The Power of Empathic Storytelling: How to Make Your Customer the Hero of Your Story
Insights from leading health and wellness executives on how to elicit emotions and inspire your audience to take action.
Imagine living in the 1800s. Besides (or perhaps because of) the obvious lack of modern technologies and medicines, the average life expectancy was just 40 years. I’d most likely be dust in the wind.
Despite increases in global life expectancy over the last two centuries, as a global population, we’re now more overweight, more obese and more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions than at any other time in history. For some, Covid-19 has created a lightning rod for change. Specifically, it has systematically transformed healthcare, changing everything from professional care to self-care. Record-breaking investments in health and wellness, specifically in digital health, underscore the importance of, and support for, this transformation.
My belief is that nutrition, fitness and preventative care create a trifecta for maintaining health and wellness. One approach to create awareness of all three is through storytelling, rather than lecturing (which doesn’t work). People open their minds and listen to stories with their hearts, making a personal connection to the message. I know I have.
Some years ago, as I walked onto a platform and looked at the 585-lb. loaded barbell on the floor in front of me, I replayed a highlight reel of the 13 years of grueling workouts it took for me to get there. I didn’t see the crowd in the stands, or the judges all around me. All I saw was the barbell. With more weight on it than I’d ever lifted. I needed this lift to beat my opponent and break the California state record for my weight class. I took a deep breath, walked up to the bar, and pulled with everything I had. The bar slowed as it passed my knees, but then shot up for a full lockout. A good lift. I won. I earned the record. And it all ended in 15 seconds.
I’m not an Olympian or a professional athlete, but because of all that training, nutrition and fitness are a way of life for me. They come naturally, like breathing. And it all started with the story of a kid getting picked on in school for being “husky,” the old euphemism for being overweight. That kid was me, but the story could be about millions of others. I’m constantly asking myself how I can inspire others to find their own story of triumph. After many phone interviews with leading executives at health and wellness brands, I found some surprising answers.
A prescription for storytelling
When I think about storytelling, I used to think about Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, and other nursery rhymes that Mom read to me at bedtime. But storytelling is more than fairy tales and bedtime stories. It’s the oldest form of human communication, dating back to sitting around the fire at night and paintings on cave walls. Behind every painting or symbol is a story. Storytelling connects with people on a deeper, inspirational level. It can transcend the product. It can be the very foundation for building a brand.
Ruslan Tovbulatov, former Chief Marketing Officer at Thrive Global, has a powerful perspective. "How do we get people to introduce mindfulness or take a few more steps each day? The way we actually move and change their habits is through stories." Tovbulatov tells us that storytelling moves people to action, which is why it’s at the heart of what he does at Thrive Global.
Story is a powerful motivator because it connects us with our memories, evokes emotions, and even stimulates physiological changes.
Peter McGraw, author of Shtick to Business, says, "Memory is built on associations. Whether exercising daily or smoking two packs a day, the unconscious mind has learned associations that have become automatic. To build a habit, you are essentially creating a new set of associations — weaving your own mental web." Using storytelling as a means to create new memories and associations helps people build new habits, like taking a few more steps each day. Eventually, those habits become routine, and over time, they can become rituals.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs, and prolific writer about mindful productivity, defines the difference between habits and routines. "Habits happen with little or no conscious thought; routines require a higher degree of intention and effort. The difference between a routine and a ritual is the attitude behind the action. While routines can be actions that just need to be done—such as making your bed or taking a shower—rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose." Everyone has their own habits, routines and rituals. Like making your bed, brewing coffee, going to weekly worship, sports — work, the list goes on.
Surprisingly, research has shown that nearly half of all behaviour is habitual. An experiment summarized in the book, The Choice Factory, described "two psychologists, Jeffrey Quinn and Wendy Wood, from Duke University, [who] gave 279 undergraduates watches programmed to buzz at set times. Whenever the alert was triggered, the students recorded, in detail, their actions at that moment. What they found was that across a range of areas from exercising to travelling, from eating to socializing, a full 45% of behaviours were habitual — the same decisions being made at the same time and place without full conscious thought." How can brands and marketing build on this tendency?
Steve Schwartz, CEO of The Art of Tea, says that ritual is a big part of his customers’ experience. During my interview with Schwartz, he asked me how I make tea. I was a bit embarrassed, because I know there’s an art to making tea. A methodical process, which is the exact opposite of my approach. Nonetheless, I explained what I do. On Sundays, I start by boiling 64 ounces of water. Once it starts boiling, I pour some into a ceramic teapot with loose leaf herbal tea. I use Alexa and set the timer to three minutes. Then, I pour the steeped tea into a 64-ounce growler. I let the growler cool down on the counter for a few hours before I put it in the fridge. (Sidenote: If there’s anyone else who drinks tea from a growler, please, let’s connect.) What he helped me realize is that this is indeed a routine. Perhaps close to becoming a ritual.
