Friday, 16 September 2016

What is "narrative" anyway?

Your're probably sick of the terminology already; the buzzwords of marketing; the new age of engagement.

Engagement. Isn't that an annoying word? There was a time when engagement really had two principal meanings. One was a meeting or event you were to attend, the other was a state of pre-marital bliss.

Now it means something far more nebulous. Something like attention. Yes that's it, we call it engagement but what we really mean is to hold someone's attention long enough so as to convince them to do something about it. Like buy your product/service or connect with people.

Connect. Almost worse than engagement. Another infuriating word that really means to meet, or to correspond, or to make friends. Why do we have to be so general in this day and age of information, when words on screen are so cheap anyway?

Why not be specific? "I met with Brian on Thursday, I think we're going to do business together, hell, we might even become friends!" There. That's better. Now I understand what you're saying!

Which all leads me to the big one doing the rounds these days: Narrative. And its cousin, Storytelling.

I bet you think to yourself, when you see these words in a marketing context, "I AM RUNNING A BUSINESS HERE, FOLKS, NOT TELLING FAIRY TALES!" I know I do, and I write stories for a living!

Yes, I am guilty. I use these words; more than I should. I think it's better to think of everyone's lives as an anthology of short stories. We're doing one thing for a bunch of reasons; and then we're doing something else, for different or perhaps related reasons. The key is that a person is involved, you, and so you're running through this series of little stories that sum to your life. Scary but true: you could tell a story about nearly every aspect of your life. Some of you have some pretty thrilling stories I'm sure!

When we place this into the business context, what us narrative-weaving, storytelling, keyboard-tapping marketers are saying is that you need to focus on the who and why and how of your product/service, rather than just the what and where (which are really just a description of your thing, whatever it is. They might be features, but by themselves they are not benefits, which is to say, they do not, in and of themselves, deliver value. For that, you need to demonstrate how you're making a difference to someone and why they need it).

Some products benefit strongly from the who. For instance, a biography is all about the who and its exact job is to tell that story. Many services depend on the who: you want to know who's providing the service, whether you can trust them, etc. Sometimes, the who is all you need to sell.

The why and the how, however, are the big game. In almost all cases, the reason something sells is because someone has a problem to solve or task to complete, but they don't have the tools or resources. Then you come along with the solution.

  • Need to share a picture of your cute kitten, right now for all the world to see? How are you going to do that? Instagram of course!
  • Looking for a place to stay that's more homely than a hotel? Airbnb will show you how. 
  • Need to settle an argument? Google it. (OK, I say that with caution, but you get me.)

What do all these have in common? They're little stories.
I was trying to get home from the bar [why I was looking for transport], but there were no taxis around [don't know how I'll get home], so I used the Uber app on my smartphone and within minutes, a nice man in a nice car was driving me home. It was a great experience!
Tell that story, and people will start using Uber. Millions already do and you know this story because it could be your own. That story is told the world over, and is a driving force behind their expansion (along with a related story about better service than taxis, which is really just a taxi-avoidance version of the story above). Uber even caters for the business executive who wants to look like he's stepped out of a private limo - Uber Black. There's another story...

So that's why we do it, because it is memorable. If a product or service is to really sell, it needs to fit into people's lives. It must fill that gap. The story of why and how gives a person a compelling reason to buy.

The brands that are best at this invite their customers to tell their own stories about their use of the product. This kind of customer participation in the story of a brand is incredibly powerful in building a business. And it's pretty straightforward in a world of social media.

Tell your story well, and people will sell your product to themselves.

Salespeople have been doing this for centuries. You've no doubt heard of the "create a problem then solve it" technique for selling (and advertising). Well, that's a story based technique. And it works, like crazy. Nothing better than hearing from a customer, "yeah, I can really see why I need this!"

That's what you're trying to achieve when you tell your brand/product/service's story. You're just making it fit into people's lives. Giving them a reason to engage buy.

By the way, to return to the original question, narrative is just an account of connected events. That's what the word means. It's how you tell a story. You narrate a story. You're a storyteller! Get telling! Or, if storytelling IS that gap in your life, get in touch with us and we can help!

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