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Why Social Impact Storytelling Will Be 2021’s Hottest Content Trend



After the sadistic uncertainty of 2020, it feels a bit ridiculous to try to predict what 2021 will bring. But one thing is clear: Gen Z and millennials are changing the way that brands tell their stories and position themselves in the market.

That’s right. After a decade killing chain restaurants, marriage, and the McDonald’s McWrap, millennials have grown strong and are entering their peak earning years. Simultaneously, Gen Z—which you may know from the popular mobile application, TikTok—is graduating college and taking over the coveted 18-25 consumer segment.

I’m a card-carrying millennial. I’ve survived graduating into a recession and strangled an Applebees with my own two hands. And you know what my generation wants? To buy stuff from companies that reflect our values, so we can feel good about ourselves when we pop a CBD gummy and start clicking on Instagram ads.

The age of conscious consumerism is here, driven by the under 40-set. According to 5Ws 2020 Consumer Culture Report, 83 percent of millennials say that it’s important for the companies they buy from to align with their beliefs and values, and 76 percent of 18-34 year-olds like when the CEOs of companies they buy from speak out on issues they care for.

Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer also found that values are driving purchase decisions. The most important attributes to consumers today being able to trust that what the brand does is right, reputation, values, and environmental impact. As climate change worsens, sustainability is only going to become more important; turns out, we really want a planet to live on.

edelman trust barometer

Companies today not only need to do good; they also need to tell stories about the good that they’re doing so consumers know about it. It’s not a nice-to-have anymore; it’s a necessity.

That’s why social impact storytelling was one of the top content trends I presented in our State of Content Marketing 2021 trends webinar (which you can get on-demand here.)

One of the coolest things is that telling these stories will not only help your company’s bottom line—it’ll help the world, too.

That’s because when you tell great stories about the good your company is doing, it creates a positive feedback loop that encourages your company to invest more in CSR efforts.

Skeptical? Then say it to the face of this awesome diagram.

social impact storytelling flywheel

Social impact storytelling needs to be a part of your content strategy in 2021. And in the webinar, I suggested taking three steps:

1. Put on your reporter’s hat to find compelling social impact stories

Companies don’t often do a great job of talking about the good that they’re doing—even to their own employees. That means that you need do the dirty work to find them.

This is something that GE Reports does extremely well. Led by chief storyteller Tomas Kellner—a former editor at Forbes—GE Reports has amassed a loyal audience of over 100,000 subscribers through what Kellner calls “shoe leather reporting“—developing sources inside the company to break stories of the amazing innovations happening inside the company.

While its sustainability storytelling has often gone viral on Reddit, GE Reports shifted focus in the spring to cover how GE Healthcare—and the rest of the world-was fighting back against COVID-19.

GE Reports did a remarkable job telling the stories of employees who were going above-and-beyond in the fight against COVID, and the role GE Healthcare was playing in combatting the pandemic. Just check out this story about GE Healthcare employee who traveled 1,400 miles through an earthquake and blizzard to help step up the production of ventilators at a key plant, or this story about a breakthrough in AI-enhanced ultrasound that was saving lives during the darkest days of the outbreak in Italy.

They also published a weekly roundup of five ways the world fought back, which included non-GE stories, and was my daily dose of optimism as I hunkered down in downtown Manhattan, clutching a bottle of hand sanitizer like it was the last Infinity Stone.

GE Reports’ coverage not only made me feel better—it helped me see GE Healthcare in a new, extremely positive light. If I was in the market for an MRI machine, I would definitely buy it from them!

You can follow Kellner’s lead, especially if you work inside a large corporation. Find out who’s in charge of your social impact and CSR initiatives, and who else is working on them. Bond with them. Interview them. Do the same thing with your product and engineering teams—your company’s product might be doing good and serving people in ways you don’t even know about. Put on your reporter hat, and get to work.

2. Tell narrative stories that communicate your company’s values and how they set you apart from the competition

The morning after the 2016 election, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia, woke up at 4 AM and decided that it was time to double down on the company’s activism.

As Fast Company reported, by 9:30 AM, she had penned a company-wide call-to-action to “defend wilderness, to defend air, soil, and water.” Facing widespread rollback of environmental regulations, she galvanized the company around its mission to protect the planet—a mission dear to not only employees at the company, but Patagonia’s customers, too.

Ever since Marcario took over as Patagonia’s CEO in 2008 and made a huge bet on sustainable manufacturing and design, the company’s revenue has grown more than 500 percent.

Much of that is its mission-led marketing; the outdoor apparel brand donates 1 percent of all profits to environmental causes, turns its stores into a repair shop for used gear on Black Friday, and tells stories about sustainability in Hollywood-quality films and four-word rallying cries on its clothing. Patagonia’s ethics and values are the competitive differentiator that shines through in every story they tell, and their customers are fiercely loyal to the brand as a result.

patagonia content

A big reason that Patagonia’s approach works so well is the ridiculous quality of their storytelling. One of their latest documentaries, Public Trust, about the battle to save public land from development, won awards at the Big Sky Documentary Festival and Mountainview.

They tailor their content to the channels where their audience spends their time—short films on YouTube, compelling 30-second sizzle trailers on Instagram, climate news and calls-to-action on Twitter—and truly stand apart, growing their business at an exponential rate.

3. When possible, align your social impact storytelling with a product

meand & matters social impact

In recent years, Bank of the West has been doubling down on ethical and sustainable investing through its Impact Solutions investment arm. In 2019, it became the first bank to empower customers to track the CO2 impact of their purchases, and this year, launched its 1% for the Planet account to donate 1 percent of revenues to environmental non-profits.

They tell the story of their sustainability initiatives through Means & Matters, its sustainability-focused content hub. The site covers everything from how the private sector can step in where the public sector has failed to how to work in sustainability. It even puts other banks that invest in arctic drilling on blast.

(Disclosure: Bank of the West is Contently client, and partnered with Contently on Means & Matters.)

This content communicates a clear reason why people like me who care about the planet should invest with Bank of the West over competitors. There’s also an added bonus, as all of this sustainable investing content is an SEO goldmine, helping attract potential buyers who would be extremely interested in investing with Bank of the West—making it much easier to tie the content to business results.

This all, of course, leaves one very important question: What if your company isn’t investing in any initiatives worthy of social impact storytelling?

Well, then hit your leadership team with the stats and examples in this post, and make the case why it’s just good business to stand for something and do good in the world. And once they do, tell the story of how you made it happen. I can’t wait to see it.




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