This question is popping up everywhere... especially on LinkedIn and other social media platforms. OK, maybe all those professionals behind those lovely smiling photos are not screaming “WTF,” but it certainly feels like it. And it might be on your mind as well. Is this just another marketing fad, another buzzword... Does B2B storytelling really matter in the business to business world, and what does storytelling for business actually mean?
Many great marketing minds have created countless blogs, articles, books, and podcasts (yes, countless), but we're here to write about what I consider powerful brand storytelling to be and how you can easily start using it to further augment your marketing strategy.
What is the point of business storytelling?
Yes, let's get this out of the way first. Do you need storytelling for business? Does you brand need storytelling at all? Well, let me ask you one question... do you have to convince people to buy your product/service? No? Great. Storytelling is not for you, then.
Fortunately for most of us, business is a relationship game. People buy from other people, especially if they are trustworthy, competent, and likable. Now simple ads and content can get you far, but only through understanding and utilizing the power of storytelling can you really leverage these three key elements and grow.
The B2B world has come full circle and is starting to accept that you need an emotional connection with people in order to effectively build your revenue.
A bit of history of B2B marketing
Why "full circle"? Well, back before the internet happened, B2B marketing was actually very personal, and having a good story to tell was crucial to the success of the business. Take a look at this work of art by Gary Larson.
Do you think Ralph, the king of salespersons, sold refrigerators to a village of Eskimos utilizing only performance marketing ads, google search, and an explainer video series around the features of the newest line of refrigerators? Oh no. He told them a story.
To quote Paul Cash from "Humanizing B2B"
“Back in the 1970s and even into the early 1990s B2B marketing (then called "industrail marketing") was mainly carried out through trade catalogues, events and sometimes direct mail. ... Some of it had a deeply human element.”
Why? Ask your sales team. They'll tell you. You need to build relationships in order to sell. Every salesperson tells a story to their prospect. The buyer has to trust you, that you can deliver and not f*ck-up their career. Sure, business is business, but as they are the ones who recommend you, their ass is on the line. So it's very personal too.
What went wrong with B2B storytelling?
Internet happened. We were given a new way of talking about our products. Speed became a key factor. So ads started to focus on features, and the benefits or brand story... kind of went away. Then SaaS promised to cut costs (and sales staff) and reach buyers faster and easier.
Again, quoting Paul Cash from "Humanizing B2B"
“All of a sudden, marketers were able to reach customers at scale. We had email - we could spam people! We had banner ads - we could distract people. ... It was fast-food marketing, with messages aimed at the lowest commen denominator in a way that our B2C collegues have always found inexplicable.”
Why Storytelling is a Win-Win Strategy for B2B Marketers.
So what now? It turns out that when many companies sell similar products at similar prices, what is important is the brand. It's the brand story that differentiates your brand from your competition.
So what can business to business storytelling do for you? Let's see:
Relatable stories can share company values in a way your potential customers will understand.
Engaging content is more likely to be remembered and shared.
Creative narratives are just frankly... likable.
Storytelling is also talking about your customers and showcasing how you help them. Boom! Customer success stories.
The B2B buyer's journey is changing.
Something is happening. You can feel it, can't you? Sales cycles take longer now, and proven lead-generation methods are slowly losing their effectiveness. One of the reasons maybe is the shift in the B2B buyer's journey.
“Virtually 100% of buyers want to self serve part or all of the buying journey. 40% of buyers names "having to contact sales for a demo or free trial" among the three things vendors do to make them less likely to buy. The numner one reason is cold calling (64%).”
That means that buyers do their research by themselves and contact your sales at the last moment. They research by visiting review sites, talking to colleagues or mentors, and searching closed groups or forums. Most of their journey, hence, is hard or impossible to track. Right up until the google search for your brand or product.
How B2B buyers do their research.
Did you know that most B2B decision makers (regarding tech buyers) in companies today aremillennials? Imagine what content they seek, how they consume it, and where. Imagine they are going through dozens of generic tech explainers, and they come to yours… another video that looks and sounds the same.
Do you think they will be interested in watching it to the end and learning more about your product or service? Yeah. So, why don't you speak to them in a way that will engage them? In a way, they want to be spoken to.
Like the storytellers thousands of years ago who sat around a campfire, you're talking to someone specific. Focus on your audience. Think of your potential customers. It's about people, not products. Your clients and their needs. Don't flood your content with messages that are irrelevant to them. Employ brand storytelling. Focus on what they want to hear and how they want to experience it.
Storytelling should be human.
Treat your audience like human beings, not extensions of their organizations. Avoid using jargon and “marketing talk”. Make use of emotional connection. Imagine someone discovering that they are out of coffee. Would the person text their significant other by asking if:
“their culinary department's budget covers the forthcoming capital expenditure at Wal-Mart as their coffee inventory is in the red”?”
