Many of us know the three-part structure of a basic story: conflict, development, and resolution. At Transition 2016, James Buckhouse, Head of Design and Content at Sequoia Capital, shared his insights about producing content with narrative structure in mind, which he developed during his career designing and writing for innovative brands including Dreamworks, Google, and Twitter. James’s concept of story-driven design involves framing a problem around moments of emotional transformation and the human experience.

“Understanding human experience design starts with admitting what you’re actually designing — it isn’t just the pixels of your app, or the copy on the page or even the product flow—it’s the whole experience happening at that moment. You’re never just designing pixels. You are designing complements to the human condition.” –James Buckhouse

Here’s how you can leverage story-driven design to become a better marketer.

Make people, not your product, the heroes.

Buckhouse and the team at Twitter launched stories.twitter.com long before user stories were common. The project was based on the premise that people don’t really care about your product’s features. What they care about is how their lives might be transformed.

“We crafted an archetype and then told the same story over and over: ordinary people, against extraordinary odds, who achieved something remarkable, by means of the platform. We always made people, not the product, the hero.” –James Buckhouse

Let existing problems guide your solutions.

Marketers often have to convince internal stakeholders of the importance of their initiatives. It can be challenging to get executive buy-in for something that’s not directly under their purview. Siloed organizations can make it difficult to partner cross-functionally and fulfill the expectations of various stakeholders. Instead of retroactively building a case for your campaign, start by discovering the pain points of critical stakeholders, and design content that resolves existing needs.

During James’s tenure at Twitter, the company was pushing to compete for user traffic during major televised events like the Grammys. However, stakeholder priorities varied widely across the network. The executives at Twitter wanted to promote the platform while expending as few resources as possible, the Grammys organizers wanted to promote the telecast, and the celebrity attendees wanted a means to build their brand while staying in control of their public image. James and the Twitter Media team designed the “Twitter Mirror” campaign so that celebrities at the Grammys could use the Twitter Mirror to take photos of themselves, approve them, and instantly tweet them to the world. Using only the existing features of the product, this low-budget fix generated significant traffic for Twitter during the telecast and established Twitter as the platform with insider scoop at the event. The Twitter Mirror has since been repurposed for Twitter’s coverage of numerous other events including the Oscars and the NBA draft.

Sell a story, not a product.

Marketers are often tasked with communicating product information to existing and potential customers. However, the details of your company’s products can’t always be made to sound exciting. Instead of telling your audience about product features, James advises brands to craft a story of emotional transformation. Build or feature a narrative in which your product or brand facilitates the emotional change at the center of the story.

At Percolate we’ve seen brands embrace story as the heart of their campaigns. In 2015 Loews Hotels launched their #TravelForReal campaign, which highlighted the travel stories of customers who had recently stayed at a Loews property. Loews’ customers were already eager to share their travel experience online. The #TravelForReal campaign enabled them to share their photos with a wider audience. The brand culled over 38,000 user-generated images from social media and curated them into a microsite as well as featuring them in print and digital ads, encouraging customers to experience and share each other’s stories. Loews engaged its audience by highlighting the narrative of transformative travel experiences, rather than highlighting the locations or amenities of their hotels.

Transform your audience into your advocates.

One of the goals of many social campaigns is to create brand advocates. However, the amount of branded content that potential advocates are exposed to is overwhelming, and with budgets for content production getting increasingly tight, paid advocacy may not be an option. When developing advocates through content, discover what your audience is already doing, where they are, and what their challenges are, then design a campaign that enables them and brings your brand along with it.

For instance, Marriott partners with filmmaker and social media influencer Casey Neistat on content projects ranging from promotional films to Snapchat takeovers. Much of Neistat’s existing social presence centers around travel and lifestyle inspiration. Marriott designed their partnership around enabling Neistat to produce the type of content for which he had already developed an audience. Marriott create a mutually beneficial advocacy relationship in which the company benefiting both from the expertise and “positive brand equity” of an online video expert, while enabling the production of content that the advocate already wanted to make and customers already wanted to see.

Enable your audience’s sharing habits.

It’s tempting to approach content with the short-term goal of racking up views, with little priority given to the relationship that content builds with your audience. When producing long-lasting and effective content it’s critical to design with shareability in mind. Story-driven design can help you achieve this by focusing your efforts on designing an experience that makes it easy to share by tapping into existing desires and behaviors.


While sponsored content can be an important campaign element, truly great content spreads organically. Designing campaigns that prompt sharing should be the aim of any content marketing initiative. In 2015, Unilever subsidiary Dove did just that. The brand saw white space in the representation of curly-haired customers in many aspects of daily life, including emojis. They launched the “Curly Hair Emoji” Campaign, which involved a downloadable smartphone keyboard that featured a selection of emoji with curly-haired figures. The keyboard was downloaded nearly a million times and generated over a billion impressions for the brand. The Dove campaign tapped into the curly-haired customer’s existing desire to see herself represented and to share pride in her identity with her friends.

For more on story-driven design, be sure to watch James Buckhouse’s full talk from Transition 2016:

For a hands-on guide to crafting exceptional content, download James’s checklist PDF here.