Recipes vs. Movies: When to Use Storytelling in Content Marketing

"You should add some more narrative to your articles," my editor said in our regular catch-up.

"Sure," I answered. "I'll write a fictional story for one of my clients."

The next day, I found my meeting notes, that goal, and a blank screen in front of me. "A fictional story for a customer? What was I thinking?"

I went down a Google rabbit hole, hoping to find out more about storytelling in content marketing. I came out hours later, more confused. I clearly wasn't ready for such a hero's journey. So I decided to settle for a lesser quest: finding out when to use storytelling in content marketing.

So You Think You’re a Storyteller?

"Now everybody is a storyteller… People who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels and make feature films don't see themselves as storytellers."

- Stefan Sagmeister in You are not a storyteller

Storytelling is the holy grail for content marketers. Anyone — including robots — can write a listicle or keyword-stuffed what-is-X article. But stories, stories are works of art. They separate writers from mere marketers. They require creativity. They're pieces you can share on LinkedIn.

Stories can educate, engage, or convince a reader of something they didn't know or care about before. So when given a choice, why would any content marketer not want to tell a story?

Well, for one, stories are hard work. Even a straightforward narrative approach like a case study or clever analogy throughout your article can involve deep thought, many rewrites, or SME interviews.

And, as I found with my fictional hubris, how do you even come up with a narrative that serves your customer and reader? Do they need your story at all?

I started looking for a rule of thumb to tell me when a story is worth the hassle and when it's not. I interviewed editors and other content marketers to find out, and a simple check emerged from those talks.

The Recipe Versus Movie Test Tells You What Your Reader Needs

Sometimes, we grasp an article's format right away. Other times, Google helps. Customer stories are usually case studies. Existing search results might show a topic just needs a 101 article.

But what to do when things are not so clear-cut?

Recipes: For Experts Who Need Instruction

Sydney Arin Go, content coordinator at Semrush and a former colleague, inspired the recipe test. "When I'm looking for cooking recipes, lots of them have a whole background story about where it came from and blah, blah, blah. It's all wasted effort because I just need the recipe and skip the stories.”

When your reader is familiar with a topic and wants to know how to do something, they don't need a fancy story. They want to get straight to the what and how — they want the recipe.

Examples of recipe content that can skip the story

You don't need to convince or educate such readers about the importance of headlines, a definition of APIs, or the usefulness of strategic frameworks to run a business. They want to go in, grab the info, and get out.

Movies: For the Unfamiliar, Uninterested, or Unsympathetic

The other analogy, movies, emerged as I spoke with Nathan Wahl, managing editor here at Animalz. "Think of narrative like a movie. It has to follow a subject, whether that's a person, product, or organization," says Nathan. "And those subjects need to face conflict and find a way forward."

When you need to teach, touch, or earn your reader's trust, you must take them on a journey. You can't convince someone who is unfamiliar, uninterested, or unsympathetic toward your topic with a cold shower of statistics and instructions.

In such situations, your article needs to be akin to a movie that takes the reader along and, hopefully, changes or enriches their mind.

Examples of motion picturesque content that needs storytelling

  • An explanation of the psychology of buying behavior for engineers
  • A case study on how your product helped a customer overcome a challenge
  • An overview of business strategy frameworks for non-profit activists

Engineers might not know how understanding buying behavior helps their work. The customer case study might be in an industry your reader is unfamiliar with. And non-profit activists might disagree on the benefit of any business strategy framework.

In these examples, you need to teach, touch, or build trust with the reader — their minds need changing or arousing. As Sydney put it, narrative content can do this because it evokes an emotion that can make a lasting impression.

Five Steps to Writing Motion Picturesque Content

Most content marketers are familiar with writing recipes — how-to content, process walkthroughs, and listicles. (If you're not, MECE: How to Think, Write & Persuade Like a McKinsey Consultant is a great starting point for upping your recipe-writing skills.)

To craft a narrative akin to a movie, follow these five steps to ensure your idea deserves a story and get it written.

1. Know Your Reader to Know if They Need a Movie

"The audience always matters in content marketing, but even more so with narrative content. You need to figure out what this audience needs, so you can build your narrative toward them.”

- Zander Hatch, editor at Animalz

You can't do the recipe test without understanding your reader. Are they newbies or experts on the topic you're writing about? Do they need teaching, touching, and trust, or are they just looking for instructions?

And what does your customer want the reader to do? Do they need to convert, move on to another funnel stage, or be convinced your customer is a thought leader?

Settling on a movie or recipe is straightforward when you understand the reader and your customer's goals. The opposite — picking an approach and trying to match a topic and reader to it — is much harder, as I experienced with my fictional story.

