Tag Archives: stories

Spaxels: Drone murmuration in the sky

These tech stories for Autodesk’s RedShift online magazine are so much fun…

SPAXELS Drone Shows Are Using Swarm Intelligence to Generate Some Serious Buzz

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Case Studies: Nine tips for leveraging customer success stories

shaking-handsI’ve been intrigued for some time with the changes in the rhetorical landscape since the advent of social media – in particular, the growing irrelevance of Expertise as a tool in argumentation.

Marketers have long sought to establish themselves and their product offerings by presenting themselves as reliable experts in their fields, who can provide credible advice to prospective clients who have difficult or risky decisions to make. This is one of the core objectives of a Content Marketing program – to get a buyer’s attention by offering expert perspective (content) in the hope of influencing the ultimate decision.

The trouble is, to a growing extent, people have stopped trusting experts. For this, I believe we can lay responsibility at the feet of operatives in the world of electoral politics, where everyone and everything is for sale and everyone knows it. The cynicism that takes root naturally in a Fox News world is pervasive in commercial markets as well. Your competitor’s expert is just as credible as yours. Your competitor’s data is interchangeable in the buyer’s mind with yours – even if they appear to prove diametrically opposed “facts.” Your competitor’s Klout score is just as high as yours. And the buyer has already tuned out both of your appeals to authority and is no better informed than she was when you both started wooing her.

So what is the Golden Fleece of Content Marketing? In my opinion, it’s a form of content that predates not only the Content Marketing discipline but the advent of the internet, probably by at least 75 years: The old fashioned Case Study.

A case study is a narrative that validates the mission of the company and its effectiveness in execution. A case study typically tells the story of a relationship between the organization and a partner or client, in which a problem or opportunity arises, the parties come together to devise a solution, and value is achieved. Or, it may describe a company’s capabilities from the perspective of multiple clients. Either way, a case study helps the new, prospective customer to understand what a successful relationship with your organization will look like.

Why would a case study be any more credible than an expert endorsement? Because the assumption is that pretty nearly anyone can pay a third party expert to say positive things, but there is something in a case study that can’t be faked. A business executive at a client company is willing to publicly stake his or her reputation, and that of the firm, on an endorsement describing an experience with a vendor. Such an endorsement can be verified easily. And the endorser is willing to run the risk that the relationship described will morph later into a humiliating failure – a non-zero possibility in any business relationship.

This is why case studies are hard to get. Even for highly effective organizations, convincing a customer to go on the record about the value of the offering can be difficult, logistically and politically. But the validation inherent in a customer endorsement is irreplaceable. People who tune out experts or social media “Likes” will pay attention to stories – especially the relevant experiences of their peers.

So, with that preamble, here’s a brief Q&A on success with case studies:

1. How do I get my clients to say yes to case studies? The short answer is, there is no short answer. The customer has a host of obvious reasons to hesitate – becoming personally associated with what evolves into a failure can be career-ending. This can be the case even when the project’s champion will not be quoted. On the plus side, becoming personally associated with a conspicuous success can make a career. If you are confident in the project’s success, make the case.

There is nothing unethical in offering the client company something tangible in exchange for cooperation in a case study – in fact, it is common practice – as long as the offer is made to the client company and not personally to the project champion. An example would be a discount on the price or an extension on the maintenance contract, in exchange for a commitment in advance to develop the case study once specific milestones are achieved. (Personal gifts or favors to the project sponsor should not be considered; the client company probably has standards of ethical business conduct that would rule out such considerations.)

2. Should we contract out the writing? I’m in favor, for obvious reasons – I write case studies. But there is objective support for this position. For most marketing teams, this kind of writing is not the core competency of anyone on staff, nor is it the best use of staff time.

