How to Create Great Stories in Business

February 9, 2019


As executive coach with a focus on marketing, one of the most frequent questions I get from founders and business leaders is:  "How do I tell our story?  We have a great product and amazing technology, but we can't seem to find the right way to get our point across."


Another question I often get is: "Where do we go from here?  What should our strategy be"?


While both these questions are different, they both stem from a similar problem:  A lack of clarity over the vision of the company.


A few weeks ago, I gave a keynote speech at Startup Day 2019, one of the largest Eastern European startup conferences to take place this year.  The audience was a mix of 1,000 entrepreneurs, investors, senior business leaders and government officials and my talk was about the power of storytelling and why it now matters more than ever.  


Later on that day, I gave workshop to a jam-packed room of the same people on how to actually create and tell those stories and I wanted to share that with all my readers here.


So why do stories matter?


For starters, stories matter because we've never had more noise than we do today.  Between social media, TV, billboards, blogs, email and everything else in our lives, there's never been more distraction for consumers.


There's so much noise in fact, that the American Marketing Association estimates that we are exposed to some 10,000 brands every single day!


But it gets better.  On top of that we've seen, somewhat predictably, that we also a have a shorter attention spans.  How short? According to some studies, it's as short as 8 seconds, which is less than that of a squirrel .  It's become so hard to get us away from the multiple screens that we're on, that marketing has never been more expensive.


But is marketing even effective?


That's the other question.  When I looked at some numbers relating to the cost of Facebook ads and compared them to click through rates, the data was really not encouraging as you can see below:



Naturally this was a quarter on quarter comparison of Facebook effectiveness in the US last year, so we can't jump to conclusions and say that social media ads aren't effective.  But when you see cost per clicks (CPC's) and cost per impressions (CPM's) increasing, while click through rates (CTR's) are decreasing, that's not an encouraging sign for advertisers.  


The more interesting question, however, is that although we talk a lot about mobile advertising, social media and search, we're also increasingly talking about the trust that goes into those channels of communication.  


Again, the data speaks for itself.  A post on the Digiday blog back in June of 2017 showed that if we ranked media channels in terms of consumers trust, traditional media still wins the race.  Although they see much less audience, print ads, for example, still were trusted by more than 80% of respondents followed closely by TV.  The most trusted digital media?  Search was cited as a trusted channel by roughly 60% of respondents.  


So as much as we like to talk about where consumers are spending their time, that isn't necessarily a reflection of which media they trust most.


The Magic Triangle


The approach to reaching users and building trust that I shared in Estonia is what I call the Magic Triangle and it looks like this:




The idea is simple:  You start off with a powerful vision that clearly answers the questions of:


1.  Why do we exist as a company?  What's our purpose? and/or

2.  What do we want to look like in the future?  What's our impact on society?


By going through a process and answering this simple question,  you begin to carve out a long term roadmap for you company.


Why is a powerful vision so important?


Let's consider that for a moment when we look at the vision statement of some of the most respected brands / companies:


Nike:  To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world


Disney: To make people happy


Tesla: To create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world's transition to electric vehicles


Notice how the different companies take different approaches. Nike and Disney seem to answer question #1 whereas Tesla focuses on where they want to be.   However, what they have in common is that they are relatively short, clear, ownable, bold and inspiring.


Powerful vision statements provide the companies who craft them immense benefits:


1.  They help align the organization so it can focus on core goals

2.  They provide a clear roadmap which helps eliminate distractions

3.  They inspire stakeholders (employees, clients, investors, partners)

4.  They differentiate the company in the market place

5.  They galvanize the organization when times get tough


Finally, when companies are able to incorporate their vision into their marketing, they can create impactful content, which is the second component of our triangle.  




Once you have a great vision,  you have to bring that vision to life both internally and externally.  In today's marketplace that means creating great content or stories.  


This can be done through blog posts, podcasts, videos, infographics, TV ads, print and a whole host of other marketing materials.  


