At Visionary Companies, Storytelling Runs Deep
Marketing Content Strategy

At Visionary Companies, Storytelling Runs Deep

13 Minute Read

The Darwinian nature of capitalism offers significant advantages to those already at the top of the food chain: access to capital, brand recognition and trust, established distribution channels, bulk purchasing power, and defined, efficient processes. For a start-up to survive and eventually thrive among these giants, an entrepreneur must identify some fundamental shift coming to the business or consumer ecosystem—or cause that shift themselves by identifying a better way to deliver a widely used product or service.

Many companies die young, having never gained traction either because their entrepreneurs misunderstood or mistimed their markets, or because they could not deliver compelling new solutions that met market needs. Would-be entrepreneurs often believe that if they can survive this first culling, get through the first two years of operations, hone their models, establish early client bases, drive early revenue, and successfully raise capital, then their start-ups are poised for success. But as Katniss Everdeen learned the hard way, surviving your first Hunger Games doesn’t ensure a lifetime of success and tranquility.

The second culling occurs when a new industry matures and buyers coalesce around a handful of companies that have emerged as leaders in the space, abandoning the second- and third-tier entrants. Some entrepreneurs whose start-ups experienced meteoric rises will see their businesses head south just as fast. These risk-taking leaders wake up to discover that their businesses have outgrown their personal capacities to know, understand, process, decide, and lead on every issue facing their companies. They don’t have enough hours in the day to attend sales calls, fight customer fires, plan the next versions of their products, conduct interviews for new team members, invest in culture, raise the next rounds of capital, and lead their teams and their industries in the directions they believe both should go.

In short, the business practices and processes that worked when their companies were small start to break. If they fail to recognize this and create new business approaches, their organizations will falter. They will waste development resources building technology their customers do not want. They will sell services their business cannot provide well. Or they will underserve their current customers, churning them quickly and undermining their business processes.

My colleagues writing about the Content Marketing Continuum have examined how story form can be used to transform your marketing process. Here, I want to share how visionary companies use story form to transform and improve nearly every aspect of their businesses, and how it enables them to avoid the pitfalls that cause many entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to fail.

To read the rest of this series, click on the stories below:

1. Confessions of a Content Marketer: Admitting Where We Sit on the Content Marketing Continuum by Patricia Travaline, CMO, Skyword

2. If You Want to Move from Content Marketing Strategy Novice to Expert, Let Go of Complexity by Ruben Sanchez, Director of Marketing, Skyword

3. How the Content Standard Moved from Expert to Leader on the Content Marketing Continuum by Jon Simmons, Managing Editor of the Content Standard

Take the 5-minute assessment here:

Content Marketing Continuum

How Skyword Is Embracing Story

Two years ago, we felt many of the growing pains that I described above at Skyword. We’d grown from 20 to 50 enterprise-class clients, then quickly from 50 to 100. In the early days of the business, I had time to meet all of our customers, learn about the market from them, adjust our approach, and ensure we improved their experience with our platform and services over time. But suddenly, with hundreds of stakeholders, that became impossible. If I spoke with each of our clients for just an hour every quarter, I would not have had time to do anything else. I felt like I was losing touch with our customers, and our senior management team was not far behind. We started to see telltale signs of trouble:

1. After our initial success, the market had quickly copied our strategy and messaging. Those that had originally focused on licensed or curated content shifted in our direction and talked about content creation. Some started doing content strategy workshops that followed the same agenda ours did, and some copied our websites and marketing. Our competitors looked more and more like us every day, and it was becoming harder to differentiate in the marketplace.

2. We invested months in a major product release and introduced technology that only a handful of our customers adopted. Our product and development processes were focused on big bets and, occasionally, we made one and lost. That meant we risked falling behind competitors, unless we could get a better sense of the market.

3. With limited executive bandwidth to help “give religion” to new customers, we started to see customer churn rates climb as early investors abandoned their tests if they did not achieve quick success.

We realized that the Skyword dream that we had invested years of our lives and millions in capital to build was at risk. We knew that we needed to change our game if we were going to make it through the second cull and thrive as an industry leader.

Our first step was to bring the entire company together for an all-company summit in Boston. In preparation for that meeting, we asked our team what they wanted to learn from that session, and overwhelmingly they responded that they wanted to develop their craft. They wanted to ensure that Skyword clients told the best stories in the world. We started this transformation by bringing a world-renowned storytelling expert, Robert McKee, to Boston, where he did a full-day seminar with our team on story craft.

