“…everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” Patrick Rothfuss, author
There’s a lot been written about storytelling within marketing generally, but I think one area where story should play an even larger role is Account Based Marketing.
Why storytelling in ABM?
Well, whilst it’s easy to see ABM at a tactical level, as a series of very personalised, orchestrated communications designed to help shape new opportunities or to help businesses make a purchase, this granular view often misses the bigger challenge or opportunity.
Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves why stories are so important. It’s true that they help us organise our messaging, they help audiences make sense of what we’re saying or doing, they bring structure and most importantly they help open the door to emotions and empathy – all powerful marketing tools. But there’s more.
Whether it’s a mission to change the world, to ‘slay a dragon’, or simply to learn and grow, stories are what bind people, teams and organisations together. From global brands down to local teams, it’s a sense of a shared story that connects people and directs their actions. Within a startup, teams may be bound together by a shared story that paints them as unlikely heroes fighting against conventions. A finance team within a large corporate may see themselves as guardians or shepherds of the herd.
So if our audience define themselves around a shared story – it’s probably important that we understand what that story is. If we can understand not simply the account we’re selling into, but the stories they are telling themselves and each other, then we’re in a much better place to change or shape that story.
Story shaping vs story telling
As brands and as marketers it can feel quite natural to take on the role of storyteller, to see ourselves as the big influencer. But deep down we know that’s really not the case.
The reality is that no matter how effective our communications, it’s what audiences talk to each other about that will make the biggest difference. Gartner’s research highlighted that buyers spend 22% of their time meeting with the internal buying group – more time than they spend meeting with suppliers, and a group whose opinions are likely to carry much more weight. (Gartner Insights B2B buying Journey)
So our real role is to shape the stories that our audiences tell each other. To give them the knowledge, the language, the facts and the narrative around which they can organise as a group.
This, we believe, is Account Based Marketing at its strategic best. Not dissecting an account into individuals, with individual priorities and needs, but bringing an account together. Overcoming inertia and giving people a new belief in what’s possible, helping the group to see a new and different future.
A new story
So how do you go about shaping a new story? Well, below we’ve listed the five things that we believe are most important.
- Understand the story today. Don’t simply research the needs and challenges of different individuals. Make sure that you understand the shared stories that bind those people together today. Don’t simply explore the different priorities of different people, make sure you understand how people relate to each other across the buying unit. Once you understand the story that exists today, you can start to unpick it, or shape it to your own advantage.
- Remember, what unites us is almost always more powerful than what separates us. In an age of mass personalisation it’s easy to get carried away with seeing your audience as individual islands, as people with their own unique needs who need to be dealt with as individuals. Whilst personalisation is vital, don’t let it get in the way of shaping a story that can unite people and bring them together. Remember that when you’re trying to drive change and overcome inertia, it’s big ideas that truly move people and organisations.
- Creativity matters. No matter how well you define your accounts, your audiences or their needs. No matter how meticulously you plan and calculate your approach, it’s creativity – connecting with people on a human level – that really makes the difference. So when you’re reviewing your next campaign, take the time to make sure that your communications will make your audience’s day a little better and brighter – not more cluttered and frustrating.
- The most powerful stories place your customers or audience at the heart of the story – not you! Whilst it’s tempting to make yourself the protagonist, try framing yourself as the assistant, the friend or the accomplice.
- Look beyond the hero’s journey. Now the ‘hero’s journey’ as a plot line is a great starting point to help you think about shaping a story. It helps you think about building empathy, identifying a goal, framing a problem, proposing a solution and offering a call to action, but it can be used as a bit of a ‘catch all’ and might not always be the best spur to creativity. So what other plots might help you shape your own story? Well, inspired by Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, we’ve developed our own shortlist of eight plots that can help B2B marketeers shape theirs stories most effectively:
- The Quest or The Golden Fleece
- Here the customer is on a quest to attain something or to get somewhere. But invariably they end up discovering something about themselves as they go on the journey. In the world of B2B this story can be helpful in reflecting the grander purpose or mission that lies behind a customer’s needs. It can be a powerful way of dramatising a situation and showing a potential customer the bigger mission they’re on. Think Lord of the Rings or any heist movie.
- Overcoming the monster
- Here our hero (our audience) is a on a mission to overcome an evil foe or challenge. It’s a problem they feel overwhelmed, even intimidated by, until they find the strength within themselves, or from a fellow traveller…
- Rags to Riches
- Here our audience have suffered a loss or a setback but are now on a mission to regain their former glory. These are ‘come back’ stories that plot a path to a brighter, better future. Think Cinderella or Rocky.
- This plot finds customers fighting to find themselves within an institution, a powerful system or a long-standing convention. These stories can be powerful for newcomers to industries or categories who want to either burn everything down or change the institution from the inside.
- Rite of Passage
- This is a journey of status as much as situation, marking our audience’s progress from one status to another. The story may reflect an individual’s changing roles; or an organisation’s evolution from startup to challenger, or from a fringe player to part of the establishment.
- Voyage and Return
- Sometimes the voyage itself is the focus. The end result may not yet be clear, but we believe that whatever happens we will come back changed and better for it. Organisations offering longer-term change projects or programmes may find this type of story useful for dealing with uncertain outcomes or destinations.
- Dude with a problem
- Sometimes creating saliency with a situation, moment or problem is the most important thing to do. By creating a story around the problem, something breaking, the need for action, we can make ourselves the answer or the solution without too much effort.
- Here our customer is on a mission to unravel a problem or a mystery, to find something out about either themselves or the world. The pull of the story is not simply finding out what has happened but finding out ‘Why’ it’s happened.
If you’d like to learn more about our approach to storytelling and how it can help you build more human connections, then please get in touch for a free, no obligation, ABM storytelling workshop.
Written by Tony Donnellan