This series of articles focuses on user stories. It starts with a look at content strategies as found on the Northwestern Course on Coursera. It will then dig deeper into how stories are crafted using the material from a writing class on Coursera. And will keep adding on.
Section 1: Background on messages
Features and patterns in content.
Relevant, Credible, Trustworthy, Transparent
Information items released to recipients must be relevant: they enhance their lives in a way they understand and can relate to. In order to be considered for an evaluation they have to come from a credible – competent in the domain and presentation -, and trustworthy – not omitting valuable facts and not falsely representing facts – source. Finally, the message must be transparent in a way that it supports the credibility and trustworthyness of the author and it makes visible the value of the information in a clear and actionable way. In other words: your message should not be written like this paragraph.
From Information to emotion: Journalism vs. Marketing
The spectrum of an item comes from providing a detailed and accurate account on a topic – pure information without emotion – to an item that tries to spark interest and emotion – marketing. All forms do depend on an underlying story. In journalism, the user is engaged by his clear interest in the story. In marketing, the user wants to be engaged in the story by the story.
Content Strategy is Strategy: Strategies last longer and are goal-directed. The longest-living item in a customer-facing ecosystem is a brand. Your brand must maximize the value and your content strategy must load your brand with associations to your products and real-life situations that add value to the brand.
A sidenode on topics and issues
Any piece of writing has a key issue it develops, it’s focal point. The way the issue is developed is called the topic. Typically, the question of the text – explicitly given or not – mixes both the issue and the topic into one sentence. The topic is the way the issue is addressed and reflects a particular writing pattern, Those can include:
(a) narration (like in story telling) or account (following the path of time)
(b) explorative essay (“What can be said about X?”).
(c) argumentative essay (“What are the pros and cons of X”?)
X in this case is the issue. The “What are the pros and cons” is the topic.
Marketing typically are presented in other forms than informative issues. They are idioms, short snapshots of a moment or a promise.
A generic model of a marketing topic : Hook-Action Topic
The hook typically starts with a mentioning of mere facts that shall help the reader identify if the message is relevant. It then transitions into a general vision, promise or problem which the user who has been addressed shall relate to. If the user is enage now he will progress towards a new series of random facts that now identify the brand, product or the company and finally the general problem or vision is related to the introduced brand/product/company. Finally, as in any sales argument, there is a call for action. “Stand up!”, “Sign up!”, “Go to www…”, “Now available on Amazon.”
A key difference between entertainment and marketing
Entertainment invites to join a mental play that evokes emotions and uses the methods available in the medium. In marketing, the very same happens when the customer experiences the marketing item. But it must only be a gateway to an actual experience that relieves the marketing-created experience. Only then will credibility be attributed and future engagement is possible. The action is not a make-believe game, but an actual action that must imitate the experience of the make-believe game preceding it which created it.
Section II: Further Context on users
While some characteristics of customers exist almost for the entire spectrum of the “general audience”, reality tells story tellers that they must focus on as small target segments as they possibly can and create mass demand one segment at a time.
Information overload: Information is exploding. Timeslots available get smaller and more scarce. Competition over attention is fierce. So why should your customer care about your demand in his attention? You must laser-focus to have laser success with a target customer.
Symbolic complexity: Life gets more complex. Mental models become more complex and peoples set of mental models and views on the world becomes more disparate. This makes it harder for them to get to the gist of your message. At the same time, attribution of meaning to objects, lemmas/words and icons become more and more confused. The very same cup – Starbucks for instance – can mean a million different things to a million different users. Why would your symoblism and mental concept relate to yoru audience?
Twitter is a good example of how to work with symbolic complexity. You engage in a specific circle and learn the key triggers that spark your interest, you use these triggers in a challenging new way and link to an article that explains this information in an engaging and informative way.