It was an extraordinary day. McKee transformed the way our team thought about connecting with an audience, hooking and holding attention, rewarding that attention, and then moving to act. We were a different company after that seminar because our team could suddenly see the future of content marketing, they were excited about building that future, and they knew we would continue to lead if we did.

But informing our company about story craft was not enough. As soon as our all-company meeting was complete, our team began asking about implementation. How would we move from this high-level understanding of story craft to becoming proficient? How would we teach our contributors and creatives to be great storytellers? How would we use story across the organization to improve each function, from product planning to client services, from finance to development, from operations to HR? We realized we needed to do much more than just inform the organization. We needed to educate our team and train them on story craft. Then we needed to operationalize our approach in each department, storifying our entire approach to business.

Story form is powerful in business for two reasons. First, it focuses conversations on dynamic change, instead of reporting on the steady trends that often mask change until it is too late for an organization to respond. Second, it requires leaders to consider not just the opportunities that certain decisions might represent, but also all potential forces of antagonism—the things inside or outside the organization that might prevent a given decision from leading to success. Using story form to strategize requires leaders to spend as much time understanding potential threats or shortfalls as they do reporting on successes.

I’ll offer you two brief examples here, but story form can and should be used across a company to focus leaders on decisions or changes that need to be made, and to identify threats that might otherwise be overlooked.

At Visionary Companies, Storytelling Runs Deep

Focusing on Dynamic Change: Story and Customer Service

As I mentioned above, Skyword grew quickly in our first few years, and it was becoming harder and harder for us to keep our fingers on the pulses of our clients.

To adapt to this rapid growth from a services perspective, we created an executive sponsorship program for all our large clients. Executive sponsors were assigned to attend client meetings, build relationships with leaders at our client companies, and work with them to advance their strategic thinking. The program started off well, and we made progress on those goals across the board.

But two quarters in, our executive team started to notice something. In our quarterly business reviews (QBRs) with clients, we seemed to be talking at them instead of with them. Our client services team would present our accomplishments for the quarter, describe what we planned for next quarter, and update our goal sets. Then the calls would end with no questions or little discussion. Many of our clients seemed distracted during the calls (perhaps by background email and other tasks). Senior client stakeholders began to miss these meetings and, increasingly, we found ourselves leaving QBRs without the buy-in we needed to help our clients’ programs evolve. Our client relationships were starting to drift, and our business was in jeopardy as a result.

Once we realized that this problem was pervasive, we took a step back with our client teams and analyzed the experience we were providing. Thanks to the story training we had been doing across the entire company, we realized that our client services experience suffered from the same fundamental problem that most marketing does today: we were failing to hook the attention of our customers, hold that attention, and reward that attention. And as a result, we were not able to move them to act.

We then looked at how we were communicating with our clients and realized that our QBRs were simply a different flavor of the bragging and promising that dominates most marketing. We told the client what we had done for them, we told them about improving results, and then we promised improved results next quarter. The problem wasn’t that the results were disappointing (in most cases we were exceeding plan); the problem was that we were boring our clients to distraction.

Marketers have lost customer trust by presenting only positive news to their customers and prospects. They share only the good about their offerings, and they promise a better future to those who buy. Over time, however, audiences have tuned out this monotonous repetition of positive news and over-promising, much like our own customers were now tuning out—and then opting out of our QBRs.

Recognizing the power of story to hook, hold, and reward audiences, we made a deliberate decision to change course: we storified our approach to client services. What does that mean? It meant that instead of focusing our meetings on the positives, we structured our conversations with our clients to intentionally reveal the negative turns in their programs. We began using story form as the foundation for our QBRs. Our conversations started with the program in balance, scaling as planned. But then, instead of just presenting the good, we’d mention a snag or challenge we hit in the quarter that threw things out of balance. We’d discuss our first attempt to correct the problem and (if appropriate) how that first attempt failed. We’d discuss our second attempt that succeeded and reveal the fruits of that success. Our QBRs would continue with this pattern until we revealed the success we achieved in the quarter, and then concluded with the specific challenges or opportunities facing the program as we prepared for the next. We would wrap up with our recommendations on the decisions our clients would need to make to overcome those challenges or capitalize on those opportunities.

