Brand Storytelling

Online Brand Storytelling – Why Creating a Narrative is Critical

Nearly 15 years ago, when I started a company out of my college dorm room at 21 years old  (before upgrading to the basement of a townhouse), one of the first things I did was Photoshop our logo onto a stock photo of a big, fancy office building and stick that image on the “About Us” page of the website. The internet, and particularly ecommerce was still new and a bit scary, and most customers sure weren’t interested in handing their personal info over to a website run by some kid out of his apartment.

How things have changed. As the internet and its users (including myself) matured, I came to the realization that truth should be the cornerstone of your content. Customers are smart (not to mention resourceful) enough to sniff out a brand that doesn’t exude genuine authenticity, and relate more to ones that do. Furthermore, especially these days, the story of a lean start-up with humble beginnings run by young entrepreneurs can be on full display like a badge of honor. It was part of the history and identity of my brand. Every startup and small business has a story to tell; something that will connect potential customers to your brand. It helps create a relationship with your brand, expresses your core values, and makes you distinctive and  memorable…basically  the definition of branding.  Or as marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, “Brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

Many entrepreneurs are so enthusiastic about their company, or are so close to it that they assume their audience understands it like they do and is just as interested as they are. Focusing on specifications or a “corporate” descriptions of what you do will be lost on most of your audience, not to mention can come off as self-indulgent and flat-out boring. On the other hand, a compelling and inspiring narrative about what you do, why you do it, and how it will make something better will help attract, captivate and motivate people.

What’s Your Story?

How is your product being created? What defines your corporate culture? Why do you do what you do? You’re looking for the things that your organization truly cares about and makes you unique and valuable to the world around you. If you’re having trouble figuring this out, get some insight from your employees and customers. These people interact with your brand; learning what makes your employees value your company and culture and what makes your customers value your products and brand can help you understand how your brand is positioned.

If Your Brand Was a Person, Who Would it Be?

Once you know why you matter and how to describe your value, you can create a persona that exemplifies this.  If your business was a human being, who would it be, how would it speak, and what would it care about? Are you quirky? Rugged? Analytical? That clarity leads to a real and relatable persona and humanized brand that helps you build a loyal customer base. This authenticity also helps convey openness, integrity and honesty; attributes that can pay big dividends for your business.

The tone your brand uses should reflect this persona and be consistent across all customer touch points. Some of these touch points include:

  • Your website
  • All social media channels
  • Your blog
  • Your newsletter
  • Videos
  • All transaction and service related inquiries

So it’s critical that all of your staff, particularly those that touch the customer, understand this persona and can accurately match the tone. If you have a strong company culture that is consistent with your brand, this persona should already resonate with the inherent personalities of your staff.

Take a hard look at your current content. Then think about how you can pull stories out of your organization and weave them into your content in a way that relates to your customer and ultimately builds your brand.

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How to Get Inside Your Customer’s Head

Companies looking to improve their website conversion rates often ask me something that I find rather farcical. “Can you tell me why aren’t my customers converting?” Sure, we can dive into the analytics. We can record user sessions. We can look at heat maps. Eye tracking. Run split tests. There are lots and lots of articles written about best practices for web/landing page design with a focus on conversion, and many of these are quite good. But my first question is, “Have you actually asked them?” They typically give me a look resembling something between perplexed and contrite and say “Um, no.”

On-Site Customer Surveys

We can analyze the website data and draw conclusions from it, but often the fastest and easiest option is to simply ask customers. On site survey software such as Qualaroo or Webengage allow you to create unique (even rules-based) on-site surveys so you can ask a simple, open-ended question like “Is there anything still preventing you from purchasing?” You might be amazed by what they are willing to tell you.

Abandoned Cart Email Follow Up

There are 3rd party abandoned cart follow up email tools that can automate this process. Additionally, a number of common email platforms that you might already be using for your email newsletters even allow rules-based triggers that you can create based on customers visiting certain pages of your site and not converting.  For example, something as simple as “Hi [Name], Thanks for visiting [Website Name.] We noticed that you did not complete your order for [product name] Is there anything currently preventing you from completing your purchase that we can assist you with? [Your Contact Info, Call to Action, Assurances, etc.]”

