One of the most unifying aspects of our human race is storytelling, when you really think about it. Telling stories cuts across cultural lines in every corner of the globe; it’s something that everyone on the planet can absolutely relate to. This is exactly why storytelling is such an ideal vehicle for marketing: It’s basically using an ingrained aspect of the human condition to tell people about your product or service.
In short, it’s a winner when it comes to marketing.
Each brand has a story behind it. For example, Nike, the company, shares its name with the Greek goddess of victory. The company’s famous swoosh logo is actually based on this goddess’s wings; and the fact that Nike’s products help athletes win makes this a wonderful and brand story, not to mention an appropriate choice for company name. This illustrates how a story can take a brand and make it something memorable to be ingrained in the audience’s minds.
But every good story starts with good structure…
What is Freytag’s Pyramid?
Freytag’s Pyramid is essentially dramatic structure (the chronological unfolding of the events in a narrative work) broken down into five parts: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. It takes its name after Gustav Freytag, a German playwright and novelist who lived in the 19th century.
Freytag is notable for analyzing the different parts of a dramatic work, and his analysis is still referenced today. He distilled the parts of any dramatic work into these five arcs:
1. The Exposition or Introduction – Self-explanatory enough, the exposition is the beginning of a story that introduces all the vital aspects of the tale to the audience, which can include the setting, what happened prior to the main plot, and characters’ backstories.
2. The Rising Action – This refers to a succession of events that keep building up to the point of most interest in the story. The rising action is usually regarded as the most important part of the five dramatic arcs, because a story’s plot relies on the rising action to establish the climax and the resolution.
3. The Climax – The climax is the point during which the protagonist’s fate is changed. The turning point of a story, the climax works out well for the protagonist in a comedy, but takes a decided turn for the worse in a tragedy.
4. Falling Action – Here’s when the protagonist’s and antagonist’s conflict plays out, with the former either winning or losing to the latter.
5. Resolution – As the word implies, this is when the conflict gets resolved for the characters, and the audience enjoys a release from the suspense and anxiety of the plotline. In a comedy, this is called a denouement because the protagonist enjoys a better outcome (read: a happy ending) than at the story’s beginning. But in a tragedy, the resolution is a catastrophe, since the protagonist suffers a fate that’s worse than at the story’s start.
Now let’s look at specific examples of successful companies that are making this storytelling arc work wonders for their business.
Example 1: Harry’s
If you’re a guy and have looked for new ways to shave, you’ve probably heard of Harry’s, the shaving company that dared to change the face of shaving forever. The company’s value proposition is that it “gets” what shaving should be for regular guys because its products are made by real guys for real guys.
On the company’s insightful “Our Story” page, the exposition of its brand and vision are detailed when they explain that their philosophy is based on understanding and solving the problem of overcharging that happens with the big-brand shaving companies.
The rising action occurs as Harry’s explains its business model, which allows them to charge 50% less for their razors than the competition, as well as its revolutionary razor construction that’s the basis of its entire approach to fixing shaving.
The climax can be seen in the revelation that Harry’s was finally able to create the high-quality razors it wanted by purchasing a factory in Germany, which gave it access to a process that has been creating high-quality blades for almost 100 years.
The falling action and resolution are apparent in the reality that, today, Harry’s is so successful that it’s able to give a portion of all of its net revenue to charitable organizations.
This storytelling approach uses a long-form, sales-page strategy with a call-to-action button at the end of the page, which has been effective in past studies. For example, an experiment by Highrise, a CRM platform, found a 37.5% increase in conversions after using a long-form page design for its signups.
Example 2: Dropbox
Today, Dropbox is a household name and one of the biggest cloud services on the planet. Before the company made it big, it used an explainer video several years ago that featured intelligent storytelling as the catalyst for its popularity. The video used Freytag’s Pyramid to sell its service successfully to many users and is credited with helping to grow Dropbox to a service that’s today used by more than 100 million people.
In the exposition, the video introduces Dropbox’s concept — keep all of your files, pictures and videos together in one place, across all devices—and the problem of disorder that it solves.
The rising action covers a character named “Josh” who’s about to embark to Africa… But all of his trip details are chaotically spread out across his different devices, forcing him to always use USB sticks or emails to send the info across devices.
The climax comes when Josh realizes that Dropbox lets him share the same trip info across all his devices and on the Dropbox website.
The falling action centers on his ability to always get to his files on any device, even if one device is damaged, thus protecting all his vital info.
The video ends with a happy ending, the resolution that Josh’s Africa trip was a stunning success and that he was able to share all this with his mom by simply sharing his Dropbox folder instead of emailing everything to her as in the past.
Example 3: Dollar Shave Club
Dollar Shave Club is a men’s personal grooming company that delivers razors and other hygiene products straight to its customers through the mail. The company’s received wide coverage in the media for its blunt and shocking explainer video called “Our Blades are F***ing Great,” in which its CEO makes a direct and no-frills pitch about its product right to consumers.
Its video also uses the dramatic arc.
First, the exposition introduces the problem of razors having too many frills and gimmicks, which raises their costs for consumers, who are the protagonists.
The rising action establishes the problem that razors are too expensive because many are sold with extras that consumers don’t need.
The climax takes place when the CEO says that Dollar Shave Club is able to direct-mail cheap razors to its consumers while still ensuring high quality, as this changes the fate of those consumers watching, who naturally want to give this service a try.
