June 23, 2016
Data Marketing

Data at the Intersection of Numbers and Narrative

“Storytelling” is one of the most hackneyed buzzwords in our industry. Pundits employ the term to refer to everything from anecdotes and case studies to persona-based marketing.

To find the storytelling model that actually refers to the science of creating stories, marketers should consider a model based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

This model focuses on the science of persuasion through the use of mythic symbolism and narrative structure.

The science of corporate storytelling has evolved beyond just generating buzz and sentiment to actually motivating behavioral change. What’s more, a new approach to marketing analytics called “explanatory analytics” makes this evolution possible.

Storytelling is the keystone of human experience

Humans discovered long ago that stories are the best way to teach, persuade, and entertain. Aesop’s fables, morality plays, One Thousand and One Nights — all convey deep and complex meaning through narrative. And, as Joseph Campbell lays out in his books, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and “The Power of Myth,” those stories follow a universal pattern, which he termed the “Hero’s Journey.”

The “Hero’s Journey” can help you understand that storytelling is an organic hack of human cognition. And when you combine this understanding with digital data — social media, voice-of-customer (VOC) data, spending patterns and internal KPIs — you’ll be able to create more topical and engaging stories. These stories will be pre-engineered to generate not just buzz and sentiment, but also measurable shifts in audience behavior translating into business results.

To illustrate, we’ll use a storytelling model broadly used in Silicon Valley — the “viral storytelling” model. This model transposes Campbell’s 12-step “Hero’s Journey” into a more workable five-chapter structure that’s been used by companies ranging from Facebook and LinkedIn to Deloitte and McKesson. And within each “chapter,” marketing analytics optimizes the power of the storyline.

The viral storytelling model and how data fits in

Chapter 1: The World’s Changed

All good stories start with movement. Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire, and he learns his father was a Jedi. On his 11th birthday, Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard and is whisked off to Hogwarts.

For marketers, we start with what’s new in the world, focusing on changes in technology, business and culture that people care about. With technologies such as social media listening, we can tap into evolving trends to create topical and timely stories.

But noise should never inform narrative. We need to correlate the buzz around the topics our customers care about against movements in the KPIs our executives care about. That way, we can filter out the oceans of irrelevant data and avoid starting the story with something popular but not persuasive.

Through this technique, we can more effectively grab the attention of people who are most likely to spend money.

Storyteller’s Data Tip: Resist the temptation to merely jump on the latest bandwagon. Instead, look to marketing analytics to connect the dots between what’s topical and what’s associated with sales.

Chapter 2: Change Creates Challenge

All good stories connect on an emotional level. Luke has to decide how to fight a villain who turns out to be his dad. Harry has to learn how to deal with a super-powerful dark wizard who, it turns out, has left a bit of a dark streak within Harry. So in chapter two, we speak to the challenges created by change on a personal level, and play to emotions.

Consumer insights and research teams already do this kind of work on a daily basis. But rather than relying on focus groups, surveys or social media — an approach that assumes that we know what to listen for — an explanatory analytics approach allows the data to talk to us and reveal other motivating elements to pull into our story.

Storyteller’s Data Tip: Look for the pain points and preferences that correlate to your revenue (or other KPI), and use an explanatory analytics model to make sure the challenges in your story echo the challenges faced by the audiences that move your business forward.

Chapter 3: A Shift in Thinking

Every good story has a turning point that usually hinges on the hero redefining the problem they’re facing. Luke eventually realizes he doesn’t have to kill Darth Vader; he can convert him back to goodness. Harry ultimately realizes the only way to kill Voldemort is to let Voldemort kill him, thus destroying evil’s last hiding place — our own hearts.

In Chapter 3, our corporate storytelling takes on the tone of thought leadership, of transformation, of introspection, of something really worth paying attention to because we’re rewiring old assumptions and modes of behavior.

Storyteller’s Data Tip: To make sure you correctly “flip the script” on your narrative, look for emerging trends, topics and themes in the data that suggest a new perspective organically forming in your customer base. Maybe you don’t have to drive change so much as participate in a wave of change already underway.

Chapter 4: Enter the Hero

This is where the real hero of the story emerges — and it isn’t you, it’s your customer.

This is the moment in which we realize Luke’s real heroism springs not from his light saber, but from his ability to toss aside the weapon to defy the Emperor. We realize Harry’s not special because of his magical abilities — he’s unique because of his love for family and friends, through which he accepts his sacrificial role as the Chosen One.

So, in Chapter 4, we emphasize that your brand isn’t Luke; it’s the Force. Your brand isn’t Harry, either; it’s the wand. This “hero moment” is absolutely essential to get right.

The role of the consumer brand is not to be the hero of the story. The brand is the magical elixir, the totem, the Excalibur that the hero uses to carry on the quest.

Your brand taps something consumers stand for — some empowering principle that feeds a fundamental need in customers. But to get this right, you have to do more than listen to voice of the customer (VOC) data. You must listen to the right voices from the right audiences.

Storyteller’s Data Tip:  Play to who your audience wants to be, not who they are. Use explanatory analytics to dig into aspirations and high points, as well as complaints and low points.

Zero in on the points most closely associated with movements in your revenue. Use the data to align your own authentic purpose with the authentic purpose of your most desired demographics.

Chapter 5: The Viral Question

In traditional storytelling, the last chapter closes with a “happily ever after.” But in modern storytelling, we want our audience to take the story forward. Even modern movies leave the door open to a sequel (or six).

In marketing, specifically, we want to create revenue-generating word of mouth. But again, if buzz and sentiment don’t automatically correlate to revenue and growth, how can we make sure we’re generating the right kind of word of mouth?  The answer is to offer them a powerful open-ended question that they’ll want to discuss with each other — a “viral question.”

Storytellers’ Data Tip: Let the data talk to you and reveal what issues and questions are resonating most strongly with the audiences that matter most to your business. Then close your story with a powerful question that drives the right kind of revenue-generating word of mouth.