All content is about a story, and marketing is absolutely no different. Whether intentionally or not, every piece of content associated with our business becomes part of the story we tell our customers about who we are, where we’re going, and what matters most to us. But how do we make sure that what we think we’re communicating is what our customers are receiving?

Have A Clear Vision

We’ve talked about this before and it’s fundamentally a key to a lot of business success over the long term, but it is specifically, critically important when it comes to storytelling. Develop an absolutely clear idea of the story you’re trying to tell, through your traditional ad content and social media and blogs and anything else customer facing, and communicate that clearly and directly to everyone in your company. A straight forward way to do this is by identifying key words or phrases that you want to be most associated with your company and that are the most important to your brand story. Incorporate these key words or phrases into any style guide or content specifications that you create and make sure they are clearly communicated to any freelancers or others from outside the company who will be impacting your content. These core aspects of your story should inform any interaction with customers and, ideally, your internal workings as well. If your brand story is independent from your larger organizational mission statement, look at them together to make sure that they aren’t in conflict in any way.

Make Sure The Story You’re Telling Is The Story Being Heard

Once you’ve established your story and you have essentially the outline of your great American novel or summer blockbuster movie, you’ll need to cross-check your content to see if what’s being represented is in fact those things you identified as the most important aspects of your story. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if there’s a mismatch between what your content actually says and what you identified as the things you want to be saying the most, especially at first. Anyone who has written has looked up after ten pages and realized that somewhere around page four they veered off track and went down a rabbit hole without realizing it. The key is to check in often enough to have a clear sense of how you’re doing and to make adjustments as you need to.

For things like blogs or anything else with an RSS feed, Wordle is an easy way to check for what words or phrases are used most often in the form of a fun and easy to interpret word cloud. Twitter now allows downloading a searchable archive of your entire feed, and when in doubt, there’s always just manually reading through your content and using your old friend ctrl-F. Be especially certain to include social media feeds, especially quick news cycle ones like Twitter, in any of your checks. It’s that much easier for content that’s written on the fly in little bites to go astray since it’s not typically put through the same editing and review process as long form content. The key is to keep performing some type of cross-check. You’re never going to be absolutely perfect at staying on message and better to spend the time to check and find out you’re doing great than the alternative.

One thing that is all too often overlooked when it comes to measuring how accurately your brand story is being received is the types of comments you’re seeing from customers. Do they seem to be getting what you were trying to communicate? Do a noticeable number of people seem to be misunderstanding or misinterpreting your story in the same way? Are you seeing complaints about similar things consistently? Is there a disconnect between the things you would expect to get the most response and the things that actually are? All of these indicate that what you’re trying to do is not being read the way you intend.

There are really two reasons why you might be seeing this disconnect — either the story isn’t being clearly communicated by your content, or the story isn’t consistent with and being backed up by the customer experience. The first one is obviously a lot easier to deal with, as it’s primarily an issue of content presentation that can be handled with some editing and refocusing of your content approach. The second one is more difficult, because typically that means there’s a fundamental disconnect between what the company wants to be and what the company actually is doing in practice. BP’s commercials since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico focusing on their environmental efforts aren’t bad storytelling in the sense that they are unclear or badly communicated, but you could make the case that they are bad storytelling because they contradict the perceived reality of what the company is and does for many consumers. Well crafted storytelling from your content team cannot be expected to, and in fact will not, counteract what customers factually know about your company.

Regroup When You Need To, And Be Honest

Sometimes you need to regroup or refocus, as in the case of BP mentioned above, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whether it’s to rehab your reputation after a disaster or simply to take a new approach when you feel your current one isn’t working, it’s going to happen periodically. What you need to keep sight of is that the story you were telling before, whatever it was, did not occur in a vacuum. People noticed it, they’ll remember it, and making a large shift without acknowledgement that it’s occurring is bound to be seen either as a lack of consistency or identity or, more damagingly, as an attempt to bury a difficult stretch for your organization under a new marketing scheme. You don’t need to spell out your entire marketing plan for your customers, but a simple statement like “we felt like we could do better for you” or “we want to work on regaining your trust” can go a long way.

Having a clear brand storytelling strategy can do wonders for the consistency of your message and for the perception of your company amongst customers, and we hope you feel a little more prepared now to manage your story and make it work for you. Remember, storytelling is a two-way street, so make sure the story being heard is the one you’re telling! Do a quick scan of your favorite social media feed today and see what the most common words and phrases are. Is the story you’re telling there the one you want it to be? You might be surprised.