Crafting Co-Created Storytelling That Connects

Co-Created Storytelling for Content Marketing From TCA
Summary: You've got to evolve from a brand-centric narrative to a story that involves and resonates with audiences. Think about positioning the brand not as the hero, but as a facilitator in the value-driven journey of the customer.

My wife and I have a running bit of funny banter. Well, we think it’s funny.

On occasion, as we do our end-of-evening ritual — close up the house, brush teeth, get a glass of water, etc. — I demand a bedtime story. When, predictably and inevitably, she refuses, I say I will tell her a bedtime story. Now, she doesn’t want that either.

We go back and forth in a faux heated negotiation, and I ask for a song, a poem, or even a reading of a legal contract as an alternative. Then I offer to sing a song, say a limerick, or read some new contract to her. She always refuses.

Ultimately, we end up where we always end up, agreeing we both have engaged in a story and go to sleep.

I know. It’s a little weird. But that weirdness has kept our marriage fresh for 30 years.

Anyway, the last time we bantered, I was inspired to write about an interesting change I see in marketing and brand storytelling that might be one of the most important shifts in the last 10 years.

Leaning differently into co-created storytelling

Generative AI’s dynamic growth makes access to how-to and other derivative content even more commoditized. Therefore, buyer trust in digital experiences will wane in the short term, especially with the challenges of using search engines to uncover valuable information. Audiences will continue to value the more personal (not personalized) content sources they discover — content that makes the consumer say, “Wow, this is exactly what I needed. I’d like more.”

Leaning into co-created storytelling that create relationships of trust requires getting and holding attention long enough to develop trust from audiences no matter where they are in their journey with your brand.

But — and this is the crux of the shift I see — marketers must unlock what we mean by “co-created storytelling.”

Don’t tell me a story about you

Many (maybe even most) marketers have successfully learned your brand or product should not be the story’s hero. When I ask a marketer to tell me their “story” for a particular audience, they might say something like, “We need our customer to understand how innovative we are,” or “We need that audience to understand that our brand is going to save the planet.”

Nope. That’s not how a successful story works. Your customers and audience will go about their day just fine without understanding you are innovative. No one gets out of bed worrying they don’t know how your brand will save the planet.

Now, in my last column on developing more meaningful brand relationships, I bristled when someone (usually a marketing speaker at a conference) says, “No one wakes up wondering why they don’t have a better relationship with their butter provider.” My point was, while true, that sentiment doesn’t negate the need for the butter provider to have a better, more meaningful relationship with its customers.

When I say no one gets out of bed worrying that they don’t understand how you’re innovative, I’m not refuting your need to make them understand that you’re innovative. I get it. I really do. But that point cannot be the heart of a story that will develop a level of trust.

At best, putting your brand front and center with innovation claims might strengthen that notion with your most ardent fans. But it’s highly unlikely to make anyone aware and most certainly not change someone’s mind who doesn’t believe. If you’re the butter provider or any brand, you must demonstrate why your customer would want a storytelling relationship with you. They are more expansive than your brand, product, or service.

This is why, in TCA’s training program, we teach the difference between the brand story and the brand’s stories. The brand (“we are innovative”) is NOT a story. The brand’s stories (how you get to innovative value) are a story. Integrating that difference is important.

Don’t make me tell you a story about you

However, another extreme exists on that spectrum. In figuring out the heart of the brand’s stories, some marketers put the customer at the center of it too literally. You ask them to tell their story about you.

On the surface, that strategy seems better than you telling the story about you. But the story is still about you — you just shift who’s doing the telling. Instead of saying, “We need our audiences to understand how innovative we are,” you say, “Our customers need to tell our audiences how innovative we are.”

Now again, like the brand story, this perspective has an important application. Testimonials, case studies, and customer stories can be extraordinarily valuable in persuading a customer to make a purchase, stay longer, or get more value out of your product or service. I don’t suggest eliminating this strategy for those tactics.

But having the customers tell your brand stories isn’t likely to create, deepen, or expand a meaningful brand relationship with audiences. Put simply: If you understand your neighbor loves butter as you do, it won’t suddenly compel a more emotional or meaningful relationship with the product.

Trusted brands use co-created storytelling

The shift requires evolving the value you create. The story should center neither on the brand nor the customer. It should exist as a story in which the audience can put themselves. This is co-created storytelling.

If that sounds a bit esoteric, let me explain more simply.

