5 questions startups need to ask before plunging into PR

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This blog post originally appeared on VentureBeat.com.  
November 26, 2013 9:30 PM
Linsey Fryatt, VentureVillage
To do PR yourself, or to hire an agency – that is the question. In this piece, Linsey Fryatt, Germany Managing Director of Clarity PR and former editor-in-chief of VentureVillage, gives us a teaser to her upcoming PR workshop and outlines what startups need to consider before jumping into PR.

Kevin Leu, a “PR specialist,” recently penned a piece in VentureBeat about why PR agencies are crap. Thankfully, PR pro Patrick Ward fashioned a response that was much more polite and balanced than I could ever have managed. Incidentally, Leu is also the founder charming startup that lets you rate women (or “girls”, as he prefers) based on how hot they are. On a map. So obviously his expertise on what constitutes groundbreaking branding is in absolutely no doubt.

But his piece does raise an important issue. The biggest challenge I have faced since recently donning the furry robes of PR (having previously been shod in the Hessian trousers of journalism for many years) is explaining to people what a PR firm actually does, and why — especially if you’re a new brand — it’s absolutely vital to have a PR strategy, whether that means in-house, consultancy, external agency or gorillagram.

Your marketplace is crowded and increasingly global. The media landscape is massive and fragmented. Your product is, and should be, the most important thing in your world, but why should anyone else give a sh*t about it? You need to make the world take notice, and in most cases, you’re going to need help with that.

There’s a certain amount of nervousness, especially in the startup world, in hiring a PR agency. And rightly so. Your seed or Series A money is precious, you don’t want to waste a cent on unneccessary or unquantifiable services. When you couple this with perhaps lukewarm experiences with one-size-fits-all PR firms (I assume the ones that Mr Leu might have issue with) and it’s difficult to justify any kind of spend on communication strategy.

My colleague Sami wrote a great piece on the questions you ought to ask PR companies before you hire them, but I’m going to take it one step back. Here are the starter questions that you need to ask yourself that will help you guage whether you need actually need a PR agency or not. And if you do, how to have a more fruitful relationship with them…

1. What do you actually want to achieve?

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away by the first flush of column inches. It’s not enough just to want “to get a piece in TechCrunch.” [Editor: Or VentureBeat!] Do you need to attract investors? Do you need key hires? Do you need a quick increase in user numbers?

Set you key objectives you hope to get from any exposure before you do anything else. From here it’ll be much easier to brief anyone else correctly.

2. What’s your timeline?

Getting scattergun press coverage around product launch is great, but it can be really difficult to follow up. I see many companies enjoy an initial spike of interest and then drop completely off the radar in those critical following months. Think about your product timeline, and consider how you want to knit a full communications strategy into that plan.

3. What’s your budget?

Have an idea of what you are willing to spend, considering the factors above. Whether that’s an external agency fee, human-hours within your company or a completely new hire. If you’re going with an external agency, then look for ones that don’t just offer standard retainers, but also ones that are willing to offer project-based work. That way, you can see how they perform around a single task.

Also realise that it will involve a spend to do this properly. Communications and marketing should be built into your budget and not just added as an afterthought once your product is market-ready, especially if you’re a B2C product.

4. What’s your story(ies)?

What three words describe your company values? Would all your team give the same answer? Spend half a day internally nailing down your core qualities. From there, it’s much easier to begin working on the rest of your communications.

What’s your context, what do you do differently? What voices can you add to a discussion in your market? What’s your story? And who are you telling it to?

This is where the fresh pairs of eyes at an agency can give a new perspective. Ask an agency for a handful of ideas in their pitch. At the very least it will demonstrate that they “get” what you’re doing and you can gauge their creative fit.

5. Who else is doing this well?

Which companies in your space are suceeding at this? And why? And do you have a robust angle or statement as to why you are different? Journalists like to have a product placed in context (“we’re the Airbnb for dogs”) but also the justification as to why you’re offering something different to the market.

