Use Story Frameworks to Transform Your Traditional Product Marketing Into Storytelling
If you've taken the time to conduct thorough, detailed customer research, you already know who you're selling to. You know what their pain points are and how your company can solve them. You know their exact thoughts and emotions at each stage of the customer journey. You even know what kind of content will best speak to your buyer personas based on their current circumstances.
This iterative process has helped you develop a clear messaging strategy that will help you better understand the people you're trying to reach. Now it's time to bring it all together in a story framework – a structured "storyboard" format that communicates what you're seeking to achieve for your specific target personas.
The point of a story framework is to help you sequence your marketing messages in a way that maximizes audience engagement and retention. Your storyboards will also help you craft your reference stories in the next and final step of your strategic messaging foundation.
We'll discuss that further in a future blog, but for now, let's talk about how to articulate the beginning, middle, and end of your personas' experiences with your brand.
The 3D's: Our universal story framework
We've talked a lot about the 3D's (Desire, Difficulty, Denouement) in past blog posts. We love the 3D model because it's something anyone can understand and relate to, even those who don't consider themselves storytelling experts.
First, there is a desire. This is something we want to achieve. We know it and have expressed it; it is an explicitly understood issue that we are motivated to resolve. It's possible that our desires or wants are unknown to us until someone points out a need, or something that we haven't yet recognized is lacking in our current situation.
With every desire comes a difficulty in attaining it. There is always something that stands in the way of getting the thing we want. Sometimes that difficulty is specific – it's an immediate and direct roadblock that can easily be removed with the right tool or guidance. Other times it's a situational issue, where a confluence of factors impact our ability to fulfill our desire.
Finally, we have the denouement, or the conclusion. This French term, often used in creative writing, describes the solution(s) that help us overcome the difficulty. It is the end result of achieving our desires, and how we are better off because of it.
Through the lens of a customer's experience, the 3D's might look something like this:
Desire: I want to better engage my customers by leading my company to adopt a modern, advanced CRM solution
Difficulty: I don't have the expertise or resources to do it myself
Denouement: I find a vendor who serves as a partner and provides the education and tools I need to achieve my business goals and navigate this complex topic.
Using this simple framework as your basis, you can then map out a more detailed storyboard that captures how your brand helps someone solve their difficulties and arrive at their desired end state.
Storyboard basics: context, action, results
Another way to look at the sequencing of your storyboard is Context, Action, and Results (CAR), a concept introduced by Paul Smith in his book, "Lead with a Story" (2012). In the first blog of this series, we touched on CAR and how it ties into your brand's value proposition and promise to its customers.
Like the 3D's, CAR makes for a great, easy-to-remember structure that can work for any narrative. It gets a little more nuanced and is rooted firmly in classic storytelling. As a quick recap:
Context sets the scene and describes the main details of the story. For our purposes, this is the customer and their current landscape, market, and challenges.
Action describes what the customer does because of the context, including any pushback they might get.
Results explains how the customer adapts to their situation and comes out on top. This part is the outcome of the story and the lesson you can take away from it.
Your story framework breaks down into these same three sections. Here, the CAR structure represents a persona's chronological path of working with your business. Each section is then further distilled into its own three "buckets" to help you better understand the customer's story.
Beginning / Context (Desire)
The context, or beginning, of your storyboard should highlight the hero. Focus on your customer and get as specific as possible. You can use your prior persona research and buyer journeys to inform this step.
Second, what transformation does the hero go through? What is the desired change? Consider where they come from and where they are going.
Thirdly, what does the hero want? What explicit or known, wants and desires do they have? Again, refer back to your persona research. For all of these elements, aim to keep it as simple and clear as possible.
Middle / Action (Difficulty)
For the middle or action section, you're also going to have three components. Firstly, you'll want to go more in-depth into your hero's problem. Maybe there is a specific villain or visible direct difficulty that exists for your customer. This might relate to their sense of purpose or meaning. Furthermore, is there a sense of morality to the situation? Is this something that is wrong that must be made right?
Secondly, who or what is a guide in solving the problem? Of course, it's your product or service! But be careful – focus on the customer and what you've learned about them based on your persona work. Empathize with your customer. Look to your brand narrative for inspiration on the "why" of your product or service. Think about how that can be stated in a way that resonates with them.
You should also pull in some of the proof points you laid out in your positioning and messaging framework. You can then use the persona research as a filter to prioritize which handful of things are worth mentioning at this point (and by handful, I mean one to three things, max. Focus on the big, impressive stuff!).
Thirdly, what plan can you provide your customer with that, if followed, will help them achieve the transformation they desire? Maybe there are specific steps that they need to take – spell those steps out. How does your customer navigate their way to success and avoid the pitfalls of failure? And, referring back to the morality aspect of the hero's problem, what is the shared morality that you have with your customer? What mission are you ultimately both on? Position yourself as working together.
