How Digital Storytelling Can Boost Marketing Efforts in Trade Publishing // The University Of Portsmouth

Originally written for the University of Portsmouth

My Master’s dissertation focused on storytelling in trade publishing. Below are the abstract, research background, introduction and, if you scroll all the way down, the poster.


Trade publishing encompasses most publications aimed at the general audience; in other words, what most consumers think of when they think of book publishing. This study aims to examine the potential benefits of utilising digital storytelling in trade book marketing campaigns. To do so, it empirically tests whether a digital story has an impact on consumer behaviour, and attempts to quantify it.

Storytelling marketing has crossed over into the digital landscape in recent years, gaining momentum due to the extensive use of social media. It is a form of cross-communication applicable to most aspects of a marketing campaign, and it is used to position brands, connect with customers, and maintain a consistent brand identity across platforms and formats – hence the transmedia storytelling concept.

The study followed a quantitative research approach and invited 100 UK-based respondents to fill in an online self-completed questionnaire. The questionnaire measured their level of interest in making a purchase depending on the author’s or title’s popularity, a sense of relatability with the author, and after being exposed to storytelling marketing. The data confirms the hypothesised positive impact of storytelling on consumer behaviour, and shows that being presented with a digital narrative would be of interest to over half of the potential customers.

Limited research to date has investigated storytelling within the trade publishing industry. Therefore, this study contributes to the discourse by attempting to discover and reflect on the effectiveness of storytelling marketing. The study concludes with an analysis of the results and provides recommendations and suggestions for the use of storytelling techniques to boost the marketing efforts of trade publishers.

1. Introduction

“This is why storytelling matters: statistics validate your point, but the story is the point.” (Gotter, 2017)

There are a number of categories within the publishing industry, with academic and trade being the two major ones. While academic publishing is concerned with addressing the needs of the scholarly community, trade books are for the general reading market and wide public consumption. (Broad, 2015) In the case of academic titles, marketing efforts are often specific and niche, focusing on pitching to publications of interest in the academic community, as opposed to media outlets for trade publications. As Broad (2015) argues, “a creative and well thought-out campaign can make all the difference in the success of the title.” Yet, most traditional publishers don’t have an R&D budget, and are generally risk averse to investing in marketing new authors and titles. (Raugust, 2014)

As publishers tend to focus on the already existing popularity of the author and their sales figures, this creates a problem for new or developing authors. The metric often used to evaluate them is platform, roughly defined as “the social reach of the author though Facebook fans, Twitter followers, blog views and speaking engagements.” (Vinjamuri, 2014) However, according to Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group – which polls readers to determine their preferences and purchase behavior – argues that platform is a misleading metric, and sales figures tell only part of the story. (Vinjamuri, 2014)

This study aims to find out whether integrating the author’s story into a book marketing strategy may be a worthy investment for trade publishers afraid to spend their marketing budget on new or developing authors, as opposed to relying solely on popularity metrics. After all, as Popova (2013) quotes Stanley Kubrick, “People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction.” The rationale behind it, as detailed throughout the following sections of this chapter, is that narrative advertising can lead to narrative persuasion through the process of narrative transportation, and create favourable changes in customer perception and, subsequently, customer behaviour.

1.1. Research Background

When HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne took the lead of the publishing house in 2013, he said:

Publishers have historically been the most innovative and creative of organisations. But I think that when it came to the digital revolution we came to a point where we stopped innovating and creating. We thought, we’ve done an eBook and that is what it is. We need to think about brands. In a world where Amazon is knocking out hundreds of emerging authors every year, it becomes increasingly difficult for emerging authors to be discovered, so we need to think about how we build brands like J. K. Rowling – people who have transcended being an author and are brands in their own right; and in a digital world they are going to create a huge amount of value. (Rankin, 2013)

Indeed, few recent author stories have attracted as much attention as J. K. Rowling’s. (Brown & Patterson, 2010) The penniless single parent lived on benefits and wrote in Edinburgh cafes what is now the best-seller book series in history – Harry Potter. The manuscript was turned down by publisher after publisher, even when submitted through literary agent Christopher Little, until it was finally accepted by Bloomsbury. (Flood, 2015) Her story resonated so powerfully with the press and the public alike that it hugely contributed to both hers and the Harry Potter brand’s success over the years. (Brown & Patterson, 2010)

