Narrative design: How to create a story people can't ignore
What if we’re doing product positioning all wrong?
Storytelling can move mountains. It can change businesses. It can close deals that close before it can create average marketers into amazing marketers.
I hope you're at a company where they embrace storytelling and narrative design, because we're going to chase the white rabbit down the rabbit hole.
I started my career in 2010 at a startup called Wildfire.
While I was there, the company grew from a staff of 100 people to over 300. Ultimately, Wildfire was acquired by Google for a cool $400 million.
Was the secret the amazing team, product, or sales strategy? Nope, although those were all top-notch.
It’s the fact that Wildfire was riding a new wave. In a nutshell, we were teaching scrambling CMOs how to monetize Facebook.
We were one of the very few social media marketing software companies at the time.
We had this massive blue ocean to run it. So our marketing message and our sales message was really as simple as, ‘Hey, we're the social media marketing software company.’ That was it.
To illustrate Wildfire’s story, in 2011, there were 15 companies in Wildfire’s market space. Today, there are 1,969 companies in the exact same space and product category.
It's never been easier to start a company. It's never been easier to kind of get good at basic marketing and to spin this stuff up. And this is really the problem today.
Standard positioning advice teaches companies that they should start by figuring out what problem they solve and the value proposition they represent.
But when you're in a category of 2,000, nobody cares — even if you do that really, really well.
You just simply blend in with everybody else. There's a lot of problems with that problem/solution type of approach.
One result of taking a standard approach is that brands start to conform.
Often it’s by accident.
But when you take a step back, the effect of the magnetic pull of conformity becomes visible.
I call [it] the conformity of SaaS. Everyone looks and sounds the same across all of these companies.
We kind of took stock of our messaging and we're like hold on, you know, what is going on? We have the exact same value prop, same key message as the other, you know, three or four big companies in this space. Like, did we copy them? Did they copy us? Did we all just arrive at the same value prop through our own process?
However conformity like this happens, the bottom line is it’s problematic for customers.
When buyers are swimming in a sea of lookalike solutions, nothing seems to resonate with their individual business needs.
It puts on a burden on the buyer to do more legwork prior to making any decision.
The goal of product marketing therefore comes down to this: figure out how you differentiate, then turn that into a story that people can't ignore.
So how can brands seek to be original?
It starts by designing your own narrative, instead of letting yourself be defined by your category.
In the average market, there are several industry leaders who dominate 80% of the market share.
The remaining 20% of companies are left fighting over what remains.
I'm not talking about creating a new category. I don't think that works. I don't think that's good advice for the vast majority of businesses out there.
I'm talking about creating your own process and branding it into a new game and into something that you can communicate that gives you a way of standing out from everybody else.
Creating your own rulebook means committing to breaking away from the status quo.
In high school, there was nothing more terrifying than being markedly different. In some ways, that desire to blend in saturates our psyche and bleeds into our adult business ventures.
But charting a unique path is worth the risk.
It's better than being in these really, really red oceans.
We're at this point in the world and in B2B SaaS and marketing where people love it. People think it's awesome when you have a point of view when you have a brand, when you're different, when you're a little weird.
Sure, you run the risk of turning off or even offending a few people. But the zeal of the people you do convert will likely outweigh those losses.
If you've got 75% of people saying like, this is amazing, we love this. And 25% of people saying like, Hey, you're crazy. You did it. You're onto something.
Companies like HubSpot, Drift, and Gainsight do a good job thinking differently about narrative.
The first narrative that HubSpot rolled out was the inbound marketing narrative.
They didn’t talk about marketing automation, even though that was their market category.
Instead, they focused on inbound marketing because they knew it would help them stand out.
And they knew it would help them stand out because they knew people were struggling to adapt to a changing world.
The marketing landscape was changing fast, and HubSpot positioned itself to help marketers adapt.
