XTC 8/28: Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part V: “The Viral Question”


Today our XTC series on Viral Storytelling explores the best way to close out a corporate narrative with Chapter 5: The Viral Question.

Typically, corporate stories conclude with a chapter that falls into the “and they lived happily ever after” category. Problems are solved. Business models are transformed. The disrupted becomes the disruptor. And careers are made. Happy buzzwords abound as we dictate a happy ending to our (hopefully) riveted audience.

But that’s just the trouble with the traditional benefit statement—they’re dictated. We go to great lengths to target, segment and refine our messaging in the hopes that it lands the right way. We conduct focus groups, user experience studies, analyst audits and omnibus studies—all in the hopes that we’re closing our story with the right pitch. But ultimately, we’re still guessing. And ultimately, we’re still dictating.

But what becomes possible when we engage in a more interactive approach? What impact would it have on storytelling if we were to co-create the final chapter in partnership with our target audience? And what would it do for our marketing and communications efforts if we crowd-sourced the closing chapter of our story?

Enter the Viral Question—a provocative, open-ended question designed to generate positive word of mouth and organic audience engagement around the topics that matter most to our own marketing agenda. And as it turns out, they’re the best way to end a story, because they’re the best way to make sure the story is carried forward by the people who matter most.

In a Fall 2012 study of 813 B2B tech purchase decision-makers across the US, UK and Canada, Blanc & Otus found that the number one source of new business leads in B2B tech was (no surprise) word of mouth from both peers and industry analysts. But when we asked what it would take to persuade those same decision-makers to contribute to the positive buzz and comment on content from a B2B tech company, the number one answer was clear—post a brilliant question that made them look smart when they answered it. And the number two answer was, engage me in a discussion of a problem or challenge I’m currently facing. What’s more, the study found that such discussions could do more than impact a standalone purchase decision—they could even impact the business priorities and budget line items of a company, as well.

The implication is clear—when it comes to your final chapter and the benefit statement, don’t just tell, ask. An open-ended question that allows your customers to showcase their own perspectives and expertise is the single best way to get a rich online dialogue going. And that in turn drives leads and impacts sales cycles.

Of course, not all questions are created equal, and not all industry discussions are in the same phase of development. Next week we will close out our six-part series on viral storytelling with a look at the do’s and don’ts of viral questions, and which questions will generate what kinds of discussions.

Spoiler alert: “yes-no” questions and “wouldn’t it be awesome if you bought our product” questions do not count. To preview our final post, here are the hallmarks of a great viral question:

  • A question your sales force wishes customers were asking more frequently
  • A question that industry analysts tell you is the smarter one to address
  • A question that leads your customers to discover a weakness in your competitors’ approach
  • A question that has more than one right answer
  • A question that, when answered by your customers, will genuinely teach you something valuable

What else would you like to see in our final Viral Storytelling post? Let us hear from you at josh.reynolds@blancandotus.com.

XTC (Examining the Change) is a weekly series in which B&O CEO Josh Reynolds examines the intersection of technology, disruption and storytelling.

XTC 6/24 – Must Be Season of the Pitch: Avoiding Hype and Hyperbole during Hype Cycle Summer

Credit: Stallio / Flickr
Credit: Stallio / Flickr

It’s hype season again. First, Mary Meeker comes out with her annual “the world is growing at a mind-blowing pace” Internet trends report. Next, pundit after pundit uses those stats in the latest pitch decks to media, analysts and VCs to prove up their own market leadership and thought leadership positions. And each of those decks includes varying shades of hyperbole to break through the white noise.

And then, between June and August, Gartner publishes a series of Hype Cycles that puts it all into context. With a separate hype cycle for more than 100 technology markets, these reports serve as a massively helpful reality check against big promises from tech vendors. It’s worth tracking. (My personal favorite is the Emerging Technology Hype Cycle, which is a terrific time-saver for staying on top of the latest technologies and the pros and cons associated with each one. The 2014 one is due out in August.)

But as is true of so much research, the trick is knowing how to interpret the data. Most hype cycles are used by tech purchasers or investors to help assess the risks and pitfalls inherent in any given tech segment. But there is a more creative application for tech marketers—to use the hype cycle as fodder for no-nonsense thought leadership campaigns. Here’s how to do it at each stage of the cycle:

  • Technology Trigger. Something is invented and debuted among a small set of geeks and investors. Expectations start low, and the real question is how this technology will disrupt existing technologies as it matures. This is the “next big thing” phase. Here the communications strategy is to illustrate the most likely ways genuine disruption will show up. How will it impact existing technologies and business models?
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations. Something is promoted to the market, usually over-hyped, and positioned as a game-changer. Expectations exceed reality, and the definition of this new thing and what it’s supposed to be is stretched in multiple different directions by different vendors. Here the communications strategy is to challenge myths, guide the public as to how to protect themselves from later disappointments, and establish yourself as a voice of reason.
  • Trough of Disillusionment. Something is deployed in the market by early adopters and a few fast followers, and implementation challenges begin to arise. Expectations are not met, and people begin to complain about the technology. Vendors and solutions are swapped out, and the people who chose these technologies are questioned internally. Here the communications strategy is to leverage your “voice of reason” position to explain how to protect your existing investment in this new technology and make it work in the real world.
  • Slope of Enlightenment. People either adjust their approach or their expectations or both, and this new technology becomes more intelligently deployed. Expectations begin to normalize against the reality of this technology.  Here the communications strategy is to celebrate the customers who were the first to figure out the proper use and expectations for this technology.
  • Plateau of Productivity. Here the technology reaches mass adoption and begins to become commoditized and/or ubiquitously included in other platforms. Expectations are completely in line with performance, and excitement levels are minimal. Not much is newsworthy in this phase except for price pressure and all that commoditization brings. The communications strategy here is to look back at technologies in the Technology Trigger phase and see what new innovations will come along to refresh and disrupt the existing technological norm.

So as we enter Hype Cycle season, keep an eye on Gartner’s point of view on hyperbole and overpromising in your tech sector, and take this opportunity to rise above!

PR = Persuade Responsibly: The Science and Ethics of Innovation Storytelling


“With great power comes great responsibility.” Not only was this Uncle Ben’s transformational advice to Spiderman, it remains a particularly applicable adage when it comes to technology PR.

The science of persuasion has been around since Cicero, and his influence on modern-day PR is palpable to those who appreciate that sort of thing. There have since been several modern articulations of the science of influence, including the six universal principles of persuasion outlined by Dr. Robert Cialdini of ASU.

In recent months, there’s been a tidal wave of attention given to the additional power that storytelling brings to persuasive communications. And when the story is picked up and repeated by a community of influential people—what B&O calls “viral storytelling”—we move from a mere marketing campaign to becoming a movement.

But sometimes, it’s tempting to get caught up in the power of the story we’re telling without stopping to think through where the story will take us. One recent example of this is the downfall of a well-intentioned electric vehicle infrastructure company, Better Place, as detailed in a recent Fast Company article. Not only did Better Place build up a compelling set of messages and multi-faceted narrative, but it also established an entire corporate mythology around one core mission statement: to end the world’s addiction to oil. Sadly, the story outpaced the reality, and ironically, while the broader vision for EV infrastructure is being realized today, the company itself wasn’t a necessary component of its own vision. Ultimately the story—and the company—collapsed.

This is another example of Dr. Cialdini’s counsel that the science of persuasion needs to be applied ethically and honestly. That’s why it’s important to embark on any technology storytelling exercise with a few important ground rules firmly in place:

  1. True—all claims must be defensible with evidence
  2. Compelling—the story needs to resonate emotionally and consider the human impact of the technology
  3. Intuitive—the story needs to be understandable by non-techies so they can appreciate its potential and participate meaningfully in the discussion
  4. Differentiating—the story needs to add something new to the existing discussion and avoid merely jumping on the latest bandwagon
  5. Validated—the story needs to include a discerning view from impartial, external experts
  6. Viral—the story needs to include compelling, open-ended questions that invite genuine discussion and examination

Stories have the power to shape behavior on an individual, corporate, industry and even global level. Storytellers—good ones—have an enormous impact on how technologies are perceived and used. Given the importance of using all our existing resources intelligently, it’s nice to know that technology PR professionals are in a position to help the world truly become a better place.

Engineering for Expectations: Human Response as the Central Design Principle

Credit: Blake Patterson
Credit: Blake Patterson

This week, XTC continues our PR Playbook discussion with a look at engineering for expectations—how human reaction ought to be the driving force behind how we design and market new technologies.

Human behavior has always been the biggest barrier to technology adoption. Before the iPhone, Apple launched the Apple Newton in 1992, aptly named because Newtonian physics were easier to understand. In addition to being too bulky to be pocket-sized, it required people to learn a frustratingly fickle technological cuneiform. Apple came out with iPod 10 years later, and iPhone 15 years later. The difference was summed up in one word from reviewers: intuitive.

Today, B2C and B2B tech companies alike have learned the power of being intuitive. But more than easy to use, technology must be easy to love, and that emotional bond must shine through in the narrative. Here are some storytelling components to showcase that “je ne sais quoi” of your own technology:

Understand the hype. People’s expectations for new technology tend to map to the adoption curve described by Gartner’s Hype Cycle, and those expectations are excellent guides for the tone and content of our tech PR. Are we enamored with novelty and unexplored potential? If so, clarify what’s most likely to be disrupted. Is the technology over-hyped and we’re promised it does everything, “It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping”? Level-set expectations and challenge the hype. Are we frustrated with results and running into this technology’s shortcomings? Illustrate how to recoup the ROI from existing technology investments. Understanding hype is a prerequisite to effective technology thought leadership.

