Narratives are everything in business.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Nike’s marketing machine was finding its flow. And the Oregon-based brand was dominating its industry — overtaking adidas in 1979 to become the top-selling athletic shoe maker in the United States.
But it wasn’t its innovation in tech that was driving its growth.
“What Nike did differently was to be found in its advertising, not in its shoes,” says Douglas Holt, one of the world’s leading experts on branding and innovation and author of Cultural Strategy.
While brands like adidas, Tiger and Brooks focused their advertising on celebrating the incredible feats of star athletes, Nike took a different approach. In a bid to expand its brand beyond the small niche of avid runners, Nike’s advertising focused on what Holt dubbed combative solo willpower — the narrative that would become the foundation of Nike’s brand.
Its campaigns focused on personal stories of runners competing only against themselves. One such advert shows women's marathon runner — and at the time, world record holder — Joan Benoit getting up at 5.25am to go out for a run in the rain.
Instead of making Beniot’s marathon world record a focal point of the advert (like its competitors might have), Nike focused on the daily grind and realities of being a runner: Getting up early, training whenever you can, and not being put off by bad weather.
By telling stories that were relatable, Nike was able to connect with consumers in ways that other brands couldn’t. And its overarching narrative that combative solo willpower will drive you forward enabled it build deeper connections with its target customers, which was a catalyst in sending Nike’s sales skyrocketing past competitors.
But much of what made Nike’s remarkable has been lost in modern marketing, especially in B2B. Storytelling has been replaced with hacks and quick wins, and brand affinity shunted aside for eyeballs and impressions.
The problem with B2B marketing
Marketing throughout the 2010’s became a fight for awareness. Businesses were constantly trying to one-up each other in search rankings and social media feeds. And it was largely a race for more:
- More content
- More impressions
- More clicks
It could feel like you were stuck on a hamster wheel: Create, publish, promote, repeat.
But if you kept a bar high for your content and ads, this strategy could work and deliver incredible results.
Largely, up until the last year-or-so, our content strategy at Buffer was built on meeting the existing demand for organic content and capturing relevant clicks in search engines — if Ahrefs told us 5,000 people per month searched for ‘Facebook marketing tips’, we’d try to rank in those search results… and so on for every relevant keyword we’d uncover.
That strategy worked very well for us.
Our Library (the place where we house our SEO-focus pieces) generates ~700,000 visits per month. But as Jimmy Daly notes, these visitors aren’t really our audience; they’re just passersby that are (mostly) rented from Google. And that’s fine. This traffic is still incredibly valuable – it’s a great way for Buffer to be discovered, and it does bring in customers. (As our traffic increases, so do our trial starts.)
This has been a great way for us to generate signups. Search is a key part of our growth engine, and always will be. But as we think about the next layer of growth we need to make a slight shift in strategy...
Buffer has over 70,000 paying customers, and we’re not too focused on growing that number. Instead, what we’re focused on is overdelivering and creating remarkable experiences for our customers and target customers. Our belief is that this focus will in turn help us to increase the average revenue per user (ARPU) — this could be through expansion revenue or replacing churned customers with new customers that are a better fit for our product.
It’s not so much about reaching millions anymore. It’s about connecting with the few that care.
Enter, the Narrative-Driven Content Strategy.
Narrative-Driven Content Strategy
To help us overdeliver for customers, and ensure we're building affinity with the right audiences, we’re focusing on an approach we’re dubbing ‘narrative-driven content’.
The concept is simple: Focusing everything we do around a set of narratives that we believe in as a business.
These narratives will create the story arc that all of our content will loop back to. The narratives will prevent our brand storytelling from becoming a number of disconnected pieces covering loosely related topics.
Here’s a great example Jonathan Crossfield shared with me to illustrate the relationship between narratives and stories:
“The Star Wars universe is an overarching narrative about the rise, fall, rise and fall again of an evil empire and the rebels who resist. Within that narrative are a number of individual stories, such as Rogue One, or The Force Awakens that all support that master narrative.”
Note: The Narrative-Driven Content Strategy concept was inspired by a conversation with Phil Nottingham about how Wistia is approaching brand marketing and a few segments from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits that really helped to solidify the approach.
There are three key aspects to a narrative-driven strategy:
At the center of our strategy, are the narratives we want to share with the world. This part of the strategy is focused on choosing narratives that align with what we believe as a company.
The middle layer of the strategy is processes. This is day-to-day work. It’s how we produce, publish and promote content that aligns with our chosen narratives. Essentially, it’s all about “how” we share stories with the world.
The outer layer of the strategy is outcomes. These are the bets we believe we can achieve if our strategy is successful.
Narratives help us to connect with customers who share Buffer’s worldview and vision. Processes are how we execute and share our narratives with the world. Outcomes are the results we hope to achieve.
