Don’t sell me a product, tell me a story!

I had lunch today with an interesting chap who is between gigs (a fancy way of saying “unemployed”, I know) and we started talking about his deep and extensive knowledge of the medical and pharmacological industries from a marketing and business development perspective, and how it overlapped with his background and legal training too.
When he got around to explaining how he’s trying to find a job but hasn’t landed anything yet, I wasn’t surprised when he asked for my suggestions on how he might leverage the blogging phenomenon to help generate both visibility in his target marketplace and some income.
What stuck in my head, however, was that his background gave him a unique ability to tell an interesting story. After all, isn’t the best marketing and, yes, even public relations, fundamentally all a throwback to our days around the campfire trying to influence and sway people based on our ability to communicate in a more interesting and engaging manner than the next person?

Then I thought about how some work I’m doing with entrepreneur and gadabout Jeff Miller on his Senior Safety Blog really boils down to the same thing: while his company may sell emergency notification devices for the elderly and infirm, it’s the stories that his customers can tell that are interesting, not the products themselves.
Let me be clear too: I’m not talking stories about his customers using his product. No, that’s too crass, overt and, worse, boring. That’s an advertorial and while even publications like BusinessWeek and WIRED include advertorials in their magazines, I’ve long since learned to recognize and ignore them and I bet you have too.
No, I’m talking about customer stories in the sense of “A visit with Susan J. Smith, 79yo mother of seven, grandmother of 14 and accomplished marathon runner”. She’d be interesting to interview, her story would be inspiring for others, and if she also had an emergency notification device handy for when she was alone of an evening, well, it would certainly remove any potential stigma and resistance, wouldn’t it?
As lunch progressed today, however, the idea that got stuck in my head was The Drug Interaction Blog. Imagine how useful it would be to have a solid, credible information source that showed how to figure out if drugs could adversely interact, how to recognize the symptoms, had detailed instructions on how to read interaction notices and even showed how to search through the Big Pharma Web sites for this information.
The blog would really become interesting as he started to accept questions that let him turn the information, the boring article, into a story, something compelling and interesting… (then, once it was a going concern, I believe medical and pharmacological companies would be willing to pay to license and reprint or republish quality “consumer advocate” content of this nature too, offering a nice behind-the-scenes revenue stream).
Marketing through telling stories doesn’t stop there, it infuses all that you do to market yourself and your business.
Consider two of my favorite business authors, Tom Peters and Jim Collins. One of them is focused on participating in the business of business, of sharing his evolving story and his view of which businesses are and aren’t successful, while the other is locked away in his ivory tower, selling products and doing research that he’ll share when his next book is published. Which is which? You tell me: visit Tom Peters’ Web site and Jim Collins’ Web site for yourself. The difference is glaringly obvious.
And so, let’s also circle back to Jeff Miller and his Senior Safety company. How do you sell something that’s an emergency use only device? To learn this, look at life insurance companies. They’ve long since mastered this art. Life insurance sales isn’t about the dead person (why would they care about an insurance payout?) at all, but about the spouse and the children. As multi-million dollar ad campaigns tell us every week, wouldn’t it be terrible if the spouse and kids were thrown out onto the street because of a lack of proper insurance?
One of my favorite examples of this, however, is from my friend and colleague Ken Giddens, who relates how when he first launched his Pepper Spray Store that he was focused on products and sales were okay. He then realized that selling situationsselling stories — helped make it a lot clearer when potential customers might need pepper spray (including “on a date”, “jogging” and “camping in the wilderness”). The result? His sales jumped significantly.
Whether you want to learn from Jeff Miller, Ken Giddens, Tom Peters or your local life insurance saleswoman, the message is always the same: don’t sell your products, tell your story, and business blogs are perfect for just this kind of storytelling.

18 comments on “Don’t sell me a product, tell me a story!

  1. Sure stories are what business is all about. (Politics too) Think the merging of brand and image into a compelling reason to buy. (or Ron Reagan selling himself, and his vision of America, as a reason to vote for him) So Dell,a few years ago, Google, now Skype, have all created a unique point of difference with the way they sell a story that gives us something we can all buy into, as we buy their products.
    And as long as the reality matches what the story is about, then we can keep on buying it. Where companies go wrong is their carelessness with customer service or corporate behaviour. Once the story and reality jar; you’re in trouble. (
    And, incredibly, despite their skills, PR and Marketing guys, are usually the worst possible people to tell their own stories. Your friend probably needs a lot of help to realise what he’s sitting on. Just exactly at this moment, America is aging rapidly, and fattening quickly, and collectively has decided that it needs more and more information about medicine, doctors, health and drugs. Your pal’s in the right place and right time to start making really helpful observations about the world he sees around him. And in doing so, he would become a trusted source. If he makes us care or believe his observations he has a story. And a business.

