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

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

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—Examining the Change: Customers Are the New Influencers

L-R: Myself, Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li, and LinkedIn’s Mike Weir take a break before rocking a customer Q&A.
L-R: Myself, Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li, and LinkedIn’s Mike Weir take a break before rocking a customer Q&A.

Continuing in our 2014 Tech Marketers Playbook series, this week we look at treating customers as influencers.

It’s no secret word of mouth among customers influences consumer and B2B tech sales. A Fall 2012 survey of 813 B2B tech purchase decision-makers revealed that word of mouth from peers is the top driver of vendor short lists and deal closure. Industry analysts came in only a few points higher for influence. And the impact of word of mouth has only grown with the expansion of mobile and social platforms.

But what does this mean for tech PR? Where’s the customer influence playbook?

Fortunately, there’s a model from which we can borrow for how to activate customers as influencers: analyst relations. Here are five essential AR techniques that work just as well to turn customers into sales drivers:

  1. Ask viral questions. Our Fall 2012 study, revealed what motivates customers to contribute opinions online. The top answer—pose a thought-provoking question around a timely topic. The number two answer—focus on an interesting challenge they’re facing. Help your customers look smart by inviting them to answer provocative, open-ended questions, much as you would with analysts.
  2. Lean into criticism. When an analyst critiques a tech vendor, it’s a sign of affection (sort of). The analyst is trying to help the vendor by illuminating a blind spot and finding something to improve. Customer complaints hold the same potential. Tech companies who engage customer complaints with an earnest attempt to understand them—and act on them—often end up with a strong advocate in their corner.
  3. Ask for comparisons. Like analysts, customers have a broader field of vision than vendors. Even the most thorough competitive intelligence program can’t kick the tires on competitive offerings like customers can—and customers know exactly what they’re looking for. There are even online platforms to help them. Ask customers to tell you how you stack up, capture their feedback, and find ways to reward them for their critique.
  4. Keep them updated.  Nothing irks an analyst more than being caught off guard by a vendor announcing they’ve upgraded, discontinued or launched an offering. It makes them feel left out. The same is true of customers. If you value the relationship, make sure you’re giving them not only information about changes in your solutions portfolio, but rationales, as well. And then ask them those viral questions around how they will take advantage of the improvements.
  5. Get them talking with each other.  Once you’ve got a few customer champions in your corner, turn them into social media rock stars the same way you would showcase that special analyst who “just gets you.” Feature them in webinars. Promote them in trade press. Support them on LinkedIn. Invite them to your advisory board. Perhaps even invite them to host an opinion column on your own web site. Chances are you’ll not only cement the relationship, you’ll also learn something valuable along the way.

Up next week in XTC: changing your relationship with risk.