The Quest for a Universal Content Formula

Content should always tell a story. By sticking to one of the seven archetypes of storytelling, you will have a winning structure that has proven effective for centuries. Check out how current successful campaigns match up with the story types of NY Times bestsellers for proof.

If you wanted to find the magic formula of what it takes to create amazing content with longstanding engagement, a list of the New York Times Bestsellers of All Time might seem like a good starting point. After all, the books at the top of that list drove heavy sales traffic for years. Yet, you may be sorely disappointed at first glance. Ranging from a nonfiction book about a murder trial to an illustrated, light-hearted Dr. Seuss book, the list appears to be completely arbitrary. However, it’s no coincidence that each book fits into one of the seven archetypes of storytelling. As a matter of fact, in analyzing successful marketing strategies that have generated hundreds of links and social shares, it seems there may be a secret formula after all. The familiar story lines have timeless themes to which all audiences can easily relate.

Allow me to guide you on your hunt for the Holy Grail: a universal content strategy. As we navigate through each theme, some of the best content ever generated in the form of NY Times Bestsellers, and recent marketing campaigns, you’ll see that the seven archetypes will prove to be powerful artillery in your content arsenal.

1. Tragedy

Our journey may start on a sad note, but tragedy can be utilized in a positive manner.

The bestselling book of all time according to the NY Times, sitting in the top 50 for an unbelievable 216 weeks, is John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Telling the true story of a man who had to be tried for murder four times before he was proven innocent due to self-defense, it can certainly be categorized as a literary tragedy—“sorrowful or terrible events encountered or caused by a heroic individual.”  But more importantly, can you imagine having content that continued to draw consistent, significant traffic for 216 weeks?!

AT&T has discovered that it isn’t talking about the most newsworthy murder trial that’s important, but that creating content that deals with tragedy is effective. Back in 2010, AT&T released the “Don’t Text While Driving Documentary” that has since gone viral and has over 3 million views of YouTube. The video is so powerful because it relates to every person who drives a car and owns a cell phone. They reach a huge audience with true tragic stories of everyday young people with bright futures who lost their lives due to virtually meaningless text messages. We all know that videos are great linkbait—but what about specifically creating videos with a difficult message to engage and challenge your audience? Sometimes it’s not all about cute cats and entertainment.


AT&T’s campaign is also genius because they recently broke down the documentary into shorter videos which are now getting thousands of views each on their own. AT&T is able to repackage this content and get more traffic from it because the stories are no less heartbreaking and relatable two years later. Asking your audience if risking a precious life is worth sending an unimportant message will always be relevant. Plus, it never hurts to show your customers that you care about them. Not all of your content should be a direct advertisement.

2. Rebirth

Here’s our chance for a hopeful recovery.

Our second stop is number two on NY Times’ List, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. In it Albom relays conversations he had with his 78-year-old former sociology professor who was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The book is only so commanding because Albom interspersed his personal experiences with Morrie’s stories to show that even after Morrie passes, Albom has changed as a result of Morrie’s insights and thus his ideas will live on. In this way, the rebirth archetype represents a youthful generation adapting and using passed down wisdom. To succeed you must take what has worked and make changes so past mistakes are not repeated.

Undergoing any type of rebranding is a great way to generate dozens of new ideas for content. Giving your mission statement and brand image a facelift may be tough work, but it’s important to remember that we’re not completely starting from scratch, but rather implementing changes that will make our original ideas stronger and will strike a new chord with our audience.

While his idea may never actually be implemented, LA design student Andrew Kim generated sizeable notice of his suggestion of how to rebrand Microsoft in only three days. People really liked the notion of modernizing and revitalizing a longstanding company. They appreciated the sentiment that Microsoft would adapt to the times and be freshly innovative. Further, it helped that Kim set up his proposal in the form of a challenge—to undergo this change in three days. Sharing goals in your content allows people to follow along with your story and lets them watch the process of your rebirth from start to finish.

3. Overcoming the Monster

Hold on to your hats! We’re about to enter dangerous territory as monsters cross our path. Luckily for us, though, there are many ways we can use these monsters to our advantage.

“Overcoming the monster,” the story of a triumphant hero, captures interest because people don’t just want to hear success stories—they want to know the methods taken to achieve results so that they can apply these lessons to their own personal monsters. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking sold so many copies and ranks number three because no matter how quickly they’ll admit it, people need help. People will try anything if they believe it will remove some of their obstacles or give them the extra push they need to overcome a challenge. The key is getting people’s attention and convincing them that your method works. The Power of Positive Thinking has a lot going for it—a credible source (the author is a doctor), practical and realistic steps one can take, and advice that can be adapted by every generation.

Here our quest comes to a crossroads as there are two methodologies in creating content within the “overcoming the monster” schema. Both paths are equally efficient so we will explore both.

First, you can identify a process that people can directly use to help defeat a monster. This is an excellent strategy for nonprofits, as exhibited by Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign. Their documentary about Joseph Kony went viral because it alerted people to a problem—a monster of a person who is a large source of child abuse—and then clearly spelled out a path of action that any person could take. Moreover, they pushed their content further by creating a downloadable action kit complete with door hangers and posters to help continue to spread their message. They gave people real tools that could help them complete a goal.

The alternate route we can take involves creating a villain and allowing your brand to be the hero. Instead of empowering people to save the monster themselves, show how you can protect people from a problem they are facing. This can be seen in All State’s “Mayhem.” By creating a figure who represents all of the monstrosities All State’s customers can face, All State has put a humorous and relatable spin on the way they can demonstrate their expertise in the insurance space. By devoting a Facebook page to Mayhem, they also show that the insurance industry can be fun and hip, while still seriously helping you tackle your problems.

