Hey CMO: Your Product Story sucks! Great Product Marketing Needs a Better Story, I / II


Share on LinkedIn

Humans are wired for stories; we’re storytelling animals. Yet, we’re living in an era of ‘Big Data’ information overload. There is too much data chasing too little mindshare these days. That’s because data itself doesn’t create what people want most: meaning. The resurgence in storytelling, the original social medium, is an important and welcome evolution for a number of reasons. Stories are memorable. And because they are memorable, stories scale in a way that facts alone cannot. And a multiplier effect is critical in marketing. Finally, stories cut through the tremendous clutter – most of it lacking meaning – created by this online content explosion. Here’s where stories pay dividends: according to recent Stanford research, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. So if you aren’t telling stories in your content, you are missing the most important way to connect with an audience.

From Product Features and Benefits to Elevated Marketing Story

The most important thing any organization can do is become a storytelling organization. As marketers we focus on our company story, our purpose story and origin stories. How much attention do we give our product stories? Becoming a storytelling organization also means elevating your product or service discussion to one that focuses on the human needs of your audience. It begins with telling the right stories about real people who use your product or service and not focusing on the product itself. Your best stories are not about your products or you. Your goal is to tell a bigger story that makes your customer the hero.

A Changing Buying Cycle

Of course, features have a place in marketing. However, when the focus is on features and benefits, it’s not long before competitors claim parity. Features evolve rapidly, as product life cycles are becoming shorter – especially in technology. Moreover, the way customers are buying – especially in b2b — has changed. According to Forrester (Oct 2012), the average b2b customer is 66% – 90% along in the buying journey before he or she reaches out to the vendor. Customers are doing their own research and they’re asking the most important question: How will your product or service make my life better? And by “life” we don’t just mean work. People have emotional needs like security, stress reduction and reputation enhancement that have to be met as well. Ignore those at your own peril. Stories fuel a powerful b2b content marketing strategy that gives people the right content or story at the right time in the buying cycle. Moreover, stories simplify the decision-making process. One thing prospects don’t need more of – complexity!

Stories of customer success and real change, therefore, matter more than ever. And if your marketing fails to elevate the discussion to one about how lives are improved, you’ll never rise above the noise. And stories aren’t something that marketers should be thinking about after the product is built. As I’ve written about before, customer stories and empathy must drive a human-centered product design process as well as content marketing after a product is designed and launched.

A Better Story: Get Started, Then Adapt

One of my favorite models for getting started with storytelling comes from improvisation – a powerful, real-time way of co-creating stories. It’s also that classic and fun universal bed-time story model that you’ll recognize from movies, too. I’ve used this model as an improviser on-stage and as a marketer. Recently, I used this approach in several storytelling sessions I gave at Product Camp Silicon Valley 2013.

What I love about this particular model, called the ‘7-step story’, is that you can easily adapt it. This approach walks people through all the key elements of a story: the protagonist/hero, the challenge/conflict (villain), the climax, the resolution, and the ending/change. This model works for just about every type of story a company can have: a core purpose story (sometimes called your ‘why’ story), product stories, origin stories, and others.

Here’s the model for product / service stories told through the lens of your customer:

Once upon a time, was doing….

And every day, he or she did

Until one day, he or she discovered …

And because of that, he or she could

And because of that, he or she could

And because of that, he or she could

And every day since that day, he or she uses because it enables him or her to

This model works is because it moves people through every critical stage of storytelling – every element must be there to be powerful. These steps guide us through the question, “What happens next?!” Sure, you can change the wording (ex: Once Upon a Time…) when you get familiar with the model; however, if you shortchange even one of the elements, you dilute the potency of the story. Stories need emotional impact to be effective. And that is where most B2B storytelling fails.

Product Marketing (Like All Marketing!) is About People, Not Facts

I have heard some B2B marketers say, “B2B is different. We don’t need all these story elements.” I disagree. People don’t check their humanity card at the door when they go to work in their “B2B” job. If a B2B customer perceives huge risk in buying your services no matter what the facts say, you’ll lose business every time. Why?

The answer is simple: human beings don’t make purely rational decisions based on facts. What neuroscience tells us is that feelings decide; facts are used to rationalize the decisions we’ve already made with our “gut.” So, for example, that CTO you’re trying to sell to? He or she is making human choices about what is not only good for the company, but also what is good for his or her reputation, career, and positioning in the company. If you can’t answer the human element of how your products and services make him or her look good – not just the company – than you have missed a huge opportunity to cut through the noise and beat your competition.


IN PART II, we’ll apply the model.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kathy Klotz-Guest
For 20 years, Kathy has created successful products, marketing stories, and messaging for companies such as SGI, Gartner, Excite, Autodesk, and MediaMetrix. Kathy turns marketing "messages" into powerful human stories that get results. Her improvisation background helps marketing teams achieve better business outcomes. She is a founding fellow for the Society for New Communications Research, where she recently completed research on video storytelling. Kathy has an MLA from Stanford University, an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MA in multimedia apps design.


  1. I love the article, very informative. I am still a little confused on where you use stories in your marketing campaign. My company sells cocktail mixes and I am not sure how to use stories in my marketing. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  2. Thanks for the question.

    There are lots of ways to use stories in your marketing. If your company sells cocktail mixes, then you know the personality of your product – it’s about fun, parties, connecting people socially. Start telling stories at that level vs. ‘all about cocktail mixes.’ Show the personality of your brand. What’s different about your mixes? What would the ‘voice’ be if your product could talk? What would customers say? Ask your customers and you can weave their stories into your marketing – that’s another way to do it.

    Have fun! Your product lends itself to that.

  3. This aspect of appealing to peoples emotions is huge. The first things most consumers do after comparing the facts and features of different products is to go online and look at other consumers’ reviews. They want to know how the product served others and how it will serve them if they decide to go with that product. This is exactly what customers in the business world are looking for as well! They want to hear how real people benefited from the product, not just to hear about what the product can do, but what it can do for them. Great points on how important stories can be in marketing!


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here