What Content Strategists Can Learn From the Movies

Content Strategist Carmen Hill presents at SXSW 2012

This post originally appeared on NASDAQ’s blog, where I contributed articles about content strategy during SXSW 2012.

What does content strategy have in common with the movies? At first glance, not much. Hollywood is all about red carpets, premieres and red carpets – and content strategy is about analyzing performance data and tweaking strategies to optimize success rates.

In her SXSW presentation, Social Media and Content Strategist Carmen Hill explained how content strategy and the movies are actually quite similar, though. In fact, she went as far as to say that content strategists could learn from Hollywood screenwriters by obeying the rules of the classic narrative arc.

Content marketers tend to focus on the sales funnel, a systematic approach to sell a product or service. The funnel illustrates a consumer’s path of discovery, consideration and decision-making in the buying process.

Instead, Hill says that content marketers should be thinking like screenwriters, taking consumers through the classic narrative arc, in which a story or movie incorporates the setup, a conflict and a resolution.

In these stories, there is always a hero, or protagonist to go on what is known as “the hero’s journey” through these three levels of storytelling. In “The Wizard of Oz,” for example, Dorothy is the hero. The setup is where all of the main characters of the movie are introduced. The conflict takes up the bulk of the story, and is invoked by a catalyst, or inciting incident. In this case, a tornado takes Dorothy’s house flying through the sky to Oz. Dorothy and her crew go on a mission to see out the Wizard of Oz during the conflict section of the movie. And finally, the resolution of the story comes when the hero saves the day – in this case, Dorothy discovers that she has had the power all along to return to Kansas, and everyone lives happily ever after.

So, where do customers come into play here? Customers are the heroes in the content strategy story. Hill explains that Hollywood heroes have a call to adventure, accept that call, seek knowledge, face their fears, overcome challenges and, in the end, become the masters of their worlds.

Consumers follow this same path, says Hill. They have a call to action when they discover that something is missing in life. They must then commit to making a change and research options, consuming content along the way. They face challenges, such as finances, in justifying and making their decisions. And finally, they acquire the good or service that helps them solve the problem, thus becoming the master of their world.

Brands, then, need to understand who their heroes are. They can figure this out through character development exercises. Much like a screenwriter spends time figuring out the personas behind his characters, a content strategist must figure out the persona behind his audience members. Are they decision-makers? Influencers? What do they care about? Where do they live?

Understanding the main characters of the story is a step in the right direction towards telling a provocative and meaningful story.

Just remember, unlike in the movies, the audience is in control of the story when it comes to your brand’s content. While content strategists may try to create the perfect script incorporating the narrative arc with absolute accuracy, the story will always be reshaped and influenced by its readers.

For your listening pleasure, here is a recording I took of Hill’s full presentation. Please ignore the typing noises — I was composing the outline for this post. 🙂

7 thoughts on “What Content Strategists Can Learn From the Movies

  1. Too many businesses focus on the features of their produce or service rather than the benefits. Most consumers don’t buy a car because it comes in a range of colours, they buy it because it will be cheaper to run and more reliable than their current model. So you have to paint a picture of their problem and present your product or service as the solution. Having said that, many marketers encourage you to focus on one customer, but for a lot of businesses, that is particularly hard to do because they have a wide range of target consumers. Perhaps what they mean is focus on one type of customer per campaign…?

  2. We have a pretty in-depth persona development process, including interviews, industry research and insight from sales. Then we map out a detailed “buyer’s journey” with the questions/information needs a buyer has at each step of the way. We roughly follow the SiriusDecisions steps (loosen the status quo, commit to change, explore options, commit to a solution, justify the decision, make the selection). We map and plan our content to answer these questions. In addition, the persona research includes content and social media preferences, which helps further refine the how and the where. That’s it in a nutshell. Let me know if you’d like more details.

  3. I like the story analogy, because it forces you to do two things:

    1. Understand who is your protagonist, what they think about, and what their challenges are.
    2. Understand in what *sequence* they must tackle those challenges, and what items/tools/weapons they will need on their quest.

    If you can understand those two, you can think about the pieces of the puzzle you will need to provide to be the sort of “fairy god mother” (content strategist) throughout the journey. It seems what you really need to do is think through these different personas and classify your quests. That’s great to ground that, but what’s interesting to me is how do you take that one step backwards and classify those people? Do you seek to understand that through customer discovery on the phone or in person? Is it researching people’s twitter and LinkedIn? What tools and strategies do you use to get a solid grasp on the personas and their questions?

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