6 Lessons B2B Content Marketers Can Learn From Fiction Writers

Believe it or not, I can trace my entire career as a content marketer back to a night in June of 2003. I was nine years old, and my parents had finally allowed me to stay up and attend the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter book.

Undeterred by the 800+ page count, I tore through the book in a matter of days. I’d always enjoyed reading, but this was the first novel in a long line of fictional works that would go on to have a formative impact on my life.

As I grew older, my reading material progressed from the corridors of J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts to John Steinbeck’s dusty American landscapes, the 1920s glitz of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the shadowy noir of Raymond Chandler, and many more immersive literary worlds. Though the stories changed, one fact remained a constant: the more I read, the more I wanted to write.

Did my nine-year-old self daydream about writing blog posts for B2B sales and marketing professionals? Not exactly. But I’ve come to realize that reading fiction has taught me a number of valuable lessons that also apply in the world of B2B content marketing.

Today’s blog post will explain how these lessons translate to content creation. Whether you’re an avid reader or you haven’t picked up a book since high school, we hope these tips resonate!

Lesson #1: Create emotional connections through storytelling.

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Why do we care what happens in a fictional story? Why do we feel joy when our favorite character triumphs? Or, sadness during a great literary tragedy? The answer is simple. We, as the reader, immerse ourselves in a storyline and experience it as if it’s truly happening. Neil Gaiman, the author of several bestselling and beloved novels, puts it like this:

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.”

Of course, the emotional effects of storytelling are not exclusive to fiction. And, by leveraging the basic tenets of storytelling in your marketing content, you facilitate a more personal connection with your audience.

Marketers who create B2B content often downplay the role of emotions. But these personal bonds have a real, tangible impact on the success of your business. Consider these statistics:

  • 50% of B2B buyers are likelier to make a purchase if they connect emotionally to a brand (source).
  • 92% of consumers want brands to make ads that feel more like a story (source).
  • Messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone (source).

Remember: your buyers may interact with you in a professional setting, but they’re still capable of human emotion.

Content Marketing Tip: Describe technical concepts from a human perspective.

Although B2B content marketers understand the value of brand storytelling, they often struggle to implement this technique correctly. When it works, the structure of a narrative can add emotional weight to a piece of content. But when it’s forced or overdone, storytelling can quickly appear to be a crutch or a gimmick.

We recommend you use storytelling to bring life to content that would otherwise be dry and uninteresting. For example, say you create an eBook about how to overcome the most common B2B sales roadblocks. On the surface, this topic doesn’t seem to lend itself to emotionally engaging content.

Using this eBook as an example, we recommend strategically weaving a narrative throughout the piece. To start, ask yourself: Who is the main character? What is the conflict of the story? How does the story reach a point of resolution?

Let’s say you decide the main character is a sales rep at a growing tech startup. The end of the quarter is approaching and your sales rep is not on track to meet his quota. But, by using the strategies outlined within your eBook, he closes two massive deals and exceeds his sales quota for the quarter.

As demonstrated in this example, you’ve brought human context to your eBook by giving your readers a human figure to relate to, and even root for, as they gather information they can use in their own professional lives.      

Lesson #2: Let your characters drive the plot forward.

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Plot and character are the two main ingredients that make up any work of fiction— but good writers understand that the latter must dictate the former, not the other way around. In his book Zen and the Art of Writing — a must-read for aspiring and established writers alike  — novelist Ray Bradbury describes the relationship between plot and character with this powerful metaphor:

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.

In other words, the plot points in a work of fiction shouldn’t feel planned. Rather, the events that transpire in a story should take place as a result of believable choices the characters make. To apply this advice to content marketing, consider your audience to be the “characters” of your story. Their needs, wants and critical pain points should dictate the content you create. Just as a reader of fiction won’t identify with a story that feels forced or unrealistic, a B2B audience won’t feel compelled to purchase your product if they sense your content is too “salesy”.

Content Marketing Tip: Think like your audience.

In order to truly allow your audience to dictate your content strategy, you must create  buyer personas. These semi-fictional profiles of our ideal buyers help us understand our customers’ needs, preferences, pain points, and everything else that makes them human— so we can create content that resonates with those unique characteristics.

Say you’re creating a short video advertisement for a project management tool. The “plot” you want to set into motion is quite simple: your ideal prospect sees your advertisement, decides your product is what they’re looking for, and purchases it. Your initial instinct is to spotlight the product’s flashiest features— thinking, those details will help advance the plot from its beginning (the prospect sees the ad) to its conclusion (they purchase the tool).