When the CEO makes it clear that consumers can expect to save a lot of money while not having to bother with remembering to buy new razors each month, the falling action leads to the conclusion.
The resolution arrives when the CEO, employee and company mascot all party at the end of the video to the great quality and deal behind Dollar Shave Club.
Just last year, Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club for a cool $1 billion.
The right time to use Freytag’s Pyramid in content marketing
Freytag’s Pyramid can be an extremely persuasive weapon in your content-marketing arsenal, but, like anything else, it’s about timing. This begs the question, when is the right time to use it? Is it a content strategy that you can just pull out at any time and expect to work for you broadly, in all situations?
As you saw from the above examples, this strategy is based on the tried, tested and true approach of storytelling. Since storytelling is culturally and deeply ingrained in our universal, human heritage, it should theoretically work all the time. After all, who doesn’t like a good story?
While that sounds reasonable, there are certain types of content where using the five stages of dramatic structure can make your marketing campaigns all the more successful. We’ll look at three specific instances when using this approach on specific kinds of content will reap you even greater rewards.
Ebooks are an interesting type of content because they’re the epitome of long-form content and then some. When we say long-form these days, we usually mean longer blog posts and articles of at least 1500 or so words that are meaty and chock-full of information (Google’s search algorithms love that, ranking-wise). Ebooks blow well past that, with the Magnolia Media Network ascribing a range of anywhere from 3000 words to the length of full-length books for ebooks.
In short, ebooks are long, much longer than the majority of content you’ll work with in marketing. While this makes them ideal in B2B sales funnels as high-value content you can give away for free to your leads, it can also make them challenging to read from start to finish — especially in this day and age when most people on the web don’t read every word of content!
Suffice it to say, it’s a challenge to have your prospects read an ebook when their attention spans are short, yet your ebook can be so very long.
Use Freytag’s structure in this situation to insert a story into the ebook to break up the monotony. A marketing ebook usually explains something (like a problem) and then positions your brand as the solution.
Instead of simply writing a rote, cut-and-dry ebook that focuses on selling to your prospects, use storytelling to entertain them while still explaining the problem and positioning your brand as their solution.
Explainer videos have increased their popularity as part of the overall trend of video taking over the web and because they’re ideal for storytelling. In fact, the whole purpose of an explainer video is to condense a usually complicated subject into one- or two-minute shorts that explain the entire subject in a more light-hearted and accessible way. This makes them excellent candidates for applying more formalized story structure.
In fact, the Dropbox explainer video illustrates the smart use of Freytag’s Pyramid to a T.
In the video, we have the problem of how difficult it is for people to keep track of their digital information and the introduction of the Josh character (the exposition); how Josh is preparing for a big overseas trip while having problems with keeping his info well-organized (the rising action); the revelation of Dropbox as the one-stop hub for keeping all of Josh’s info together easily (the climax); Josh’s trip turning out to be very successful (the falling action); and Josh using Dropbox to share photos and videos of his trip, which worked out so well that he ended up using Dropbox for everything else (the resolution).
When this video debuted several years ago, the whole concept of the cloud for data storage and sharing wasn’t well understood, so this friendly video used storytelling to efficiently explain the entire premise — in just over two minutes. (Although it’s not the most visually enticing video, the story technique is still there.)
Long-form articles and blog posts
Studies show that people don’t really read content on the Internet; instead, they just skim and scan through the content quite quickly. This is because we’ve developed an attitude of instant gratification on the web: We simply scan through content, skipping over most of it, until we find keywords, headlines, lists or relevant things that hold our interest or that we were searching for.
When readers are scanning content and notice a story instead of promotional or long-winded content, they’ll be more likely to actually slow down, stop and then read the article or blog post. That’s because inserting a story can make the piece more relevant to them.
There are a number of ways you can handle storytelling in an article or blog post since it’s a pretty flexible format. You can refer to a case study or include a first-person account that ties into whatever topic you’re exploring in the piece. The key is to give the reader the five arcs of a traditional narrative, so that they can follow along with the action just like they would in a book, movie, play or TV show.
Knowing when to apply Freytag’s Pyramid
Now you know that using storytelling in your content marketing isn’t difficult. It’s more about selecting the appropriate pieces of content and going from there. Naturally, you’re not going to be able to use traditional story structure as much on social media (unless you potentially get creative with a whole series of related posts and updates), as brevity is highly valued on social.
Note that the common bond among all the ideal situations is the length of your content, specifically if you have a longer piece of content. There’s nothing like a good story to help you “disguise” the length of your content and make it seem a lot more digestible.
After all, when you can draw in your readers to your content because it’s interesting, they’re likely to be more receptive to it and forget that, at its heart, it’s a marketing piece. And when that happens, you know you’ve created a really good piece of content that’ll be seen as high-value.
The dramatic arc is a brilliant marketing complement
Marketing is the tactic of trying to persuade customers to buy your product or service. There are many ways you can approach marketing today — the digital age is certainly not short of a plethora of different strategies. Ironically, when it comes to successful marketing, the traditional story format — largely unchanged since the first humans roamed the Earth — is still unbeatable.
As the examples above demonstrate, storytelling sucks your audience right into your brand. It tells them about your product or service in a relatable way that they will remember.