Developing the Brand Storytelling Plan

“Storytelling.” It’s the flavor of the day, whether you’re talking about content marketing, visual communications or public relations, and for good reason. Stories are how humans communicate – with each other individually, across populations and over centuries.

In fact, many organizations are pretty good at identifying and defining their key story lines. The key to success in brand storytelling is in the next step – the strategic deployment of the story. Telling the brand story effectively requires a plan.

And to be clear, we’re not talking about hanging a touchy-feely post up on the blog and then calling it a day.  No.  Brand storytelling, in this context, means developing a sustained plan to create and execute a strategic approach to telling the brand story, in a way that supports company’s objectives.  Personally, I don’t give a hoot about impressions.  Let’s gun for something a bit more meaningful.

Drafting a storytelling plan

Developing the brand’s key themes is the first step, of course. Those central themes can then form the backbone of the communications strategy and the organization’s editorial calendar. The themes effectively become a message framework and provide contextual hooks for the organization’s communications, ranging from PR positioning to the content the brand develops for campaigns.

Once the themes are defined and the framework is in place, the marketing and communications teams should next think about developing a cadence of messages that define, describe, support and prove the brand stories. Creating a comprehensive editorial calendar that blends PR, content marketing, demand gen, social and sales enablement is the key to actually telling the brand story effectively, across all communications disciplines.

Thinking in terms of stories will get the marketing team closer to the customer and help the PR team refine and improve their pitches.  Next time you’re looking at a list of key message points and value propositions, challenge yourself to also find the related stories the target audience cares about.  That inflection point – where the brand message meets the audiences’ interests – is the center of the opportunity for the brand.

(Deck via my friend Lou Hoffman, of The Hoffman Agency. His excellent blog,Ishmael’s Corner, focuses upon storytelling and is definitely worth a bookmark.)

Why a multi-channel approach matters

As you map the plan, challenge yourself to think beyond the company’s usual communications tactics and channels. For most brands, text communications – press releases, blogs, papers, and social updates – form the core of the PR and communications output. However, audiences are demanding visual content, and the algorithms that dictate what people see on social networks and in search engines feed that demand, giving visual content more top of page/top of news feed visibility.

Additionally, our audiences are more fragmented than ever, using multiple channels to find and consume information. Telling the stories and conveying these messages in a variety of formats and across a variety of channels is important, for a few reasons.

First, repetition helps messages stick. Developing a cadence of content to support key messaging drives overall visibility for the story, and improves audience retention.

Additionally, a variety of channels will require the organization to use different formats – video, slides, text, tweets, images etc. In addition to broader reach, different formats aid message retention. People have different learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.) meaning they absorb and retain information in different ways. Employing a variety of different content formats will help messages stick.

A cohesive big picture

Together, the messages your brand publishes tells a story. That story can either be disjointed, or it can make sense. By creating a message framework and developing an integrated editorial strategy, the brand will provide a coherent user experience for the audiences, telling a cohesive story that makes sense.

The coherent message structure also delivers other benefits to the brand. It reinforces key messages, delivering evidence and credibility that can influence analysts, journalists, bloggers and – very importantly – early stage prospects who are in research mode, and haven’t yet identified themselves to the company.

A strong message framework also delivers significant benefits to the internal organization. Sales and client services teams absorb and share the information, providing important training and reinforcement to staff learning and sales enablement support.

Brand storytelling isn’t something that’s achieved through a single blog post. By building brand stories over time, adding chapters along the way, organizations can deliver robust and effective messaging that builds social proof and earns credible attention among key constituents. Effective storytelling delivers more than fleeting impressions: it can (and should) be measured in impact top line results, such as improvements in search rank, conversion rate and lead score quality.

Author Sarah Skerik is a content marketing, PR & social media strategist, specializing in integrated digital marketing, next-gen public relations and upper funnel optimization. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik or connect on LinkedIn

Cover image courtesy of Post Advertising, from their very good post titled “7 Reasons Storytelling is Important for Branded Content” (if you need more convincing.)


Content Marketing vs. Brand Journalism: the Outcomes Define Differences

bj vs cmToday’s fragmented media landscape and information-loaded digital world offers brands new opportunities to communicate directly with their audiences; building visibility, affinity and even search traction along the way. However, success in the uppermost reaches of the funnel requires organizations to put corporate agenda in the back seat, and instead adopt a more journalistic approach to crafting and publishing their stories.

Enter brand journalism.

Not to be confused with content marketing, brand journalism is an upper funnel tactics that delivers more than ‘awareness.” Telling the brand’s stories in a compelling, audience-focused way can create affinity, earn media, build brand credibility and (when coupled with search and social strategies) deliver long-lasting online visibility.