The importance of narratives in marketing
In his Ted Talk, Pixar director and screenwriter, Andrew Stanton explains: “We all know what it's like to not care. You've gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It's already halfway over, but something's caught you and you're drawn in and you care. That's not by chance, that's by design.”
You could argue that the reason why so many pieces of content and marketing campaigns fail is simply this: They don’t make people care.
This happens because the overarching narratives behind why we do what we do are often an afterthought.
More often than not, strategy will begin with:
- Outcomes — “We want to generate 2,000 new product trials per month”; or
- Processes — “We should start a podcast”
But when you flip this and put the narratives you truly believe in first, you can begin to craft content — and build a brand — that people will love.
Narratives should inform strategy and every piece of content you produce. So much of traditional strategy overlooks important questions like “what are we trying to say?” and “what matters to our audience?” in favor of focusing on outcomes and processes.
When you look at some of the world’s most-loved brands, their marketing is focused on telling stories that align with their beliefs. The narrative comes first.
- Nike tells stories to inspire the athlete within us all. It believes that if you have a body, you are an athlete.
- Airbnb shares stories of inclusivity and culture. It believes that people around the world can feel like they belong anywhere.
- Apple talks about creativity and change. It believes that people who believe they can change the world are the ones that do.
These narratives help to build emotional connections with audiences. You don’t often (or ever, really) see Nike marketing its new products based on how much it costs or its new technology. Instead it sells products through the stories it tells as a part of its solo combative willpower narrative.
“Most customers don't perceive a difference between competitive products,” explains Thomas Tungaz. So the narratives around your business — not your product — are often the differentiator.
So how do you determine the right narrative(s) for your brand?
Choosing narratives for your business
As I started to work on this strategy it felt like we needed a way to determine what narratives are right, and importantly, wrong for Buffer — we need to tell stories that play out in the intersection of what Buffer does (our product) and what we believe as a business.
For example, one of our narratives for 2020 is: To create sustainable businesses, brands need to unlock organic growth.
This works for us because: 1) our product supports organic posting and social media analytics, and 2) we believe that to thrive brands need to nurture organic audiences and communities without paying a premium to reach them via Facebook or Google ads. (Of course some paid acquisition is good, but if 100% of your audience is from paid sources, that feels like a problem.)
And when someone thinks about growing organic audiences on social media, we want them to think of Buffer.
Another narrative is: Brand purpose is a competitive advantage.
Today’s consumers care about much more than product quality and experience, they also care about the values of the brands they buy from. As Accenture’s Strategy Research Report noted:
Consumers are no longer making decisions based solely on product selection or price; they’re assessing what a brand says, what it does and what it stands for. They support companies whose brand purpose aligns with their beliefs. And they reject those that don’t.
As part of this narrative we want to highlight the work of purpose-driven brands (like we did with tentree last year), and show marketers how purpose can help to drive growth and affinity.
Whereas in the past we’d try to cover social media broadly, now we’re only spending energy, time and budget on the specific aspects of social media marketing that align with our chosen narratives and telling stories with these in mind.
Over time the belief is that the results of this narrative focus will compound. The impact of a one-off hit fades, while repeatedly sharing stories that fit within our chosen narratives will help to shape people’s perception of Buffer and differentiate us in the market.
Understand your customer (and your business)
When it comes to choosing narratives, there’s no shortcut. You have to know your customer and your industry, and feel confident that the narratives you’ve chosen will help you build affinity with your customers (both existing and new).
Another key is to get your team on board as you need to have alignment on your chosen narratives. For us this meant opening up our narrative ideas to feedback from everyone on our marketing team. (If this experiment works out, I believe there's a chance to expand narratives company-wide to help drive everything we do.)
One reason why I believe ‘strategy’ tends to focus on outcomes and processes is that it’s hard to get everyone on your team on the same page about what your company believes about the industry it operates in. It’s easier to get people to agree on an outcome — “we need 2,000 trial starts” — or a process — “let’s start a weekly newsletter” — than it is to define the overarching narrative(s) around your brand. But that alignment is what will make our content stand out.
Adapting our processes
Any new strategy means changing your day-to-day processes — after all, you can’t expect different results by doing the same things. So once the decision was made to go ahead with this narrative-driven strategy, we had to think about how this will change the way we work.
Here are some of the changes we’re working on:
Focusing on audience development
We want to move away from renting audiences (from Google, Facebook, etc) and build long-term relationships with an audience of people who actively return to or subscribe to our content. The goal is to focus on sustaining loyal readers/listeners/viewers rather than a “more eyeballs” approach.
(Sidenote: We just hired someone to focus on this.)
We want to create content that stands up on its own alongside the output from media businesses. And as such we need to learn from the brands like Netflix, HBO and Gimlet to answer questions like ‘How do we get first-time visitors/listeners/viewers back?’ And ‘What content does our audience crave?'
