Ebooks rose to fame on the strength of indie authors suddenly freed from the shackles and strictures of the traditional publishing world, releasing their works—good, bad, and indifferent—to the world. On the plus side, indie publishing brought us titles that might otherwise have never seen the light of day, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, Hugh Howey’s post-apocalyptic novel Wool, and Kerry Wilkinson’s mystery novel Locked In. On the other side, well. . . let’s just say that there is some abysmally bad work out there, largely due to the ease of epublishing and more than a few writers that haven’t quite mastered the craft.

Amidst the flurry of excitement around indie published fiction, businesses are simultaneously discovering that ebooks work really well for corporate storytelling. The idea of corporate storytelling has caught hold in an age where interruption marketing has become the bête noire of the media world. The built-in resistance that people have acquired as a necessary defense against being slammed with hundreds of advertising messages a day is leading toward greater use of storytelling—providing entertainment and information in the form of a classic tale, complete with plot, hero, archetypes, theme, and resolution. Instead of smacking prospective customers in the face with a frozen mackerel to get their attention, you capture their imaginations with a well-told tale (integrating messages about products or services in a low-key, non-obtrusive way).

The fact that ebooks are already strongly associated with storytelling works to the advantage of brand managers who want to produce stories that reinforce the corporate brand in a subtle manner and distribute these ideas in fresh and original ways within ebooks.

As author Neil Gaiman said, stories have their own life.

“Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.”

From a corporate perspective, an ebook can introduce readers to a company, conveying the value of a product or service without the heavy-handed taint of marketing that often surrounds white papers, case studies, and other traditional forms of business communication. As John Coleman commented in an article for FastCompany, Why Collaborative Storytelling is the Future of Marketing:

“For the last decade or so, there’s been a gradual shift in how marketers think about stories. Beyond thinking about how the brand tells the story, they’re increasingly focused on how people share the story of the brand. Powered by the phenomenal efficiencies the Internet and social media platforms have created, people are able to more readily share stories with the extension of their own audiences, networks, and communities. The factors that influence personal distribution of sharable content are, I believe, still grounded in powerful storytelling.”

The same storytelling principles that apply to the mainstream corporate world can also be applied to non-profit organizations seeking to build awareness of their brand. In an interview with Kivi Leroux Miller, Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future, Jonah framed the strategy for non-profits:

“The idea of the story is that you want to move people to action.  You want to make sure that they understand through these stories that more is possible in their lives, and that they can actually be part of something larger.  They can live out their larger, higher values.  We’ve always listened to stories that help us believe that we can live out our higher values. Strategically we want to make the hero of our brand story the audiences we’re most trying to reach.  And then as we tell our actual stories, we might choose different protagonists for our stories.  So it is very possible to heroically show one of our clients who we are serving in a story, but then tell that story in a way that it shows how the donor might actually be the hero who activates the change that this protagonist is undergoing.”

Jim Signorelli, a seasoned advertiser with three decades of experience in the industry, used the term StoryBranding to capture the idea that the successful promotion of a brand needs to  follow the pattern and plot found in a good story, including the use of a theme that reflects the honesty of the brand. In his book StoryBranding: Creating Stand-out Brands Through the Power of Story, he said:

“Advertising is certainly one of the most visible touch points. But ultimately, what we often refer to as The Moment of Truth reveals itself during the interaction between customers and the people representing the brand. How a customer gets treated is the ultimate test of a brand’s veracity. Too often, marketing and operations people work along different paths when it comes to service delivery. Everything the customer sees and experiences must come together as harmonious proof that the brand walk its talk.”

The strong associations that readers have about ebooks, including the expectations that a good story will be presented on the digital pages, help deliver the branding message in a medium already known for storytelling virtuosity. Ebooks shake off the mantle of “advertising message” and, because of this, organizations are increasingly using the ebook format to reach an audience, offer solid content, and, in the process, expand the range and effectiveness of their brand-building efforts.

Distribution and Delivery of Corporate Ebooks

Companies venturing into the use of ebooks for brand building usually target PDFs for the safety they provide as the delivery medium, banking on the page fidelity offered. This is a time-honored approach, but, in the process they lose out on the skyrocketing readership available through smartphones, ereaders, and tablets. PDFs delivered to devices designed for reflowable content typically don’t display well, since it’s necessary to zoom in and then scroll around the fixed document formats to be able to actually read anything.

