The Ancient Art of Storytelling—in Modern B2B Marketing

October 18, 2017 Nicole Bump

Storytelling in B2B marketing content

Stories are the thread that holds the fabric of society together. Storytelling lets people see things they haven’t actually seen. Our primitive ancestors told tales of their discoveries, fears and heroism. Storytelling was our early survival masterstroke.

To prevent information overload, people ignore stories that don’t interest them. They did this around tribal campfires – and they do it today. The techniques for overcoming avoidance remain unchanged: empathy, personalization and memorability.

  •       Empathy – could this story be about me?
  •       Personalization – has this happened to a real person?
  •       Memorability – is there something remarkable about this story?

Successful business-to-consumer (B2C) marketers regularly use these techniques. But business-to-business (B2B) marketers often default to information-loaded communications. Take a leaf out of the B2C handbook and use these storytelling techniques to improve your B2B marketing.

Empathy

A story is powerful when you can empathize with the proposition. You can imagine it’s about you – even if it isn’t. What does this mean in B2B terms?

General Electric wanted to demonstrate how their technology and engineering solves extraordinary problems. To attract broad interest, they built stories around defying popular wisdom. This captured the imaginations of people who might never consider engineering. They called their video stories Unimpossible Missions.

The power of empathy is to tell stories that people willingly place themselves in. When Boeing wanted to draw attention to its 787-8 model, it didn’t harp on about its range in nautical miles. It used a test flight to draw an outline of the plane over the United States. There’s no broad interest in passenger jet ranges. But we can all empathize with the joy of producing a doodle as big as America.

Boeing's plane outline

Empathy isn’t just telling a story that interests people. It’s telling a story of interest that they can easily imagine themselves being part of. To do this, you need to ask, ‘What interests my target audience?’ not ‘What do I want to tell them?’

Personalization

One of the surest ways to get people to empathize with stories is to make them about real people. Although that sounds obvious, it’s often overlooked. B2B companies default to telling stories about their products or services. They often boast about how their technology is superior to others because it’s v5.4 instead of v5.3.

Stories let us see things through the eyes of other people. That’s why Salesforce tells customer success stories; FreshBooks makes videos about the difference it makes to people like Sarah; and crop nutrition experts Mosaic created podcast adventures featuring characters like soybean farmer Gerald Fitzgerald.

Mosaic's Gerald Fitzgerald character, complete with biography.

Customers want to know how you improve things for people. And ultimately, that means for them. At some points in the buyer’s journey, a customer might compare various statistics. But they’re not a big draw.

Michelle Cachucho, Client Success Director at Qubit, notes: “People not only connect to good stories – they remember and retell them. If you make your customers the heroes of the stories you tell them, your products will sell themselves.”`

Memorability

Can you name the brothers who mastered powered flight? The Wright Brothers – Orville and Wilbur. The Wright Brothers started off with a bicycle shop selling ‘safety bicycles’ – the safer alternative to the penny-farthing.

Now, can you name the engineer who patented a safety bicycle in 1884? I doubt it. Because a new type of bicycle (although very important at the time) is far less memorable than taking to the skies for the first time in human history.

Memorability is a tough nut to crack. It takes imagination, investment and often bravery. As the Wright Brothers proved, doing something different takes guts. Volvo took a brave route to B2B marketing with their Live Test Series of viral videos. The first of these featured tightrope walker Faith Dickey walking across a rope tied between two speeding trucks. The most successful had Jean-Claude Van Damme performing the splits between the wing mirrors of two reversing Volvo trucks. It showcased the precision of Volvo Dynamic Steering – and has clocked up over 86 million YouTube views.

You don’t need to hire Hollywood stars to make something memorable. In the B2C world, Doritos invited consumers to ‘Crash the SuperBowl’ with homemade commercials. It was inexpensive, brave, memorable and fantastically successful.

Maximizing the power of storytelling

We asked B2B industry leaders if they thought their sector needed to maximize the power of storytelling. 100% of respondents said it should. B2B content editor James Aufenast built a website for bartenders on behalf of a global drinks brand. “For B2B marketing, you have to provide a story with a grand finale based on insight, or that threads insight throughout,” he explains. “It’s why we told the story of a bartender in Sweden who goes out into the wild to forage for ingredients, and comes back with a cocktail.”

James Aufenast’s example covers empathy, personalization and memorability.

  • Empathy – any bartender can place themselves in this story of the hunt for outstanding ingredients.
  • Personalization – it’s the story of a real person.
  • Memorability – this isn’t just any cocktail bartender mixing a few ingredients. The story is memorable because it’s unique.

Our brains are hardwired to respond to these techniques. Using them in your storytelling will help you build stronger connections with your B2B target market. Telling great stories makes it far more likely you’ll be listened to. And that’s what you need… if you want to get your message across.

About the Author

Nicole Bump

Nicole Bump, Senior Content Manager, is responsible for developing the Harte Hanks content strategy, bringing this strategy to life through the editorial board, generating much of the company's content and managing the Harte Hanks social presence. A writer at heart, Nicole also enjoys evaluating ways in which new technologies can enable better content production, distribution and measurement.

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