By Alex Parkinson, Associate Director, Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board, and Kathy Klotz-Guest, Business Story Strategist, Speaker, Author, and CEO, Keeping it Human
At the end of September, a new report from the Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board (SNCR) will look at how corporate communications and marketing are becoming more integrated at companies. The research draws on interviews from experts and practitioners, and will feature case studies from organizations and business leaders who are working on realizing the benefits of integration. In the course of the research, I interviewed Kathy Klotz-Guest, CEO of Keeping it Human, (and a founding fellow of SNCR) to understand more about the importance of storytelling to modern communications and marketing. The conversation raised some interesting ideas, so I thought I would share an edited transcript with our readers.
In part 1, we discuss the strategic nature of storytelling and how businesses can start to build an effective storytelling culture. Keep an eye out for part 2 next week, in which Kathy shares her thoughts on leading corporate storytellers.
Alex Parkinson (AP): Why has storytelling become so important to business?Kathy Klotz-Guest (KKG): Storytelling has always been important to business. Some businesses just don’t think in those terms, but now they have to. Every business is a media business and every business must tell stories, and we have to start thinking that way. So, I think it’s always been there, and the resurgence in business storytelling is refreshing because we’re at an interesting inflection point where there’s just too much information and we can’t keep up. Stories are what people remember. I’ve always believed that businesses with great stories will rise to the top, and I think now we’re seeing it in a very complex and oversaturated world.
AP: Could you expand on the idea that all businesses are media businesses? What’s changed and where does storytelling fit into it?KKG: As a result of social media, the sheer amount of information being created, and the 24/7 media environment, there’s a rise in the importance of owned and earned media, especially earned, as opposed to all the emphasis being on paid advertising. Those shifts are changing things. What companies in the last few years are realizing is that having your own content and having content that your fans create on your behalf pays a lot of dividends. It’s much more trustworthy.
We all have to think a lot more about the content we create and be more mindful. And because there’s so much of it, companies need to think about how much content is out there, how to create better awareness, how they widen the funnel and how they move audiences through the funnel. It’s not enough to think of yourself as a social media, or marketing and sales-driven company. You’ve got to think of yourself as a publishing company. So, the stakes have increased. And stories are a key part of having great content.
AP: Are all companies recognizing the importance of storytelling?KKG: I think more and more companies are getting the message, but for many, there’s a gap in where they want to be and where they are. This is something a lot of companies admit to themselves. It’s not a panel of people telling companies they suck in most cases—by their own admission, they get it, but they’re just not sure how to build a media-thinking company. It’s a new concept for them.
AP: How do they bridge the gap?KKG: There’s got to be recognition of the fact that the conversations we’ve been having the past few years about who owns social media inside the company are ridiculous. Take down the walls. Part of the reason that we haven’t been able to move forward in a meaningful way is because we’ve had siloes. Companies that are moving forward and doing a very good job of content marketing understand something very fundamental—that it’s not a marketing or sales responsibility; it’s everybody’s responsibility.
Now, there are marketing guidelines, but great stories live everywhere in the company and artificial barriers that say “this is marketing’s job,” or “this is engineering’s job” keep these great stories from emerging. If you want to really move forward on this, companies need to change the way they’re thinking and the way they’re operating with regard to content. They also need to let go and let their rabid fans and their customers create content on their behalf. That takes a lot of letting go and some companies are struggling with letting go of controlling the marketing message, but it’s not about the marketing message anymore. And messaging is not the same as storytelling. Great companies make sure the best stories and storytellers are being used regardless of whether they are inside or outside the company. Storytelling isn’t just marketing’s job. Thinking that way makes marketing a bottleneck rather than a source of value and a profit center.
AP: Removing barriers and integrating functions is a tough ask for a lot of companies. Is it sufficient for companies to have communications and marketing functions that collaborate but aren’t necessarily integrated?KKG: It all depends on how the company is structured and its culture. There’s a short-term and long-term answer to that, but I’ll start by considering the opposite, which is startups. One of the reasons I’ve seen so many startups be successful at using social media for storytelling is because they don’t have the legacy walls. At some stage you need to have standards, but while you’re young and nimble, lowered barriers make it so much easier to experiment and get content out. If everything has to go through tons of committees, the ability to respond quickly and be smart about it isn’t there. Not to say you shouldn’t have controls. Those exist for good reason. But fewer controls can enable quick and smart experimentation.
When you’re a big behemoth, it’s going to happen in stages. Collaboration could be beneficial in the short term, but I really believe those walls will have to come down eventually because the lines are blurring. Remember when there used to be social media strategists? Now we just say social media marketing. There are big companies like IBM that have done an incredible job in capitalizing on content, because they realized a long time ago that walls were creating serious division, and that division was getting in the way. But it took seven or eight years before the walls started to come down.
There’s no easy path, but you have to make the investment.
AP: So, what tips can you provide to companies who are at the beginning of the journey?KKG: Well first, it has to be management led. There must be a mandate from the top that says this is happening and here is why it matters—it’s better for you, for customers, for the company. Second, you have to start somewhere. Start with better collaboration. For companies like IBM, breaking down barriers didn’t happen overnight.
Look out for part 2 of my conversation with Kathy Klotz-Guest next week.About Kathy Klotz-Guest:Kathy Klotz-Guest, MA, MBA, MLA, is a business storytelling strategist, marketing idea facilitator, author, and speaker. Founder of Keeping it Human, her mission is to help organizations turn jargon-monoxide into compelling stories and uncover boldly creative ideas for marketing content, storytelling, products, customer service, branding and more. She has worked with companies including Cisco Systems, Stanford University, Delphon, and Kaiser Permanente to name a few organizations. A podcaster and comic improviser, Kathy has written two other short books on content and storytelling (The Executive’s Bedtime Guide series) in addition to her latest book, Stop Boring Me! Creating Kick-Ass Marketing Content, Products and Ideas Through the Power of Improv. Her work has been published in Convince and Convert, Business of Story, Marketing Profs, Ragan.com, PR Daily, Business2Community, and Customer Think. She was a Founding Board Member and Research Fellow for the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) and a market analyst at Dataquest /GG many years ago. She loves using both her left and right “brains” and her 7-year-old is still her favorite audience to make laugh.
Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…