Hot Take from James O’Brien: Marketers Aren’t Storytellers.

Hot Take from James O’Brien: Marketers Aren’t Storytellers.

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There are a lot of Big Questions floating around the content marketing world right now. On any given day, people are probably arguing about all of these topics on Twitter:

  • Is content marketing storytelling?
  • Are content strategy and content marketing related?
  • Who should content marketing teams report to?
  • Should marketers really compare themselves to journalists?

We’ve all got opinions, but I’ve heard few people express them as strongly as James O'Brien, senior director of content strategy and development at the mobile marketing platform Verve. In our interview we discussed the hot-button issues facing marketers today, and James’ opinions definitely got me thinking.

Marketing Is Not Storytelling

Most content marketers have writing backgrounds, and as writers we love the idea that our job is based around storytelling — telling the story of a product or an organization. But James says it’s a mistake to think about marketing as storytelling. “Let's fall out of love and break up forever with the concept that the job of a content marketer is fundamentally related to storytelling,” he says.

Yes, marketers are telling stories, but their primary function is to support their business and its goals. “Marketing is promoting and selling products and services,” he says. “In our industry, we’ve mistaken the form for the function.”

Here’s what he means: “The function of a story is to entertain. The function of content marketing is to bring someone closer or into the sales funnel or to establish the brand as an expert worthy of attention by interested parties. Two different goals, two different kinds of communication.”

And while marketers certainly use some of the forms and approaches of the storyteller, he thinks it’s important to clarify for everyone that marketers are not engaged in actual storytelling. Instead, marketers are creating business value.

“As a proponent of marketing, I'm saying that marketers ought to stop co-opting the word storytelling because it underplays the essential business value and commercial goals of content marketing and risks making it sound like something nice we might do to amuse our audience.

As a proponent of storytelling, I'm saying that marketers ought to stop co-opting the word storytelling because it doesn't serve them as well as the better and more accurate term, which is content marketing.”

While James may sound harsh, maybe he has a point. Marketers often get caught up in the romance of telling stories to promote those services and products. But the reality is that those services are where the content comes from, and there’s nothing wrong with that, he says. There’s no reason not to be practical about what our job truly is. “When we conflate [storytelling and marketing], it’s wrong,” James says. “It’s an act of wishful thinking.”

Two different goals, two different kinds of communication.

Marketing Isn’t Journalism Either

We’ve discussed before how journalism and content marketing are — for lack of a better word — cousins. And while James says he doesn’t think content marketing is journalism, he does admit that journalism backgrounds are helpful for content marketers, particularly for learning how to conduct interviews. Research skills come into play as well, especially when navigating the complex world of tech.

But ultimately, he says, the end product in content marketing is simply different from journalism. Journalists, he points out, have a responsibility to tell the bare bones of a story, the “obstacles and challenges” that those in the public eye are facing. And content marketers have a different responsibility: to provide solutions for their clients.

Snackable Content Is Just Empty Calories

One of the biggest issues marketers face, particularly in content marketing, is the issue of audience. Too often, James says, marketers get trapped in the idea that the best audience is the biggest one — and that means making sure your content is as simple and short as possible. Or, as we’ve all heard, “snackable.” James says snackability isn’t a sustainable content strategy. “Nobody should aspire to be the corn chip of marketing,” he says.

Instead, he says, marketers need to understand their audience and the information they’re looking for. Get more specific, not more general. “Dumbing down is not a shortcut to accessing an audience,” he says. “Anyone who says that you can dumb anything down and reach everybody is doing a disservice to clients.”

What do you think? Do you agree with James? Disagree? Are you a storytelling journo-marketer who creates the world’s best snackable content? Tell us.

Lee Price is co-founder of Managing Editor. After 7 years as a content marketing consultant at Rep Cap, she started a thought leadership consultancy to help visionary leaders dig up and develop their big ideas. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.

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