3. Should a case study be written by a journalist? Sure, as long as you are not kidding yourself that this kind of writing is journalism. This is a selling document, and no one who sees your corporate logo on it will be fooled into thinking otherwise. Still, it is appropriate to have someone with journalism training do this kind of writing, for reasons of efficiency. If the individual has ever had a job in the field, you can assume he or she is an effective writer who is trained and accustomed to working to deadlines. Deadlines matter. And a journalist is unlikely to burden the piece with fluffy, adjective-heavy language. An effective case study tends to stick to the facts.

4. How long should a case study be? It’s an open question, but a good guideline for a piece describing a discrete project or implementation for a single customer, including graphics, would be three to four pages, or around 1200 words. A piece describing several experiences may run significantly longer.

5. Should the piece use quotes? If possible – quotes humanize the story, and as suggested earlier, what makes the story credible is the human connection, the potential for a shared experience.

6. How long should a case study take to produce? It depends on your process. If you have assigned an effective writer, the most time-consuming element will not be the interviewing or the drafting of the content, but the review and approval cycle – yours, internally, and the customer’s. Even under the best circumstances, the full approval cycle may take several weeks.

7. What should the final case study look like? Case studies typically are published either as web content or in .PDF format. Graphics or photographs are desirable but not essential. A useful presentation technique is to highlight a strong quote or passage, pulling it out of the text and setting it in a large, bold typeface, and then embedding it as a “callout” in the text, as you would a chart or photo. The piece should incorporate some graphical sophistication – businesslike, serious, with a hint of whimsy if that is in the nature of your branding, as long as it does not detract from the impression that the document is intended to convey objectively useful information, albeit in a branded context.

8. How should you serve up the case study to your content consumers? Case studies are suitable for all standard delivery mechanisms – as handouts in hard copy at live events, pulled from your web site, or pushed via links in social media or email marketing. As with any other collateral, timing matters – a case study establishes credibility for your offering, often versus a competitor’s, and that rarely is your first challenge. It is worth analyzing your sales process in depth to determine when the right moment or moments to present the case study are.

The ideal context is at an advanced stage of the sale, when stakeholders are beginning to ask themselves (a) whether your entire class of solution makes sense for their specific challenge, and (b) whether your offering is the right choice among competing alternatives. It is at those moments when your prospect is most likely to identify with the customer described in the case study, and to see your joint success as relevant evidence that they will have a similar experience with you.

9. To gate or not to gate? Content gating – offering content through a web link that requires the requester to provide personal information before receiving a download – is becoming controversial. It is common practice for lead gathering through online content, but requesters often resent the imposition. I’m inclined to agree. A case study packs a powerful rhetorical punch. It is not, by nature, a tool for lead generation. You want it in the hands of your potential buyers, and I don’t believe it makes sense to create any friction in the process of providing it. No gates.

Think you have a prospective partner for a case study? Contact Peter Dorfman to talk about the writing and production process.

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Crafting, and demolishing, the organizational narrative

Odds are, someone close to you, a trusted mentor, at some point in your life advised you that there would be conversations in which you should steer clear of religion or politics — job interviews, a first dinner with prospective in-laws, and such. Business and private life rarely intersect, but these days, when it is broadly accepted that “corporations are people,” it’s worth reflecting on these sage words, because what’s true for you is likely to be equally true for your business.

The context for this reflection is a recurring discussion I’ve been having with colleagues and clients about corporate storytelling — and the recurring headlines about companies who have sabotaged their own carefully crafted narratives by making themselves poster children for their founders’ political causes.

Every business has a core story, and it’s a crucial starting point in evolving a content marketing strategy. As I’ve suggested in an earlier post

A business is a complex set of relationships between the producers and the consumers of a product or service. It’s a set of affiliations, and a complicated story. Content Marketing is the art of nurturing that story and making everyone in the value chain between the producer and the buyer a character with a role to play in it.

The traditional narrative arc

This Harvard Business Review blog post is only one of many eloquent treatments of business storytelling that I’ve been offering clients. I particularly like the handy little graphic it provides.