Thinking about how customers use your product or service and how it incorporates into their lives will help you define a ritualization process. The key to that process lies with your current customers. Launch an interview program to collect personal stories that will help you deeply understand and empathise with your customers. Then, build on their experiences to tell stories about how your product or service changes people’s lives for the better.
Put simply, storytelling is about communicating a message to your audience — whether it be written, spoken, video or audio. When you know how to craft your story, it will help you move your brand forward to greater recognition, higher sales and better outcomes for both you and your customers. Storytelling takes what people already know and brings them in to engage them and evoke memory and emotion. It helps people make sense of events, actions and aspirations, while helping them interpret your reality and create context for their own experiences with your brand.
Make your customer the hero of your story
Many brands position themselves as the hero in the story. But they’re not the heroes: their customers are. Customers won’t care about how great your product or service is until they know how it helps them. “Creating a relationship with your customers starts with making your customers the hero of your story,” says Lori Raygoza, vice president of Ecommerce at Performance Health. Raygoza recommended that a brand’s marketing message should be clear and speak directly to the customer's needs.
Zoe Wilson, Digital Marketing Manager at Betr Health, is largely devoted to creating compelling content. She works directly with clients to elicit case studies, stories and anecdotes to pay homage to their achievements and to inspire other members. One such story was about a client who was retiring and was diagnosed with cancer. The medicine she was taking was making her gain weight, which eventually brought on high blood pressure and cholesterol. From there, she spiraled into a depression. After starting her customized Betr Health program, she lost 35 lbs, restored her confidence, became much more energized and got back on her bike. She eventually stopped taking medication for depression. That’s the kind of story any company can be proud to share, and any patient will be able to relate to.
Since users’ experiences with a business affect whether or not they return or refer others to you, your business is already directly invested in those experiences. Ruslan Tovbulatov, former chief marketing officer at Thrive Global, says, “It's not some kind of productivity or efficiency game. It's about the transformations we're making in individual lives." He cites one example: a series of 7- and 21-day Thrive well-being experiences they hosted for Walmart employees. Walmart learned that 97% of participants are now taking more time to manage their own stress, build resilience and help others do the same. Over 230,000 inspirational success stories came in from Walmart employees around the world. That’s a lot of positive habit building — and it generated a tremendous amount of first-hand, customer-centric marketing material.
GE Healthcare Digital follows the same two-way benefit strategy. Lynn Eversgerd, chief marketing officer of Global Partners Consulting & Command Centers, told us that she and her team paved the way to create opportunities for GE Healthcare customers to tell their own stories. “We are fortunate that we have earned our customers’ trust as partners. When our technologies and solutions help our customers achieve an outcome, it’s their outcome that we celebrate,” she says. Eversgerd and her team develop stories about their clients’ experiences with GE medical technology in which they position their clients as the heroes. In return, she notes, "Our customers are ultimately telling the brand story for us."
For these executives and their brands, the personal relationship between the business and its customers transcends the profit motive. Instead of focusing on profits, their businesses focus on helping customers make positive changes in their lives. Eversgerd wrapped up by saying, "If you don't collaborate with customers to jointly tell the story of how together you make a bigger impact, you're missing out on an opportunity for both sides."
Make the customer the hero of all your content
Many brands struggle with making the leap from profit to impact. One requirement, beyond mindset and willingness, is to build trust with customers. Brands that seek to educate, empower, and enable their customers provide more than products and services: they also provide know-how through resources that educate and inspire. Ron Ribitzky, founder & CEO at R&D Ribitzky, and co-founder of Alliance Tech, explains that it’s important to establish yourself as a credible source, or, as he says, “How do we figure out who is a qualified player and who is just making noise?"
To discover what kinds of resources would be most valuable to its customers, GE’s Lynn Eversgerd says, "When I think about the audience which I want to directly engage, my goal is to provide them with not only relevant and meaningful content, but a unique perspective that is differentiated from all the other noise in the marketplace. To do so requires the passion to learn everything we can about our individual customers, as well as their organizations, so that we can speak directly to their pain points. This includes everything from having frequent genuine conversations, to understanding their own target audience (physicians, boards, donors, communities and patients), to following daily news about their individual organizations. It goes back to the whole idea of being completely customer-centric and customer-focused.”
Make the customer the hero of your communications programs
Working through stories also drives healthtech brands to be entirely customer- or patient-centric. Here we’re drilling deeper on content and how to deploy it.
Content and stories need to be short. "My job is to entertain the audience," says Rob Wilson, sales & marketing manager at GameTime. “A lot of content is far too long. It really should get straight to the point.” Content should also provide details about the process, guide your audience through the necessary steps to the outcome: “You can't get to the goal without the process." When it comes to technology, he thinks there are better ways than long-form media to provide value: use social media marketing to deliver short content posts that give the reader immense value on LinkedIn and Facebook in minutes. Finally, he underscored how much work these campaigns take. It’s serious business.
