317. Story Structures 🧵
The story is the strategy. How to build a marketing strategy around narratives
Hi there 👋
Last week was a big week at Oyster. We announced a $150 million Series C fundraise, which values the company at over $1 billion … made all the more incredible by the fact that the company has only been in existence for less than two years.
I’m very lucky to have been a small part of the Oyster journey during those two years (my one-year anniversary is next month). And I’m especially fortunate to have gained first-hand experience into what it takes to raise funds at such an astonishing clip. Growing revenue by 20x in one year certainly helps. But so, too, does telling a compelling story.
This week’s newsletter is about the way that we tell stories as a marketing team, and it has a lot of overlap with storytelling during a fundraise: recognize a tension in the culture and how your company can help, speak the language of your audience, and repeat, repeat, repeat. If you’re curious to learn more about Oyster’s fundraise, here are a couple of great articles that came out last week:
Why Base10 invested in Oyster — Base10 will donate 50% of its profits from investments in companies like Oyster to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
What the Oyster investment means — written by our co-founder Jack Mardack
Wishing you a great week,
Say hi anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
Story Structures: How to define the narratives that make your marketing work
The advertising agency J. Walter Thompson used to set a test for aspiring copywriters. One of the questions was simple:
‘Here are two identical 25-cent coins. Sell me the one on the right.’
One successful candidate understood the idea of alchemy. ‘I’ll take the right-hand coin and dip it in Marilyn Monroe’s bag. Then I’ll sell you a genuine 25-cent coin as owned by Marilyn Monroe.’
This anecdote comes from the book Alchemy, which I highly highly recommend. The book is about the art and magic of marketing. What makes one 25-cent coin more valuable than another 25-cent coin? It’s the story.
The same is true with company-building. Story matters. The companies that tell the most compelling stories, the ones that are able to dip their wares into Marilyn Monroe’s figurative bag and come out 10x more compelling, those are the companies that we gravitate toward as consumers, whether in a B2C context or B2B. And it’s marketing’s job to help bring those stories to life.
Much of this relies on a solid brand framework. I’ve written about this in the past, how you build a brand on a foundation of Purpose, Positioning, and Personality.
With these foundations in place, you can then move to an always-on implementation cycle where you’re bringing your strategy to life through the integrated plans you make across your marketing org.
Key to your integrated marketing plan is Story Structures.
Story Structures are the 3-5 stories you have chosen to tell across your integrated campaigns and marketing channels. It’s not enough simply to say, “Here is what our brand stands for, now let’s go make it happen!” This will get you further than not knowing your brand at all, but for those companies who really want to bring a brand to life, Story Structures are must-haves.
We put these in place at Buffer, and we’re building them at Oyster. Here’s how the system works:
Step One: Know your Brand Purpose
One of the Three Ps of brand-building is Purpose, so if you’ve done the foundations of brand-building already, then you’re set. As a refresher, I like to use a purpose framework called The Big IdeaL, which comes from Ogilvy, one of the top advertising agencies in the world. It’s used by a number of great tech brands, including Wistia.
With Purpose, you're attempting to answer the question, "Why does my company exist?"
Ideally, you’ll articulate an intersection between what your product does for your customers and a relevant tension within the broader culture. The best brands live in that overlap.
When you’re finished, you’ll have a Venn diagram (see above), and you’ll be able to fill in the blanks of this statement:
[Your company] believes the world would be a better place if _____________.
For example …
Buffer believes the world would be a better place if social media was rewarding, uplifting, and impactful.
Wistia believes the world would be a better place if marketers could do creative, empowering work.
Step Two: Craft your stories
Identify 3-5 stories that build toward your purpose
These stories tend to reveal themselves in a few different ways:
When talking to customers, you may notice certain themes surfacing again and again
When doing market research, you may recognize that some topics are becoming more and more apparent
When talking to your founders and key leaders, you may find that they talk about certain aspirations or goals
When doing your research for the cultural tension (from The Big IdeaL), you may have some key observations that didn’t make the final cut but are still quite relevant for your customers and your category
All these can become candidates for your Story Structures.
