Art Silverman had a vendetta against popcorn.
Silverman wanted to educate the public about the fact that a typical bag of movie popcorn has 37 grams of saturated fat, while the USDA recommends you have no more than 20 grams in an entire day.
That’s important information. But instead of simply citing that surprising statistic, Silverman made the message a little more striking:
“A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!”
Yes, what you say is crucial. But how you say it can make all the difference.
How you say it is determined by your “who”
“Marketing succeeds when enough people with similar worldviews come together in a way that allows marketers to reach them cost-effectively.”
– Seth Godin
When you create a well-rounded representation of your ideal customer, what you’re really tuning in to is the way your people view the world.
And when you understand the worldview your prospects share — the things they believe — you can frame your story in a way that resonates so strongly with them that you enjoy an “unfair” advantage over your competition.
Consider these competing worldviews, framed differently by simple word choices:
- Crossfitter vs. Gym Rat
- Progressive vs. Snowflake
- Businessman vs. The Man
These are extreme examples, and you can certainly cater to audience beliefs and worldviews without resorting to name-calling. For example, the simple word “green” can provoke visceral reactions at the far sides of the environmental worldview spectrum, while also prompting less-intense emotions in the vast middle.
Framing your story against a polar opposite, by definition, will make some love you and others ignore or even despise you. That’s not only okay, it’s necessary.
You’ll likely never convert those at the other end of the spectrum, but your core base will share your content and help you penetrate the vast group in the middle — and that’s where growth comes from.
Based on who you’re talking to, you have to choose the way to tell the story so that you get the conclusion you desire.
It’s the delivery of the framed message that keeps your heroic prospect on the journey so that their (and therefore your) goals are achieved.
The “how” is essentially the difference between success and failure (or good and great) when it comes to content marketing. You must tell a compelling story with the right central element for the people you’re trying to reach.
It’s all about the premise
When you think about how a story is told, you’ll hear people talk in terms of hooks and angles. Another way of thinking about it is the premise of the case you’re making.
As a term in formal logic, the premise is a proposition supporting a certain conclusion. Applied to content and storytelling, I use the word premise to mean the emotional concept that not only attracts attention but also maintains engagement throughout every element of your content.
In other words:
The premise is the embodiment of a concept that weaves itself from headline to conclusion, tying everything together into a compelling, cohesive, and persuasive narrative with one simple and inevitable conclusion — your desired action.
And yes, you’re telling smaller stories along the buyer’s journey that forms an overall empowering narrative. You’ll have a “big idea” that’s told one step at a time along the path.
The premise connects you to the emotional center of your prospect’s brain, stimulates desire, maintains credibility, and eventually results in the action you want.
This happens when you understand how to frame your message and overall offer to mesh so tightly with your prospect’s worldview that the “this is right for me” trigger is pulled subconsciously.
Of course, each piece of content reflects your core values and overall positioning in the marketplace. Here’s a famous example from the world of advertising.
Nike has one of the most powerful positioning statements on the planet, expressed in three little words — just do it. Beyond selling shoes, this is a way of viewing the world boiled down to its essence, which is why it’s so powerful.
Now, think back to Nike’s commercial featuring John Lennon’s song Instant Karma:
What’s the premise?
First, notice how you don’t see a logo or company name until the very end. In fact, the camera barely shows the shoes of the athletes. It’s all about the lyrics married to the visuals.
The first lyrical tie-in hits with “Join the human race.” Then things really kick in with “Who on Earth do you think you are, a superstar? Well right you are!”
And then the unifying chorus paired with images of athletic adversity punctuated with triumph, as John Lennon repeats, “We all shine on ….”
This individual promotion supports Nike’s overall brand positioning of just do it in a powerful, unique way. Did it resonate with everyone? Not at all … and I’m guessing that very same commercial today would be absolutely despised by a certain segment of the U.S. population.
But the Instant Karma clip did highly engage the people it was aimed at. Repeat this to yourself over and over:
The content you create is for a particular “who,” and no one else.
Let’s now look at a process for finding your how, both with your overall positioning and at each step in the prospect’s journey.
4 steps to creating your winning story concept
Great ideas are unique. There’s no formula for innovative ideas, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling the slickest of snake oil.
That said, great premises always have certain elements in common. It took me many years to understand that, beyond all the tactics, it’s the premise of the message that matters first and foremost.
The work you’ve done so far on who and what was the heavy lifting of the how. But to refine your content marketing strategy even further, here are four essential elements of a winning story concept.
1. Be unpredictable
The first thing you absolutely must have is attention. Without initial attention, nothing else you’ve done matters.
And nothing kills attention faster than if your prospective reader, listener, or viewer thinks they already know where you’re going. Beyond curiosity, a great premise delivers an unpredictable and unexpected element that makes it irresistible.