Zoom is another timely example. They did an incredible job helping people adapt their business needs within the confines of a global pandemic. And they’ve subsequently reaped the rewards.
Yet another company, Gainsight, transformed the concept of customer support into “customer success.”
This framework has quickly become a new industry standard, and has effectively redefined the customer service market.
If you run with the right narrative positioning at the right time, it gives your company a fighting chance to go from underdog to top dog within your product category.
The problem with storytelling is that it’s subjective.
Your CEO, CMO, and CFO all might have very different ideas about what constitutes a good story, and whether a particular story resonates with them personally.
The key is to have a process.
Process does not have kill creativity. I think sometimes people worry about having too much of a process.
But honestly it helps, because it gives you this roadmap and this guidance that you can look at and say like, alright, these are the lines that I'm going to color inside of. And then you can really kind of unleash your creativity.
Having a defined roadmap will also help you surmount the biggest hurdle — getting buy-in from everyone in your company that needs to sign off.
In fact, the buy-in hurdle is partly what inspired me to create my current narrative design process.
I learned this process from Brian Halligan. I went into a pitch, into a meeting, with what I thought was a great narrative. And he stopped me and said: This is okay, but I want you to put it into this five-slide structure.
The great thing about it is that this five slide structure is known throughout the company. Everybody gets it, they believe in it.
So it removes that subjectivity. And it becomes this objective process that people understand, and that really, really works.
The result is the five-step process that I created specifically to help develop narrative design.
It has five steps. There's a particular way to do it.
There's all of these rules because I've branded my process and created a new game that I want you to learn. And it's helped me break through.
When you come up with a great story, you want to be able to tell it over and over again.
In different settings, in different formats, in different lengths, and for different audiences.
You want to have one big company story, but you can also use this in like a more of a micro-level.
Whether you're working with an individual PM, rolling out a new product line, trying to build a landing page, trying to write a blog post, trying to build a presentation — it works for everything.
Next, I break down my winning process for designing a successful narrative:
The best and brightest companies are those who are constantly scanning the horizon for change.
Those who can detect and react to changes the quickest are those that can act in the face of new trends.
They're constantly looking at the changes in human behaviors and trying to figure out what is new, what global macro trends are affecting people in ways that they need to adapt. And if there's ever a disconnect where it's like, ‘Hey, people have changed, but businesses haven't,’ that's opportunity.
The next phase is to illustrate how the change you identified in step #1 will impact your audience.
Being able to clearly articulate this is important. You want to really get under the skin of your audience in regards to the importance of your message.
You want them to understand that you genuinely care about their concerns and their well-being. This gets them to the point that they are hooked and ready to act.
Now that your audience is primed to take action, you tell them how. How can they adapt to the changes in their life so that the negative impacts you laid out are minimized?
I'm going to tell you how you can adapt to that change through a New Game, through something that I've branded that has a process.
Next, you want to explain why it’s difficult to adapt. Adapting is not simple — they can’t just flip a switch and transform on their own. There are challenges that need to be met.
There are hurdles and different threads that need to be tied together in a way that only you and your product can do.
Finally, in the last step, you introduce the product you’ve built to help your audience succeed. Now you can speak to how you will help them adapt to the change you presented in a concrete way.
This step cannot be glossed over: you need to build it out in clear detail.
The biggest myths that I see when people take on this process is that they don't spend enough time on how to adapt to the new game.
People think, “we can just come up with some fancy name, and then that'll be our way of breaking through. But there's no meat behind it. There's no meaning behind it.”
Not only is the competition fierce, but people are more skeptical.
They're technically savvier than in years past, and they're slower to adopt new technology.
While consumers have adapted swiftly to the brave new tech world we are in, businesses have been slower on the uptake. Only now are we seeing being “customer-centric” as being essential to brand strategy.
It has to be meaningful. It has to be real. It has to be well-built out.
If you get heads nodding and people agreeing, and you can figure all of this out with really good positioning, you're pulling people down a specific path.
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