Take a moment to consider how this age-old model of the narrative arc applies to the business you’ve built. I work with a lot of tech companies, so let’s do a quick translation to what they do:

  • Exposition: Your identification of a unique, compelling and lucrative market opportunity.
  • Complication: Over tortuous cycles of development, you and your engineers define and create a powerful innovation to meet the market need. You bring it to a pioneer early adopter. Your success attracts angel capital and your solution is developed into a marketable product.
  • Climax: Your product enters broad distribution, attracts media attention, and is adopted. Grateful customers build entirely new business processes around your innovation. You secure new financing and reap the rewards of an entrepreneurial breakthrough. Your success, however, attracts competitive retaliation.
  • Reversal: Complications ensue; competitors succeed for a time in sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt in prospective adopters. How you overcome these doubts and break through to long-term success is the core of the narrative.
  • Denouement: Stable and profitable, your business draws a loyal, mainstream following. A broad community of adopters (who accept the parts they play in your story) appears, and you settle into nurturing a long and happy relationship with that community.

It’s a classic storyline, one that can apply as neatly to a successful organization as it does to the protagonist in a good, inspirational novel. It’s one of the greatest satisfactions for a marketer whose singular focus on this story has paid off — when the pieces of the narrative fall into place and customers bond with that story.

I can only guess at the pointless frustrations of the marketers whose organizational stories have gone off the rails because the plot has suddenly careened off into one about the entrepreneur’s crusade against same-sex marriage, or his attempt to impose his personal religious philosophy on the company and its employees, or management’s obstinacy about providing health insurance to its workers.

Corporate boards have to decide what’s best for their companies’ shareholders, employees, customers and the communities where they do business. Effective boards make these decisions in a pragmatic, non-ideological way, understanding that few decisions are easy and many will alienate at least one of the aforementioned constituencies.

But it’s clear to me that a lot of founders and boards are missing an essential point:

Pragmatism includes consideration of the impact of these decisions on the narrative that creates the bond between a company and its sustaining customers.

In the next few years, some organizations will find that they have compromised themselves to a degree they haven’t yet recognized, and may not recognize until it is too late.

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Stories and aspirations

Lynn Shepherd’s take on corporate storytelling — Tell-Tale Signs: Decoding the Secrets of the Corporate Grapevine, from the Huffington Post — is worth sharing.

Shepherd offers this as a caution — when an organization organically evolves its own story that becomes a tribal murmur running counter to the mission statement, it’s time for a frank conversation around the campfire.

(Yes. Me too. I hate mission statements.)

But of course, there are lots of positive ways to put an organization’s tribal myths to work in social marketing. We rally around stories; they can be concocted deliberately to focus team members on a valued objective. If a story is an honest reflection of a founder’s vision, it doesn’t have to be the literal truth. It only needs to be plausible enough to gather a consensus — a reasonable aspiration. If your team embraces the story, it will ring true in the messaging you put in front of customers.

zurichActually, storytelling is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a couple of months. We all do it, professionally and personally. We storify our experiences. It’s only human.

I spent a couple of days in Zurich with family at Christmastime, and I found myself explaining how it is that I developed such a love for that city, having spent only an afternoon there previously, more than 20 years ago. It’s a tale I’ve told many times, always essentially the same way: I’d visited on business, and spent the afternoon with a business contact, a successful woman living rather comfortably in a villa overlooking the city. She took us to lunch at an elegant place on the quai overlooking the Limmat River.

The story I tell is that this woman’s ex husband, when they divorced, gave her as a parting gift, an oil company.

Evocative, isn’t it? It’s always good for a moment’s speechless gape. (And isn’t that what every raconteur is looking for?) Of course, it’s a story about wealth, and the truth is, I’m not an uncritical admirer of wealth. But this individual impressed me in the way she wore it. Her villa was lovely but not huge or especially ostentatious. The art was tasteful, modern stuff. Of course the view was breathtaking. Lunch was in an establishment that, while not outrageously expensive, was clearly not an easy place to get a table for five on short notice — but that was childsplay for Madame.