But the problem is, this approach ignores the character of the story. It says everything about the product you’re selling and nothing about the human beings who benefit from using it.

Instead, you develop the ad by first imagining a character, based on one of your buyer personas. Your character is Stephen Brooks, a senior manager who oversees a 15-person digital marketing team. Stephen’s team has grown, and he now struggles to get them to collaborate efficiently on projects. They’re falling well short of their goals, and Stephen questions whether he’s cut out to be a leader. He hopes to be promoted to Marketing Director within a year, but he knows it’s a futile dream if he keeps delivering lackluster results.

Rather than highlighting features, you create a video ad that zeroes in on these pain points— the frustrations of a manager who’s lost control of his team, his self-doubt concerning his leadership abilities, and his stunted dreams of career advancement.

A prospect sees this advertisement while watching YouTube videos one night, and she suddenly feels understood. She feels like your company understands her pain points, and even the more personal fears and doubts she keeps to herself. The ad compels her to visit your company website and learn more about the project management tool, and she eventually signs up for a free trial.           

Lesson #3: Don’t shy away from character flaws.

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If you’ve read his groundbreaking A Song of Ice and Fire series — or experienced the story through the popular HBO adaptation — George R.R. Martin’s perspective on good and evil shouldn’t surprise you:

“Even the greatest heroes have flaws and do bad things, and even the greatest villains are capable of love and pain and occasionally have moments where you can feel sympathetic for them.”

On the other hand, the books we read as children often present a black-and-white picture of morality. The protagonist is heroic and driven only by good intentions, while the villain is purely evil. But, think about the classic novels that have stood the test of time. You’ll realize they have something in common: flawed characters. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • The Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby is a charismatic, successful and compassionate character. He’s also a criminal and a liar, so consumed by his self-image that he fabricates his entire past.
  • The Catcher in the Rye:  Diehard fans of this classic novel see Holden Caulfield as a sympathetic kid trying to find his place in the world. Detractors see him as an obnoxious and immature brat.
  • Lord of the Flies: This staple of middle school curriculums follows a group of young boys who crash land on a deserted island. Over the course of the novel, they trade their youthful innocence for violence and chaos.

These characters are no heroes, but they’re compelling because they’re neither entirely good nor entirely bad. They’re flawed, as real human beings are.

Content Marketer Tip: Set realistic expectations.

Once again, think of your audience as the characters in your story. No, we don’t suggest depicting them as morally bankrupt anti-heroes. But, B2B content marketers often make the same mistake as authors of juvenile fiction— they oversimplify the characters and present unrealistic resolutions to their problems.

For this example, let’s imagine a quick story. The characters — your customers —  are members of a recruiting team at a B2B company. They work tirelessly, but they can’t seem to bring in any high-quality candidates. Hiring managers are growing restless and frustrated— things are getting desperate. Then, the recruiting manager purchases your new applicant tracking tool, and everything changes. In the blink of an eye, they’re placing perfect candidates in open positions left and right.  

Does that story sound unrealistic? It should. Unfortunately, it’s not far off from the content many marketers create to promote their products. Your company might offer the best recruiting tool in the world, but it’s not going to completely erase such a multifaceted problem overnight. If used correctly, however, it might make a big difference and help a recruiting team reach their goals more efficiently.

Content marketers have a responsibility to set realistic expectations. The narrative you create should paint a realistic picture of your product’s benefits without exaggerating the impact it’s capable of. Much like nuanced fiction, honest content will resonate much more strongly with your audience because it’s true to life, not too good to be true.

Lesson #4: Show, don’t tell.

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This writing lesson has been repeated ad nauseam, so here’s a more eloquent variation from the famed writer Anton Chekhov:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Flip that quote to apply to content marketing, and it looks something like this: “Don’t tell me your product is great, show me what it can do for me.”

Of course, not every piece of content will abide by this unwritten rule. After all, if you’re writing an informative whitepaper, you’re going to do a lot of ‘telling’. But when you’re using content to elicit a certain reaction from your audience — buying a product, submitting a form, etc. — it becomes more important to show value, rather than simply telling them value exists.

Content Marketing Tip: Provide real-world examples.

The most effective way for marketers to “show” the value of their brand and products is to use detailed, true accounts from the real world. Consider this scenario: you’re designing a landing page to promote your new B2B marketing automation software. Here’s the difference between showing and telling:

  • Tell: You devote most of the page to a list of product features and benefits. At the top of the page, you highlight the following benefit: “Improve your campaign ROI by 300%.”
  • Show: You still include the list of benefits, but you spotlight a customer testimonial that provides a detailed account of how one customer used your product to boost their campaign ROI by 300%– complete with the company’s logo and the customer’s headshot.  Thus making this testimonial that much more relatable.