Linsey will be hosting a workshop on How to Communicate your Brand on 11 December with VentureVillage. Click here for more details.

Read This Before Blaming Your PR Agency For Lack of Coverage

ImageOn behalf of PR agencies everywhere, thank you Amy Westervelt for your recent tell-all post on why startup companies need to stop pointing fingers at their PR firms and instead learn more about how editors and journalists do their jobs.

Amy is a freelance writer/editor/author and frequent contributor to business publications like Forbes, the WSJ, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company among others. In her post, “Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works,” Amy’s shares nine things about the media “that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.”

One of the bigger challenges PR firms face in working with startups is the clients’ often unrealistic expectations when it comes to media coverage.  The combination of ego, drinking of the Kool-Aid when it comes to their offering/product, pressure by investors, over sensitivity as to what the competition is doing and general ADHD-related behavior can be toxic when it comes to building a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and startup.  Add in the factor of a client who has a fundamental misunderstanding of what compels a journalist to write an article and you have a recipe for disaster.

Any engagement with a new client should include a period of expectations setting that includes how agency and client are going to work together (roles & responsibilities) to achieve the desired results of the communications program.  It’s during an expectation setting session, which should happen in the first week of a new relationship, when the agency account team should be able to find out how much the client actually knows about how the media works.  If the client is a startup, chances are the principals have limited exposure to the media and taking them through a primer would be invaluable to the relationship.

Ms. Westervelt makes a number of great points in her post, and I encourage you (if you’re a PR pro or a client) to read it in its entirety, but for now I wanted to spotlight a handful of her points.

Editors are important.  Freelancers are your best friend. So true. Freelance journalists are more prevalent and more influential than anytime in recent memory.  Unlike a staff writer, a freelancer like Amy may write for several publications. They can make more money by repurposing one article so that it might run in multiple publications, albeit with a different angle and fresh content.

The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient.  Another great point here. Just because your PR firm was able to set up an interview with a journalist for you doesn’t mean that journalist is going to run right back to their office and bang out an article.  “Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to,” Amy says.  The worse response by the agency is to harass the journalist to find out when the story is going to run “Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails.”

Stop worshiping at the altar of print media.  I think it’s still largely true that a print article is held in higher regard than an online-only piece.  Amy, however, says clients should thank their PR people for getting them mentioned in Time.com blogs.  “You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office,” she says, “but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.”  Print stories still carry a ton of weight, then again, who buys TIME anymore?

And finally …The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it.  Like you, I’m pretty tired of reading the press release is dead stories.  They’ve been showing up for years, yet thousands upon thousands of press releases are issued everyday in the U.S. though Amy maintains that “No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you.”  Really, Amy?  Members of the media still look to news releases to keep current on companies and their financials, business trends and for story ideas, among other reasons, including to occasionally mock PR people.

Otherwise, I think Amy’s post is spot on and I wouldn’t hesitate to share it verbatim with any startup.  Would you?

What Brand Ambassadors Can Learn from Honor Guards

American FlagHave you ever watched a U.S. military honor guard fold the American flag at a veteran’s funeral?  If you have, did you notice the honor guard’s striking appearance and presence, their laser-like focus on the task at hand, their dexterity as they expertly folded the flag 13 times until it took on the appearance of the hats worn by colonists during the Revolutionary War? And how they held the flag when they presented it, once it was completely smooth and its corners tucked in and it was perfect, to the survivors of the deceased?

No pun intended, but an honor guard does not cut any corners when it comes to the ceremonial folding of the American flag, when it comes to doing their job as perfectly as possible or when it comes to presenting the brand they stand for in the best possible light.

This week, at a funeral for the father of a good friend, the friends and relatives who stood outside in the cold to say their last good byes also witnessed a brilliant display of workmanship and brand ambassadorship, thanks to the honor guard.