The importance of storytelling as a marketing tool has been highlighted since as early as 1954, when Peter Drucker (1954, cited by Trout, 2006) argued that “because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation”, where innovation produces the products and marketing tells the stories that sell them. (Neumeier, 2015, p. 5) Storytelling has since crossed over into the digital landscape and gained momentum due to the recent extensive use of social media. (“Storytelling in your…”, 2017) Digital stories can be defined as anything that employs digital technology to construct a story. (Sylvester & Greenidge 2009)

According to Gotter (2017) video is the most effective type of media for digital storytelling today. The main reason why visual narrative has become so popular is because most mental processing is available only within narrow limits during conscious thinking, with the dominant mode being unconscious thinking. (Wegner, 2002; Wilson, 2002, cited by Megehee & Woodside, 2010) Woodside (2010, pp. 87-88) also found that nonverbal processing involves different psychological mechanisms than verbal processing, and that nonverbal cues elicit more imagery – particularly useful in emotional advertising. Therefore, it can be argued that creating visual narrative to parallel verbal narrative nurtures dual processing to a greater extent. (Megehee & Woodside, 2010).

2. Literature Review

There is growing recognition that “for all our talk of goods-dominant and service-dominant logic, the real driver of marketing endeavour is its story-dominant logic.” (Brown, 2007, cited by Brown & Patterson, 2010) As Michael Kelly, director of global publishing Hasbro, said: “The story is what drives the appeal of the brands […]. We’re not selling the toy, we’re selling the story behind the toy.” (Raugust, 2014) This chapter looks into what a story is in an advertising context, how narrative advertising can drive narrative persuasion through empathy and narrative transportation, and what makes storytelling such a powerful marketing technique.

2.1. Narrative Advertising

While often interchangeable, stories and narratives mean slightly different things in an advertising context. According to van Laer, de Ruyter, Visconti & Wetzels (2014) the narrative is the story receiver’s consumption of the story, interpreted in accordance with their own “prior knowledge, attention, personality, demographics, and significant others.” (Fishbein and Yzer, 2003, cited by van Laer et al., 2014). This definition acknowledges the agency of the transported party, whose own individual attributes affect the intensity of narrative transportation (Green and Brock, 2002, cited by van Laer et al., 2014). Thus, it can be implied that the story is the storyteller’s production, and the narrative is the story receiver’s consumption. (van Laer et al., 2014) De Certeau (1984, xxi, cited by van Laer et al., 2014) also notes on narratives: “A different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place. This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient.”

In order to understand narrative advertising, it is not enough to understand what a narrative is; it is, however, useful to draw a comparison with traditional advertising. Schmitt (1999) argues that traditional marketing views consumers as rational decision-makers focused on functional features and benefits, while experiential marketing views consumers as both rational and emotional human beings who crave pleasurable experiences. Accordingly, advertising can assume the form of either arguments or narratives, where argument-based advertising presents fact‐based information, and narrative advertising tells stories about products through related experiences and attempts to appeal to affective and emotional responses. (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2010, cited by Ching, Tong, Chen, & Chen, 2013) Narrative advertising is achieved through storytelling and evoking the consumer’s emotions and empathy with the characters in the story. (Mooradian et al., 2008, cited by Ching et al., 2013). Essentially, a narrative advertisement is “an ad that tells a story” (Escalas, 1998, p. 274) and consumers can interpret it to inform their future consumption experience. (Bahl & Milne, 2010, cited by Pera & Viglia, 2016) While the narrative structure may differ, the brand message is almost always delivered through characters who interact with the brand, derive benefits from the usage, and make it evident in emotional displays. (Boller & Olson, 1991)

