Why Your Ad Didn’t Work? A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling in Marketing

As I prepared this post about storytelling in marketing, my mind went back to 2015, when I started freelancing

I’d just completed my first diploma and was searching for a job that would pay me good fortune.

Young people dream a lot, and at a certain age, some of us want to start taking responsibility for ourselves.

That year, I was young, curious, and had a flair for reading and writing. I had sleepless nights about what I would do to make money. 

Good News

When I heard about freelance writing, I became even restless, like there was an energetic toddler in my brain. 

The concept of freelancing sounded a bit strange, but I love it. I was calculating in my head how much I could earn per day. It was 2015, and I could earn up to #5k ($10) per day writing around 3000 words.

Oh, mercies, goodnesses, me! That’s a lot of money, I thought. I could work with anyone around the world too. Sign me in, please

I read all the books I could lay my hands on, plus thousands of comments, and blog posts. But when it was time to apply the knowledge, I couldn’t start. 

You could say I was paralyzed with too much knowledge or wasn’t ready to explore my vulnerabilities. And you would be right. 

Instead, I got a job that was easier: a teaching job.

But how much do you think a small private school with a classroom of nine kids would pay me?

Let me give you a clue. My salary for a whole month can afford one or two live chickens on Christmas eve. 

Hatred and Despair

I wasn’t happy with how much I earned. It was my first experience of being overworked and underpaid.

One day, a stranger I met online told me about a writers’ group on WhatsApp. Neither do I know that would be the beginning of my freelance writing or that I would experience one of the worst scams of my life.

The rest of the story comes later in this article, but we have to discuss today’s topic. 

(If you really want to know what happened after a week of joining that community: how I ended up winning a prize and losing 60 000 Naira, you can scroll down now or click on The Rest of the Story from the table of content above.)

Let’s talk about storytelling.

What Is Storytelling 

Storytelling is the art of entertaining or communicating with an audience. It’s an art because it involves playing with mediums (words, sounds, voice, videos) to hold people’s attention so that they want to continue listening to or reading what you’re giving them. The email you receive about a product can be an example of storytelling, and so are the video ads on Youtube.

So What Is Storytelling in Everyday Life? 

Movies, books, shows, and the master of ceremony at the party can be a storyteller. 

Teachers are storytellers. The better they are at telling stories, the more interesting and impact they will have on their students. 

Stories can be in the form of pictures, images, podcasts, songs, videos, audio, etc. So many areas of life involve storytelling, from getting a new job to training your kids about how society works.  

Stories can be used to teach a company’s culture and more.

What Is Not Storytelling?

Everything that involves communicating with others is storytelling.

But if it isn’t done well, it doesn’t fit to be called a story. 

A poor thing isn’t a thing. A bad apple is a bad apple, not just an apple.

Writing 10,000 words about how you travel to your father’s village might not get many likes on Facebook because it isn’t a good story. It might be a write-up filled with words, but it doesn’t apply the concept of storytelling.  

It’s time to learn how to use storytelling in marketing and understand what makes a good story. 

In this post, you will see storytelling examples or brand storytelling examples to inspire new ideas for your next ad or campaign.

What you will not learn after reading this piece: 

You won’t become a marketing guru or a badass storyteller. Unfortunately, it takes more than reading an article to achieve that. 

It takes many decades of practice, except if you’re Zadie Smith or Helen Oyeyemi. But, after reading this post, you will: 

  • Become a better marketer who understands how to use storytelling in marketing. 
  • Know when you have ignored the concept 
  • Know what to improve or tweak in your marketing campaign to give it that storytelling appeal

Here’s a clue: Every time you click a link or headline, not because it is not what you are looking for but because you’re curious, an element of storytelling is at work. The storyteller —- who can be a content writer, a social media manager, a PR professional, or marketer — has used their tricks on you.

You can read my story on how I use deliberate practice to learn fiction writing.

Why People Tell Stories

Storytelling is guaranteed to make people listen and remember what they have been told.

People tell stories to educate, correct, entertain, sell, brag, or convince other people. 

It’s a tool that can appeal to something stronger in a person, whether empathy, belief system, or strong emotions.

Here is an example:

We have incorporated a formula that can give you fresh skin in one week.

Great! But does that appeal to your emotions? 

Here is another: 

Maya has been struggling with skin acne since she was thirteen. She had to wear hats to proms and parties because of her condition. You know that feeling of “let me wear a hoodie, maybe they will stop laughing at my ugly face.” 

Yeah, that’s what she felt all through high school. 

Sometimes, she locked herself up and cried, wondering if what people said was true. Things like, it would go away, just wait.

But she would never give up on finding a solution. Even if it took another 18 years of her life to find it, she believed she would do it. 

