Full Service Marketing for Higher Education, Health Care & B2B Marketing


Storytelling: Its Enduring Power in the Age of AI

Christopher Lott, Account Manager at Stamat

Christopher Lott

Share On  

There’s an awful lot of noise in the world of content marketing about the advent of generative AI. These products come with an implied threat of “replacing” the people who engage audiences to tell brand stories that inspire action. Some days, it feels like science fiction is becoming science fact.

The truth is, AI can’t tell impactful stories—at least not yet. Storytelling is the secret sauce that makes content a truly valuable part of any robust marketing strategy. But how can tried-and-true human storytelling principles evolve to leverage data and stay relevant in a swelling sea of commodity content?

Stamats AVP of Content Marketing Mariah Obiedzinski Tang recently sat down with Martynas Fedotovas, Chief Technology Officer of Sirius Media Company, for a wide-ranging conversation about the state of content marketing. We’ve included some highlights of their discussion, and you can listen to the full interview on YouTube.

Journalism, Storytelling, and The Content Sweet Spot

Martynas Fedotovas: Can you give any advice for how to leverage journalism skills to create compelling, conversion-focused content?

Mariah Obiedzinski Tang: Absolutely. If you work in healthcare, you might have one hospital client on the West Coast and another on the East Coast. Chances are they offer very similar services. They can take care of your heart, they can treat your cancer, they can deliver a baby.

The content you create for the West Coast hospital will always look different from the content you create for that East Coast hospital. That’s because every group has different providers and workflows, different nurses and frontline staff that greet patients when they come in.

They have different patient audiences, different providers telling their unique stories, and different research projects.

Martynas: When you’re telling a story, what elements does it need to be compelling for customers?

Mariah: At first, companies sometimes wonder why they would need to invest in storytelling. But stories are how people learn.

From the time you’re a child through adulthood, you communicate with stories. You don’t just say “I met this guy and had a bad date.” You’re going to tell your friend about the whole ordeal: He was late, he thought you were going to pay for dinner, he brought his weird dog and it bit you. All those details make the story come alive. The AI language models can’t pull together real stories that inspire customers to act. Only you can do that.

Martynas: Is there a framework to follow to tell these types of compelling stories?

Mariah: I always coach teams to follow the Quentin Tarantino model. It’s kind of silly, but it works. You start with the end of the story in mind. Where does the audience want to end up? Help them visualize themselves as a satisfied customer. Start there and then work backward through the details about how to get there. Whether that means taking a class, getting a degree, or working with your company.

Build these blocks and put the reader in the driver’s seat. Show them what they’re going to end up with first and work back through the details. It’s a modern take on the inverted pyramid.

Martynas: What advice can you give companies that are just putting together their content creation calendar?

Mariah: It’s tempting to think “We’ve got to get our CEO on the phone” or “We’ve got to talk to the top surgeon.” Even though they only have five free minutes in their day, we think they’re the only one who can tell the story. But that’s not always true.

Instead of getting overwhelmed about how you’re going to get every subject matter expert on the phone, whittle down your calendar to the one or two important stories that really require an in-demand expert. For the others, find someone else with expertise who can give their perspective. Oftentimes if you go a couple of levels sideways or even down the chain of command, you can talk to people who are directly connected to the story and have a unique perspective.

Related reading: Creating Audience-Focused Content

Leveraging data to make content decisions

Martynas: How do you tailor content strategies to the specific needs and challenges of an industry?

Mariah: First, consider the business goals of the institution. Are they looking to attract patients, are they looking to attract trainees or researchers? Second, who are the people in the audience who would be best served by their content?

So you think about questions like:

  • What is the story we are trying to tell?
  • What is the information the audience needs to receive?
  • What questions is the audience asking?

The answers to those questions will help you understand what content you need to produce to be an authoritative leader, one that issues the answers to those questions before they’re even asked.

Martynas: How important is gathering data to understanding the business you’re running?

Mariah: One thing we see a lot in higher education and healthcare is the massive accumulation of data. It’s just part of being an academic institution. The thing that’s sometimes missing is the next step: What happens with that data once you’ve collected it?