Instead of considering your brand as the center of value, think about it as a facilitator or tool on the journey to value. Here are a few brands creating interesting, value-laden stories:

  • Pendo is a startup software company providing product marketers with software to get better insight into how their customers are using their products. In 2022, it acquired Mind The Product, a community, training platform, and educational content hub for product managers. As the Pendo CEO said in the acquisition announcement, “Our mission is to elevate the craft of product management and to help product managers be better at what they do.”
  • Schneider Electric, the energy management and automation company, launched Energy University over a decade ago. The standalone, non-proprietary online university teaches students energy management, efficiency, and automation. It’s got more than 200 free courses. A month ago, it announced it had reached more than 500,000 registered participants in 185 countries.
  • VMWare, a cloud computing company, created the CIO Exchange, which features thought leadership and insights for technology executives through articles and a podcast. They co-create this content with customers and partners. The customers aren’t telling their story (e.g., how they use VMWare) as much as they share their insights and perspectives on the world at large.   

Ultimately, the audiences of these platforms aren’t being told a story by the company or a customer. Both brand and customer co-create the valuable, larger story.

What do you need to get there?

4 fundamental shifts to get to co-created storytelling

How do you enable co-created storytelling to deepen and widen the relationship audiences have with your brand? Four elements sit at the core of this evolution.

1. Create point-of-view architectures

I’ve written at length about our work with brands, especially those creating thought leadership programs, to develop a develop a point-of-view architecture. Much like a classic messaging architecture, it involves documenting and designing things the business, not just individual thought leaders, believes about the world.

It grounds any platforms you might build by creating consistent and cohesive messaging. Take Pendo’s acquisition of the Mind the Product platform at face value. As the CEO states in the announcement, the brand is clearly articulated — to “elevate the craft of product management to help product managers be better at what they do.”

But that’s not a point-of-view story; that’s an ideal. The story is revealed in the manifesto of Mind The Product: “Product management is much more than a job title — it’s a discipline, and to some, a calling.”

Developing and understanding these architectures across the entire business is critical.

2. Shift the language used in content and marketing

Whether B2B or B2C, marketing, communications, and brand language tends to slip into “wise-person-on-the-hill” mode. You demonstrate the idealized version without acknowledging the struggle, flaws, or imperfections of adopting your point of view.

The traditional customer story or case study is a great example of this. Marketers often present it: 1. Person had problem. 2. Person chose our brand. 3. Now, their life is unicorns and rainbows.

If you put the audience into the story, you must go along with them, contending with the struggle, heartache, and unexpected downsides to success. Your brand is not a know-it-all; it’s a friend, colleague, or helper on the same journey.

3. Widen and deepen the value you deliver

It’s a silly notion that the butter provider must develop a deep, emotional, intimate relationship with its customers. It is, after all, butter. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t provide some level of a relationship. For example, no one needs a deep, meaningful relationship with Amazon. Yet, they have built a stronger connection with audiences that become Prime Members by providing an entire streaming entertainment platform.

Any brand can and should ask how to expand content experiences by offering something different to widen and/or deepen audience relationships.

4. Create new operating model and roles

Fostering those broader and deeper relationships requires you to hold attention over a longer time than any ad or marketing campaign provides. It requires you to treat owned media experiences with the same importance as your product or services.

As such, demand for editorial product managers must rise. The charters, roles, responsibilities, and operating model of marketing must shift. It is complex for many businesses, but the change must be implemented.

New marketplace of ideas

Co-created storytelling is like the relationships we create with people – we all do it – but whether we do it purposefully or not is the question. And, further, just because we do it – doesn’t mean it’s always positive. It is already happening. From content creators, influencers, and brands all the way to customers, everyone shares their experiences publicly or at least with their immediate networks. The web is a roiling, bubbling, and chaotic marketplace of inspiration, practicality, awful truths, outright lies, and fake news.

It’s incumbent to ditch every old playbook about creating brand value through persuasion and repetition. You must switch from the always-be-closing mantra to an always-be-creating-value foundation.

You can be a trusted source of interesting things for your customers. You can establish more valuable relationships with all your stakeholders, whether you want them to subscribe, buy, stay, vote, or evangelize.

Too many marketers will sing a song, recite a poem, read a manual, or ask you to do the same on their brands’ behalf. Audiences don’t want either of those things. They want to end up in comfort, knowing they’re in the stories they want to be in with the people they want to be in them with. And they don’t have to tell anyone if they don’t want to.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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