Digital Storytelling: Powerful Insights from 14 Top Experts

May 17, 2016

Storytelling is a skill that content marketers need to have, but it’s also something that they struggle with. Most marketers confuse digital storytelling with digital selling. There’s a big difference.

Marketers who consistently tell a great story understand there’s a number of ways to tell a story through digital channels that give it dimension and make it richer. Those who struggle aren’t able to escape campaign mentality, lead with the brand and suffer from the effects of siloed teams, among other things.

To get to the bottom of what works and what doesn’t, I tapped the expertise of 14 storytelling experts for their advice on how every marketer can get better in the digital world. Here’s what they had to say:

Robert RoseRobert Rose, Chief Strategist, Content Marketing Institute and co-author Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing
Storytelling has become an abused term these days – and has simply confused the marketer who rightly asks “um, really, Joseph Campbell – what does that have to do with selling generators?”  The answer to that question is usually that we have to be more emotional, or authentic or something else that, quite frankly, is something we should already be doing. The true, actual difference for marketers that are successful is because they recognize that a “story” is simply an argument. It is having a distinct point of view – and using content enriched with inspiration, education or entertainment in order to convince you of that distinct point of view.


Todd-WheatlandTodd Wheatland, Global Head of Strategy, King Content
To me the core failing of most marketers with storytelling is short-termism; they need to show results to protect their jobs, therefore the short-term interests of the brand usurp those of the target audience. Under those conditions, it’s very easy for things to go wrong.




Ardath AlbeeArdath Albee, CEO, Marketing Interactions and author, Digital Relevance
Stories are how we experience life, so it makes perfect sense that storytelling is a skill that content marketers need to have. This said, there are challenges to creating stories that serve a business objective.

Stories engage us because they have meaning and purpose that resonate. Unfortunately most marketing content misses in making that connection with its intended audience. This is because we make assumptions about our audience based on what we think we know. But without discovering what we don’t know, the stories we try to tell lack depth and the knee-jerk response is to turn to what we do know—our products.

One of the biggest challenges is that marketers don’t tend to be natural storytellers. And, storytelling is different than a campaign structure based on a product-focused approach.

Storytelling is about a complete experience. A basic story is structured around a hero with a goal who runs into obstacles/conflicts, finds the mentor he needs to gain the skills/tools to overcome those obstacles and successfully achieves his goal.

If you try to replace “hero” with company, the sentence makes no sense. You’ll experience a similar result if you try to replace “hero” with product. Customer or buyer is the clear stand-in for “hero,” yet I still see companies struggling with this concept.

One of the reasons is that marketers often think in terms of one-off acts of content. They need to publish a white paper, or a blog post, or send out an email to keep in touch with their audience. They do this and then measure clicks and views. Or the executive team comes up with a theme for the quarter and marketers race to create content that reflects that theme.

However, one of the biggest benefits of storytelling is in taking a serialized approach. If we take a problem our buyer is trying to solve (that our products address) and map out the steps, questions and thinking that may occur on the road to solution, we can parse it out, creating a serialized story designed to drive intent.

Anticipation is the key. Think about the mini-series, or a soap opera. Each episode ends with a cliff hanger that creates anticipation for what’s next. Connecting the dots is imperative for enabling people to move forward with the story you’re telling. When they can relate to the hero, as a stand in for themselves and see you (your company’s expertise) as the mentor that can help them, that’s when you get traction. That’s when interest turns to intent. And that’s when content as story creates experiences tied to business objectives.

Vishal KhannaVishal Khanna, Director of Digital Marketing, Wake Forest Innovations and Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 Content Marketer of the Year
If marketers are doing a great job with storytelling it is because they understand that stories are not sales pitches. If marketers struggle with storytelling it is because they forget the story should serve a business purpose.

Want to tell better corporate stories? Answer these questions first. What’s the core theme of your story and how does it relate to your brand? Why should your prospects care about the story? Are you the right person/brand to tell the story?

Ahava LeibtagAhava Leibtag, President, Aha Media Group
In my personal opinion, marketers are good storytellers when they are trained to tell a story. So that might be a journalist, someone who studied English literature or a comedian. Telling a great joke is like telling a great story—you need timing, understanding of narrative and an ability to punctuate certain moments. To become a better digital storyteller you need to learn to become a great storyteller. Read great works of literature and notice how the authors set up conflict and resolution, as well as plot, characters and settings. Take a screenwriting class. Study books like On Writing by Stephen King. Notice storytelling techniques in movies you love. Immerse yourself in the art of storytelling, and you’ll become a better storyteller. Once you do, you’ll easily make the leap to a great digital storyteller.

Michael BrennerMichael Brenner, CEO, Marketing Insider Group and author, The Content Formula
Storytelling has been around since the day we emerged from caves. Early humans knew nothing about where to sleep, what to eat, and how to live. Stories conveyed the most important information we needed for survival. The stories that worked the best, played into our fears, our hopes and our dreams.

Fast forward a few tens of thousands of years and storytelling has become a huge buzzword in marketing and business, driven largely by the declining effectiveness of advertising. As consumers, we do everything we can to avoid ads and unwanted interruptions. We DVR or stream our favorite TV shows. We don’t answer cold calls. We throw away “junk” mail. We even go so far as to install software on our phones and laptops to block banner ads.

