Brand Storytelling and Case Studies: Four Things Marketers Can Learn from Fiction Writers

January 14, 2017 by

Brand storytellingA prospective client contacted me recently about some case studies he had written for his company, a small custom software firm. This prospect – I’ll call him Barry – knew his stories weren’t great, and he wanted to know what it would take to improve them, make them really appealing to his market.

Well, I looked them over, and in each of them, I found the same four problems. The problems I found, however, were not really problems of copywriting. They weren’t problems of writing style, composition or grammar. Nor did they stem from a lack of understanding of the case study form. The writing was actually quite good. And all the basic elements of a good case study were there.

The problems I found – what wasn’t working in these case studies – were problems of storytelling.

Now, as it happens, I dabble in a bit of fiction writing in my spare time. So when I met with Barry, I found myself critiquing his case studies not in the terms we usually use when discussing copywriting or case studies, but in terms of storytelling or fiction writing.

And since there's a growing interest in storytelling as marketing, I thought I’d share with you the four points I made with Barry. I hope these four tips will help you make your case studies and other brand storytelling more engaging and effective.

But first, let’s look briefly at why brand storytelling is all the rage in marketing today.

Why Stories?

Famed screenwriting teacher Robert McKee believes brand storytelling is the new marketing.[i] It’s necessary to marketers right now, says McKee, and will be even more so in the future.

Our latest generations of consumers – Millennials and Generation Z – those who grew up with the internet, have an adverse reaction to bragging in any form, McKee says.

Marketing messages that hark back to the Mad Men generation – boastful declarations like, “We’re bigger” and “We’re the best” –  don’t fly with these younger generations. These new consumers are naturally suspicious of claims coming directly from vendors, which may or may not be true. They’re used to going online and reading reviews from previous customers – verifying the veracity of a vendor’s assertions – before making a purchasing decision.

Like every generation before them, however, these new buyers like stories. And they like to share them. Smart companies, says McKee, have realized that.

But to be successful at this new type of marketing, you must be a good storyteller. You must understand the craft of storytelling. That’s why I wanted to share the following four tips with you.

1. The reader needs to empathize with the hero

The first thing I noted about Barry’s case studies, was that they contained a lot about what his company did – the solution they provided, their choices in providing it, the steps they took – but not much about what his customer did.

Now, one might think this stands to reason. After all, Barry’s company is a bespoke software provider. They build custom solutions to solve their clients’ problems. Barry wants to show his company’s strongest selling points: their expertise and personalized service.

The problem with this approach is in the reader’s relationship with the protagonist of the story.

In Barry’s stories, what his clients did – the challenges they faced, the stakes involved, their journey to find a solution – didn’t figure prominently in the story. As a result, Barry’s company took center stage. The vendor became the protagonist of the story, not the customer. This is not what you want in a case study. Because that’s not what the reader wants.

Every story needs a protagonist, a hero. And the reader needs to be able to empathize with that hero, to care about what happens to him. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to like the hero – there are plenty of antiheroes in literature (like Dexter from the eponymous American TV series) – but the reader does have to be able to root for the hero over the course of the story.

When reading any story, the reader wants to be able to put himself in the place of the hero, to walk in his shoes, to feel what he feels. In short, the reader wants to be the hero. Fiction authors know that hero empathy is an important factor in holding the reader’s attention (and selling more books).

According to fiction author and writing coach Larry Brooks, hero empathy is one of the six essential forces that make a story work. “Readers should feel the dramatic tension in a story as if they are right in the middle of it,” says Brooks. “Not just because it’s scary, but because they can relate to the emotions and stakes of the situation, the very thing the hero is feeling in those moments. They come along for the ride, understand the predicament, understand the fear and the hope and the frustration. They empathize, and thus, they root for your hero.” [ii]

So, in a case study, who is the reader most likely to root for? It’s not you, the solution provider. Readers couldn’t care less about your company. Obviously, readers are far more likely to identify with your customer. And that’s who you want them to identify with – the guy with the problem – because that’s the kind of guy you’re trying to reach.

“When you perform a service, there’s a consumer who uses that service to actively benefit themselves. Therefore, you can tell a story about the consumer’s’ experience with the service. That’s the natural thing to do,” says McKee. “The hard thing is getting an audience to empathize with a product and/or a corporation. When a story stars a consumer, there’s a kind of natural empathy. That character is a human being, just like me. The human connection is easy.” [i]

Remember, your reader wants to be a hero. If you can make an association in your reader’s mind between being your customer and being a hero, you stand a greater chance of converting that reader into a customer.

2. Stories need conflict

The second thing I noticed about Barry’s case studies was that they presented little or no discussion of the problem the client faced. There was no examination of the extent, implications and costs of the problem, or how earlier solutions had failed.  Each story simply summarized the customer’s need – as in an overview – then jumped immediately into the solution Barry’s company proposed and how it was implemented.

There are two problems with this approach.

First, from a sales perspective, the reader needs to understand the customer’s problem in order to understand how the story might relate to his own situation. If the problem isn’t explained, there’s no context for understanding how the vendor’s solution might help the reader.

From a storytelling perspective, the dilemma is even greater. “If you were forced to identify one word, and one word only that is the front-runner for the most essential essence in all fiction, it would be conflict,” says Larry Brooks. “Because conflict is, either directly or indirectly, the stuff that creates dramatic tension.” [ii]

Dramatic tension – another of Brooks’ six essential forces of Story Physics [ii]  – is the feeling that keeps you turning the pages of that novel you just can’t put down. It’s what keeps you on the edge of your seat when you’re watching a great film. It’s what engages your reader and keeps her engaged to the end of the story (and prompts her to take follow-up action).