To start the flag folding ceremony, the two young guards pulled Old Glory on each end until it was taught and then held it steady as possible waist-high.  With the flag now rippling in the breeze, the guards — making only eye contact with each other — began the methodical 13-step process they have rehearsed countless times.

Though skilled in their job there was no hurry in their actions, no distractions or multitasking at play, no desire to cut a corner.  Just the will to respect the deceased and his grieving loved ones. But also the desire to live the brand they hold so dear — and to do so perfectly.

Precision, attention to detail, professionalism, engagement and commitment to their brand. That’s what I saw in the U.S. military honor guard at William Joseph Casey’s farewell.

They are everything any organization could want in a brand ambassador.

Boston to Bill Maher: A Simple Apology Gets You off the Hook

A simple apology, done with meaning and quickly — like today — gets comic/satirist/political commentator/HBO “Real Time” host Bill Maher out of a jam for his rather thoughtless comments last Friday about the Boston Marathon bombings.

You’ve likely heard by now how Maher, on his HBO talk show “Real Time,” seemed to minimize the physical and emotional toll last April’s bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon had on the region.

Perhaps it’s just because he doesn’t live here, but Maher completely failed to grasp how the Boston Red Sox and the team’s unlikely and successful march to and through the World Series helped to pick up a grieving region and accelerate the healing process.

When a few Red Sox players placed the World Series trophy on the Boston Marathon finish line during the team’s victory parade a few of weeks ago, it was if the region’s stages of grief and suffering had come full circle.

But Maher doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he said that while the day of the bombings was a “bad day, three people died, that’s terrible.  More were maimed <Bill, it was actually 264 maimed>, that’s horrible, but unfortunately that happens every day, in car accidents and everything else.  I mean, your city was not leveled by Godzilla.”

He’s been criticized for his comments by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, by a number of newspapers (here’s a taste of what the far right is saying), and on Twitter by even the most fervent of Boston fans, like this one..

Jessica Britt ‏@jmacbritt14 Nov

@billmaher, love you, but disappointed by boston marathon comments. Parade route was where bombs were, meant a lot to our city…..

So Bill Maher gets paid to be controversial, like a shock jock.  On this particular issue, though, he overstepped the bounds of decency.  But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on his miscue — that he didn’t mean what he said and that he regrets it.

Tonight at 10 p.m. ET, Maher is on live TV again.

It’s Maher’s chance to redeem himself. A simply apology will do.

Avoid These Four Agency Client Types at all Costs

boat for saleYou may have heard the expression popular among some boat owners:

The two best days of being a boat owner are ‘the day you buy it’ and the ‘day you sell it.’

Others use a similar expression. Like those who have purchased a vacation home they never have time to enjoy.  Or that convertible as a full-time car (if you drive in New England).  I’ve heard some hackers on the golf course say the same about their Titleist blades.

And it’s been said on many occasions in the PR agency world; on those occasions when a new client turns out to be everything the agency hoped they wouldn’t be – when the two best days are the day the agency wins the client’s business and the day the agency fires that client.

A boat.  A second home. A roadster that’s to die for.  That shiny new client. All seemed like great ideas at the time. All looked wonderful from the outside. And then the honeymoon ends…and you’re in it for real.

For better or for worse, things we learn in life are often learned through trial and error. While we may try to not repeat the same mistakes over and over (there’s a definition for this type of behavior), we sometimes do.

Unlike the regretful boat owner who is typically one and done, PR agencies have histories of chasing bad client after bad client, deluding themselves into thinking that this time things will be different because they will “control” the relationship and not let the client run roughshod over them.

What do I mean by “bad’ client?  Well they come in many shapes, sizes and disguises.

There’s the client whose initial budget is below the agency’s minimum monthly retainer but promises that the budget is going to increase after the first three months or when the next round of funding comes in.  Three months come and go … another three months come and go … etc.

