How do you help buyers learn more about your business? The answer is content. Lots of it. Content on your website. Content on other people’s websites. Content that can be mailed out. Content you present in person. Written content. Visual content. Video content. Aural content... The list goes on.
But in a world of 4.5+ billion web pages, what can you do to make your content stand out? Well, aside from SEO, the answer is to create the best content you can. In this article we’re going to look at how to create engaging content, starting with storytelling techniques and covering content for every stage of the customer journey.
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Storytelling is hardwired into human DNA. It’s how we learn, it’s how we teach – it’s basically how we communicate with each other. The best stories last for generations, engaging new audiences with each retelling. As storytellers, what are we looking for when we recount that time we bumped into a celebrity at the airport, or scored the winning goal of a crucial game, or got rammed by an angry sheep? Engagement. A reaction. Envy, awe, pant-wetting laughter – something that tells us our story has hit the emotional nail on the head. It’s a dopamine hit and an ego boost – even if the event the story stems from was a painful one! Sharing our stories and having others reflect back our desired response makes us feel understood, and for communal beings like us that kind of validation is incredibly powerful.
Great stories change your brain activity, making you more cooperative.
When it comes to sales, we can use storytelling to help our customers feel understood. By ensuring they can see themselves in our stories, we let them know that we get their challenges – we know what pains them. And by following through with a happy ending for the character that they recognise – or a cautionary tale, if you prefer – we also show that we know how to help them, and that we have helped others.
As well as character, plot is a really important element of storytelling. Setting the scene, the build, the climax – it all serves to hold the audience’s attention so that you can make your point in a way that they will remember. And if you’ve done a good job, they should remember it long after you’ve finished speaking.
So let’s break down the art of storytelling to give a brief look at how salespeople can use stories to win customers.
Whether you’re giving a presentation or writing a case study for your website, your first thought should always be your audience – the customer who you hope will listen or read. They’ve landed on your website or agreed to listen to you talk because something about your offering speaks to their need. Your job when you write that content is to crystalize that feeling and help them discover exactly how it is that you could serve them. The best way to do this is through character and setting. By including a character that they can relate to, or a situation they recognise, you’re drawing them in – because, let’s face it, everyone likes hearing about themselves.
The best way to create rich connections is by telling and listening to stories.
When you’re creating a sales presentation, you can do this by using the story of an existing or fictional customer who shares common traits with the customer you’re going to see. The same applies when you’re creating content for your website, or for handouts. Of course, in this case you won’t always know who is going to be reading. That doesn’t actually matter. If you’ve got your messaging right you’ll be attracting people who fit your ideal customer profile and likely fall into one of your buyer personas. Just make sure you have content that appeals to every buyer persona.
When we look into stories to find characters we recognise, we’re not searching for characters who look like us. We’re looking for characters whose lives are like ours. Their aspirations are like ours. Their pain mirrors ours. So when you’re building character into your stories, you don’t need to worry about describing physical appearance, just focus on the traits that are most relevant to your customer. And remember to keep it brief – this is more like flash fiction than a Harry Potter novel. An example:
Ted was the marketing manager of an SME in rural California. He only had two people in his team, and they had a lot on their plate.
With only two sentences and very few details, we’ve established a base to build on. This story would suit customers who are marketing leaders in small businesses – or even in large businesses but in a small marketing team. What we’re hoping to achieve is some empathy with poor Ted. I feel you, Ted. I have a lot on my plate, too. Another example:
Joni was the manager of a large team of mostly field-based salespeople. She felt like she was constantly nagging them to update the CRM.
Managers of field-based sales teams, or managers of any sales team who find the CRM is out of date – this story is for you.
It only takes a few details to spell out who the story is about, and therefore who its intended audience is. Throughout the story you can emphasise their challenges and their emotions to engage your audience and elicit a reaction.
The quality of connection that results from storytelling is deeper, more lasting, more resonant
Character and plot are intertwined. Even in the two brief examples above the second sentence tells you where the story might be going. Ted has too much on his plate. Joni is fed up of nagging. Is that enough to convince your audience they needed a change? Probably not. Let’s add a little drama by using what storytellers call the ‘inciting incident’.
The inciting incident is the moment the characters lives are thrown into disarray, with the result they must go on a journey (metaphorical or physical) to restore order to their world. Your inciting incident could be something catastrophic that forces a change, or it could be the culmination of lots of events that lead your character to breaking point. (Think Falling Down with Michael Douglas.) Either way, you need your audience to feel that inciting incident as if it were their own. (In fact, you need them to imagine it is their own.) Do that right and you’ve got them on the hook. What kind of change do they need to make?
