The One Thing Your Competitors Can’t Copy: Why Storytellers are the New Marketers

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Stop slugging it out with your competitors for a trickle of long-tail traffic. Content Marketing Institute’s Chief Strategist Robert Rose explains how you can crawl out of the trenches and get noticed by shifting your focus from search engines to storytelling.

The One Thing Your Competitors Can't Copy: Why Storytellers are the New Marketers

Your competition is optimizing for the same keywords you are. More likely than not, they even follow the same recipe that you do: research keywords for the different stages of the funnel, spin up a post for each, and wait for Google to deliver new prospects. Even if you tweak your optimization to get ahead, a competitor will notice, copy it, and leave you back at square one.

Instead of relying so heavily on search engines to deliver customers, make your content the lead generator by telling a compelling story that engages readers, gets shared, and produces conversions. Robert Rose, Chief Strategist at The Content Marketing Institute, sat down with OpenView Labs to discuss why storytelling is such an important differentiator in today’s content-saturated marketing landscape and how you can get started.

Cut Through the Noise

Google any of the keywords that you optimize for, and you’re inundated with content. Sift through some of the top results, and you’re likely to find the content was written for search bots first and people second. “We’re certainly not going to win these days by being more noisy,” Rose says, adding that it’s important to “get beyond this idea that everything that we produce needs to be thrown up on our website and optimized for search.” The days of optimizing all content for long-tail search “are just over.”

Instead, Rose stresses that you can stand out from the crowd by being more compelling, more engaging, and by telling a better story than your competition.

Rose points out that your competitors know how to optimize for long-tail search — but what they don’t have is your story. As integrated marketing communications pioneer Don Schultz once said, your competition can copy everything you do except for the story you tell.

Communicators, Not Coders: Storytellers are the New Marketers

If you want to shift from optimized copy to a compelling story, then Rose suggests that you start by making sure you have the right people in your marketing department: communicators.

“Being a great communicator is the differentiating skill for marketers these days, not the ability to tweak tactics,”  he says, citing UPS, which found that it was much easier to teach customer service people to drive than it was to teach drivers customer service.

Rose sees “a similar trend now happening with marketing,” since all of the technical aspects, whether that’s buying media, optimizing for search, building HTML, or designing a blog, can be taught or outsourced. “What is harder to fill,” he says, “is being a communicator.” The ability to tell a compelling story is becoming more and more precious as we go forward.

Your 2-step Action Plan

“Being a great communicator is the differentiating skill for marketers these days, not the ability to tweak tactics.”

Robert Rose, CMI

Robert Rose, Chief Strategist at The Content Marketing Institute

With communicators in your bullpen and a focus beyond long-tail keywords, you’re ready to start engaging new customers with your content. Your first assignment: tell your company’s story.

Distilling your story can be overwhelming, but without that direction, the content you produce across all channels will be unfocused and less effective. Rose likens it to “standing up at a microphone in front of a thousand people and saying, ‘I do not know what I’m going to talk about.'”

Hash out the central story that you want to tell before defining your strategy for any specific channel. After that, Rose suggests that you determine who your target audience is. When you have those two pieces in place, “the channels kind of define themselves,” Rose says, since you can shape your new message to any medium you want to use.

Your second assignment is to start mining internal resources for the truly compelling content that builds your company’s thought leadership status. One of the most common challenges Rose sees is companies that have brilliant CEOs, CTOs, or product developers who are simply not good at writing. In order to pull the information out of them, he suggests having them leave you a very long voicemail or have them dump it out in an e-mail or just go interview them for an hour over lunch. After that, your communicators can go to work crafting a compelling story.

Rose sees success in structuring your marketing department more like a newsroom, with editorial processes tied to marketing strategies. “We have to become publishers instead of simply marketers,” he says. “Only then will you own the media instead of renting it.”

Have you found success in producing content that focuses on story instead of search?


  • jnthibeault

    Couldn’t agree more. In fact, at Limelight, we’ve been pushing the concept of storytelling hard for the past year for exactly the reasons you talk about: gets above the noise, it provides for better engagement, etc. I present a lot about this as well: Great piece!

  • Thank you for the article. Your thoughts on marketing have just calmed me down as I use stories to open my posts on my web-site ))

  • Thanks Robert, great article. Search is not the way most of our financial technology clients get discovered by their customers – it’s through word of mouth, referrals and email/offline sharing (generally NOT via social media). Great content that tells a story, engages, and educates the reader invites sharing, which is key to getting discovered. It’s about utility. Search optimization is helpful, but never the panacea.

  • JSailian

    Very good points, Robert. The pendulum is swinging back towards content from our collective obsession with tactics and mechanics. Content is king!

  • Storyteller has been on my LinkedIn profile for quite some time. I anticipate the continued rise of the Corporate Storyteller as an anchor, strategic function that sits between marketing and operations.

  • Stu Schmidt

    O great content masters…a question for you. Do you find that mediums other than the written word engage your audience more deeply? I am concerned that people are reading less and watching more. Robert says that “the channels kind of define themselves”. What mediums are the most effective in today’s B2B world?

  • Great Sunday morning holiday read:)



  • “One of the most common challenges Rose sees is companies that have brilliant CEOs, CTOs, or product developers who are simply not good at writing.”

    We built a company out of helping them get their story out. We’re pulling weekly blog posts out of the mouths of CEOs and other Subject Matter Experts using an interview process. The best part for many of our customers is the time savings. We do the interviews in a single monthly “batch” that lasts under 1 hour. Because we use professional radio announcers to do the interviewing (and we supply a very good microphone to the client), they sound great as well and the interviewers know how to ask good questions.

    I couldn’t agree more with the premise of this post!

  • Great article Robert, but I hope you’ll agree that it begs a question all of us must ask: what, exactly, IS the story (or my story or your story)?

    For businesses, I suggest that they begin by dollying the camera back and panning wide to articulate the context, the industry or landscape they are in. Next, identify the “gap”: what’s the unmet need, the unresolved “thing” that remains unfulfilled in the marketplace? Finally, (and this is the last part, but the one most businesses mistake as the first part), what does your business (product, service, solution, brand) bring to the table to fill this gap, to meet this unmet need? The bigger the gap, the more urgent the need, the higher the stakes, the more memorable and distinctive your story will be.

  • Aaron Miller

    Glad this topic is finally gaining traction. I just don’t see it as suddenly true. Content written for search bots first and people second has always been a terrible marketing strategy. It was just a product of laziness.

  • ChrisO

    I couldn’t agree more. Additionally, a story makes it possible to coordinate all your internal resources and departments behind a common purpose – regardless of company size.

  • Meagan Hanes

    Fantastic insight, very inspirational! Thanks for sharing 🙂