There’s the know-it-all client who has never worked with a PR agency before but skimmed the Public Relations for Dummies Cheat Sheet which has a section entitled, “Convincing Editors to Print Your Press Release.”  Seriously.  This client knows just enough about PR to be dangerous but still doesn’t make the distinction between an article written by an actual journalist and a news release replayed verbatim on one of those free press release web sites.

Of course, there’s the client working at his third start-up, the first two of which had successful exits and were media darlings and who is expecting and demanding the same level of media interest for his also-ran entry into the dying market du jour.

And finally, there’s the worse client type of all: the one who hires you and then disappears expecting the PR program to run smoothly without them having to pay any attention to it now that a firm has been hired.  You know the type … they make a living of hiring and firing agencies as a job protection ploy.  They blow off weekly check-in meetings, rarely return your phone calls or email pleas for information but are fast to get in your face when their company is left out of a story.

But they are happy to take credit for any positive results the agency does manage to generate.  When that happens, it’s time to sell the boat.  Don’t you think?

Rebuilding a City’s Reputation, Brick by Brick

BrickIf the out going mayor of the city of Lawrence, Mass. thought about Warren Buffet’s famous quote on reputation — “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” — then William Lantigua might have done things differently.  Maybe.

For nearly four years Lantigua has been the mayor of the besieged city of Lawrence and its 80,000 souls squeezed into a puny seven square miles that sit just south of the New Hampshire border in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts.  For several decades leading up to the middle part of the last century, this once proud urban center was a leading manufacturer and exporter of textiles and a significant wool processing center.  Its glory days came to a rather abrupt end in the 1950’s when the need for cheaper labor moved to the southern states.

Since then, the city has endured decades of fits and starts; effort upon genuine effort by buoyant officials who would begin their elected terms with bright promise and optimism only to find that once the celebrations and the honeymoon were over that most were in over the heads.  Leading a city like Lawrence, better known recently for its high unemployment, poverty, gang violence, a beleaguered school system and corruption among city officials than it is for being a great place to raise a family or start a business, isn’t a job for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.  Ask the parade of mayors who preceded Lantigua. While one can easily argue about the success of their administrations, it’s more difficult to argue about whether their hearts were in the right place or not.

However, the same can’t be said for Lantigua or his administration during which ….

  • he was sued by the state’s attorney general for allegedly violating campaign finance laws,
  • his former chief of staff and deputy police chief, appointed by the mayor, faced criminal corruption charges,
  • a close ally was found guilty of bribery, obstruction of justice among other charges, and,
  • his ex-campaign photographer was indicted for allegedly stealing proceeds from the city’s parking garage where he worked.

Earlier this week, following his failed elected bid for another four years as mayor, Lantigua repeatedly refused to address the election results in any great detail, instead letting his lawyer do most of the talking.

Lantigua has almost single-handedly tarnished the reputation of a city that was trying OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmightily to fight its way back.  He has scared away investors, long time homeowners, and businesses.

Now he has what is perhaps the biggest decision of his life to make. Does he demand a recount from this week’s election which he lost to challenger Daniel Rivera by a mere 60 votes?  Does he dig in his heels and drag the city though the angst of an unresolved election?

Or does he, just this once, have what it takes to truly lead and begin to rebuild his own tainted reputation by conceding the election, congratulating Rivera and leading the smoothest possible transition from his administration to the next so that the city of Lawrence can pick up where it left off four years ago?

It’s up to Lantigua on how he wants to be remembered.

David “Big Papi” Ortiz’s Timeless Leadership Lessons

COV_BigPapi(5)From the Boston Globe to USA Today to SportingNews.com, writers across the country are paying tribute to David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox (my home town team) for his on-the-field heroics.  At age 37, Big Papi is tearing up the MLB’s best pitchers and as one scribe reports, is “turning back the clock.”  And never at a loss for words, the Sox slugger responds with just the right hint of humility: “I’m the dinosaur here.”

That’s just Big Papi being Big Papi.

