02/20/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2015

The Key Marketing Factor Small Businesses Aren't Using

Two years ago, a million-dollar nonprofit I'd written promotional and fundraising materials for in the past invited me to sit it on a strategy meeting. In this meeting, the president and board members were discussing new marketing approaches for the year and one marketing avenue they were especially interested in was a billboard opportunity not too far from their physical address. My expertise in marketing and communications was called upon with regard to the design of the billboard. Their initial plan was to feature the nonprofit's building prominently on the billboard as a mere way to let the neighborhood know of their existence (they had the misfortune of being located on 10 acres tucked away down a quiet rural road).

I strongly recommended against this approach however and instead suggested they feature people on the billboard -- specifically the very people they hoped to attract. Why? Simply put, people want to see themselves in your marketing. Or to put it another way: people want to see a story, and they want to be able to transport themselves into that story.

Think about your favorite retailer's latest commercial. You might see fashionable twenty-something's wearing chic clothing and carrying shopping bags as they laugh and beam with confidence. Or a pack of bachelors enjoying beers and hot wings as they watch their team on the bar's 72" flat screen. Or mothers cradling happy babies who gurgle with delight in a fresh diaper.

Why do the advertisements we see take on these forms? Is it coincidence? Not at all. All of these advertisers understand the power of storytelling. They understand that in order to connect with their intended audiences, they need to follow a universal story structure.

This has continuously been proven by repeated studies in the fields of psychology and brain chemistry. Indeed, research has proven that when the human brain receives data from an emotional story, it releases oxytocin. Oxytocin increases feelings of connection and trust. In fact, it's known as "the bonding hormone"; in this case, this refers to the way oxytocin establishes a bridge between storyteller and listener.

In other words -- there's a reason those Hallmark commercials make us cry. Hallmark effectively conveys powerful emotions in their commercials that cause our brains to go into oxytocin overload. As a result, we're touched and stirred and moved. We wipe away a tear. The story may stay with us for days afterward. If asked to name a greeting card company, the majority of people would immediately respond with "Hallmark." If asked to name a second, most people would stutter. Hallmark immediately springs to mind like a knee-jerk effect because it has established itself as "king of the hill" through the power of storytelling.

So how can your business and/or brand use stories more effectively to improve your place in the market and to establish deeper connections with your audience? At the most basic level, three things must be done. You must:

1) Show a world where the problem exists. When it comes to cold medicine advertisements, they all start in the exact same way: with a man, woman or child who's been run ragged by a cold or fever. They're sniffling, their eyes are red and puffy, they're sluggish, and they look miserable. All of us can immediately relate. We've been there. We know what it feels like to be slowed down by an illness. As such, we immediately transport ourselves into the story. In other words, because we can relate, the story now has our attention.

2) Show a world where your business solves the problem. When we're faced with a problem, what do we want more than anything? A solution. You may have seen advertisements where the story has absolutely nothing to do with a problem or a solution and the audience is left scratching their heads, wondering what they just viewed. It profits no one for us to transport ourselves into a story (in this case, the story of sickness) but then be shown an unrelated solution (for example: car tires). There must be cohesion at all times. Otherwise the journey is disruptive and ineffective. In the case of the cold medicine commercials, we see the hero of the story open their medicine cabinet and grab the bottle that will remedy their woes. We immediately think: should I ever find myself in a similar situation, I can do this very thing as well.

3) Show a world where the problem has been solved. Cold medicine commercials never end with the hero of the story still sick. Instead, they fast-forward to the next morning, where suddenly the hero is full of life and energy again, ready to take on a new day. We then internalize that a world where our problem doesn't exist can be real and can be ours for the taking. Doubtful? Think about this: does anyone take medicine and anticipate it not working? No. Why? Because we've been told the same story for generations: that the medicine will take away our cold, fever, headache, pains, etc. And so we never hesitate at the pharmacy when we purchase it.

If you want to cancel hesitation when it comes to your own consumers, review the promotional materials and copywriting that represents your business and brand. Are you following this story structure across the board? Are you showing a world where their problem exists, a world where your business has the solution, and then a world where the problem has been solved?

When you do, you'll not only cultivate a loyal fanbase but you'll also cement yourself at the forefront of your consumers' minds. Keep telling stories, and you'll be there for good.

Want to learn more about using storytelling to spread your message and work like wildfire? Visit Lily's website here.