The bandwagon that is the Content Champion podcast rolls onwards to its 31st edition, and this time I’m happy to invite digital and communication strategist Steve Seager onto the show to talk about storylining – the best-kept secret of successful content marketing that most brands overlook.
With over 20 years’ experience in digital communication strategy across the UK, Europe and the Middle East, Steve has worked with both global brands and SMEs and is now based in Amsterdam, where he’s a freelance digital and communication consultant and is a visiting lecturer at the Willem de Kooning Academie. He’s also lectured at Syracuse, Dept. of Innovation & Entrepreneurship in New York.
With a marketing professional of Steve’s calibre on the show, I thought it would be a great idea to dig down into what’s gone wrong for a lot of brands involved in storytelling.
We’ll also consider how Steve’s storylining and GAME strategies can help remedy the communication problems that cause many organisations to conclude that content marketing doesn’t work.
In this fascinating 25 minute call, we cover a lot of ground – including:
Plus! The PS Question! I throw a verbal curve ball at Steve and put the clock on him until he comes up with a great answer! Resources mentioned in this show:
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Announcer: Welcome to the official podcast at ContentChampion.com. Join our heroic quest to discover truly epic content marketing. Introducing your host, the content champion himself, Loz James.
Loz James: Hi folks. Welcome to Episode 31 of the Content Champion Podcast. Thanks for listening.
On the show this time, I’m talking with digital and communications strategist, Steve Seager. Steve is a master at using hard data to align business strategy, digital strategy, and story, and has worked with a host of global brands. Steve is an advocate of the storylining process, the strategic backbone of storytelling that most brands over look.
He says that a lot of businesses would see greater results from their content marketing if they just built storylining into their processes from the outset. We had a fascinating conversation, so let’s dive straight in.
Thanks very much for coming on, Steve.
Steve Seager: Absolute pleasure.
Loz James: Now, with over twenty years’ experience in digital and communications strategy, you’ve worked with many big brands and lectured at top global universities, but winding the clock back a bit, you started out as a professional musician, so, tell us a bit about your history.
Steve Seager: Yeah, I was. I was a musician. This was sort of straight out of school and uh, my family were half military and half musicians, so it was one direction or the other, and I went for the music. Yeah, I did that for, until I was 29 when I realized I wasn’t going to be a rock-and-roll superstar, I thought, “Okay I better get- look at alternatives.” But I’d already been doing PR and events and communications and the marketing of my own band and so it was a natural switch.
And I studied business management, management information systems, and then through a couple of weird twists of fate, I ended up actually working in corp comms for a subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. Just post 9/11, I was tasked to set their PR department. That was one hell of a ride. And from there, I worked with lots of different businesses, in-house mainly, and about seven years ago, I’ve been, uhm, working freelance.
Loz James: Okay, the current trending content marketing and online brand communication is storytelling. But your view is that diving straight into story without a strategy is why a lot of content marketing isn’t working, so, what’s the problem with brands trying to tell stories?
Steve Seager: Oh, that’s a big question. There’s a slew of 2014 studies that, that really just illustrate that communications really isn’t working. Now, I’ve got some stats here. So the BMA Forester 2014 study states that eighty-five percent of marketers are failing to connect their content marketing with any business value; only four percent of execs are reporting high returns on digital investments; there’s an eighty-five percent leakage in funnel-based marketing. So all this story-telling is simply not working.
Loz James: Okay, so, as a screenwriter myself, I find your solution to the problems that are inherent in much of brands’ storytelling to be intriguing, so tell us about storylining. What is it and how can it help in this context?
Steve Seager: Well, in essence, storylines are to a plot what storytelling is to dialogue. You know, if you immediately go out and rush towards just telling a story and focusing on your features and benefits, the value isn’t in your storytelling, it’s in the storyline, so the actual messaging. So, the word content, for example, is a really weird one to get a grasp of anyway because uh, uh content is- is the actual messaging.
In Dutch they have a great word, the “inhoud”, which specifically means that, we don’t have that in English, but it’s basically what you’re saying.