The fact of the matter is that Ortiz is anything but a dinosaur.  He’s a player a few scouts said was on the decline just a couple of years ago.  But he’s also a player who since then has essentially reinvented himself by making the training room his off-season home, by burning off his love of the good life by running laps in the park, and by turning to a healthier diet … and then by letting his bat do the talking on the field.

This week, Ortiz is leading his team to (hopefully) its third World Series championship in 10 years. But it’s not only his behavior on the field that has earned him leadership status. It’s also what he says and does off the field, whether it be in the club house with his teammates, in the training room building strength, in front of the cameras talking to fans after a game, or his off-camera work with charities, that make him a role model for corporate leaders.

Here are four Big Papi traits execs sitting in mahogany row can learn from:

Lead by example.  Big Papi doesn’t just talk about wanting to win.  He properly prepares and rehearses to flawlessly execute his plan.  He works harder than most to be the very best at his job and when he sees his skills beginning to deteriorate, he goes back to drawing board (the batting cage in his case).  He never asks his teammates to work harder than he’s willing to.  He simply sets the bar and then hurdles it.  Simple.

Leaders as change agents who inspire.    First a leader has to be trusted by his/her employees (or team).  It’s the same with customers. Customers trust people and not necessarily companies.  It’s only when trust is established that a leader can become a change agent.  Remember how the Red Sox responded in game four of the World Series following Big Papi’s inspirational dugout pep talk mid-game?  “David Ortiz rallied us together,” said teammate Johnny Gomes following the Red Sox win.

Strong leaders choose their words carefully.  Great leaders understand the power of their words and their tone.  A CEO addressing a struggling organization at a company meeting can galvanize or demoralize the troops.  A confident “we will overcome these challenges together and here’s the plan” delivery always trumps a punitive one.  Last April 20, on the heels of the Boston Marathon bombings, Big Papi “unofficially” reclaimed the City of Boston for its residents with his famous Boston Strong speech at Fenway Park. He delivered the right words with the right tone at just the right time.

Great leaders wear their passion on the outside for all to see.  Steve Jobs.  Tony Hsieh.  Jeff BezosRichard Branson.  CEOs known for their passion.  Name a professional baseball player who loves (and has as much fun) what he does as much as David Ortiz?  His passion, like that of Jobs and others, is absolutely contagious.

Any ideas for other Ortiz leadership traits that corporate leaders should emulate?

Go Sox!

Time for Global B2Bs to Ditch the Herd Mentality

survivorU_following_the_herdNavel-gazing sessions and working at a big B2B company have always gone hand-in-hand. But it looks like many of the big B2Bs are getting it all wrong when it comes to brainstorming key messages and positioning statements that will resonate with their customers.

You might say, as did the Captain in the movie classic Cool Hand Luke, to Luke:  What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.

According to an in-depth B2B brand building study by McKinsey&Company involving Fortune 500 and DAX 30 companies and over 700 executives across six sectors, many of the brand messages customers value most are least mentioned by the companies they buy from.

A few highlights from the survey that are worth calling out:

  • there’s little connection between a brand’s influence on its customers and themes such as social responsibility, sustainability and global prowess – yet these are key themes that many global brands use in their positioning statements
  • brand themes that customers value most — “effective supply chain management and specialist market knowledge” — are rarely mentioned by the companies, and this little beauty…
  • the brand theme customers consider to be most important from their suppliers is “honest and open dialogue.”  But sadly this theme was not emphasized at all by the 90 companies included in the survey’s final sample.

What the…?

Several years ago at a navel-gazing session I participated in while working at a global PR agency, we looked at the key messages and positioning statements of our five largest competitors.  The team was asked to review the brand themes and key messages of the competing global agencies and to compare them with those of our firm.

As you might imagine, it was difficult to determine one firm from the next.

The follow the herd mentality is also prevalent, it turns out, among global B2B companies. According to the survey:  our analysis showed a surprising similarity among the brand themes that leading B2B companies emphasized, suggesting a tendency to follow the herd rather than create strongly differentiated brand messages.