The problem of symbolic complexity reminds of the works of Pierre Bordieu on the way tastes of the ruling classes emerged and became dominant tastes of style and class. Honesty would dicate that we abandon any hierarchy of tastes, as the visionary and star-like strength of elitist tastes should have vanished by now. But of course this is not the case. Hollywood is as good an example of this as the feminist movement, the “Google” culture or the magazine networks targeting teenage girls. Idealised images and definitions of taste still dominate discourse and gives rise to the relevance of “influencers”.
Emotional and Cognitive limitations: Apart from symbolic limitations and limitations in the ability to decrypt excitingful meaning in a message, people can only relate to and engage with a small set of issues – well it varies for most people.
Frustration: Knowing that others fail at enganging the audience in a meaningful way and creating frustration will help determine the amount of content you produce. It must be relevant and perfect. Nothing is worse in social media than engaging an audience which then is disappointed by your message. A perfect example are ads on online video hosting sites like YouTube that fail to engage you within the time you HAVE to endure them. It typically reduces the value of both the provider site brand and the brand displaying its brand.
Base message: Get the message to the user in the channel they want, where they want in a form they want to digest. Namely, you need to come to them – where are they? – at the time when they want you to come – when are they open for consuming messages by a stranger ? – in an engaging way – why does it matter at the point in time when you reach them. This is the time to re-visit what you heard about sales and pick-up artistery and to keep in mind the generic topic for marketing messages. Peacocking means you do not blend into the environment. You are different. You draw attention to you. But not every situation can be won with peacocking. Using this hook strategy when someone is sad is a time-waste and hurts the brand. So emotions matter. The setting matters.
A hierarchy of Hooks – (1) Lifestyles: Lifestyles are a lot easier to understand and address than particular opinions, personal features, goals and plans. Habits everybody has and pain points these habits make visible is a key of getting to pains quick and creating interest in the story. Humor may maximize emotional engagement. But also opens the path for a story with less functional explanations. Specific problems that a product can solve in a good way should rather be approached without this emotional trigger to keep the customers brain focused on processing information in a visual/structured way. Places and objects in lifestyles are also a lot more standardized as objects and places belonging to customer’s own models of, e.g. achieving a specific goal.
A hierarchy of Hooks – (2) Plans and obstacles: Pain poins often are understood as being related to problems that want to be solved rather than mere emotional discomfort feld when doing an activity. Problems typically present themselves the very same way to all people that have the same problem, but their understanding and view on the problem can vary strongly. This requires alignment of the problem view before solving the problem in an ad, which in turn requires a longer time-slot of attention or a pacing that might be too fast for some parts of the target market. This is why channel management becomes more important in content strategies for rational problems.
Section III: The tools for story telling marketers use
We already discussed segmentation strategies, patterns/topics and styles of presentations. What else is there?
Channels: McLuhan is famous for the “Media is the Message” metaphor where he states that the message is influenced stronger by the dominant styles of presentation of the medium you use than the message itself. The same is true for channels,
Social Network – Hot Spot Detection: Where are people already engaged in your topic and how can you enter this space to get attention? Marketing that heads this way is using a lot of analytics, social media monitoring and understands how emergent networks work to identify places in the network where their content matters. This is exactly the opposite direction of a scouting marketing campaign where you basically flush an entire channel with your message and you try to infer where your audience is. Naturally, flushing forever will allow you to see shifts in the “place” where people engage in your subject and you can learn a lot of about engagement life-cycles.
Viral Marketing – Generating Hot Spots: Given that you know your audiences and their internal organization/operation, you can start to focus your attention on influencers that will carry the message and you use the organic growth effect created by information being spilled from top-to-bottom or – in other words – information percolates through social systems. This requires a homogenity in appreciation of your content and a sound knowledge of your target audiences’ taste and is a measure of reducing the cost given a pre-defined impact. It is neither comparable to scouting nor to tracking hotspots. The problem is that it lets the taste of the audience dictate your message instead of the other way around, where you try to influence how your audience will perceive you. So it is an awareness campaign and a conversion strategy, but not a traditional marketing/brand strategy.