The narrative advertisement needs to be well integrated with the brand (Brechman & Purvis, 2015). However, too much product presentation risks disrupting the audience’s cognitive and emotional processing, leading to dissatisfaction with the advertisement and, ultimately, the brand (Chen, 2015). Escalas (1998) and Chen (2015) argue that the dual-function of the narrative advertisement – a marketing tool for the brand and a pleasant experience for the consumer – already accounts for a difference in the way the audience approaches narrative advertisements compared to traditional stories, in the sense that they are aware that narrative advertisements are serve a marketing purpose and this persuasive intent warrants more skepticism and caution. (Escalas, 1998; Chen, 2015) However, Chang (2009, cited by Ching et al., 2013) argues that narrative advertising still has superior persuasive effects in what concerns facilitating favourable changes in brand attitudes, and Woodside (2010, p. 42) also supports the view that, in what concerns consumer behaviour, “people think narratively rather than argumentatively or paradigmatically”.

2.2. Narrative Persuasion

Narrative advertising leads to narrative persuasion, or “the change in the potential customer’s attitude and/or behaviour caused by narratives” (Van Laer et al., 2014), through the cognitive and emotional responses it elicits. Adaval and Wyer (1998) argue that consumers are more predisposed to make decisions by envisioning themselves in possible scenarios, thus narrative advertisements aim to frame information in the form of a story and guide consumers to engage, imagine, and envision themselves in it (Adaval & Wyer, 1998; Escalas, 1998). The engagement with the narrative also contributes to value intensity, “a motivational force of attraction to or repulsion from something” (Higgins and Scholer, 2009). According to Burnkrant & Unnava (1995) and Escalas (1998) there are two affective and cognitive processes that allow the development of narrative processing as a persuasion tool: empathy and narrative transportation, also known as “being hooked” (Escalas, Moore & Britton, 2004, cited by Chang, 2009). They are achieved as consumers begin to relate the new information to their own stories and make references to themselves (self-referencing) (Burnkrant & Unnava, 1995; Escalas, 1998).

Self‐referencing is the main factor in narrative advertising that affects persuasion (Escalas, 2007) by inducing transportation and leading to forming more favourable product attitudes. (Ching et al., 2013) It occurs when one processes information by relating it to their own narrative identity. (Burnkrant and Unnava 1995, cited by Escalas, 2007) A narrative identity is the constructed and internalised evolving story of our lives (Singer, 2004) where we integrate the reconstructed past and imagined future to provide us with a degree of unity and purpose. (McAdams & McLean, 2013) As the consumer is exposed to a rich set of visual, auditory, and cognitive cues that arouse and stimulate their senses during a narrative and, personal relevance is likely to lead to mental simulation.

Mental simulation can be thought of as the cognitive construction of hypothetical scenarios (Taylor and Schneider 1989) or the imitative mental representation of some event or series of events (Taylor and Schneider 1989). These scenarios are usually in the form of stories or narratives (Fiske 1993) where consumers simulate events, think about their own actual or potential behaviours, and create behavioural scenarios – similar to stories. The capacity to simulate events may be one of the most distinctive and important features of cognition (Taylor and Schneider 1989) and it enables people to rerun past events, possibly altering them, and to project multiple versions of future events. Mental simulation of episodes involving the self has been shown to evoke the strongest responses in feelings. (Taylor and Schneider, 1989, cited by Escalas, 2004)

While there is a long history of mental simulation research in psychology, consumer research has only recently begun to examine concepts such as imagery in advertising and consumer decision making. Bone and Ellen (1992) found that imagery increases when advertisements encourage audiences to imagine themselves using a product (versus imagining someone else) and that imagery affects attitude toward the ads. Krishnamurthy and Sujan (1999) found that the persuasive effects of mental simulation are facilitated by advertisements with higher degrees of contextual detail, which create more complex settings for the simulation. In terms of consumer decision making, Phillips, Olson, and Baumgartner (1995) assert that “consumption visions”, or self-constructed mental simulations of future consumption situations, motivate consumption behaviour as they involve self-enacting, detailed, product-related behaviours.