My story isn’t so much about wealth as it is about access. It’s easy to appreciate and fall in love with the best features of a place when you can just breeze in and avail yourself of everything it has to offer.

Oh, and the oil company: My story glosses over the fact that the oil was the sort that goes into cosmetic moisturizers, not the kind that wars are fought over. And that Madame had at least as much to do with building the company as did her ex, and that he didn’t simply give it to her. He just signed over his shares.

Disingenuous? Possibly. But it’s one of those examples of a particular turn of phrase giving a story a greater economy — more bang for the rhetorical buck. Not so very different from Google’s mission statement (“Don’t be evil”) or Disney’s “Happiest Celebration on Earth.”

In an age when the unit of narrative is a photomeme, a 30-second video clip or 140-character koan, economy of verbiage is paramount. It’s an important aspiration.

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Knowledge Management and steamed milk

I’ve been involved, in one way or another, in the esoteric science of Knowledge Management for more than 20 years. I’ve lived through KM’s many ups and downs, and I’m happy to admit that it’s never been an easy sell. A lot of people aren’t sure what KM is, much less why they need it. (If this happens to be an issue for you, drop me an email and I’ll give you my take on a definition for it.)

Suffice it to say it’s a complex business process, and adopting KM is more than a matter of buying a piece of technology, slamming it in and expecting it to solve a problem for you. This is true of a lot of business processes for which there are associated classes of software solutions. Each of these is a discipline involving an array of process, cultural and other pragmatic issues that have to be resolved in order fSteamed Milkor the technology you buy to have any measurable utility.

In fact, this is true of just about any product, isn’t it? Even milk – how many variations on milk are there in the supermarket’s refrigerator case? Heavy cream, light cream, half & half, whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim – each of these is a lifestyle choice, and I’m leaving out the whole issue of organic milk (versus…whatever we now call the alternative to organic), to say nothing of rice or soy derived synthetics.

It’s now a matter of expert opinion, what milk is. Your milk purchase is now the punchline in a lengthy shaggy dog story.

Lately, combining two disparate business preoccupations of mine, I’ve been talking to vendors of enterprise software, including KM tools, about their Content Marketing objectives. The gist of Content Marketing is that any brand, technology-intensive or not, is really a complex story, in which the buyer engages with the seller and assumes a part in the play. This is as true for SharePoint as it is for milk. The milk story might involve an elaborate daily ritual in which the buyer whips up a fresh cup of latte. The SharePoint story, analogously, could involve a team of attorneys collaborating on the drafting of commercial leases.

As a seller, your goal is to differentiate your brand and establish yourself as a source of good information – content – that gives the buyer the confidence that you can ensure that the story has a happy ending, whether it’s a perfect latte or a tightly crafted lease, every time.

Over a couple of decades in the knowledge management game, I’ve evolved a brief litany that I recite to give consulting clients a sense of what decisions are involved in addition to selecting and buying software – in fact, typically well before software adoption becomes an issue. Here it is:

Process – People – Content – Tools

At first, this may seem irrelevant to your business, especially if you’re not in the knowledge management field. But it occurs to me that this little bit of doggerel applies to many kinds of technology adoptions. I deliberately drop the product itself to the end of the list, because the non-technical issues have to be confronted to establish a context in which the buyer can successfully adopt the product. That’s a model that fits a wide array of technologies, even beyond IT.

  • Process – The technology buyer is paying attention because he has a business process he suspects would be more effective if a technology like yours were incorporated in it. But what process is it? Is your product really a fit for that application?
  • People – Business processes don’t run themselves. Making any new process or any significant change to an existing process a success will require some degree of organizational culture change. Is the buyer’s team prepared to make that change?
  • Content – Most technology adoption in organizations is concerned with data or information – capturing it, making sense of it, sharing it, and putting it to work. If the adopting organization is producing the wrong information, or presenting information in an impractical form, then no technology, yours or your competitor’s, is going to provide an effective outcome.
  • Tools – Once you understand the buyer’s process, people and content constraints, is your technology the right fit? Can it be shoehorned into place even if it isn’t a perfect fit? If all the stars are aligned, that’s the time to talk technology options.

