The Overlooked Reason Why Your Storytelling Fails

A few years ago, the company I worked for launched a new product that should have been a game-changer. It was a revolutionary new adhesive that outperformed every other adhesive in its category.

But it had a problem.

This product looked nothing like the adhesive its target users were already familiar with. It was dispensed from a different kind of container. It required a whole new application process — and sure, that process was actually simpler and easier than what they were used to, but again, it was different.

Because of all these differences, the product team knew that the onboarding process for converting new customers would be tough.

Luckily, the product also had some attention-grabbing advantages: it took up a lot of real estate in the aisle, and its flashy packaging made it hard to miss.

Orders were placed, shelf space was allocated, and the product was launched nationwide…

And it stalled.

Why?

Our product team went to a few different locations to find out, and no matter where they went, they all came back with the same story:

No one was noticing the product.

They’d just walk right past it and pick up something else.

Logically, this didn’t make sense. It was new and different! How could shoppers ignore it?

But that’s exactly what they were doing, because the shoppers at these locations were following a routine: they’d enter the building, go to the aisles where they already knew they could find the products they needed, pick up exactly those products they came in for, and leave.

It didn’t matter how much space our product took up, or how flashy its packaging was; to those shoppers it might as well have been invisible because it wasn’t part of their routine. Much like the way we’ve trained our eyes to ignore ads on popular sites like Facebook, these shoppers had trained themselves to block out anything other than the acquisition of the products they already knew and trusted to get their job done.

In short: the people you’re trying to reach are zombies.

They go through their routines every day, expending as little thought or effort as possible on new stimuli unless they absolutely have to. And unless they already know you exist, they’re almost definitely not looking for you.

It’s this missing ingredient — the disruption of your target audience’s routine — that can make all the difference between a successful business and death by zombie horde.*

If You Don’t Have Your Customer’s Attention, You Have Nothing

As Dan Zarrella explained several years ago, all customer conversions happen at the top of an attention pyramid.

The pyramid works like this:

  • Before someone can buy, s/he has to be committed to the purchase
  • Before s/he can be committed, s/he has to be interested
  • Before s/he can be interested, s/he has to be aware

Awareness > Interest > Commitment > Conversion

This attention, this brand awareness, this acknowledgement of your product or service’s existence? That’s the base of the pyramid. If they don’t start climbing from the base, they won’t reach the top.

Thus, while the most important part of your business’s long-term success is customer satisfaction, the most important part of your sales and marketing process is earning customer attention.

And here’s a secret: no one knows they want you yet.

That’s because they’re all getting by just fine with whatever mediocre solution they’re already used to using. Sure, it may not be perfect. Sure, it may have problems. Sure, they’d love to have something great… but they’re willing to put up with “good enough.”

Your job is to make them want something more — and it starts by making them aware that something more is even possible.

The Elon Musk Guide to Generating Customer Desire

If you want to get someone’s attention, you need to disrupt their routine and reframe their expectations.

You need to sell them on the possibility that your message is worth their time.

You need to be attractive.

I mean “attractive” not just in the aesthetic sense, but in the physical sense. You have to draw them to you, and that attraction must be willing. Your customer must want to know more about you.

When he’s pitching, Elon Musk solves this problem by using a four-step strategy to generate excitement and desire for his solutions. His technique primes an audience to want his product before they even know what he’s selling. It basically goes like this:

  • “Hey, there’s a problem.”
  • “Every other solution to this problem is flawed.”
  • “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a solution that did X, Y, and Z?”
  • “Well, now there is.”

By the time Musk gets to the final bullet, he already has his audience on his side because he’s framed his solution as the fulfillment of their desire for a better way of doing things, even if they didn’t want a better way before he started talking. His pitch is designed to make them want more than “good enough.”

(Musk’s outline also works in most infomercials. “Are you tired of ___?”)

Granted, Musk’s format is easier to master when you’re speaking in front of an audience who’s assembled to hear you talk about that specific issue, because they already came in with preconceived expectations and aspirations.

What about the executive you bump into at a networking event?

What about the cute girl or guy at the bar?

What about the adhesive user in the aisle?

How do you get the attention of someone who may not be actively shopping for what you’re selling?

Simple: say just enough to get them to want to know more.

Building an Elevator Pitch That Actually Works

Most people think of an elevator pitch as a sentence that creates a sale.

But they’re missing the point.

As James Altucher says, the purpose of an elevator pitch isn’t to give your prospect everything they need to know in order to make a purchasing decision right now; it’s to get them to want to know more.

Instead of saying “we make a product that [solves this problem],” say “we make a product that [achieves a desirable state of being],” and leave the door open for your listener to ask questions.

For example, if you’re creating a better scheduling app, you might think that saying “we make a scheduling app that improves upon all the existing scheduling apps on the planet” sounds compelling, but it’s still likely to get an “oh, that’s nice” shrug from… well, just about anyone, because most people are generally content with their “good enough” scheduling apps. Yours would have to be pretty amazing for them to want to go through the hassle of switching — especially if they’d have to convince their IT or Operations manager to change vendors.

But saying “we designed a scheduling app that increases our users’ productivity,” or “we built a scheduling app that became the top download on college campuses last year” are setups designed to pique your listener’s curiosity and get them to ask “how” or “why” — and once you have a conversation, then you have an opportunity to convert.

This same principle applies to sales, romance, and storytelling: when people want to know more about a subject — How does it work? What are you really like? What happens next? — they’re opting in as applicants who are curious about joining your tribe.

But.

In order to get their attention, you first must understand how, why, and when your target audience makes decisions, and where their opportunities to notice you really are. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time and energy trying to get them to notice you when their attention’s not for sale.

“We Know Our Target Audience Texts While Driving, So…”

Again, when I say “where and when does your audience make decisions,” I mean this in a very practical, physical sense.

When you’re designing a Facebook ad, when and where do you think your audience is going to see it?

When you’re promoting a tweet, what’s it going to appear alongside?

When you’re optimizing Google AdWords, what’s your audience’s emotional state during that search?

Let’s say you sell eCommerce solutions, and your target audience for an ad is the marketing manager at a homewares company. Let’s even say you have a customer profile for this type of person — you know how much they buy, from whom, what their known problems are, and what their available budget is to spend on new solutions.

This is all great intel… but where will that person actually be when they see your ad?

In the idealized scenario in your head, you probably imagine them actively Googling for new eCommerce solutions, and your keyword-optimized landing page will naturally bubble to the top of their search results, right?

But here’s the ugly reality: they’ll probably get served your Facebook ad while they’re scrolling through their feed as they wait in line at Chipotle. And if that’s the case, what are they looking for in that moment? They’re probably not actively looking for new eCommerce solutions. Instead, they’re probably looking for something to amuse or inform them during the handful of lunch break minutes they have to spare.

That’s a very different reality than your idealized scenario, and it requires different tactics than your idealized approach.

In this case, you shouldn’t just be asking “How can we get ourselves in front of our audience in the places they already go?” You need to take that thought process a step further and ask: “How can we interrupt our target audience’s routine in a way that surprises, delights, and/or endears them to us?”

Only then will they be open to considering your pitch — and, hopefully, saying “tell me more.”

*CAVEAT: In the event of an actual zombie attack, you want to not get their attention. In that case, covering yourself in printouts of your low-converting Facebook ads and failed product launches is your safest route to being overlooked and ignored.

Image: “Zombies!!!” by Travis Nicholson, via Flickr Creative Commons License

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