Storytelling in B2B marketing: how to use a three-act structure

We look at how content marketers can use a three-act structure to tell a story that keeps people engaged.

A theatre

If you’re in B2B, you must have noticed that good content marketing is all about storytelling.

Gone* are the days when you could publish a dry, academic white paper and hope it brought customers flocking. Now, the internet is crammed with entertaining stuff, and the only hope you have of grasping customers’ attention – even for a moment – is by hooking them in with a really engaging story.

What does a good B2B story look like?

But in a B2B marketing context, what does an engaging story look like? How do you go about creating one? How can you weave a product like a GPS signal simulator – like the ones our client Spirent makes – into a story that will captivate test engineers for long enough to register who’s telling it and why they should be interested in that company?

I’m from the old days of B2B tech copywriting, when we mainly wrote academic white papers, so I didn’t really have the answers to these things. Luckily, though, my husband James is a scriptwriter who spends half his professional life writing offbeat comedies and kids’ TV shows, and the other half lecturing to Falmouth University film and digital animation students about narrative structure and story development.

So yesterday I persuaded him to come and talk to the Radix team about the basic elements of what makes a good story – to see how we can use them in the copywriting we do for our clients.

This is essentially what we learned.

A good story has three basic “acts”

First is the setup, where you set the scene and introduce your main character(s) and their essential outlook or motivation.

Then comes the second act, where the character experiences a series of escalating conflicts, which could be physical, emotional, philosophical, practical or whatever. The stakes grow higher and the audience wills the protagonist to win through.

In the final act, the conflicts are resolved, and the character either gets what they wanted at the beginning, or realises that what they wanted isn’t actually what they needed after all – and then proceeds to get what they need.

Most short stories, novels and films will follow this same basic structure, although it may be convoluted or played around with.

Using the three-act structure in B2B marketing

So how does this work in B2B? For a start, you have to get through your three acts very quickly. Tragically, there aren’t huge audiences eagerly awaiting your next piece of content. The best you can hope for is that someone will keep reading or watching for long enough to register who’s telling the story.

So if it’s a video, aim to bundle through the three acts in just one or two minutes. (That may seem impossibly short, but it’s not.) If it’s an infographic or an ebook, get the story out as economically as possible without losing clarity or entertainment value.

Creating your protagonist

Secondly, base your protagonist on what you know about your target audience. If you’re doing things properly you will have done some persona-building – so you already have a good mental image of your ideal customer, what they do all day, what motivates them, what gets them down, and so on.

Now turn that person into the main character of your story – and make them the hero. That way, your customer should immediately identify with your character and want to see what happens to them and how they prevail.

Raising the stakes

Then, have your character go through a series of escalating conflicts that prevent them from getting what they want. These should be conflicts that your audience will recognise and empathise with. You want them to identify with your character and become invested in what happens to them. That’s the only way they’ll read your ebook, watch your video, or play your online game right to the end.

(And if the end is where you put your call to action or registration form, you need them to get there – otherwise, from a lead generation point of view, the whole exercise is pointless).

Lastly, you resolve their situation. This is probably where your character discovers the amazing widget or service that you’re selling, and all their problems are miraculously solved.

Earning the right to pitch

If you’ve made the first two acts good enough, and your audience is sufficiently entertained and invested to still be with you, the third act is where you’ve earned the right to pitch your product – as quickly, engagingly and clearly as you can. No one likes being sold to, but many people will tolerate a quick sales pitch if they feel they’ve had some entertainment value from the preceding acts.

Two great examples of B2B storytelling

Here are two B2B marketing videos that use this three act structure to really good effect. They’re done by completely different companies and they’re for completely different products, but they’re remarkably similar in structure and approach.

ShipServ Pages The Movie – by Velocity Partners for ShipServ

Noodle Live teaser video – by Noodle Live

Both introduce a sympathetic main character (based, I’m sure, on a persona-building exercise profiling the ideal customer) and their motivation in the first few seconds, then spend around a minute putting them through a series of escalating conflicts preventing them from getting what they want, then resolve the situation via a one-minute sales pitch for the product in question.

It works really well. (And as James pointed out, the fact that both characters and worlds are quite cartoony also works well, because more people identify with characters that don’t look human than with characters who look almost human – it’s the “uncanny valley” effect).

Case studies are stories too

And the same applies not just to fictional marketing stories, but also to case studies (and many other formats too). Establish a “hero”, frame the case study as a series of escalating conflicts and then resolve the situation. That makes a far more interesting story than one that starts with something like: “XYZ is the largest supplier of ABC widgets in Western Europe. It was looking for a way to make its supply chain more efficient.”

That’s all, folks

There was tons more about story, including the seven basic plots – which can also be adapted for B2B marketing purposes – but that’s enough for one post. I’d be interested to know if you’ve seen any great examples of storytelling in B2B marketing, though – if so, please do let us know on Twitter @radixcom.

* Well, not quite gone. We still write a lot of white papers for clients, and they’re still very useful for explaining in detail how a certain product solves a certain business problem. They’re just not very likely to ignite that first spark of attention when there’s so much competition out there.


More posts you might like…

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Storytelling in B2B: more than just beginning – middle – end

There are many ways to tell stories. Find out how to apply story structures to B2B marketing content, from case studies to infographics.

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