This article is made of quotes and highlights from the book Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller.
Human beings are constantly scanning their environment (even advertising) for information that is going to help them meet their primitive need to survive.
- The first mistake brands make is they fail to focus on the aspects of their offer that will help people survive and thrive.
- The second mistake brands make is they cause their customers to burn too many calories in an effort to understand their offer.
The key is to make your company’s message about something that helps the customer survive and to do so in such a way that they can understand it without burning too many calories.
Here is nearly every story you see or hear in a nutshell:
- A CHARACTER who wants something
- encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it.
- At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives,
- gives them a PLAN,
- and CALLS THEM TO ACTION.
- That action helps them avoid FAILURE
- and ends in a SUCCESS.
Truly creative and brilliant marketers and screenwriters know how to use the formula while still avoiding cliché.
There are three questions potential customers must answer if we expect them to engage with our brand. They should be able to answer these questions within five seconds of looking at our website or marketing material:
- What do you offer?
- How will it make my life better?
- What do I need to do to buy it?
1. THE CUSTOMER IS THE HERO, NOT YOUR BRAND.
When giving a speech, position yourself as Yoda and your audience as Luke Skywalker. Once we identify who our customer is, we have to ask ourselves what they want as it relates to our brand.
2. COMPANIES TEND TO SELL SOLUTIONS TO EXTERNAL PROBLEMS, BUT CUSTOMERS BUY SOLUTIONS TO INTERNAL PROBLEMS.
Customers are attracted to us for the same reason heroes are pulled into stories: they want to solve a problem that has, in big or small ways, disrupted their peaceful life.
3. CUSTOMERS AREN’T LOOKING FOR ANOTHER HERO; THEY’RE LOOKING FOR A GUIDE.
4. CUSTOMERS TRUST A GUIDE WHO HAS A PLAN.
What customers are looking for, then, is a clear path we’ve laid out that takes away any confusion they might have about how to do business with us.
5. CUSTOMERS DO NOT TAKE ACTION UNLESS THEY ARE CHALLENGED TO TAKE ACTION.
Characters only take action after they are challenged by an outside force.
6. EVERY HUMAN BEING IS TRYING TO AVOID A TRAGIC ENDING.
We must show people the cost of not doing business with us.
Brands that help customers avoid some kind of negativity in life (and let their customers know what that negativity is) engage customers for the same reason good stories captivate an audience: they define what’s at stake.
7. NEVER ASSUME PEOPLE UNDERSTAND HOW YOUR BRAND CAN CHANGE THEIR LIVES. TELL THEM.
If we don’t tell people where we’re taking them, they’ll engage another brand.
1. The customer is the hero, not your brand.
Building social networks.
If our brand can help us find community, we’ve tapped into yet another survival mechanism. We only think we’re being nice when we bring our coworkers coffee, but what if we’re actually being nice because our primitive brains want to make sure we are connected to a tribe in case the bad guys come knocking at the door? Add this to the fact that human beings have a strong desire to nurture and be nurtured, and we’ve tapped into yet another survival mechanism.
Luxury brands like Mercedes and Rolex don’t make much practical sense in terms of survival, right? In fact, spending lots of money buying a luxury car when a more common brand would do the trick seems counter to our survival, doesn’t it? Not when you consider the importance of status. Status, in any tribe, is a survival mechanism. It projects a sense of abundance that may attract powerful allies, repel potential foes (like a lion with a loud roar), and if we’re into shallow companions, might even help us secure a mate. Rolex, Mercedes, Louis Vuitton, and other luxury brands are truly selling more than just cars and watches; they’re selling an identity associated with power, prestige, and refinement.
So how do we offer potential customers a sense of meaning?
Not unlike giving our customers the opportunity to be generous, we invite them to participate in something greater than themselves. A movement. A cause to champion. A valiant fight against a real villain, be that villain flesh and blood or a harmful philosophy.
The goal for our branding should be that every potential customer knows exactly where we want to take them: a luxury resort where they can get some rest, to become the leader everybody loves, or to save money and live better.
2. Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems.
If we want our customers’ ears to perk up when we talk about our products and services, we should position those products and services as weapons they can use to defeat a villain.
- The villain should be a root source. Frustration, for example, is not a villain; frustration is what a villain makes us feel. High taxes, rather, are a good example of a villain.
- The villain should be relatable. When people hear us talk about the villain, they should immediately recognize it as something they disdain.
