Posts Tagged ‘stories’

From the Mistake Bank: the players dissect the AOL-Time Warner failed merger, 10 years later

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Mistake bank logoI’ve learned, after working on the Mistake Bank for the past several years, that the most powerful lessons can be learned years after a mistake is made. This is especially true with a colossal failure. Only after much time has passed can the people involved shed their self-protective impulses and see clearly what happened.

There has been much written (for example here and here) about the 10th anniversary of the failed AOL-Time Warner merger (AOL again became an independent company in mid-December 2009). But nothing has been as compelling and rewarding to read as this New York Times article recounting the history of the merger from the viewpoints of the principal actors involved. Did you know that Gerald Levin and Steve Case first met at the 50th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China? I didn’t either.

Once back in the States, Case began his pursuit:

MR. LEVIN We’re now back in the United States and I think Steve Case called me on the phone and in that conversation more than alluded to putting the companies together. I had my traditional script and quasi-legal background that when someone calls you on the phone, make sure they understand you’re not for sale, which we certainly weren’t, and decline any overture, which I did over the phone.

And the story goes on from there. It’s riveting, candid, and revealing, and a must read for anyone who is eager to do a big merger. It might make them stop and think a bit.

Marketing messages are simply another bee in the hive

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Cynthia Kurtz starts off a recent blog post with a provocative statement: “Telling a story is not always the best way to tell a story.”

She continues:

There are no green fields in the land of stories; every available spot is occupied and contested. There are no story-free environments. When a new story is launched into the world, the stories it meets do not simply watch as the newcomer descends; they rise to meet it and swarm around it in complex, unpredictable and sometimes baffling ways. If an idealistic metaphor for telling a purposeful story is pulling a lever or pushing a button on a compliant machine, a more realistic metaphor is sending a bee into a hive.

I want to talk about what this means for marketing communications, especially in today’s world of proliferating social technologies.

Marcomm people have always been tasked with creating messages that can inform the public utterances of the company – be they press releases, speeches, interviews, advertisements, etc. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these things “stories.” Here are some examples of very brief stories that companies have told over the years:

  • Budweiser is the King of Beers
  • Chevy is the Heartbeat of America
  • GE brings good things to life
  • Wal-Mart: always the low price

Those are the most public messages, but there are others, not explicitly stated, perhaps, but nurtured and supported by the marcomm folks:

  • Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.
  • A Mercedes tells people, “I’ve arrived.”
  • Cool people shop at Target.

The official messages have always encountered other bees in the hive. Protesters, in some cases unions, and the press have offered counterstories to the company story – although one could argue that the press has often swallowed the company message and regurgitated it whole. (Quick aside – for the longest time I was amazed by how news stories profiling a musical artist would appear just a couple of days before a new album hit stores.) Here are some counterstories you may be familiar with:

  • GE’s industrial pollutants have damaged the environment at certain places where they had plants.
  • Wal-Mart achieves cheap prices by purchasing goods from overseas factories that exploit their workers.
  • GM cars have poor fit and finish and aren’t fun to drive.

By and large, though, the hive was pretty empty. Corporate messages were transmitted, and seeped into our consciousness pretty much unaltered. This was because mass public communication was expensive and exclusive.

Now we live in a different world. The hive is buzzing with voices. Communication is cheap and easy. Blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, Yelping, Amazon-reviewing, etc., etc. The counterstories fly fast and furious (read this one contesting an oft-reported statistic that Wal-Mart prices save American families $3,100 per year).

More than once, the other hive members have swarmed all over a corporate story and killed it. Remember the Motrin Moms fiasco, or the short-lived new Tropicana packaging?

Marketers, it’s time to stop trying to control your message. It’s time to stop believing that if you spend a lot of money buying advertisements, sponsoring sporting events or creating publicity stunts, that people will automatically believe what you say.

Instead, you’re going to have to earn your positive messages. Sell great products, service them well, provide outstanding value, thrill your customers. Listen hard to what they’re saying. The deep values they espouse in the stories they tell are your messages. Feel free to retell those stories in your forums. Look in the negative ones for clues to things you can improve, or markets you simply don’t serve well.

But, most of all, stop thinking you’re in control.

(Photo from direct dish via Flickr Creative Commons)

Related posts:
The “Values Proposition”
Tropicana hears feedback, brings back old carton
Marketers, stop shouting

Rakontu, open-source story-sharing software, is here

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

If you’ve read this blog regularly, you may have encountered me discussing how nice it would be to gather stories from front-line personnel and share them with the rest of the company, or to have a repository where staff members could share information that’s pertinent to the company, its customers, competitors and markets.

One barrier to these ideas was the unavailability (or unaffordability) of software that was adept at storing, annotating, tagging, and presenting this messy kind of narrative data. Well, that barrier is down, effective immediately.

