It’s the start of a shiny new year, a time when most people commit themselves to certain priorities at work and in their personal lives.
Even as we look ahead to the things we pledge to do better and more of in 2016, there’s value in glancing back over 2015. Brand backstory and episodic content are two marketing lessons worthy of carrying forward, inspired by the blockbuster Star Wars franchise.
ONE: Don’t Build Without A Brand Backstory
At some point, we marketers have all thrown a little spaghetti on the wall just to see what sticks. Maybe the random food violence was your idea, or you were simply following orders from a boss who thought the best way to land on a solid strategy was to try a little of everything. That or you were trying to replicate all the things the competition is doing.
In any case, you were probably disappointed to take action – even if there was a semblance of organization or sequence to the effort – without first establishing a durable plan.
A Failure Of Epic Proportion
The “No Plan” approach commonly leads to a sucking vortex. After a software release, product launch, or marketing promotion goes unnoticed, the sentiment around the office may be disastrous. There are few things more upsetting to a marketer than the team’s big project going unnoticed by the media, the industry, the target audience…or the very prospect the endeavor was specifically tailor-made to attract. #FAIL
Any number of reasons could be the cause for a less-than-viral response. And coworkers may be quick to play the blame game to avoid culpability. But try holding a project postmortem to gather pragmatic input from all contributors and keep conversation constructive.
Did You Give Them a Reason to Believe Before Asking for the Buy?
While you’re focused on improvement, examine your brand backstory. It plays a significant role in validating and legitimizing marketing efforts (like the one that just failed), but often goes overlooked. The absence of backstory – a narrative device that adds context, depth, and color to a story – can leave a disconnect or void between your ideal stakeholders and your brand.
In a movie or book, backstory is a dramatic revelation that can play out in several different techniques as a way of communicating more layers of a story. Where does brand backstory fit in business marketing and communications?
Backstory In Business
Backstory is part of a strategy to build believability and depth between customers or prospects and our brands, in all the places and ways we connect with them. In business environments, backstory can be woven into web copy and digital assets, as a guiding principle for social and community teams, and even a mindset employed by customer success members.
In fact, backstory is critical to developing trust and favor among B2B buyers. According to an IDC study released about a year ago, 65% of B2B buyers usually engage a sales rep only after they’ve already made a purchase decision. For 75% of B2B companies, the decision-making process takes one to six months.
Let’s Get To Know One Another First
As small business expert John Jantsch writes, people buy stories before they buy stuff. We want to exchange part of our annual budget or personal cash for goods and services we can sink our teeth into, where our wants and needs (and as business buyers, those of our employers) are reflected back. The routes taken by business buyers are increasingly looking like their consumer counterparts. Which means more businesses are rewarded with a buy because of their efforts in building a well-storied brand.
The Stalagmite Effect
A believable backstory requires a brand to exercise patience and ruthless standardization of language, support and business documents, policies, and process (and much more you don’t notice until it doesn’t fall in line). And you guessed it – product releases and promotions need to feel congruous and substantive, too. The result? A steady buildup of brand believers, earned over time.
How Star Wars Does It: Released in 1977, A New Hope predates much of the digital whiz-bang special effects that make the later films so stunning. But despite the decades and technology separating them, the installments easily “hang” together as a family. Recollection and flashback techniques create backstory in the film.
The flicks (pick any one) hold our attention and interest because they’re consistent (in setting, central conflict, primary characters, etc.), the storyline is complex (which mirrors the journey of our own lives), and encourages self-reflection. What choices would we make in the face of adversity and threat of harm in order to survive?
Even the things that are wildly different – like hair and dress styles and species – are presented in ways that add to the plausibility that somewhere there’s a parallel universe where forces of good are fighting forces of evil.
TWO: Keep Them Coming Back With Episodic Content
Just like the “spaghetti on the wall” trick leaves marketers in search of results supremely disappointing, the initial Star Wars release would have left movie lovers unfulfilled had George Lucas not chosen to add deeper and deeper layers of backstory.
Since A New Hope, film production values have risen to include more bells and whistles in terms of effects. Whiz-bangs aside, each film is part of a deeper, bigger story that takes viewers to a place far beyond one they’d imagined. They satisfy our quest to know more about the world we’ve been introduced to. The story arc is brilliant in execution – there’s enough resolution in each film installment for viewers to have some measure of satisfaction, yet sufficient “what next?” uncertainty that we are drawn back for more. Because we simply MUST know what happens next.
That’s called episodic content, folks. And prospects can be drawn further along the path to purchase with this very tactic because it relies on a fertile backstory.
One More For The Road
I first put a name to episodic content after reading a Ceros article projecting content marketing trends for 2016, and it immediately rang true. Since then, I’ve noticed Skyword and other companies discussing the effectiveness of the segmented story tactic, too.
Marketing material – blog pieces, eBooks, drip email installments, videos and other pieces – created with this tactical method have shown to be highly effective at retaining audience interest. The key to telling a credible, engaging brand story is multi-stage, multi-channel engagement.
Start The Story Anywhere
As there’s no way to determine with certainty where a customer or consumer might enter the buying cycle, the trick to episodic content is to create and deploy it in ways that acknowledge it could be experienced out of sequence, and encourage (even entice) the audience to seek out the other installments for the full story.
How Star Wars Does It: In my Facebook feed and Twitter stream, I’ve read bits from people proclaiming they had never watched any of the flicks, but decided to check out The Force Awakens in theaters. While seemingly impossible (I mean, what could possibly keep you away?), this demonstrates the franchise’s wide appeal, to attract viewers (ticket buyers) at a variety of life stages and ages. Ticket sales alone suggest George Lucas and Disney have a knack for crafting a story so the disruptive years between films build suspense, enticing viewers to return for the next chapter rather than lapse to disinterest.
TL;DR: If your company would like to make a big marketing impact this year, start with shoring up your brand’s backstory, and move on to planning digestible bites of messages and material that transcend linear conversion paths. And, if you need a little inspiration on how to do so, look no further than Star Wars! The end result will be stronger content that results in greater business opportunities.