You know that old adage, “It’s business, not personal”? In today’s world that just doesn’t hold up for most companies. We all crave authentic human connections, and that doesn’t change during work hours.
“I think that it’s the complete opposite nowadays: it’s not business, it’s personal,” says Laura Holloway, founder of The Storyteller Agency, a digital marketing firm. “It has to be personal in everything we do to really relate to people — not only to let them be part of your story as a brand, but to let them see how your product or service can positively affect their own stories.”
Research shows that people often make purchases based on how they feel about a brand, and that how companies connect with their customers on an emotional level can be even more important than the quality of service they provide. Connecting with people emotionally is a fundamentally human operation.
“Relationship, credibility, culture and validation — it’s really all about people,” says Parna Sarkar-Basu, an innovation marketing strategist. “Therefore, emotion and trust play a big role, from our purchasing decisions — cars and watches to software and wearable devices — to companies we decide to join or partner with.”
Whether you’re a B2B firm or a company that sells directly to consumers, Sarkar-Basu says it’s imperative that brands make their products or services personalized and relevant to customers. You have to humanize your brand, and that process begins with quality content centered around people — no matter what medium or distribution method you choose.
Here are some of the ways creative professionals are helping brands take a more human approach toward their marketing content.
Focus on People
Sarkar-Basu says the first step for any brand looking to humanize its content is to make a concerted effort to focus more on people, including your own employees. If you’re not sure where to start, she suggests focusing on a founder’s story, particularly if it’s a technology startup, because those stories are often “captivating and motivating.” She also suggests spotlighting employees, such as engineers and product team members, with a nod to the customer problems or pain points they are helping people overcome.
BJ Barretta heads original and branded video efforts for Good Media Group, the parent company for the viral video site Upworthy, which has distinguished itself as a leader in digital storytelling. He says the company is hyper-focused on the human elements of narratives because those have proved over and over again to resonate with audiences and to drive engagement.
“Stories stick; facts fade,” Barretta says. “A lot of people just want to give numbers. They want to give stats or information. People don't care about that, they don’t retain that. But if you tell me a story that has somebody that solved a problem that affected them and the stakes were important enough to them to overcome the obstacles, I’m going to care about that. And because I’m invested in that I’m going to engage.”
Barretta, who has had a key role in more than 1.5 billion social video views, says developing compelling content is a combination of sourcing good narratives, then crafting and presenting those stories in a way that cuts through the crowded media landscape and resonates with people.
“You more or less have three seconds to grab someone’s attention, to get them to stop scrolling, pay attention to your story, stick with it and ultimately engage with it,” he says. “That’s why storytelling is so important, and why how you tell it is so important.”
Embrace the Power of Storytelling
Sarkar-Basu, who is a vocal advocate for humanizing marketing content, says storytelling is now a must-do for every brand. “It’s no longer a luxury,” she says. “Content must be interesting, personalized and consistent to connect with the digital users, and delivered via an omni-channel strategy — whether it’s videos, blogs or bylines.”
Barretta says brands need to embrace the fact that storytelling is a fundamental part of humanity and lean into the power of well-crafted narratives to help organizations stand out in the modern media landscape. He says compelling stories that stick almost always have four elements: a protagonist, something they want, obstacles to what they want and stakes for overcoming those obstacles. That narrative arc is key to emotive storytelling, he says.
“This is where most video creators, whether it’s brands or content creators, fall short. They create a flat profile. They just tell you the information of the great person or organization doing this great thing. But I’m not invested in that person because there are no stakes. This is where the emotion comes in, because if that person cares about the organization or the problems they’re trying to solve or whatever it’s trying to fix, I can emotionally relate to that.”
To suss out those types of compelling narratives, Holloway and her colleagues at The Storyteller Agency perform a storytelling consultation with new clients that examines the backstory of the company, why it was started and the people who continue to make it work. The process includes a questionnaire designed to pull out key details that could be elements in a narrative.
“It’s really looking at the more personal side of their brand,” she says. “It’s a list of 30 questions, and they all have to do with helping them see the story they may not have otherwise known was there. People don’t realize how important it is for their clients to see the people behind the brand, to see the human side of a business.”
Explain How You Can Help
Sarkar-Basu says content marketing generally has more of a human impact when brands limit technical language and focus instead on user pain points and how their product or service is helping real people overcome those obstacles.
“Often brands will use industry jargon and focus on ‘speeds and feeds’ of a product versus telling a story that will celebrate the product’s impact on lives, society or planet,” Sarkar-Basu says. She encourages brands to spotlight customers by sharing stories about their passions, expertise and thoughts on industry trends. “It doesn’t always have to be a case study,” she says.
Barretta helped establish Good Media’s video studio that crafts compelling stories for national and international brands. He says the best-performing partner content is exactly like viral editorial content in that it aims to tell stories with emotion and empathy. They also start by identifying a problem and illustrating how the brand is helping people solve it.
“The best videos are the ones where the brand is offering an uplifting solution, and we tell that story preferably through one person as opposed to a group,” he says. “It’s hard for people to identify with a group if they’re not part of that group. But anyone can identify with a person.”
He says emotive storytelling is especially popular on Facebook because it is an inherently emotional platform where people are encouraged to express their feelings. “I think brands are beginning to understand that more and more,” he says.
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