Connect With Each of Your Customers Through Account-Based Storytelling

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We recently explored the idea of a reference story – a hypothetical "reverse case study" that helps your team envision the ideal end result for your target customer.

Case studies, whether real or hypothetical, are often used in account-based marketing (ABM) efforts to deliver the right information to the right prospect at the right time. It certainly makes sense to give your potential client a concrete example of how your business helped another client just like themselves. And a well-executed case study is a prime example of what I call account-based storytelling.

In this blog, we'll dive a little deeper into that concept and show how storytelling can enhance your account-based marketing efforts.

The role of storytelling in ABM

Most of us in the B2B world are familiar with account-based marketing, at least by name. It's an evolution beyond the "one-size-fits-all" marketing campaigns of yesteryear, spurred by increasing consumer demand for personalized experiences with the brands they patronize.

In the simplest terms, ABM is one-to-one marketing, rather than one-to-many. As Megan Golden writes for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, ABM leverages direct marketing resources, such as customized programs and messages, to engage a specific set of target accounts or key prospects. This, she says, ultimately leads to higher revenues in a shorter time frame.

One of the core tenets of ABM is identifying key stakeholders and decision makers for each account or prospect that you target. Automation and data analysis can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you in terms of gathering information about these decision makers, but that's not going to land the sale. You need to get really personal and hand-pick the messages you share with your account contacts.

This is where storytelling really comes into play. ABM involves speaking directly to an individual. It's about developing and nurturing a fruitful relationship with a real human being, not a "company" or a "brand." As I've said in a previous blog, you can't automate trust and you can't data mine your way to relationships. You need a narrative that gives a decision maker a reason to care.

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Crafting stories to reach multiple decision-makers

As you've probably experienced (or at least guessed), ABM can be tricky, because even though the "accounts" you're targeting may all fall into the same broad bucket, you still have to develop relationships with different types of decision makers within each account. If, for instance, you're trying to sell a technology solution to mid-sized businesses, you might speak to a practice owner at one company, a software engineer at another, and a hardware architect at a third. All of these individuals work for the same type of company, but they require a personalized approach that takes their unique perspective and pain points into account.

We do a lot of buyer persona work here at Go Narrative, which involves extensive research to get to the heart of your ideal customer's experience and emotions throughout their journey. We do this because it helps our clients understand exactly who they're talking to, so they can craft the right stories to the right individuals.

So what kind of stories should you be telling each specific account you're targeting? As mentioned above, case studies are a good place to start. The decision makers you're speaking to want to see a story about someone like them. However, companies often struggle with defining that "someone" because there's an infinite number of permutations of what a company can be like. Companies can vary by size, age, product, geographical spread, etc. — there are so many different factors that there's never a perfect, exact fit.

Of course, no one wants that anyway, because every company believes they're somewhat unique. The goal, then, becomes telling a story that's relatively close; relatable enough that your target prospect can envision themselves in your case study story. This story needs to be designed for a specific person, beyond your personas, and should resonate with them deeply.

The art of the possible

Crafting any marketing story is all about the "art of the possible" – that is, showing the type of future your prospect could have by working with you.

There are three main questions to ask yourself when you're deciding which stories to tell in your ABM efforts:

  1. Which case studies do you want to share and why? Think about this holistically. Comb through your existing case studies and find a particular desire or difficulty that's common among your target customers in a specific industry.

  2. What future do you want to paint? The goal of marketing is always to get a customer to take action – buy a new product, renew a subscription, sign up for a newsletter, etc. However, you must paint them a picture of a future in which it makes sense for them to take that action. How can you illustrate that future and highlight the role your product or service plays in it?

  3. What is the most important thing to your customer? In the stories you tell, you need to have a distilled, pointed message up front that leads the horse to water, so to speak. Show your customer that you've done your homework and know that [X, Y, Z] is the most important thing to them. Give them a clear reason to engage with this piece of content.

Once you have the answers to these questions, it's much easier to start crafting effective ABM campaigns that are rooted in story. With account-based storytelling, you can get very specific and tailor your content assets to focus on one specific pain. Large, segment-targeted marketing doesn't give you that same opportunity to tell niche, focused stories that truly resonate with a decision maker.

Keep in mind that the stories you select will affect change and action in your ABM efforts. Each decision maker you speak with will have their own unique response to these stories, so even if you're sharing the same case study with two different prospects, you must be prepared to highlight the correct parts of the story for each one, depending on their wants and needs.

As mentioned above, you need to get extremely personal and, on a very granular level, illuminate the points that will resonate most with the individual target of your ABM campaign.

Enhancing the traditional case study with account-based storytelling

I've always had a bit of a problem with the "case study," at least in its traditional sense. Most of them tend to have a clinical feel to them – almost like a diagnosis.

The common framework around standard case studies is, "problem, solution, benefit." I don't particularly like that. The authors of such case studies tend to gloss over the problem and position it as a technical or tactical issue that directly maps to the product.

Here's a very basic example:

"ACME was having trouble with their storage capabilities. Instead of spending money to upgrade their on-site storage over and over again, they signed up for our company's affordable cloud-based storage solution. Now they don't have to worry about running out of room for their data or paying for extra on-site storage."

Is it neat and tidy? Sure. Does it fulfill the intended purpose of a case study? You bet. Is a potential customer going to read this case study and feel compelled to invest in the company's solution? Not at all.

