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Growth Marketing

A WillowTree Secret for Telling a Great Marketing Story

Marketing needs a story with some structure, and we're not talking a messaging house.

Story is a wiggly word and for some reason particularly easy to hide behind in the world of marketing, despite storytelling being our craft. For instance, it’s easy to call a concept a story. Or an angle. An elevator pitch. A few slides. It’s easy to call a vertical line of bullet points a story. But none of those are stories. They’re story ideas. Story outlines, at best. To create a story, it takes sitting down and painstakingly writing it out, word upon word, sentence upon sentence, paragraph upon paragraph. Figuring out the holes in the plot. The motivations of the characters. Researching the setting. Drafting and drafting and drafting for the right words in the right order at the right tone. Finishing an output that somebody can read and understand.

If that sounds like writing a book instead of a marketing messaging, that’s because writing a great marketing story is closer to writing a book than, say, preparing slides is.

It surprises me when marketers don’t write down their story. When they run campaigns or create deliverables or make plans armed with just a tagline and a few sentences of value prop. How is that enough strategic backing to face your audience? To fully address your competitors? To make anything compelling and worth digging into?

So how do you move from story concept to actual story? It helps to have a framework to structure your story around. And, no, I don't mean a Messaging House.

We’ve known stories need structure for thousands of years. And there are a lot of frameworks out there, from Aristotle’s ancient Three-Act to Dan Harmon’s ink’s-still-wet Story Circle. We have so many structure methodologies because creating a tight, believable story is difficult. Whether it’s a novelist doing it or somebody selling a bank app.

At WillowTree, we use a classic storytelling framework for our messaging projects. It’s called the Five-Act. That’s our secret. It’s also known as the Freytag Pyramid, after the 19th century German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag who codified it. The framework is five beats in a sharp arc, like this:

Of course, we’ve adapted it. Marketing storytelling yields a somewhat different intention than storytelling for storytelling’s sake (namely, that we’re selling something at the end of the story, while the novelist is trying to sell the story itself). To do that, we’ve replaced those five general parts with elements relevant to business. Anytime you hire us for a messaging project or any project that we think might need to be rewound to the messaging level, you’ll see this slide from us:

And then we multiply it times three—three trends, three challenges, three parts to the big idea, etc.—because with complex businesses and complex products, there’s usually more than one thread that needs tying together. We consider those subplots of the main story. Again, like a novelist would. These subplots also help us adapt the story to different audiences or to organize a product portfolio in a more intuitive way.

The process of using the Five-Act framework isn’t a fill-in-the-blank process (even though we do have a template that needs filling out). It’s a process of research and discussion and validation, but most of the time the process is just sitting down in a chair and sweating out the story, word upon word, sentence upon sentence, paragraph upon paragraph. At the end of this process, we have a ~1,000-word document. An actual story. And that’s what I’m always looking for on projects when I ask, “What’s the story here?” I’m not looking for the elevator pitch or a few slides. I’m looking for a document. The same way when we hear that somebody’s a novelist, we immediately ask, “What have you written?”

That story document is then the foundation for all collateral, whether it’s a brochure or a website, and it keeps the story consistent, accurate, understandable, and shareable at maximum power.

But my point here is that marketers should attack a marketing story like a novelist attacks a novel or a screenwriter a screenplay, not like a salesperson attacks a PPT.

So now that you have our secret to telling a great marketing story, you don’t need us. Or you might need us more. I don’t know. The Five-Act is a storytelling tool, and as with any tool, it takes practice to wield well. A person might know Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey framework back and forth, but that doesn’t mean they can craft a great novel with it right away.

Still, take a crack at our Five-Act. Use it. Experiment with it. Have fun. Story creation is fun. And if you need any help, give us a call. We’ve had a lot of practice with it here at WillowTree.

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Jason Ocker

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