Storytelling is how you’re saying it. And they’re both valid, but basically, if you create a storyline first, that means you’ve got a really strong plot, complete with a credible beginning, middle, and an end that draws people through a very specific journey towards an outcome. So that’s the bit that’s generally missing.
A good deal of the storytelling is focused really on just an awareness level and nothing that drives people through a decision-making journey.
Loz James: Okay, so, storylining can make this process easier and digging down into this, you have a framework that you call “The GAME Framework” to help us understand this and to go through the stages of this process. So can you expand on each of these sections for us?
Steve Seager: Yeah, I mean, GAME is actually just a simple, practical framework that- that helps align your communications better with strategy, whether it’s internal comms, content marketing, or even PR.
So, the “G” in GAME is basically setting business-level goals. So not communication goals, but actual tangible, you know, smart goals, so, you know, tangible, measurable business outcomes. So we’re not talking about clicks, likes, follows, or any number of nasty engagement turns or anything like that, so hard business-level goals.
Then within audience, this is really just your classic comms stuff so basically segmenting and prioritizing your audience in relation to your business goals. I think one of the biggest mistakes is that we often think that a single hit of the messaging is going to persuade people to take any action. Of course, it’s not. People are going to go through a decision-making journey. So you need to define that journey.
The framework I often use, which is where we’re going to move to messaging, is ACCA. So this is an old model from the 1960’s, but it’s basically awareness, awareness of the problem, comprehension of the solution, commitment towards that solution, so why it will work, and then action, final stage. And that’s where you create your storylines.
And then the last step is expression. The “E” in GAME is expression. That’s your storytelling and that’s where you pull on all your great narrative techniques of, you know, conflict and resolution to be able to tell a story that is cognitive, it makes sense, that it’s got great dose of humanity in there so it’s affective, so it touches your heart strings. And then conative so it actually drives you, saying, “Okay, here’s your call to action, do this next.”
Loz James: So just backing up a bit then, what comes out of what you’re saying really is that people are missing that stage completely, the storylining process and everything that goes with it, and they are jumping in blind, if you like, to a storytelling process that then inherently can’t work.
Steve Seager: That’s the sort of irony. The framing work and the process of storylining that I’ve proposed and advocate is really designed specifically for business communications. But I first encountered storylining working with the BBC.
During one stint there, I was working on horizon documentaries and basically, people sit down and create a storyline first, so a plot, a really strong plot that is convincing and draws people through that journey and then map these together and tie them together really strongly.
There’s not a scriptwriter on the scene at all, there’s not a director on the scene or anybody. It’s purely the storylining team that sits down and makes sure that the stuff fits within the right format, that it’s logical, that it moves in the right direction, and only once that is done, then you call in your storytelling. And that, I think, is probably why the BBC is so bloody good at what it does.
Loz James: Mmm. There’s some wonderful programs on the BBC. I did an M.A. in screenwriting at Edinburgh Napier University, the Screen Academy Scotland. We’d made a short film, I’ve scripted, I don’t know, probably a dozen short films, and one of them we’d made, and that process you just described, the sort of storylining technique before we started telling the story was done in a group first.
And it was no coincidence that was the most successful film and we sold it to HBO Europe and it was really exciting that it was obvious to us why it worked because of the exact process you’re talking about. The story had something to sit on, that if the structure hadn’t have been there, it would have been more lightweight and more flimsy and none of it would have held together so well.
Steve Seager: Exactly, I think that’s the key. I mean, I work with a lot of different types of clients. When we first meet, they often think, “Oh, here’s the guy that’s going to come in and do it for us.” And it’s not like that, it is a participative process.
One of the ironies that I’ve found in storylining is that if you work with a sales team, well a senior sales team, and by that I mean fifty-plus, these people really get it because they know that it doesn’t take one call to convince somebody to buy their product.
They understand that there’s a journey involved, then they, they soften them up, they get some information, give them something of value, keep leading them down this journey. So salespeople often click much more easily with the concept of storylining than marketers.
