5 Mistakes You’re Making In Your Social Media Storytelling Strategy

I hear it from brand managers more than they’ll admit: “Look, I’m tweeting ten times a day; I’m posting loads of cool images on Pinterest and Instagram; I’m sharing and favoriting content from my followers… now where the hell are these conversions I’ve been promised?”

Well, where the hell are those conversions? Do you know? Because if you don’t know, I’m going to tell you right here in this post.

I’m going to explain exactly why most social-media storytelling attempts fail miserably. I’m going to break down five specific reasons why this happens. I’m going to explain how each of these mistakes hurts your message. And I’m going to lay out positive suggestions for brainstorming your solutions to each of them.

Let’s get started with Big Mistake Number One.

1. Broadcasting an image instead of telling a story

Let’s go back to the original question: Where are all those conversions? The answer is, they’re on the other side of a feeling of tension.Woman with megaphone

No tension, no interest. No interest, no conversions.

When I look at many brands’ social-media feeds – and, who knows, maybe yours, too – what I see, more often than not, looks like a shot-by-shot breakdown of your typical TV commercial: “Look – here’s a shot of our product! Now here are some images of stuff that’s vaguely related to what we do! Now an infographic that’s sort of related to our field! Are you pumped yet? We sure hope so, because now here’s your call to action!”

To be fair, any halfway-savvy social-media marketer will also throw some relevant articles into the mix – and hey, if they’ve got the budget, maybe they’ll even put together their own semi-useful blog posts. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with product images or cool photos or blog posts, on their own. The core of the problem is that these things on their own don’t tell a story.

So, what exactly do I mean when I say “story?” I mean the combination of two simple factors:

  1. The creation of tension; and then
  2. An offer of resolution.

That’s it. Really. A story doesn’t have to have dialogue, or deep characters, or lavish sets, or even a clear narrative.

I mean, check out this video clip. The psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel used this quick little animation in their research back in the 1940s. There are no people or animals in the film – just abstract shapes. There’s no dialogue, or even any sound. There’s no clear story either – the shapes are just moving around semi-randomly. And yet every single person who watches this film invents a narrative to describe what’s happening. Click the “play” button and see if you do, too.

How incredible is that? You just watched a one-minute silent video clip of abstract shapes, and – if you’re like most people – you decided which ones were the good guys and which was the villain, and you even felt a twinge of suspense about what was going to happen next.If a one-minute silent video clip of abstract shapes can evoke a story in an audience’s mind, don’t you think your brand can?Of course it can – but not if you just broadcast a bunch of imagery and a call to action, and hope for the best.Instead, create tension first. Don’t offer the solution right away – start and stimulate dialogue about the problem your product or service solves. Get people wondering what the solution could be. Prime them to get upset. Wait for them to get mad. Show them where to go to find out more about the problem. And when they head over to check out the solution, then extend a hand, and show them how you can help.

The immortal example of how to do this in the shortest time possible is Apple’s “1984” ad, which marketers have analyzed to death for the past 30 years.

Most of this one-minute ad consists of nothing but a woman with a hammer running down a hallway, intercut with quick shots of mindless workers in some kind of dystopic factory. Tension builds and builds without anyone in the audience knowing what this ad is even for, let alone what problem it’s going to solve, or what the solution will be. “Where’s she headed with that hammer? What’s she going to smash? We’ve got to find out!”Then she smashes Big Brother and, in the final ten seconds of the ad, a short piece of text explains what this was all about: Your computer is boring, and it’s turning you into a drone. Let Apple smash through that wall and teach you what freedom is all about.Create tension first. Leave the customers hanging just a little. Get ‘em feeling tense; get ‘em primed and waiting for that moment of resolution. Then give ‘em resolution – in the form of your brand.

2. Failing to confront your audience

In 2011, the journal Psychological Science published a study on why people share some stories but not others. Here’s the conclusion the researchers came to:

The sharing of stories or information may be driven in part by arousal. When people are physiologically aroused, whether due to emotional stimuli or otherwise, the autonomic nervous is activated, which then boosts social transmission.

