Posted by Jason Ocker

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Hang out with a marketer for five minutes, and you’ll hear the word “story.” Or maybe we’ll say “narrative,” but that’s only because we said “story” 30 times that day already. It’s a simple word that usually goes directly through conversations unquestioned.

However, too often marketers mean something totally different than story when we say story. And that means that, too often, we don’t have a story. And that’s a cardinal sin of marketing. For example, I’ve seen each of the below items referred to as a story:

Message House A message house is not a story. The process for making a message house can be a valuable exercise. It can help you outline some of the important pieces of a story. But a message house, really, is just a series of bullet points. There are some basic flaws with message houses (for instance, you can create one without any internal logic and there is rarely a place in the house itself for the audience of the message), but for our purpose here, it’s just not a story.

Tagline A tagline isn’t a story. It can encapsulate the story, sure. It can even focus the story. I like to think of it as the title of the story, which is only as effective and relevant as the story that undergirds it.

Value Proposition and Customer Pain Points These items by themselves don’t constitute a story. Similar to the message house, they are very important pieces of a story, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get those pieces into an actual story.

An Offering with Features That’s not a story, that’s a product sheet. At some point, your marketing story needs to take the audience to some kind of call to action or to a product or solution they can buy, but the product or solution is never the story itself.

Stats and Use Cases These items are beautiful things to have on hand, and you’re far ahead of the game if you do have them ready. They can be used as proof points for a story or examples of the story in action, but they’re still not the story itself.

So what constitutes a story? What are all these ideas missing that makes them not a story, even as they’re all important parts of a story?

Every story blasted down to its bedrock is a progression. A connected sequence of ideas and observations. Something that goes from here to there—logically or emotionally or chronologically or all the other ways ideas progress.

A marketing story takes its audience from one place to another just as much as an epic fantasy quest novel does. From an insight about the market to an opportunity that needs to be capitalized on. From a business challenge to a business solution. We could get granular about other elements that need to be part of a story—empathy, characters, conflict, resolution, etc.—but all of those items, as well as the list of non-stories above, need to be exactingly woven together into an actual narrative, a connected sequence of ideas, for them to be effective.

By the way, there’s an even more practical test to see if you have a story. Do you have an official process in place for creating stories? Do you have an official document template for the story in its purest form that can be used to inform all collateral, keeping them on point and consistent? If you don’t (and all definitions aside), chances are you don’t have a story.

Of course, implicit in the question, “Do you have a story?” is the question, “Do you have a good story?” That’s a different set of criteria. Is the sequence of ideas tightly connected? How is it positioned against competitor stories? Does it resonant with customers? Is it too obvious? Does it reveal any new insights on the market? Is it true? Etc. and ctc.

But story itself takes its audience somewhere. Once you have that definition firmly in place, you can work on making the story better.

Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

Photo credit: Kenneth Lu