Storytelling: Art, Science, & Strategy

Here at SimpsonScarborough, we believe in and embrace the power of storytelling. In fact, our CEO and Partner, Elizabeth Johnson, is speaking at Academic Impression’s Leveraging High Impact Stories to Build Institutional Visibility conference later this month in Boston alongside Azusa Pacific University’s David Peck and Harvard University’s Mike Petroff, where she will help teach attendees strategies to convey their institution’s most powerful stories in the most compelling ways.

Storytelling has quickly become one of the biggest buzzwords in higher ed marketing over the past couple of years, for good reason: When done effectively, storytelling can elevate the messages you’re trying to communicate to your audiences in an authentic, aspirational, powerful way. Target audiences are able to engage and connect with your subject more meaningfully than through traditional “sales-oriented” forms of marketing. Doing this effectively takes not only a good reporter and writer, but also a great marketer who understands the three foundational aspects of brand storytelling:

1) Storytelling is an art. Go to almost any higher ed website. What do you see? “Ninety percent of our students receive financial aid.” “Ninety-six percent of our students are employed or are enrolled in graduate school six months after graduation.” In attempt to address ROI concerns with prospective students, parents, and other audiences, proof points litter our marketing materials. As impressive as many of these statistics might be, they can start to feel hollow, and students tend to glance over them when they see fairly similar numbers across institutions. Don’t get me wrong, these proof points are important, but we suggest using them as supports for stories that are more emotionally resonant with key audiences.

For example, if you are trying to communicate that 90% of your students receive financial aid, then it might be more effective to tell particular students’ stories. Andrew is a first-generation college student who comes from the rural part of your state. His parents make just enough money that they don’t qualify for Pell grants. However, because of a scholarship set up by an alumna of the college for the reason of helping students on the cusp of additional federal financial aid, Andrew can make the financial situation work at your college.

Students can see themselves in Andrew’s shoes. Parents can see themselves in the shoes of Andrew’s parents. Alumni can see the very real impact scholarships make in the lives of students. We all have stories like this that are ready to be told that motivate, engage, and connect with audiences.

2) Storytelling is a science. As much as storytelling is an art — creatively telling the stories of students, faculty, alumni, and more — it is also a science. In order to effectively use storytelling in your marketing operations, you need to have data.

Not all of your audiences are going to relate to Andrew’s story. The third-generation student with well-off parents from the suburbs of a major city probably won’t be able to see herself in Andrew’s shoes. One story isn’t a catch-all approach; different stories are needed to bolster storytelling efforts.

Therefore, you need to have data about your target audiences. Ask, for example, Who are your prospective students? Where are they spending their time? What are they spending more time with?

3) Storytelling is intrinsically tied to brand strategy. This one is pretty straightforward. As much as storytelling is an art and a science, the stories that you are creating must be tied to your brand strategy. You can have as many emotionally-resonating stories that are grounded in data as you want, but if those stories don’t tie back to your institutional brand, then you’re telling the wrong stories. Without the brand strategy guiding your efforts, you’re going to go off course—quickly.

If you’re interested in hearing more about branded storytelling and want to learn strategies to convey your institution’s most powerful stories in the most compelling ways, consider registering for the intense two-day Leveraging High Impact Stories to Build Institutional Visibility conference in Boston, October 29-30.

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