  2. I would go on to say that if you tell stories to people they will come back to hear another one and another one. People want to be entertained.
    I think there should be a good mix between story telling and product discussion. People not only want to be entertained but they also want to be informed.
    Great post Dave, and I must say I was just finishing a piece about another company that would do well to have a blog to tell their story. They already tell the story everyday, their stories are even written for them. Onstar.

  3. Customers want stories, but much more than stories, they like stories, but the best story is how the product can solve a pressing problem, whereas the anecdotal evidence is a good secondary story.
    The anecdotal evidence, with bulwarks against the assault of objections (“they’d think I was feeble and helpless if I had that thing, that emergency notification thingamajig”) as in the marathon runner example, could also come first, attract attention, then reinforce with product solution story.
    Stories? Maybe. Sort of. But really…
    …interactivity is King along with content.
    If you can have the best of both, an interactive story, as we have in blogs, then there is now an alternative space, a shared turf, company telling a story, I tell company my story, the middle ground of miracle arises.
    Stories? No.
    Interactive Stories. Yes.

  4. Ah, you’ve drunk too much of the blog Kool-Aid, Steven. 🙂
    The entire concept of “interactive story” is nice, but the vast majority of companies don’t have the bandwidth or capability to create or tend to interactive stories as the heart of their Web site. What I’m talking about is more simple and can be summarized as customer profiles as stories.
    Stories without a product can be useful and interesting on occasion, but just as I wouldn’t host a party for people who didn’t know me, I can’t imagine a company maintaining a business blog that included stories about non-customers unless they were truly extraordinary human beings.

  5. In my younger days and between jobs, I remember what a World Book manager told me. “Always sell the sizzle and not the steak.” Telling the story is similar advice.

  6. I don’t think you can over estimate the incredible power of a “simple story well told.” It is much bigger than marketing. People have swarmed to stories since our ancestors sat huddled in caves around fires, doodling on the walls with berries and animal blood. History, culture and religion are all about story telling. There is nothing more memorable. There is nothing more powerful. Marketers may or may not be liars, but to be the most effective, they need to be credible story tellers.

  7. This strategy works. We as consumers have been bombarded with ads and we are tired of them. Stories are a bit different. They get your interest and if the story is relevant to what a reader is interested in, he/she will read them.

  8. “Tell an interesting story” struck me as I always wonder what’s ahead of the small blog network that I started early December. Our network of bloggers are moms and pops who have been posting (close to a thousand post now as we near our second month) interesting and highly focused stories.
    This post gave more life to my conviction of maintaining and pursuing my dream of a network of blogs by moms and pops.

  9. As a shopper myself, I can see the truth in this matter. We are tired of ads. We seem them everywhere; bus, street, TV, radio… Too much.
    Having to read a story about something that is relevant to what we are looking for is much better and it works. I’ve seen people purchase things because they read a story that was relevant to the product they bought or to the company that wrote the article.

  10. I think it’s been pre-programmed in us to have interest in stories. Look back at when you were a kid, you loved those stories even though the put you to sleep.
    When I write my blog, I notice that anytime I write about some exciting marketing breakthrough, it always attracts less interest than when I write from my flight going somewhere unrelated and just rant about the trip and how good the pilot is.
    Now … when you can connect these stories to your marketing message, you’re a winner. That is what I try to do on my new dental marketing site.

  11. Yes, I agree. If this were an auditory blog, you would have surely heard the “dry humor” tone in my voice as I spoke that in after the fact jest.

  12. Dave, I totally agree with you on the points you have raised about how it is far more effective to sell a story than a product. The story allows a real person to talk about the benefits of a product, and that’s what ultimately sells it. The example of life insurance that you mentioned was a good one. Imagine trying to sell an insurance premium, without using a story? That would be bland and absolutely boring! Insurance marketing has to focus on the story, so the benefits of the product – the reason why people buy the product – are told.

  13. I can honestly say that your advice is dead on. You have to be able to explain your situation and how you have dealt with certain problems in order for them to see it. You can’t just say “Buy My Product” and be done with. You have to put yourself in the same situation as a customer may have and convince them that your recommendation is clean and clear. Do that and you will have no problem.

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