The McKinsey authors — Tjark Freundt, Sascha Lehmann and Philipp Hillenbrand — give props to the IBM Smarter Planet branding campaign as a truly differentiating effort, one that communicated distinct and powerful external and internal themes that connected with the company’s range of key stakeholders — marketing, sales and R&D employees, customers and other influencers.

For an excellent and recent overview of the IBM campaign, check out Edward Boches’ postBoches, a partner at Mullen, calls Smarter Plant “a perfect case study for any of us working on comprehensive brand content programs as it has all of the components…”

As the folks at McKinsey advise, global B2B companies would be wise to closely monitor shifts in their markets and among their customer base and work harder to better align their brand themes with the changes.

Boches points out that while most companies aren’t capable of producing a campaign as grand as Smarter Planet, it remains “a solid example of taking a core business idea and bringing it to life in the form of lots of little ideas, distributed content, attention generating experiences, utility and platforms, and social engagement that invites participation.”

Size Matters When It Comes to Picking a PR Agency

090831-SmallMediumLarge-4651Public relations agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are holding-company owned with offices in 50 countries or more and thousands of employees.  Others are independent and mid-sized with a handful of offices and perhaps a hundred or more workers. And of course there are scores of founder-run, single-office firms and boutique consultancies with anywhere from three to 50 staffers all working under one roof or virtually.

While all of these agency types often compete with each other for the same prized piece of business, they can be very different in their approach to new business, client service and relationship management.

For the prospect, deciding to work with a one-office firm or a large agency with an office in every major U.S. metro area can be a tricky decision as agencies have grown adept at becoming chameleon-like. For example, a smaller agency may try to present itself as bigger and more “scalable”  than they really are when pitching a potentially big client. They will bring up that they work with “partner” agencies all over the world allowing them to send your message out globally.  And a large agency may attempt to present itself as nimble and flexible (with pricing and programs) when pitching an emerging brand with limited marketing dollars.  They will bring up the fact that they have specialized teams working on smaller programs and the promise that you won’t be a small fish in a big pond.

Blah blah blah.

Ok, so perhaps there are a few instances where both the large and the small agency can get the same job done well.  But typically, this won’t be the case.  So to help you decide, here are a few guidelines to mull:

  • if yours is a global company, then hire a global agency with global branded offices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring in a boutique for specialized work as well. But in my experience, the various global networks of independent PR agencies are better suited for project vs. ongoing work.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s difficult for one agency (the AOR) to control and manage the quality of the work that another agency in another country is doing for a client.
  • if it’s important that agency principals pay close attention to your account, then hire a boutique. Even with many mid-size firms, you won’t see the firm principals very often once the contract is signed unless you insist on it or have a previous relationship.  In most cases, agency principals are too busy running the business to pay attention to client service until something goes wrong.
  • if you are an emerging brand with limited PR dollars to spend for the foreseeable future, hire a boutique or mid-size agency.  Big agencies are working hard to penetrate the emerging brands market, especially in tech, but until they figure out how to make money on small budgets it’s still largely a work in progress for them. Generally, if you’re an emerging brand, the sense of urgency and enthusiasm and attention you’ll get from a smaller firm will outshine that of a big agency (at least once the honeymoon is over).
  • if prestige and name recognition is important to your CEO, then hire the global agency so he/she can brag at the next cocktail party that his PR agency has offices in 75 countries even though the client only does business in three of them. Just remember, someone has to pay for all that overhead.

A More Human Model for Product Storytelling

Reblogged from MarketingProfs I Kathy Klotz

by Kathy Klotz-Guest

October 16, 2013

Humans are wired for stories; we’re storytelling animals. The resurgence in storytelling, the original social medium, is an important and welcome evolution for many reasons. Memorable stories scale in a way that facts alone cannot. And a multiplier effect is critical in marketing. Finally, stories cut through the tremendous clutter—much of it lacking context and meaning—created by the never-ending content explosion. Here’s where stories pay dividends: According to a recent Stanford study, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

In a world of noise, the best stories win.

