5 Reasons Why Storytelling Is Integral to Digital Marketing

It’s been 20 years since IKEA’s iconic lamp commercial, and if you’ve seen it, you remember it. Directed by Spike Jonze, it’s shot from the perspective of a cute, if outdated, table lamp right out of a Pixar cartoon. Pulled from its cozy home by its owner, it’s taken to the curb, where it sits in the cold rain, crestfallen as its owner is seen enjoying a replacement lamp from the window.

It’s only when a Swedish man appears in the frame that we’re brought back to reality. “Many of you feel bad for this lamp,” he chastises us. “That is because you’re crazy; it has no feelings.” Then he adds a kicker: “The new one is much better.”

The joke, of course, is that we’re not crazy for sympathizing with that little lamp. The commercial made us sympathize with the lamp by telling the story from its point of view. That’s the power of stories: They can make us relate to even the most unlikely subjects.

Through extensive studies, Princeton researcher Uri Hasson has shown that the human brain is actually wired to respond to stories this way. While listening to stories, our brain activity becomes synced with that of the person telling the story — we actually experience what they experience. 

It’s incredible, really. As Hasson explains, storytelling is the only mechanism that stimulates the brain so that a listener turns somebody else’s ideas or experiences into their own.

That’s precisely why strong storytelling has been a cornerstone of marketing for decades. Stories do what mere facts, figures and slogans can’t. They connect the dots, giving prospects a framework for the pitch they’re hearing. Stories aren’t just a form of entertainment; they’re fundamentally how we as humans make sense of the world.

And for businesses looking to differentiate themselves, storytelling is a particularly vital part of a good content marketing strategy; it gives businesses the power to show who they are, and to share their values and successes in a way that truly resonates.

Here are five reasons why storytelling is so remarkably effective in digital marketing.

1. We Pay Attention to Stories and Remember Them

Our attention spans are shrinking. In 2000, Microsoft tested how long people can focus on any one thing, and found the average was usually about 12 seconds or so. Alarmingly, Microsoft conducted the same study 15 years later, and found the results had dropped to just eight seconds. It seems like a safe bet that the same study today might find that number has fallen even lower.

And it’s no wonder our attention spans are so low, when so many channels, platforms and notifications are competing for it constantly. The average consumer is exposed to thousands of ads each day, yet they’d be hard pressed to recall many of them, since so few make a conscious impression. 

A strong story can cut through all that clutter, hold a prospect’s attention and stay with them. Scientists have even pinpointed the mechanism by which this works.

2. Storytelling Creates Empathy

Stories trigger positive chemicals in the brain that boost their impact and generate positive feelings about a brand. One is dopamine, which regulates our emotions. It keeps us engaged in stories by making us feel emotionally invested. The other is related: oxytocin, a chemical often associated with empathy. Oxytocin helps us form connections with the subjects of stories. Remember that poor lamp from the Ikea commercial? Oxytocin explains why we feel so bad for the little guy. 

Empathy is a precious commodity in digital marketing. When audiences experience empathy, they’re more likely to consume content and engage with or share content, and feel loyalty to a business and become a customer.

3. Stories Simplify Complex Concepts

Stories are used to illustrate concepts all the time. As a kid, your teacher used stories to explain math principles. Every Sunday pastors draw from relatable daily experiences in their sermons. Politicians use stories to explain why they’re running for office. These stories are often simple, but they help convey more complicated ideas, exemplifying concepts that might otherwise seem abstract.

Especially in digital marketing, where each second of a prospects’ attention is precious, the ability to convey complicated ideas in minimal strokes is absolutely priceless.

Apple is a prime example. An ad campaign that got into the specific pricing and capacities of its various cloud data plans wouldn’t be especially effective. We’d all tune out. Instead, Apple uses ads like its 2018 “Share Your Gifts” commercial. 
In that animated spot, a creative yet unrecognized young woman fills a box with artwork and ideas until it’s so full that it literally bursts open. The scraps of paper fly across her wintry village, where they’re picked up by townspeople who admire them; her creativity is finally recognized.

Apple products barely figure in the spot, but the story reinforces ideas of expression and connection, two concepts foundational to Apple’s brand identity. We can relate to it in a way we never could a pitch about the processing power of Apple’s computers and tablets.

4. Stories Remove the Hard Sell

As any business with a long sales funnel knows all too well, hard sells often don’t work. Pushy, in-your-face marketing can turn off prospects, who reflexively understand that they’re been pitched to and will respond by putting up their defenses. Rejecting hard sells is even easier in digital spaces, where prospects can opt out at any point with the simple click of an “x” on their browser.

Storytelling, however, offers a softer, more inviting way to introduce your brand, your services and your products to people. Most of us don’t like feeling like we’re being sold to. But we do like hearing stories, and businesses can use that as an opening. If you tell a great enough story, nobody will care that it’s an ad.

5. Stories Help Create Brand Identity

Storytelling can be deployed in multiple ways. A good ad, for instance, might tell the story of how a product or service can improve somebody’s life. But brands can think bigger picture and tell their own stories about themselves, too.

These stories aren’t complicated. For major brands we already know these stories without thinking much about them. Apple wants to streamline technology so it’s more intuitive. IBM wants to build a smarter planet. McDonald’s wants to make you smile with comfort food. As narratives go, these are hardly Homer’s Odyssey or James Joyce’s Ulysses, but the simplicity is precisely what makes them so impactful.

Brands’ stories have always mattered. But they especially matter in an era of purpose-driven marketing, given the mounting piles of data that show that consumers are as much as four to six times more likely to support businesses that they see as aligned with either their values or a greater good.

Is your business trying to cut down on plastic waste? Is it trying to serve an underrepresented population? Tell the story not only of how but why — what was it that drove your brand to become what it is today? Consumers have made it clear they want to know.

To direct prospects down the sales funnel, you have to bring them in first, and stories have consistently proven themselves one of the most effective ways to do just that. If storytelling isn’t your strength, look for a digital marketing agency that has the expertise to tell your story in the way that reflects your company’s brand. 

Keep in mind your values, and the tips listed here, when looking for someone to help you in your storytelling journey.

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Evan Rytlewski

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