Make room for surprise. Marketers already know the power of customer delight, and in storytelling parlance the plot twist has always been key. But even more important than delight is surprise. When people encounter an expected joy, they feel good. When people encounter an unexpected joy, the feeling is even more potent and forms a stronger bond. This is what the serendipitous discovery and semantic web discussion was about. This is what compels us to return to CES annually. And it is essential in our storytelling that we not habitually spoil the surprise by dictating the benefit statements to our audience. Instead, leave some room to serendipitously discover new benefits in our offerings. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t tell the world how to use Facebook. He provided a (mostly) blank canvas and let users define this new social utility.

Showcase the human impact. Technologies are easier to love when the world has a reason to want to see them succeed. Showcasing the human impact of mobile, social, cloud and big data technologies shifts the burden of proof from “how can this possibly work?” to “why wouldn’t we want to see this work!” IBM speaks to the problems that impact society most in their Smarter Planet campaign. McKesson speaks to creating a vision for better health. LinkedIn speaks to economic impact and cultural leadership. Polycom speaks to the importance of human collaboration. Nobody can be the hero of their own narrative unless they are in service of something bigger than themselves. That’s the definition of a hero. There’s a lot of power in articulating why the world needs you.

This is how we can put that human expectation of a better life at the center of our communications strategies and make sure technologies continue to serve the human agenda … and not the other way around.

Next week: the rise of small data over big data.

XTC—Examining the Change: Changing the Relationship with Risk

Credit: Cole Patrick
Credit: Cole Patrick

In our previous two posts we’ve explored the dynamic of ingenuity over innovation, and ways to activate customers as influencers. But one of the more prevalent trends in tech marketing and PR this year is the extent to which tech marketers are targeting specific vertical markets.

What’s interesting is that many of these verticals are traditionally risk-averse, such as health careautomotive, and manufacturing. It’s usually because they  find themselves caught between opposing mandates such as regulatory concerns, public safety, security and financial risk on the one hand, and the need to deal with massive disruptions from new business models and competitors on the other. And if these traditionally conservative industries don’t embrace the risks that technology represents, they’re in trouble.

Gartner calls this “Digital Business Advantage,” and in a recent report, they make some fairly startling predictions. By 2017 …

  • 20% of all market leaders will lose their dominant position to a company founded after the year 2000 because of a lack of digital business advantage
  • 25% of all companies will lose significant market share because of “digital business incompetence”
  • Corporate strategists will begin conducting daily competitive scans because of a loss of sustainable competitive advantage

In other words, embracing technology risk is no longer a luxury. Fast followers have to become fast evolvers, or else they risk extinction.

But what if these organizations could change their relationship with risk? What if they could apply that same calculating conservatism they usually apply to examining technology ROI and instead calculate a different cost—the cost of doing nothingCertainly, it’s often difficult to predict the hard ROI from deploying a relatively new and unproven technology. But it’s much easier to predict the impact of not changing course when new competitors are emerging and already starting to eat away at your market position.

And what if companies began to count their organizational learning curve as a corporate asset, as well? That’s the other untold story in technology today—the fact that in many cases, we are still learning the appropriate use of these new technologies. But it takes time to figure out the best possible uses for a new technology, and all too often companies and industries assume that the first few uses are the only uses. And this leads to a gross undervaluing of ROI. But in a world where change is the only constant, it’s the fastest learning curve that wins. Where’s the ROI equation for that?

That’s why today many progressive companies are re-examining their relationship with risk. CIOs and CTOs are beginning to accept that the downside of innovation is nothing in comparison to the downside of not evolving. And progressive tech marketers are beginning to engage customers in co-creating value propositions. Because a great technology in the hands of an ingenious customer probably has applications far beyond what the vendor ever had in mind.

Next week, we’ll look at engineering for expectations, and embracing human assumptions as a core design principle for your tech PR campaign.

Wait! What? 4/4/14: The towel faces serious disruption, virtual reality soars to new escapist heights

Credit: Fast Company
Credit: Fast Company

Finding good stories in the Great Sea of Content is a challenge, but it’s a challenge we gladly accept.

That’s why last week we launched “Wait! What?” — a blog series to help you catch up on tech, media and marketing news that may have slipped under your radar. Check back here every Friday for fabulous bullet points on our favorite stories this week:

  • Mission: Impossible.com. Brand-new social platform Impossible.com connects people to make wishes come true and show that anything is possible [with money from strangers].
  •  Competition heats up in the towel space. No, this is not a hype piece advertising the connected smart towel. It’s literally bigger than that. It’s the Body Dryer.
  • PR agencies tackle analytics. At B&O, we simply don’t guess. That’s why it’s cool to see the PR industry finally recognizing the value of analytics.
  • Social Soul: The 360° feed. A mystifying room at this year’s TED conference gave visitors a 360-degree view of their news feeds and matched them with their social soulmates.
  • Virtual reality becomes, well, a reality. The Zuck isn’t messing around. It’s not a question of whether this stunning technology will go mainstream—it’s when.

What have you been reading about this week? Tweet us @BlancandOtus or leave a comment below!