It all comes back to knowing who you’re talking to at an intimate level and what they are used to seeing in the market.
What messages are they getting from your competition? This is what you must use as the benchmark to create your own unique and unexpected angle that forms the foundation of your premise.
In this day and age, you might have to dig deeper for a new and unexpected message that startles or downright fascinates people. A creative imagination combined with solid research skills help you see the nugget of gold no one else sees.
Part of why people tune things out is a lack of novelty, which makes even a previously desirable subject matter mundane.
Taking an approach that differs from the crowd can help you stand out, and that’s why unpredictability is crucial for a strong premise.
Just remember that things change. What was once unpredictable can become not only predictable, but trite. This is why being able to come up with a fresh premise is a valuable skill for anyone who creates content or markets anything.
2. Be simple
One of the fundamental rules of effective content marketing is to be clear and simple. Because a premise by definition is an unprecedented and grand idea, sometimes boiling it down to its essence is difficult, or worse, neglected.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to water down your big idea to the point of stupidity.
That defeats the purpose.
What I’m saying is you’ve got to make it so simple and clear that it travels directly into the mind of your prospect, so he begins to tell himself the story. Your copy must guide him and inspire him, not beat him over the head.
So, you’ve got a grand premise that’s unpredictable and destined to shake up your market. Reduce it to a paragraph.
Now, take it down to two sentences.
Get it even shorter.
Just do it.
At this point, you may find yourself with a great tagline. At a minimum, you’ve now got the substance for the bold promise contained in your primary headline.
3. Be real
You’ve heard that in this day of social media, you’ve got to keep it real. Speak with a human voice. Be authentic.
You also hopefully know that social media hasn’t changed the fact that it’s about them, not you. In fact, it’s more about them than ever.
How do you make that work? What makes a premise real to the right people?
First of all, your premise must be highly relevant to your intended audience, while also being directly in line with your core values. Without relevance, you can’t inspire meaning. And it’s meaningful messages that inspire action.
Meaning is a function of what people believe before you find them. As we discussed earlier, what your ideal customers believe reflects how they view the world, and your content has to frame that view appropriately to be effective.
As a function of belief, meaning is derived from the context in which your desired audience perceives your message. That context is the heroic journey of the prospect, with your brand serving as a guide.
There’s another aspect of being “real” with your content. Your messages must communicate meaningful benefits that are also tangible. This is the second important aspect of an authentic premise, and it’s critical to help your prospects understand and connect with your message.
In this sense, tangible means real or actual, rather than imaginary or visionary. This is the aspect of your premise that is express, meaning the part where you tell the story in a way that concretely injects certain information into the prospect’s mind in a specific way.
Remember the Total cereal ad from the late 1980s?
“How many bowls of YOUR cereal equal one bowl of Total?”
You then saw stacks of cereal bowls filled with various competing brands, with one case reaching 12 bowls high.
Instead of saying something pedestrian like, “Total has 12 times the nutrition of the leading brand,” they showed you a tangible expression of the benefit. But it doesn’t need to be done with visuals to work.
Words alone are plenty powerful to paint a picture in the mind. Look at the opening of this article and the way Art Silverman explained the saturated fat content in a bag of popcorn. He took a dry statistic and brought it to life.
You’ll note that both examples contain the element of unpredictability and simplicity. But it’s the relevant and tangible expression of the premise that creates instant understanding.
Make your messages as real to people as possible, and you’ll create the kind of instant understanding that all truly great premises contain. But there’s one more critical element to a premise that works.
4. Be credible
If you’re writing to persuade, you have to hit the gut before you get anywhere near the brain. The part that decides “I want that” is emotional and often subconscious. If your premise doesn’t work emotionally, logic will never get a chance to weigh in.
If you flip that emotional switch, the sale (or other action) is yours to lose. And I mean that literally. Because our logical minds do eventually step in (usually in a way that makes us think we’re actually driven by logic in the first place). If your premise is not credible (as in it’s too good to be true), you fail.
That doesn’t mean hyperbole never works, as long as the prospect wants to believe you badly enough. That’s how some desperate people in certain markets are taken advantage of.
But belief is critical in any market and with any promotion, so credibility is the final key to a winning premise — people must believe you just as your premise must match their beliefs.
Remember, the more innovative your idea or exceptional your offer, the more you’re going to have to prove it. This brings us right back to an unexpected, simple, and tangible expression of the benefit in a way that’s credible.
Every box of Total cereal contains the cold, hard data about the nutritional content. And although attitudes have changed toward saturated fat, Art Silverman’s popcorn claims were supported by the FDA recommendations at the time.
The kind of proof any particular premise requires will vary, but the more credibility that can be baked into the premise itself, the better.