Using a Fixed Layout with PDFs

However, if you’re primarily aiming for an audience of desktop or laptop users, hosting PDFs within the framework of an online service or directly from your site can be effective. For example, ISSUU, a platform for reading and publishing, provides visibility, better navigation, and the opportunity to win a following interested in your brand and offerings. ISSUU has the advantage of automatically generated thumbnails of pages, one-click zoom, bookmarking, discoverability through the ISSUU search engine, and other capabilities that make reading an ebook a positive experience. And, of course, unlike the gray-scale content e-readers designed primarily for text uses, ebooks distributed as PDFs can contain sophisticated formatting and be enabled for downloading. It’s a worthwhile venue to reach an audience with colorful, relevant content taking advantage of photographs, diagrams, effective page layouts, and a magazine-type model that can prove attractive to readers if done right.

Targeting Ereaders, Smartphones, and Tablets

With the popularity of tablets, smartphones with larger screens, and conventional ereaders that accommodate free-flowing text, the options for distribution are even wider. Ebooks can be provided as a free giveaway in exchange for an email address, provided for free through an online bookstore as an introduction to a series, given away with no strings to spread the corporate story, or offered at a modest price through an online venue to encourage engagement with the brand and increase familiarity with the company.

Whether free-flowing or fixed formats, here are some of the way companies are using ebooks to extend their brand and tell their stories:

  • BookBaby, a full service ebook production and distribution company, has long recognized the value of giving away something to gain something very valuable: new customers. They provide author-oriented titles in exchange for addresses to build their mailing list (this month the title is The Frugal Book Promoter, a full-length guide to getting publicity for your book inexpensively).
  • Planar offers ebooks discussing uses of their large-screen monitors in real-world applications (museums, universities, and corporate meeting rooms) to generate leads and build their email prospects. For example, Three Notable Trends in Museum Displays provides stories about visitor experiences in museums that are enhanced by video imagery. The corporate message is subtle, provided in case studies toward the end of the book.
  • Sparkol, makers of VideoScribe, tells their corporate story, along with a history of scribing, in a free ebook, Video Scribing: How Whiteboard Animation Will Get You Heard. The highly illustrated story is entertaining and woven through the narrative are examples of how whiteboard animation works well for boosting engagement and improving communication with audiences.
  • Free gifts have proven to be a reliable business and brand builder for author Nathan Meunier, whose forays into free ebook giveaways boosted his business book sales once the giveaway ended and strengthened his brand recognition. For example, he currently offers a title for freelancers, 23 Ways to Improve Your Freelance Pitches, to build his mailing list.
  • Hugh Howey offers the first ebook in his six-book Wool series for free. Readers are encouraged to get hooked on the series and continue on to purchase the five paid volumes (which range from $.99 to $2.99).
  • Forbes, the stolid, reliable business information brand, has also gotten into the act, charging for ebooks sold on Amazon and through another distribution channel, Vook. For example, their title Find and Keep Your Dream Job: The Definitive Careers Guide from Forbes is part of an ebook series that helps build their brand by demonstrating expertise and insight in business topics.
  • The Korn Ferry Institute provides what they call a fresh and unique perspective on the most pressing issues facing boards and the C-Suite today. Their ebook, Big Data, Predictive Analytics, and Hiring, introduces the topic with the story of the Boston Red Sox moving from the cellar of the American League to winning the World Series by applying predictive analytics to hiring. The entertaining ebook includes many other examples of applied analytics and establishes thought leadership for Korn Ferry. The ebook can be read on line or downloaded—no strings attached and no need to supply an email address.

These few use cases hint at the possibilities. With some imagination and innovative thinking, you’re apt to discover other opportunities for using ebooks to build a brand.

Reaching Audiences and Gaining Trust

Unlike amorphous web pages that—by design—can lead in any number of directions, encouraging viewers to click indiscriminately to follow threads of interest, ebooks provide a distinct beginning, middle, and conclusion—as do good stories. Although ebooks can contain links (and usually do), the nature of the medium encourages readers to move through the narrative in the same way as they would with a printed book.

To use this approach successfully—and avoid falling into the brazen advertising trap—you need to provide relevant content to readers, share your knowledge and expertise, and win the trust of your audience. You’re inviting someone to get to know your company better by using classic storytelling techniques. There are scores of books (and ebooks) available on how to do this. There is even research emerging that supports the ways in which stories elicit engagement. An article in the Harvard Business Review, The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool, includes these intriguing details:

Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic. In one experiment after participants watched an emotionally charged movie about a father and son, Zak asked study participants to donate money to a stranger. With both oxytocin and cortisol in play, those who had the higher amounts of oxytocin were much more likely to give money to someone they’d never met.

Storytelling makes good business sense and ebooks provide an ideal vehicle for packaging and presenting stories. Using storytelling principles and ebook formats can help attract and communicate with audiences in new and exciting ways.

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
– Hanna Arendt

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