Content Marketing is Changing the Future of Storytelling: Strategy Needs to Catch Up

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on October 12
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Content Marketing and the Future of Storytelling

In the world of content marketing, one hears a lot about the power of storytelling as an important aspect of brand strategy. Effective brand strategy thus requires knowing something about stories.

We can see this, for instance, in the ways content marketing has begun to draw on traditions of mythical archetypes as the model for effective storytelling. Content marketing's return to mythical archetypes confirms the proverbial notion that "history repeats itself." Yet history never simply repeats. History proceeds as repetition and difference: Tradition serves as the basis for change and innovation. So while content marketing draws on traditions of storytelling, it also transforms how we think about stories. In other words, content marketing should stop simply modeling itself on the derivative past and pay attention to how the profession itself is actively changing the future of storytelling. My interest lies in tracing these changes, so that we can move beyond our reliance on traditional concepts of story and expand our repertoire of conceptual tools for developing effective content.

From Shakespeare to Content Marketing: How Stories Evolve Over Time

To better understand how content marketing presents changes in how we think about stories, it helps to think about how similar changes have emerged in the past. There are, of course, many kinds of stories. And the history of storytelling only proves that people are always coming up with new ways to tell them.

These changes don't emerge in a vacuum. Changes in the form and content of stories reflect (and in turn transform) broader historical changes. The invention of the printing press in 1445, for instance, gave new access to books of all kinds, which in turn inspired the spread of ideas throughout the Renaissance. Books, once the privileged possession of the wealthy few, suddenly became affordable and accessible on a mass scale. Amidst this wave of newly affordable books, people also became newly acquainted with classic Greek literature. Greek plays and myth became particularly popular. A young William Shakespeare learned to love these stories early on, and he eventually turned many of them into new plays. It's not a stretch to say that the printing press facilitated the conditions that enabled Shakespeare's work.

The influence of the printing press provides a particularly fitting model for how we can think about the ways content marketing is generating new forms of storytelling in our current historical moment. Consider the parallel between Shakespeare's plays and the current state of the content marketing industry. Shakespeare wrote for a profitable theatre market spurred by the popularization of Greek literature, a cultural shift enabled by the printing press. Shakespeare's work in turn draws on Greek mythology and drama to present old stories in new forms. More broadly, the printing press created the conditions that eventually fostered the rise of Renaissance drama and the attendant market for theaters, actors, and playwrights. As in the case of Renaissance drama, content marketing has emerged as the result of a transformative innovation in media technology: just as the Renaissance came about in the wake of the printing press, content marketing is a product of the internet. In fact, the internet has generated historical change on a scale often compared to the that brought on by the invention of the printing press. And, like much Renaissance drama, content marketing has drawn on ancient myth to present stories in a new medium and form. In both situations, new forms of storytelling emerge through a network of historical change: The influence of media technologies gives rise to newly profitable markets. And these conditions in turn enable transformations in storytelling characterized by repetition and difference: The return to ancient myths and the re-telling (repetition) of these myths myth in new (different) forms.

Categories of Story

Simply put, the history of storytelling, like all history, proceeds through the ongoing transformation of tradition into innovation. These transformations co-emerge with other historical changes - new technologies, new industries, new economies, new ideas, and so on. And, as people develop new ways to tell stories, others try to keep track of these changes by creating a range of different labels for emergent styles and forms. As a result, today, after, well, literally millennia of storytelling, we have inherited a rich and expansive vocabulary for categorizing stories of all kinds, from fairytales to B-horror flicks. These labels represent the ongoing attempt to analyze and organize the constant emergence of new story forms into a system of types based on distinct patterns and conventions—for instance, distinctions of theme, character-type, setting, style, and medium (to name a few).

