Over the past decade, many companies have evolved a formulaic approach to customer success stories. They go like this:
1. Customer background: “Acme has 15,000 factories spanning 26 galaxies.”
2. Customer challenge: “Acme needed to expand to five new galaxies over two years while cutting costs and staying current with software updates.”
3. Solution: “Using the amazing X product, Acme increased its visibility into the IT environment and…”
4. Results: “Acme now has galactic software updates in one click. Acme notes, “This solution is great!”
The story often has heavy handed graphic design, branded with strict uniformity. It has a long-winded summary upfront and we have to open a PDF to see the whole thing, which turns out to be not much longer than (or different from) the summary.
What’s wrong with this approach? Three words: boring, boring and boring.
How would you feel if every time you opened up the refrigerator all you saw was one row of peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwiches after another, in the same elaborate wrappings? Day in, day out. And what if on the outside of the refrigerator there was a summary of what’s inside—PB&J, PB&J, PB&J?
To save your readers from a soporific barrage of blandness, consider the anatomy of a truly captivating customer story:
1. Make it a real story. Start out with a dramatic quote. For example:
Hank Forrester tossed and turned all night as the rain from Storm Sandy pelted against his bedroom window. It wasn’t the storm he was worried about: “We were on the verge of losing our most important client, because we couldn’t deliver on time.”
To get these types of quotes you have to interview the customer, and not via email. You have to ask not just what the business problem was, but how that problem affected the customer personally. The story must have drama and the stakes must be high for the reader to care what happens next.
2. Make each customer story different from the last one. Yes, do include the customer problem, solution and results. But don’t make those the subheads of every story like so many companies do. The subheads should be about the story itself:
Bland, general subheads: Challenge, Solutions, Benefits
Lively, specific subheads: Losing Out to the Competition; X Product Makes Software Updates a Breeze, Stellar Workspace in the Cloud
3. Don’t let internal people write it. Hire one of the thousands of out-of-work journalists out there to do the job, and pay him or her well. Don’t provide an example of an existing success story to follow—you want fresh ideas, not a clone of past duds. Resist hiring fast talkers; good writers frequently are quiet people.
4. Use lots of quotes, but not formulaic ones.
Dreary quote: “Because Darwin is in a remote part of Australia, getting a vendor or support partner to provide onsite services can be expensive and time-consuming.”
Lively quote: “People come to Darwin from all over to see our pristine beaches and saltwater crocodiles, but we’re still in the middle of nowhere. Getting a vendor or support partner up here isn’t easy.”
6. Don’t have 136 people review and edit the copy. Many well-meaning folks will “add value” just because they are asked. There should be just one or two key people in your company who can tell you if factual errors or nuances need to be addressed. Let the writer manage the edits to protect the integrity of the story, avoid adding jargon, and keep it captivating.
7. Publish the piece with very few graphic elements and branding: This is not an opportunity to pummel readers with your brand, but to provide an enjoyable reading experience while educating potential customers about your offerings. Include one evocative photo or graphic to make it memorable. Secure image rights. (I’ve seen executives grab photos they find online and use them for internal and external communications without asking—which is both illegal and unethical.)
8. Follow best practices: If you hire former journalists you shouldn’t have these issues, but make sure you use active sentence constructions, spell out acronyms and abbreviations at first use (many businesses and even some journalists ignore this very basic editorial good practice), and avoid exclamation points—it’s better to make the material compelling on its own.
9. Ditch the top-heavy summary of the story—just write a good tag line next to the headline and get to the story. Don’t make us open a PDF to read it, but do make a printable version available. You’ll want your sales force to hand it out to customers.