The real world of storytelling

Content marketing is king – we read and hear this a lot. But what does the reign of this new marketing royal look like? What are the key success factors and what are the major problems? How do agencies, companies and journalists work together?



The world of branding is in turmoil.

Advertising is losing the strategic relevance it once had. Content marketing and storytelling are seen as the new keys to branding success.

There seems to be consensus that journalistic stories about a brand have the potential to create a more substantial connection between customer and company than your average 30-second television spot. That is, as long as the stories that are told are not only strategically relevant, but also highly creative and original, as well as creatively and originally communicated.

The generation and implementation of unique, fascinating and strategically suitable stories is a key success factor in modern marketing strategies. How this generation and implementation works, however, is something no one seems to be quite sure about. Of course, there are agencies that declare they specialise in just this. However, they often try to prove their own strategic and creative superiority by simply asserting multimedia expertise, the core argument being: we use all channels. We know digital. Therefore we are strategic and creative leaders. As if “digital” was in itself a strategically-relevant story.

The key question, then, is: how strategic is content marketing really? What can journalistic storytelling achieve in marketing or communication terms? How advanced are companies in using storytelling in a strategic way? How do the different players – companies, agencies, journalists – perceive each other? And how do they work together? In short: what are the rules, and who rules, in the cool new world of content marketing?

A question of research

It is questions like these that I asked in research conducted together with the German content marketing association Forum Corporate Publishing. We interviewed decision makers in brand companies and agencies, as well as freelance journalists regularly involved in content marketing. The picture that can be drawn from the results indicates that by no means do all involved players agree on how smart content marketing, one that uses the full intellectual and emotional potential of journalistic storytelling, really works.

One key finding: the majority of companies today accept that storytelling is an integral element in successful communication strategies. Two-thirds of the agency managers that took part in the survey acknowledged that their customers perceive storytelling as a strategic tool, while one third see it only as a tactical instrument used on an irregular basis. Corporate clients who think that content marketing and communication strategy don’t belong together do not seem to exist at all.

So if storytelling is used on a broad basis, then the next question is: how effective is it as a tool for communication? We also have to ask what its particular strengths are – assuming that not all targets are equally attainable through storytelling.

Targeted storytelling

In her book Unternehmenskommunikation, public relations professor Claudia Mast distinguishes four key categories of possible communication targets: cognitive, affective, conative and social targets. The first three targets refer to basic brain functions, and are regularly dealt with in neuroscientific approaches. The cognitive part of the brain measures intelligence, while the affective part deals primarily with emotions, understood here in the broadest sense. Conative refers to the way in which the brain drives how one acts on those thoughts and feelings, thereby connecting inner and outer world. Social targets, finally, are about how communication impacts our relations in an interpersonal context.

When I asked which of these targets can be reached most effectively through storytelling, the professional storytellers from agencies, companies and journalism agreed that storytelling helps in all four target segments. On a scale from one to five, with five meaning “very effective” and one “not effective at all”, they all think that storytelling realises cognitive, affective, conative and social targets.

Not surprisingly, agency managers are overall more optimistic than journalists or corporate marketers. Their averages range from 3.7 (cognitive targets) up to 4.5 (affective targets). The range of the marketers spans from 3.2 (conative targets) up to 4.2 (affective targets), the journalists’ range from 3.7 (cognitive targets) to 4.2 (both affective and conative targets). The positive attitude of the agencies is of course a professional bias: they have to be convinced of the services they offer.

However, the results are interesting on at least two other accounts. First of all, when we compare the individual target categories, we see that journalists rate the conative components of storytelling higher than marketers. Apparently, companies are highly sensitive regarding the difficulty of really making customers do something. (The most relevant action companies strive to make customers engage in is, of course, the eventual purchasing act.)

What is also interesting is that the journalists see the effectiveness of their own writing at a lower level than their typical contractors, the agencies, do. This might be because a certain scepticism is part of the journalism profession. It might, however, also result from a lack of involvement of the journalists when it comes to measuring success of a content marketing project. Perhaps they simply do not get to see the results of their work.

When we take all three groups together, it becomes clear that the significant strength of storytelling lies in its emotional capacity. All three groups give highest values to the ability of storytelling to generate powerful emotions. Good stories create sentiments and images, catering to our longing for emotions. Storytelling, therefore, is at its strongest when it emotionalises rational messages or dull positions.

Obstacles to success

And yet, by no means are all storytelling or content marketing campaigns equally successful. In order to understand what makes a campaign effective, I relied on a theoretical frame offered by management thinkers John Marshall and Matthew Adamic. In their article The story is the message: shaping corporate culture, published by the Journal of Business Strategy in 2012, they differentiate between four necessities for any strategically developed story to reach and mobilise its audience:

a) purpose,
b) allusion,
c) people, and
d) appeal.

Their reasoning is that in order to be successful, strategic corporate narratives have to be told with a clear, strategically defined communication target in mind (purpose), have to relate to a company’s history and its shared values (allusion), have to be told by a person and through a medium that the audience respects (people), and should contain an emotional attractiveness (appeal). I asked my interviewees how difficult it is for each of these conditions to be reached within a storytelling initiative, with an answer range from one (very difficult) to five (not difficult).