Now, she’s done it. Maya is the co-founder of Maya’s Lotion. 

Our product, XSmooth, has the formula to solve your acne problem in one week. And forever.

Which of the two pieces appeals to you? 

Which of them would appeal to a teenager who is battling stubborn acne problems? 

Many brands use the same strategy. They key into their customer’s pain and share stories people can relate with. They use stories to illustrate an abstract concept or break down an idea so that it’s memorable and appealing. 

Importance of Storytelling in Marketing? 

Fiction readers buy books for different reasons. The answer isn’t far from entertainment and exploration of thoughts and imagination. 

In marketing, storytelling is a different ball game. The creator or marketer needs people to take immediate actions like sharing a post, buying a product, or subscribing to a newsletter. 

These are the major reasons to use storytelling in marketing: 

  • To teach a concept. 
  • To connect with other people. If your story looks similar to someone’s life experience or touches someone’s heart, they are likely to become a friend, a partner, or a fan. 
  • Stories can move people to do things. 

Start a little good

The importance of empathy in your story 

According to research, empathy is one of the most important things in a good story. Dr. Zak carried out a study that showed that stories focused on emotions and characters increase the level of oxytocin in our brains. Therefore, the listener or reader tends to show empathy.

Empathy? What’s that? 

Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another in either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

It’s not easy to just expect empathy from people who read your sales pitch or watch your ad. You have to learn how to take them from here, a neutral state, to there, a state of feeling empathy. You have to care — in your story marketing.

How to Induce Empathy in Your Story 

I was a ghostwriter before I was an SEO writer, so I know some tips that can help in this case. It would be great if you read the books I recommended later in this article. If you haven’t read them, here are the little things that can create empathy in your readers: 

  • Ensure your character does good things in the world as soon as possible. Maybe they “save a cat,” “give to the poor” or “love their kids so much.” 
  • Use the information the readers can relate to, such as setting, routines, quirks, etc. 
  • Be specific. Use as many helpful details as possible. 
  • In a good story, no one changes unless they are forced to. Remember that. So when you are writing a story, before a person takes dramatic action, make sure something happens to force them. Example: Amanda doesn’t want to leave her room that night, but when she sees a ghost in her cupboard. 
  • Your first line or opening scene is the biggest sales pitch. You want to spend time refining it. 
  • Understand human psychology and learn how to use it. People are always rooting for things they want to see. For example, they want to see good things happen to good people.
  • Aim to surprise, but don’t overdo it. 

Remember, stories are about change. As a marketer, you want your audience to see the transformation. 

What Makes A Good Story 

The best thing about a good story is that they don’t feel like a story. Instead, they’re like an experience. 

Sol Stein, a famous editor, said in his book Stein On Writing that the real job of a fiction author is to give the readers an experience that they don’t usually get in everyday life. 

And trust me, that’s the job of every marketer, too. When ads, writeups, or videos pop up in your audience’s face, and they can tell from the onset it is an ad — or a boring ad — you have lost the battle. But you can win them back if you “give the experience that surpasses the one they encounter regularly.” 

I have heard people say, “I can’t get tired of that ad,” because it’s great. 

So what makes a good story? 

What the great storytellers say about writing a great story

Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses… People decide if they like someone after just a sniff. Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone.

Seth Godin, How to tell a great story

That quote mentions the most important features of a great story: 

  • Appeals to senses
  • It’s appealing at a glance, either in the first line or the opening scene. 
  • Aimed at one person

Those are great things to work towards in your story, and we will get to the process in the next section. But before that, let’s look at the other things that make a good story.

They are: 

  • Structured: a good story follows a structure created to have a particular effect on the audience. Where do you start, or where do you end? Answer: start where you think it will deliver the message or achieve your aim for the readers. 
  • Entertaining: again, a good story is an experience. It’s like walking to a park and seeing your favorite artist. You want to stop and see her perform. 
  • Memorable: many things can make a story memorable. Some of them are elements of surprise and, yes, empathy: the ability to see my story in your story. 

It is true that in fiction, in order to engage our attention and sympathy, the central character must want, and want intensely.

The thing that the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that counts. She may want, like The Suicide’s Wife in David Madden’s novel, no more than to get her driver’s license…

Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction, A Guide 

All great stories follow this pattern: someone wants something they can’t get (now), and something pushes them to search or go after it passionately until they get it or learn an important lesson. 

Think about any story, and we can divide it into this formula.  

Game of Thrones

Arya Stark wants to become a warrior like her father, but she is forced to leave home after her father’s execution. 

She has to hide her identity and later meets a stranger who teaches her dark magic. 

She goes back home. 

I bet you see the pattern, but let’s talk about storytelling in marketing. 