Cynthia Kurtz, one of the pioneers in the story-listening world and author of “Working With Stories,” has developed an open-source package called Rakontu, which is the best thing I’ve seen at collecting and presenting narrative data, involving a community in adding to it, and making it generally useful to a group of people–the contributors included.

It’s a beautiful, elegantly-designed application, far more polished than users of new software have a right to expect. There are a couple of webcasts available on the Rakontu website which you should watch if you are interested.

(Disclosure: I’ve done a bit of collaboration with Cynthia and was an alpha tester of the software. No money changed hands ;)

By the way, Cynthia has started a blog, “Story-Colored Glasses,” which you should put into your RSS reader immediately.

Related posts:
Gathering customer intelligence from your front-line staff
Bringing the outside in

Ford uses real customer stories as centerpiece of new ad campaign

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

I’m convinced that authentic customer stories are the best way to convey the values and benefits of a product to others, so I paid attention when I read in today’s Wall Street Journal that Ford is using customer stories as the basis for their latest ad campaign. The Journal writes:

Starting Monday, Ford is launching a new chapter of its “Drive one” campaign, featuring 15-second spots using real customers talking about the “cool” features of their new Fords. It comes as the car maker plans to boost its fourth-quarter ad budget 10% from a year ago.

“It’s all about what real customers are saying,” said Matt VanDyke, Ford’s director of marketing communications. Ford will air 30 to 40 spots over the next 26 weeks that have a grainy, home-video feel. Mr. VanDyke said they are meant to showcase owners’ testimonials as “believable, honest and authentic.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether a “grainy, home-video feel” will convey authenticity or something else, but a move by a carmaker away from geek-speak to human-speak can’t help but be an improvement.

As far as stories go, the rawer the better in my mind. Take this example (previously blogged about here). The NFL, as part of its Super Bowl promos, solicited stories from its players and selected one to be featured during Super Sunday. Here’s the final video:

The NFL, back in 2007, also uploaded all the initial stories, told in the first person, directly to the camera, with no cutting, embellishing or actors impersonating college coaches. The polished ad is funnier and more creative. But the original is more authentic, and better, in my mind. (You’ll have to take my word for it on that account, as the has inexplicably removed those videos from its website.)

Related posts:
Super Bowl stories

The invaluable stories inside customer-service calls

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Much of the story work I’m familiar with involves asking people to tell stories about their experiences on a particular topic. I do some of this myself. But I’ve also done work with a completely different class of story. This story is created out of the spontaneous meeting of two people – a customer and a customer-service rep – over the telephone.

A customer-service call is less an anecdote than it is like a play unfurling in real time. There’s nothing but dialogue, yet there’s conflict, emotion, suspense (will she get the credit she’s demanding for the series of dropped calls? Or will she have to escalate to the supervisor?). Listening to these recordings gives you an intimate view into the relationship customers have with their products and with their service providers.

And within these calls there are almost always sub-stories–the sequence of events that led to the person calling in the first place. There are also moments of human connection… and of estrangement.

Compared to elicited stories, contact-center calls have advantages and disadvantages:


  • Spontaneity
  • Authenticity
  • Freely given
  • Lack of self-consciousness or self-censoring
  • Highly inclusive (everyone has a telephone and most people call customer service eventually)
  • Easy to access


  • Noisy–lots of pro forma dialogue which is not story-related
  • Undirected–if you’re interested in one scenario, you’ll have to spend time narrowing down the calls
  • Voluminous and redundant (which is not always a problem)

Listening to series of customer-service calls reminded me of reading the work of William Gaddis. His books (especially “JR” and “A Frolic of His Own“), continuous dialogues with few bits of exposition, are not easy to read. But they are full of meaning and insight. This insight isn’t presented in headlines, but accrues, organically, as you’re immersed in the conversations. Similarly, searching through call recordings and finding patterns reveals true customer insight that’s hard to gather any other way.

If you think you lack customer intelligence, and you have a call center, you couldn’t be more wrong. You have terabytes of it sitting in your call-recording databases. Start using it.

Related post:
Turning points in telephone sales calls

(Photo by benthecube via Flickr Creative Commons)

Customers are talking: reading signals from the edge

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

In Search of Innovation,” in the WSJ Business Insight section today, provides a useful synopsis of ideas for finding new growth areas. The basic lesson is unsurprising but still useful: to discover new growth areas you have to look where you normally don’t.

An excellent addition to the article itself is the audio interview on the web page with co-author John Bessant of the Imperial College Business School in London. Bessant focuses on listening to weak signals of customers/prospects “at the edge” of the business for sources of innovation. He points out four key areas companies can look:

1. Geographies – Western companies need to understand the innovations required by customers in emerging economies far from corporate headquarters.
2. Underserved customers/noncustomers – as stated by Clayton Christensen and others, look for people who don’t use your products and try to understand why.
3. Critics – don’t ignore complaints–use them to assess how your products can be improved. As Bessant says, people don’t complain to annoy you, but instead to communicate their frustration.
4. Competitors’ customers – to find competitors’ weaknesses and strengths and to explore gaps in both your products and your competitors’.

