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Marketing ROI

How Brand Storytelling Redefines the Marketing Budget

4 Minute Read

Marketers love their processes.

These structures help define where we are, where we need to go, and often provide guidance as to how we get there. From abstract creative thinking to nitty-gritty marketing budget balancing, we’re constantly searching for patterns to settle into. For the most part, this is a good instinct—consistent processes typically provide results you can expect, they offer easy ways to review and optimize steps along the way, and they keep people organized. But when it comes to redefining any of those structures as a whole, procedural thinking can turn into a marketer’s worst enemy.

I once worked with a client that, like many other small businesses, relied on an advertising-heavy model. Its blog didn’t tell stories, it held news and information about software updates. Its social media existed largely as a space to answer customer support questions and to host media for sponsored posting. To some extent, the process worked, and it was comfortable for the brand’s leadership. So it was discomforting to the brand’s senior leadership when their marketing team and myself suggested that if they wanted to continue to scale their audience, they would need to begin offering something beyond ads and products.

Content engines sound attractive in concept but present a paradigm shift for the large number of brands who have shifted toward them over the past 10 years. Time from concept to completion on promotional material often becomes longer, audience interaction and nurture becomes paramount, analytical approaches have to take a step to the left, and the marketing budget is completely flipped on its head. Instead of small amounts of consistent spending with (hopefully) some immediate return, content marketing shifts the model toward more upfront spending, comparatively lower costs for promotion, and returns that take more time but compound into the future rather that dwindling off like advertisements. My client wasn’t unique in its response to this: excitement at the prospect, and resistance to the idea that it would require a fundamental shift in working paradigm.

So the company did what many brands do when moving to a content marketing model—it tried to change as little as possible. After all, if the old budget could still fit, if its old advertising creative workflow could work for blog content, or if its analytics platform didn’t need to be tweaked at all, leadership could save a lot of effort (and, therefore, time and money).

But the fact is, those old ways couldn’t sustain the company’s new direction. Realizing that, the team eventually tucked into the hard work of reorganizing their thinking, and the quality of their efforts improved to show for it. Leadership fell in line, content marketers rejoiced—and there, for my company and many companies just like it, the story ends.

Fast forward a few years to today, though, and many content marketers are talking about the need for quality storytelling. Today, it’s not enough for content to be informative—it has to be engaging. Yet many marketers dump the creation of stories into their old content pipelines and expect the best.

Storytelling, while content based, still represents a shift in the paradigms of content marketing.

Follow the Money

When it comes to your marketing budget—or perhaps more importantly, selling budget changes to leadership—its often useful to start with the state of the market.

According to research from StrongView and Selligent, marketing spend continues to rise across the board, with the top three channels being email marketing, social media, and display advertising. While all three of these can play a part in content marketing or story driven marketing, email and social tend to be far more integral in publishing and interacting around content than display tends to be. This would appear to tell us that both content marketers and advertisers are increasing their spend in 2016.

A graph segmenting marketing spend by channel

But when we line this reporting up next to what methods are producing the best ROI, we see a very different story.

Graph displaying effective ROI of various marketing channels

Display advertising is solidly in the bottom, with email continuing to hold top spot and content marketing following close behind. Where some marketers are increasing spend to take advantage of the opportunities for return, others are increasing spend to try to pull results out of a waning model of promotion.

But while the channels used in content marketing and story driven marketing are similar (if not identical), the way marketers adjust to budget for each method looks somewhat different.

Mapping Budget to Your Story

Typically, content marketing spend can look like a downward linear graph: high costs for content creation, implementation, and initial promotion, with dwindling expense over time. Story-driven marketing, however, doesn’t assume that publication or release is the most ideal time to spend on a piece of content. Rather, marketers should seek to spend incrementally more over time through promotion with the express intention of trying to garner community reaction and interaction with the story. When your audience contextualizes your stories within their own lives, they’ll disseminate the work for you—in some cases generating their own content around stories they enjoy.


Your brand’s story comprises the thousands of stories you tell in an effort to communicate, connect with, and move your audience. To that end, it’s important that marketers do away with the one-off content mentality. Today, more than ever, the storytelling process is about building; about taking your readers through a journey that they follow at a pace that works for them. By using budget to promote powerful content that meets audiences where they are—while at the same time fleshing out your brand with content that piques their interest—you’ll increase ROI, ensuring that your dollars go further and your strategy sustains you for the long haul.

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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