Five New Rules of B2B Customer Storytelling

Have you heard the story "The Crow and the Pitcher"? A thirsty crow happens upon a pitcher of water, but the water is too low and out of reach.

Unable to knock the pitcher over, he fills it up with pebbles until the water is high enough for him to drink. The crow teaches us about ingenuity, and the importance of creative problem-solving.

The fable has a hero, tension, and a satisfying ending, and its origins trace back to the second century. Yes, people have been telling this story for nearly 2,000 years.

There is a classic structure to every good story. It begins with an opening scene. Over time, the reader is introduced to conflict and tension, escalating to a climax, and resolving with a conclusion that delivers an emotional impact.

People are natural storytellers. For centuries, storytelling was how people preserved traditions and cultures around the world.

Somewhere along the way, the stories told to the B2B community shifted. Stories became "case studies." Rising and falling actions were replaced by metrics and proof points. Buzzwords tied to "forward-looking metrics" were hammered into prospective customers' heads, and customers stopped reading.

Stories are back

The story is regaining relevance in B2B marketing. Storytelling is picking up speed at major corporations, and marketing professionals are realizing that metrics and value propositions alone won't resonate powerfully with their customers. Stories should be emotional.

The lines between B2B and B2C marketing have blurred, helped by the myriad ways that buying decisions are made between the two groups. B2B buyers demand consumer-style messaging more than ever before, requiring marketers to change the way they tell customer stories.

Storytelling requires a human-to-human connection—not a human-to-product messaging connection. We live in an attention economy. You have to give the reader something she can connect with to have a fighting chance of holding her interest.

To be clear, purchasing decisions in B2B marketing are not purely emotional. The rational buying triggers are just as important. But the way that a story is told must be relatable and expressive. Case in point, the release of the Halo 4 Big Data story. The largest free-to-play Halo online tournament in history demonstrates that just a few changes to the storytelling approach make a big difference.

  • The Halo 4 customer story received 3,357 percent more views than a traditional case study published the same day.
  • Of the 102 case studies published in March, the Halo 4 story was viewed 7.5 times more often than the second-most-viewed case study.
  • The Halo 4 customer story accounts for 26 percent of all views for all 102 case studies published by Microsoft in March.

Rational stories alone are proving to be forgettable and ineffective in building loyalty to your brand. Proof points are important, but don't let them consume the entire tale.

Here are five rules to help you bring your customer stories to life:

1. Write your story the same way you would tell your story.

Too many B2B publications use inaccessible, corporate language and a stuffy tone that makes reading a case study feel like a chore. Connect with your reader by writing like you are having a conversation with an old college friend. Buzzwords and jargon are alienating, and make your organization sound out of touch, or worse, unapproachable. Don't dumb-down your content, but do make it accessible and fun to read.

2. Tell your customer's customer story.

Let's say you're writing a success story about how much your customer has achieved by using your product or services. That's all well and good, but how does this success impact their customers? Try telling that story by digging down one level further. If your customer is saving money by using your solution, why not highlight how that is benefitting their customers?

3. Introduce tension.

Stories without tension are boring. No one wants to read a story where everything is perfect and becomes more perfect. Tension is part of everyday life. The best storytellers know how to draw out tension, conflict, and suspense.

4. Make it easy for a reader to relate to your story.

The traditional case study is alive and well because even if the story is dry, it's still a personal, powerful account of what "someone like me" went through. If buyers can see themselves as the hero in a story, they're more likely to take action. Use universal themes to connect with your reader—justice, good versus evil, the underdog that wins. Make the reader want—or even better, NEED—to see how your story ends.

5. Try something new—especially if it makes you uncomfortable.

It's easy to tell the same customer stories over and over, but that doesn't ignite passion or evoke a strong emotional response. Telling the same story in a new or different way is a great place to start. Write a story you want to read. Better yet, write the story you want to tell. Why are you passionate about your organization? Why should others care? How is your company transforming the industry? Edgy, risky content can either achieve staggering success or teach invaluable lessons—both of which are well worth the effort.

There's a reason storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of communication. People attach to stories, they remember them, and they retell them. The customers you make the heroes of their own stories today are your customers—and greatest advocates— tomorrow.

Mandy Emel is an account director at Metia, where she specializes in digital projects, content creation, and customer experience.

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