Content marketers have overplayed their hands, taking the storytelling bit too far. The web is now littered with blog after blog highlighting storytelling as the de facto game changer for your business.

I don’t see it.

[Before I go any further, I want to commend Gianluca Fiorelli for the in-depth and accurate, in my opinion, look he took at storytelling on the Moz blog.]

While storytelling can be a strong, binding element of your business, it is no replacement for substance.

The best storytelling in the world won’t save a crappy idea or rescue your business from a customer exodus owing to poor service.

I get the feeling that, in most of these instances at least, the “benefits” are being oversold by folks who’ve never had to live with the outcome of the “storytelling-is-all-you-need” advice they are dispensing.

The Benefits Of Storytelling Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

“OK, Ronell … Now what?”

I was caught off-guard for a moment, taken aback as a prospect stood up from the table and wanted an answer I wasn’t expecting to provide. He’d come to me for content help, then asked for my assistance in the branding efforts of his soon-to-be-opened restaurant, which would occupy a very competitive niche.

During our talk, I spotted several problems, specifically the logo, tagline and positioning of the company in the space. We then chatted briefly about local SEO, and I shared ideas about Google+, low-hanging fruit for local link building and making the company’s website mobile-friendly. Because the business would be located in a small suburban town, where folks are more likely to support a worthwhile entity, I inquired about community-building efforts and steps he’d taken to integrate the residents into the “narrative” of the business.

“You have a great story, one that will certainly resonate with the community,” I said. “You have to share it. It binds the restaurant to the location and the community. Also, it fosters a sense of ‘this-is-our-place’ togetherness that closely aligns with the local ethos and the population’s desire for a unique dining experience.”

His eyes lit up while listening to the value of sharing the story.

Right there, on the spot, using nothing put a ballpoint pen and eight Sticky Notes, I cobbled together the main elements of the brand’s story. It’s one he beamed at and was ready to rush off to greet his partners with it.

Then he asked that question. “OK, Ronell … Now what?”


Storytelling Is An Element Of The Business, Not The End Goal Of The Business

I wasn’t thrown off at his asking me what came next. What hit me was that, for someone who reads and spends as much time talking to company owners as I do, I seldom encounter folks who wonder what comes next. They’re ready to rush off and integrate the story into their content marketing, then wait for the sales to come rolling in.

What’s more, I see very little in the way of meaningful advice being offered up regarding what it takes for small and midsize businesses to be successful beyond the story.

You can score the biggest home run with storytelling but still lose the game.

Being a content writer is what opens the door for most of the work that I do, but when those doors open, I get to look around and see every aspect of the business. All too often, I’m asked to make sense of some “bad advice” they were given that led the company down a long, expensive, unproductive path. In nearly every case this advice was provided my someone who’d been out of the picture well before the inefficacy of their input could be exposed.

How convenient.

A friend of mine, a prominent consultant from California, likes to say “Don’t take advice from a person who has never had to live through the decisions he’s made or asked others to make at his behest.” I agree. Totally.

Moving Beyond Storytelling

Those people get “found out” soon enough. But to the hordes of bloggers preaching the gospel of “storytelling-is-all-you-need,” the insanity has got to stop. It’s about way more than storytelling.

Apparently, I’m not alone in sharing this sentiment. Kate Kiefer, who handles content for MailChimp, shared this tweet recently.

Unfortunately, those of us beating the “storytelling-as-everything-is-BS” drum are being drowned out by the vociferous lot on the other side.

I get it. I really do.

These so-called experts are selling businesses on the notion that storytelling is the key to why this or that company was successful.

Indeed, many of the companies—Moz, Nike, Whole Foods Market, etc.—used by content marketers to shine a light on the effectiveness of storytelling are, indeed, stellar examples of corporate success. The issue, though, is one of semantics.

These companies have a great story and are successful, in part because the story aligns with the values, ethics and vision of their audience. It is not the case, however, that these companies are successful because they have a story.

For example, folks don’t buy Nike just because they have a great story. (In fact, most folks who buy the company’s products have no idea about the story behind Nike.) The brand’s success is owed in large part to having a core message that resonates with achievement-oriented sports enthusiasts.

See…? The story is but a small part of that.

Correlation is not causation.

Telling your brand’s story can bind a business and its customers in extraordinary ways, particularly if the story involves elements of surprise, adversity, heroism, heartache, passion and an ability to achieve through great adversity. It is, after all, a story.

But even the best story is just a story.

It’s ultimately the decisions, products, services, employees, sales, marketing, advertising, PR and the like that determine the success or failure of a company, not the story itself.

Having a great story is a great starting place, but I liken it to the old saw about charm.

“You can get by on charm for about 15 minutes, but after that you’d better know something.”

Make your story work for you by having your ducks in a row. Those include:

  • Worthwhile product or service
  • Product or service that makes users feel good about who they are and proud to interact with the brand (e.g., Nike)
  • Foster a sense of belonging at every step of the business experience, which aids community building and growth of the business, in addition to providing customers with a sense of ownership in (e.g., Moz)
  • Position your brand as one that makes it a priority to put the needs of it’s clients first, including being where they are with what they need (e.g., Whole Foods)

Apparently, the prospect I was working with realized this. He began to see the story for what it was, a help to his business. He was ready to work on content strategy, inbound marketing, content and the like.

A strong, compelling story can do wonders for your business. Just don’t buy into the notion that it only takes a story.

That’s a tall tale being told each day. Don’t be a sucker and fall for it.

photo credit: Kevin Baird via photopin cc