Loz James: Moving on then to- to look at some examples of- of perhaps how a rigorous storylining process we’ve described can help simplify and enhance the brand’s storytelling process. Could you give us a few examples of that, please?
Steve Seager: Yeah, I’ve got two examples there. The first one is with a B2B audience for a global ERP provider. I mean, content marketing is a massive buzz of, “Yes, tell stories, make it personal, do this and that and the other.” And they were basically doing that. And they were talking about and telling stories about the business improvements that their systems can make.
But they basically took their overall value proposition and started to create stories using real people to show how easy the product is to use, here’s the benefits, dah, dah, dah. So even though their storytelling was good, sales weren’t actually happening. So when we story-lined, we looked at things from the audience’s point of view.
We found out that, in particular, the smaller business audience weren’t looking for some overall business performance. They were really focused on very, very specific issues at each stage of their growth. And that meant that when they were just with two, three, four people in their business and they’re trying to scale, most businesses were just worried about sales.
Loz James: Mmm.
Steve Seager: And then a little bit later when they had five, six, maybe they got a sales department, now they were worried about logistics. So we created a storyline based around the actual journey of the specific issues towards success. And we only focused on the product with the most important features that would help them tackle those issues at any one time.
So once the brand started publishing on these, let’s say, you know, micro-stories rather than the ones built upon global features and benefits, they really started to get uptake from their presentations, their blog really started to take off, and they’re still going strong today.
So the storytelling technique was the same, but the actual messaging, and the storylining, was the thing that changed.
Loz James: Hmm. And another example?
Steve Seager: Yeah, especially when you’re dealing with particularly complex subject matters and, and many different stakeholders, storylining can really help. So I have a client who’s, uhm, a global NGO in sustainability. Very complex subject matter, so there’s environmental issues, social issues, economic issues, it’s pretty heavy stuff. And the stakeholders that they were targeting B2C, B2B, government, all sorts of people.
Now the problem is that HQ, the international comms team, are sat here in Holland and they call up somebody in South America or Asia somewhere and say, “Hey, give us some stories from the field.” And their response: “Yeah, we’ve got millions of stories to tell. Which ones do we need to tell?” And there was a sort of constant backwards and forwards with never, with HQ never getting the stories they need, people in the field never quite being sure what stories they needed to gather.
So we sat down and we- I’m using the GAME process, we story-lined this. We focused down on each individual audience’s specific needs, the consumers, the influencers, and the brands, and then by mapping these, creating a strong plot, we then had a central storyline that we could then split up and ask very specific people in the field for very specific stories that would help illustrate the point we needed to make with our audience.
Loz James: Mmm, those are fascinating examples, but what occurs to me listening to them is that, I guess for a lot of companies that aren’t doing this, there needs to be some kind of cultural change within that organization to enable this to happen and I know you’ve talked about on your blog, “storylining should become a core part of leadership competencies” as you say.
But perhaps management is part of the problem then in this context, they aren’t willing to be more broad-minded and more flexible and open to these types of techniques and just want to plow ahead with the stuff that’s maybe, I guess easier to do, if you see what I mean.
Steve Seager: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that have been easier to do. Yeah, that’s right. And that’s the main reason why people don’t do it, because, yeah it’s easier to turn around a piece of content in five minutes flat but if you refer back to those stats that we said earlier, content marketing simply isn’t working.
It’s not anybody else, it’s content marketers saying eighty-five percent of content marketers saying their content isn’t working. But what sort of amazes me on that level is that, you know, is finance easy? Is management easy? Why should marketing not be as rigorous as any other discipline? Plus, of course, there’s the fact that, uhm, we’re really locked in this short-term campaign thinking.
You know, there’s the classic pressure to send out stuff, get things done. So, uh, yeah, it can be hard to actually get the space to do your job well. But if you do learn the storylining technique and if you do start applying it, your storytelling becomes much quicker, much easier, you can experiment with all forms of storytelling, you can start crossing genres, you can use comics, you do trans-media storytelling. It gives you a really strong foundation for all of that.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Content Champion Podcast, showcasing the best content marketing strategies across the web.
