We spend our lives trying to make sense of the world around us. We do that by looking for patterns and tropes. This is why we see a man on the moon and Jesus in toast. This is what a narrative is. A pattern, a model by which we can make sense of things. It is a filter for information that resolves it into something meaningful. A mouthful, I know.

If you’re a Lee Child’s fan, you know what I mean. In each of his Jack Reacher books, (yes, I read semi-trashy mystery novels by the wheelbarrow-full) he constructs the perfect plot twist. He does it by weaving a story around a series of facts, and then at the end revealing that those same facts are explained by an entirely different story, which turns out to be true. Each of those stories is based on a different narrative. A different filter for what those facts mean.

But here’s the coolest part. You can build narratives. Really fantastic narratives that change the way people think and feel. You can do this for many reasons and in support of many things. In this case, we’re focusing on how to create narratives for businesses, products and causes. These are the narrative you want your people to dedicate themselves to, and your customers to feel kinship with.

“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule — a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.” — John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

This is the power of great narrative. It can evoke deep emotional responses as well as great intellectual ones. A great narrative finds a core human truth — however small — and connects people to it. A great narrative will align the imaginations and intentions of workforces, and ignite a feeling of recognition, a desire to identify with a brand. Nike’s “If you have a body you are an athlete.” Sugru’s “Fix that thing!” Open Text’s “Driven by purpose, powered by teams.” These are all trivial (but impactful) tag lines given heft by the backing of a powerful narrative. They are made important by the many stories they allow their brands to tell that add relevance and dimension to the topic.

(Editor's Note: Deb Lavoy will be leading a workshop on building better narratives on Nov. 2 at CMSWire's DX Summit 2015 in Chicago)

Integrating Narrative and Digital Marketing

If you want to sell something, people need to want it. People want things that are meaningful to them. Things that may fill an immediate need, but speak to long-term wants, goals and desires. Nike’s customer may think, “I need a sweatshirt, but I want to be an athlete and a hero.” OpenText’s buyer was thinking, “I need to buy some software, but in my heart I want to work for a company that will change the world.” Or in the case of Hubspot — “I want to be a more sophisticated marketer.”

A well-built narrative transforms a complicated idea into a powerful story. It clarifies, compels and convinces. It has both emotional impact and rational substance. It forms the backbone of your website, messaging, information architecture, content strategy. Even more importantly, it informs and accelerates product, marketing and strategic decision-making.

Marketing, in its modern, multi-dimensional, multichannel richness, is a game of aggregation. If you are writing every marketing campaign, every marketing asset from scratch, then you are working very, very hard, and achieving very little.

Every time a person gets a glimpse of your brand — through a new impression, a new fact, a new experience, a new tweet — it should be revealing a more comprehensive whole. The person should feel as though they know you better, not just seeing a different tag line each week — or even just the same tag line. This is the relationship you’re building and the narrative you are building in the mind of your customer.

Here’s the problem: few companies today invest in building their core narrative. Their team can’t tell if they are telling a good story. Even companies that begin with a strong narrative find it drifts over time, getting diluted on the way. It gets complicated and confusing. It loses meaning.

Not only does this tamp down your marketing power, it has another, subtler, more serious impact. A confused and disordered narrative depletes your company’s ability to innovate. Without the focus that a strong narrative provides, product and strategic decisions become more difficult, and employees lose motivation. Put another way, your strong narrative is what fuels your workforce to build and operate the products and organization that delights your customers. Without that narrative, every team is less engaged and every decision is harder to make.

Not Just B2C

Nike, among my favorite narrative heroes, does not repeat the same ad year after year, or even the same campaign. It tells lots of stories. And yet its core mission and narrative never falters. It evolves but doesn’t change or become diluted. Each new story builds on the last. Nike regularly rephrases its tag line and mission statement, “If you have a body you are an athlete,” and Nike exists to “Bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world.” But in doing so, it is not looking to start from scratch but to revisit and sharpen its core. It is lovely.

Some folks think that narrative marketing is more important for B2C companies. They are incorrect. Narrative marketing has a huge impact on B2B. To wit, HubSpot, a maker of marketing automation software — an area in which I am overly steeped — was building my interest in it for years before I actually needed it. It did it by talking about “Inbound Marketing” — a term it probably didn’t invent, but it certainly staked its claim on.

For years, it has pumped out great marketing content — both philosophical and practical information for the marketing practitioner and the CMO aspirant. What’s very impressive about HubSpot’s narrative, however, and which strongly differentiates it from its peers, is that its narrative does not stop on its blog, or website, or ubiquitous multimedia content (it was the first I knew of to hand out infographic templates to its confounded and desperate fellow marketers (thank you)).

HubSpot’s narrative of inbound marketing, in which leads are relationships won by offering your expertise and relevance to the market, is carried through its sales pitch and even into its product. HubSpot’s marketing automation software is organized according to how an inbound-marketer needs to think and operate. This is no small thing.

Most marketing automation software is just a wicked big heap of customize-me-and-you-can-have-it-all promises. Some companies need or want that. HubSpot uses everything it has to educate and engage its customer in the best practices of inbound marketing, including in the product itself. Nice. Even better? I know very few marketers who aren’t at least familiar with its products. At some point most of them will either make or influence a decision about marketing automation software. And they already trust HubSpot.

The Power of Aggregation

If you have your narrative act together, then your website tells a meaningful story. Your blog constantly enriches that story, and every social interaction and paid media impression builds on and reinforces that story. It aggregates in people’s minds. Even better — when properly structured — your digital campaigns encourage people to get more deeply engaged with you and the others who share your aspirations, values and goals — your community. A while back, I called this the orbital marketing model (as opposed to the funnel), where people who you interact with stay connected, and gradually get closer.

If you have a weak narrative, then you likely are letting all of your marketing actions go out into the world and after a moment of impact, just fade away. Your blog posts, your tweets, your ads, your landing pages.

As marketers, employees, consumers, leaders and people, we depend on narratives for the context that gives our day-to-day activities meaning and focus. A narrative captures our attention and, when well done, keeps us coming back for more.

The best is yet to come. (and so is a lot more about building and assessing narratives)

Editor's Note: If you'd like to learn how to build a better narrative, Deb Lavoy will be leading a workshop on the topic at our DX Summit on Nov. 2 at the W Hotel City Center in downtown Chicago. Find out more here.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  XXPepper