PPCTThis model has served as an effective way to help clients approach complex technology adoption projects with an appropriately broad perspective. But a new use for my little mnemonic suggests itself: As an organizing principle for a technology vendor’s Content Marketing program.

If you market a software tool – in KM, for example – you already are accustomed to a long sales cycle, as prospects work toward satisfying themselves that your tool is more likely to get them to a successful outcome than your competitors’ tools. If you accept my premise that a successful outcome requires more than a rich feature set, a friendly user experience or a low price, then here’s another proposition: Your marketing objective should be to convince the buyer that you are the authoritative source on the Process, People and Content issues that create the context for successful use of the tool.

Each of these objectives could be met in different ways. It may be that the most effective way to prepare the end users for the change to come is to involve them in a sponsored community of users from other organizations that have come through the experience satisfied and still gainfully employed.

To educate the buyer on process issues, it may make sense to produce a branded White Paper, walking the buyer through a process-oriented roadmap for adopting the business process in which your tool will be used (as opposed to the tool itself).

As for content, think about creating a set of generic templates for the kinds of documents or files you anticipate will be stored in your platform, and offer them through your web site. Think beyond your own tool, and design them for general utility in the business process you support.

If you’re still with me, then your plan should be to fill out your library of marketing content with materials that establish your credibility as a source of expertise on the processes in which your technology is applied; on the methodology for taking the adopting team through the culture change that is required for success; and on the design and delivery of world class content for these applications.

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Content marketing and me

fogFriends and colleagues have begun to notice my embrace of a peculiar phrase: “Content Marketing.” I’m getting a lot of quizzical looks. Content Marketing is a slippery concept, but I think it will have more staying power than “Social Media Marketing.”

What it boils down to is that any business is defined not by the product it sells, the money it generates, the building in which it operates or the people who do the work. A business is a complex set of relationships between the producers and the consumers of a product or service. It’s a set of affiliations, and a complicated story. Content Marketing is the art of nurturing that story and making everyone in the value chain between the producer and the buyer a character with a role to play in it.

The consumer’s acceptance of a role in the product story is what sustains the business.

Convincing the consumer that he or she has such a role to play is relatively easy for a complex, expensive, high-involvement offering such as health insurance or a Boeing Dreamliner. It’s very easy for a product that has built-in emotional freight – a “lifestyle product” like a rifle or a luxury car, which is born laden with its own mythology about the kind of individual who’s meant to own it. It’s actually harder for low-involvement product like a laundry detergent or string cheese, but that hasn’t stopped consumer marketers like Procter & Gamble and Kraft from investing in substantial Content Marketing programs – some of the industry’s most successful.

It’s called Content Marketing because whatever form it takes, the effort to build a narrative around a product and engage the buyer in it requires lots and lots of content – words, images, infographics, songs and experiences.

Ever wonder how Red Bull, Subaru, Costco and John Deere all got into magazine publishing? Why was NBC’s recent live broadcast performance of “The Sound of Music” essentially a two-hour commercial for Walmart (in which the ads were almost indistinguishable from the show itself)? What’s up with all those tweets, blog articles and Facebook posts from corporate accounts? They’re all forms of Content Marketing. They don’t sell; they engage.

For the benefit of my still-quizzical friends and colleagues…what does any of that have to do with me?

As in any industry, there are creatives; there are engineers who constantly reinvent and tweak the channels for content delivery; and there are business heads who define the market, channel the demand and figure out how to quantify the benefits.

I’m a creative, a content producer. A writer in various media; a spinner of stories. I hire myself out to the aforementioned business heads for whom such stories are written. Of course, a very small percentage of writers get the privilege of making a living defining themselves as such. Content Marketing is the new context for creative. Apparently, it’s where the ex-journalists are resettling themselves these days. For people who trade in words and images, it’s where the demand is.

There, now. Is it beginning to make some sense?

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