Show, Don’t Tell. The Art of a Great Story.
So many times I’ve been asked to spell out the difference between advertising, and content marketing. And I admit, sometimes the lines get blurry, even for me, and I live and breathe this stuff.

But as content marketing (and digital marketing in general) continues to grow at breakneck speed, that question seems to have become more and more relevant.

When is it great content, and when is it just an ad? Even if you’re able to tell the difference between the two, when should you employ one and not the other?

Many people try to separate the definitions by looking at them through the lens of traditional, vs more contemporary advertising techniques. Making the assumption that content marketing has only been a fairly recent phenomenon.

But content marketing has been around since the dawn of the Soap Opera (literally) when television was still in black and white. So it’s hard to argue that point too emphatically.

The distinction becomes a lot clearer when you view both content and advertising through the lens of “storytelling”.

We can define “storytelling” as simply …the construct of a narrative. Expanding on this definition for content marketing or “brand storytelling”, could simply reference the art of building a narrative that chronicles the values and culture of a particular brand or company. 

The exact definition of “Narrative” is… 

(pronounced: narətɪv)

  •  spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
    • “a gripping narrative”
  • synonyms:   account, story, tale, chronicle, history, description, record, portrayal, sketch, portrait, statement, report, rehearsal, recital, rendering
    • “a chronological narrative of Stark’s life”

Many ads simply do NOT attempt to construct a narrative, and that’s perfectly fine. Most ads don’t need to, especially if the goal is to communicate price or deliver some other promotion. Don’t get me wrong, ads are still critically important, and of course there are always exceptions in any discussion, but generally speaking, most ads don’t attempt to construct a narrative, and out of the small number that do, most don’t actually pull it off.

You see a narrative is designed to grab us, to take us in, transport us, and allow us to live vicariously and visually through another’s experience. And when a narrative can be followed by many people in a group (or audience segment), then these stories can provide a sense of shared experience. 

We all know that feeling you get when you discover someone else has heard the same story as you, and had the same reaction to it. Those feelings reinforce your emotional attachment to the story and provides a sense of social proof that your emotions are spot on, someone else feels the same way you do after having had a similar experience. 

This concept of “shared experience” dramatically accelerates the interpersonal connection you have with others in that group.

That’s why learning to tell stories that capture, direct and sustain the attention of others has become a key marketing skill.

In order to construct a narrative, you must first understand the elements that make a story complete. A narrative includes characters, plot, conflict, setting, point of view, and atmosphere, which will work together to share the writer’s intended message.

Narrative structure is about story and plot: meaning, the content of a story and the form (or method) that is used to actually tell the story. 

  • Story refers to the dramatic action as it might be described in chronological order. 
  • Plot refers to how the story is told. 
  • Story is about trying to determine the key conflicts, main characters, setting and events. 
  • Plot is about how, and at what stages, those key conflicts are set up and resolved.

Most commonly used structure what they call a “Linear” narrative. Where events are largely portrayed in chronological order, that is, telling the events in the order in which they occurred, one after the other.

Using a “Non Linear” narrative technique, is also relatively common, as it can help build suspense and intrigue and challenge the audience to pay attention. Non Linear narratives are far less predictable. 

In regard to your content marketing strategy, and in light of the very nature of today’s fast growing social channels, choosing to use a non linear narrative can really help you tell incremental elements of your brand story through multiple media channels.

Of course the level of growth that we’ve seen in many new media channels represents an opportunity for smart marketers just on its own, but if you don’t consider the way in which you choose to tell your story, you can come off second best. 

After all social media marketing is not without risk, and it does require you to deliver consistent and high quality content in order to drive profitable customer action. 

It’s not only different to consider how brands need to operate in these new media environments, but the way in which those brands can choose to operate can also be very different.

Yes, of course you can still advertise in social channels and I’m as I mentioned previously, ads are still critically important, and even direct response advertising works quite well in these environments. 