Our content has to be our product (just like a media business). We should no longer think of what we produce as content to drive signups for Buffer, but as content to build a loyal audience of people that look like our ideal Buffer customers.
Developing content properties
When I say content properties, I’m thinking of NY Mag’s ‘The Strategist’ where every story is focused on it’s overarching narrative of “shopping the internet smartly”, or The New York Times' ‘The Daily’ podcast, which helps listeners to navigate the day’s important news stories, and alike.
Properties like ‘The Strategist’ and ‘The Daily’ are parts of wider media businesses. But they exist to serve and build affinity with specific, niche audiences. These properties give people a destination for the exact content they’re looking.
At Buffer, we won’t be able to effectively get our narratives into the market through one off hits. We need to create properties that our target audience will trust to deliver valuable content time and time again.
Here are some properties we’re currently working on:
- The Science of Social Media: Our weekly podcast on social media marketing.
- Breaking Brand: Our show focused on pivotal moments at remarkable businesses.
- New blog (coming soon): This will be a destination for stories at the intersection of marketing and social media.
These properties won’t exist to drive people through Buffer’s funnel. The sole focus will be adding value to our audience’s lives with the end goal of building brand affinity.
Seeking first-hand data and sources
Thinking like a media business and focusing on a set of key narratives, also means rethinking the way we produce content. Our main focus will be on producing content based on first-hand data and sources.
If you don't have first-hand experience or expertise in the subject you're covering, you need to speak with those that do. And even if you know the subject inside out, it can be great practice to make interviewing others a part of your process — even if it's just to grab one or two lines back support your story.
This means doing the research ourselves using Buffer data, conducting surveys, talking directly to people working at brands we want to cover and really understanding their strategy (rather than trying to break it down from the outside).
- Repeating what’s already out there
- “Ultimate Guides”
- In-depth case studies
- Original reports
All of our content should feel original to Buffer, featuring insights and interviews our audience can’t get elsewhere.
Measuring the outcomes
I’m grateful to be working at a business like Buffer that isn’t focused on infinite scale. We’re not worried about serving every single business that uses social media. Instead, we want to serve the right customers.
As Simon Sinek says in his infamous Ted Talk: “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”
The main goal of this strategy is to build an audience of people who have an affinity for Buffer and share our collective beliefs about the world of marketing.
But “affinity” is pretty hard to measure. You can’t just open Google Analytics and see how many people feel a deep connection to your brand.
So what does success look like?
We’re moving from quantity (how much traffic can we get) to quality (how much time are people spending with our content). Here are a few metrics we’ll be focusing on:
- Engaged Returning Readers — the number of people that visit our publication 3+ times per month spending at least 1 minute on site per session.
- Time Spent by Engaged Returning Readers — the number of minutes Engaged Returning Readers spend consuming content each month.
- Monthly Active Subscribers — the number of people who open at least one of our emails each month.
Podcasting is also a key part of our strategy but, as anyone who runs a show will tell you… analytics are still a bit of a work in progress across the industry. Each podcasting platform seems to share slightly different data and there’s no one-source-of-truth yet. For example:
- Apple Podcasts shares the average percentage of the episode that was played
- Spotify tells you when a listener has streamed at least 60 seconds of your episode
(If anyone has a solution for this, let me know.)
When it comes to podcast data, we’ll be looking at:
- Subscribers – the number of people who are subscribed to our podcast across platforms
- Engagement — how many people complete each episode (currently only available on Apple Podcasts)
So what about customers and revenue?
Marketers can be lambasted for not proving the ROI of their work, and this is something I want to be mindful of. After all, producing high-quality blog posts, podcasts and videos can be an expensive game to play.
The long-term goal is to be able to dig into retention of engaged readers/subscribers vs. customers that don’t engage with our content and tie content ROI directly to ARPU.
We use Mixpanel to measure the number of signups generated by our content, and to see which customers fit our target customer personas. Signups to our product can be measured directly from each link on our site and we also use “first touch” attribution by asking each new signup how they first heard of Buffer during our onboarding flow. From these data points we can see the number of signups from any given source and the revenue generated.
I won’t be obsessing over signups in the short-term though. We’re viewing product signups as a lagging indicator of success. For now, we’re focusing on building the right audience. In the long-term, we believe enough of this audience will convert into customers or will feel strong affinity to Buffer and know others who will become customers.
As Douglas Holt concludes in Cultural Strategy, “Nike became the sports performance brand only when the brand delivered expressions so compelling that consumers wanted to believe that Nike performed better.”
In a world where almost every product is commoditized, and customers don’t perceive a difference between competitors. Brand — and the narratives surrounding your business — will be the differentiator.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to Writes.