“If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen.” – John Steinbeck

For a story to resonate, it has to resonate on a deeply personal level. It needs to feel familiar, relatable, like it was written (orchestrated, filmed, illustrated – we know that stories are so much more than words) for you. Steinbeck went on to write that the stories that stand the test of time were about everyone – deeply personal and familiar.

As marketers, we give a lot of lip service to the idea of using social media channels and targeted advertising to reach people with messages that are “for them.” I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve stood in front of clients – in pitches, in brainstorm sessions, in digital strategy presentations – and spoken to the importance of tailoring messages, advertising, and, yes, stories for the audience of consumers who we are trying to reach.

The numbers support the necessity of this:

  • Americans are exposed to somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 advertising and brand messages a day.

  • 80% of Millennials see value in brands engaging them with personalized advertising and offers.

  • 87% of people are willing to give up their personal data in exchange for a better online experience.

Over the past several years, with data tracking and micro-targeting, we’ve been able to get pretty close to putting personal feeling content in front of the people we want to see it. And some brands have even experimented with hyper-personalized content, walking the tightrope of a piece of creative being perfectly crafted for the consumer and at the same time being a little bit creepy. Of course, a lot of the micro-targeting tools that we had at our disposal only a few months ago are no longer available in the same powerful way. With the rise of concern about data privacy, spurred by Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) brands will need to figure out ways to reach their audience in a way that feels “for them” without relying on some of the data they’ve had in the past.

And that’s OK. Because even while targeting content at consumers on a highly personal level, brands have still spent most of their time talking about themselves, relying on data and brand attributes to drive the personalization component. An important tenet, however, of telling your brand story on digital channels – social media in particular – is to not make it all about you. Brands need to make it about them – the people they are trying to reach. The people they want to aspire to be a part of the brand’s world. Ultimately, the people they want to buy or buy into their product.

It’s a balancing act, to be sure, to get the right mix of brand message and a personal hook. A study by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of 143 TV ads found only 16% of advertising is both recalled and correctly attributed to the brand (note: quoted from this great read from BBH). So how does a brand tell a story that feels personal to their customers – how do they make the story about the hearer? – and still retain the most important message of their brand?

Listen to your audience. Start by listening to the audience – be that through psychographic research, utilizing social media listening tools, or in depth focus groups, or some budget-friendly combination – in order to get a rich understanding of what makes their people tick, what they care about, what they don’t.

Set a singular goal. For each campaign, and each piece of content within it, brands need to know why they are doing what they are doing. What is it that you want to achieve? What message do you want to convey? What do you want people to think, to feel, and to do after interacting with your content?

Get creative. We’ve spent a lot of time paying attention to data and performance these past years, and while they are still important tools for marketers, a piece of content that hooks your audience needs to be creatively driven. A creatively driven campaign will hook your audience with a message, a look and feel, a story they can relate to, and will deliver on the goal you set for the it.

Measure and repeat. A campaign is only as good as the goals it meets. So don’t lose sight of your purpose. Did your audience click with your message? On social, did they share or engage with your content? For paid media, did you see a lift in name recognition for an awareness campaign? In direct mail, did you see more people coming through your doors? Keep the stuff that works and shelve what doesn’t.

Crafting a story that is about the hearer is an art, not a science. For your brand story to stand the test of time, it’s an art form worth practicing.