Archives by Year: 2013

Branding Strategy Insider’s guest blog by Corporate Narrative’s Bernie Thiel

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Branding Strategy Insider ran a blog post from guest author Bernie Thiel, partner with Corporate Narratives Group.  Check it out here:  http://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com/2013/12/8-characteristics-of-a-motivating-brand-story.html

The Eight Hallmarks of a Great Corporate Narrative

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The Eight Hallmarks of a Great Corporate Narrative

More and more, companies of all kinds are recognizing the need to create and market high-quality content that is noticed and embraced by the target audience. And increasingly, companies are turning their attention to stories as content that can capture customers’ attention and differentiate the company and its offerings. But not all stories are created equal. Some truly capture customers’ fancy and help drive loyalty and sales, while others miss the mark (sometimes by a long shot).

What makes a story engaging to customers and effective in motivating them to buy? In our experience, there are eight fundamental characteristics of a great story.

#1: It’s relevant: Stories that aren’t meaningful to people will have no impact. Thus, companies should make sure they know what’s important to their customers—whether by conducting traditional customer research, using analytics, or monitoring the chatter on social media—and build their stories around what customers are thinking. Often that can mean creating different versions of the same story, each tailored to a particular need, concern or area of interest.

#2: It’s credible: While people love to be entertained by the stories coming out of Hollywood, that’s typically not the case when it comes to corporate narratives. People asked to consider buying a product or service, however subtly, want to know that they’re not dealing with smoke and mirrors. They generally don’t like to take a leap of faith in their dealings with product or service providers, but rather, want proof that what they’re buying “works.”

#3: It’s compelling: If a story can’t grab the intended audience and hold their attention, it’s either not worth telling or it’s not being told in the right way. What makes a story compelling is generally a combination of factors—subject matter, words, imagery, sound and others—all working together to create an experience in the minds of readers, viewers or listeners.

#4: It’s persuasive: Great stories don’t simply keep people interested. They also excel in motivating people to do something—and for companies, that typically means ultimately buying something from them. Similar to the previous hallmark, persuasiveness is not the result of any one factor. But imagery and words generally play a dominant role in making a connection—emotional, intellectual, or both—with customers and moving them to action.

#5: It’s timely: Unlike the classics of literature and film, which people can read or watch over and over, storytelling in a marketing context must align with a person’s need within the buying cycle. That means it must be informed by an understanding of when customers or prospects are considering a purchase, the context in which they are determining whether and what to buy, and the information they need to help them make the purchase decision.

#6: It’s understandable: A story may have a great underlying message with real potential to inspire and engage prospects and customers. But it will never live up to its promise if the target audience has trouble deciphering what a company is truly trying to get across. Regardless of medium, a story needs to unfold logically, making it easy for the audience to “connect the dots” and follow the narrative.

#7: It’s informative: The most effective corporate narratives are those that educate and inform, that provide insights on something people value. Such stories convey an air of authority or credibility, often through research, that benefits the companies authoring them. By telling the audience something they didn’t know (but should), these stories position the company as a place the audience can turn for help addressing a particular personal, professional or business challenge.

#8: It’s authentic: People, whether business buyers or consumers, hate to be fooled. They avoid companies they perceive to be insincere or untruthful. Thus, if companies want their stories to have a positive impact on their audience, they should strive to ensure that their stories are true—and, more important, are true to the essence of the company.

The bottom line is that if a company wants its content to make an impact—i.e., attract customers’ and prospects’ attention and spur them to action—it must tell a great story. Anything else is just additional noise and clutter that discourages people from wanting to learn more about a company and its offerings and, ultimately becomes another unwanted obstacle in the buying process.

(For a more in-depth discussion of the eight hallmarks, including examples of companies that are doing it right, read our white paperCreating Stories That Inform, Enlighten and Inspire: The Eight Hallmarks of a Great Corporate Narrative.”)

EY’s “Reporting”: A Strong Example of a Customer Magazine

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One of the best ways for companies to communicate their stories to current and prospective customers is the customer magazine.  Done right, a customer magazine gives a company a great opportunity to cover various aspects of its business in an informative, engaging and familiar way, and to appeal to the target audience with content that is meaningful and relevant to them.