Leading marketers have taken to digital storytelling and content marketing to create the content that people actually want to read and share. We’ve realized that if we can become an authority on the topics that relate to our products, then we can introduce our brand to the customers who avoid our ads.

But somewhere along the way, someone asks “but how will this help us sell [our widgets]?” For many marketers, the easy answer is more ads, more promotion and more interruptions. We chase attention like children repeatedly asking “are we there yet?” And hoping for a different answer.

Effective digital storytelling takes courage. It requires empathy that so many business executives lack. It requires a real authentic desire to help people get educated on their toughest challenges. Effective storytelling combines the ability to inform and to reach people on an emotional level. And it works better than any alternative because, like the earliest cave people, customers are people too.

Sarah MitchellSarah Mitchell, Director of Content Strategy, Lush Digital
The biggest reason content marketers fail with storytelling is they focus on what they want to say and not what their audience wants to hear. All great storytellers know you have to draw the audience in – court them, entice them. That’s never going to happen when you’re the focus of the story. If you’re having trouble, put yourself in the shoes of your target market and ask, “So what?” That’s what your audience is doing every time they read your content.


Doug KesslerDoug Kessler, Co-founder and Creative Director of Velocity Partners, the B2B content marketing agency
A lot of brand storytelling is actually brochureware in disguise.

Marketing teams can’t help but start with, “What do we want to say?” as opposed to, “What does this audience really want to hear?” And that first miss-step is a killer. It’s very hard to resonate with an audience if your own agenda overwhelms your audience’s.

If empathy isn’t the starting point for your storytelling, you’re actually talking to yourself.

Another big fail in story-driven content – especially in B2B – is to forget that people aren’t rational decision-making units; they’re emotional creatures who make decisions based on gut feel, then use their intellects to justify those decisions. (Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a fantastic book about this. I’d urge every marketer to read it.)

Stories that make people think are powerful. Stories that make people think and feel are irresistible.

Every company has many stories to tell. But underneath all of them, linking them all together, is one core story.

If your stories in different channels aren’t coming from that core story, you’re confusing your audience or losing the focus of your brand. All your stories will be stronger and more compelling if you’ve got a clear idea of what your core story is.

Katie MartellKatie Martell, Marketing Consultant and Advisor
Everybody knows at least one famous tale, which always used a simple story to teach a greater truth. For example, “slow and steady wins the race” from The Hare and the Tortoise. These parables have survived the test of time because of their simple purpose: to entertain and to teach. Aesop is my favorite example of the power of storytelling in action.

I think the biggest reason marketers struggle to execute storytelling is that… frankly… they don’t think of it as their job to be good storytellers. We’re marketers, not Aesop. Plus, we are constantly striving to prove the value of our profession within high-pressure environments. The onus is on us to drive awareness, leads, revenue — not to waste investors’ money on frilly stuff like “customer experience” and “storytelling.” It can be daunting to sell the value of storytelling in this environment, and so often we settle on doing things the way they’ve always been done. We put out another product slick. We send another campaign highlighting new features.

But those marketers with the cajones to get creative, dig deep into customer research to uncover the emotional pulls behind their product’s impact, and use that insight to create story-driven campaigns and content see results. They know that we as human beings crave stories – it’s in our nature. Understanding this emotion isn’t as easy as learning our products. It requires us to go out and get to know our buyers, and tap into their deeper motivations, their wins, their losses, their personalities, then use these to form the characters that shape our marketing content. Every B2B company makes somebody more successful, helps somebody do their job better and brings joy and triumph to somebody in this world. Those people are our characters, their journey is our plot, and capturing their emotion is how we as marketers can connect with our audiences in a relevant, human way.

Tim RiestererTim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer, Corporate Visions
If marketers are doing a great job with digital storytelling it’s because they tell their audience something new, different and unexpected…and well supported.

If marketers struggle with digital storytelling it’s because they don’t offer any original insight or capture imaginations with a vision for what’s next or better.

The biggest fail is that to many companies, storytelling is flat, vanilla and simply uninspiring:  1) They aren’t willing to do the hard work of developing original, thought-provoking concepts, instead they regurgitate the same things as everyone else…2) They aren’t doing real research to provide tested and proven support for those approaches, instead they just sharing  the same third-party factoids without adding any value or even validating their truthfulness…3) And, they are not providing clear, legitimate examples and ways to execute those big ideas, instead it’s platitudes and social soundbites.

Your stories should be so powerful that a legitimate publisher wants to publish and promote a book on what you have to say because they believe people would pay money for your stuff!

Park HowellPark Howell, 30 year advertising veteran and founder of the Business of Story platform
I’m not sure most marketers are doing an amazing job with digital storytelling because so many of them seem too caught in the default features and benefits offering. They are missing the essential form of communication – set-up/problem/resolution – the three act structure. I had a fascinating conversation with Eric Munn of The Onion’s in-house agency, Onion Labs on my Business of Story podcast. They seem to be doing digital storytelling correctly.

