The last page of October’s Fast Company magazine took me down a rabbit hole – and I enjoyed the ride.
I’m always on the lookout for creative uses of customer case studies and success stories, and Alibaba.com delivered with a campaign that combines traditional print advertising with the online world, while also mixing real customers with actors – but not at the same time.
It’s an interesting effect.
Alibaba.com helps business owners find suppliers, manufacturers and other resources online to help them make and sell products.
A lot of companies use "fake customers" in their ads (think detergent ads). And some use real customers (Geico, Visa, etc.).
But Alibaba uses both. Here’s how:
1. The print ad features two guys, supposedly customers, holding their product, a robot. Below the photo, it encourages me to get the full story at success.alibaba.com.
2. The website shows Flash-animated sets of three business owners, each with a story. Choose one and you get a funny video featuring those customers talking about their businesses.
Here, the company’s using what I believe are actors to make the point about what Alibaba does and how.
3. But if I click on the Success Stories tab on that page, I get what are definitely several real customer success stories. Clicking on one story initially launches a summary of that customer story in a frame, and then I can take the link for "the full story."
4. For the full story, it pops up a PDF called "Success Stories Booklet." I love this idea.
The booklet has about a dozen one-page stories about actual business owners, with their locations and types of businesses.
What I like about this is, at each step, this campaign lets the audience completely control how much information they want. You can get deeper and deeper into the campaign, and all the while, you are getting the same message about proven success with Alibaba.com.
If I had something to sell on Alibaba.com, I’d be sold on trying them out.
What about you? Do you think the offline/online campaign works? And does the mix of actors/real customers provide the proper level of authenticity to be convincing?
Storytelling in business is powerful - but only if it resonates with your audience.
That was one of the messages on a free story telecall put on by Michael Margolis of Get Storied last week.
Michael recently released his insightful book, Believe Me, on the power of using story in reinforcing your vision, brand and leadership.
"It’s your responsibility to tell a story that people can locate themselves into," he said. "How do you get people to identify with your story, to locate themsles in that story and feel like they’re a part of it?"
In customer case studies and success stories, it's about reflecting some of the traits of your prospective customer in the story you're telling.
As we've discussed before, you have to mirror the audience and the customer you're featuring in some way. In other words, the customer needs some sort of apples-to-apples association from your case study.
But that doesn't have to mean the exact same kind of company/organization.
Here are six different ways to help your audience better identify or place themselves into a customer story:
Same industry - Many prospects want to know that you are familiar with their type of business.
Same size - Small biz prospects may feel better seeing other small businesses with your solution, while large businesses identify with large businesses.
Same title - Quote someone with a title similar to the person who might read/view your customer story.
Same "pain" - We all feel a connection with those going through something we're going through. Share a customer case study that touches on the same problem the prospect has.
Same goal - We can understand and rally around others that have the same goals we do. Match your prospect's goal with the goal set out (and achieved) by a current customer. One customer might use a piece of software to achieve regulatory compliance while another might want it mainly for productivity gains.
Same geographical area - What your audience respond better to a customer in the same city, region or country?
You can use one or more than one way to line up with your audience. Just make sure you do it somehow.
Any other ways you would add?
What's the biggest unknown in any case study or success story project?
The customer's review and approval time.
As we've said, customers can turn a story around in a day or take months.
You have to find a middle ground of being persistent but stopping short of pesky.
Some people simply need specific targets. Or, to put it more bluntly, a deadline.
Typically, I don't give customers a deadline right out of the gate, when they first receive the story for review. I tell them that I'll check back with them later in the week or early next week - usually giving them 3-4 days.
The only exception to this is when there's a specific need driving a very fast turnaround - such as a PR opportunity or event. In that case, it's best to communicate about the tight approval cycle before the project even begins, and get the customer's commitment that the dates are doable.
But for typical projects, I reserve deadlines for those that are lingering a little.
A recent project reminded me that some people really respond best (and only?) to deadlines. When the project lingered, we let the customer know that the company needed the case study for some specific upcoming opportunities.
In turn, the customer responded with edits and moved the story to the next step.
It doesn't always work so well, but for certain types of people, it's the right motivator.
