Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Power of a Story Well Told

Good agencies employ great storytellers. Good stories capture attention, build trust and credibility, and often evoke an emotional response, all worthy goals of any marketing communication. In Seth Godin’s book, All Marketers are Liars, he adds credence to this argument in suggesting that effective marketers don’t talk about features and benefits, but rather they tell compelling stories — stories people want to believe.

Good storytellers develop a deep, rehearsed understanding of the key elements to be masterfully woven together and delivered in engaging fashion. Good marketers immerse themselves in the products and services offered by their clients. This intimate understanding teaches the skilled marketer the key messages she will use in communicating the client’s story. The master storyteller knows well her audience. This knowledge is used to shape and cater the story. While speaking from a common platform, the storyteller is adept at catering and delivering her message in terms with which the audience can easily and personally relate.

During this past presidential campaign this concept was on display almost daily. Famously, Joe the Plumber became the hero of John McCain’s story to America. The candidates shaped their stories to appeal to diverse groups such as unions, corporate executives, coal miners, and even Hollywood, while the platform or underlying message remained largely intact. To a citizenry feeling unprecedented concern about their future, a simple story of change was compelling enough to make history in this country.

When the master storyteller delivers the right story to the right audience, the results are often powerful and memorable.

So, savvy marketer, tell stories about the impact going back to school will have on the lives of those that do. Tell stories about protecting those you love most with a security system. Tell stories about the sheer joy and escape of spending Saturday afternoons on the lake in a new boat. Hey, it may not be Moby Dick, but told well these stories will generate a whale (sorry, I had to) of a response.

One final note about storytelling. A wise mentor once taught me that good advertising is often about telling only half of the story. You tell the whole story upfront and you’ve taken away my incentive to ask “what comes next” and then follow up to find out (the coveted response part of advertising). The half told tale is the tool of the master storyteller.

Monday, November 17, 2008

4th down...what's the strategy?

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the idea of what marketers will pay for versus what is truly driving the value and delivering results.

I'm a huge football fan and have coached my son's little league team for the past three years. It's taught me a lot about the importance of planning and strategy. In a game earlier this year, we played a team who hadn't lost a game in nearly three years. As biased as I am towards our players, no one could reasonably argue that we had better athletes than this team. In fact, they had better athletes at nearly every position. However, we had one advantage, speed in our backfield and a quarterback with a very strong (albeit sometimes inaccurate) arm for his age. Myself and the other coaches spent time reviewing reviewing film from our competitors previous games (did I mention this is 7th grade city league football? I know, I know) and discovered a weakness in their defensive approach we thought we could exploit. I'll spare you the play-by-play, but a hotly contested and close game came down to one final drive. We had the ball and were moving the ball but the drive stalled on the 50 yard line. We had a 4th down and still almost 10 yards to gain with the clock winding down quickly. We called time out and huddled as a coaching staff to discuss our options. Going back to our original game plan, we determined that we wanted to take a shot down the field and try to get our fastest and best receiver in isolation out of the backfield. Fortunately, we were able to execute the strategy perfectly and completed a 50-yard touchdown pass on the game's second to last play. We went on to win the game by 4 points.

Great story, I know, but where's the connection to the world of marketing? Well, going back to my opening line, my experience is most marketers undervalue strategy and overvalue implementation. So often, the implementation is the tactical manifestation of the strategy and so it becomes the "deliverable" the client can see and experience. However, in a world where marketers hire agencies to deliver results, ultimately, no matter how good the execution, if the strategy is flawed the desired results are rarely achieved. But the creative was so well designed and the client loved it. Sure, they loved it right up until the moment it started running and then the phone didn't ring and the clicks didn't materialize. Why? Well, in some cases the answer (and the blame) goes back to a plan that was inherently flawed. Great strategy, in contrast, can work even when the execution isn't always picture perfect.

Some coaches may tell you it's not the Xs and Os, but the Jimmys and Joes. It's also true that coaches salaries frequently pale in comparison to those of their players. The truth is, in sports and in marketing both the strategy (coaching) and the implementation (player performance) are important. Marketers who learn to place the appropriate value on strategy will be rewarded with better results, even at times against great odds.