Given the current smart technology use and rampant personal data sharing trends among consumers, companies are looking for effective ways to connect and engage with their target customer base without appearing too pushy, insensitive, or intrusive. This is a tricky endeavor since most companies are also starved for time and pressured to beat the competition in terms of financial performance. To add another layer of challenges, companies are also expected to deliver results and respond to customers’ issues within minutes rather than days. Simply put, industry environments are changing fast and companies do not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines to see how things play out.
To truly succeed in today’s intensely competitive industries, marketers must shift their focus from traditional “push” and “pull” to “share” marketing strategies. Print advertising (“push” media) provides information about products/services, but does very little to engage with the target audience. Television advertising (“pull” media) entertains and evokes emotions, but does not enable the target audience to respond and engage. In essence, both “push” and “pull” media fall short of allowing the target audience to engage with the advertiser and build reciprocal relationships.
Face-to-face and social media interactions are forms of “share” marketing tactics that facilitate two-way, reciprocal interactions between marketers and their target audience. Such efforts foster empathy and build trust, and therefore prompt the target audience to engage with the advertiser and emulate specific (“advertised”) behavior. In the “share” marketing realm, customers are not viewed as targets, but rather as partners who are there to help the company achieve its goals (introduce or sell products/services, promote various causes, or expand its customer base) and provide feedback. “Share” marketing strategies focus on storytelling and effectively using stories to connect and build long-term, “We” relationships with customers. Neither side has the upper hand. Instead, marketers and their target audience are equally needed to tell a complete story. Without either side, the company’s story is incomplete.
Aside from face-to-face interactions with customers, social media websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter, are the next best vehicles for effective customer engagement. Such websites blur the lines between producer, seller and consumer, and enable all three groups to connect and share common interests and experiences. This mutual exchange helps companies appear more humble and human, and also gives a powerful platform for consumers to voice their opinions. Furthermore, with the help of storytelling, companies gain valuable insight and build long-lasting relationships with customers, and customers gain access to brands they like, as well as the opportunity to influence those brands.
The beauty of storytelling as a marketing strategy is two-fold; it inspires companies to share what is special about their brand(s) and it brings consumers closer to the brands they follow. Companies’ stories do not have to rival those of professional storytellers either. The most important ingredients are thoughtfulness, genuine want to interact with the audience, and encouragement of the audience to respond. A story can be five paragraphs, five sentences, or five words long. Each company’s stories are unique and therefore do not need to conform to any cookie cutter rules. There often is a lot of beauty, spontaneity and genuine value in messy stories. The overall goal is to share and engage, and not to publish award winning essays.
Here are a few types of stories that companies should share with their customers:
- Historical/Timeline. Retelling the company’s history or the history of its products/services in form of a timeline is a great way to convey longevity and credibility. For example, a photo status update on the company’s Facebook Page can show some type of a timeline and ask its Fans to share what they remember about a specific time on the timeline.
- Testimonial/Proof of Recovery. It is never a good idea to shy away from sharing negative customer service scenarios, as long as the company can show that the customer’s grievance was resolved and the customer was made whole. Such stories show that the company does not pretend to be perfect and that it works hard to correct imperfect customer experiences. Positive customer feedback stories show that the company can be trusted.
- Humor. This type of storytelling must be extra scrutinized because it lends itself to potentially offending customers. Funny stories that are too sexual, have heavy religious undertones, promote specific political views, or carry any other offensive connotations should be avoided because they can alienate certain customers and devalue brand equity.
- Special Cause. Generally speaking, consumers like to do business with companies that support various charitable causes, especially if such causes are close to their own heart. Such stories show the public that company management “has a heart” and also encourage customers to get involved.
- Celebratory. People like to be happy, and happy stories make people happy. Sharing videos and photos of various celebrations, especially if they include the company’s customers, is a perfect way to re-live such events and also include those who were not in attendance.
- Biographical. It is true that most people are looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. What is even more true is that social media websites allow companies to make their customers feel famous, even if it is just for a few minutes. Companies should profile customers on their social media pages and encourage others to submit their own information to be featured in future posts.
- Nostalgia. Sharing photos of celebrities, famous quotes, or pop culture events awakens nostalgic feelings and prompts customers to associate such feelings with the company’s brand(s). This is a great way to tell customers that the company know what they like and value, and also that those things also mean something special to the company itself. This creates a sense of “we are the same”.
- Special Announcements. Whether it is a new products introduction or new employee hire, customers like when such information is shared with them. It makes them feel like they are “in the know”. It also helps them get to know the company better and encourages them to offer their own feedback.
- Solicitation for Help. Asking customers for help does not mean that the company is not capable of solving its own problems. Instead, it means that the company values its customers’ opinion and wants to hear what they have to say. This is a very powerful way to introduce new products or ideas, and also get fast customer buy-in.
- Exclusive Offers. Posting an online coupon is not a good example of storytelling, but posting a story about a special offer that helped a customer save money and accomplish his/her goal with the help of the company’s product/service is a brilliant way to use storytelling as a promotional tool. Such stories can be cheesy, but they should not be too gimmicky. Customers will pick up on stories that are not genuine and may revolt as a result.
The bottom line for marketers in 2014 is to focus more on sharing and caring than on preaching and teaching. Companies must go the extra mile to be perceived as genuine, caring and authentic. Storytelling helps them do just that. Once the company has captured consumers hearts, it is much easier to capture a share of their wallet.
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