If you’re gathering all this data, it doesn’t serve your audience until you’ve taken that next step to implement it. If you don’t have a person on your team who’s well-versed in analyzing data and spotting trends, you might consider working with a partner organization that can help you leverage that data into something you can use.

That teammate or partner could help you identify what people are looking for on your website, for instance. If it’s not there, then you’ve found some missing content you can create to engage with your audience. That’s an opportunity to answer questions they’re asking.

Martynas: How can small and medium-sized businesses use the data they have to make better quality decisions?

Mariah: One thing I recommend is a competitor analysis. Obviously, you don’t want to copy what your competitors are doing. What you can do is take that layer of data and overlay it to compare against what you’re offering. That’s a great way to identify potential gaps in your content.

Another way is to look at your social media to see what’s resonating with people in real-time. Look at the comments they leave and the engagements they offer. If they’re not interacting, it could be your content isn’t getting seen or maybe it’s just not resonating with your audience. If they’re leaving comments, sharing, and interacting with your posts you can get a lot of information just by listening organically on social media.

Related reading: How to Maximize Website Traffic with a Content Audit—and What to Do Next

Building content efficiency and earning executive buy-in

Martynas: How can marketing and public relations teams take proactive steps to streamline the process and enhance collaboration?

Mariah: Shared calendars are important. Often in a big institution, it can be complicated (to say the least) to combine all your ideas. In small organizations when you have a one- or two-person marketing team you don’t always have much opportunity to bounce ideas around.

However, if you make an effort to have a 10- or 15-minute touch-base meeting it can make a big difference. What are the top stories you need to cover for your department this week? Discuss your ideas and identify where projects overlap. It’s those overlaps where you can find some powerful additional content that you can spread out all month.

You can save your teams and subject matter experts a lot of time and effort when you’re creating one robust piece of strategic content instead of three or four less impactful pieces.

Martynas: How do you communicate the long-term value of storytelling and content marketing to stakeholders inside the company who may be looking for short-term results?

Mariah: The beauty of content marketing is sometimes you know a piece is going to take off and be impactful and sometimes you don’t know. If you can show off incremental wins and demonstrate the strategy of leveling up week after week, month after month, it shows you have thought behind your process.

Bringing data is always important, especially when you’re working with executives. They like to see those numbers and they like to know what you’re doing with those numbers and how you’re going to continue to grow. Show them the quick wins and show them the long-term strategy. Show them where you are now and demonstrate how that strategy will get the company to where it wants to go.

AI and the future of content marketing

Martynas: How do you think the algorithms are shaping the way companies are communicating with audiences?

Mariah: Over the years we’ve seen people’s opinions, tactics, and content change. One thing that’s stayed true is that anything created for humans is always going to resonate better in the long term, and it’s going to serve you better than anything you’ve designed to appeal to an algorithm.

Five or 10 years ago, writing for SEO was the big thing. People were plugging in keywords every other sentence and the content became unreadable. That worked for a while. Your page might rank first or second on Google, but it would plummet right away when people found it unusable. According to Google, the more you write for human beings the more your content will be viewed as relevant, and the more it will get picked up—in search and by these generative AI products. It’s all about relevance and usefulness. In a world of commodity content that anybody can create, that’s what’s going to help you stand out.

Martynas: There are so many changes happening in the marketing industry these days, and Stamats has been around for 100 years now. How do you see the future evolving, and where are the opportunities for companies?

Mariah: As marketers, writers, and designers it’s tempting to feel threatened by some of these new technological tools like ChatGPT and even Canva. It’s important to remember there’s always a burst of Shiny Object Syndrome.

New things come out and we have this collective freakout moment. Then over the next couple of months, people start to realize these things can be used to enhance our work, make us more efficient, and serve our clients and their budgets well.

We have to be willing to be flexible, to try new things, and to not put our eggs all in the same basket. I guarantee in six months it’s going to look wildly different from what it is now, so the best thing we can do is buckle up, work AI into our processes, and go from there.

About Mariah Obiedzinski

Mariah brings training in journalism and decades of experience leading content marketing teams in content strategy, writing, subject matter expert and stakeholder interviews, and content marketing initiatives. Catch her at an upcoming speaking engagement: 

Stamats works with clients to maximize the impact of their content marketing strategy. Schedule a time to talk with an expert about your content.