Patterns as simple as "real" and "pretend" inform the basic, broad categories of fiction and non-fiction, even though the distinction between the two often tends to blur. Gothic novels present a plot pattern of young women entering to work in old haunted buildings. It’s pretty amazing how often the gothic pattern shows up—from Jane Eyre to Scooby Doo, to The Phanton of the Opera, not to mention quite a few horror films! Myths, the category of story recently re-employed in content marketing—is distinguished by its tendency to present fundamental archetypes of character (for instance, love, heroism, and the monstrous) that often serve to shape social values. The rise of the novel—a form of story that significantly means “new”—arguably emerged with the rise of the middle class in the 17th century. The novel presents long, human-centered narratives that explore new interest in the complexity of the individual self. Movies obviously reflect the direct influence of a technological innovation, the cinematic camera, that facilitated the presentation of traditional stories in the new form of moving pictures. The development of the labels we know as "fictional genres"—such as science fiction, mysteries, and romance—all reflect the need to make sense of the ways historical changes have given rise to an endless flow of narrative innovation.

How New Ideas Have Broadened What We Mean By “Story”

Just as the printing press influenced new forms of storytelling in Renaissance drama, new ideas emerging from more recent fields of academic research have also influenced changes in how we think about stories. According to the work cognitive scientists, for instance, the most powerful stories are arguably those we rarely, if ever, recognize as such. Work in cognitive science suggests that stories evolved as a survival instinct developed from the need to construct cause-and-effect relationships necessary for escaping predation and other dangers. The old saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire” actually functions as a very simple survival narrative.

Research in cognitive science has given widespread plausibility to the notion that storytelling is hardwired into our DNA.  And the idea has informed work in other fields. Theorists working in architecture and urban planning discuss our navigation of lived environments through the “cognitive mapping” of narrative paths—stories we rely on to locate ourselves in time and space. Even making a quick run to the local store involves a story of where we began, relative to our current and intended location. The notion of “cognitive mapping” in turn draws on the work of psychologists who theorize human identity as a story—or set of stories—we tell ourselves in order to develop a sense of who we are. Simply put, what we call the “self,” exists as a set of mental stories that we create and revise on an ongoing basis. This work has influenced educational theorists who see learning as fundamentally grounded in the development and revision of the stories we employ to understand oneself and the world.

Arguably every aspect of lived experience can be thought of in terms of stories. This does not mean, however, that all of life can be reduced to stories. Rather, the idea suggests that the very process for how we come to know experience involves the construction of stories. The idea that all knowledge exists in the form of stories can tend to make stories pretty important. When stories explain "everything," they become a big deal. They can also get a bit vague.  We might start off asking, “What is a story?” Then, after a bit of philosophical reflection, end up asking, “What isn’t a story?”

From Story to Narrative

The term "narrative" refers to this broader understanding of storytelling as a means of constructing information about the world. In literary and linguistic studies, those who study the concept and nature of narrative specialize in the field of "narratology." Narratologists see stories and narratives as two related but distinct categories. While stories serve to represent human experiences, the term "narrative" refers to any presentation of information as a sequence of cause-and effect events that unfold in time. And, like all narratives, stories also present information in a temporal sequence of cause-and-effect events. However, stories represent a more specific kind of narrative grounded in human experience. Stories present a sense of "what an experience was like." Simply put, while all stories are narratives, not all narratives are stories.

How do we use these different labels?

Most written texts do not fit squarely into a single category. Consider this very article. Much of my writing has involved neither stories nor narratives. Much of this blog has in fact focused on definitions. I have spent a lot of time defining terms like “story” and “narrative.” Yet, ironically, in many ways, we can think of definitions as a useful conceptual counterpoint to the concept of narrative. While narratives present changes in time, definitions serve to present essential, “official” meanings that do not change over time—not as quickly, anyway. The very word “definition,” rooted in “fin,” means to finish, to end.

Of course, this article does not completely rely on definitions. The need to illustrate ideas with concrete examples has gradually required a transition to modes of writing that more closely resemble variations of narrative. Some moments in this article have emerged in the more specific narrative form of story. Others, which focus less on human experience, tend to be more strictly narrative. Consider the second sentence in this very paragraph: “The need for concrete examples has gradually required a transition to modes of writing that more closely resemble variations of narrative.” This very sentence presents information as a narrative unfolding of cause-and-effect events in time: The blog begins in one style, but the need for examples initiates—or causes—the gradual transition to another style.