But if you’re trying to sell something complex, or of higher value, then a single 6 second video isn’t going to do it on its own. At some point you’re going to need to tell a story by distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content. 

Instead brands in those categories need to build relationships, and demonstrate to their users that they have an understanding of their needs (and wants) as people

As a result, you see the global trend of marketers changing their metrics from ‘impressions’ to ‘engagement’ and disruptive advertising mediums like Display are starting coming under real pressure as a result. 

If advertising “tells”, …then content “shows”. 

There was a brilliant presentation a few weeks ago at the Content Marketing Asia summit which was held at The Westin in Sydney’s CBD from Zara Curtis, who is Director of Content for I.A.G. (a very large corporation in the insurance sector of the Australian market).

Zara’s entire presentation was exactly this point, and she used a case study with NRMA to illustrate it. Without trying to paraphrase her entire segment, NRMA’s brand was positioned around “Help”. And if their advertising told the audience that they are here to help, then it was up to the Content team to show that same audience how they actually have helped or can help.

It’s the use of a narrative that allows a brand to demonstrate its qualities in this way, and it is the narrative construct that lies at the heart of any good story.

No matter what story you’re trying to tell, (or what brand attributes your trying to show), all good stories have a few ingredients in common, which we touched on earlier. Further to that construct though is the flavour. Great stories are believable (even if they’re fictitious), at some point the audience believes. There’s an authenticity to the way those stories are told. 

For any piece of content to resonate with a particular audience, it must feel authentic.

Sounds simple enough, right? If you’re a professional documentary filmmaker it might be. But if you’re a marketing team who’s whole existence is to support a corporate objective, then creating a piece of content that is dripping with authenticity and also sells your products might be a little harder to pull off.

Creating a piece of content that has that right mix isn’t easy. On one hand you strive to portray your brand values and culture, and on the other you attempt to make a direct impact on your target audience by appealing to their interests.

It takes experience and skill to pull that off, but for those who can get it right, they will see first hand how effective this type of marketing can be. Yet nothing in this world is 100% perfect, and certainly there is no single approach to anything in business that is 100% risk free.

So where is the weak link in brand storytelling? 

The weak link in choosing the narrative approach comes when you consider today’s “Attention Economy”.

“Attention” is a finite resource. We only ever have so much of it to go around. And while audiences have never been so easy to reach than they are today, conversely their attention has never been as difficult to sustain.

In order to deliver on your brand’s needs, and to show your audience what you’re all about, then it’s a good chance you’ll need to tell stories that go for longer than a few seconds.

But if you don’t have the ability to construct a powerful narrative, then you’ll be limited to only telling stories that fit within the ephemeral 6 second video clip.

Engagement is highly valuable but it’s hard to get, which is why you need to work hard on your ability to deliver a narrative that captivates your audience.

Storytelling really is the only weapon that can fight against the constant distraction of the internet, (yes ‘notifications’, I’m looking at you).

Being able to deliver a powerful narrative that is authentic, and resonates with the interests of your target audience is an extremely important skill for any marketer today.  

If stories can show how your brand relates to your audience, then it is the strength of that same story that will dictate to what extent your audience actually receives that message.

“Those who tell the stories rule the world”, is a well known Hopi Native American Proverb (Apocryphal), which really just means the more compelling the story, the deeper the impression.  

Strong stories deliver powerful connections, and sway the opinions of those who digest them. 

To be a strong storyteller, as a brand, is to wield the power of persuasion. But at no point in time was there ever a rule that said you have to tell the whole story in one single channel, and in one continuous stream.

Master the art of delivering a non linear narrative, that can tell incremental elements of your brand story, through multiple media channels, and you’ll have an extremely powerful and future proofed marketing strategy that will deliver real bottom line results right across your business.

By choosing this approach you align yourself with global trends and the realities of today’s “Attention Economy”. 

Don’t just engage users in a sporadic, one off fashion. Instead, build relationships, be prepared to challenge them (even if it’s just a little) that way you’ll be able to captivate them, and take them on a journey with you.