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The 3 Key Players in B2B Storytelling

Last summer, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister made waves when he challenged the notion of design as a form of storytelling. “All the ‘storytellers’ are not storytellers,” he said. “You are not a storyteller.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, people got mad—and then came the think pieces. If designers aren’t storytellers, who is? Are marketers storytellers? Are photographers, or salespeople, or musicians? What does storytelling really mean?

I believe we are all storytellers—but not in the way we might think.

Last week, Salesforce LIVE hosted Driving Demand with Stories That Sell, a live studio webcast featuring a panel of marketing and sales experts: Ardath Albee, author of Digital Relevance; Mathew Sweezey, Salesforce marketing evangelist; and Kim Seabrook, VP West of Pardot.

During the hour-long chat, the panelists looked at B2B storytelling from different points of view. Of course, they all agreed that stories are crucial in the world of sales and marketing, but they also pointed out some common misconceptions—and discussed who is really telling the story at each point of the buyer’s process.

If putting storytelling in a business context seems too abstract, consider the structure of a fairy tale. According to Ardath, all tales of great heroes share the same five stages:

  1. The hero sets out to achieve a goal.
  2. Along the way, the hero butts heads with the antagonist—or in the business world, with a problem that needs to be solved.
  3. The hero realizes that to defeat the antagonist, they must make a transformation.
  4. The hero finds a mentor who gives them the resources they need to achieve their goal. (This is where you come in!)
  5. In the end, the hero defeats the antagonist and prevails.

See what we’re getting at? Your brand isn’t even present at the beginning of the story—but if you provide quality content and act as a mentor, you’ll be there at the end. With that being said, let’s take a look at all the key players in B2B storytelling.

1. Marketers as Storytellers

Many marketers believe they’re using campaigns to tell the story of their brand, and they see customers as characters in that story. This idea is fundamentally flawed. Sure, marketers are crucial in the storytelling process, but they aren’t the only ones driving the story forward.

Ardath Albee points out that customers, and not brands, are the heroes of the story. Because campaigns don’t focus on the buyer, they aren’t really stories; they’re simply constructs that marketers use to measure success. When a campaign is over, the buyer is still there—so the story can’t end when a campaign does.

2. Salespeople as Storytellers

Kim Seabrook echoes this sentiment. Over the past twenty years, she says, storytelling for sales has morphed into a completely different animal. Salespeople used to initiate the story with a phone call, but that has changed. With all the information available on the Internet, the customer is the one who starts the story by doing their own research—independent of sales reps.

So when should sales enter the story? Kim suggests coming up with some parameters based on prospect behavior. For example, maybe they visited your pricing page three times or searched for your competitor.

But even more importantly than when they enter is how they enter. Salespeople need to understand the customer’s story intimately in order to cater to their individual needs. You wouldn’t want to start reading a book in the middle, so why would you jump into a customer’s story without knowing how it’s progressed?

3. Customers as Storytellers

Whether you’re a sales rep or a marketer, the fact is that you aren’t creating stories for your company. Instead, your customer is creating the story, and you are a character who helps drive the action forward and build upon the story that already exists.

An added bonus of having customers tell their own stories? You can turn them into case studies that allow prospective buyers to see how their stories could play out.

What do you think—do you consider yourself to be a storyteller? What role do stories play in your sales or marketing strategies? Let us know in the comments!

customer centric marketing