Dramatic tension arises from conflict. Conflict arises from problems.

You need a problem in your story to give your protagonist something to do, to set him on a quest to find a solution. You need a problem to create obstacles for your protagonist to overcome, so your protagonist becomes your hero and your reader can empathize with him. (You’ll see that all of these story forces are intertwined and interact with one another.) You need a problem to create conflict and dramatic tension and hold your reader’s interest.

In short: no problem = no conflict and no hero = no dramatic tension = no story. If you don’t present the customer’s problem, your prospect probably won’t read much of your case study. It simply won’t hold her interest.

3. The hero must face death

As just mentioned, Barry’s case studies all lacked an examination of the problem his customer faced. As a result, they lacked something else. They lacked the implications of those problems to the customer and his business.

What would be the cost to the business of not solving the problem? Of choosing the wrong solution? What would be the impact on our hero’s career? Fiction writers call the sum of these possible costs the stakes.

In any story – and especially in a case study – the reader needs to know what stakes are at risk. What would have been the cost of ignoring the problem? Of delaying a decision? Of failing to implement the right solution on time? What pressures was the problem putting on our hero? And those stakes must be high.

“The stakes in an emotionally satisfying novel have to be death,” says James Scott Bell, author of more than twenty novels and numerous how-to books on story craft. “Somebody has to be in danger of dying, and almost always that someone is the lead character.” [iii]

The stakes in a case study may not seem so dire as those in a novel, but as Bell goes on to point out, “death” in a story can take one of three forms: physical, psychological or professional. In a case study, if we want it to really hold our reader’s attention, our hero must face professional death, be it in the form of economic disaster for his company, a serious negative impact on his career, or both.

So, in writing our case studies, we need to ratchet up the stakes. We need to show that our hero faces death. We need to make it clear what’s at stake for the hero and his company – make the reader care about what happens to the hero – so she’ll keep reading the story to the end. By doing so, we’ll also provide her a greater payoff when she gets to the end: the results we reveal will be more satisfying and memorable. And that’s good for us, too, because if our story and results are memorable, she’ll be much more likely to remember us when she’s ready to buy.

4. Stories need detail to be believable

The final flaw I pointed out to Barry was that his case studies lacked detail in crucial areas.

In the results section of one of his stories, for example, Barry wrote: “Release brought positive feedback.” Period. There were no quotes, no other mention of what the customer said about Barry’s solution. Barry simply continued, “The application has proven to be easier to learn, use, and get value out of than its predecessor.” Okay, I thought, but how much easier was it? And how much value are they getting out of it? Barry didn’t say, and I didn’t get a sense of how satisfied Barry’s customer was with his solution. I had the feeling Barry just wanted me to take his word for it.

Details are extremely important, both in marketing communication and storytelling, because they provide credibility. In marketing communication, we tend to think of details as data, or proof, which we use to back up our claims. Details are equally important in storytelling for providing what is called vicarious experience, another of Brooks’ six essential story-shaping forces. [ii]

Effective stories depend on vicarious experience: making readers feel they are right there in the middle of the action. The reader wants to feel she’s there. She wants to see what the hero sees, feel what he feels. (Did I mention she wants to be the hero?) She wants to feel like she’s a part of the story. To give that reader a rich vicarious experience, you must give her plenty of detail.

“To be a good writer, you have to be a persistent and meticulous harvester of detail,” says novelist and creative writing teacher Ron Rozelle. “You must gather seemingly unimportant minutiae from the world around you and then carefully place them in your writing, like perfect stones in a garden wall.” [iv]

Admittedly, when it comes to case studies, especially for the results section, harvesting detail can often be difficult.

It can be hard to get customers to quantify their results and to release results they’ve quantified. But they might be able to provide an anecdote or some type of before-and-after comparison of the customer’s situation. Any kind of detail will serve to make the results and benefits more concrete to the reader.

Details are also important elsewhere in your customer stories, not just in the results section. The payoff you provide in the results section needs to be set up by at the beginning of the story with an explanation of the customer's challenges and the stakes involved. Again, you want to give the reader a great vicarious experience, make her feel like she’s involved in the story.

Also, you must make sure to detail the right things. What does the reader want to know? More about the vendor? That will probably make the story boring. The reader isn't interested. She can get that stuff from your website if she needs it.

More detail on our hero's quest, on the other hand – specifics on the customer’s problem, the stakes involved, our hero’s journey to find a solution, the implementation of that solution (including any problems encountered and how they were solved), and most importantly, the results and benefits achieved – now that’s the kind of detail the reader wants. That’s the kind of detail that will trigger the action you want.

And that’s effective storytelling.

Take-away Points

For case studies to be effective marketing, they need to be effective stories.

To be effective stories, case studies need:

  1. A hero the reader can empathize with (the customer, not your brand)
  2. Conflict (a problem for the hero to solve, obstacles for him to overcome)
  3. The threat of death (high stakes to make the story gripping)
  4. Plenty of detail (to make the story credible and keep the reader engaged)

Next Steps

Need help crafting an engaging case study your prospects will read to the end? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011-569-4951. Or drop me an email at info@copyengineer.com.

References

[i]   Simmons, Jon, Why Brand Storytelling Is the New Marketing: An Interview with Robert McKee, Skyword, September 2016.

[ii]   Brooks, Larry, Story Physics, Writer’s Digest Books, 2013.

[iii] Bell, James Scott, Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict & Suspense, Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.

[iv] Rozelle, Ron, Write Great Fiction: Description & Setting, Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.

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