- The villain should be singular. One villain is enough. A story with too many villains falls apart for lack of clarity.
- The villain should be real. Never go down the path of being a fearmonger. There are plenty of actual villains out there to fight. Let’s go after them on behalf of our customers.
In a story, a villain initiates an external problem that causes the character to experience an internal frustration that is, quite simply, philosophically wrong.
People’s internal desire to resolve a frustration is a greater motivator than their desire to solve an external problem.
If we can identify that frustration, put it into words, and offer to resolve it along with the original external problem, something special happens. We bond with our customers because we’ve positioned ourselves more deeply into their narrative.
Framing our products as a resolution to both external and internal problems increases the perceived value of those products.
A philosophical problem can best be talked about using terms like ought and shouldn’t. “Bad people shouldn’t be allowed to win” or “People ought to be treated fairly.”
Can your products be positioned as tools your customers can use to fight back against something that ought not be?
If we really want our business to grow, we should position our products as the resolution to an external, internal, and philosophical problem and frame the “Buy Now” button as the action a customer must take to create closure in their story.
3. Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.
A brand that positions itself as the hero is destined to lose. Always position your customer as the hero and your brand as the guide. Always. If you don’t, you will die.
The two things a brand must communicate to position themselves as the guide are:
When Luke Skywalker meets Yoda, he encounters the perfect guide.
When we empathize with our customers’ dilemma, we create a bond of trust. People trust those who understand them, and they trust brands that understand them too.
Empathetic statements start with words like, “We understand how it feels to...” or “Nobody should have to experience...” or “Like you, we are frustrated by...”
Real empathy means letting customers know we see them as we see ourselves. Customers look for brands they have something in common with.
When I talk about authority, I’m really talking about competence. When looking for a guide, a hero trusts somebody who knows what they’re doing. The guide doesn’t have to be perfect, but the guide needs to have serious experience helping other heroes win the day.
Let others do the talking for you. If you have satisfied customers, place a few testimonials on your website.
Testimonials give potential customers the gift of going second. They know others have worked with you and attained success. Avoid stacking ten to twenty testimonials; otherwise you run the risk of positioning yourself as the hero. Three is a great number to start with and will serve the need most customers have to make sure you know what you are doing. Also, avoid rambling testimonials that heap endless praise on your brand. It won’t take long for a customer to trust you, so keep a testimonial brief.
How many satisfied customers have you helped? How much money have you helped them save? By what percentage have their businesses grown since they started working with you?
4. Customers trust a guide who has a plan.
All effective plans do one of two things:
- They either clarify how somebody can do business with us, or
- They remove the sense of risk somebody might have if they’re considering investing in our products or services.
The first kind of plan, and the one we recommend every one of our clients employ, is a process plan. A process plan can describe the steps a customer needs to take to buy our product, or the steps the customer needs to take to use our product after they buy it, or a mixture of both.
A post-purchase process plan is best used when our customers might have problems imagining how they would use our product after they buy it.
If doing business with you requires more than six steps, break down those steps into phases and describe the phases.
The best way to arrive at an agreement plan is to list all the things your customer might be concerned about as it relates to your product or service and then counter that list with agreements that will alleviate their fears.
5. Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.
The reason characters have to be challenged to take action is because everybody sitting in the dark theater knows human beings do not make major life decisions unless something challenges them to do so.
There should be a “Buy Now” button in the top right corner of your website, and it shouldn’t be cluttered with a bunch of other buttons. The same call to action should be repeated above the fold and in the center of your website, and again and again as people scroll down the page.
They can’t read our minds and they don’t know what we want, even if it seems obvious. We have to clearly invite customers to take a journey with us or they won’t.
Most people think they’re overselling when, in truth, their calls to action fall softer than a whisper.
We recommend two kinds of calls to action:
- direct calls to action
- transitional calls to action.
They work like two phases of a relationship.
A direct call to action is something that leads to a sale, or at least is the first step down a path that leads to a sale. Transitional calls to action, however, contain less risk and usually offer a customer something for free.
As a brand, it’s our job to pursue our customers. We want to get to know them and for them to get to know us, but we are the ones who need to take the initiative.
Examples of direct calls to action are:
- Order now
- Call today
- Schedule an appointment
- Register today
- Buy now
Samples: If you can give away free samples of your product, do it. Offering a customer the ability to test-drive a car, taste your seasoning, sample your music, or read a few pages of your book are great ways to introduce potential customers to your products.
6. Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.
The benefits of featuring the potential pitfalls of not doing business with us are much easier to include than we may think. Blog subjects, e-mail content, and bullet points on our website can all include elements of potential failure to give our customers a sense of urgency when it comes to our products and services.
We don’t bring up the negative stakes enough and so the story we’re telling falls flat. Remember, if there are no stakes, there is no story.
According to Kahneman, in certain situations, people are two to three times more motivated to make a change to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain.
A four-step process called a “fear appeal”:
- We must make a reader (or listener) know they are vulnerable to a threat. For example: “Nearly 30 percent of all homes have evidence of termite infestation.”
- We should let the reader know that since they’re vulnerable, they should take action to reduce their vulnerability. “Since nobody wants termites, you should do something about it to protect your home.”
- We should let them know about a specific call to action that protects them from the risk. “We offer a complete home treatment that will insure your house is free of termites.”
- We should challenge people to take this specific action. “Call us today and schedule your home treatment.”
7. Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.
In a simple grid, we see how our customers’ lives will look after they engage us, how they will feel, what their average day will look like, and what kind of new status they will enjoy. Filling out this grid for your brand is a terrific exercise.
We must tell our customers what their lives will look like after they buy our products, or they will have no motivation to do so. We have to talk about the end vision we have for their lives in our keynotes, in our e-mail blasts, on our websites, and everywhere else.
Images are also important when it comes to casting a vision for our customers.
Whatever it is you sell, show us people happily engaging with the product.
The three dominant ways storytellers end a story is by allowing the hero to
- Win some sort of power or position.
- Be unified with somebody or something that makes them whole.
- Experience some kind of self-realization that also makes them whole.
1. Winning Power and Position (The Need for Status)
Everybody wants status, which is evidenced by the number of “coming-of-age” stories in which a character realizes they’ve got what it takes to run with the big dogs.
The primary function of our brain is to help us survive and thrive, and part of survival means gaining status. If our brand can participate in making our customers more esteemed, respected, and appealing in a social context, we’re offering something they want.
How can our brand offer status? There are many ways:
- Offer access
- Create scarcity
- Offer a premium
- Offer identity association
2. Union That Makes the Hero Whole (The Need for Something External to Create Completeness)
A superhero deficient in a particular way could be helped out by another superhero who reenters the story at the end, for example.
The controlling idea of this kind of ending is that the character is rescued by somebody or something else that they needed in order for them to be made complete.
So what are some of the ways we can offer external help for customers looking to become complete or whole? Here are a few examples:
- Reduced anxiety:
- Reduced workload
- More time
3. Ultimate Self-Realization or Acceptance (The Need to Reach Our Potential)
Once proven, the heroes realize an inner peace and can finally accept themselves because they’ve reached their potential.
How can a brand offer a sense of ultimate self-realization or self-acceptance? Here are a few ideas:
- Inspiration: If an aspect of your brand can offer or be associated with an inspirational feat, open the floodgates.
- Acceptance: Helping people accept themselves as they are isn’t just a thoughtful thing to do; it’s good marketing.
- Transcendence: Brands that invite customers to participate in a larger movement offer a greater, more impactful life along with their products and services.
We need to show repeatedly how our product or service can make somebody’s life better.
PEOPLE WANT YOUR BRAND TO PARTICIPATE IN THEIR TRANSFORMATION
Brands that participate in the identity transformation of their customers create passionate brand evangelists.
Feelings of self-doubt are universal, as is the desire to become somebody competent and courageous. And all of this matters when it comes to branding our products and services.
The best way to identify an aspirational identity that our customers may be attracted to is to consider how they want their friends to talk about them. Think about it. When others talk about you, what do you want them to say? How we answer that question reveals who it is we’d like to be.
GREAT BRANDS OBSESS ABOUT THE TRANSFORMATION OF THEIR CUSTOMERS
A hero needs somebody else to step into the story to tell them they’re different, they’re better. That somebody is the guide. That somebody is you.
START WITH YOUR WEBSITE
When they get to our website, their “hopes need to be confirmed,” and they need to be convinced we have a solution to their problem.
THE FIVE THINGS YOUR WEBSITE SHOULD INCLUDE
1. An Offer Above the Fold
Customers need to know what’s in it for them right when they read the text. The text should be bold and the statement should be short. It should be easy to read and not buried under buttons and clutter.
