The beauty of content as a marketing tool is the way it allows brands to tell genuine stories and connect with their audiences on a human level. That said, sometimes the work of content marketing can feel a lot more like academic writing than storytelling. When marketers get caught up in the day-to-day of producing editorial calendars, writing blog posts, publishing case studies, producing premium content downloads—it can all feel a bit mechanical. Maybe that’s why when the Content Marketing Institute polled B2B marketers about their priorities for content, 41% said they wanted their writers to become better storytellers.
When I think of storytelling as an art form, my mind immediately goes to a campfire in the dark woods. I think back to my younger days at summer camp, sitting around a flaming stack of logs, crickets chirping in the distance, listening to someone telling an admittedly goofy ghost story. To me, there’s something anyone doing content marketing can learn from this childish, simple, and entirely effective way of telling stories.
Here’s how the “campfire approach” to content marketing can help your brand tell better stories.
I honestly can’t remember the plot of any campfire story I’ve ever heard. I don’t particularly think it’s an art form that depends on traditional things like strong character or plot development. Campfire stories are far more about mood. It’s about exploiting the atmosphere of being in a dark, mysterious forest. Nobody can see more than five or six feet away, and anything could be out there. By tapping into that sense of fear, the best campfire stories do most of their work not in the words of the storyteller, but in the minds of the listener.
Likewise, it’s important in content marketing to start not with your product or service or industry expertise, but with the mindset of your readers. If you build all of your stories—your blogs and case studies and more—around what you think, you’re effectively writing an academic report. That’s well and good, but it’s not going to engage your audiences the way a campfire story would.
What makes your customers tick? What do they want from you right now? What do they desperately need? What emotions are they experiencing—like some fear at a dark campsite—that you can empathize with, or echo, or amplify? You have to understand these things about your reader to really tell a good story, and that might take you beyond the demographics information you have in your audience personas. Those personas can be helpful, but when it comes to content marketing, they must include some of these characteristics that will help your writers make genuine connections with your readers.
Imagine sitting in your office, maybe around a conference table, in the context of a business meeting. Someone busts out a flashlight to shine under their face (even though the halogen lights are buzzing away up above) and they begin telling a corny ghost story. How awkward would that be? How inappropriate? There’s a reason we do business presentations in conference rooms, or scary stories around a campfire, or fishing stories at a bar. Context is critical for stories of all kind, and the same is as true for blog posts as it is for tall tales.
There’s a mistake that I’ve seen some brands make, where they want every single piece of content they produce to be 100% comprehensive to their brand, and also to their audiences. When you set out to publish a blog post, think about that audience concept we discussed above, not about what keyword you’re trying to target or product you’re trying to sell. What’s a specific person or type of person you want to reach with your marketing? What are the many contexts in which they might want to make a purchasing decision with your brand? At the top of your marketing funnel, you should be comfortable with blog posts speaking not to every member of your audience, or touching on every value proposition you offer. Speak clearly to one person, and write enough articles that you can reach them all.
Apply this logic to content at every step of your marketing funnels. Be comfortable linking specific blog posts to more general case studies, and premium content downloads that should be of relevance to an entire category of your readers.
I’m going to get a little weird with the metaphor here, but bear with me. When I worked at a Boy Scout camp during my summers in college, I learned a lot about how to build a good fire. There were some who were really all about the log cabin approach, which involves stacking logs in a square shape (like a log cabin…). Others swore by the traditional tipi triangle, which I always found easier to not only arrange, but also to catch larger pieces of wood. Similarly, I have found that if you’re going to focus on improving your storytelling in content marketing, you need something like the tipi triangle to give your efforts some structure (after all, there’s no campfire story without the campfire).
When it comes to producing effective content, our analogue to the tipi triangle is the rhetorical triangle, upon which writers have built compelling arguments for millennia. The rhetorical triangle is a paradigm for thinking about how you choose to engage with your audiences when you’re working to persuade them of something. And even when we talk about top-of-the-funnel content like blogs, where the job isn’t to sell but to resonate, there’s still a real element of persuasion happening.
Each time you sit down to write a piece of content, identify the following three sides of the rhetorical triangle and how you’ll incorporate them into your piece:
Use your answers to these questions as something of a conceptual guideline to follow for each piece you write. Make sure to touch on logos, pathos, and ethos in a balanced way, and you’ll find that your readers will engage you on a deeper level than they might if you instead focused only on conveying detailed information, or selling someone on your value propositions.
In my experience, the best way to bring out the campfire story in any brand’s content is to engage with trained creative writers. People with degrees in poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction tend to have a solid grasp on rhetoric, and also on what it takes to create or tap into an atmosphere in order to leave a lasting impression on the reader. Whether you engage with a third party for your content writing needs or manage content in-house, embrace your writers’ ability to think outside the box and tell the kinds of stories they themselves would like to hear. Give them the campfire to work with, and let them invite your audiences to gather around. You might be surprised at what can happen.