Fiction’s place in the content marketing mix

Posted on June 18, 2013 10:10 am by | Content | Publishing | Writing and Editing

StorytellerProducing a steady flow of content to satisfy the needs of a content marketing effort is a heady enough challenge for communicators. Translating technical information into content people will want to read, talk about and share takes the challenge to a whole new level.

For a lot of companies, it’s the technical side of the story that would make customers flock to their products—if only that complicated technology were more easily explained.

In the world of research, the dry, inaccessible nature of reports has resulted in a movement towards employing fiction as a means of presenting findings. It’s a movement that could, and should, spread to the world of organizational communication. After all, what kind of content would attract more attention than a ripping good yarn?

For those cynics in the audience rolling their eyes over the belief that most PR is already fiction, let me be clear. I’m not talking about making up company facts. The potential, though, is huge for helping lay audiences understand complex technical matters.

Patricia Leavy, PhD, wrote about the subject in Fiction as Research Practice, and in a HuffPo piece published in April. She notes several reasons fiction works when trying to share information via story:

  • People like fiction. “The turn to fiction as a way of sharing research findings taps into what many people already elect to spend their time doing. This is also important because exposure to research studies promotes learning (we read studies and learn more about something). Learning isn’t a passive activity, and it doesn’t have to be miserable either. Learning should be engaged and joyful.”
  • Conducting research is resource-intensive. “By using fiction as one way to represent the product of that research, our effort becomes more worthwhile because the distribution of the research findings is maximized.”
  • There is an ethical mandate for making research more accessible to the public. “We need to find ways to bring sophisticated research studies into the public domain.”

Leavy cites several examples, including the staging of theatrical productions in schools, hospitals and communities to convey information about genetic testing and mental illness. She also points to a New York Times story about a film, “Rufus Stone,” developed to communicate the findings of a Bournemouth University study, “The Gay and Peasant Land Project” in which researches studied gay identity among older residents of rural communities.

Then there are novels, which, she says, draw on “popular genres like ‘chick-lit’ and mystery in order to share their knowledge about topics ranging from corporate greed to eating disorders to the psychology of dysfunctional relationships and self esteem.” British communicator Philip Sheldrake has self-published a novel called Attenzi” A Social Business Tory, “a social business story” that “shines a light on social business that goes beyond the all too typical homages to social media…As the tale unfolds, you’ll consider aspects of organizational design, business performance management, marketing, public relations, branding, complexity, and the imminent empowerment of the individuals that make up any and all organizations.”

Attenzi is the name of a made-up company and is told through the eyes of Eli Appel:

I’ve been Attenzi’s CEO during this time. Fortunately, I’ve kept a daily log of interesting stuff, ideas, and ‘notes to self’ for as long as I can remember—there’s a cardboard box stacked full of them behind my desk. It forms a sort of chronological record and although it’s not a diary in the classic sense it has helped me assemble this story retrospectively.

The idea of explaining something as complex as social business by telling a tale isn’t a new one. Tom Clancy, who invented the techno-thriller category with The Hunt for Red October, was reportedly inspired to write the novel as a means of explaining the remarkable military technologies he’d been studying as a hobby. The book was initially published by the U.S. Naval Institute.

Sheldrake self-published his book in the Kindle, ePub and iBooks formats, as well as PDF, which he uploaded to Scribd. He has made it available for free, the best approach businesses can take, especially given the success self-published authors have enjoyed in the Kindle marketplace. The opportunities for leveraging elements of a novel or novella in other channels, from YouTube (an author interview) to a company blog (an excerpt).

Other forms would be useful, too, depending on what it is you’re trying to communicate. Video is a natural medium for fictitious story-telling, for example.

Businesses have employed fiction routinely in a variety of ways. Employee benefits materials routinely create scenarios with fictitious employees (e.g., “Bill makes $110,000 per year, is married, and has three children”). Most corporate training videos use actors and scripts, not real employees. TV advertising is almost all fiction: That wholesome, all-American family at the breakfast table only exists thanks to the efforts of a casting director. It should be a short step for communicators, PR practitioners and marketers to start developing stories that help explain complex matters.

Disclosure, of course, is a requirement any time fiction is employed as a story-telling technique. And communicators looking to adopt the idea of fiction need to confine it to those instances where it helps explain the complex and not give in to temptation to apply it elsewhere. Given that the organization is up front about the fact that a particular content object is fictitious, a fictional approach could be appropriate under several circumstances:

  • Instead of finding five real customers to tell their true experiences, each representing a different aspect of engagement with the company, a fictitious customer could be used to tell a story just once, serving as an amalgamation of real customers.
  • In explaining a convoluted process, or the pitfalls to avoid when using a product or service, a fictitious customer going through the steps can serve as a guide.
  • Speculative fiction might be a compelling approach to showing the future benefits of a sustainability effort or other corporate social responsibility initiative the company is launching now.

These ideas are in addition to the kind of fiction Leavy proposes, based on research results. Companies like HP, Forrester and IBM routinely release the results of research studies that might be enhanced for public consumption through a gripping page-turner. As communicators set strategies for their work, more opportunities for fiction should arise, as long as fiction is part of the communicator’s toolkit.

Incidentally, I spoke with David Spark about fiction as a content category on a recent episode of his podcast, Hacking Media Production.



  • 1.Very interesting, Shel! We've been writing fictionalized pieces for years for employee-benefit and related info. It's not such a stretch to imagine its use elsewhere.

    Donna Papacosta | June 2013 | Toronto

  • 2.What an excellent post!

    Using fiction is nothing more than creating a great story and that's what the heart of content marketing is all about. Those who don't have a lot of knowledge about how to write fiction should sit down and just try. You make a great character and you have a story before you realize. Maybe it won't get published, but it's good practice for your marketing efforts.

    Maranda | June 2013 | Fort Worth

  • 3.Wow that's a really smart approach to content marketing. I love the idea of using fiction to reinforce research. I could really see that working well for the millennial demographic.

    Thanks Shel for the insights.


    Steven Records @ Marketing | June 2013 | Springfield, MO

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