Marketing is about storytelling. All the tools of the trade are in service to this goal. A marketer should know how to get the story, even when (especially when) there doesn’t seem to be much of a story to tell. There’s only one way to become good at it, and that’s to do it, again and again.
Around 1992, I was working for a midsized company that built multiple listing services for real estate. (Today it might be called a cloud-based PaaS company.) We were about to roll out a desktop product that real estate agents could use to set up their own reports. One of our customers—a regional board of Realtors—asked us to create a promotional campaign to encourage the product’s adoption among their members. This task was assigned to me.
Leveraging my childhood love of comic books, I decided on a trifold self-mailer with an upbeat agent-as-superhero theme. I wrote the copy all in rhyme; the designer illustrated it with a caped action figure that, our corporate counsel agreed, didn’t look too much like anyone in the Justice League. The account representative showed a mockup to the assembled board and read the copy aloud. It got a standing ovation.
About five years later, I was a marketing manager at an IT benchmarking consultancy. The company, though well respected, was small and faced a number of deep-pocketed competitors. Moreover, too many thought we were in the business of selling reports. We weren’t—we sold ways to improve data center efficiency, the report was merely the conveyance. But our say-so wasn’t persuasive enough.
As a result, the PR manager and I began to create articles and white papers that showcased examples of our consultants’ knowledge. (Today, we’d call this thought leadership.) We’d each dream up an interesting-sounding topic relevant to our capabilities, do some research, interview a subject matter expert or two and then write the piece. Soon our company boasted a modest library of thoughtware.
One day our top consultant…I’ll call him Kyle…stopped me in the hallway. A client needed help selling their IT performance improvement initiative internally. Kyle offered to write a business case about it for the low, low fee of $30K, thinking the client would say no. The client said okay. Kyle had a draft, but it was a tangle. Would I take a shot at it? I did, and left a revision on his desk a few days afterward.
The next morning, Kyle entered my office and extended his hand. It took me a moment before I realized he was inviting me to put ‘er there, pal. We shook. I had no idea why. Mind you, this was a guy whose maximum level of social interaction ordinarily consisted of a “Yo” and a nod. He looked happy. He was happy. The client got their business case, and we got our $30K.
My next, and longest, gig was with a multibillion-dollar professional services firm. This firm’s market reach was so broad that for any given line of business, the most productive source of sales leads was other lines of business: Better than half of all engagements came from internal referrals. At the same time, services were so specialized it was hard for practitioners to understand much of what anyone did outside their own practice.
Traditionally, practitioners approached internal education by thumping a 200-slide deck o’ death about their service onto a colleague’s desk, causing foundations to shake and birds to take flight. At this point one of two things generally happened. The colleague idly flicked a corner of the deck, then decided to not mention the service to his client but say he did. Or—almost worse—the colleague hefted the deck, took it to the client, and brazened through a presentation of this unfamiliar area on his own.
Around 2003 the firm created a service offering to address a growing market for security and privacy. I was assigned to create the marketing and communications program. The team had a deck o’ death, but that was all. I stared at it through narrowed eyes and thought, “This ends now.”
I created a narrative of the most salient aspects of the service and condensed it into a sales cheat sheet titled “Security and Privacy Services at a Glance.” (Today we’d call this a solution brief.) Then I distributed it among the team for review.
Shortly afterward, I received an email from one of the principals. I was tracking leads, and she wanted me to know about a meeting coming up with a client she’d sent the attached brochure to. What brochure? I clicked on the attachment and glanced at the red copy in the header: “FIRM CONFIDENTIAL—FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY.” My cheat sheet!
I called the principal. Didn’t she know it was just a draft? “Sure,” she replied. “I didn’t have any changes.” But…but it was supposed to be an internal document. There were sections on how to target and engage potential buyers. Didn’t that look weird to her client? “I guess not. He’s interested.” They had their meeting. She got the sale.
For my last stint as an employee, I again found myself at a middle market technology company. This one developed and sold business intelligence software. Soon after I joined, management decided to create a cloud version of its traditional on-premises product.
With enterprise software—as with any complex good or service—prospective buyers look for examples of live applications to help them gauge a product’s potential in their own organization. But existing customers don’t like to disclose vendor relationships, and seldom discuss use cases, until their projects are in full production. Consequently it can take a year or longer to develop references for a given solution.
This time, the company didn’t have a year. The market was maturing quickly. Competitors were mobilizing and analysts were watching. Rather than wait, I wrote blind case studies of five customers who were doing interesting things on our company’s cloud. Then I published the stories so that our sales team and prospects had something to work with.
One by one over the next eight months, the five granted us marketing permissions. Four agreed to endorse their success stories on our website, at user conferences and to the media. And the fifth customer? They determined the project was too strategic to publicize; the story had to remain blind. But they promoted their internal project manager, recognized the project team with an innovation award and expanded their application from 800 to 3,600 users.
So there you have it. Four stories about storytelling.
For over 20 years, I’ve helped accounting, consulting and technology professionals who wanted to grow their businesses but feared their offerings were too dry, too technical and too arcane to engage a popular business audience. “We’re just a utility,” they say. Or: “We’re spreadsheet jocks.” For them the marketing communications process, no matter how refined, was always a leap of faith. In they went as skeptics—out they came as believers.
I’ll make a believer out of you, too.