Or would they simply ask if the other person could get more coffee on their way home?
“Do you have some money for coffee?”
It is a much simpler message that has a chance to be remembered.
Sure, this is a super simple example, but the point is to use language that your target audience is most familiar with. Remember that a CISO will have different things on their mind than a SOC analyst.
Language is more than just words. It shows that you understand how your target consumes content, where they are, and what they care about. Tailored content makes a good story and evokes personal feelings in potential customers, which could tip the balance in your favor!
Emotions are at the core of all marketing. Emotions govern what we are repelled from and what we are drawn to. Emotions have a profound influence on the efficaciousness of ourmemory. And we want to be remembered. Don't be afraid of using emotions in your digital storytelling. Make your audience emotionally connected to the story.
This is the moment I drop the Maya Angelou quote:
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Take this to heart and put your heart into what you do. Yes. Emotions. Brand story. In B2B. Times are changing. Check out this comprehensive analysis by The LinkedIn Institute, of the use of emotions in B2B marketing strategy.
Become an architect of compelling stories
Learn how to build them block by block and what are essential elements of a compelling story. There are many examples of story templates online, showing you how to take your story, main character, and audience on a journey.
But how does this relate to a video ad? Or an explainer video? Or a presentation?
Well, look at the structure and read between the lines. Sure, the entire story has a beginning, middle, and end. But when you look deeper, you'll see the same structure within each scene.
This simple three-act structure can be used in any content you create to make it more engaging. What's next? Each situation, idea, and scene raises the stakes, which reflects on what happens in the next scene and the next, etc. What you must remember is not to use the word “AND” in between scenes. “AND” doesn't up the ante. “AND” just connects a listing of things.
To make your story interesting, use the words “BUT” and “THEREFORE” between your scenes, paragraphs, or slides… Listen to storytelling gurus Trey Parker and Matt Stone explaining the power of this structure.
Last but not least, be creative
WHM Creative conducted a survey of B2B buyers late in 2018 (released in 2019) in which the results were rather conclusive
About half of B2B purchase decision makers find B2B advertising boring
82 percent wish B2B advertising had the creativity associated with B2C advertising
81 percent of business buyers believe they'd make better decisions if B2B advertising did a better job of engaging them
Creativity is effective. Creativity is liked. Likability is transformational. When content appeals to viewers through suspense, they are rewarded with dopamine (that stuff our brains chase through chocolate, falling in love, watching your favorite movie, etc.). Dopamine also improves focus, motivation, and wait for it… MEMORY. Makes you think, doesn't it?
So do yourself a favor and add some creativity to your brand storytelling.
How to make your B2B storytelling engaging?
I know, I know. It sounds amazing. But how can I weaponize all of these storytelling rules, data, and knowledge to take my B2B marketing to the next level? The easiest thing to do is to check out this amazing podcast with Jeremy Connel-Waite from IBM.
If you are looking, however, for bullet points on how to create memorable and engaging stories for your target audience... here they are:
Show empathy: treat your customers as human beings and not an ATM (that means make content THEY want to watch)
Connect emotionally with your buyers: at some point in the buying process, it will be down to which brand makes the buyers FEEL safe. Trustworthiness is a feeling. Make it shine!
Talk about them. Not you. Answer their pain points in an interesting fashion. Make it creative. Make memorable stories that people making buying decisions can't forget.
Distribute like crazy: don't rely on a single piece of storytelling. Chop it up into micro-content and use it for cross-promotion and to be visible in all the places and platforms your target audience visits.
So, how about I share with you my favorite examples of B2B storytelling?
From their memorable mascot to hyper-focus on their client. Salesforce is a masterclass in B2B Storytelling. Here's an example of client stories.
They could be called a media company with the amount of storytelling content they put out there. Surprisingly, super focused on the target market. Not only are they the audience but also the heroes of most of their stories.
Even their demos are filled with storytelling and visual quality.
They've always been doing a lot of storytelling through thought leadership content (with which we had some input 😎). Recently, however, they've undergone quite a significant brand refresh in which brand storytelling plays a crucial role.
They are now more focused on the buyer than ever (See a pattern here?) and have produced a wonderful series where their clients have been put in the spotlight... as well as their success stories.
What is the essence of storytelling?
I could go on more about other hormones like oxytocin, endorphins, etc.,but in the end, this entire article boils down to one simple sentence I believe is the essence of brand stories, content marketing, and storytelling itself.
It's as simple and yet as complicated as only 4 words.
"Make your audience feel"
I now leave you with a quote by the legendary storyteller Bill Murray
"The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything, the better you are with your loved ones, the better you are with your enemies, the better you are at your job, the better you are with yourself."