March 25, 2015

Marketers tell stories, but it's what happens next that really counts

From story to customer experience

Telling stories in content marketing is all the rage these days. And that's a good thing, no doubt.

The principles being followed are

People don't want to be sold to anymore, and
People love stories.
Both true, at least when it comes to awareness, branding, and top of the funnel.

Let's step back a bit.

A Very Brief History of Digital Content Marketing

Starting in the late 20th Century, digital technologies and the internet broke down a lot of the information asymmetry between buyers and sellers. When a person wanted to get educated about a product space or to get references on product experiences, no longer was the easiest route to call a bunch of sales reps. Between web search, forums, blogs, social media, and other online media, information became much more directly accessible.

So marketing, first in the form of SEO, then with digital Content Marketing, adapted to meet the challenge. Sellers realized that if buyers are searching and finding the information themselves, they (sellers) had better publish the content that gets found first. In the beginning, it was the same old "market-y" content, littered with the right keywords to beat the search process.

And the world gets flooded with marketing created content. Some good, some still the same old selling wolf in sheep's clothing. Still, the Darwinian selection of search rankings, ratings, social sharing continuously culls the herd, more or less efficiently.

As it gets harder and harder to stand out among the good content--and keep in mind it's resource intensive and expensive to be "a publisher, not a marketer"--something new is now needed to get found, get read, and get shared.

It is no longer enough to be useful, informative, and keyword optimized. You have to tell a story. A compelling story. Not enough to plainly state your value, you have to show it with a story.

Necessary but ...

So stories are effective, even necessary, to marketing. But are they sufficient to meet the business goals? Are we done when we're telling great stories?

Are we done when we're telling great stories?
I mean, story has been around in marketing and advertising forever. "They laughed when I sat down at the piano ..." was a story. The Hathaway shirt guy with that eye patch told a story, without saying a word!

So what's different now? What's the bigger picture here?

It's the customer experience (CX)

By the book, customer experience is the sum of all the experiences a person has with a company, brand, or product--from how they hear about it, who they interact with, how they try it, how they buy it, how it arrives, is packaged ... you get the idea.

What we're focusing on here is that aspect of the sum experience that differentiates your offering in a memorable and positive way in order to drive competitive advantage.

Story plays a role in queuing up that experience. But unless your product is literally a story--movie, book, TV show--story is not the whole experience. (And even then, it's really not all of it, as the experience lives both before and after consumption of the specific story-product.)

Customer experience starts with a brand promise. Then the entire customer experience has to support the brand promise. In turn, the customer experience circles back and influences the future brand promise.

This requires an explicit change in the way branding, marketing, sales, storefronts, customer support, IT, and so on work together to deliver a positively differentiated customer experience.

The CMO, the Brand, and the CX

An impediment today is that CMO's and their marketing operations remain largely focused on acquisition. This acquisition bias is over a known winner like customer retention and certainly over a company-wide, consistent implementation of CX. Even with the story telling mantra of today, marketing leans toward transactions, not conversation and experience. Just look at the metrics and the tools that dominate execution and measurement: Visits, conversions, retweets, marketing automation.

But without a brand strategy and marketing to pave the road and put up the guardrails for it, CX is fractured. Parts of customer experience report to different department heads, and not everyone is marching to the brand story. Ideally, brand strategy lays out the road map, marketing tells the brand story, and CX delivers the brand promise. They all march to the same tune.

All of CX might not report to the CMO. But the CMO has to lead beyond Marketing to ensure that the customer experience matches the promise.

And what of story?

Story, like the rest of marketing operations, is about setting the expectations for customer experience with the brand. Better storytelling leads to higher expectations.

Be careful, though. If you don't first organize around a consistent, brand-driven CX operation, telling great stories risks the creation of a bigger gap between expectations and actual experience.

So Marketers, tell those stories. Just remember, it's what happens next that really counts.

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