2.3. Empathy and Narrative Transportation

Empathy is an affective process defined by Boller and Olson (1991) in the context of narrative advertising as an imaginative projection of the self onto the experiences of characters in ads. Escalas and Stern (2003) argue that empathy involves the involuntary and uncontrolled process of losing oneself and merging with others, to observe, feel, and experience from their perspective. Boller and Olson (1991) also note that character identification can trigger consumption-related interests and aspirations, but in order to this to happen consumers must be able to see themselves in the characters (Burnkrant & Unnava, 1995) through similarities in the core aspects of their identities. (Boller & Olson, 1991). Escalas and Stern (2003) also draw attention to sympathy, the mediator that precedes empathy, and suggest that narrative advertisements should incorporate elements that the consumers can both sympathize (recognise the emotions displayed) and empathize (experiencing similar feelings).

The second element that drives narrative persuasion is narrative transportation. This is the underlying mechanism through which brand narratives transport the audience away from their existing reality. (Escalas, 2004) Transportation itself can be conceptualised as a viewer’s experience of being lost or immersed in a story’s plot (Ching, Tong, Chen, & Chen, 2013). Gerrig (1993) was the first to coin the notion of narrative transportation within the context of novels. Using travel as a metaphor for reading, he described narrative transportation as a state of detachment from the world of origin that the story receiver experiences because of their engrossment in the story. Escalas (2004) also notes that narrative transportation occurs when “the consumer experiences a feeling of entering a world evoked by the narrative because of empathy for the story characters and imagination of the story plot”, and van Laer et al. (2014, pp. 799-800) agrees that narrative transportation’s strength depends on the extent to which a consumer empathises with the story characters.

According to van Laer et al. (2014)’s findings, narrative transportation may vary depending on story receivers’ familiarity, attention, transportability, age, education, and sex: the more story receivers are familiar with a story topic, pay attention to a story, possess transportability (empathic ability and image-producing capacity), are young, are educated, and are female, the more narrative transportation increases. The more narrative transportation increases, the more story-consistent affective responses increase and critical thoughts decrease (van Laer et al., 2014). Ching et al. (2013) also found that highly transported viewers perform less critical evaluations of facts and arguments, produce fewer counter‐arguments, and report more positive overall responses, including favourable attitudes toward the advertisement and brand. Additionally, Wright (1973) argues that narrative transportation reduces critical thoughts when consumers are captivated by their simulations, enhancing attitudes and intentions instead.

In other words, as consumers imagine themselves using a product, they are “transported”, and this process precludes them from critically evaluating the advertisement. Van Laer et al (2014) argue that when consumers lose themselves in a story, their attitudes and intentions reflect that story. In the case of narrative advertising, this means reduced negative cognitive responding, realism of experience, and strong affective responses. (Green & Brock, 2000, cited by Escalas, 2004) In contrast, analytical cognitive responses dominate and thought processes tend to be more critical in nature when consumers are not engaged in narrative transportation (Green & Brock, 2000, cited by Escalas, 2004).

2.4. Brand Storytelling Insights

As storytelling is being increasingly recognised as central in branding (Denning, 2006) one of its central themes appears to be authenticity. While technological advances have facilitated the simulation of authenticity (Halliday, 2001, cited by Grayson & Martinec, 2004) and commercialisation has the potential to undermine it (Grayson & Martinec, 2004), authenticity has a persistent marketplace appeal that remains “oddly undiminished” (Dolliver, 2001, p. 19, cited by Grayson & Martinec, 2004). Gotter (2017) found that a painting becomes 11% more valuable when the artist’s story is featured below it. Small businesses, with locally-sourced products, increase the perceived value of the products by featuring their stories (Gotter, 2017). And, a “based on a true story” label improves the evaluation of stories, and heightens their perceived plausibility (Valsesia, Diehl & Nunes, 2017) creating competitive advantages for a brand. Thus Gotter (2017) suggests that “the more specific, detailed, and personalised a story is, the more it will appeal to larger groups of people, because of the details associated with the emotion. This seems counterintuitive, but those details are where the life of the story is, and it’s what makes the story real and relatable. It feels fleshed-out and alive.” It can thus be implied that specific stories have a bigger impact and resonate more, as they come across as more authentic to audiences.

