Every marketer has heard the call and seen the blog posts: storytelling in marketing is the key to success. But what does that really mean? Many content marketers come from backgrounds that involve narrative: writers, journalists, filmmakers. But how do you apply those storytelling principles to a blog post or an infographic or a branded video?

It’s time to stop talking about storytelling in marketing and start executing on it. Here are the five keys to imbuing your content with the power of story.

1.  Take your customers on a journey.

Whether you’re a die-hard fan of Joseph Campbell or think he might be the guy behind those famous soup cans, we all can identify the basic elements of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Almost all marketing content out there includes those elements, but they actually aren’t sufficient to really count as storytelling in marketing.

In much of our marketing, our customers or prospective customers should be the hero at the center of it all. That’s key: your story isn’t about your brand, or your product, or the services you offer. It’s about them: the people you can help. The journey you are taking them on if you’re using storytelling in your marketing is about identifying and overcoming their challenges.

Remember: if you’re not helping people, you’re just selling stuff. And nobody’s going to line up outside a Barnes and Noble at midnight to get their hands on that story.

2. Understand who your customers are and what they are facing in their lives.

Why do we create buyers’ personas as marketers? To give our customers a face, to try and understand their lives. But to truly tell their stories, you need to go a step further. All of that demographic data and insight into search habits that marketers use every day are really tools to get inside your customers’ heads.

When you’re creating a piece of content that employs storytelling, you need to know exactly who it is for. Ask yourself what they do, what they’re missing, what they’re asking. Look at forums and reviews in addition to the numbers and dig into the real conversations happening on social media.

The challenges your customers are facing aren’t just opportunities for successful marketing – they are actually windows into who they are and how you can help them. They are the root of your marketing storytelling.

3. Stop writing in your terms and start using the customer voice.

Customer voice is another essential component of successful storytelling in marketing that is in danger of becoming just another piece of marketing jargon. The greatest story in the world is boring if someone tells it badly.

When you are brainstorming for a title for a blog post or a call to action on your website, are you considering your customers? Long before you get to the point of actually executing on a piece of content, you should be thinking in terms of how your customers talk about those challenges and ask those questions we mentioned above.

And we have that information: it starts with search data. MSV isn’t just a number attached to a search term – it’s an indication of how often a question is being asked and how most people are asking it.

Add to that insights from your actual customer community on those same forums and groups and input from your customer service team. Listen in on sales calls. Find that voice and ground your marketing storytelling in the customer experience and lexicon.

4. Pay attention to your medium and find the right fit.

Every marketer on this planet is aware of “marketing trends.” We see headlines screaming about the engagement levels of infographics and the necessity of video content. Those trends aren’t wrong, but they shouldn’t be the point of entry if you’re using storytelling in marketing.

Forcing an idea to fit a certain medium (“I have Content Idea X, and I committed to producing a video, so I guess this will be a video”) is a surefire way to sabotage a story before you even start. Some ideas are tailor-made for video; others work better as written content. Find the right medium for your idea, not the other way around.

Look around at what has and has not worked for you in the past; check out content from other brands (not just your direct competitors, but anything you find interesting). Dare to experiment, but ground your experimentation in trying to tell the best possible marketing story – don’t experiment just because you read an article saying you should.

5. Give your customers something of value to take with them at the end.

Have you ever had the impulse, at the very end of a great book or movie, to watch the whole thing over again? A great story is tough to get out of your head, and you’ll carry it with you for the rest of your life. Storytelling in marketing should be no different.

If you’re providing your customers with something of value in your marketing, not as an exchange for something, but because you know it will help them, that stays with them. They’re more likely to think positively about your brand and trust you to help them in the future.

That might be tactical guidance, or entertainment, or a new strategy. Whatever it is, if you’ve followed the previous four steps, you’ll have built something that truly puts your customers first and provides them with ongoing value.

In the end, maybe you are a bit of a hero, albeit one behind the scenes. After all, you created the marketing story that will lead your customers to that elusive happy ending. And that’s a pretty powerful role.

Wondering how early-stage content impacts customer affinity and brand loyalty? That’s a story we’re excited to tell with our original research.