Firstly, I want to thank everyone that reached out to me over the holiday period after my first Curious Cognition blog article. It struck a chord with many of you and so instead of focusing this article purely on product management, which was my original plan, I am going to go a little deeper on why storytelling works and what it means in a B2B contest. I am also going to talk about the importance of persona for product management and messaging as part of the article.
I have recently had many colleagues and friends telling me to, “drop the whole storytelling thing” now. They have told me to focus on my product management skills as they are what organisations will want and will pay top dollar for. Which is why our focus for curious cognition is product management related.
Having said that, authentic storytelling as a skill is so compelling and useful to different roles including product managers, that I feel it deserves at least a little more attention in this article. We are all familiar with the concepts of winning people’s hearts and minds, but do we win the heart or the mind first? Does it even matter if B2B is only organisations talking to other organisations?
Where is the P in B2B?
Is there such a thing as Business 2 Business? Or is it Business 2 Person 2 Business in reality – (B2P2B)? I hope we all know the answer to this – people are still the interfaces to business, not exclusively of course, as API’s and the handoffs between them play an increasingly essential role in digital business; in true platform business, they play a vital role.
However, I want this article to focus on people. We will leave API’s for another article, people in sales, in marketing, in product management, in finance, in purchasing… You name it, these people are everywhere and to make it worse they are different colours, have different attitudes and backgrounds and depending on the day, they may be in a good or bad mood.
Yet in traditional B2B business marketing, you would think people don’t exist. Yes, there are pictures of people everywhere in B2B marketing and yes, they are different colours, sexes and backgrounds as you would expect.
A lot of the time, however, the content that’s communicated in B2B sounds like a business talking to business:
“I am a leader in my field; therefore, you obviously want to buy from me”
“We have more of X and more of Y, and therefore you want to buy from me”
Does this sound familiar? If you don’t believe me, go and look on the web now, I just found half a dozen examples. I don’t want to make myself unpopular, so I am not going to share them! My point is many businesses sound arrogant, pompous and insincere.
In some cases, more progressive messaging teams are building messages that speak to the users or the buyers, however often the two personas get confused. I have seen this problem first hand in my career and it’s a problem not just for sales and marketing, it’s a challenge for product managers as well.
If you don’t have a clear view of who the customer is, how can you prioritise the requirements for your backlog? How do you prevent bloatware and all the additional costs it drives? (build time, quality assurance, support, training, sales enablement, etc.) In my personal experience, I have seen products that did not know who the target audience was, this kind of mistake is value-destroying and it is not as uncommon as it might sound.
I have this feeling
As people, we are all share many of the same feelings. Recent research shows there are at least seven universal facial expressions that cross-cultural barriers. These are happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, contempt and surprise. We can all recognise them, we are pre-programmed from shortly after birth to do so.
A message that resonates with us that triggers a feeling, is far more powerful than one that “bounces off”. A lot of B2B marketing in my view bounces off customers. It fails to recognise that we are emotional beings with feelings of hope and aspirations. I think, we are seeing more businesses that would have traditionally sold directly to the business, increasingly sell to the individuals within a business.
The first company that did this was Salesforce.com who launched with an inspired marketing campaign built around No Software. They were one of the first Software as a service (SaaS) business models that are becoming increasingly standard today – it’s all about subscriptions.
They use the cognitive bias known as ‘Anchoring’ – this is the human tendency to frame subsequent assessments around an initial piece of information. By claiming the solution was No Software, they made it easier for the sale people who they targeted directly to work around the IT departments. It was the beginning of the end for the IT department as the sole owner of the software solution.
Today we see more and more businesses targeting the end user directly. Project management tools like Monday.com and AirTable are good examples of this with Monday.com adverts proudly boasting “what it feels like to use Monday”. Their YouTube videos also talk about emotional things such as “Your girlfriend leaves you” hardly what we see from the traditional B2B marketing efforts.
So feelings do have a place in B2B marketing?
If feeling has a place, then emotions must have a place also. After all, feeling and emotions are effectively the same. The definition of a feeling is an emotional state or reaction. I think they do have a place and for me, this underlines why storytelling works.
When we hear a good story, it triggers an emotional response. A ghost story where the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, or a story about overcoming adversity where we feel proud for the company we work for. If we want to trigger emotional responses, we need to consider the words we use carefully and with meaning when we build messaging frameworks in marketing and how we make marketecture’s in product management.
If we want to trigger an emotional response, we need to use adjectives, as this helps express the tone, feelings, and emotions of our words by accentuating the point. Picking the right adjectives for your product, narrative, purpose, values, vision or strategy matter… no, they REALLY matter.
Most of us are familiar with the research that shows how quickly interviewers make decisions. Much of this is based on feeling, heuristics and cognitive biases. Examples include halo/horn bias, affective bias, confirmation bias, anchoring bias (which I mentioned above) and nonverbal bias are some of the most significant used in interviews
So, if feelings matter, then the meanings of the words we use must also matter for all the communication we do – whether you’re writing product user stories, marketing copy, creating investment pitches, sales pitches, compiling an earnings announcement or announcing a new strategy or change in strategic direction. So often, getting everyone on the same page fails because we don’t consider just how much the messages matter and whether they contradict or support each other – they often contradict, especially in bigger business.
I have worked with organisations where the ‘strategy’ felt like a lottery of keywords and phrases, each selected by a different senior leader, all delivered as a smorgasbord of strategic options and generic statements. “Win in sales” – FFS! Who doesn’t want to win in sales?!
I have also worked with organisations with a coherent, focused strategic narrative that inspired, focused and constrained the options before us and explained how we were going to achieve something. Getting everyone pointing in the same direction, committed to the cause, drinking the Kool-aid, motivated, excited, aligned… I could go on, but you get the idea.
This can be so powerful and yet it’s far from universal, in part because everyone is using a different set of words to describe what they want to achieve. There is a general lack of alignment between intent and action, often because of the quality of communication – with many businesses favouring the number of communications over the over quality. The way messaging is built and managed also contributes to this challenge.
A physical feeling
All words have meanings, but some trigger feelings some of which can be visceral – a physical feeling brought about though emotions. I am guessing as I conclude, some of you will feel uneasy with all this talk of emotions in a B2B context. However, as we have established, even in B2B there are people – people with cognitive biases can’t help themselves. You can’t hope to win people over with logic alone, and many studies have shown this.
One pricing example: Two groups, equal groups, were offered two different offers a 35% discount or a staff discount at 30%. Logically you would expect the 35% to have performed better, but the staff discount with a compelling story performed better. Maybe because of the story that went around the pricing and because we expect staff to get the best discounts.
Next month I promise to leave the squishy feeling stuff alone. I am going to deep dive on a product topic that’s been described as ‘Elephant Carpaccio’ and often manifests its self as ‘How do you prioritise a backlog when it’s too big, and your senior leadership keep adding more to it.’
If you’re curious about the power of authentic storytelling in a business environment this is the event for you. You will hear from Jason Nash the founder of Curious Cognition, and about his work building a company narrative for Travelport supporting its repositioning effort form B2B Global Distribution System to B2B4C Travel Commerce & Retailing Platform. He will also share some storytelling tricks and tips. You will find this interesting if you’re a B2B Brand Manager, Marketing Manager, Sales Manager or Product Manager.
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