The Importance of Storytelling in Marketing

This week I was reminded of a proverb an IBM marketing exec, Sandy Carter used to have in her email signature:

Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
The most common problem I see in smaller companies is the inability to describe what they do in  simple language (read my post on that here). The second biggest problem is bringing that description to life with stories.

I’m sometimes surprised at the great stories I hear from companies that aren’t being told in their marketing materials.  Sometimes I think it’s because smaller companies are afraid that storytelling will come across as unprofessional or they don’t think the it’s appropriate to tell them in anything other than a face to face meeting.  I disagree with that.  A story can be a really powerful way of illustrating the value of you product and In my experience is often the way that your prospects and customers will explain what you do to others.

The great book Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath discusses at length what makes some ideas “sticky” and others not and talk about 6 Principles of Sticky Ideas.  One of those is “Stories” but the other 5: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility and Emotions, can all be applied to answer the question – What makes a good product story?  I’ve taken a stab at my list of good product story characteristics below.

Characteristics of a Good Product Story

  1. Clearly illustrates the product’s unique value – A great story that illustrates the value of any product in your segment isn’t all that useful.  It needs to highlight the differentiating value of your product.
  2. Short, and easy to tell and memorable – You want sales folks, marketers, and customers to tell the story.  They won’t be able to do that if it is difficult to understand or overly long.  Keep it short and to the point and people will be more likely to remember it.
  3. Relevant to your target customers – The story needs to be highly relevant to your target customers.  Telling a great story about a customer outside of your segment isn’t all that valuable.
  4. Illustrates measurable, concrete results – The results or the “what happened” part of the story needs to be concrete and ideally quantifiable.  General statement like “improved productivity” don’t have the punch of “saved a million dollars”.

There are a lot of different kinds of stories that can be told about a product.  Most companies think of customer success stories first but there are a lot of other great stories I have heard that work well to illustrate value and are very memorable.

Different Kinds of Stories

  • Customer Success – I’ve read a lot of bad, boring customer case studies that have clearly been written because someone somewhere had a case study quota to meet.  One great story is worth a dozen sleepy  case studies in irrelevant segments with ho hum results where the customer says things like “we were satisfied with our choice of product x”.  I once had a customer say (on video no less) that our product was saving his company “A million dollars a day”.  That story was used more than all of the other stories I produced the rest of the year.  If you have a clear idea of what kind of story you want you will be more likely to find it.  Making sure that you have regular customer contact will also help increase the likelihood you’ll come across a great one.
  • Competitive Win – These are great stories to highlight how you are better than others in the segment.  They also tend to be memorable because there is a bit of drama built into the “Us vs Them” storyline particularly if you won over a much bigger competitor.  I generally don’t use a competitor’s name directly in the story but see no issue in naming names in a face to face meeting.  At one startup I worked at, one of the best stories we had was around a deal that we won, then we lost (our competitor brought in their famous CEO to kill the deal), and then we won it back (the competitors product didn’t work as promised).  This was not a story that we could put down in paper but you better believe the sales reps told it every time they came across that competitor in a deal.
  • Product Creation – These are often great stories to answer the question “why buy this solution from us?” These stories let you showcase your knowledge of the segment and how you identified an unmet customer need.  It also gives you a chance to showcase how your company works with customers and your company values.

The last point I want to make is that any story gets better when you have had the chance to tell it over and over again.  I think it’s a great litmus test for customer stories to actually tell it a couple of times to someone.  You will know right away if it doesn’t work if you can’t make it work out loud.

Here are some other links around storytelling that I like:

There are a couple of posts on Garr Reynold’s excellent Presentation Zen blog on Storytelling that I love. Robert McKee on the Power of Story summaries the wisdom of the famous screen writer and Ira Glass: Tips on Storytelling shares the radio personality’s version of what makes a good story.

I love this essay The Six Stories You Need to Know how to Tell by Annette Simmons.  It’s a great primer on storytelling as an art form.

Lastly Gaping Void has a great interview with Seth Godin where Seth makes the point that “Great Leaders Tell Stories”

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72 thoughts on “The Importance of Storytelling in Marketing”

  1. 100% agreement. Once upon a time I worked for a company who had a great salesman. We couldn’t figure out why he was so successful – he was using the same slides as everyone else.
    When we went to see him in action we quickly realized that he wasn’t using the slides – they were up, but he wasn’t referring to them at all. Instead he spent the time telling stories about other customers and how they solved their problems using our products.
    The audience loved it – he was a great storyteller. In the end, he had a skill that no other sales team could duplicate…
    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    http://www.TheAccidentalPM.com
    “Home Of The Billion Dollar Product Manager”

  2. Excellent points! Customer stories play 3 important roles for startups, or any company for that matter. They provide credibility (real customers that are happy), education (here’s how it works) and validation (show a specific impact).
    Thanks for the related links too.
    Casey Hibbard

  3. So true. There’s simply no better way to connect. And I think that means more in today’s economic climate, too. That “comfort level” and sense of “knowing” is more than just a tie-breaker for customers/clients.

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  22. Thanks for this April. Stories/storytelling seems to be growing more important as an organizing principle for marketing communications. I find stories a lot more helpful than “brand.”

    Brand: Artificial personality for a fictional entity
    Story: How people communicate; the original viral media

    When people can spread a story worldwide with a click, it pays to get it tight, memorable and compelling.

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