The overall brand story can become richer using the strengths of the different digital channels providing a solid story map is created first. But few brands take the time to do this, because they still operate from the one-off campaign mentality. It takes handwork and dedication to the narrative to make sure that your story is presented in the best possible way depending on the channel, and most myopic CMOs don’t have the time or patience for this.

Go to most brand sites and do the pronoun test. Do they talk in “We, us and ours or you and yours?” That will tell you if they truly place the customer at the center of the story. I got this simple pronoun test from customer persona expert Ardath Albee.

Great storytelling brands take the time to intimately know their audiences, and then fashion stories on a proven story structure, like the Story Cycle, that places the customer squarely as the hero of the journey. Smart brands position themselves as the mentors – the Obi Wan Kenobi to Luke Sky Walker, or Glenda, Good Witch of the North, to Dorothy. Then they use the simple set-up/problem/solution three-act structure to deliver stories that our narrative-driven subconscious cannot resist.

If marketers struggle with digital storytelling it can be because the brand leads with a company story and the customer comes second. Do you know how a narcissist warms up for a presentation? They clear their throat by saying, “Me, me, me, me, me…” That’s what most brands do, especially in B2B marketing.

The biggest tip I have to help marketers become better digital storytellers is to fall in love with the story, not the tool. Then determine how best to share the story depending on what the social media platform does best.

Kathy Klotz-Guest, CEO, Keeping it Human
Kathy Klotz-Guest
Doing a great job with digital storytelling requires first and foremost a great story, and then knowing how to get the most out of each channel – so having the right distribution. It’s challenging. And great storytellers remember that it’s always story first, and they know their audience. So they focus on making sure that the story they are telling is emotionally compelling and then worry channels and distribution second. And making sure that the story is “portable” across visuals (infographics for example), video, and other media is another important factor in success. Primarily, it’s important that people feel connected to that story so that it becomes ‘their story.’ The right packaging (visuals, etc.) and distribution are an important secondary element of success. As a storyteller at heart, story always comes first!

I think companies fail with digital storytelling for many reasons. I think campaign mentality is a huge one. They think of these things as one-offs that don’t tell a common story and advance a larger company narrative. That’s a big issue. I also think too much marketing storytelling lacks a deeper emotional connection. It’s sterile and superficially self-serving because often times branding doesn’t focus on the customer. I also think branding ignores other areas of the company where great stories happen – in sales, customer service, etc. Employees throughout the company have great stories that need to be heard. There’s too much of a “throw technology at the issue” mentality. That means too many B2B marketing departments fail at the core elements of great storytelling itself and end up scaling a lot of bad content.

So my one big tip is to first focus on telling great stories that are emotionally compelling. Forget the campaign mentality. Stories are everywhere in the organization, and often outside of marketing. Go find amazing stories (in sales, customer service, other employee areas, your partners, customers, etc.), shape them, and let the best, most credible storytellers tell them. Then worry about packaging, distribution and how technology can help scale. The most important thing is to make sure you are scaling good content.

Michael BritoMichael Brito, Sr. Vice President San Francisco, Head of U.S. Digital Marketing for LEWIS Global Communications and soon-to-be-released book, Participation Marketing: Mobilizing Employees to Participate and Tell the Brand Story
Marketers fail because they don’t know their audience. More importantly, they don’t know what makes their audience unique from everyone else.

Whether it’s a CIO, a physician, millennials who are into music, a developer or an affluent consumer, you name it. You can’t just launch a campaign with mediocre stories and expect to make a difference much less any business impact.

But imagine if you had the intelligence that defines their behavior online? What type(s) of media they consume, their specific language, vernacular and context when talking about key issues related to your business or your brand? Their platforms of choice or what time(s) they are online? This intelligence is critical.  And, this is how you break through the clutter and reach your audience with stories and ideas that matter – to them, not you.

Everything else is just a guess.

You must first invest in tools, technologies or an approach that delivers this intelligence BEFORE programs or campaigns are launched. This is how you will be successful in digital storytelling.

Russell SparkmanRussell Sparkman, CEO, FusionSpark Media
I’m interested in brands that can see beyond the obvious company or customer success story as the focus of their storytelling. Company/customer success stories are the kinds of stories that the savvy consumer or buyer is going to view and say, “well, yes, of course they would say that” about a brand, product or service, because of where the funding for it originates. These kinds of stories are just a continuation of customer success stories that have always been told by brands, just in different ways, pre-digital, pre-Internet. Or at worse, they’re just a modern form of an infomercial.

Where I think brands begin to step outside their “customer success story” comfort zone is when they start to produce stories that are actually tangential to the brand. There is a context connection to the brand, but the stories aren’t about the brand, they’re not about their customers, etc. They’re about real people, doing real things, and tangentially connected to the brand. They draw people in because the content is cool, inspiring, surprising, meaningful, and the viewer then has the experience of discovering “oh, wow, BRAND X was behind this content.” It’s these contextually related, but unexpected, stories that I think create experiences that have the opportunity to be engaging in surprising ways.

Hopefully this list provides you with guidance when you’re struggling to make your digital storytelling come to life. What have you found works best for you when you’re in a content marketing slump?

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author