Above the fold, make sure the images and text you use meet one of the following criteria:
- They promise an aspirational identity.
- They promise to solve a problem.
- They state exactly what they do.
2. Obvious Calls to Action
There are two main places we want to place a direct call to action. The first is at the top right of our website and the second is in the center of the screen, above the fold.
3. Images of Success
Everybody wants to experience a better life in some way or another, and while it may seem simple, images of people smiling or looking satisfied speak to us. They represent an emotional destination we’d like to head toward.
4. A Bite-Sized Breakdown of Your Revenue Streams
The first challenge is to find an overall umbrella message that unifies your various streams.
Once we have an umbrella message, we can separate the divisions using different web pages and different BrandScripts. The key is clarity.
5. Very Few Words
The rule is this: the fewer words you use, the more likely it is that people will read them.
Five (almost free) things you can do to grow your business
- Create a One-liner
- Create a Lead Generator and Collect E-mail Addresses.
- Create an Automated E-Mail Drip Campaign.
- Collect and Tell Stories of Transformation.
- Create a System That Generates Referrals.
1. CREATE A ONE-LINER FOR YOUR COMPANY
Imagine memorizing a single statement you could repeat after anybody asks what you do. And imagine that statement being relevant to the needs of potential customers.
If you use the following four components, you’ll craft a powerful one-liner:
- The Character
- The Problem
- The Plan
- The Success
Let’s say your demographic is soccer moms and you sell a Pilates class. Your one-liner might be, “We help busy mothers get a weekly, meaningful workout so they feel healthy and full of energy.”
- The Character: Moms
- The Problem: Busy schedules
- The Plan: Short, meaningful workouts
- The Success: Health and renewed energy
“We provide busy moms with a short, meaningful workout they can use to stay healthy and have renewed energy.”
- The Character: Retired couples
- The Problem: A second mortgage
- The Plan: A time-share option
- The Success: Avoiding those cold, northern winters
“We help retired couples who want to escape the harsh cold avoid the hassle of a second mortgage while still enjoying the warm, beautiful weather of Florida in the winter.”
At StoryBrand, our one-liner is “Most business leaders don’t know how to talk about their company, so we created a framework that helps them simplify their message, create great marketing material, connect with customers, and grow their business.”
Here are a few ways to put it to work:
- Memorize your one-liner and repeat it over and over.
- Have your team memorize the one-liner
- Include it on your website.
- Repeat your one-liner in every piece of marketing collateral possible.
2. CREATE A LEAD-GENERATOR AND COLLECT E-MAIL ADDRESSES
E-mail is the most valuable and effective way you can spread the word about your business, especially if your company revenue is under $5 million and you don’t have a large marketing budget.
So how do we get people to join our e-mail list? We offer them something valuable in return, something more valuable than the vague offer of a newsletter. This “something” is a lead generator, a resource that magnetically attracts people to our businesses and invites them to take action.
We call this a transitional call to action. A transitional call to action, if you remember, is like asking potential customers out on a date.
Your lead generator must do two things:
- Provide enormous value for your customer
- Establish you as an authority in your field
Five Types of Lead Generators for All Types of Businesses
- Downloadable Guide
- Online Course or Webinar
- Software Demos or a Free Trial
- Free Samples
- Live Events
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Leverage these proven examples and create something similar:
- “5 Mistakes People Make with Their First Million Dollars” — A downloadable PDF guide offered by a financial advisor who wanted to find young, newly wealthy clients to help them with their financial planning.
- “Building Your Dream Home: 10 Things to Get Right Before You Build” — A free e-book offered by an architect who wanted to establish herself as a guide to families looking to build a custom home.
- “Cocktail Club: Learn to Make One New Cocktail Each Month” — This was a monthly event surprisingly put on by a garden store that taught attendees how to infuse bitters and simple syrups with herbs. The objective for this promotion was to create a community around their store. Business is booming (or should I say blooming) because people want to attend their classes.
- “Becoming a Professional Speaker” — A free online course offered by a speaking coach for those who wanted to become professional speakers. This generated leads for long-term subscriptions to his coaching service.
I recommend creating a pop-up feature on your site that, after ten seconds or so of the browser arriving, offers your resource to the user.
3. CREATE AN AUTOMATED E-MAIL DRIP CAMPAIGN
Content is important, but the point is, there is great power in simply reminding our customers we exist.