A second study delved into the specifics of the emotional reactions that sparked sharing – and they zeroed in on these top candidates:

mid adult woman on sofa staring at her mobile phone and biting nails. Horizontal shape, waist up, copy space

awe, amusing, moving, illuminating, inspiring, shocking, cute, sex, fear, anger, and controversial

Tension is necessary for conversion – and there’s no tension without confrontation. But that doesn’t mean your brand has to be the aggressor in that confrontation. It also doesn’t mean you should use shock tactics to get your point across – in fact, you’ll see that the list is pretty evenly balanced between positive and negative emotions; and between gentle and harsh ones.

What I mean by “confrontation” is that at some point in the story you’re telling, you need to hit your audience with an emotion they don’t expect.

Nobody who’s scrolling through Twitter or Instagram feels that he or she has time for an emotional epiphany today. That’s a truism that’s repeated so often it’s become cliche. And yet, there’s a second half to that equation, too; a half that’s not mentioned nearly as often: Strangely enough, everybody’s still hoping for something unexpected. Everybody hopes, on some deep, unspoken level, to be swept off their feet today.

That’s exactly where your story comes in. If you’re not going for the gut – for the “Wow!” moment – at some point early-on in your story, you’re wasting your time and your social-media budget. Because, as psychological research shows, that “Wow!” moment is the only thing standing between your brand and cultural oblivion.

Contrary to common social-media wisdom, tough topics can produce that “Wow!” moment – and the thousands of shares that come with it – just as effectively as heartwarming topics can. Take, for example, one of Upworthy’s top-shared posts of 2013 – this video of an elementary-school teacher showing her class how prejudice develops. It’s got 123,000 views on YouTube. Why?

It tells a simple but relatable story. It evokes a sense of urgency, because prejudice is still a major issue. And it disrupted people’s days with feelings of anger, tension, maybe a dose of fear – but, ultimately, with a sense that it tackles an important topic in a creative and moving way.Think about how it did that. Think about what elements – in terms of plot, visuals, music, and so on – it uses to evoke those feelings and ideas. Your content doesn’t have to use the same elements – and in fact, it shouldn’t duplicate any of them, if you can avoid it – but you can still leverage the same underlying principles.When we strip away vague terms like “adding value,” what we’re really left with is the emotional core of the thing: Tell a story that makes your audience feel something they’ve been waiting to feel.

3. Forgetting that your customer is the hero

You might not have heard of Joseph Campbell, but you’ve definitely seen his work. His books on storytelling – especially The Hero’s Journey – lay out a timeless plot structure that’s repeated in myths and legends from every culture on earth, including our own. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a young man feels trapped in his boring life and dreams of adventure; a wise old mentor appears and offers that adventure; the hero overcomes his fears and weaknesses to defeat the bad guys and save the land; and he returns home empowered by the knowledge he’s found along the way.


Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the skeleton of every epic from Star Wars to Harry Potter, along with thousands of other movies, books, and TV shows – and that’s no coincidence. Film schools teach The Hero’s Journey the way religious schools teach sacred texts. Most of the fiction you watch and read is written by people who know this book back-to-front – and that’s because when it comes to effective storytelling – any kind of storytelling – this formula works.

Over the past few years, social media marketers have been digging Campbell’s formula too. Here’s what Sterling Communications marketing expert Kallie Bullock has to say about it:

How do the tales of our most cherished champions apply to the content we, as marketers, develop to appeal to the masses? Simple: make the masses into the hero and make the product (or service) into the mentor…

Now, as someone who’s worked hard for years to provide goods or services to help customers, how do you feel about the idea of the customer-as-hero? Be honest. Because honesty is what it’s going to take to sell this.

After all the work you’ve put into building up your business – building it up to the point that you can swoop in and transform your customers’ world – you should get to play the hero at least a little bit, right?

Wrong! Because in The Customer’s Journey, you’re not the hero – you are the mentor. You’re that wise old dude who appears in the customer’s living room in a cloud of smoke and tells him or her, “You’ve been living a boring life until now – but the truth is, you’re the hero of this story! You’re the Special One who has the power. And I’m here to show you how to unlock it.”

4. Offering “The Call” at the wrong time

The next big plot point in The Hero’s Journey formula is known as “The Call to Adventure.” This is the scene where the hero gets invited to start his big quest; when your customer gets invited to climb into the adventure you’re offering. It’s what comes immediately after the “You’re the hero” moment. OK, so the customer is a hero. Cool. Now what? Don’t leave him hangin’!