Mine Your Customer Data

On a related note, I also find it irrational when I hear from a company that “We get the same questions from customers over and over again.” I would simply ask, “Have you reviewed your website to make sure the answers to these questions are obvious?” It may be a fix as simple as adding another FAQ, adding additional product specs, or making a button bigger and more noticeable. Look at your customer inquiries. Talk to your customer service staff. They are a great resource to help you get inside the heads of your customers, because they are the ones actually interacting with them. Even reach out to your existing customers and ask them what made them become customers in the first place.

Build a Real Customer Profile

Now that you’ve asked the questions, can you use the answers to build a customer profile to get inside their head and understand their concerns? Their uncertainties? Their needs? Imagine if you proactively addressed all of these in your website copy and what that might do for your conversion rates! Rather than marketing “at” your potential customers on your site by rattling off features, you could instead actually be speaking their language and showing that you truly understand them. Your product or service is the solution to whatever problem they are facing or addresses their needs and you can provide it in such a way that they feel comfortable doing business with you. Wouldn’t you be more likely to buy from a company that you thought really understood you and presented a clear value proposition?

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Customer Service Is Not Enough. Customers Need to Be Surprised

Retail companies such as Amazon, Zappos, Bonobos, and Apple, as well as service businesses such as Virgin Atlantic (or Virgin America,) Disney theme parks, or USAA (insurance) have long been raising the bar for customer service excellence. Customers have come to expect it, or perhaps even take it for granted. In most industries there is simply too much competition; too many choices for customers to accept anything less than a great experience when dealing with a company. When is the last time a friend bragged to you, “I just ordered from company X and everything came right on time and just as described!” Or, “The waiter at that restaurant was totally fine!” Just meeting expectations doesn’t get anyone talking about your brand. Dramatically exceeding expectations gets customers spreading word of mouth about your brand…and so does dramatically disappointing customers.

Don’t Just Be Great. Be Memorable.

The truly memorable experiences are when brands surprise you with their service. When I placed an order with Zappos at 11 PM and got my order at 10 AM the next day (back when overnight shipping was standard for everyone,) that was surprising. And I told people. Even though overnight shipping is no longer automatic, Zappos still surprises customers with free upgrades to overnight. When I had dinner at a nice restaurant and the valet had my car waiting for me by the time I got out the front door because the host had radioed ahead to tell him that I was on my way out, that was surprising. And I told people about that, too. (It was Flagler Steakhouse in Palm Beach, to give them credit.) Those experiences stick with you and that is what branding is all about. At my previous company, I created a proprietary system that took digital photographs of each order as it was packed for shipping and additionally recorded the name of the person who packed it. This served multiple purposes. It allowed us to verify the contents of each shipment in the event that a customer claimed there was a mistake with the shipment. It recorded how many shipments were packed by each member of our shipping staff so that we could track various efficiency metrics. But the main reason I built it was so that we could surprise our customers with something they had never seen before from other retailers and provide a memorable customer service experience tied to our brand. When customers received an email informing them that their package had shipped, they didn’t just get a tracking number. They got a personalized email telling them who packed their shipment as well as a picture showing their items in a box ready to be sealed and shipped. And our customers wrote about how surprised they were to receive the photograph in their email. Not just to us, but posted it on other sites as well, resulting in great word of mouth marketing.

Once You Raise the Bar, You’re Left Holding it There.

One important point worth noting is that if your brand becomes known for customer service excellence, it is critical to uphold that level of service because any failure to meet the standards you have set for yourself have the opposite effect…the customer feels even more let down than normal because their expectations were so high. Ironically, I contacted Zappos customer service more recently when I happened to forget to pack a pair of dress shoes for an out of town event. I called them on a Thursday evening and asked if there was any way they could get me a pair of shoes to my hotel by Saturday.  I wouldn’t expect an average company to accommodate this request. But that’s why I didn’t call another company. I called Zappos, because I expected them to say, sure, we can either get them out tonight to arrive tomorrow (Friday,) or even send them out Friday and pay the extra for Saturday delivery. Instead, the rep quite curtly said there was nothing they could do. I hung up the phone in a haze of disappointment and disbelief, turned to my wife and said, “Zappos just told me they couldn’t help me.” And that stuck with me, too. The bar continues to be raised higher and higher. Soon Amazon will have a distribution network that will be one business day (or less) away from nearly the entire US population. Products and even many services often become commodities, making service the differentiator. So what experience can your business provide  that would surprise your customers? [button size=”extra-large” color=”mystic-red” url=”www.getonlinewithme.com/contact”]Help Surprise My Customers[/button]