What we see is that all decision makers find that the biggest obstacle to successful storytelling is a lack of strategic purpose. Marketers have the lowest average here (2.6), followed by the journalists (3.3) and agencies (3.5). Certainly, this has to do with the higher sensitivity of marketers to the strategic fit of a corporate storytelling initiative with the company’s overall strategy. It indicates that storytellers still have a lot of explaining to do. We needn’t assume that storytelling is not strategic per se, but it does not always succeed in explaining internally as well as externally the way in which it contributes to a company’s strategic goals.

What we see is that all decision makers find that the biggest obstacle to successful storytelling is a lack of strategic purpose.”

Interestingly, all three groups agree that the personal fit of storytelling for readers and for the testimonials in the stories is the smallest problem. This indicates that the media platforms of content marketing, whether corporate magazine or online and social media tools, are generally accepted. It also shows a general optimism as to whether different target groups can be reached with a suitable content marketing medium.

When we look at companies, the second biggest obstacle is the alignment of a storytelling strategy with the company, its values and historical background. Once more, the marketers are distinctly less optimistic here (average of 3.0) than journalists (3.3) and agency managers (3.7). This shows that concrete stories often don’t fit as well as those inventing them seem to think. Corporate media creatives, therefore, are advised to spend more time in researching the company in question in order to develop stories that really match its corporate background and culture. Good storytelling starts with finding the right corporate soil in which to seed a new story.

Tell me what you really think….

However, successful storytelling not only needs carefully planned and realised stories. It also depends on the different actors involved. That’s why, in my research, I also asked how agencies, journalists and marketers see each other. The results are not always flattering to the different target groups.

When we look at what marketers think of agencies, then their biggest problem does not seem to be a lack of strategic understanding or multimedia competence. It is creativity. When I asked the company managers whether the different fields of expertise present problems when cooperating with agencies, and offered them a scale from one (permanent problem) to five (never a problem), then the measure showed that creativity was more of a problem (2.4) than strategic understanding (3.3) or lacking multimedia competence (3.0). Also, agencies are not seen as overly stubborn or as too much in love with their own content ideas (3.2). Neither is their acceptance within the company much of a problem (3.8). No, it seems to be that the resource that agencies mostly lack is brilliant ideas.

Regarding the attitudes of agencies, we find that the most pressing difficulty for agencies when collaborating with companies is the latter’s perceived lack of creativity or of courage to realise creative solutions. This might not come as a surprise.

What is more surprising is the low score when it comes to companies’ perceived strategic understanding (2.8). When we compare this to the 3.3 average companies gave to the agencies, then we see that the company representatives I interviewed see agencies as more strategically capable than the agencies see their clients. And, what is more, agencies even see the journalists they collaborate with as more strategically competent than the companies (3.0). Does the tail wag the dog here? Or can we assume that agencies have by now built such a strategic capacity that they really know more about a company’s strategic requirements than corporate decision makers themselves? This question cannot be answered in this article.

Finally, when we pay a closer look to the perception of journalists, then the results show that journalists are no longer the odd ones out in the big game of content marketing. In particular, agencies see them in a rather positive light. The average in terms of their strategic capacity is a slightly reassuring 3.0. Journalists are also seen as competent in terms of multimedia (3.3), and as creative (3.8).

Companies see journalists slightly more sceptically. The biggest problem they find in journalists is not a lack of strategic competence (3.0), nor of missing creativity (2.8, which is, however, a disappointing value); the biggest problem companies have with journalists is the company’s own lack of acceptance of journalists (2.5). Apparently, within the companies, the mechanisms of storytelling, which necessarily include external journalists researching stories within the confines of the company, are not yet universally understood. A lot of internal explanation work seems still to be necessary.

When we cast a final look at journalists’ attitudes, we encounter a certain scepticism regarding their own strategic involvement. Some feel that companies do not value their strategic competence enough (average of 2.8). When we compare this to the attitude of companies towards journalists, we see that companies give a higher rating to the strategic competence of journalists than the journalists themselves believe they deserve.

More self-confidence seems to be advisable here for journalists. And even more so as in their practical work, their role is no longer that of mere producers of clearly-defined stories. The majority of journalists involved in content marketing have the role of creative drivers or of strategic sparring partners. This is a good sign. It shows that in the complex creation process of content marketing solutions, those journalists active in the field seem to have finally found their role.

In sum, what we see is that the development of suitable content marketing strategies and the execution of content marketing programmes that create lasting competitive advantages is a highly complex process, the basic mechanisms of which are not yet clearly defined and understood by all participants. There are a number of different players involved, and their respective roles have yet to be clarified. The integration of journalistic ethics and concepts into the world of content marketing is a demanding, yet highly important goal if we are to see real, content-oriented changes in the way companies and brands communicate.

Alexander Gutzmer

Dr Alexander Gutzmer is professor for media culture and communication at Berlin-based Quadriga University. He is also editor-in-chief of the architecture magazine Baumeister, and editorial director at the Munich-based publishing house Callwey.