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How the Significant Objects Social Experiment Proved the Economic Value of Storytelling Want to drive sales? Dump the big data, and start telling stories your customers can really connect to emotionally.

By Michael Brenner Edited by Dan Bova

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Significant Objects

I hear it all the time -- "You can talk all you want about thought leadership and content marketing, but we're here to sell stuff."

I know there is more value to effective storytelling over hard selling and cold calling. But I've never seen anything close to a scientific experiment that quantified the value of stories over cold, hard facts. That is until I met Michele Miller, head of content strategy at Magento Commerce.

Related: Storytelling Could Bring Your Brand to Life and Strengthen Your Marketing Impact

I love making connections with anyone in the content game, but Michele started talking about storytelling. And while geeking out (I was geeking out. She was telling such a great story) she mentioned this Significant Objects project. I was intrigued and immediately needed to know more.

What is Significant Objects?

What happens when you hire creative writers to make up stories about cheap trinkets, and they post these stories along with the items online for sale? This was exactly what Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn did back in 2009 as part of their storytelling experiment, Significant Objects.

Significant Objects was a literary and anthropological experiment that "demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object's subjective value can be measured objectively." For this experiment, Walker and Glenn asked 100 creative writers to invent stories about $129 worth of items and then sold them on eBay to see if the stories enhanced the value of the objects. In case you were wondering how the experiment went: the net profit was $3,6 million -- a 2,700-percent increase in final markup.

The hypothesis was that stories are a driver of emotional value and can transform insignificant objects into significant ones.

Take a globe paperweight, for example. It was originally bought for $1.49 but was later sold at $197.50. Why? Because the stories in the handwritten note that came with the globe resonated with the buyer. This insignificant object became highly significant to someone else.

The experiment proves that we, as human beings, are drawn to and connect with stories. We feel stories. Data and statistics, on the other hand? Not so much. In Michele's presentation "The Art of Effective Storytelling," she mentions that humans are not hardwired to understand logic and remember facts for long. But we understand and remember stories.

Related: Casey Neistat: Great Storytellers Do This -- Weekly Tips

What does this mean for marketers and businesses?

If you want to stand out from the noise in today's attention-starved world, here is what not to do in your content-marketing efforts.

  • Don't dump data on your audience. This confuses, disengages and even intimidates your audience. Make sure the data you are presenting is relevant and easy to understand and clearly communicates value. Otherwise, the data simply becomes meaningless noise, and your audience will tune you out.
  • Don't use industry jargon. You will risk alienating your audience, because they may not be able to understand or have the ability to relate to the industry talk full of convoluted syntax.
  • Don't tell them. Show me. Don't tell your audience how your solution works and why it's the best. Tell your customers' stories. Highlight them as real people with real problems with real families and real bosses. Try to demonstrate how you help your customers without talking about your solution. Don't talk about what you do. Talk about what you do for your customers.

Transitioning to story-driven content from product-centered marketing.

Change your way of thinking from, "Here's what our product can do" to, "Here's what you can do with our product."

Stop talking about yourself, and start thinking like your customer with a focus on them. Tell stories that they can emotionally connect with. Create content that informs, entertains and provides value to your audience. When you do this, the content you create helps your audience and this in turn builds a relationship based on trust. This trust is what ultimately will drive real sales and business value.

Related: The Strongest Connections Come From Telling Your Story

Michael Brenner

Head of Strategy for NewsCred

Michael Brenner is the head of strategy for NewsCred, a content marketing startup based in New York City. Previously he was the vice president of marketing at SAP.

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