Results / End
The three components of the results (end) section sum up what happens for your persona once they decide they need to take action. First up is a call to action. Give them something tangible they can do to take the next step on the journey with you. It might be as simple as clicking to buy your product, or it might be a more complicated purchase that requires them to do something else that will move them forward on the journey. Look to your persona journey's for the right information to include at this point.
Secondly, you must reinforce why all of this is so important to them. Every story is about transformation, so what happens if they don't transform? And of course what happens if they do – what success can they achieve and what failure can they avoid?
The third thing here is the denouement – the conclusion; the summary. It's time to wrap it all up by positioning their transformation in a way that also articulates how you helped.
Traditional product marketing vs. storytelling: Why marketers need story frameworks
Part of the reason I'm so passionate about story frameworks is that they directly led to the creation of Go Narrative.
I've been interested in telling stories for a long time. I've written two science fiction novels and have kept a daily journal about my life since the early 1990s. But it wasn't until 2012, when I became the Chief Storyteller for Microsoft Dynamics AX, that I was able to merge my passion for storytelling with my technical and product marketing background.
I was charged with turning highly technical product marketing messages into powerful stories that customers could relate to. It seemed simple enough – I had plenty of experience in storytelling. But as it turns out, it's really hard to apply that to a business situation.
Why is it so difficult? We get trapped in what authors Chip and Dan Heath call "the curse of knowledge." When you live and breathe your specific area of business expertise, you become immersed in the language of that field. You become fluent in acronyms, technical terms, and other industry jargon. When you go to speak to your customers, the concepts and phrases you use may be confusing at best or incomprehensible at worst.
That's why marketers tend to get so wrapped up in details when they're crafting content (and herein lies the "curse") – they incorporate so many product details and business terminology in an effort to make their audience understand, when all they're doing is losing people in vague statements about "efficiency" and "value" and "customer service."
The Heath brothers recommend stories as the antidote:
"Stories … work particularly well in dodging the curse of knowledge, because they force us to use concrete language."
Ultimately, it is a clear, concrete, human story that makes marketing effective. It all needs to be distilled down into a relatable narrative that people can understand and connect with.
As Jonathan Gottschall reminds us in "The Storytelling Animal" (2013), human beings are hardwired for stories. Stories, he says, help us navigate life's complex social problems and bond with others around common values. That is the secret to good marketing: It's not about the product; it's about the human being – the "hero" of your story – who uses it.
As I worked to help Microsoft craft human-focused stories, I did tons of research on different story frameworks and how to structure these narrative elements. Many of them were far too complex (Pixar story artist Emma Coats created a list of 22 "rules" of storytelling – a great list, but twenty-two rules!) and, again, suffered from the curse of knowledge. So, from all of this research, I distilled it down to a simple, seven-point checklist that every story should have:
Heroes (the customer)
Villains (real or metaphorical)
A cast of characters (who was involved? customers, partners, colleagues, etc.)
Conflict, suspense or tension (the challenges, the opportunity, the old systems, the pain being felt)
Inciting incident (what broke it the old system?)
Call to action (what the customer did to change things. Also becomes the "projection" opportunity for a person reading the story – this where we inject your product as a supporting actor who can help)
People transformed (the benefits that were realized, how the people changed, how they were better in their business, how they staved off disaster or solved world hunger)
Through this process, I realized that if someone like me – a person who intimately understands storytelling – was struggling to figure out how to apply story to product marketing, how could a business leader figure it out? This thought planted the seeds of Go Narrative, and today we help businesses craft and tell stories effectively through the proper customer research and story frameworks.
Storytelling is a lot simpler than we might make it out to be. We live in a world that's saturated with complexity, so it's a natural assumption that crafting a story has to be more complicated than the 3D or CAR framework.
The reality, though, is that these simple story structures are what works. We must distill our personas' experiences down to these basic elements – desire, difficulty, denouement and context, action, results – to help our audience make sense of it. With a storyboard, you can frame out your narrative and deliver it to your customer in the most effective way possible.
Next steps: Laying the groundwork for future stories
We've covered a lot of ground in our strategic messaging foundation series. The next and final step is crafting reference stories for each of your key personas. The story framework we've just walked you through is the bridge between the traditional branding and marketing work we've done up to this point, and these stories that bring your personas to life.
The elements you define in your story frameworks can be used to create all kinds of marketing content – short form, long form, blog posts, videos, whitepapers, case studies, etc. Everything you produce will ultimately come back to the basic questions of: what does the customer want, what stands in their way, and how do they achieve it?
Remember, if you're not creating content for your audience with story at its heart, you'll fall down in the final mile.
Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Our secret sauce is storytelling for business growth and transformation. We can help you cut through the noise and improve your reputation. We love helping business leaders understand, use and apply storytelling in business via writing, presentations, video, strategy and actionable plans. Get attention. Be heard. Sell more.
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