2. Search Results Might Signal if a Story Is Worth Telling

Sydney likes to use the current search results for a topic to determine the need for a narrative piece.

If all Google gives you are recipes with few changes in that ranking over time, there might not be an opportunity for movie-style content. When you see other narrative pieces ranking well or you need a way to stand out, writing a story could be worth the effort.

But, as Ryan Law, VP of Content at Animalz, warns, Google isn't some amazing evolutionary selection engine. "Most SERPs are choosing from maybe a dozen intentionally KW-targeted articles - the rest is noise."

So use Google with caution when deciding on the suitability of a story. Treat the search engine as one signal among others, not your all-knowing muse.

3. More Work Means More Planning

Since narrative-driven content involves lots of work, it requires planning. You might bang out a listicle in a day, but stories don't unfold that way. You need time for research, interviews, and inspiration.

Writing stories is not impossible, though — journalists deliver them on deadline all the time. As a content marketer, you have it easier; there tends to be more flexibility in the delivery dates of your articles.

Here are some tips from our editor Carrie Chowske on planning your narrative content pieces:

  • Plan ahead for an entire month, not just the current week. A narrative article is usually spread out over more than a few days, for example, for scheduling and processing interviews. At the same time, you'll have other pieces that need to be written, too. Taking a longer-term view helps you figure out when you can work on which article.
  • Get more mileage out of interviews. Don’t just talk about the narrative-driven piece you're currently working on, but also about topics for potential future articles. The best way to achieve this is by focusing less on prepared questions and more on the story your SME has to tell.
  • Upgrade your note-taking workflow, so you can easily find and store information for future articles that you uncover during your current story research.
  • Agree on certain milestones — e.g., research done, outline, first draft — with your editor, co-worker, or customer, so you don't get stuck in one phase forever.

4. Expertise Is a Nice to Have; Research Is a Must

Most content marketers can pen a story about writer's block — tapping from personal experience. But what about an arcane subject like individual retirement accounts in the U.S.? Most young writers would draw a blank there (but gain more inspiration for their writer's block article.)

Your own experience is always a good starting point for finding the right story for your topic. Work you've done, people you've met, challenges you've overcome. But if that doesn't get you anywhere, research is the path to finding your narrative.

The sources most used by journalists and other writers are primary sources. Subject matter experts (SMEs) who can help you and your reader learn about a topic and, most importantly, give real anecdotes and insights from their hard-earned experience. Research reports and original data, like from your customer's product, can also help you find and build a narrative.

Last, tap secondary sources by finding inspiration through reading and watching — books, other articles, videos, and so on.

5. Craft Your Story With Metaphors, Challenges, and Headings

"Without a force to fear, fight, and eventually overcome, your story isn’t worth telling. Remove Sauron from The Lord of the Rings and you have a flaccid tale of Frodo’s privilege and family squabbles. Without the nemesis of 'outbound marketing,' the redemption offered by inbound marketing is meaningless."

- Ryan Law, VP of Content at Animalz

Now, it's down to you and your keyboard. While this article isn't about how to write a story, here are a few tips to get you on your way:

  • Define your thesis and look for a metaphor that helps explain it. In Hook, Line, Sinker: How to Write an Introduction, Gail Marie, Head Of Content at Sphere and another former coworker, suggests you "look for … something that loosely connects back to each of your key points. Finally, use an anecdote, data point, or story to illustrate your metaphor."
  • Make sure there's a central subject with an active goal, like a customer with a challenge to overcome, a product facing irrelevance, or a business about to go bust. This provides the setting and tension necessary for a compelling story.
  • Lay out the high stakes of the issue. Make the reader care about your subject and its goal. Why is it essential they overcome their challenge, and what's in it for the reader?
  • Create dramatic headings. Use your headings to compel readers to stop skimming and pull them back into your story.
  • Let outside quotes strengthen your case. When an expert or like-minded person makes a point for you, readers are likelier to believe it than if it's just coming from you, the writer.

Storytelling in Content Marketing: To Be Continued

And so I'm returning to my editor with this story about when to use narrative in content marketing. It's not the boon I set out for, but hopefully, she sees its value nevertheless.

Equipped with the wisdom to tell recipes from movies, you can focus your powers on those narratives that deserve to be told; when your unfamiliar, uninterested, or unsympathetic reader needs to go on a journey that changes their mind.

And that fictional story for a customer? Ah, perhaps one day, in a galaxy far, far away, a content marketer stands up to take on that epic quest.

Thanks to Carrie Chowske, Elaine Atwell, Gabrielle Lemonier, Mariana Fernandes, Sydney Go, Nathan Wahl, and Zander Hatch for contributing to this article.