The differences between brand journalism and content marketing

There are distinct and important differences between brand journalism and content marketing, and they’re best expressed not in terms of content output but in terms of intended outcomes. I think we all agree that content marketing and brand journalism both have deliver information that is useful and interesting to audiences. So let’s look at the intended goals of brand journalism and content marketing, respectively. I’ll take a stab, and I welcome anyone else’s additions.

Starbucks’ newsroom is loaded with brand stories that masterfully create affinity and position the brand.

Brand journalism goal: Finding and telling brand stories in order to convey a comprehensive image of the brand and build brand awareness and affinity.

  • Case in point: The story on the Starbucks newsroom about the art on a holiday mug is an example of telling the story of an employee’s journey within the company. Is this story selling coffee? No. It’s conveying specific information about the brand image. I wouldn’t call this content marketing. To me, this is brand journalism.

Content marketing goal: Influence audience behavior by publishing useful content that supports the customer journey, encourages loyalty and enables amplifications.

  • Case in point: Marcus Sheridan, the “pool guy” who has presented at Content Marketing World several times, showed how great content that speaks directly to buyer interests can fuel sales, describing content as “a sales tool.”  (Related: CMW interview w/ Sheridan)

“Marketing is the enemy of brand journalism,” noted Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan, speaking at the company’s Brand Journalism for Corporate Communicators workshop in Chicago earlier in November. “Brands need to master telling their stories indirectly. It’s about the brand, but the focus is always about the audience.”

Brand journalism couples the brand perspective with a journalistic approach, telling stories to create utility for the audience and context for the brand. Many stories published within brand journalism programs make no reference to the brand doing the publishing. Nonetheless, the brand’s expertise is on display when a story provides an insider’s look at an industry that a legitimate media outlet could have produced.

Content needs to be designed and deployed with deliberate and measurable goals in mind. If Starbucks was publishing a bunch of employee stories and expecting to see a corresponding lift in store traffic, they would probably be disappointed – and the content budget might suffer in the future as a result.

Content marketing and brand journalism are not mutually exclusive. They can (and should!) exist together – and furthermore, they should be aligned, in order to position the brand and acquire audience likely to value (and act upon) the other content the brand publishes. Integration of brand content across multiple communications channels is a crucial component of driving content discovery.

Sam Huston of iProspect said it well in a blog post earlier this year:  “I want to believe that great creative will always find it’s way, but it’s difficult in today’s congested and segmented marketplace. Brands are realizing that even the best content can fail to convert consumers and deliver on business objectives. The way of the future, and the game-changer for brands, is in the strategic amplification of a campaign via holistic digital performance marketing.”

The intended outcomes underscore the important difference between brand journalism and content marketing, and their relationships to the company’s overall strategy – are details marketing teams need to pay attention to. Failing to do so can stymie a brand’s content programs, rendering them un-measurable.

We know that measurement and gauging ROI continues to be a challenge for content marketers. I believe that a primary cause of measurement-related problems stems from content that is published with no clear goal in mind.

Benefits of a brand journalism program

The most profound benefit brands derive from a strong and focused brand journalism strategy is the development of a relevant and engaged audience. Twenty years ago, the only way to reach broad audiences was through advertising or a mention in a news story. Today, brands communicate directly with their core constituents, and the audiences they build become important assets. Additionally, branded content creates important context for more targeted and actionable brand messages, developing affinity very early in the buyers’ journey.

On a more tactical level, the stories the organization publishes as part of a brand journalism program deliver other important benefits to the enterprise, including:

  • Internal communications:Stories provide a big picture that data doesn’t, lending important context to brand messaging. Additionally, stories are memorable. Taken together, these two factors help employees more fully understand and participate in the company’s strategy.
  • Sales enablement: Brand storytelling can also be an important sales and customer service training tool, delivering memorable content that is ideally packaged for relay to customers and prospects.
  • Media relations:PR pros who believe that media won’t cover a story that the company develops are missing the point, Ragan noted. Story-driven pitches can help journalists grasp nuance and see different potential story angles. Bonus: Artful keyword use can generate valuable implied links that bolster search results when the stories run on key media sites.
  • Crisis communications:An organization that has developed an internal news desk function is at a distinct advantage when faced with a crisis, having honed storytelling skills, streamlined publishing process and – most crucially – built an audience. “Don’t get scooped by your own crisis,” Ragan advised. “If you have a crisis, you should cover it first.”

Storytelling is the flavor of the day in marketing circles, for several reasons. As mentioned previously, stories are sticky. They linger in memories and influence behavior. Brand stories also help put human faces on company messages, increasing likability and brand affinity. These factors can trigger additional amplification, as people tend to share content they like with their social networks. Taking the time to build the brand journalism practice within an organization’s communications teams is no small effort, however, the benefits to the enterprise in terms of lead flow, audience building and search visibility more than offset the investment.

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is a content marketing & social media strategist, specializing in integrated digital marketing and upper funnel optimization. Follow her on Twitter at@sarahskerik or connect on LinkedIn at