This format of case study runs counter to the whole point of marketing. It doesn't inspire anyone to take action. It's simply a collection of facts about ACME – Problem. Solution. Benefit.

Yes, your potential buyers do need the facts and the details and product specs…when they're ready to buy. Not everyone is that far down the sales process, and "details" won't be enough to convince them to buy. For early-stage customers in particular, all decisions and movement through their buyer journey is driven by emotion, and you need to appeal to that if you want to keep them moving along.

That's the real issue with the traditional case study: There's just no heart or soul to it. In our most recent blog post, we explored the role of emotions in business and marketing at length, but here's the gist: You're not going to connect with a customer unless you're telling them a story that appeals to their emotions – a story they can really relate to and that truly resonates with their deepest desires (more on that later).

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As an example of how to infuse emotion and story into relatively straightforward "facts," think about crime dramas like Law and Order and NCIS. These police procedural shows take criminal cases – something very clinical and potentially even brutal – and turn them into a drama. They tell stories about not only victim and the perpetrator, but the people involved in solving the case. These shows contextualize a crime and frame it in a way that engages the viewer. It hones in on what the audience really wants: A resolution to the problem (i.e., the crime committed) in the form of justice. By documenting the behind-the-scenes police work, forensics, and court proceedings, these shows demonstrate exactly how that resolution is reached.

That's what a good case study (and indeed, any good account-based story) should achieve. At company-sponsored business conferences, for example, the event team often invites real customers on stage for a "fireside chat" or podium discussion about their experience with that company.

The point of this is to have the customers tell their stories to other potential buyers in the same boat. They want their audience to hear stories about how the company solved a problem for the speaker's business – problems that are rooted in emotion.

And guess what? It works.

Customer testimonials are among the most powerful marketing tools because they're real stories about real people's real experiences. In an Entrepreneur article, author and marketer Derek Gehl explains that testimonials work for three reasons:

  • They build trust by demonstrating a positive experience with your company.

  • They're not "salesy" and come directly from the customer's perspective.

  • They beat skepticism by providing third-party, verifiable proof that your product or service works as you claim it does.

Even when you're writing your own case studies and marketing stories, you can still achieve the impact of a testimonial by doing in-depth, first-party customer research (which we can help with, by the way!). Collecting direct quotes and real feedback from your current and prospective clients gives you plenty of fodder for your marketing content: You can speak your customer's words directly back to them, thus ensuring that you make a profound, emotional connection with them.

Context, Action, Results: Explaining the what, why, and how of your story

When I was writing case studies for Microsoft, we came up with the idea of a customer showcase" – essentially, we showed off Microsoft customers in all their glory and highlight what they're good at. What I like about "showcase" is that it overlaps with the classic case study, but gets closer to the heart of the subject's story.

My framework for these customer showcases was Why, What, and How:

  • Why does the company exist? What is its noble purpose? Why did they start doing what they do? Why do they get up in the morning? Why are they solving this particular problem they've identified in the world? Why do they feel they need to change?

  • What realizations do they come to about their situation? What do they recognize they need to do? What do they start to do to solve this problem at high level?

  • How do they start solving their problem? How does that solution tie back to their why?

I've adapted that model a bit to fit Paul Smith's CAR structure – Context, Action, Results. We're able to map the "why, what, how" to each of these classic storytelling elements, where Context = Why, Action = What, and Results = How.

Going back to our earlier hypothetical ACME case study, we can use the CAR model to flesh out the company's background:

  • Context: ACME is a healthcare company that handles sensitive patient data. Their primary goal is providing the best patient experience possible. They're unable to do that if they have insufficient or subpar data storage capabilities.

  • Action: ACME investigates storage solutions and finds that a cloud-based provider is more cost-effective and easier to manage than continually upgrading their on-site storage.

  • Results: ACME pays less for a scalable, cloud-based solution and can reinvest the time and resources saved back into serving their customers. Theseadditional resources can, for example, help them implement customer success programs and purchase better technology to personalize patient experiences.

What you end up with is a much more compelling story about how ACME solved a problem, which is less focused on the solution provider and more focused on what that solution meant in the context of the overall business.

Before: "Now we don't pay for on-site storage."

After: "We feel confident in patient record security and provide better service to patients. We can use the money we save on on-site storage and redirect it into customer success programs."

It all boils down to your customer's '3Ds'

I often discuss the 3Ds (desire, difficulty, denouement) in the context of marketing, and that's because it's the simplest and most universal way to tell a story. If you're unfamiliar, you can take a closer look at the 3Ds in this post, but if you've been following the Go Narrative blog, you know how useful it can be to define a customer's desire (the thing they want), their difficulty or challenge in obtaining it, and the solution that ultimately fulfills that desire – also known as the denouement.

Models like "why, what, how" and CAR are great, and I do frequently use and recommend them when you're thinking about crafting content. However, the 3Ds go even further than that and wrap everything up in a clear, compelling, and above all else, human story.

Therefore, when you're rolling out account-based marketing campaigns, particularly case studies, come back to the idea of storytelling. What stories can you tell about your customers? What are their 3Ds in each story? Who specifically are you crafting this story for?

Then when you do share these stories, think about your targets' individual experiences and how they might color someone's perception of your stories. What can you do from there to guide them toward a positive decision? What emotions can you tap into, and what details are appropriate to share at this point?

Remember, your company is a supporting character throughout your customer's journey, and your marketing content can certainly highlight that along the way. But remember that your customer's story should always come first.

Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Get attention. Be heard. Sell more.

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