Both landing page variations promote the same product, and even use the same supporting statistic. But by showing a real example in the form of a customer success story, that 300% becomes more than just an arbitrary number. You’ve painted a picture of what your product can do for a real company. Not in theory, but in reality.

Lesson #5: Remove unnecessary details.

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The legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard said it best:

“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

Read one of Leonard’s books and you’ll see what he means. His prose is remarkably efficient; with one deadly sentence Leonard conveys an emotion that other writers spend entire pages attempting to convey.

If Leonard had worked in marketing, I imagine he’d scoff at much of the content produced by marketers on a daily basis. I’m referring specifically to the empty thought leadership that earns praise on Twitter despite the fact that the author hasn’t really added anything new or valuable to the conversation. Or, thin articles that stretch 50 words of information into the several thousand words  required to meet certain SEO standards. Unfortunately, many great results-driven B2B content marketers often fall victim to this quantity over quality mindset, and their content suffers for it.

Content Marketing Tip: Make your work actionable.

What can my audience take away from this and apply immediately to their daily life? You should be able to answer that question— not just about every piece of content, but every section of every piece of content you create.

If you create a how-to guide to accompany an upcoming product release, every single detail of your guide must serve the purpose of educating customers on how that particular product works. Or, if you write a 3,000 word blog post about social media for sales reps, readers should leave the article with several actionable ideas to improve their social selling efforts— that day.

When you struggle to hit a certain word count, it’s usually a sign that your topic is too thin or too narrow to justify its length. In these situations, think of ways to broaden the topic so it has room for more substantive information. Or, consider the possibility that you’re using the wrong format to convey your message. For example, a topic might be too thin for a whole blog post , but it might be perfect for a quick social media infographic.

Lesson #6: Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

Starting at a young age, we’re taught how to write in school. First, you learn your letters, followed by words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and even entire dissertations. And, throughout our education— whether you go into writing or any other profession— we must abide by a very specific set of rules in exchange for a good grade.

Yet, some of the best writers are known, and even embraced, for breaking every rule in the non-existent book. (If you don’t believe me, read one of William Faulkner’s classics and tell me he followed all the rules about narrative and point-of-view.)

It’s important to note: these rebellious writers don’t break the rules out of carelessness or ignorance. As Truman Capote says, writers can only break the rules once they’ve developed a deep understanding of why the rules exist:

“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”

Creativity in B2B marketing is something of a tightrope walk. There’s a certain level of professionalism and structure you must abide by to represent a company, brand, or product. Yet, at the same time, the most innovative and unique content is almost never by-the-book. The question is, how can content marketers toe the line? How can they create content that’s innovative but not off-brand— all while continuing to hit their goals?      

Content Marketing Tip: Experiment with fresh ideas and styles of content.

Content marketers tend to be more risk-averse than other writers, particularly those who tell fictional stories. This reluctance to take risks is understandable. After all, marketing content is directly tied to specific business goals and must maintain some semblance of a unified brand voice.

Imagine taking a page out of Cormac McCarthy’s book for your next assignment and having to explain to your editor why you made the decision to forego all punctuation.

(Editor’s note: Please don’t.)

But, adhering to rigid standards often results in predictable, formulaic content. Look for opportunities to stray from the norm and get creative — as long as you stay on-brand and have a justifiable reason for breaking the rules.

Take this blog post for example. Our standard editorial guide discourages the first-person perspective. But, the topic and its emphasis on story and character called for a more narrative approach. I didn’t break the rules for the sake of doing so. Rather, because these creative choices seemed appropriate for such an outside-the-box topic.

Final Thoughts on Fiction Lessons for B2B Content Marketers

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It’s only fitting that we wrap this up with one more piece of authorly advice. This quote comes from the aforementioned William Faulkner:

“Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

The best content marketers look for inspiration everywhere. They pick up ideas from unlikely sources. Of course there’s value in reading the work of other B2B content marketers, analyzing how they create content, and applying some of their methods to your own content.

But, also look beyond the boundaries of your specific niche. The next time you read a great book ask yourself why it’s such a compelling story. Content exists in many different forms — and you can learn as much from fiction as you can from fact.

For more information about improving your marketing efforts, contact our sales team today. ZoomInfo, a DiscoverOrg company, is a leading contact database solution and we’ll provide you with the tools you need to engage your target audience and grow your business faster!