And of course the best way to learn from people fitting any of these descriptions is to find their stories–via interviews, reading blog postings, Tweets, etc. That will tell you what you need to know.

[Self-promotion: webinar on "Customer Insight From the Ground Up," next Wednesday at 1pm US eastern time.]

Free Webinar: “Customer Insight From the Ground Up,” Wed, 1 July, 1pm US Eastern time

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

My friends at Listrak have allowed me to take over their webinar series on July 1 to discuss “Customer Insight From The Ground Up” – a 45-minute discussion about the “customers are talking” insight-gathering processes I’ve been using with clients for the past year.

I’ll talk about why we need to gather and look through customer stories; finding customer stories in places like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.; how to make sense of what they tell us; and, perhaps most importantly, how to use that information to drive meaningful business improvement.

Click here for more information and to register. I look forward to meeting you at the webinar!

“Customers Are Talking” stories from trailer maker Snowbear

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

I stumbled across the Snowbear website today and was delighted to find they have a page full of customer stories, called, of course, “Customers Are Talking.” Here’s a sample:

During this past weekend me and wifey towed our unloaded trailer from New Jersey to western Virginia through snow, sleet, ice and rain! I was really very impressed with how safely the trailer towed in such conditions. No wheel wander at all. True as an arrow.

Most of the stories arrive via email, according to the site. I’d recommend they add a page to the site to collect more of these stories. It’s a very effective way to advertise the quality of their products. They should also, of course, seek out stories of customers who haven’t had such a good experience, and look for patterns in all the stories they hear.

If you know of any other companies that do a good job of collecting and sharing customer stories, please let me know!

(Photo: the Snowbear model 6000 trailer)

Customers are talking: the stories of credit-card customers

Friday, May 29th, 2009

There’s a great post over at Verbatim, the Communispace blog, by Karen Barone, discussing a project she did some years ago interviewing customers who had stopped paying their credit card bill. A major finding–people wanted to find some way to connect with their credit-card provider to address their situation. (Sadly, it’s not clear that the companies Barone worked with did anything with the information she provided them.)

The credit-card providers have millions of customers that they treat like indentured servants. In addition to restraints on their business practices via the recently-passed reform legislation, the bill is finally coming due (”Consumer Credit: The Next Crisis” by MacMillan and Jarvis, on for their history of hard sell, easy credit and swift punishment.

I think credit-card processors could do a lot to turn their reputations and the futures of their businesses around by collecting some stories and, unlike Barone’s experience, acting on them.

The art of the customer interview

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

I’ve done a lot of customer interviews in the past couple of years, and have learned a fair amount about what works and what doesn’t. You want to create an environment where the customer feels safe and free to share his/her actual experiences, and engaged enough to explore her memories without being distracted. Some tips:

1. Learn from Terry Gross. I love “Fresh Air” and I love the way Terry, the host, can get her guests to reveal very interesting insights about themselves. Many of the lessons below are directly borrowed from Terry’s approach.

2. Be curious and interested. One of my best preparations for doing customer interviews was podcasting (here’s a list of the podcasts I’ve done to date). I decided I would only do podcasts on subjects that really interested me, which made preparation not a burden, but a joy. With interviews you do on behalf of someone else, this isn’t possible–the client sets the subject. What is possible, even mandatory (and Terry Gross would agree), is to be interested in learning about a person and situation that is new to you.

3. Warm them up. In my early interviews, I tried to jump right into the meaty stuff. However, I found it far more effective to ask basic (but useful) questions up front. “What’s your role?” “What was the process you went through to purchase product X?” This gets the subject comfortable with talking with me, and allows him/her to ease into the subject matter. Ten minutes in, the more difficult questions work better.

4. Ask for stories. It’s easy to for people to spout their opinions. Stories, however, are more useful for making sense of difficult situations (see about 100 other posts on this blog for more on that idea). Anecdote, the Australian narrative organization, published a list of story-eliciting questions, which is a good starting point for making up your own questions.

5. Leave space for silence. In my first interviews, I jumped in with another question when there was a pause. I found of course that people had something else come to mind after they thought they were finished with a response. Now I try to leave lots of space for silence, so in case they have anything else to say they can say it without having to interrupt the interviewer.

6. “Is there anything else?” This question, the last question of the interview, has perhaps provided the most interesting answers in the interviews I’ve conducted. My first story project had me talking to customers at a market, taping interviews using a hand-held recorder. In my first dozen interviews there were probably six instances where I had turned off the recorder, thinking we were done, when the subject remembered something else important. I finally began leaving the recorder on until the subject and I had parted. The “anything else?” question, perhaps by its sheer openness, often probes more deeply than any directed question.

7. Thank them. “Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences” gets some warm responses from the interviewees and leaves the door open for a recontact if necessary. Plus, I really mean it!