4 Essential Ingredients in Consumer Storytelling
As a CEO, I have the good fortune of hearing lots of amazing stories from our consumer communities. There’s one story in particular that holds a special place in my heart.
One of our clients, a well-known pharmaceutical company, collaborated with a private online community of patients who were suffering the debilitating effects of a disease. To get to know these community members more intimately and understand the particular challenges they were facing, our internal team of community managers assigned members the task of writing a letter addressed to their disease.
The patient community was overwhelmingly receptive, and the letters poured in. One of them was so heartfelt, so honest, so descriptive of what it’s like to live with a serious disease, that our client felt compelled to share it with her colleagues across her organization, all the way up to the CEO. With copies tacked to their walls, employees viewed the letter as a touching reminder of why they came into work every day and a moving expression of whom their business is meant to help.
I often hear from our clients that what they really want from us are more stories. For businesses, transforming complex consumer data and experiences into powerful narratives can resonate across the entire organization. Storytelling is a synthesis of all sources of customer information, not just one person’s account, however inspiring. High-impact stories pique the interest of decision makers and alter our perceptions and assumptions, revealing the real meaning behind the information we have learned. And by allowing businesses' decision makers to better understand their customers, stories provide needed insight to help move business confidently in the right direction.
Here are four ingredients essential to creating consumer stories that truly inspire businesses to action.
1. Get personal and build relationships.
Some of the most memorable stories are those shared among close friends and family, because we feel comfortable enough with each other to genuinely open up. The same can hold true for a business and its relationship with consumers. Trust, honesty, and, above all, sincerity are essential to fostering strong consumer relationships. It’s amazing the rich perspectives consumers are willing to reveal--their hopes, dreams, secrets, unmet needs--if you earn their trust and provide a safe way for them to share.
2. Plan deliberately and explore from different angles.
When crafting a consumer story, you need to plan for it early in the game and explore the challenge you’re trying to solve from different angles. Employ techniques that get under the surface and encourage consumers to express themselves and their feelings about brands in ways they may not have done otherwise.
For example, rather than asking customers simply for their opinion on a new candy bar, we might ask them instead to create a recipe for their ideal candy bar (mine would have lots of peanuts in it), or we might have parents use their mobile phones to film their child’s reaction to the candy bar in the grocery store. Using a variety of methods to build the story narrative reveals new truths, unmet needs, and ultimately business opportunities.
3. Use human intuition to find the story that matters.
Once we’ve sorted through all the data and gained a full understanding of the consumer’s world, it’s time to begin the distillation process. This is something that can only be done through our unique human capacity for reasoning. We can approach finding the story deductively, pulling out the key themes and trends emerging from all the information at our fingertips, or inductively, sorting through the information to discover if our original hypothesis is accurate.
Once distilled, the story that emerges is truly relevant to the business. We use our human intuition and expertise as a compass, guiding us past the clutter and noise toward only what is relevant to business strategy.
For example, U.K. telecom Everything Everywhere (EE) already knew that customers loved their mobile phones. But only after hearing consumers share personal stories of those dreadful “uh-oh” moments when they dropped their phone in a toilet or lost it in a taxicab did EE truly understand that it wasn’t the physical phones that people cared about, it was everything inside them: pictures, funny videos, personal contact lists, important meetings, and amusing text exchanges with friends.
EE execs intuitively related to that sinking feeling of losing precious memories and information in an instant of human error. Out of this understanding was born the Clone Phone, EE’s service solution to data backup, storage, and even phone replacement guaranteed within 24 hours. The new service was an instant hit; more than 250,000 Clone Phone subscribers signed up in the first six months.
4. Evoke emotions that inspire action.
A story must be felt, not just heard, if it is to be remembered. We humans are empathetic creatures. We have a shared understanding of interpreting stories, and we can revel in the feelings they elicit as a result, together.
In a business setting, a story may be delivered in many different formats, depending on its complexity and the information available to craft it. But the goal is always the same: evoke emotion and connect with your audience on a human level. Once internalized, consumer stories can reach across organizations and empower executives and employees alike to take action and move businesses forward, which in turn better serves the very consumers by whom they are inspired.
DIANE HESSAN is the Chairman of Communispace, a consumer collaboration agency she helped found in 1999. To date, it has launched more than 700 communities and in 2012 was rated the fastest-growing company in its industry. Diane is co-author of Customer-Centered Growth: Five Proven Strategies for Building Competitive Advantage.
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