Nov 24, 2023 5 min read

The Value of Customer Storytelling in Marketing

Telling your customer stories makes for better marketing. So, what makes a good customer story? 
The Value of Customer Storytelling in Marketing

Telling your customer stories makes for better marketing. So, what makes a good customer story? 

Once upon a time, newspapers boosted sales by publishing sensationalist headlines with shallow stories. This tactic sold copies. But the day a competitor had a splashier, flashier headline, audiences bought that paper instead. Publishers ended up constantly trading audiences. 

They needed a better approach.

That’s when Joseph Pulitzer hired a journalist named Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, otherwise known as Nellie Bly, to work at his paper, the New York World.

Nellie did investigative journalism. Her stories dug deep into issues and the people involved. Today, journalism students study Nellie Bly, whose work influenced social and public policy reform, broke the gender barrier in a male-dominated field, added ‘meaty sizzle’ to journalistic practices, and stories of her trip around the world in 72 days… and more.

Nellie emphasized telling stories, and her style of journalism was immersive. It drew readers in. And for probably the first time, newspapers developed a long-lasting following (and probably sold more copies). All because of good storytelling.

What are key elements of a good story?

In my last article, I shared how important it is to share your customer stories. As believable third parties advocating for your company and your products, your customers can do a more impactful job of selling your company, products and/or services better than you ever could.

Relatability - the best Superbowl ads have the most relatable narrative arc. Connect with your audience by ‘keeping it real’ and saturating the story with the human element. More on that, below. A story about a real person is believable.  More believable than most of your marketing claims. It can’t be faked because you’re quoting a real person. 

Novelty - Not everyone is good at telling a story. Hire a good marketing writer to add the sizzle to your steak. A good writer can craft written stories as well as video scripts. Working with a good videographer with customer story / case study experience will also make the difference between ‘blah’ and ‘wow!’

Tension - Your customer has a quest to undertake, a dragon to slay. For example: A restaurant owner faces difficulty recruiting reliable staff amid rising costs. They overcome this difficulty by optimizing their operations using your staff recruitment software. 

Story arc - You need to tell a complete story, and a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is creating their customer stories extremely short in an attempt to cater to attention-starved audiences. An ROI-focused headline, a list of bulleted facts, and a single obligatory customer quote won’t properly engage readers. This kind of “case study” leaves out tension, eschews the journey, and ignores the human element.

Characters - A story has a hero and an antagonist. In your customer stories, make your customer the hero. You, as the company selling the product, are the hero’s sherpa, the Squire helping the Knight, helping them throughout their quest. 

The story needs to be your customer’s story. Make 90% about the customer-Knight and 10% about you, the Squire. 

If possible, include characters besides the main hero. People relate to people. So make your story and its characters relatable. If your customer is a restaurant, include narratives about and quotes from not only your main character but also other people who use or are impacted by your product or solution. 

Even though many people tend to not want to be in the limelight, most don't mind sharing a story. If they share a personal anecdote or off-the-cuff insight when you interview them, don’t let it fall to the cutting room floor. 

Personal = relatable. 

In the food and beverage space, especially among small and medium businesses, there tends to be a lot of ‘heart’ and caring behind why people do what they do. This is all the more reason to share any personal tidbits that come out and make your customer stories highly relatable, perhaps with photos of the people quoted, the restaurant, the food, etc.

Remember the value of making an emotional connection through your marketing. Customer stories do this better than any product page on your web site.

The flip side of creating a personal, emotional connection through customer storytelling is leading with, or focusing too much on, metrics. Numbers. Return on Investment (ROI) claims. Bleh.

While these are highly valuable as proof points to help prospects justify a purchase, and every salesperson, marketer, and CFO wants to have metrics to point to, you can ruin a good, engaging, human interest story by leading with them. People got into - and stayed in -  the hospitality business for deep reasons beyond earning a living. Data and metrics and ROI are intellectual constructs. Cold. Capture and include them but don’t spoil a good hero’s quest with them by making them the headline. In fact, you could consider downplaying the metrics or leaving them out of the published customer story altogether, including them, instead, in a case study summary slide used in sales presentations, and as ‘sound bite’ proof points in your data sheets. 

What are a few examples of businesses that do a decent job of incorporating storytelling?

The fastest growing business in history grew in part through storytelling. Every email that Groupon sent contained a funny, comedic, fake story. Recipients were more likely to open, forward, and share. It created stickiness. People actually looked forward to their Groupon emails. Emails went viral and so did their business. 

American Express tells stories about helping businesses succeed but with an element that audiences can relate to, e.g., the context of the current state of the economy.

GE Reports shares stories about interesting projects that employees and contractors inside the company are working on. Interesting. Relatable. Human. 

TouchBistro restaurant management software has one of the best collections of excellent customer stories published.  (Disclaimer - I’m a former CMO of TouchBistro)

What About PR (Public Relations)?

If you have ever tried to get an industry publication to pick up a story about your company or your products, you may have felt like you were hitting a wall. You probably faced the question, “Do you have a story about an actual operator using your product or service?”

Be ready to pull an actual compelling customer reference and/or story out of your cook’s apron, and you’ll be far more likely to get press coverage.

All the reasons I’ve already shared come into play: the press wants relatable stories about real people and situations because it’s what audiences want. In fact, in my go-to-market consulting practice, I advise my clients to skip press releases and hiring a PR firm until they have actual customer success stories created and published or at least queued up, with customers onboard (ideally contractually obligated) with sharing the story of their success with your solution.

How can you get customers interested in serving as a reference? 

Your customer stories should put operators in the limelight. If you promote your operators, advancing their business and careers, telling stories in video and written format that they can share and use themselves, you will garner goodwill with your operators. But not just your operators. Remember in my last article I shared that restaurant owners and managers look to their peers for insights, inspiration, ideas, and more. Share the stories of their peers through your customer stories, and you will generate interest from new prospects among your target audience(s).

Still, some customers may be hesitant to participate in a case study. To engage them, there are a number of possible tactics you can try, ranging from transactional to relational. Let’s dive into this topic in my next article.

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