Our clients came alive. What had once been 60-minute, one-sided recitations on program performance became an active discussion. Our clients dug into the problems we had encountered, suggesting future remedies (educating our team in the process), and sometimes challenging our approach (bringing greater alignment between us and our clients). Senior business leaders heard about these vibrant discussions and started making time to attend QBRs again. And most importantly, as we wrapped up our storified QBRs and presented the challenges and opportunities that were on the table for next quarter, the stakeholders made the decisions we needed them to make so we could optimize their programs for success.

Last quarter, Skyword achieved a Net Promoter Score from our clients that was above 50 for the first time in the history of our company. A global senior leader from one of our largest clients flew around the world to attend our Forward conference for the first time. While there, he requested a special lunch with our senior team to challenge us to find ways to take his brand’s program to the next level and, in turn, asked how we could challenge them to do the same. Using story in our service delivery captured our clients’ attention and drove this engagement.

Forces of Antagonism in Business

Using Forces of Antagonism in Product Planning

Around the same time, our product planning process came off the rails. With a small customer base, it had been easy to balance major innovation with customer feature requests. As our business grew, it became harder to maintain that balance, and harder still to forecast what innovative features a diverse customer base may want. We began to build larger and larger releases, with features attempting to please everyone, and found that much of what we built was never put to use.

We moved to an agile development process to solve this problem, and saw some immediate benefits. Our releases became lighter and more iterative. New features went to market faster and customers could experience MVPs (minimum viable products), then provide more specific, useful feedback for iterative work. For the moment, we seemed to have solved the problem.

But after about a year using the agile framework, we realized that even an iterative process could go awry if client challenges were not well understood by our marketing and product teams. While most agile frameworks use so-called “stories” to describe individual customer goals, these stories do not usually follow story form. They omit the forces of antagonism that often arise after a character in a story takes an action.

Consider this example: engineers at a transportation company are asked to build a new transportation system. Their client wants to get across town during rush hour, faster than possible today, without the delays that peak-time travel can bring. Given this description, the engineering firm designs a massive catapult. The catapult would have achieved all the stated client goals, but the client would have been unhappy with the solution (at least for a very brief period of time).

Too often, even agile development processes deliver solutions that miss the mark. Because they are agile, it’s possible to course-correct before too many resources have been expended, but we can do better still. By considering all potential forces of antagonism in the design process (and using true storytelling in the agile framework), marketing and product teams can avoid costly missteps entirely.

Visionary Companies Storify the Enterprise

This week, my colleagues shared what marketers must do to move their organizations from Novice to Expert and from Expert to Leader, by transforming marketing from ad-centric to content-centric, and then from content-centric to story-centric approaches. These are critical steps to move your organization forward along the Content Marketing Continuum.

To take your company from Leader to Visionary, however, you must do more than change your marketing approach. You must storify your entire enterprise. The role of the CMO has never been more demanding or influential than it is today. While marketers were once confined to defining and promoting products, today the CMO has broad influence on corporate brand, leadership and values, on customer service and sales approaches, and even on investor outreach and investor relations. In each of these functions, your enterprise will perform better if you capture the attention of your audience, hold that attention, reward it with insight, and where appropriate using that insight to drive your audience to act.

Once your company has become a leader in brand storytelling, your next task as CMO is to teach story across the enterprise. Help executives learn story craft to enhance the way they lead inside your organization. Help service people use stories to engage and connect with customers. Help your CFO turn boring financial reports into stories that are read by investors and build trust among them. As a CMO, this is how you will help transform your organization from a leader to a visionary with story craft. Done well, it might even enable you to swap that M for an E in your title someday.

Skyword recently announced a worldwide, exclusive relationship with renowned story expert Robert McKee. Our Storynomics seminars are now available to help marketing leaders learn story craft and to help business leaders employ it across their enterprise. Day-long custom seminars are available as well. Please contact us for details.

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Tom Gerace is the Founder and CEO of Skyword, the leading content marketing platform and services provider. Prior to founding Skyword, Tom launched, a demand-driven news and entertainment property reaching more than 6M people each month. Gerace also founded and served as President of Be Free, a publicly traded online marketing services company. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies, magna cum laude, from Harvard University, and served as a senior business analyst at the Harvard Business School. You can follow Tom on Twitter.

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