Imagine something with me for a moment….
You’re holding a dinner party. Your coworkers, your family and your friends all fill a room. Everyone is eating, drinking and having a great time. At just the right moment, you stand up, get everyone’s attention and you begin to tell them that you are in fact, a widely successful lion tamer. You show them your whip and cape. You unveil a beautifully-framed picture of the lion you are taming. You regale them with perilous stories of your work becoming a master over this magnificent beast.
After a few moments, you pause and survey the room, expecting cheers of adoration and surprise. But you’re not a lion tamer. Everyone in the room knows you’re not a lion tamer. A confused silence fills the room as everyone quietly tries to determine what screw has come loose. Then it hits you how foolish this was. “What was I thinking?” you ask yourself, “these people know me too well to convince them of such an obvious lie.”
As silly as this example might seem, it’s relatively close to the feat attempted by countless organizations everyday when they engage in storytelling that lacks authenticity. Although in their case, it’s not a room full of loved ones ready to laugh it off as a joke, but an Internet full of former, current and prospective customers, employees and vendors ready to passionately call their bluff.
This is nothing new, of course. The principle of making a (brand) promise through marketing and then keeping it, is a concept smart marketers and business owners have always been aware of, whether they’ve used that language or not. It’s the timeless virtue of doing what you say you’ll do or being who you say you are. But for decades companies have gotten away with a more-than-slight bending of the truth because the channels were relatively few and the ability of the audience to respond was limited. Now, in the age of content, social media and endless outlets for expression, times have changed. The opportunity brought on by more meaningful storytelling also presents a new challenge. With nearly three quarters of marketing executives saying that they will be engaging in more content and storytelling, more companies risk making this mistake.
Consumers expect traditional marketing to be a more glossy representation of the brands they buy, and while they won’t tolerate a lie, they will entertain a stretch of the truth as being aspirational. “It’s a commercial, of course they are saying they’re great,” is often a consumer attitude. Yet when you engage in a more relationship-building storytelling approach (content and conversation), rather than the old interruptive model (commercials), the audience demands a deeper level of authenticity. When presented with content that feigns honesty and isn’t backed by a reality, your audience will be less than tame and pounce on you – publicly. Just like the jungle, the market is full of scavengers that will be happy to pick you clean.
The fact is that we live in an age of authenticity and you can’t embrace storytelling without embracing the necessary honesty that goes along with it. Harnessing the power of story requires an “all in” approach, celebrating the good and at the very least, not ignoring the bad. This often runs contrary to some traditional ways of thinking about communicating with your audience where you can hide behind messaging or subvert through control of the channels. Deleting negative Facebook comments or releasing content that runs counter to reality won’t fix a problem. It will make it worse. It’s time to face the music.
Now more than ever it is critical that organizations remove the blinders and pull back on the internal cheerleading. Make some space for dissenting opinions, reward them even. Create an environment where honesty is valued, not swept under the rug. Don’t ignore the negative comments, because they just might be what you need to hear. Its time to get honest about what your organization does and doesn’t do well, because, quite frankly, you can’t afford for the public to point it out for you. Embracing transparency and working to build trust are critical to a content and storytelling approach. Its the only way it will work and without it you run the risk of becoming obsolete.
But this isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s quite the opposite. The beautiful thing about storytelling is that, while it has the ability to enrich and engage your audience like never before, it also has the ability to change your organization in a profound way – from the inside out. Embracing your faults and being honest in your journey to make them better certainly provides the unique experience of allowing your customers to journey with you, learning together, as you move towards making a difference in the way you do business. They will reward you for your authenticity with their loyalty. But even more so, it allows your internal audience, the people who give their lives to your organization, to see a picture of your organization that looks less like a faceless corporation and a whole lot more like a real community.