Effective storytelling in content marketing

Storytelling is everything. Really. It is

Take these for example:

You’re at the bar, telling your mates about that time you went bullfighting in Spain. 

You’re at work, delivering a presentation you put together that morning. 

You call your mum and tell her about your new microwave that was on sale.

You’re at an interview and give a heavily abridged version of your life (minus the time you accidentally shoplifted Milkybar buttons).

Everything you say, in all of these situations, is a type of storytelling. 

Storytelling is how we communicate as human beings. Without a narrative to weave the facts of life together, we’d just be listing out facts that happened at certain times. So, you need effective narratives in your content to engage with people.

Once upon a time

The basics of storytelling start with context. I don’t want to be telling my potential new employer about my bullfighting past, or even about that new bargain microwave. And we especially need to avoid the Milkybar buttons debacle. 

You have to set up the context first – this can be visual, suggested through audio, or through the user journey; for example, a blog on a brand’s site or a post on a brand’s Instagram feed.

Sounds simple, but we need to ensure we don’t lose the audience before we’ve started. Give them something out of context and you’ve already lost them.

What’s going on? Well, you’d know if you were reading the WikiHow article on how to speak like a pirate.


So, damn, emotional

Without some sort of emotional hook, we tend to switch off. If the content of a story is completely transactional, it simply becomes a list once again. 

The best subjects for a story are people. More specifically, characters, as people can be represented by all sorts of animals and objects in the media. The thing is, in marketing we’re often working with products. So how do we get an emotion across when we’re trying to sell a microwave (for example, just off the top of my head).

You could list its features, show how shiny it is, explain how its ‘bing’ is better than that of the rival brand… but is anyone going to remember that?

Emotion and memory are very closely linked; studies show this to be true.

The power of people

You have to bring some emotion to it, even if the product is microwave food. Traditionally, in TV ads, it’s the warm family dinner where the CGI steam rises off the freshly cooked fajitas/rice/vegan lasagne. 

Or, you could tell a story about something else that people care about – push on the fact that it’s eco-friendly or ethically made, and tie that in with the brand.


Finisterre’s simple campaign about adventure, but leaving no trace, hits home with the environmental message.


Another option is interviewing real people. It’s a fine line though because you don’t want to overplay the emotion for the risk of straying into melodrama. Don’t force the point – it has to be real or you’ll run the risk of straying into toothpaste advert territory. Do your teeth feel way cleaner, Mary? Of course, they do.

Look how genuinely happy she is. She really loves Oral-B Pro-health Advanced.


Often, as I mentioned earlier, you can communicate better human emotion through non-humans. In the age of influencers, everyone’s endorsing everything, so we tend to be less sceptical of animals, cartoons and puppets with voice actors than we are with real actors. So, if you’re going to use real people, they have to be very convincing.

Look and listen

You can also tell an effective story through music or visuals. A certain song can trigger nostalgia. A sound can stir emotion. A faded film with lens flare will evoke the same sort of feelings. This way, you don’t necessarily have to delve as deep into a narrative. This Mercedes ad, for example, shows how the engine noise and some quick text works well in visually enacting the narrative to the viewers.

The long and short of it

The issue with telling a great story in 2020, is our reliance on short-form content. To convey emotion through something that resembles a narrative, in a five-second Instagram ad or one line social posts, is pretty tricky. 

The Mercedes ad above does a great job of using sound and text. It also uses the length of the ad to be directly tied to the 0-60 performance of the car — a very solid link between ad and product.

But, how else is it done? A great way to start a story is in medias res, as it’s known in the often Latin-loving (and a little snobby, let’s be real) world of literature. Start bang in the middle of something exciting and go fast out of the blocks. As long as it’s fed to the audience in the right context, they’ll catch up. Under Armour does this well:

Long-form is making a comeback though, as people are reading more and more – infinitely scrolling through articles. Dwell time is pretty high for our blogs, which backs this theory up. Most of us are also listening to super long podcasts, so there’s the opportunity to explore much longer-form content in those places. 

What happened next?

Use cliffhangers to your advantage. 

As a general rule, we like things to be tied up neatly with a bow. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but as long as it doesn’t include Lost-level plot holes, audiences will be happy. 

However, the cliffhanger can be a content marketer’s best friend. We want those call-to-actions and, eventually, conversions. As long as the story sets up the cliffhanger nicely – and the next step in the journey isn’t too much of a jump – it’s a powerful tool.

You may draw readers in via Google with a generic search term ‘how to get into bullfighting’. Next, you may steer them to related content such as ‘what bullfighters wear’ before pushing them to buy a bullfighting cape. It’s often nice to have another step, such as a colour picker (mostly shades of red for this example) or configurator, before going straight to the product. 

No one likes a story that lurches around too much. We’ve all watched those heist films that go a plot twist too far. 

*Note: we don’t condone bullfighting. It’s just an example. Don’t take it out of context, please.*

The end

The ideal ending is a purchase, of course. But when it comes to marketing in this way, it means much more if the brand is remembered through an emotional connection. Construct your narrative focusing on context and emotion. Then consider the format and the onward journey. 

You see, it’s not always about repeat messaging. 

Now, go buy a microwave – or a bullfighting cape.


To find out more about effective storytelling, or how Croud can help you with your content marketing strategy, get in touch.

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