Now … put it out there
“I’m looking California, and feeling Minnesota …”
That metaphor is from the 1991 Soundgarden song Outshined, written by frontman Chris Cornell. He shared an interesting anecdote about writing those very personal words in a magazine interview:
“I came up with that line — ‘I’m looking California / And feeling Minnesota,’ from the song ‘Outshined’ — and as soon as I wrote it down, I thought it was the dumbest thing. But after the record came out and we went on tour, everybody would be screaming along with that particular line when it came up in the song. That was a shock.”
Instead of the “dumbest thing,” those are the most famous six words Cornell has ever written. In addition to being a fan favorite, the line inspired both a movie title and an ESPN catch phrase whenever Minnesota Timberwolves player Kevin Garnett was in the news.
Why did it work? Because with those six words, Soundgarden’s audience understood instantly what Cornell was trying to convey. He spoke to them.
And yet, what if Cornell had cut the line because “it was the dumbest thing?” I suppose that would have been unfortunate, because he would have missed out on a level of engagement with his audience that the rest of us would kill for.
The content marketing strategy we’ve been working through is putting you in the position to get things right the first time. You smartly spent a ton of time on your who, and then you outlined the critical points of your story by mapping the buyer’s journey and the customer experience.
The who and the what inform the how.
You might even be surprised at how easily the fresh ideas are coming to you now.
But ultimately, we as content marketers don’t know for sure what will resonate. Only the audience can determine that, so you’ve got to put it out there.
When the audience magic happens, you’ll know it.
Next, we’re going to be sharing our favorite tips and tactics for the how. You’ll be telling better stories, creating smarter analogies, and connecting with your audience at a deeper level than ever before.
Reader Comments (17)
Scott Ellis says
Brian… it’s good to have you back in action on Copyblogger.com! Your style of writing has always resonated well in my brain and clearly that of many others.
The varied and tangible examples are also appreciated.
Nothing more to this comment than kudos and keep up the good work… and because Soundgarden!
Brian Clark says
Zach Vang says
Thank you for great article
Just one quick question – can i attract more readers just only with content marketing ?
Thanks in advance
I’m going have to give these a try and see if these 4 steps can really help me increase my engagement time on my blog.
Hoping for the best!
Tommy Zarzecki says
Brian, you had me at Soundgarden.
Another great piece. Loving it buddy… keep it coming!
– Tommy Zman
Michael LaRocca says
I’ve seen this example cited many times, but I’ve never liked it. I’ve always found the popcorn statistics easier to digest than the long-winded copy. (No pun intended.) If I have to translate something down to get to the core message, that’s work.
Dave Pendleton says
Indeed…. and any experience marketer will stand by the credo of “Content is King.”
Great stuff and great presentation! Thanks.
It’s such a shame that both the USDA and Silverman are dead wrong about saturated fat. Silverman’s little diatribe does not pass the credibility test.
Brian Clark says
That’s true now, but the prevailing wisdom at the time said saturated fat was bad. Also, keep in mind that all he did was restate the amount of saturated fat in a different way, and then contrast that with FDA recommendations. So, it was credible.
As I point out in the piece, things change in the novelty and credibility departments all the time, so marketers must stay vigilant with the messages.
Alex Rahma says
I really like the “keep it simple” part. Most businesses like to overthink and make things complex because they think the more complex, the more perfect it is. It takes a lot of effort to be simple and focus too.
Jitendra vaswani says
Hey Brian, Another masterpiece of content from you. Brain your style of writing always helped me a lot. Most of the clients still dont understand the concept of content writing. They still gibberish content gonna work but SEO has changed alot in 2016.
Thanks Brian! I’m going to save the links to these articles in a file called Marketing Gold.
Will you get into How to distribute the content (without spending a fortune or spinning my wheels) in order to identify & connect with the Who?
Thank you Brian, I really love how you follow what you preach…As I read this article and thought about the points you were explaining, I realized that this article follows the exact layout you predicate. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Douglas Smith says
Another great article – thanks Brian! So often I feel a but ‘down the rabbit hole’ with SEO and keywords, etc, and it’s great to hear solid advice about the real basics and reasons behind copywriting.
Great post! Now I understand why I haven’t been getting much audience engagement on my blog. But, bookmarked this article. It’s time to implement. Thanks Brian!
Kelly Gross says
Where do you draw the line?
I both love this – and find it a little frightening. Your suggestions are spot on and the examples shine, but there can be a bit of a conundrum with content writing that does this and a moral line, don’t you think? Art Silverman worked for CSPI. The same technique works for marketing to benefit the public and for marketing for other purposes. Not trying to be uber-philosophical here, but I think it’s a relevant question. Note everything is shoe sales or encouraging healthier popcorn…
Brian Clark says
Well, look at us. We do all of this, and we remain stringently ethical while doing it. It’s not that hard if you actually care about your audience.
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