These tech stories for Autodesk’s RedShift online magazine are so much fun…
Tag Archives: stories
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.
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.
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 for 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.
This 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.
Friends 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?