Hear the word ‘storytelling’ and think of Little Red Riding Hood before bedtime? Errr, where have you been? OK, so you may not have fallen victim to the buzzword of the moment, but the chances are that you have been exposed to the concept of storytelling. It’s not a complex new fad. It’s marketing’s response to the way the internet and social networks have changed the way we consume information. It’s also known as ‘content marketing’ or ‘brand journalism’, with the essence being the delivery of authentic and original editorial content in a number of different forms, whether that’s blog posts, ‘thought leadership’ articles, case studies, videos or images. Storytelling is cutting its teeth as serious commercial currency, particularly online and there’s good ROI behind it if you get it right. Our conversational habits have changed since social networking came into popular use with sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest encircling our friendship groups and business networks. As consumers, we want to feel captivated, inspired and compelled. Our attention spans are shorter, we verify everything we’re told by trawling Google and we are inundated with reams of opinion, advice and news coming at us from all directions, on and offline. But if we like what we see and read, if we learn from it, or can relate to it, the chances are we’ll share it. Publishing original content is about finding a way to achieve a connection with your target audience. It’s about creating brand awareness without in-your-face product placement and sales promotion. The emphasis is on creating a brand personality, a tone of voice and a power of influence by producing honest, compelling content. Credibility and authenticity are king, which is why content marketing is about knowledge sharing and relationship building. Consumers are canny. You have to build trust and demonstrate that reading your content is more valuable to them than not reading it. Branded content budgets were tipped to rise this year with 16% of marketers reporting that their companies were shifting aggressively from traditional marketing into branded content – so said the findings of a 2011 US-based “Spending Study” conducted by the Custom Content Council. Educating customers was cited as the number one reason for using branded content and retention was number two. Online marketing strategies have evolved to respond to the customer’s desire to feel valued and intellectually and emotionally connected with a brand. According to the study, some 72% of marketers think branded content is more effective than advertising in a magazine, 62% say it is more effective than advertising on TV, while 69% say it is superior to both direct mail and public relations (PR). In reality, we see content marketing as heavily intertwined with PR, not as a separate strategy, because PR is essentially the vehicle for content. So how can you get up to speed with storytelling as a tool to win business long-term? 1) Be clear about your brand voice – who are you and what do you do brilliantly? Before you jump into publishing, you need to think hard about what you’re going to say. You need a strategy and a skilled copywriter to help you vocalise and polish your brand voice and pitch it to the right audience. No-one wants to read lightweight fluff, so be intelligent. Start fresh by dismantling your company’s unique selling points, and then use these to pinpoint a short list of headings that define what you know you can be recognised as an expert in. 2) Recycle, repurpose, reissue You’ve written a blog sharing a recent mushroom foraging experience in the woods local to your hotel – now what? Post it on your website and hope for the best, right? That’s one way to handle it. Or you could be smart and look at ways to distribute that blog to as many relevant people as possible. It’s about integration. Immediately you should be thinking of ways to feature that blog in your restaurant’s newsletter to demonstrate the origins of your chef’s new mushroom-based dish, you should tweet about the experience and include the blog link, post a picture of the forage on your Facebook page with a comment and a link to the blog, offer your tips to that consumer magazine targeting families in the market for a half-term day out, or pitch your unique foraged mushroom recipe to a food title. You get the picture. Take your content on a journey and exhaust all possible ways to recycle it, repurpose it and reissue it. You’ll get far greater rewards for your effort because not everyone absorbs content in the same way and different word choices, image choices and channels trigger different reactions. 3) Negotiate a guest blog spot with a publisher and give your content legs The ROI of brand journalism is directly linked to how many of the right sorts of people read your content, so you need to think about your source. Guest posting a blog exclusively on a respected publisher’s website that’s read and referred to by your target audience can open many doors. Social media sharing alone might not be enough – sometimes you need the oomph of your trade magazine to launch your content to new quantities of beady eyes. Talk to the editor about offering intellectual thought leadership content to his/her readers and that article you wrote sharing your tips on the dos and don’ts of partnering with a hotel room nights distribution channel like Secret Escapes will reach more people than your own website and twitter feed ever could. The endorsement of being anchored to a recognised and respected industry leading hotel publication could prove a lucrative springboard into new conversations. 4) Be open and transparent with your agency Good PR is rooted in an agency’s ability to bring out the best in a client and to manage the consistency and seeding of key messages. Good PR is also about understanding, relatively intimately, what makes a client tick and having the skill to take that client’s knowledge and opinions and transform them into gritty, witty thought leadership content that carries authority and the power to trigger a reaction – which could be the decision to book, to share, to recommend. Taking the thought leadership approach requires time investment and a shrewd eye for what makes a story. Be open and adopt a sharing policy with your agency. Even the things you think are not of interest could be the little nuggets that spark a whole new thread of content ideas. That conversation you’ve been having about changing the timings of your ‘grab n go’ express lunch service? Tell us about it. That key industry event you were host venue to last night? Let us in on the detail. When Google released its search engine ranking algorithm Panda in 2011, the update meant that quality, original content ranked far higher in SEO terms than duplicate content. This has since emphasised the value that can be found in original opinion sharing, surveys, videos and infographics.