Loz James: We’re back with Steve Seager. I get emails all the time and I’ve had conversations on social media, people saying, “Look, I understand what you’re trying to tell me about content marketing and, uhm, you know, all the various stages of the process, but in my niche, it’s never going to work for my size of business, it’s not going to work.”
In the context of storylining and what we’re talking about there, are we really saying that it doesn’t matter what industry you’re working in, you’re operating in, and it doesn’t really matter how big a company is, if you do the storylining process properly, you should have a very, very clear set of outcomes in terms of what you’re target audience are actually looking for and then you can, as you say, base your content on that. Is that a fair assumption?
Steve Seager: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to get down really to the essence of this, it’s about your actual messaging. You can do this, you can storyline a single story in fifteen minutes flat. So if you’re trying to sell something, what you need to do is rather avoid the features/benefits sort of trap, and think really from the audience’s point of view what is it they want. Just get that one single message right and then you can tell loads of stories just around that one.
Loz James: Mmm. And what do we say to the types of business-owners that are just looking at content marketing in terms of, okay, leads generated and income earned.
Because often, as we know, and looking at, perhaps, the question of metrics and what we measure and what we choose to see as, if you like, a measure of success in terms of meeting those metrics, a lot of people will say, “Well look. I don’t think this is working unless I’m generating x-amount more leads and x-amount of more revenue that can be attributed to the- to the storylining, storytelling process that we’re involved in.” So what do we say to those people?
Steve Seager: They’re right. (laughs)
If you’re not getting the business results, then it’s game over. These again are the stats: eighty-five percent of content marketers say they can’t connect their storytelling with actual business value. So it’s- it’s really as simple as that, it’s- it’s a business argument. If you’re in the creative industry, it’s a different thing than engagement counts, than sharing counts, but really, what counts for business at the end of the day is the results, right?
Loz James: Because this is a bit of an elephant with this whole topic really, what we’re basically saying is that in some industries then, this is problematic and it may not work as well as in others, so we’re talking about the whole process of, perhaps, using content as- as part of an inbound strategy and you can storyline and storytell as much as you like, but there might not be that level engagement that you want ultimately because of the sector you’re in, is that what we’re saying?
Steve Seager: If you think about any brand, the, now this is totally guess, I have no stats to prove of this, but it makes sense to me that a case study from a FMCG that goes out there is shared more by marketers and communicators than it is by consumers.
Loz James: Mhm.
Steve Seager:So in other words, we’re victims of our own success because we’re all tweeting and sharing, you know, “Ten Ways to Do This,” “Five Ways to Do That,” “Here’s a great case study from there, here’s a great–”
If you take away all that noise, you’ve just got to look at what are the business results. And that, if you’re a CEO, if you’re a CFO, and it should be if you’re a CMO, that’s where you need to measure.
Loz James: Perhaps as well looking at the way we promote content on the backend of it once it’s been produced and we’ve been through the storylining/storytelling process, social media, I think, is maybe guilty as charged in some of this because I have examples of posts I’ve done that have had a couple of thousand social shares and not really delivered on the metrics that I was hoping they would.
So in that sense, sometimes the peripherals, the promotion strategies that are used for content are maybe somewhat by-the-by, somewhat irrelevant to what you’re actually hoping to achieve and I particularly mean social media.
Steve Seager: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I wrote a post about storylining, (laughs) you’re now doing a podcast about me. So I’m reaching more people. In terms of business results, has anybody picked up the phone and said, “Hey, here’s some work”? Well, no, not yet.
So maybe we’re in a decision-making journey here but yeah, the whole promotional aspect, social is to blame for over-exaggerating that. Yeah, a-again, it’s just got to be the results that count, right?
Loz James: Okay, so, I know this is putting you on the spot a little bit but we’ve talked about different sizes of business, you’ve given some examples of larger brands. Perhaps if we turn our attention to small and medium-sized businesses, which a lot of people listening to this broadcast will either be working in or owning or managing, how can we use storylining to inform our storytelling with perhaps those key metrics in mind?