EY’s Reporting magazine, the most recent edition of which was just released, is a strong example of a customer magazine from a professional services organization.  It enables the assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services firm to make what’s generally a pretty dry and fuzzy topic—corporate assurance—accessible and interesting. It also provides a platform for highlighting the issues on which EY’s assurance practice can provide in-depth expertise while keeping executives informed of leading practices that can help them improve their assurance function.

Reporting highlights the expertise of the firm’s professionals, which should be the core goal of a customer magazine for any company whose primary “product” is its professionals’ knowledge and advice.  But the magazine also makes good use of non-EY experts in the form of interviews with and articles by executives from other organizations (some of which are likely EY clients), which makes the magazine more interesting, diverse and, importantly, more credible.  And many of the articles in Reporting are drawn from or based on other EY documents, such as white papers and research reports.  This approach helps extend the use of material already created (thus increasing the ROI on that content) and alerts customers to more in-depth content they may not have been aware of.  It also provides a steady stream of editorial source content for the magazine and helps ensure consistency of message across the practice’s publications.

Finally, the design and editorial quality in Reporting is uniformly high.  The articles feature strong narratives about the concerns of EY’s customers and are written in a journalistic style that is suitable for publication in external magazines or journals. That’s critical to helping the magazine stand out from the myriad other content vying for customers’ attention and time, and to ensuring the magazine remains relevant and provides value to its target audience.

In all, Reporting leaves readers with a positive impression of EY’s expertise in the corporate assurance arena, and is a worthy ambassador for the firm’s assurance practice.

Not Everything Is “Content”

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As the concept of “content marketing” has gained attention as the buzzword du jour, we’re seeing the emergence of a disturbing trend: the tendency for marketers to call anything communicated digitally “content.” That includes tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn status updates, blogs, YouTube videos and other communications disseminated via social media, as well as more traditional material housed on a company’s website. In fact, at one conference we attended, we heard numerous variations on this theme that “Anything is content,” with some speakers encouraging attendees to “put as much content out as possible” (without regard, we presume, for quality and usefulness to target buyers).

This sentiment often is the result of objectives set by traditional ad agencies and PR firms: generate as much reach and frequency of mention as possible to maximize visibility and number of followers. However, this advice does a disservice to marketers by blurring—or in some cases, completely eliminating—the distinction between true content and what is often the electronic equivalent of someone standing on the street corner with a megaphone. Eventually, recipients of these communications will discover that “there’s no there there” and wind up ignoring them altogether.
In our view, tweets, status updates, blogs and their ilk, on their own, have little power to influence current and potential buyers. In many cases, they are simply additional non-value-adding noise clogging the channels. It’s only when they are tied explicitly to more substantive content—for instance, compelling stories that educate, inform, or otherwise enlighten current and prospective customers—do they gain heft and weight, and the ability to generate interest in a company’s offerings.

Consider the recent experience of a large global consulting firm. The firm spent considerable time and effort to conduct a comprehensive research study of industry trends and develop a meaty report that told a powerful story about where the industry was headed. This report served as the foundation of a marketing and media relations campaign done in conjunction with the industry’s flagship annual trade show. The results were impressive. For instance, one of the leading US business magazines published a byline article, written by one of the firm’s lead consultants, on the results of the survey, as well as two other articles referencing the firm and its insights. Those three articles alone generated in one week nearly 15,000 online views and 750 mentions on Twitter. A popular online media outlet covering technology trends published an article on the research that generated nearly 500 tweets in the first week. Other articles on the research study were published in major technology and business publications and a major news agency, leading to hundreds of additional tweets and recommendations on Facebook and pickups in dozens of other media outlets.

What would the firm’s experience been if it had simply tweeted its opinions on where consumer electronics are headed? We would argue the firm would have gotten only a sliver of the attention had it not used the research study as the basis for its social media outreach and conversations with the media.

In short, the lesson from this example is clear: Not everything is content, nor is all content good content. The most effective marketing campaigns are still those built on substantive, informative content—typically, powerful narratives—that educates and enlightens target buyers and effectively differentiates a company from its competitors.