By Steve Olenski August 28, 2018

A self-proclaimed massive coffee-imbiber, Steve has been writing for Forbes via his own column for 10 years. His diverse background—ranging from creative director and copywriter on the agency side to director of marketing and other roles on the marketing side affords him a very unique perspective on the world of marketing today. No one is more attuned to the state of marketing than Steve. On top of all this he is one of the most prolific content marketers and writers today.

The art of storytelling goes back to the dawn of time. It’s a device that has framed cultures and shaped societies. Stories provide context and meaning for life, work, relationships, and societal norms. That’s because stories tend to have characters or plots that readers can relate to and see themselves in. Or they identify desired traits and shared goals.

And since brands are trying to make connections with their target audiences, it makes sense that they turn to storytelling. Yet, the use of storytelling is not necessarily a new tactic in marketing. In fact, I wrote about the benefits of brand storytelling in 2015. Now, three years after that research, storytelling has become more relevant thanks to audiences’ desire for authenticity, meaning, and emotion from brands.

Eric Danetz, Global Chief Revenue Officer, AccuWeather, understands why storytelling has become such a vital tool for brands:

“High-quality, authentic storytelling is critical in today’s fragmented media environment. With noise and competition for consumer attention and brands targeting for greater personalization and impact, storytelling becomes key to establishing an emotional connection with your audience. In terms people and businesses can relate to, storytelling illustrates how a brand will meet customers’ needs and in turn, builds loyalty.”

However, brands are still struggling with the art of storytelling. Here’s why and how they might get better at it in 2018 when it counts more than ever.

How to Be Real

While the proof is in the pudding that storytelling works well for brands, so few actually get it. According to Taj Forer, Co-founder & CEO of fabl, the reason is a lack of authenticity. Understandable, considering brands have been so ingrained in marketing language, sales pitches, and benefit bullet points that they don’t know how to step back and just be real.

Jeffrey Singman, VP Product, Kandy Business Solutions, believes that brands still struggle at the art of storytelling with the science that has become so integral to today’s marketing strategy. “Digital storytelling is an art and science when products and services are positioned through meaningful, contextual and even inspiring stories. Brands are still adjusting to wave after wave of change in mar-tech and ad-tech. This includes programmatic approaches that promise them they will reach the right consumers, at the right time, without violating their privacy.”

Errors Abound

In a lack of understanding what storytelling is about, the mistakes go well beyond the issue of authenticity. Priorities for storytelling should include quality, visuals, and narrative. However, these are often neglected. Other storytelling errors include not optimizing for the mobile experience where the majority of the audience likes to encounter these stories.

Even worse is the fact that many brands don’t realize that true success with audiences comes from prioritizing premium, branded storytelling as central to the entire marketing operation. When that does happen, however, a brand understands the importance of investing in the teams and technologies required to build and scale branded storytelling. Yet, many brands do not see why storytelling is a focal point of their entire marketing approach, so they are not making these critical investments.

Singman adds three critical errors with today’s approach to storytelling. First, brands are pushing their products and services. They believe that a story about their products’ and services’ “features and benefits” is enough for storytelling. However, it’s not. Second, they are often faking it by telling stories about how much the brand cares about poverty, human rights, a clean environment or other issues without actually making a real difference. Third, brands are using too many words and not enough images. He explains, “Today’s generation learns through images, music, multimedia. They don’t read long pieces. Great stories are curated and beautifully rendered and then shareable.”

Best Practices for Storytelling

For those brands that want to do storytelling right, Forer has some basic best practices that can be implemented. First, understand the four pillars of any story. These are characters, place/setting, conflict/tension, and resolution. Second, invest the time and resources into creating a content strategy and a brand narrative. From there, everything produced by the brand storytellers has cohesion, focus, and a roadmap.

Forer also notes, “Begin thinking like a publisher, not a marketer. Publishers build deep, trust-based relationships with the audience. Study their practices and methodologies and invest in the technologies and team members like the most successful publishers/media companies.” That requires letting go of the traditional marketing approach, including not focusing on ROI.  Instead, Forer adds, “Focus on telling amazing stories and creating premium experiences of this storytelling content. Engagement will follow.”

Danetz says that AccuWeather has honed its storytelling practices by referencing thousands of dramatic life-saving examples pulled from the headlines. “We have many stories about how we have successfully applied AccuWeather’s vast historical weather database to draw correlations with companies’ historical data sets to make predictions that will optimize their business operations. Weather impacts everything we do and every decision we make in our personal and business lives. Yet, it is the one thing we still cannot control. That in itself is hugely compelling.”

The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling

Using his own experience with incorporating storytelling into the AccuWeather brand, Danetz has some recommendations on what to do and what to avoid when incorporating this marketing tactic. He shares:

“You must defend your value and brand excellence every single day, and that starts with trust. At AccuWeather, we established our reputation as the most trusted weather source by providing the most accurate weather forecasts and warnings people and businesses rely on to remain safe, out of harm’s way, and to plan their lives. Our products, services, and brand have no value if we don’t show how weather information will impact individuals in a clear and compelling way.”

From these experiences, Danetz recommends that brands extend their reach. Establish mutually beneficial partnerships. Also, listen to clients’ needs. Then, offer products or services that no one else can match. The one very large “don’t” is to never take the audience for granted. As Danetz explains, “They are our biggest evangelists and most valuable asset.”

Migrating From “Getting It” to “Getting It Done”

Award-winning media and marketing leader David Beebe wholeheartedly believes that CMOs and brand leaders do get storytelling. What they need to do now is start acting on it. He says the challenge is that many brands are still operating in a silo and strategies are designed within a media and marketing system that hasn’t changed in over 50 years, adding that this is the most exciting time to work in media and marketing. “And, brands now have the opportunity to transform marketing from a cost center to a revenue center. That’s the power of premium content.”

Beebe says it’s all about the consumer. No one cares about content and creative that is just about the brand, features, and benefits. Audiences already contend with a majority of content from friends, family, work, and others that is solely about them.

That’s why they don’t want that same thing from brands. If a brand wants to join the scrolling stream world, the content must be thumb-stopping worthy. You do that by understanding your consumers’ needs first. Determine what will get their attention and why would they engage with it. Finally, figure out how it draws them back into your brand’s overall content ecosystem.”

The best description of how to look at storytelling was Beebe’s explanation about marketing success and failure. “Marketing is like a first date. If all you do is talk about yourself, there won’t be a second.”

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

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