My Company Realized We Had No Idea How to Explain Our Product. So We Learned to Tell a Story.
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
I work as a marketing manager for a business software called Weekdone and, up until a month ago, I probably couldn't give you a straight answer on what exactly our product did. If you asked anyone on our team, each person would have given you a different description. When we wanted to merge our product back into a single feature set and make a new landing page, I realized how big of a problem this was.
We had to change the way we did things, immediately. As I was searching through Entrepreneur articles one night, fueled by Redbull and desperation, I came across an article about how storytelling can boost your business. Then it hit me -- let's tell a story!
Switching to a storytelling approach to marketing wasn't the easiest and there was a bit of resistance along the way, but it really changed the way we approached our marketing and even the product itself. I promise this won't be one of those "I quit caffeine and feel great. Here are all the benefits" articles, but rather a story. A story about how we changed the way we approached marketing our product and what we learned along the way.
Realizing our product isn't the hero
For a long time, we used the superhero motif to show how our product can help you "find the superheroes on your team." We kept pushing the idea that we were some sort of Professor Xavier and that our app was some sort of Cerebro for finding productive workers. This mentality led us to heavily push our features. Our sales calls started to be more like a listing of features, and even our old landing page was literally just the two feature sets we offered with our main page slogan being OKRs + PPP.
In switching our mode of thinking, I kept going back to a model to inspire action from renowned marketing consultant Simon Sinek. The model starts with a circle with the question "Why?" at the center and "What?" around the edges. Sinek explains how successful companies like Apple all started with this question, "Why?" and later came back to the "What." The point of "Why?" is the story itself. People don't buy your product but the story behind it.
For us, in order to tell a real story that wasn't just about features we started a series of customer interviews and case studies to better understand the real story behind why people use our product. From there we realized we were more like the fairy godmother from Cinderella or, even better, like Shuri from Black Panther, giving our customers some awesome tech to go out and be a hero.
Learning how to tell a story
Before we could really start building our story, we had to figure out how to even tell a story to begin with. When looking up storytelling for your business, one of the main ideas was being emotional. Research published by the Harvard Business Review found emotional motivators were the greatest contributor to perceived value, even more than brand awareness and customer satisfaction. In storytelling, having an emotional story is what truly creates memorable moments. Don't act like you felt nothing when Mufasa died in the Lion King or when Rose let go of Jack in Titanic.
In addition to Simon Sinek's TED Talk, we found other techniques to tell a great story from companies like Airbnb and Apple.
Airbnb Design Manager Keenan Cummings shared tips on good storytelling and how it translates to building great user experiences. He based Airbnb's quest to tell stories on the finding of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who claims that people remember information through stories and we ourselves are storytellers.
Airbnb anchored its growth team around telling its user stories and backing it up with great user experience. Its mission is to grow Airbnb into the most loved community of travelers and hosts. They do that by focusing on the home owners and the visitors, demonstrating that making connections is central to the Airbnb brand, and the brand itself enables those connections. Keenan learned through the storytelling process that story comes first and then the metrics, not the other way around.
Apple still continues to captivate your attention and sell its products even with minor upgrades and no revolutionary change in technology. How?It all started with Steve Jobs and his art of storytelling. We all remember the presentation of the first iPhone. This time, it was actually a game changer, but what was the technique of presenting it? Jobs and Apple have always started with the "why." Meaning, they always begin by repeating their mission, which is disrupting the status quo, thinking differently, reinventing your phone or home music. The second step is to engage people by asking the "what if" questions and inspire people with numerous possibilities. Finally, when they have your attention and you are bubbling with excitement, they present a product that matches the story they gave you in the first two steps.
The desire to create a more emotional story brought us back to our customers; we wanted to know how using our product made them feel and how they wanted to feel.
As we began exploring the more emotional side of our story, it made us revisit our brand itself. For the longest time we were running of words like innovative, front-runner and high achieving. But, in talking to our customers, the messages that really appealed to them were words like interconnected, supportive, and organized.
In keeping the feelings and emotions that were important to the customers in mind, we were able to rework our brand to put the customers' ideals first and not our own made up ones from when we were running around as the hero.
Structuring our story
One of the most critical parts of telling a story is the structure you use. Stories are more than just having a beginning, middle and end; you have to think about the journey the hero takes and the success and challenges he or she faces along the way.
We had so many different ideas and ways we could go about it but weren't quite sure how to work it out. We ended up creating a series of storyboards to find out which we liked the best. We took a more traditional approach and made a wall of Post-it notes to plot out structures. At the end of the process, we had run out of available wall space, but there are also plenty of great digital tool kits to help you plot the points along your journey and build a compelling story.
As we came up with our structure, we realized how much it shared in common with our user journey. This got the product and sales team inspired and we ended up breaking our entire onboarding flow into parts of a story. Now as anyone works on new material or product update, we have a framework to see if it fits the core messages and narrative we are pushing.
For us, switching to a story-based approached helped us develop a more compelling message. With a clear narrative we were able to bring out the more emotive aspects of our product and even bring structure to our own internal processes. Our story is far from perfect, but already we have made incredible leaps in unifying our messaging and our own internal product understanding. Developing the perfect story for your business can be time-consuming, but it is an investment with a payoff that is well worth it.
Related Video: How to Become a Content Strategist and Master Storyteller