From Product-Centered to Story-Driven Content

The most important thing any organization can do is become a storytelling organization. That means elevating your product or service discussion to one that focuses on the human needs of your audience.

It all begins with telling the right stories about real people who use your product or service and not focusing on the product itself. Your best stories are not about your products or you. Your goal is to tell a bigger story that makes your customer the hero.

Customers are doing their own research, and they’re asking the most important question: How will your product or service make my life better? If your marketing fails to elevate the discussion to one of change for the better, you’ll never rise above the din.

Getting Started

One of my favorite models for getting started with storytelling comes from improvisation—one of the most powerful ways of co-creating stories. It’s also that classic and fun universal bed-time story model that you’ll recognize from movies. I’ve used this model as an improviser on stage and as a marketer. Recently, I used this approach in several storytelling sessions I gave at Product Camp Silicon Valley 2013.

What I love about this particular model, called the “seven-step story,” is that you can easily adapt it. This approach covers all the key elements of a story, and it works for just about every type of story a company can have: a core purpose story, product stories, origin stories, and others.

Here’s the model for product/service stories told through the lens of your customer:

Once upon a time, <customer name> was doing…

And every day, he or she did <big challenge he or she has>…

Until one day, he or she discovered <enter the solution: your product or service>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 1>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 2>…

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 3>… (You don’t need three, but three is the maximum you want. Shorter stories are more powerful.>

And every day since that day, he or she uses <your product or service> because it enables him or her to <big human need>…

Show How Customers’ Situations ‘Change’

The most important part of a story is showing how the hero/protagonist of the story changes. What can your customer do now because of your product or service that he/she could not do before? That’s story rocket fuel.

Your product or service must make your customers look good. (They are the hero; your service becomes the supportive sidekick!)

Start thinking bigger than your product by focusing on what people really want: time, freedom, success, recognition, enhanced reputation, self-reliance, stability, belonging, safety, reduced risk, acceptance, security, credibility, and so on. Think about Abraham Maslow‘s famous “Hierarchy of Needs.”

No one needs your product or service. What they need is the change that your product or service allows them to make! And you don’t have to be saving lives to claim real value. You must aim for credibility, however. Great stories are built on a foundation of truth. And if you are in need of inspiration, ask customers, “How did we make your life better?” And make it personal. The best product stories are.

Here’s a brief example applying the model to Company X:

Once upon a time, Bob, a company owner, kept numerous files in various locations.

And every day he had to update information in many places because he did not have the data in one secure place to be able to work remotely. It was a huge pain in a number of ways.

Then, one day, a friend introduced Bob to Company X’s cloud-based data services.

Because of that, Bob could securely access data anywhere, anytime wherever he was.

Because of that he was able to get more work done quickly and easily and without worrying about compromising data security.

And every day since that day, Bob’s organization uses Company X because the ability to access data “anytime anywhere” securely has reduced his risk, ensured data freedom, and freed up his time to do what does best: run his business and spend time with his family—not with his IT department.

Customers Buy Stories, Not Products

Company X delivers its service via the cloud. No one needs cloud-based services, but the cloud is how Company X delivers its value. What matters is that the product allows users to do something (bigger than the product) that they could not do before. In this case, Company X enables information freedom, simplicity, security and freed-up time.

Your product story is always about the people who use what you sell and how their lives are better. When you focus on products and features—on you, instead of your customers—you are playing a small game.

Elevate your marketing. Products come and go; a deep commitment to changing customers’ lives for the better—something bigger than any company—must be an unwavering purpose that provides meaning. That’s the change your stories must focus on if they are to resonate emotionally with your audience, be memorable, and create compelling calls to action.

That’s my story. What’s yours? Email: Kathy(at)keepingithuman(dot)com