John Fries is a marketing, branding, public relations,
and media professional, writer, graphic designer and
digital media producer with more than three decades
of strategic, creative and leadership experience and an
extensive track record of results. He helps companies and organizations of all sizes build their brands, engage their audiences and communicate compelling stories through a range of strategic solutions and creative services.
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Storytelling 101: Using Success Stories to Sell:
8 Steps for Crafting Case Studies that Grab Attention
and Get Read
By John Fries
If 2015 has a theme in the world of marketing, it's The Age of Content. We all know that content matters, that great content helps grow business and that there's lots and lots of content out there--some good, some bad and some downright ugly. Content marketing only helps a company when it's able to grab attention, sustain reader interest and establish the business or personal brand it represents as authoritative and credible, eventually leading the reader to respond in some way to the writer, usually in the form of a transaction.
Maybe you're determined to start doing content marketing marketing in the new year. What is it that people want to read--and what will stand out in the vast and ever-widening sea of words, pictures and videos that's already out there?
Here's where I suggest you go old school, like back to the beginning of communications, and tell stories. Stories work. They have a self-contained structure (beginning-middle-end) with which we're familiar, so they're memorable. Good stories get repeated. When told in a way that engages and entertains the reader or viewer, they're powerful. Just think of all the times you related an anecdote, told a joke or relayed a word-of-mouth. Each and every day, we give and receive information via storytelling, although we might not always think of it in that way since it's such a familiar activity.
Long, long ago in this very galaxy, a young writer and director named George Lucas discovered a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces by author Joseph Campbell. Based on the story structure described in the book--in a nutshell, the hero wants something, goes on a journey to achieve it and returns home--Lucas wrote the original script for Star Wars. The classic screenwriting structure for crafting stage, film and television stories is this: protagonist (main character) wants something, but an obstacle is standing in his way. So he has to overcome the obstacle before "living happily ever after."
So, what are your stories? All companies, organizations and consultancies have stories waiting to be told. They range from an interesting tale of how and why the company was established to initiatives created by the company to address a particular need, to even how a product was named.
A quick online search reveals how WD-40 was named, why Apple's apple logo is missing a bite, and what the word Nike means. Some companies make stories the focal point of their marketing; for example those told about products in the J. Peterman catalog. Stories have also been an integral part of advertising for years.
Several decades ago, copywriter John Caples created a legendary print ad that described how the subject of the ad was laughed at when he sat down to play piano. But then, he began to play. You can see the ad here.
Start using case studies to tell your stories
One good way to get started with content marketing is by writing case studies--brief narratives that describe how you helped a customer overcome an obstacle by providing products, services or expert advice that helped him or her in a way that can be quantified, i.e., cost savings, increased productivity or efficiency, a growth in revenue or profitability. I often refer to them as "success stories" because they are.
Case studies as best presented as a three-act, problem-solution-results format. A customer (the hero) needs to accomplish something, but faces a challenge or is in need of specific expertise. You (The Jedi master) help him overcome the challenge by proving solutions. Because of your involvement, the customer achieves his objectives. Ultimately, the case study articulates the value you brought to the initiative by providing specific, quantifiable results.
The good thing about case studies is that they can be used in many different ways--on your website, in your newsletter or enewsletter, as part of your sales or promo package, on social media. Before you post it on your website, run it through a search engine optimization tool to determine how effective it's likely to be in boosting your website's search engine ranking. If you post a link on Facebook, it might be good to spend a few bucks to give it a paid boost, which will help it reach more users.
How to create case studies
- Identify stories that include strong, quantifiable results. Did you help grow business, increase efficiency, improve productivity, or achieve other results? Specificity is important. Rather thansimply saying you helped streamline a process, you'll want to say that the process improvements you implemented added 10 percent growth to the bottom line this year and 25 percent the second year. Outline or rough out the story in a problem > solution > results format.
- Ask customers for testimonial quotes. Ask for one or two quotes that support the story and your company's role in the success story. Customer testimonials can be extremely influential to prospective clients.
- Write the story and keep it brief. The good thing about case studies is that they provide a snapshot of the overall journey told in just a few paragraphs. The two key things in any case study are specifically what you contributed and the specific results that were achieved.
- Use vivid language. Facts are facts, but the secret sauce is in the writing. You want to tell a story that prospective customers will read all the way through, so it needs to be interesting, compelling and colorful--not boring, bland and battleship gray, as so much institutional business writing can be. Be detailed where it matters and paint a picture with words, but don't get bogged down in minutae. Do say that the client experienced six consecutive months of losses, but don't say that he called you on a Tuesday afternoon to enlist your wisdom. Draw a clear line between where your client was before you became involved, and after. Don't have someone on staff who can write like this? Hire a freelancer.
- Use numbers as needed. These are what prospective customers want to know. Because businesses constantly watch their bottom lines and return on investments, numbers are extremely important in business storytelling.
- Include power words. As with a resume, action words like established, achieved, innovated, boosted, turned around, grew, and enhanced will help "sell" the role you played and the results you helped achieve.
- Design it as a visually appealing sheet that can be distributed to prospective customers. This is in addition to the version you post online. If you have a staff graphic designer or have access to a freelancer, ask him or her to create a professional-looking, yet attention-grabbing, template that incorporates your brand graphics. This will set a consistent tone and support your company's brand. A visually stunning photo or two, your client's logo and a powerful pull quote will help direct the reader's eye and call attention to the specific areas.
- Add a very brief boilerplate statement or branded message about your company along with contact information.