There is a system for successful storytelling. Actually, there are many systems.
Sometimes we call them platforms. Sometimes we call them structures. Sometimes we call them strategies. But they’re all essentially the same. They’re the framework we deliberately select to support what we hope will be a successful story. Whether the metric of success is shares, comments, views, clicks, albums sold, box office receipts, or artistic immortality, the systems are there. While content marketing, social marketing, and native advertising are new media of sorts, in their most fundamental ways, they are no different than the stories we’ve been telling each other since the dawn of humankind.
It’s not surprising. According to a massive body of psychological research, a powerful phenomenon called the "mere exposure effect" compels people to develop a preference for specific content simply because they are familiar with it. In social psychology, it’s called the "familiarity principle." We are all drawn innately toward that which we recognize. It makes sense that we would prefer stories that are architecturally similar to other stories we’ve heard in the past.
Perhaps because much of social marketing and content marketing demands brevity (140 characters, anyone?) or perhaps because it needs to be sharp enough to cut through the online clutter, my agency has found a great deal of success translating these time-tested, innately recognized story systems into engaging content.
Smart content creators have, too. While a comprehensive list of the various narrative systems is impossible here, what follows are three core storytelling strategies around which anyone can begin to build a solid content library.
1. Slaying the Dragon
An intrinsically human narrative, the Slaying the Dragon strategy is the platform for many of humankind’s most celebrated stories. From Beowulf to Jaws, the American Revolution to the Arab Spring, this is the story of the hero (for most marketing content, this is the product or brand) who ventures bravely forth to selflessly slay the dragon in order to protect those the hero loves (for marketing, the consumer).
You can see the Slaying the Dragon strategy as Orwellian play in Apple’s groundbreaking Super Bowl ad, "1984," directed by Ridley Scott.
And here it is again, used brilliantly by Liberty Mutual Insurance in contemporary content marketing through their initiative, Responsible
Sports. Believing the quality of youth sports is diminishing drastically under the weight of overly competitive coaches and parents (dragons), Liberty Mutual (hero) created a site that received the silver medal for best curated content site at the 2013 Content Marketing Awards and has achieved an immeasurable ROI in brand equity.
2. Call to Adventure and Invitation for Rebirth
Joseph Campbell coined it as "the call to adventure." Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, calls it an invitation for "rebirth." Whatever you call it, at the center of this storytelling strategy is an often reluctant hero who is growing ever nearer to tragedy. We fear for him or her. But something happens—usually an outside person or force (for marketers, the product or brand)—that saves the hero and allows the hero to see a new path, a new adventure, a new opportunity for rebirth. Often, this strategy is resolved when the hero is forced to reflect and come to terms with his or her true-life principles. Think A Christmas Carol, or more recently, This is the End.
This strategy inspired the celebrated 1979 Coke commercial starring "Mean" Joe Greene, which won a Clio and a spot on TV Guide’s top 10 TV ads of all time.
The same strategy inspired this contemporary content campaign from Water is Life. Water is Life began the campaign by creating this anthem video, First World Problems, which features Haitians reciting tweets with the #firstworldproblems hashtag. (You know, the one you use when you tweet about trivial life afflictions like the line at Starbucks or how crappy traffic is.)
The social campaign succeeded in hijacking the hashtag to drive awareness of Water is Life's message about clean water. Throughout the course of the campaign, 1 million days worth of clean water was donated.
3. Journey and Return
In stories like Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Devil Wears Prada, a hero finds himself or herself forced to leave the comfort of home (the known world) on a journey at the end of which is the promise of treasure. Similar to a fish-out-of-water story, central to this strategy is that the hero discovers new knowledge and returns home.
This strategy is hard at work in the 1986 Diet Pepsi spot, "Apartment 10G," starring Michael J. Fox. The commercial landed at number 19 on Entertainment Weekly’s "Top 50 Best Commercials of All Time."
Google's lauded "The Mobile Playbook" content campaign, designed to push businesses to further embrace Google’s mobile advertising services, also follows this story system by attempting to take executives on a journey to learn the ins and outs of mobile advertising in the hopes that those executives will return to their companies with the boon—and subsequently increase Google ad sales.
—Duke Greenhill is the founder and principal of Greenhill + Partners, Inc., a New York City-based story agency that strategically deciphers and applies relevant narrative strategies from diverse media such as film, poetry, literature, and music to develop creative solutions for business and communication problems. You can find Greenhill + Partners here.