to drag them to another. They resist, and they get angry.

It's worse than it looks, trust me

It's worse than it looks, trust me

Never, ever, ever railroad the audience. Nestle tried to push a discussion back on a path they liked. Remember this? It was a mess. They took an ongoing argument and turned it into a full-blown social media disaster:

Oh, Nestle

Oh, Nestle

I can’t figure out why organizations keep doing this to themselves. Railroading the audience is like arguing a call with an umpire (apparently, that’s a baseball thing). You might get thrown out of the game. But you never win.

Facilitate paths with great places and strong context. Help out whenever you can, strengthening context even more. Improve places based on the paths your audience takes. Create new places where paths dead-end. Let the audience drive the process.

An example of great worldbuilding

I admit it. I’m a huge fan of Alaska Airlines. First, I love those little cheese and fruit plates. Second, they give me chocolate. Third, they do stuff like this:

A few years ago, I’d flown home from New York with my two kids (at the time they were 8 and 6, I believe). It was midnight. I was tired. The kids were pretty perky, after sleeping on the plane for four hours. Which only made me more tired.

We got off the plane. We waited for our bags. And waited. And waited.

Long before that, Alaska Airlines created a place: A 20-minute baggage guarantee. It also set context around their customer service, by the way.

Alaska Airlines created a place

Alaska Airlines created a place

I sent a tweet, creating another place:

I'm tired. I'm sad. Where are my bags?

I'm tired. I'm sad. Where are my bags?

They hadn’t abandoned the original place. They stood by their guarantee, of course, but they also listened and responded. Within a couple of minutes, they replied:

An immediate reply. At midnight.

An immediate reply. At midnight.

That set the place I created in context. The customer service desk was 10 feet away. So they weren’t railroading me. They didn’t try to drag me onto another path by saying “Fill out this form over here,” or “We’re sorry, but hey! Look over here! Puppy monkey baby!”

They facilitated, helping me along the path I’d created.

That’s great worldbuilding. They couldn’t know how or when I’d need information. They put the information out there (creating a place). They heard my question, responded (creating a place and establishing context) and then helped me resolve it.

(By the way, it wasn’t even their fault. The airport gave the wrong carousel number on the monitors. We were standing there while our bags went around and around, right behind us. Sigh.)

Worldbuilding can be a big deal. It can also be super-simple. In my interaction with Alaska Airlines, one page and two tweets did the trick. When you do a little worldbuilding, people like me write nice things years later. Which, by the way, creates another place in the context they want.

Worldbuilding starts small

Worldbuilding sounds daunting. But you don’t have to be everywhere. Go for quality first, coverage second. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Answer every question you get about your product or service, where and when you get them. If you get the question on Facebook, answer it there. If someone asks you in a comment on your blog, answer it there. Don’t drag them elsewhere.
  2. Write the question and answer as a post on your favorite social media site.
  3. Answer every comment and reply, even if you’re just saying “thanks.”
  4. Watch what happens.

Recommended reading

The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. You’ll learn more about places, paths, and good marketing worldbuilding from that book than any ten marketing texts combined.

I’ll write a lot more about this in the future. If you want to see a presentation I did, check this out:

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See how Portent can help you own your piece of the web.

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  1. Ian, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with your basic premise here.
    From a writing (and marketing) point of view, world-building is actually a subset of storytelling – it’s the setting. As the marketing dungeon master, potential customers might bring their own characters to the game, but if marketers aren’t already aware of and trying to connect to the customers’ conflicts, we haven’t put enough work into understanding that audience in the first place.
    Many marketers do ignore world-building as part of storytelling, but that’s because their dealing with a world that doesn’t need to be described for an audience. If you have a product that requires more consumer education, you will need to put a lot more effort into the setting (aka world-building).
    Where I do agree with you is that there are multiple paths (plots) that our audience can take, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have input into what they’re doing. If there is no connective link (rising action) from a blog to the next resource and then from that resource to the product page, the audience might find their way there, but you’ve likely created too much friction. It’s more of a choose your own adventure model where they choose their own resolution but we storytellers control the number of possible outcomes.
    What I’m most excited about in this post is the overhead view of the story arc (although if a marketer’s story arc looks as you’ve depicted from the front, it’s going to be hard to get the audience through the introduction to the point of profluence) and you’ve got me interested in playing with representations of the customer journey in a three dimensional world.

    1. I think you just gave me an idea for another post.
      I agree: Worldbuilding doesn’t mean you abandon storytelling. We’re definitely facilitators: We gently steer by helping, delivering more value here than there and keeping in mind our motivation. That’s the whole context thing. I need to explore that further.

      1. My favorite gaming movie of all time is written about a dungeon master who tries too hard to control the story instead of building the world. Highly suggest checking out “The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.”
        It’s research, promise!

  2. Most people like to think of themselves as creative. Indeed, marketing as a discipline involves, if not requires, a great deal of creativity – and not just on the content side. However, even the most experienced bloggers and content marketers are not necessarily “storytellers.
    Storytelling has become one of the most insufferable content marketing buzzwords during the past couple of years, and it shows no sign of losing its luster any time soon.

  3. Ian, I love the journey that you took us on in this post, but at the end of the day, “Marketers are not Storytellers” is a great story. I agree with the other post that creating and populating a world in which the story thrives is definitely a sub-set of a great story teller’s skill.

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