One reason why stories lead to heightened emotional impact and relatability is because they come with indices such as locations, problems, and characters. The more indices a story has, “the more places the story can reside in memory and, consequently, be better recalled” (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). The proposition that indices in stories serve as touch points to the consumer is central to Escales’s (2004) idea that narrative processing creates or enhances self‐brand connections in consumer theory, as people interpret the meaning of their experiences by fitting their interpretations into a story. (Woodside, 2010, p. 532) According to Herskovitz & Crystal (2010) the most important of all indices is the brand persona – the articulated form of the brand’s character and personality. Without a strong brand persona, the brand narrative lacks a focus, making brand-persona‐focused storytelling an essential aspect of modern marketing. (Herskovitz & Crystal, 2010) The brand persona creates a long‐lasting emotional bond with the audience because it is instantly recognisable and memorable, and offers a point of reference that audiences relate to. Audiences “know” this brand because its persona reflects the brand’s values and behaviours. It can be implied then that the strength of the brand will come from the strength of its persona, as the emotional attachment to it is what will create lasting value. (Herskovitz & Crystal, 2010)

Character identification and attachment in narratives have also been emphasized by Boller and Olson (1991) who argue that the characters are the medium through which brand meaning is conveyed and audiences are absorbed. In another interpretation of brand personification, the term refers to the presentation of a personification by a brand. (Cohen, 2014) The brand presents an anthropomorphized character that does not necessarily personify the brand (Cohen, 2014) but is memorable to consumers. As consumers are given access to the characters’ innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations, they may become increasingly enmeshed in the narrative world and develop a strong sense of connection and familiarity, and an “illusion of intimacy” (Horton & Wohl, 1956, cited by Green, Brock & Kaufman, 2006). As nowadays consumer experiences are less about products and more about relationships (Pera & Viglia, 2016) audiences’ enjoyment stems from satisfying a basic human desire, the need for connectedness. As they become part of an alternative, albeit mediated, social group, they may be able to achieve a sense of belonging and acceptance through relating with the story characters. (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Green & Brock, 1998, cited by Green, Brock & Kaufman, 2006) As “stories can help build awareness, comprehension, empathy, recognition, recall, and provide meaning to the brand” (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012, p. 189, cited by Pera & Viglia, 2016) it becomes clearer to understand why storytelling is rapidly gaining momentum in marketing.

2.5. Gaps Identified

The issues that may arise from integrating storytelling into book marketing campaigns are the following: firstly, because narrative identity is contextualised in culture, it must be carefully analysed beforehand how different societies, nations, and cultural groups will perceive and relate to the stories. Different cultures offer different images, themes, and plots for the construction of narrative identities, and thus potential consumers will appropriate, sustain, and modify the narrative forms they are presented with accordingly. (McAdams & McLean, 2013)

Secondly, as discussed in Section 2.1., if the persuasive content and intent are too obvious, the narrative may fail and so may its persuasive power. While this does not mean that audiences must be unaware of the persuasive intent, it does mean that “the drama must be compelling enough to cause such awareness to fade into the background” (Slater & Rouner, 2002).

Thirdly, the story content, production, and distribution have traditionally been dominated by the brand owner (Brown, Kozinets & Sherry, 2003, cited by Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). This is now changing due to social media enabling user-generated brand content by providing the ingredients central to co-creation (Vargo & Lusch, 2004, cited by Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). When brands and consumers co-create brand stories, the consumer-generated brand stories can spread just as rapidly as the brand’s. The brand, therefore, must “navigate its brand content through the consumer-generated content to ensure that consumers’ brand stories remain as close as possible to the brand owner’s desired story” (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).

Finally, when incorporating storytelling in business, it needs to be kept in mind that it is still a tool used to achieve business purposes, rather than an end in itself. Thus, the focus must be kept “on the business purpose being pursued with the tool, as well as on the different narrative patterns associated with different purposes” (Denning, 2006).

Yet, McKee (2003, p. 52) advocates that the best way to persuade consumers remains a compelling story: “Persuading with a story is hard. Any intelligent person can sit down and make lists. It takes rationality but little creativity to design an argument using conventional rhetoric. But it demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough power to be memorable.” (McKee, 2003, p. 52)


Originally written for the University of Portsmouth

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