Steve Seager: I work with a lot of small businesses and I think that the core thing there, the big insight with smaller brands, even start-ups, is to really think from your audience’s point of view. So, so really understand what it is they are looking for, what they need, how can you help them fulfill a need they already have.
Loz James: Okay, well let’s just broaden this out before we go onto, uhm, The P.S. Question and talk about where we can find your wonderful blog in a moment.
With someone of your experience on the call, it’s great to ask the question of where you think all this is going. What do you think are some of the trends that are going to come out in content marketing over the next sort of year or two.
Steve Seager: That’s a difficult question, I mean, if you look at everything from Hubspot to David Meerman Scott, everybody’s talking about content marketing in one form or another.
And I think the real challenge is in how you cut through the clutter, and that’s basically you’ve got to have a stronger core message, so that’s storylining. But then I also think that what we tend to do at the moment in content marketing is we have one central story and then we blast it out and we treat all the different channels we have in social and digital as a bucket for our messaging.
Loz James: Hmm.
Steve Seager: And I think this is a massively, a missed opportunity. What we should be doing is adapting our storytelling form to make it much more trans-media and appropriate to the media that we are in. So, info-graphics is a nice example of like, “Okay it’s visual, let’s now find a different way of telling our story in some visual graphics.”
But if we start thinking about the possibilities of video, the possibilities of trans-media storytelling, so Sherlock at the BBC is a great example of that.
Loz James: Mmm.
Steve Seager: So using all these different channels you have to actually create- to use each channel differently, I think that’s what’s going to be the future of content marketing.
So when we get our messages down, then we start focusing on the actual social and behavioral usage of a channel rather than just see it as a bucket for messaging.
Loz James: Okay, so the answer to the overall question, “Does content marketing work in this context?” is, “Yes, but it depends upon various cultural changes, thinking about your customers more than yourselves, and then looking at, as you say, the specific ways that you’re going to create and share that content that’s related to that storyline that you’ve created for your- for your customer journey, if you like, and if you don’t take the time to do that, you’re wasting your time.”
Steve Seager: Yeah, I think number one is craft. First craft your storyline and then second, tell a great story. And I think there’s much work to be done on both areas. We can both create stronger messaging by storylining and we can start exploring really new ways of storytelling.
Loz James: Okay, that’s brilliant. Just before we go on to what I call “The P.S. Question,” can you remind us where we can find you online, please?
Steve Seager: Sure, I’m at steveseager.com, which is my blog, and my little website is on storywise.biz.
Announcer: Wait for it listeners, here comes The P.S. Question.
Loz James: Could you please share one advanced content marketing strategy that we can use right after this podcast?
Steve Seager: No. (laughs)
Loz James: (laughs in agreement)
Go on, you’ll be the only one that hasn’t.
Steve Seager: Let me have a think a minute.
Loz James: I’ll put some music, or some- I’ll put some ticking or maybe some sort of cogs grinding sound in the background.
Steve Seager: (laughs)
Exactly, exactly. Well, you know, I could take the easy way out and say, “Yes, it’s storylining.” Uhm, my personal pet hate is that “Three Ways to Do This,” “Five Ways to Do That,” I hate it.
I think what we’re really missing, and maybe this is even a trend in content marketing, give me some long-form content. Give me something with some real depth and some real rigor.
So, the one advanced content marketing strategy you can use right after this broadcast is actually storylining. So, you can download my PDF, you can check it out, I’m going to be posting more on it and you can start doing it straight away.
Loz James: Fantastic. Great strategy. Thanks very much for your time, Steve. I wish you all the best of luck in future.
Steve Seager: A pleasure. Thank you very much. Cheers, Loz.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to the Content Champion Podcast on storylining, available at ContentChampion.com, Stitcher, Zune, the Blackberry Network, and on iTunes. Until next time, thanks for listening.