A few weeks ago, I received word I was selected to be a member of the 2018 Forbes Communications Council. It was a huge honor and a bit of a dream-come-true moment for me, so I figured I should probably repost my first Forbes.com article right here for all of you to read. You’ve stuck with me since the beginning (or at the very least, a few years) and I appreciate your support.
Before you read it, fair warning this article is far from the whimsical fiction or personal asides I usually write about but it is an ode to the importance of high-quality storytelling. My overall premise is really that despite the encroaching arm of machine learning or analytical decision-making based on big data and cold numbers, we still need writers. We always will.
What’s the ROI of a Great Story?
In real estate, the difference between a house and a home is often a great story. The deflated tire swing in the backyard, the little knot in the wooden floorboard where your baby took her first steps. Memories, in this homebound sense, are stories that coalesce inside the mind, shape-shifting and taking on new meaning with the vagaries of time. They’re also the currency by which communicators effectively trade on consumer attention in all industries — well-told stories transcend the transactional and can turn customers into clients and prospects into franchisees.
The plot thickens, however, when you consider storytelling within the context of a business world (rightly) enamored by analytics, set on using their predictive value to construct a strategy, increase profitability and bolster bottom-line growth. But how do you track nostalgic tears on an Excel spreadsheet? What’s the KPI translation of a consumer’s hearty laugh?
Answers to those questions cannot be succinctly given because the solutions are both complex and difficult to define. Somehow, the universe of big data and analytics must play well with — and ideally, optimize — the qualitative communications they’re meant to quantify.
There’s a dichotomous approach to marrying the technical with the emotional that enterprises from local cupcakeries to Fortune 500 giants put in place: First, employ the right kind of talent, and second, set up the right kind of systems. The two aren’t necessarily chronological and more often happen simultaneously.
Let’s start with talent. Storytelling, as a communications tool, is an inherently democratizing endeavor. You don’t need a multimillion-dollar budget to produce a great story. You just need someone — or a team of someones — who can effectively communicate your narrative to a targeted demographic of people who care.
It’s difficult to talk great digital storytelling without bringing up the example of Dollar Shave Club. In March 2012, Dollar Shave Club was little more than an idea built on razor-sharp dreams. CEO Michael Dubin didn’t have a massive marketing budget for his company’s commercial, so he hired a friend he knew from Upright Citizens Brigade who owned an L.A.-based video production company. Together, they filmed the hilarious, provocative and disarmingly charming Dollar Shave Club video inside Dubin’s warehouse and spent $4,500 for the entire thing.
During the two days following the video’s release, Dollar Shave Club acquired 12,000 new subscription customers. Today, six years later, the YouTube video sits at 25.2 million views and Dollar Shave Club is worth an estimated $1 billion.
In a pivotal 1986 essay collection penned by Jerome Bruner, the pioneering Harvard University cognitive psychologist outlined his definition of a great story by highlighting its disparities to an argument. “A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds,” he wrote. “Both can be used as a means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.”
In other words, a relatable story must be grounded in human experience and the vicissitudes — comical, heartfelt, sad — that happen over the course of a lifetime. A good story makes us feel, but a great story moves us to action.
And it’s that action we can analyze using innovative systems.
These systems can be incredibly simple or highly elaborate. For some companies, a system might mean tracking cost per click of a lead-generation Facebook ad in Ads Manager. For others, it’s the use of sophisticated algorithms that determine the best content, offer or product to automatically deliver to an individual based on the analysis of collated customer data.
Salesforce Einstein, for example, is the marriage of artificial intelligence with business technology to distribute customized digital content — stories — based on an ever-evolving algorithm that learns as a consumer engages.
Of course, this content-rich approach to systemized communications no longer means putting pen to paper, sending blog posts or Instagram photos to a consumer identified likely to connect. With the rise of distribution platforms invisible to the eye, voice is now becoming a significant landing place for sticky content that hits home.
It’s the next iteration of our storytelling renaissance. The most nimble and modern companies understand the importance of authentic, expertly crafted stories. They then wed that content with the technology to optimize its emotion-triggering effects, creating powerful multiplatform campaigns.
If our current business landscape was likened to the Wild West, the methodology would be akin to sitting by a campfire and listening to the cowboy’s story that AI bots deemed you’d like most. The story must still be composed by a skilled writer, but how you hear it is entirely determined by tech. Taken together, the whole endeavor becomes a revolutionary, nuanced process that coalesces the numbers-oriented field of analytics with the expressive, impactful creativity of the storytelling human mind.