But wait – before you run off to plaster the words “Call Now!” across your social media feeds, there’s a twist to The Call to Adventure: the hero always refuses it the first time. Sometimes he refuses the second time, too; and the third, and so on, until finally the mentor goes away, and the hero goes and seeks out the adventure for himself.


For a concrete example of how this plays out in social media marketing, check out Social Media Examiner marketing expert Heidi Cohen’s article on calls to action:

Skip the promotion. People active on most social media platforms are focused on socializing and aren’t prepared to buy… use social media sharing and notes to build customer excitement and engagement pre-purchase.

Cohen then cites a striking case: Target’s Tumblr blog, which – get this – doesn’t include a “Buy” button anywhere in its product descriptions. How the hell does that get conversions?

By motivating customers. People who like a product they see on Target’s Tumblr will go on the hunt for the same product on Target’s website. They arrive on the “Buy” page to look for that specific product – and as decades of psychological research have shown, that experience makes them vastly more motivated not only to click that “Buy” button, but also to share and recommend the product to their friends.

Offering The Call too soon in the story will make the customer feel pressured. It creates resentment between you and the customer, where there really doesn’t need to be any. You’re the mentor. That doesn’t mean you should make yourself and your product hard to find – it means your actual point-of-sale should only become easy to find when the time is right.

It’s obviously important to offer The Call at some point along the line – but lab research and field cross-tests alike keep coming up with the same counter-intuitive result: If your customers have to do a little legwork to get to the offer, they’re much more likely to take you up on it. Give your leads enough space to turn you down the first time. Give them time to second-guess themselves about that decision. Wait to make the offer until the hero has come and found you.

5. Trying to restrict how people interact with your story

Mentors present The Call, and they point the hero on the right path to start his journey – but they never tell the hero exactly how to have his adventure. The fun of an adventure is in the surprises; all the new stuff the hero discovers along the way. Telling the hero how to have his adventure would defeat the whole point, wouldn’t it?

Businesswoman marionette on ropes controlled by puppeteer against documents picture

That’s why I’m always disappointed – not surprised, really, but still disappointed – when I see marketers put content out onto social media, and then try to restrict how people interact with that content. Telling people, “You can talk about these aspects of the story, but not these,” is one of the fastest ways to disengage them, and give your brand an embarrassing reputation in the process.

One of the most infamous publicity disasters in recent Internet history started with an innocent enough concept: The actor Woody Harrelson had a new movie, Rampart, coming soon; and his publicists got the bright idea of arranging an online AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session with Woody on Reddit – except that Woody, they decided, didn’t actually need to be present for the AMA; his assistants and publicists would make up “his” answers to users’ questions.

And those answers, they decided, would focus solely and entirely on Woody’s new movie Rampart.

The result was such a catastrophe that everyone from Gawker to Forbes (yes, Forbes) reported on it – and the AMA itself is worth a skim next time you need a quick laugh. Here are a few choice exchanges (edited slightly for length):

Q. What has been your most difficult role to prepare for, and why?
This character in Rampart was the most difficult.

Q. Which role you’ve played has been the most rewarding, most difficult, and most fun?
A. Can I say Rampart?

Q. Should change this AMA to AMAAR (Ask Me Anything About Rampart)
A. I consider my time valuable.

If people are interested in your brand, they’re going to engage with it in their own unpredictable ways – and that’s a good thing! It means your product or service is becoming part of their daily lives. The less you try to squeeze that conversation into a specific shape, the less you run the risk of embarrassing yourself and your brand – and the better chance you have of seeing that brand grow into what your customers want it to be. A social-media campaign isn’t a cattle drive; it’s a focus group. Listen to the feedback. Take specific, concrete suggestions from it. Sculpt your story so that it interweaves with the stories your customers are telling.

This really brings us back to point number one: There’s a world of difference between broadcasting an image and telling a story. An image is just a static piece of information; a story is something people can interact with; reinterpret; write first-person fanfiction about. An image has just one character: your product or service; while a story features the customer as its hero.

And one of the coolest things about heroes is that they’re always full of surprises.

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