The Power of Consumer Stories in Digital Marketing

New research finds that sharing consumers’ positive stories about a brand can be a highly effective online marketing strategy.

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When we think of storytelling, we tend to conjure up memories of childhood — fairy tales, fables, and campfires. Stories are an essential form of human communication and are often among the first conveyors of cultural norms and values. There’s a reason why many childhood lessons are conveyed as stories: Research has shown that the human brain likes to encode, store, and retrieve information in narrative form.

When consumers prepare to make purchase decisions, stories can deliver important information and shape the decision and the overall brand experience. With the advent of consumer-to-consumer social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, stories can be powerful tools for shaping cognitive processing, recall, brand image, and choice. However, relatively little is known about how this process works in digital marketing. Over the past five years, we pursued field research with two companies, BMW AG, the German automaker, and Suruga Bank Ltd., based in Numazu, Japan, to explore the role that story authorship plays in consumer choice. Through this research, we learned that stories significantly increase consumers’ engagement with websites and that stories originating from consumers are especially powerful in shaping brand attitudes in social media. Indeed, companies that aren’t offering experiences that leverage consumer input in brand-related narratives are missing out on important opportunities to connect in a meaningful way with potential buyers.

Increasingly, the locus of power in the digital marketplace is moving from the brand itself to a combination of the brand and the consumer. In traditional TV advertising, brand-to-consumer marketing messages have dominated. However, in a “multiscreen” marketplace, the traditional marketing model faces tough competition, as companies use brand websites and social media to deliver messaging with greater impact. Direct brand messages that have narrative structures can significantly increase persuasion and brand connections in both old and new media. But as consumer-to-consumer storytelling becomes increasingly ubiquitous on social media, previous notions of direct brand influence are being replaced by more nuanced notions of brand-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer marketing. This allows for complex combinations in which consumers share creative content with companies and then both the company and the brand users share that content further on social media.

Companies, too, have become more active in sharing consumer stories and even facilitating the creation of consumer-generated content. For example, in 2009 and again in 2013, Ford Motor Co.



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The authors thank BMW and Suruga Bank for funding this study at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. Special thanks to Sebastian Schwiening at BMW, Kengo Suzuki and Tetsuhiro Amma at Suruga Bank, and our team of research assistants at MIT.

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Comments (5)
mac bryan
Telling the consumer story to the new consumer is a great strategy for online digital marketing
jeff thomson
It's true explaining a story which consumer can find familiar increase the sales a lot its great for marketing now days their is a trend which brand use which is explainer videos to tell their story with animation.
Clay Melugin
Good data for attracting consumers to a Brand for consideration.  However there seems to be a B2B link that would be worthy of exploration.  

Consumers do not always purchase the services they use.  As an example smart electric meters that are selected and purchased by a Utility.  Generally this is done with little engagement of the public services consumer buying in to the plan.  These situations frequently trigger concern and backlash as the community of consumers were not included in the "Purchase" process that results in a negative stigma.  

Had there been authentic consumer story telling on how Smart Meters helped real people lower electric bills, would we see better acceptance or even demand for systems by the true consumer in the decision making process ?

Okwukwe Ihentuge
Very resourceful article. Consumer generated story would remain the focus for long and content specifically providing value for this consumer will remain king.
Alan Smith
Great to see original research with real companies & their customers underlining our own analysis and assertions. Brands need to work with, support, and invest in the new generation of influencers and storytellers, not compete with them.