One thing to remember: Story Structures are not forever. You will typically need to refresh them on an annual basis. Some of the stories will land; others will fade and need replacing.
At the end, you’ll have a setup like this:
Some example stories we used at Buffer include:
Paid social is fleeting. Lasting brands are built organically
Engagement matters more than ever before
Social media marketers have more influence than you know
Step Three: Build your Structures
This is the where the Story Structures really come to life. After all, the point in doing Story Structures in the first place is to coordinate your integrated marketing work among a finite set of stories and then to take those stories to market in a compelling way.
There are two structures that need building (though you may find use in building more):
Stories + customer journey
Stories + audiences
The idea here is to map your stories into a matrix so you can assess which stories make sense to tell in which places, at which times, and to which audiences.
When you’re building the structure for the customer journey, think about the various stages of your marketing funnel or your customer journey map. This may be as simple as top-of-funnel, middle-of-funnel, and bottom-of-funnel, or you may choose to do it in accordance with awareness, consideration, decision, purchase, etc.
No matter how you slice it, you’re likely to find that some stories will work better when people are closer to making a purchase decision with your product. Other stories are best at the very start of the customer journey when you’re trying to shape the future, build a category, or plant an idea.
For the structure for your audiences, you take a similar approach, segmenting your Story Structure by the different personas of your audience. It may be that you have a very straightforward ICP in which case you can supplement with some secondary personas. For instance at Oyster, our primary ICP is People Ops leaders but our secondary personas may be job seekers or startup founders or distributed work influencers.
At Oyster, we are also building structures that align to our various ambassadors such that certain ambassadors will be telling certain stories. And we’ll be thinking about Story Structures for our different types of media as well, e.g. podcasts, videos, co-marketing, press.
As you begin the work of bringing these stories to life through integrated marketing campaigns, you should begin to see signs of progress, measuring success through mentions of your narratives on social media and in PR. Then rinse and repeat the Story Structure process in your annual planning to make sure you’re up to date with the most relevant stories that address the culture.
For the next generation of companies, the biggest network effect is culture, not technology. Long-term brand defensibility has more to do with whether a company can believably connect with culture through the shared things they like than if it has a proprietary product or acquisition channels.
Need more story insights?
There are a ton of amazing article out there about how to craft a compelling story. Here are some cliff notes from a few of my favorites.
HubSpot’s 5-step narrative design framework to craft killer product narratives and launch new products to market:
Identify a massive undeniable change in the world
Create winners and losers of the new and old game
Identify what the change means for businesses
Empathize with your audience
Pitch your solution
Donald Miller’s Story Brand framework (summarized by Nandini Jammi)
Donald’s template draws on his observation that nearly all Hollywood stories follow the same pattern. The Hunger Games. Hercules. The Little Mermaid. Eight Mile. All of ‘em. He found that the same pattern works like a charm when when you’re developing a product narrative:
"A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS."
Identify a change in the world
Illustrate how the change impacts your audience
Show how to adapt to the change
Explain why it’s so hard to adapt
Show them what you’ve built to help
Name the enemy
Answer “Why now?”
Show the promised land before explaining how you’ll get there
Identify obstacles—then explain how you’ll overcome them
Present evidence that you’re not just blowing hot air
Webflow’s $4 billion PLG engine:
About this newsletter …
Hi, I’m Kevan, a marketing exec based in Boise, Idaho, who specializes in startup marketing and brand-building. I currently lead the marketing team at Oyster (we’re hiring!). I previously built brands at Buffer, Vox, and Polly. Each week, I share playbooks, case studies, stories, and links from inside the startup marketing world. Not yet subscribed? No worries. You can check out the archive, or sign up below:
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