I've spent the last month offering up a series of posts based on Chip and Dan Heath's book about viral marketing. In the last article of the series I'll be examining the craft of telling a story. The idea of using a story to make a point stick is an ancient one, going back to Biblical times when parables were used to explain spiritual principles.

Of all the keys to creating a sticky message, I have to admit this one is my absolute favorite. Anyone who has seen me speak knows I'm a story teller. I'm one of those people who teaches and explains best via analogy or example and I've been told time and time again by people in my sessions that those stories really help drive home the point.

The nice thing about story telling is it's not just for teaching, it's a compelling way to get someone to both remember and talk about your point.

(I've pulled these six components from Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick and put my own spin on them.)

Part One: The Need for Simplicity
Part Two: Deliver the Unexpected
Part Three: Be Concrete
Part Four: Carry Credibility
Part Five: Tap into Emotions

We're Conditioned to Recall Stories

crywolf.gifStories are nothing new, in fact, they're one of the earliest ways we are taught things as children. We hear nursery rhymes and fairy tales and learn life's lessons in the form of short stories. "The Tortoise and the Hare" teaches us the value of perseverance and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" teaches us not to lie. Most of us only need to hear these stories once before we remember them well enough to repeat them.

We're able to digest the message from the story because we're so easily able to relate to the story. We can internalize the fear of being attacked by wolves in the story of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" and we can relate to the frustration and eventual abandonment by the people in town who were repeatedly tricked. We can place ourselves inside the story, therefore, we can digest its points.

Stories can Help us Address Challenging Topics

Companies that sell products that are difficult to talk about often have a hard time relying on emotions and passion points to spark something viral. Insurance is a perfect example of this. After all, who wants to focus on buying something they hope they'll never need?

That's part of why I've always been a fan of Nationwide Insurance company's "Life Comes at You Fast" campaign. Rather than tout the low cost or excellent service of their agents, the team at Nationwide has turned to storytelling as a way to offer a subtle, yet memorable reminder of just how important your choice of insurance companies is. They do this by reminding us that just because we don't plan on having any accidents doesn't mean we won't.

The team at Nationwide describes the shift from agent selling to story telling this way:

"...just because everyone knows life can change in an instant, it doesn't mean they want to talk about it."

If you've never seen the commercials, here's my favorite:

Sure, the commercial is more than a little over the top, but the entire series of commercials does a great job of reminding us that what we think is a nice normal day can go insanely wrong in an instant. It's the over the top nature of the commercial that makes it viral. Most people have heard of the butterfly effect, so the story uses a great starting point to paint a picture of life's possibilities. That makes it memorable and the series ties it together to build a strong (and passable) brand image.

Testimonials are a Simple Form of Story Telling

There's a challenge to this type of campaign building. Story telling is hard work. Few people have the ability to craft a story that's memorable enough (and gets your point across well enough) to do the job.

The good news here is testimonials serve as a wonderful way to tell a "story" based on someone's experience. Consider what may be one of the most successful fast food promotions of all time; Subway's Jared Fogle.

subway.jpgThe story of a man who lost (and kept off) hundreds of pounds simply by eating from the healthy menu of choices at a fast food restaurant is a memorable one. In fact, it's one of those stories you almost couldn't make up. That's what makes testimonials so great. They not only tell a story, but they carry credibility.

For a small business on a budget, testimonial driven stories are an affordable and effective viral tactic. Getting out there and offering an awesome product or amazing customer service can be a wonderful way to drive and gather these stories. Keeping your eyes peeled to find interesting ways people are using your products or to find those blog posts that rave about you can go a long way toward helping you craft a good viral story.

Putting it All Together

Of course the most effective viral campaigns are going to be the ones that incorporate multiple sticky tactics. The Jared campaign told a story, was simple, carried credibility and was unexpected. The VW crash campaign was unexpected, simple, emotional and concrete. The more of these traits you can use in your campaign, the more you increase the chance of it taking hold and going viral.


December 17, 2008





Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.





Comments(1)

Jennifer - this is a great post!
Story-telling is often the key element of a successful sales letter, every copywriter knows this.
Stories also make learning much more easier and entertaining. In one of my video info products I used a story and people learned it better compared to previous video courses I made.

Story is the key!

Alex from Extra Paycheck Blog

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Six Keys to a Viral Message that Sticks - Part Six: Tell a Story