Stories follow the same pattern but in a very short timeframe. For example, at the beginning of a good ad or marketing copy, the main character still wants something (intensely). Simple. Then they take action and find the product that solves the problem. Finally, the problem is solved, and she lives happily ever after. 

In that regard, the other elements of a story are

  • Characters: people, (interesting people).
  • Exposition: the introduction to the story. The brief moment when we know what the story is all about, the first scene, the first line. 
  • Conflict: the problem, the thing your characters want to achieve 
  • Resolution: the point when the person finds a solution 

There are other elements, such as crisis, but it is better to leave those for Stephen King, JK Rowling, or anyone who has the dream to become like them. 

Examples of storytelling in marketing 

I need to remind you that almost all marketing pieces are stories. But those that fail to execute the story well enough would be considered a terrible experiment. 

This section contains great examples of storytelling in marketing you can learn from.  

#1. They laughed when I sat, but when I started to play 

Medium: Written 

John Caples used a powerful story technique by using the human desire to see the mocked or the humiliated coming up strong or humiliating their mockers. It works. Immediately you start reading, you will realize there’s a problem, a challenge, for the main character to overcome. And he did it in a grand style. 

#2. Nike: What Are Girls Made of

Medium: video

As a girl, have you ever dreamed of performing on the biggest stage? Being the world champion? An interview on the biggest show? 

Now watch this girl: 

Nike captured the idea of believing in oneself with its tagline, Just Do It. The goal is to be a champion, and they try to portray that in their ads.

#3. Radio 2: The sooner you advertise here, the better

Medium: Images and text

Phew! Thanks, Radio 2

#4. This tastes like shit! Blah!

Medium: Written 

The element of surprise is a thing in storytelling. When you use it well, it captures the reader’s attention till the end. 

#5. Some things can’t be covered. 

Medium: Image & text

This example of storytelling in marketing uses an image and two-line sentences to tell a powerful story. 

Look at the picture:

Notice the bruises on the lady’s left eye. 

The caption says some things can’t be covered, fighting abuse together. That’s the whole story right there. 

Want to see more examples? Head over to Swipedfile where you will see many illustrations curated by copywriters. You will come across many examples every day, too, from Google ads, social media, and Television.

If you are a business owner, I have an offer for you in my other post on how to use storytelling marketing. The offer is for the first 10 people, so you should check it out today.

Storytelling Marketing Books 

It is difficult to choose a list of books without choosing the same list, which might not help.

Here, I want to choose a list of books that are indeed helpful. You don’t have just to write stories. You need to understand them and the things that relate to them. 

The list here is just a suggestion that will shape your understanding of how stories work. Start with the knowledge of storytelling, then learn marketing. 

What books can help you?

#1. Writing Fiction: Janet Burroway

This book is a guide to writing fiction. It is like signing up for a three-month course in a small town where you and Janet discuss the anatomy of writing fiction. Read it, and you should understand fiction writing better than Mr Johny, who starts every story with “Once upon a time.”

#2. Save the Cat by Bell Sanders

If you’re into videos as a marketer, you want to pick a copy of this book. It will teach how to write movie scripts. It breaks down everything you need to know in scriptwriting and things you have to cover in the opening, the middle, and the end. Do you remember when I said storytelling is an art at the beginning of this article? This book will teach you the art of storytelling for screens, AKA scriptwriting.

#3. The Adweek Copywriting Handbook

This book is about copywriting. John Sugarman was a successful copywriter who wrote some of the best ads that brought millions in revenue. Selling with words is more about psychology, and he broke everything down in this book.

#4. This Is Marketing 

If you go online and search for the term “the best marketing experts,” Seth Godin’s name will surely come up on the list. (This post can wait. Go on and try it.) 

Why?

He’s good at what he does: marketing. His books, blog, shows, and talks are filled with wisdom about one niche. “This Is Marketing” will teach you how to go about marketing. And yes, he will literally teach you how to use storytelling in marketing. 

#5. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

This book is about self-improvement and how to live a fulfilling life. So why did I include it in our subject: storytelling marketing? I couldn’t think of any other book that uses storytelling from start to finish that is not solely focused on entertainment. The book teaches how to live a life of meaning, but it uses the story of one man, Julian, who happens to be “the monk who sold his Ferrari.”

Here’s a piece of advice: when reading the book, try to pay attention to the story. You’ll realize you can’t. You will be too engrossed in the lessons and core message. A good story works: it pretends not to be a story.  

#6. Bird by Bird

Writing or creating can be overwhelming. Anne Lamott writes about how to write consistently and edit and the importance of persistence and having a pattern. 

Storytelling in marketing: The Process 

Marketers must be good storytellers because it is hard to convince people to read or listen to you without being good at a story. This section explains how to create a story that makes readers desire your product.