In conventional storytelling, what comes after the inciting incident is a whole lot of will they/won’t they building to an exciting finish. In sales storytelling, you don’t have that kind of time. Once you’ve established the motivation for buying, you need to outline all the benefits of that decision, culminating with a happy ending: some good results. When we say benefits, we don’t mean a bullet point list of features and benefits. It needs to be personal. There needs to be emotion. How does Ted feel now that he has help with his workload? What does it mean to Joni to no longer spend time nagging those salespeople? Those emotions are what drives sales, not features.
People don't buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons.
As for happy endings, this is the part of the story where it’s worth including some figures and/or a direct quote if you have one. These give credence to your story and act as an exclamation mark to all the other benefits you’ve described.
We’ve established that if you want people to read what you’re writing, you need to use emotional language, insert characters and settings that your readers will recognise, and use the storytelling structure to reel the reader in and keep them engaged.
But how do you know what content to put out in the first place? Many brands make the mistake of only providing product brochures. A couple of pictures, some bullet points and a few paragraphs of (probably) tech-heavy language. It may do the bear minimum in helping people understand how your product works, but it’s unlikely to make them feel anything. We have a few ideas for the basic content you need to start a sales conversation in our white paper, but when it comes to online content, here are a few go-tos.
Everyone loves a case study. It does exactly what your customer story in your sales presentation does: it shows the customer that others were experiencing their same challenges, and how they overcame them. Always a winner. Just make sure you write like a human, rather than a robot. Even if you’re writing for Nobel prize-winning scientists, you don’t need to write as though your website is an academic journal. Use emotive language where necessary to highlight the emotional motivations for buying.
Data only activates two parts of your brain. Stories activate seven parts.
A blog allows you to write about your industry, about the market, to share tips and insight, and to generally show up in your space as a business worth knowing. It helps customers (and Google!) identify you as an expert in your field, as well as to give a voice – and personality – to your brand. In all likelihood, the customer relationship will begin with your online content, so make it friendly and approachable, in the hopes that one day you will be approached.
Video is big news. Great for showing up in search and easy to consume, it’s definitely an important part of your content mix. Use video content in the same way you use blogs – and as an even easier way to show a bit of your brand personality. And of course you can also use video to showcase customer success stories and demonstrate how your product works. Visual information is a lot easier to digest than written product brochures.
In his book, They Ask, You Answer, Marcus Sheridan answers this question pretty succinctly. Basically, your content comes from the questions your customers are asking. ‘What is...’, ‘How to...’ – these are the kinds of questions people might type into Google when they’re researching solutions to their problems. Your job is to answer those questions in such a way that when they are ready to pick up the phone and call someone, they choose to call you.
Increasingly, those questions are becoming more detailed – and more personalised (‘...for me’, ‘...near me’). Your content should reflect that desire for a more tailored approach by specifying both who your solution is for and who it is not a fit for.
Whatever content you post online should be accompanied by a CTA – or Call To Action. This is exactly what it sounds like: it’s you asking the reader to do something. It could be to sign up for your newsletter, contact us for a demo, download our white paper, read more about a certain topic, register interest in an event, like a post on Facebook, share it on LinkedIn, subscribe on YouTube – you can see, the opportunities are extensive.
CTAs are important because if you’ve captured the reader’s interest, you should take advantage of the opportunity to field them around your website. Show them more content that might take their fancy and of course get their details so that you can enter into a dialogue with them.
Your online content may also be suitable for repurposing into sales collateral - i.e. materials that sales distributes to customers in meetings, by email or at events. Case studies are an obvious place to start and easy to repurpose. (Don’t forget you can take elements of these to use as the customer stories in your sales presentation!)
Blog posts can also be useful collateral - particularly if you’re tackling those ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ questions, which will help your customers to better understand your offering and where it fits into their business. Rather than pointing people to a web page with a super long URL, create PDFs and documents that are easy to share and nice to look at. Store them in your content repository and file them well so that you always know where to find them - according to some sources up to 90% of marketing material goes unused because salespeople don’t know where to find it.
Businesses are increasingly moving away from a product-centric business model to a customer-centric one. The attitude is one of: It’s not about what we sell – it’s about what you need. This transformation has a whole series of ramifications, but key amongst them is a greater awareness that the customer journey is not a straight line. In fact a happy customer is your best lead generation tool.
What this means for content is that we can’t be satisfied with just putting out resources that aim to build brand awareness. More content is needed for every stage of the customer journey. This includes detailed product information (put in context using storytelling techniques – not just in a brochure), reviews, comparisons, etc. for the later stages of the decision-making stage, as well as continued content for a better after sales experience. How can I make the most of this product? What are other people doing with it? Hacks, tips, tricks, more case studies – all this content helps ensure your customers really are happy. Because happy customers share their successes with others.
We’ve created this helpful graphic to remind you of the kinds of content that work for every stage of the customer journey.
Thanks for reading this guide to creating engaging content. If you found it useful, please share it with your friends and colleagues!
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