Saturday, December 17, 2011

Drive Revenue with Storytelling

Business-to-business marketers are redefining the idea that “content is king.” Yes, content is still critical. But today, successful brands are finding that the most powerful content tells a story. All our lives we have learned from stories. As children, stories were read to us. As adolescents, we read stories to learn and imagine. As adults, we experience stories in a variety of media to escape and relax, be entertained, enhance our knowledge and better ourselves. Marketers know that good stories can help build loyalty, solidify culture and solve problems, but the degree of success comes down to execution: telling the right stories, in the right way, in the right context.

The same elements that go into that novel you cannot put down or the favorite movies you want to watch over and over again are also what make up an effective business or brand story. A good story is authentic and creative. It makes an emotional and personal connection with its audience. It inspires interaction. Consequently, good storytelling in business communications takes a different tone than the traditional “sell.” It takes the audience on a journey with the brand.

Most companies are already using storytelling in the form of testimonials and public relations outreach. Refocusing those stories to generate revenue is often simply a matter of repurposing and crafting existing content. Storytelling works because it allows companies to dramatize their message, creating an experience that resonates with target audiences, much like in a play or a movie. It puts audiences at ease and engages them with the human side of a brand, creating an emotional connection. It leads the audience to a desired action, whether that’s altering behavior, changing lives, or spending money. In short, good storytelling is effective because of what it is not – a dry data dump or intrusive “sell.” Rather, it allows audiences to become immersed in the story and, ultimately, the brand.

The objective of any marketing communications message is to drive the audience to some sort of behavior change or action. The key to changing behavior is fourfold:

• Clarify your message. What do you want the consumer or audience to do? Are the message and the resulting targeted action crystal clear?

• Confirm why action is important. Why does your audience need to act? What benefit does it provide?

• Explain how you want the consumer to take this action. What steps does your audience need to take to complete this action?

• Confirm how the audience will know when they are acting out the changed behavior correctly and what is in it for them. What will be the audience’s reward?

Crafting a message to include these fundamental elements, both creatively and subtly, is the key to ensuring that the audience does not feel sold, but instead is lead down a storyline path that arrives at the destination, or desired action. Using a dramatic curve will help translate an effective marketing message into a business story that resonates with its audience.

Traditional stories include a beginning, middle and end. Compelling business stories are also constructed linearly. But, unlike purely entertaining or informative stories, these stories add one more element to the structure – a call to action. This is what is unique to storytelling in business. Business communications also follow what is called a “dramatic curve,” a four-act structure which leads to resolution and ultimately to a call to action.

Crafting your brand story begins by considering how you want it to end. What is the desired outcome? How do you want your audience to feel about you? What do you want them to do? What are the specific next steps that you want them to take (act, interact or change)? And how are you going to measure the results?

Successful business-to-business stories develop a path that will get your audience to take action. To create an effective story, marketers offer this advice:

LISTEN: To be a good storyteller, you need to be a good listener. Know your audience, their attitudes, beliefs and concerns.

BE PERSONAL: Create messages and build stories that respond to the specific needs of your target audience.

INSPIRE INTERACTION: Encourage your audience to engage with your brand.

CONTINUE TO LISTEN: While your story is being told, watch for reactions and encourage audience feedback.

THINK AHEAD: Set the stage for future “chapters” of your story.

Stories are more than just words. Audiences want to see, feel and touch the brand. But what’s the best vehicle to achieve this for your brand?

Advantages: Audiences are already conditioned to pay attention, unmatched sight and sound experience, scalability and reach across the nation
Challenges: Lack of traditional conference amenities, no breakout session facilities

Advantages: Audiences are already conditioned to pay attention, proven impact on decisions
Challenges: Crowded space, high expectations for quality and speed, expensive, DVR gives audiences more selection on what to watch and what to tune out

Advantages: Easy access to information, encourages interaction
Challenges: Multiple distractions, lack of personal engagement

Advantages: Encourages interaction
Challenges: Time-consuming, expensive, does not scale

Advantages: Content/messages can be tailored to the user’s needs, creating a more relevant conversation
Challenges: “Everyone” is there and it is crowded, easy to lose someone in just one click, low commitment

Corporate communications are not isolated from the rest of one’s personal experience, and neither are business stories. When considering the right vehicle to tell your story, these factors should be evaluated:

• How your audience will view the story – alone or in a group setting
• Time of day – morning, afternoon or evening
• Environmental factors – location and distractions
• Social factors – economical and political conditions, holidays
• Food and drink – meal or snack
• Broader societal setting – elections, economy, etc.

No matter what the industry, product or service, there are stories in every company or organization that can be told to help get the message out and acted upon within your budget. Like the National Guard and Kleenex, there are stories that can be told according to your vision – simple and cost effective, or extraordinary and elaborate. Storytelling can help generate revenue.

As your brand evolves, business objectives shift, and new initiatives are planned, you have new opportunities to engage audiences with future chapters of your brand’s story – a time to present new stories with new calls to action. Increasingly, people are accustomed to receiving information in short bursts. They demand more value with less time invested, and storytelling is no exception. Stories need to be efficient and get to the point in today’s information-overloaded world. Some trends to watch include:

• More short story options versus sharing the whole message all with one story
• More user-generated stories and resulting management challenges
• New ways to engage audiences used to multitasking

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