Ah, stories. Don't we just love them? We love telling them, and we love hearing them.
We tell stories to our children, we follow stories in our favorite shows, and we read them in books and in the news. Stories are everywhere, and storytelling is happening all the time.In marketing, storytelling means using a narrative, character, and plot to communicate a message that indirectly markets your product or service. It's what builds the relationship between a business and its target audience. It puts a human face on the brand, builds trust in the organization, and sells solutions to a problem the audience has in a more appealing way.
In fact, storytelling is one of our 10 tips for effective content marketing. It adds authenticity to your content. You can use it to find out what your audience values, what they're interested in, and what their pain points are. That information helps you create more content that connects with your audience effectively.
But to really understand why storytelling is important in content marketing, let's talk about what stories do to our brains.
This is Your Brain on Stories
Three things happen in your brain when you hear or read a story:
- Your brain releases cortisol. It's usually released in response to stress. But in storytelling, cortisol gets released in response to the action of the story — when characters face danger, risk, or potential reward. Think about the moment in the last book you read where you couldn't stop turning pages or the point in a movie where you just had to see what happens next. That's your brain on cortisol. It's the hormone that tells us to pay attention because something important is happening.
- Your brain releases oxytocin. This is often called the "love hormone" or the "bonding hormone." Oxytocin boosts our feelings of empathy, compassion, and trust. It usually gets released when mothers nurse their babies, when loved ones share a hug, and when we hear a compelling story we can relate to.
- Your brain releases dopamine. This potent little neurotransmitter is the reward/motivation chemical. It tells our brain, "This is good. I want more of this." It normally gets released as a “reward” when we make progress on something, we succeed at a task we put effort into, or when we reach the “a-ha!” moment of a good story. Dopamine is responsible for increasing our focus and motivating us to act.
Brain Chemistry Meets Psychology
So a bunch of neurons start firing, and your brain is swimming in a bath of pay-attention, get-together, and get-motivated chemicals. What does that mean? According to a group of neuroscientists from Princeton University, it means a connection is being made between the listener and the storyteller. These neuroscientists conducted an experiment where they put two people in an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and scanned their brains while one person told a story and the other person listened. They discovered that when listening to a well-told story, the exact same areas of the brain activate in both the storyteller and listener:
"...the story evoked highly reliable activity in many brain areas across all listeners."
"Communication is a shared activity resulting in a transfer of information across brains. The findings shown here indicate that during successful communication, 'speakers’ and 'listeners’ brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled response patterns."
In other words, your brain, as the listener, mirrors the brain of the storyteller. The listener puts themselves into the story.
[Related Article: Psychology & Inbound Marketing ]
The Oldest (and Newest) Story Ever Told
Back in 1949, an American author and professor, Joseph Campbell, wrote a landmark book comparing the structures of stories and myths from around the world. He theorized that there was a similar fundamental structure for the journey of the archetypal hero in most stories. He called this story structure the Hero's Journey. This is a classic plot progression found in many of the stories you know and love, and involves a hero or main character who goes on an adventure, faces trials and tribulations, is victorious over a major crisis, and returns home, changed by the experience. There’s some debate on what the stages are and how many of them there are. But generally, the hero’s journey follows these 7 stages:
- The Call to Adventure — The hero starts out living a normal life when a problem arises or something happens to upset the status quo. The hero sets off into the unknown.
- Meeting with the Mentor — Once the hero is on their quest, a mentor appears to guide them. Often, the mentor provides a gift or a piece of knowledge that aids the hero later in their journey.
- Trials, Allies, and Enemies —The hero faces a series of tests on their journey. They meet allies who help them and enemies who challenge them along the way. As the hero goes through these tests, they learn and grow.
- The Final Ordeal — The hero reaches the place where the final goal of the quest is within reach. But to get to it, they must face their greatest challenge.
- The Reward — After facing their final ordeal, the hero emerges victorious and achieves the final goal of their quest. The problem that triggered the call to adventure has been solved.
- The Return — The triumphant hero returns home, having changed their life in a meaningful way. They’ve become a stronger, wiser person for having gone through the journey.
If this sounds familiar, the hero’s journey is the structure of many of the stories you're familiar with. Everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Hunger Games, and pretty much every superhero movie you've seen.
The Hero’s Journey Mirrors The Buyer’s Journey
Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “that’s all fine and dandy. But what does it have to do with content marketing?” To answer that question, let's take a look at the buyer's journey and how it matches up to the hero’s journey. If you’re not familiar with the buyer’s journey, you can read about it more in-depth here. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ve listed them here.
The buyer has discovered a problem or need. They begin searching for information to better identify and understand it. In the hero's journey, this is the Call to Adventure and the start of Meeting with the Mentor.
The buyer has identified and understands their problem or need, and now they're searching for information to solve it. In the hero's journey, this is where we see the continuation of the Meeting with the Mentor and the Trials, Allies, and Enemies stages.
The buyer has researched solutions to their problem or need. They're narrowing down the different solutions and making a final purchase decision. This is the Final Ordeal, where the buyer/hero makes their final buying decision. Following the Final Ordeal, the buyer gets the Reward for their solution.
This isn't technically a stage in the buyer's journey, but it's still important. It's the buyer's end goal, the whole reason they started the journey in the first place. The buyer, solution in hand, returns to their life having solved the problem or fulfilled their need.
The Buyer Is the Hero
This is the intersection of content marketing and storytelling. The buyer's journey mirrors the hero's journey too closely to ignore. So when you think about your content marketing strategy and when you create your content, just remember: You're not the main character. The buyer is. The story you’re telling in your content is their story — their pain points, their quest for information, their final ordeal, and their return with the solution.
You Are the Mentor
In storytelling, every hero needs a mentor. That's no different in content marketing. With the buyer's journey, every customer needs someone who helps them — someone who offers assistance, guidance, and the information they need to continue along the journey. So when you think about your content creation, approach it as the mentor to the buyer-hero.
At the end of the day, understanding how storytelling affects your audience on a deeper level reveals just how important it is to use storytelling in your content marketing. And drawing the parallels between the hero's journey and your audience's path along the buyer's journey can make a big difference in how you create content.
For tips on how to write content that converts, see our beginner's guide to writing killer conversion copy.