Ribitzky has some advice on how to improve digital communication and operate more effectively in the virtual world. He says, "Think about relevance and ask yourself, ‘don't we need to change the ways we use technology to help us provide information?’" He goes on to say that the likelihood a brand’s audience will read 100 pages of anything he writes is virtually zero. That content needs to be written in a way that will be relevant to them and respectful of their time. He says, "It's all about knowing the audience and packaging content as a tool, so that they will be able to consume it very quickly." He continued, "The days of publishing a five-page or eight-page whitepaper as a PDF and linking it are over." While professional people still read whitepapers, books, and reports, your customers don’t. But in any medium, the content still has to be compelling.
Simone Grapini-Goodman, MBA and Chief Marketing Officer at DiRx Health, uses a range of ethnographic and quantitative research techniques to understand their audiences. "Using design thinking principles and personas, we’ve broken down our customer cohorts into three main categories, and outlined their hierarchies of needs." She says it was a challenge to present a single online experience that deeply connected to all three audiences. “Each audience has a slightly different lens, so we strive to build a frictionless experience based on what people want, what technology can deliver, and what is financially feasible.”
Former Head of Data at Curology, Anna E. Shen, has a different solution for the problem of creating customized experiences for different audiences. "We target numerous audiences over our marketing channels and have dozens of unique landing pages for each one to allow us to maximize our SEO and ad relevance/quality score." She tells us that they start with quantitative research — clustering and "typing" of the customer relationship management (CRM) — to first identify the personas they’re investigating. After that, Shen and her team conduct rigorous research, including focus groups and interviews, to sample each persona so they can understand their customers in depth.
When developing new healthcare technologies, which many businesses are now doing, it’s important to pull away from the technology and look at the experience from the patient’s point of view: to become totally customer-centric.
Dr. John Reeves MD is CEO at conversationHEALTH, which is transforming the way pharmaceutical companies communicate with patients and healthcare professionals. 25 years of experience as a primary care physician helps him deliver a perfect product-market fit for his pharmaceutical clients. One thing he learned working as a physician is that patients don’t know how to be great patients. The stress of the doctor’s office and the possibility of a negative prognosis, makes it hard for them to take in important information about their condition and treatment. This insight inspired him to found a company to teach patients outside the office visit. Sending messages through texts, websites, voice devices and other channels lets patients learn more in the hopefully more relaxed atmosphere of home. The technology works in conjunction with the doctor to inform and educate the patient, at their own speed and in their preferred channel. That’s meeting patients where they’re at.
Meeting people where they are is exactly what Sandra Sellani, vice president of Marketing at Discovery Behavioral Health, does when applying empathy to deeply understand its patients’ needs. "We start by talking to the people who are referring patients to us — their therapists. We ask them about the patient’s needs and develop an individualized treatment plan for each patient when they are admitted to the program.” She told us that they also listen to people in their call center to get a good sense of callers’ needs. They talk to program directors and facility staff, and gather the most meaningful feedback from patients about their experiences during treatment — what did they like? What could be improved? They even stay in touch with their alumni through a customized app to keep the dialog open and collect even more feedback. The app is also a virtual community where people can share their stories and encourage one another, and it creates an opportunity to support their recovery through content, communication, and connection.
Donna Cusano, former marketing and communications director at WellCare's Collaborative Health Systems and now principal of Allegro Marketing & Communications, agrees that health care could use media and technology in better ways. "Many medical practices are extremely challenged with implementing technology to manage population health and using telehealth and remote patient monitoring to stay in touch with their patients." She told me that older patients may be afraid to go to the office in person now, but they also have issues with using technology and having the right connectivity to reach their doctors in a virtual visit. “Communication channels need to meet patients where they are, on a level where they're comfortable, and at convenient times. It’s not always on social media or a smartphone."
Deven Nongbri, associate vice president of marketing at HCA Healthcare, corroborated the challenges of content marketing, available technology, and having to be on multiple platforms to connect with an audience. "Social media listening becomes challenging because of the need to keep track of who's starting what conversations and what they're saying," he says. He added that there’s no simple answer, or single platform, that solves all these problems.
In digital health, it’s especially important to establish a voice for the user, says Carlo Rich, digital health management consultant, digital health office of Baylor Scott & White Health. He said, "you need to make sure everyone is coming along on the same journey, that the patient is represented and has a voice." He said, "When you live and breathe your technology every day, sometimes what you say about it isn’t easy for others to understand." This is the dreaded curse of knowledge.
Perhaps that’s why the stories and product offerings you develop through empathetic research are so powerful. They provide vivid pictures and relevant solutions instead of complicated jargon and feature-heavy, relevance-light technologies.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor