As B2B marketers, our job is to drive people to some action, whether it’s to download an asset, register for a webinar, or, the ultimate goal, buy our company’s products and services. And we employ many tactics to make that happen, advertising, social media, content, and product marketing, you get the picture. But when you boil it all down, the foundation of everything in marketing starts with the customer and the stories we tell them.
It’s about more than the problem and solution
There’s a common structure for most messaging. We use it in our advertising, our website copy, and our customer case studies. What’s the problem and what’s the solution (our product, obviously). But according to Tamsen Webster, we’re missing a key piece in the middle, and our messaging is weak without it.
Webster shared her insights in the day one closing keynote at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum, and much of what she said really hit home and made me rethink some of the messaging I’ve written for clients. For starters, she explained that we need to make action irresistible. However, making action irresistible is not about removing objections, which is what a lot of messaging starts with it.
The truth is, she said, people aren’t rational decision-makers; you can’t convince them by simply removing their objections. People are rationalizing. When faced with a complex question, they will deflect because the question is too hard or uncomfortable. Instead, they will answer easy questions like I don’t have the time or the money. Or I don’t have the right people.
So if the traditional model of problem and solution isn’t working, what is? Webster said we base our decisions on stories. She said the story is the logic of the mind.
We need to build better stories
Here’s why I often get stuck. We talk about storytelling all the time in marketing, but how do we really do that? Understanding the structure is one part; deciding how to fill it out is the more complex part.
Let’s start with the structure. In Managing Content Marketing, Robert Rose talks about the hero’s journey, a story structure that includes a hero, conflict, and a resolution. Of course, there are more elements, but that’s the basic structure. Webster’s works the same way. She said the story we use to make sense to someone else is the same one we use for ourselves:
- The setup - introduce the character and what they want
- The conflict - What is putting what they want in danger?
- The resolution - The character gets what they want.
It’s not just this basic structure you need to follow. There’s more to it, and Webster went further, explaining we need a transformation or a change in our story. She said all great stories have a moment that makes that change happen, makes it irresistible not to do.
That moment is where the hero (the customer) recognizes the true nature of their circumstances and realizes it’s impossible to continue the way things are. Here’s where it gets interesting - how can we figure out what creates that moment for our customers?
Webster says that there is something known as “silent assumptions in psychology.” These are deep-seated beliefs about how the world works, and there are 26 of them (called primals). Primals are beliefs we have about ourselves, the future, and the environment around us. What we believe shapes our behavior. It’s not something we inherently know or pay attention to when we make decisions, but as marketers, it’s critical to understand what silent assumptions are standing in the way of a person making a decision.
We tend to skip the middle of marketing and sales messaging and not state these silent assumptions.
Addressing the messy middle in your story
Your story is your minimum viable argument, said Webster (also called a syllogism for those who want to get further into psychology). In your minimum viable argument or story, you need to make two propositions or statements that state the silent assumption(s).
First, your story needs to be valid or complete. That’s why solution selling doesn’t work, Webster said, because it only addresses two parts of your story - the current state and the future state. Second, your story needs to be sound or true, and not just to you. So this won’t work:
- You don’t have a product
- Not buying a product is bad
- Buy our solution
In that messy middle is where customers find that moment of truth. Webster offered three steps to create your messaging moment of truth.
- Surface the silent assumption - if that were true, what would it mean?
- State it/them (there can be more than one) - build a story that makes it hard to ignore.
- ‘Sound check’ the silent assumption - if that were true, what would make it so?
Someone asked Webster where you find the silent assumptions. She pointed to math and proverbs and sayings to start. For example, ‘better late than never’ or ‘knowledge is power.’
I have always understood the value of stories in marketing. But, like others, I have struggled to identify a process I could employ to build the right stories consistently. Listening to Webster brought clarity to what I need to do. She didn’t answer all my questions - she can’t; the answers will depend on the client and their customers.
This process to build messaging applies to content marketing as well, and if you combine it with Jon Reed’s thinking around getting and keeping attention with content, you have a recipe for telling the best stories.
There is a bit of excitement working in the middle of a story. I call it the messy middle because it’s the most challenging aspect to get right. It is the part we need to spend more time on when we build our content strategies because it makes us think about the customer first - what is important to them.
I keep going back to something Robert Rose wrote:
Your mission as content creators isn’t to avoid creating noise or focus only on creating signals. No. Your mission is to make the most “right people” (i.e., those in your desired audience) care. This is the art of creating signals among noise.
Creating signal means digging in and finding that moment of truth that makes everything make sense – for your customers and your business. Webster wrote an entire book focused on this if you want to dig deeper.