It’s up to you to determine the right tone and approach for your content. Whether through white papers, eBooks, short guides, blog posts, slideshows, or videos, strive to give the clearest possible picture of what exactly your company is doing to tackle your audience’s problems.

4. Comedy

We made it! Time to celebrate with a little fun.

Shel Silverstein’s illustrated children’s poetry in A Light in the Attic may seem out of place in the top bestsellers of all time, but it proves the power of true literary comedy centering on ironic portrayal of ludicrous events. A Light in the Attic isn’t necessarily laugh out loud funny—it was even banned by schools for being too dark with poems about little girls getting eaten by cannibals and such—but this is the type of comedy that can be used to appeal to a larger audience. Sure, everyone has a different sense of humor, but being outlandish and absurd screams for attention from anyone.

Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man demonstrates this type of comedy perfectly. Dos Equis has created an enormous amount of content surrounding this humorous figure, creating a microsite at http://www.mostinterestingacademy.com/, complete with coursework in how to be a great wingman and a list of related events to attend.

Moreover, Dos Equis has drummed up viral user-generated content through the Most Interesting Man meme. Having such a fun spokesperson will naturally lead to the adaptation of such internet trends because you’re allowing people to get to know your brand personality and when it’s someone that they know they will get entertainment value from, they engage with you.

5. Voyage and Return

We’re about to venture into foreign territory, but don’t worry we’ll be back on our way soon.

Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a great example of the voyage and return story archetype because it involves a literal journey into an unfamiliar land but the deeper meaning talks about not being afraid of the unknown future. Fear of the unknown is universal, so businesses can offer to help along the way by demonstrating that the unknown actually has great potential. Sometimes this can come in the form of insurance agencies and related businesses holding their user’s hands through processes to make them seem less scary. Transparency makes people feel more comfortable because there is nothing left to the imagination. However, the voyage and return archetype can be formatted another way, too. You have the ability to create a different world to share with your audience.

HBO, for instance, brought their show Game of Thrones to life and appealed to all five senses with their campaigns. They sent bloggers and journalists aromatic packages, set up an area filled with sounds from the show’s environment, built a hard to miss 700 ft wall of ice, created a mobile app, and drove around a food truck that served meals straight out of the show. The key here is that getting links online will not just come from online sources. You need to host events, build interesting structures, and give away free stuff. The bigger and more creative, the more drastically traffic on your site will increase. If people see or receive something awesome, they have countless social outlets with which to share a picture or anecdote. Go beyond descriptions in your content; make your visions a reality.

6. Rags to Riches

Our journey takes a turn for the best…

In A Man Called Peter, number six on the bestseller’s list, Catherine Marshall describes how her husband Peter went from being a poor Scottish immigrant to the highly influential and respected Chaplain of the United States Senate. Such “rags to riches” stories appeal to every American because they instill hope that every person has the ability to achieve the American dream. Companies who share similar success stories can produce great content. Better yet, companies that offer to help consumers achieve their American dream will produce phenomenal content by giving people what they want: a shot at making it. Hosting contests that help people achieve their goals will always draw traffic.

For example, ACUVUE’s 1 Day Contest asks people to upload 30-60 second videos explaining what they want to achieve, and five lucky winners will get matched up with a celebrity mentor. This contest works wonders for several reasons. First, they are getting so much user generated content with the videos which must be uploaded to YouTube. Secondly, they have popular young celebs including Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato who are promoting the contest via their sizable social media followings. The contest is also a great promotion because the one day of mentoring, hence “1 Day” contest, is advertising their 1-Day ACUVUE MOIST contacts. Additionally, the winners will receive a year supply of free contacts, most likely becoming brand advocates after ACUVUE has given them a once in a lifetime opportunity.

ACUVUE has used this competition to the utmost of their advantage by creating other small contests surrounding it. For instance, they posted a photo of a winner with Demi Lovato on their Facebook page with the caption, “What is Demi Lovato thinking while mentoring Denise, one of the ACUVUE 1-DAY Contest winners? Write a caption. The most awesome caption gets a shout out on our wall.” This way, they have brought the social traffic back to their own sites and not only those of their celebrity mentors. Because rags to riches is such a powerful theme, it does not tire out easily. While the celebrity component certainly helps, a rags to riches type of contest can easily take off without such endorsements because the opportunity is great and the level of user interaction is high.

7. The Quest

Analyzing our journey

Finally, content centered on a quest appeals to your audience’s sense of excitement and adventure. The quest is different from voyage and return because there is a known goal in the venture. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code can be considered a quest because the main character is on a mission to solve a mystery. In our journey through this blog post, our goal was to sift through the seven story archetypes and ultimately arrive at a conclusion about a universal content strategy.

Monster.com’s “The Quest for a Perfect Job” was shared on many infographic directories and social sites because it is an original way to approach the job search challenge. This type of repackaging content is not just about putting the same words into a more visually appealing format, rather it is taking an ordinary list of tips and tricks and weaving them into a story of a dangerous, difficult quest. You’re much more likely to keep people reading when there is a story arc that they can follow along with. Draw them in so they want to know how the hero makes it to the end of his journey.

The final alternate route involves sending your audience on a real quest. Redbull did this by hosting a scavenger hunt through their Facebook page. This type of content keeps traffic flowing because people will repeatedly tune back in to find new clues and check on the results.

The Holy Grail

We’ve arrived!

The seven archetype content formula might not be an exact science, but it should be a useful starting point. The combination of a solid base in a universal theme and your own creative ability and unique information should lead to success. Before you begin working on your next piece of content, make sure there is a clear basic story line flowing throughout it—a story that is relatable, memorable, and share worthy. Starting off with “Once Upon a Time” when you’re brainstorming just might push your strategy in a better direction.

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