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Amplify Engagement Through Brand Storytelling

Consumer brands are always looking for new ways to connect with their target audiences. So it makes sense that they have in recent years turned to an art that goes back to the dawn of time: storytelling.

In today’s fragmented media environment where  there is constant noise and competition for attention, the need for high-quality, authentic, personalized storytelling is more critical than ever. And this isn’t just an art, it’s also science: according to a study on speaker-listener neural coupling, listeners remember stories up to 22 times more often than facts and figures alone. Considering how personalized experiences are increasingly playing a much larger role in how consumers choose to buy, this truly does make sense.

But storytelling is not just for big consumer brands. It is key for communicators at mission-driven organizations to establish an emotional connection with target audiences. Storytelling illustrates how you meet your beneficiaries’ needs and make a positive impact in the world. Regardless of the focus of your organization, or any budget or resource constraints, you can create a powerful story for your brand!

I recently attended the 2018 AMA Nonprofit Marketing Conference here in Washington, DC, and heard from a number of organizations that had recently launched successful integrated brand storytelling campaigns on limited budgets. 

If you are already planning — or trying to wrap your head around how — to create a storytelling campaign for your organization, here are some of the most helpful tips that came out of how these organizations found success with brand storytelling:

Tell, don’t sell

Any successful storytelling campaign should be rooted around your impact, with an emphasis on educating your core audiences. Focus on the beneficiaries of your work, NOT your organization. Create a checklist that will enable you to help guide internal stakeholders who may push for more “selling” over “telling” stories. For example, the checklist could include important questions like: does this make our audience feel something? Does this increase audience awareness/understanding? Does this make our target audience take an action?

Get creative with “brand ambassadors”

What is a brand ambassador? Different organizations have different definitions, but essentially they are anyone that helps represent your organization in a positive light and by doing so increases awareness of you and your mission. Consumer brands often hire celebrities and other “influencers” as brand ambassadors, but they can be anyone that is passionate about your mission and has influence with your target audiences. Start with your staff and use volunteers; they are already passionate about your organization. Whomever you use as brand ambassadors, ensure they are message trained and pre-interviewed to prepare them to communicate directly with your target audiences.  

Focus on user-generated content

Some of the most effective storytelling campaigns are ones that rely on authentic, user-generated content. Focus on organic (and on-message!) content versus polished content. For example, ask your brand ambassadors, staff, and volunteers to produce content. A lot of organizations successfully solicit this kind of content through contests that incentivize people to submit their content. As much as possible, reuse and repurpose. For example, if you developed a three minute video, break it down into multiple 10-20 second videos that you can “tease out” over your social channels and drive audiences to your website for more information. 

Understand that advertising is not out of reach

Don’t assume advertising isn’t an option because of your budget. Look to local TV affiliates in your target markets as they often have sponsorship packages that offer production of broadcast ads, video and b-roll at affordable prices. In some cases, you can then repurpose the content they develop. And don’t forget Google Ad Grants: the program provides registered nonprofits with an additional tool to reach their online audiences at no cost. Local colleges and universities can also help you find budding photographers, videographers, and video editors who are looking to build out their portfolios, which can help you cut vendor costs. 

Deal with sensitive content 

If your organization does work around sensitive topics or issues that may be taboo within certain audiences, you have additional challenges to consider. The tone of any content developed in this case should focus on empowerment, versus sympathy. Be upfront with your interview subjects: ask them what they are comfortable saying, and tell them where you plan to use their testimonials and when. And always require any interview subjects to sign a disclosure agreement.

Check to see if it is working

We often like to tell clients to use the “Cry or Laugh Factor” to determine if your campaign is using effective storytelling. You can test this easily with informal stakeholder focus groups. But we always tell our clients - if you have the money to invest in benchmark research to gauge the effectiveness of your storytelling campaigns, do it!

These are just some of the ways that communicators at mission-driven organizations are creating powerful brand stories that illustrate how they meet their beneficiaries’ needs and establish emotional connections with their target audiences. 

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