Usually, as a marketing professional, you’re most likely working with data, scientific facts, and figures. As a result, creating stories with what you have could be harder. 

So how do you start? 

#1.Understand your audience 

Rule 1: your story isn’t for everyone. I didn’t make that up. Seth Godin says Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. So who are you writing for? If you have to take the story to someone you know, who is the person? You have to know what they do and what struggle they’re facing. 

Find out as much information as you can. Not because you need to know a lot, but because you’ll create a story from a place of genuine understanding of your buyers. 

If you’re into SEO, doing keyword research can help you understand your audience.

#2. Understand your audience’s problem and the specific solution

You need to start with an angle; the best one is to start with your reader’s or listener’s problem. 

The first step is to understand your audience. The next step is understanding what problems your product or marketing is trying to solve. 

I love this ad. It is about “reconnecting with loved ones.” That’s the problem it is trying to solve. 

If you are a reader of this blog, you’ll know I love watching TedTalks. These are my favorite talks. I am adding the problem each piece is trying to solve.  

These are great stories, and they aren’t meant just to entertain. Even though the pieces achieve that in the long run, they’re meant to solve problems by educating the listeners. 

#3. Define the purpose of your piece 

The common intention of writing pieces are

  • Inform 
  • Persuade 
  • Inspire 
  • Entertain 

The intention of a marketing strategy is rarely to entertain. Entertainment is usually a secondary thing. Although you can’t ignore it completely, you can’t be too focused on it either. 

So in this stage, define the purpose of your marketing story by summarizing your story in one sentence. Not two or three. One. 

Be as specific as possible. 

#4. Create a call to action 

What do you want people to do? Imagine you have a magical power (and if you’re a marketer, you will wish you do). What do you wish people would do after they read your copy? Write a sentence you will write to convince. Don’t worry about perfection at this stage. Just write. 

#5. Pick a medium of story. 

Written: are you writing a blog post, a short fiction story, or a book? 

Audio: This includes podcasts, audio, or spoken words. 

Videos: video ads, Instagram videos, or short film

Images 

What medium do you think will perform the magic and deliver the results you want? You’re a professional marketer. Do your research if you have to, and pick a medium that you think will bring success. 

#6. Create your story

It doesn’t matter how you go about this. You might record your voice or write on paper or even create pictures. Start crafting something.

Then later, convert it into the format you’ll be sending out. For example, I can write a short story on a piece of paper and later change it to an image because it’s meant for Instagram. 

Leave your story 

I will quote Margaret Artwood here: 

You can do two things when you’re writing a not working story. Sleep or go for a walk. 

That’s exactly what you’re going to do. Give yourself time to see your story with fresh eyes. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t edit until the next day (Minimum). If you work in a big corporation, this is the stage where you share the story with your superiors before it goes live.

#7. Make it go live

Share it

Go ahead and give your audience what you’ve created. There are many channels for sharing your stories. It is up to you to choose the channel for sharing your story. I will likely work with SEO because that’s what I’m into.

The channels for sharing your stories include: 

  • SEO
  • Ads
  • Social media 
  • Blogs
  • Publications 

Be Amazed

Storytelling in marketing isn’t a new thing. You can hardly separate a great story from a good marketing piece. So, to be a good marketer is about being a good storyteller. 

The article is a good start for people who want to improve their content to get better reception. Go ahead. Create stories, and be amazed at the reaction. You’ll get it. 

Other storytelling resources: 

The Rest of My Story: How I won a Prize and Lost 60,000 Naira

After joining the WhatsApp group, I began to see writing opportunities. First, I won a little prize for submitting a short story. Next, I applied to some of the ads I saw, wrote some articles for people, and got paid. In a week, I was earning close to my salary as a teacher, and it was fun.

But I wanted more. 

So I met a guy who wanted to hire me to write a book of 60,000 words. I’d never done something that long but jumped on what seemed like a big opportunity, trusting the guy to pay once the job was done. My mistake.

I wrote it without getting a dime. The client rejected the job, and I lost hours and hours of sleep because of that.

As a beginner, you are prone to make mistakes. Will I ever write that type of project without upfront payment? Never! Will I pick a project from everyone that says they need my services? Never!

I learned — the hard way.

Here’s Something You Need To Know

Did you scroll down to read this piece before reading the entire article? It means you have just succumbed to one of the tricks in the game. This is what Joe Sugarman called “seeds of curiosity.” It is used early in a marketing copy to keep the readers glued to the end. 

Sorry about that, but… cheers!

By the way, I used to ghostwrite stories. I help businesses generate content that converts visitors to buyers or write SEO articles that bring more traffic. You can reach out to me using the contact form.

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