Of course, whatever deadline policies you adopt in regards to customer approval, always be flexible and aware of what's going on with the customer. Are they traveling, out sick, stressed with other work?
Adjust and work with the customer as needed - keep their experience as pleasant as you can.
Maybe offer to work directly with the customer's legal or PR team for final approval so your contact doesn't have to project manage.
So what's your deadline protocol when it comes to customer approvals, and what works best?
In the discussion about customer case studies, one question comes up over and over:
How long does it take to get a case study done?
How many days or weeks are needed to get a completed, approved customer story in hand and ready to use?
Unfortunately, the answer isn't that easy.
On average, I would say about one month. BUT, it really depends on the part of the process that makes customer stories different from other marketing projects - the review and approval phase.
From the time you interview the customer to completing the draft, video or audio might be a couple of weeks. Then, how long is it in the customer's court?
I've seen customers approve stories the same day they receive them. But I've also seen them make the rounds of customer review for months.
Often, it depends on the size of the featured customer's organization. Generally, the larger the company, the longer approval takes.
Small companies have fewer reviewers and not as much legal and communications review required. Larger companies have multiple levels of approval, and your story can get stuck in any of those levels.
You can do a few things to help speed the process, such as setting the expectation with the customer before starting that you will need the story by a specific date. However, you are still limited by your customer's internal processes.
But in general, start early! Capture the case study as soon as there's a strong story and the customer is ready.
For example, if you have early January trade shows, it's not too soon to start now. Once, I got a call from a company in mid-December wanting to get a case study done for a trade show the first week of January.
If it was a brochure, maybe that's doable. But not with a case study. Three weeks just isn't enough time, even if the end-of-year holidays did not get in the way.
Note: Today is Blog Action Day. More than 9,000 blogs around the world have committed to blogging today about one topic: climate change.
While doing research for my book, I came across Environmental Defense Fund. EDF partners with businesses, governments and communities to find practical environmental solutions.
I originally featured EDF in Stories That Sell because the company weaves storytelling into nearly all of its communications (newsletters, website, grant proposals, annual reports, etc.) in order to put a face on environmental issues.
Today, this blog spotlights exactly how EDF uses story to educate about the impact of climate change on our health:
Hotter Days Mean Unhealthier Air
Until developing asthma at age 12, Los Angeles resident Elizabeth Martin seemed born to be an athlete. She excelled in every sport she tried. "I loved soccer most of all," says Martin. "I was always the fastest person on my team, and I was the top female runner in my school, most of the time beating the boys as well."
Her dreams of a soccer career ended with the diagnosis of asthma, brought on by exercise. Martin took medication, but since most sports are played outside in the warm months, when smog shrouds the city, she soon found herself unable to participate. By age 13, her lung capacity was half what it should have been.
Martin's story is likely to be shared by increasing numbers of active children--everywhere. Global warming is expected to increase the number of very hot days around the U.S., elevating smog levels to unsafe levels.
According to Dr. John Balmes of the American Lung Association of California, higher smog levels "may cause or exacerbate serious health problems, including damage to lung tissue, reduced lung function, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and increased hospitalizations for people with cardiac and respiratory illnesses."
Smog forms when sunlight, heat and relatively stagnant air meet up with nitrogen oxides and various volatile organic compounds. Exposure to smog can do serious damage to our lungs and respiratory systems. Inflammation and irritation can cause shortness of breath, throat irritation, chest pains and coughing and lead to asthma attacks, hospital admissions and emergency room visits. These consequences are more severe if people are exposed while being active.
More hot days mean better conditions for creating smog that can trigger asthma and other breathing problems.
"The number of people with asthma in this country has more than doubled over the past 25 years, led by soaring rates in children" says Dr. John Balbus, head of Environmental Defense's health program. "With climate change worsening smog in some areas and altering pollen levels, future air quality may pose a greater threat to our health, especially those of us with asthma and other lung diseases."
"To this day, I am bound to the indoor gym for any heavy-duty exercise," says Martin, now a college graduate. "I know for a fact these illnesses are related to the horrendous air quality in Los Angeles," Martin says. "I want to raise my children in Los Angeles. I love this city. But I fear that what has happened to me will happen to them."