The Power of Consumer Stories in Digital Marketing

  • Renée Richardson Gosline, Jeffrey Lee, and Glen Urban
  • May 18, 2017

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

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.