The essential thing when creating your content is that it needs to answer the following questions:


1. Who is our audience?

2. What pain point are we solving?

3. How are we different?

4. What do we want consumers / clients to do?

5. Are we educating, entertaining or both?


As you begin to think about content, however, there are a number of other tools that you should also incorporate into your thinking before you get started.  These tools will help you develop better content that is more consistent, on message and on brand.  


Here's a slide I shared recently that summarizes some tools you can use to get started.



Brand Pyramid:  I've talked at length about the Brand Pyramid and you can find all the information you need in this post I wrote for INSEAD's knowledge blog.  The Pyramid is an integral part of your brand bible and is vital when deciding how you talk about your brand and what the core essence of your brand is.


Vision Pyramid:  The vision pyramid focuses on answering 3 questions: 


1.  What's your vision?

2.  What's your mission?

3.  What's your strategy?


We've talked about the importance of Vision above, but fundamentally the difference between Vision and Mission is that Visions are long term, aspirational and near impossible future states toward which the company and its founders aspire.  


But while the Vision statement answers the question of "Why?", the Mission answers the question of "How?".  Missions statements are more practical and focused on the medium term, 3-5 years.  They are also changeable.  


The Strategy is even more short term; 6-18 months and even more granular.  It can be focused on launching into a certain market, changing a particular product or even focusing on a specific target audience or distribution channel.  


STEPPS framework:  The STEPPS framework was developed by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger and popularized in his best selling book Contagious - how things catch on.  It's a series of steps or check marks that you can measure your marketing against to assess the chances of your content going viral. 



Here's a good post on what each of these steps entails to give you an idea of how you can improve your content.  All these steps are important, but I would call special attention to E (emotion) and the final S (stories), given how difficult it is to connect with consumers and grab their attention. 


One of my favorite ads that I believe really captures this approach is the one below which has received over 56 million views on YouTube.  Can you identify which steps it makes use of?





The final part of our Magic Triangle is Communications.  This is really the part that's focused on "how" to we get our inspiring, useful and entertaining content into the hands of our desired customer.  We can develop the most exciting, emotional and memorable content in the world, but if we target the wrong audience, with the wrong message, using the wrong channels, we'll waste the content that we've created.  


At this point in the process, this is typically where larger companies are working with their advertising agencies, media buyers / planners and PR agencies to develop strategies to get their message out. In smaller, leaner startups, this might just be a founder or marketing person running ads on social media networks, search and firing out emails.  


Three important considerations need to be held in mind when you think about communications:


1.  Don't guess, test.  Especially in the age of mobile / digital / social, you'll want to test different channels, calls to action / messaging and even different audiences. Don't expect your communications campaign to immediately be a success.  Go out and test different variants and once you find what works, then you can scale/ increase your marketing spending.


2. Use ALL your channels.  Let's say you develop a fantastic ebook.   You want to make sure you use every channel at your disposal.  That means not only using obvious marketing channels like search, email, social media ads, re-targeting and landing pages to capture leads.  It also means making sure your PR team is sharing an executive summary of your ebook with key business press, getting partners to spread the word on social media and even leveraging your sales team to include a link to your e-book in their email signature.  Leave no stone unturned and use every channel you can.


3.  Have a schedule and be consistent.  The best marketing organizations have a long term (at least monthly or quarterly) content calendar where they schedule what type of content they put out and when (day of the week, time of day, channel etc.).  They are also consistent. If you're aim is to be the leader software for hotels for example, you can't simply put out an e-book and then disappear for 6 months.  Develop a schedule and stick to it.  You'll be glad you did.


Stories have been the most tried and true instrument to transmit ideas, knowledge, and entertain us for thousands of years.  In today's day and age of social media, video and mobile,  there has never been more of a need to cut through the noise and engage with customers, partners and investors using powerful, emotional stories.  So go out and develop your company Vision, create a powerful content strategy and marry that with great communications.  It might take time and be painful at first but remember:  Pain is only temporary.  Regret, is forever.  


Enjoy the ride!


mad mork








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February 9, 2019

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