Of course, the boundaries between all of these terms—like all terms used to categorize different kinds of writing—tend to blur. Instead of labeling texts in strict terms as narratives, stories, or definitions, it’s best to think of texts on a continuum. At one end, we have stories and other narratives; at the other, we have increasingly abstract texts, like definitions, which present information, but do not present a sequence of events in time.

Writing is much more complex than the labels we use to reduce it into categories. Still, these terms—again, like all those used in the long history of various genres and “story forms”—provide a useful way of thinking about how we present information. Beyond their use in organizing different kinds of texts into sections at the local bookstore, these terms serve as useful conceptual tools. And these tools prove particularly useful when thinking about content strategy. More specifically, these tools provide a more concise language for thinking about how to present information in new and engaging ways.

Discussions of “story” in content marketing remain tethered to old forms. Yet, the work of content marketing generates new needs that are already  generating new forms that go beyond traditional concepts of "story." Factors such as the needs of a particular market and industry, the type and use of product or service, the necessity of reaching target audiences, client needs, and branding strategy—these are just a few of the ways in which the rise of content marketing gives rise to new needs that shape the way we use and perceive what we once called “stories.”

From Story to Multi-Narrative Positioning: The Future of Content Marketing

What new narrative forms will emerge from the needs of the content marketing industry? One emergent issue lies in the challenges of presenting engaging content for highly technical topics. As we know, conventional marketing wisdom dictates that the secret to successful branding lies in storytelling. While a well-told “story” does indeed generate effective content, the word “story” itself has very real limitations. These limitations can lead to confusion—both for clients and for those who want to draw on the power of stories as an effective strategy. When developing content that focuses directly on human-centered experiences of products and companies, the role and relevance of “story” tends to be pretty obvious. However, when developing highly technical content, in which topics often focus more exclusively on technological processes, the role and relevance of stories may seem less apparent.

At MarketScale, we often get questions about how we might present technical or scientific information in the form of “stories.” To answer these concerns, I explain that the most effective technical content draws on the a broad continuum of narrative forms. A content strategy based in what I call multi-narrative positioning - a strategy that integrates abstract technical definitions, technical narratives that present how technologies work, and technical stories that focus on the human engagement with technology.

To help clarify how this strategy might inform written content, I have developed the following examples. All 3 examples focus on the operation of a computer keyboard—a more technical topic that may not intuitively seem compatible with storytelling. Yet each example highlights how different kinds of texts present information in different ways.

Technical Definition: Hardware employed to input data as typed text into a computer system or other electronic device. A keyboard usually includes alphabetic, numerical, and common symbols used in everyday communication and transcription.

Technical Narrative: As keys are pressed on the keyboard, this information is encoded as bytes to the motherboard’s onboard keyboard controller. The language presented on the computer screen is first received by the computer as electronic polarities on disks. From there, many processes intervene between the text displayed on the screen and the information input on the keyboard. There is the code that correlates numbers and letters with binary digits, followed by the compiler language that correlates these symbols with higher-level instructions that determine how the symbols are to be manipulated. And, finally, there is the processing program that mediates between all the instructions and the commands entered on the keyboard.

Technical Story: At my computer, as I write these words, I see black lines beaming out from a radiant white display. Light images, glowing on the screen, illuminate the space around me in a fluorescent cloud. As I press each key, the keyboard encoder sends data as bytes to the motherboard’s onboard keyboard controller. I see letters formed into words, words into sentences. But the computer speaks another language, in which relevant terms are electronic polarities on disks. Intervening between what I see and the information the computer gathers, manipulations of information, vast and unseen, orchestrate the progress of this composition through layers of translation. There is the code that correlates letters and numbers with binary digits, followed by the compiler language that correlates these symbols with higher-level instructions determining how the symbols are to be manipulated. And there’s the processing program that mediates between these instructions and the commands I enter into the keyboard. This information eventually makes its way to you, the reader of these lines.


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Topics: Content, storytelling, Thought Leadership, B2B Marketing, B2B Content, Content Strategy

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