If someone unsubscribes from your list, that’s a good thing. That person will probably never buy from you anyway, and it reduces the size of your list so you aren’t paying your e-mail service provider for e-mails that are dead weight.
The one we recommend starting with is the nurturing campaign. A nurturing campaign is a simple, regular e-mail that offers your subscribers valuable information as it relates to your products or services.
A typical nurturing campaign may have an e-mail going out once each week, and the order might look like this:
- E-mail #1: Nurturing e-mail
- E-mail #2: Nurturing e-mail
- E-mail #3: Nurturing e-mail
- E-mail #4: Sales e-mail with a call to action
A good way to craft each nurturing e-mail is to use an effective formula that offers simple, helpful advice to a customer. I’ve been using this formula for years and customers love it.
- Talk about a problem.
- Explain a plan to solve the problem.
- Describe how life can look for the reader once the problem is solved.
I also recommend including a postscript, or the P.S. Often, the P.S. is the only thing somebody who opens a mass e-mail will actually read.
Subject: Should We Free Feed Our Dogs? Dear Name,
At Crest Hill Boarding we’re often asked whether it’s okay to free feed our dogs. It’s certainly the easiest way to make sure a dog always has food and never goes hungry. But there are some problems with free feeding. Dogs that are free fed often gain excess fat later in life and health problems can occur without our noticing.
We recommend feeding your dog a set amount, once or twice per day. After twenty minutes, if your pet hasn’t eaten their food, we recommend discarding the excess and waiting until the next set time to feed them again. By sticking to a set amount and set schedule, you’ll be able to monitor what your dog eats and also be able to diagnose any illness your pet may be suffering from that is making them lose their appetite.
This will ensure your dog stays healthy and happy long into their life. Here’s to enjoying our pets for a long, long time.
P.S. As for how much each dog should be fed, it really depends on how old your dog is and how big. Next time you and your dog are in the shop, introduce us to your dog and we’ll tell you everything we know about the breed.
The Offer and Call to Action E-mail
About every third or fourth e-mail in a nurturing campaign should offer a product or service to the customer. The key here is to be direct. You don’t want to be passive, because being passive communicates weakness. In this e-mail you are clearly making an offer.
The formula might look like this:
- Talk about a problem.
- Describe a product you offer that solves this problem.
- Describe what life can look like for the reader once the problem is solved.
- Call the customer to a direct action leading to a sale.
4. COLLECT AND TELL STORIES OF TRANSFORMATION
People love movies about characters who transform, and they love businesses that help them experience transformation themselves. One of the best ways we can illustrate how we help our customers transform is through customer testimonials.
Weaving together a compelling tale of transformation means you have to ask the right questions—you need some raw materials to work with.
Here are five questions most likely to generate the best response for a customer testimonial:
- What was the problem you were having before you discovered our product?
- What did the frustration feel like as you tried to solve that problem?
- What was different about our product?
- Take us to the moment when you realized our product was actually working to solve your problem.
- Tell us what life looks like now that your problem is solved or being solved.
5. CREATE A SYSTEM THAT GENERATES REFERRALS
IDENTIFY YOUR EXISTING, IDEAL CUSTOMERS
What if creating a special database of existing, passionate customers and communicating with them differently can help you generate referrals?
GIVE YOUR CUSTOMERS A REASON TO SPREAD THE WORD
Consider creating a PDF or video that you automatically send to existing clients along with an e-mail that goes something like this:
Thanks for doing business with us.
A number of our clients have wanted to tell their friends about how we help customers, but they aren’t sure how to do so. We’ve put together a little video that will help your friends solve X problem.
If you have any friends with X problem, feel free to send it along. We’d be happy to follow up with any of them, and we’ll be sure to let you know whether we could help.
We know you value your relationships and so do we. If your friends are experiencing a problem we’ve helped you solve, we’d love to help them too.
If there’s anything else we can do, please let us know.
P.S. X Problem can be frustrating. If you’d rather introduce us to your friend in person, just let us know. We are more than happy to meet with them in their place of business or at our office.
OFFER A REWARD
Another way to offer a reward is to start an affiliate program. You can offer your customers a 10 percent commission on the orders they bring to you.
Simply include any customer who places one or two orders in an automated campaign that offers them an educational video or PDF they can pass on, an added value for telling their friends about you, or a bonus or even a commission. Make sure the system opts customers out after placing several orders so you don’t hit every customer every time they order with another sales pitch. We don’t want to risk annoying people.