June 14

Why Storytelling Marketing Is Key to Attracting Your School’s Target Audiences


In college marketing, there are facts and figures that interest the audiences you’re trying to reach. But if you want them to really get it, storytelling marketing is key.

  • Prospects don’t just want to know how many students are on campus. They need to know what it feels like to be there.
  • Their parents are interested in more than the number of graduates. They need to be able to envision their child’s success.
  • Alumni might raise their eyebrows at the specs of an ambitious building project, but it’s the stories the project represents that compel them to give.

Most audiences include people who think in an analytical way, for whom facts and figures are most persuasive. So the presentation of data certainly has its place.

Data just isn’t enough for most people, though.

In general, human beings are wired to learn through stories. Our brains tend to view everything in our experience around the basic story structure of beginnings, middles and endings.

Storytelling marketing is about harnessing the power of story to reach people intellectually and emotionally to deliver information and create meaning.

Let’s dig into why it works.

Why Storytelling Marketing Works

There are at least four good reasons why storytelling is an effective marketing strategy. 

1. Recall

Stories are generally easier for people to remember than facts and figures – up to 22 times easier.

This shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider that stories present a connected series of events, establishing causes and explaining effects. 

That makes sense to us because it’s how life works. When we receive information in a cause-and-effect structure, our brains don’t have to work as hard to fill in the blanks.

Google’s “A Year in Search 2015”

At the close of 2015, Google could have simply told us that a lot of people asked important questions using their search tool. They could have given us some impressive numbers.

Instead, they told a story about how the questions that drive us (cause) brought us to their platform for answers (effect). The result was a message viewers were much more likely to remember and relate to others than, say, stats about the most searched questions in 2015.

2. Emotional Connection

Storytelling marketing is also an effective way to elicit an emotional response from audiences. Stories can literally stimulate the production of neurochemicals that foster human connection.

A well-crafted story can increase levels of oxytocin in the brain. This powerful neurochemical helps create intimacy, from stimulating milk production in a nursing mother to encouraging prosocial behavior and empathy for others.

In marketing, when you tell a story to the right person for whom it means something, you are building a relationship through brain chemistry.

Don’t Use the Oldsmobile Approach

This is why it’s so important for stories to be authentic. They can be fictional or true stories, as long as they speak to the truth. Attempting to trigger an emotional connection based on what an audience perceives as lies can trigger feelings of disgust or even betrayal.

Done poorly, this is a great way to alienate your audience. Oldsmobile infamously learned this lesson years ago when they used Ringo Starr to desperately try to get young people to buy their cars. More recently, Pepsi and Chevrolet have also struggled in this department. 

3. Differentiation

Many aspects of your school, when presented as data, may not appear very unique. 

The number of programs, student-led organizations on campus, your graduation rate – these data points may not stand out when you look at other schools your prospects are considering.

One goal of storytelling marketing is to put a unique spin on numbers that might not be very compelling when presented in stats alone.

Baseball Is About Stories, Not Stats

Why should anyone care about the New York Yankees? Some baseball fans would say that the stats are captivating enough to keep them engaged, but what really keeps people engaged is the story the team as a brand is telling.

“[The Yankees] not only tell the hero’s journey, but they use failure to turn it into Yankee lore. Steinbrenner was a master storyteller; he could not only capture the Yankee story but he could stoke it. Even when things didn’t go well, they embraced individual struggles and looked for opportunities at redemption; as an example, consider Darryl Strawberry.

Now, they have the YES Network where shows like Yankeeography share great stories about players from past and present, and others like Stars and PinStripes share stories from celebrity Yankees fans … This use of failure, redemption, and success helps make the organization a little more human and a little more relatable, and these stories are helping the fans get closer to the brand.”

– James Warren, Founder and CEO of Share More Stories

As Warren explains, stories are never really about one person. The most effective storytelling marketing may focus on one “character” at a time, but the effect is to tell a much broader story about a culture and how the customer, fan or prospect fits into that culture.

Your school is more than a collection of facts and figures that may look similar to other schools. It has a unique culture, and telling stories is the most effective way to communicate what that culture is, why it’s unique, and most importantly, why it matters.

4. Affinity

Beyond what is unique about the culture of your school, stories can also help your audiences understand the values that culture is built upon.

You build a sense of affinity around these values when you engage in storytelling marketing. It’s about more than what you offer. It’s about your purpose, the mission and vision you’re inviting audiences to be a part of.

Storytelling Marketing Is Built on Values

Major brands have been doing this for years.

  • Once Adidas determined their purpose was to build “a passion for sports and a sporting lifestyle,” their storytelling focus became about celebrating sports and overcoming obstacles.
  • You might think they’re all about the coffee, but Starbucks has a broad mission to “inspire and nurture the human spirit” – and they’re telling stories to demonstrate what they mean.
  • PepsiCo has a vision to “improve all aspects of the world in which we operate,” and the stories they create are meant to build affinity around the value of sustainability.

If companies that make apparel and beverages can establish a set of values and tell stories to build a sense of affinity around those values, surely a school can!

Education in general represents so many values – lifelong learning, personal development, career growth, etc. – around which your school can build a sense of affinity with audiences.

If you can zero in on one central idea, storytelling marketing will do the rest. Audiences will remember your stories, connect with them emotionally and recognize why your school is different.

It all begins with establishing (or re-establishing) a central value or set of values on which you’ll build it all. That’s what gives every story its power.

This is what will make your storytelling marketing campaign successful.

Let’s get your storytelling marketing operations off the ground – or take your storytelling to the next level.

If you’re not currently engaging in storytelling marketing, I’m sure it’s not because you don’t think it’s worthwhile. It’s more likely that you simply don’t feel you have the resources you need to pull it off.

Let me tell you something: you have more resources than you think you do.

Storytelling is infinitely scalable. It can be done in doses as small as Tweets. It can be as elaborate as a big-budget video series.

Whatever your capacity, the most important resource is the raw material, the stories themselves. And as an institution of learning, you have all the inspiring stories any organization could ask for. 

Of course, if you’re motivated to tell more and better stories, you may need help with things like:

  • Analyzing your current storytelling approach,
  • Experimenting with a medium you haven’t tried before,
  • Distributing stories through new channels, or
  • Expanding your capacity for story production.

If so, I’d like to meet with you to see how my team and I can help. To get started, just reach out

Tell me your story – about the struggles you’re facing as an enrollment marketer, what you think you’ll need to overcome them, and what a happy ending looks like for you.

Then, let’s start telling the next chapter together.

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