Soylent Storytelling: How Content Wins

To "drop in" is to catch the wave - to have the right of way and to show everyone else in the lineup what you've got. We're rooting for you. We've invited some of the best storytellers we know to share their style with us. Enjoy the drop in. 

A few years ago, a story I read online convinced me to give up solid food for three days.

A California entrepreneur named Rob Rhinehart got tired of the inefficiency of normal meals, and in an inspired event of biohacking, he started developing his own pre-made alternative. Finding success among Silicon Valley’s busiest, most desk-bound denizens, Rhinehart formalized his kitchen table concoction and branded it as Soylent. The company has since grown into a full-fledged meal replacement behemoth, raising rounds of venture capital and refining their formula in increasingly palatable variations.

Rhinehart only needed to do one simple, straightforward thing to convince me to give his drink a go in lieu of chewable nutrition: He told his story. And while my Soylent experience was decidedly less-than-awesome (their original recipe didn’t sit well with me), by the time I reached the third paragraph of Rhinehart’s personal tale of discovery and experimentation, I knew I wanted to walk the same path. Companies that can convince their customers in the same fashion have the easiest sales job on the planet. 

All content tells a story, but most marketing content tells a really boring one. “Buy this, here’s why!” barely qualifies as a narrative arc, yet it’s the tale we as consumers are force fed daily. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Innovations big and small are always impacting our lives in ways fundamentally richer than a cheaper, bigger, or brighter product. Adding a dedicated storytelling step before launch (or relaunch, or rebrand, or cool-tech-company pivot) allows businesses and marketers an opportunity to identify their true standout value and does wonders at extending the potential lifecycle of your brand.

One of the key channels for storytelling is your organization’s content strategy. Producing regular content on a consistent basis has numerous, obvious benefits, especially when posted on native platforms: higher reader engagement on your site, another tool in your conversion funnel arsenal, SEO growth through keywords and internal link building, and copy that can be adapted for outbound marketing channels. Unique, quality content is rewarded in more ways than ever before, though it now takes more effort to help that content stand out from the crowd. Using storytelling to influence content makes the production cycle easier and altogether more impactful.

Assuming you’ve already put the thought, effort, and personnel recruitment into building content infrastructure — how will it be used, how will it be spread, who will it be spread to — there are a few major ways storytelling can support content development. Below is a non-exhaustive list of how a constant desire to tell your company and product’s evolving stories — both internal and external — can impart authenticity to your content and inspire new avenues for its use.

1. Showcase hurdles — Customers and clients only expect perfection as far as it relates to them. Content that showcases failed iterations, evolving product design, or industry hurdles you’ve worked hard to address positions a company as thoughtful, hardworking, and willing to take risks, with the upside of innovative breakthroughs. Show and tell your target demographics they aren’t getting version 1.0 or buying into a beta test. What you’ve developed has taken time to get to where it is, and showcasing that evolution makes the entire process — and ultimately, the product itself — seem more thoughtful and robust. Additionally, calling attention to old obstacles signals you’re thinking beyond potential competitors or copycats. Showing what made you take two steps back sends a signal that you’re really three steps ahead.

2. Highlight partnerships — Business development is notoriously — and sometimes unnecessarily — secretive. Partnerships built on strong, trusting relationships can humanize a company and illustrate the very personal steps you’ve taken to build bridges and enhance functionality. Tell the story of how partnerships were inspired, developed, and inked– and ask those partners for their help in doing so. They’ve got their own unique perspectives and trials-by-fire that can make you seem even more impressive as a pair. Plus, you may find even more common ground and room for collaboration than originally imagined.

3. Reward readers — Discounts. Freebies. Early access. Referral codes. Ebooks. Free Soylent. However you’ve chosen to reward repeat customers or early adopters, make it relevant to your content play. Tell them why you’ve chosen a particular reward or preferred access structure, and use your company or founder’s story to inform that. Theme giveaways or releases around a hallmark challenge you’ve overcome, or peg them to a meaningful date or event in your company’s history. You’re giving your customers something, sure, but doing so with a storyteller’s eye will add even more value while engaging them with your brand’s story and progress. 

One word of caution: developing a meaty story around your offerings can be a double edged sword, because lasting brands and long-term engagement require more upkeep. There’s a little more heavy lifting on the front end, along with story curation that requires consistent upkeep. That being said, your relevance to consumers will only last as long as your story stays relevant. Create a better, richer story before you push a product, and you’ve given yourself — and your product — a much longer runway and chance of success.

You’re trying to get readers to become customers. Get them invested in your story — on your team — and they’ll do more than just buy in with their dollars. They might even forego food to see from your perspective.

How do you use storytelling to create killer content? Comment below, and add your thoughts to the Swell Story community.

David’s passion lies with helping brands reach audiences in new and innovative capacities. He’s served as the Editorial Director at Greatist, a contributor to Forbes, CMO of RhinoCo Group, and an advisor to some of the world’s top content and media brands. He currently leads content strategy at JAKK Media. A native of Bardstown, Kentucky, David graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University.