From Storytelling to Story-making – how Constructing Reference Stories Gives Your Team a powerful 'Reverse Case Study'

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One of the most powerful stories a business can tell is a customer success story. This is usually done in the form of a case study, a narrative crafted to explain how the business solved a problem that the customer was facing.

As you might imagine, case studies are a pretty effective way to connect with your target customer. These stories show readers, authentically and directly, how your solution works to address the pain points of buyers just like themselves. Beyond that, case studies also give your internal marketing team a clear picture of what success looks like to the customers they're targeting.

When you think about the timeline of writing a case study, it may seem like a step that comes after several months of working with a customer, or after the completion of a project that brought your customer massive growth and success. While this may be best practice for external, client-facing studies, we recommend writing a "reverse case study," or reference story, as part of your strategic marketing work – perhaps even before you've had the kind of customer success worthy of highlighting in a "real" case study.

How to write a persona reference story

If you've been following our strategic messaging foundation blog series, then you know the reference story is the final stage of the process. All of the work that you've done up until this point to create and define your personas and their journeys culminates in the reference story.

In this phase, you're going to use your prior research to craft a short, one-page story that brings each of your personas to life. Anybody reading this story in your organization and beyond will be able to get a clear and distilled understanding of your ideal customer and how you help them.

Before you begin, you'll want to gather your buyer personas, your persona journey maps, and your story frameworks/storyboards that you've created in prior phases of this process. Armed with these resources, fire up your favorite word processor and start writing.

Because you've done persona research and you have a good handle on your hero (customer) as an actual person, we recommend being as specific as possible about the details of their story. What is their name? What is their current role and career background? What kind of company do they work for? How did they discover your brand, and what does your company help them accomplish in their work?

Once you have these character details in mind, you'll want to come back to the 3D's we've been discussing throughout this series – that is, desire, difficulty, and denouement.

The beginning of your story should set the stage for the hero's desire. What is it they want to achieve or accomplish? This should transition into the middle of the story, where you explain the difficulty they face in attaining that which they desire. The conclusion of the story, or denouement, describes the solution your hero uses to overcome the difficulty (i.e., your brand!) and reach their desired end state.

It's OK if your first draft ends up spilling into two or more pages, but we do recommend shooting to keep it to a single page (you may need to edit it down). Ultimately, you're trying to create a series of strategic messaging framework assets that provide consistency, clarity, and inspiration. If there are too many words to read, people in your organization may not consume all of the content and miss the point entirely.

As you write your stories, have your value proposition, positioning and messaging framework, and brand narrative all handy to refer back to, as your story's themes and tone should echo this prior work. We also recommend leaning heavily into the character and their emotions in a way that truly brings your personas to life on the page.

You might wonder why you should take the time to write a reference story when you already have detailed information about each of your buyer personas in hand. You already know who your customer is and the journey they're taking with your brand – why do you need to write a fictional narrative on top of that?

The answer is simple: A reference story is just one of a variety of different tools for the various people on your team. Some people want a high-level, strategic view; others are detail-oriented and need the in-depth background to complete the task at hand.

The story frameworks we discussed in our last blog are useful for a quick, visual overview of what your ideal customer story should look like. However, the people on your team who are writing ads, blogs, case studies, web pages, etc. are going to want the level of detail provided in a reference story. Completing this final step of the process fuels this detail-oriented marketing work that needs to happen for a successful campaign.

Beginning with the end in mind

To look at the purpose of reference stories another way, let's consider Dr. Stephen R. Covey's renowned book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). In it, he lists Habit 2 as, "begin with the end in mind."

Beginning with the end in mind requires imagination, says Covey – "the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes." He notes that he bases this habit on the principle that all things are created twice: first, as a mental creation, then as a physical one.

"The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint," Covey writes.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos has followed this same philosophy for years by requiring teams to write a future press release before they launch a new product or enter a new market. This exercise forces the teams to get out of their world of technology and product design and think about what this solution would look like when it's pushed out to market, and how a PR team would communicate it to customers.

Former Amazon executive John Rossman wrote about the efficacy of this "future press release" technique in a recent article for McGraw Hill's Business Blog:

"The future press release is a type of forcing function. Once the press release is reviewed and approved, teams should have a very difficult time backing out of the commitments they have made. A leader can refer to parts of the press release and use it to remind and hold teams accountable. It paints a clear vision to galvanize understanding and commitment. It is a contract."

This is precisely what a persona reference story accomplishes. It gives your internal team a vision of where you want your ideal customers to end up once they've worked with you. It provides a blueprint of how to get there, and a sense of accountability and commitment to make it happen.

By turning the buyer journey into a tangible (albeit hypothetical) narrative about what you can do for your customers, it allows anyone working on your brand's marketing to create the right message for the right person. A reference story gives your marketers an even deeper purpose for their work, as they now have the mission of turning that story into a future, real-life case study.

Shaping your customers' stories

In our work at Go Narrative, our goal is to help you harness the power of storytelling in your branding and marketing. But telling stories is only one part of it; what we have to understand is that story is, on a very fundamental level, how our brain works.

Every single person on this planet is living in their own stories as part of the narrative of their lives. We're going through transformations and dealing with perceived or real villains. We have challenges, like paying the mortgage, getting a better job, dealing with relationship problems. Likewise, we have moments of extreme joy and love. We have epiphanies; we get to the top of our literal or figurative mountains; we cross oceans.

Shaping your companies future

These reference stories – and indeed, our entire strategic messaging framework – is much more fundamental than just serving as marketing inspiration. They explain how your customers think about your business. It helps customers shape their own stories, with your brand as the resource that gets them to the top of the mountain or across their own personal ocean. No matter what you're selling, it's a brand's responsibility to join their customer's story and help shape it. That's story making, and it's what makes story so important.

When you tell a story – specifically, a good story that unites people, as Tyrion Lannister might advocate – you maximize your opportunity for people to remember and understand your brand as part of their life’s narrative. It's why you use story in business from top to bottom, from planning to execution, from leaders down to marketing, sales, etc. It's a fundamental gear in the machinery of business, just like it's fundamental in the machinery of our minds.

We hope this eight-part series on building a strategic messaging foundation has helped you better understand what goes into creating effective marketing messaging campaigns that resonate with your target audience. When you follow these steps in order, you will end up with clear guidelines that can inform any piece of marketing content your team creates. And ultimately, how you engage with your customers.

Want to revisit the rest of the series? Click the links below to learn more about each of the elements you'll need to get clear on your ideal buyers, their pain points, and their journeys – and most importantly, where your brand fits in:

Ready to get started? Go Narrative can help you craft all of these elements and more. Let's talk to find out how we can make your marketing stories more effective.

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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