The Marketing Power of a Story

The other day I was talking with a friend. Not about marketing, just about relationships and the stuff of everyday life.

I made an offhand comment which caused her to stop and ask a question. I said, “You know, there’s a story there.”

To which she laughed and replied, “It’s always a story with you.”


Stories are the way by which human beings relate to one another. Stories make it easier to remember facts and information and to associate with the world around us.

Stories are also the key to good marketing.

If you walk up to ten people and try to sell them something, chances are you’ll get to see the backs of ten people’s heads. But if you walk up to ten people and tell them a story, most of them will stick around at least long enough to find out if your story is interesting or relevant to them. A few may still vanish after deciding it’s not but some will stick around for your story.

In order to sell to strangers, you need several things:

  • A crowd of properly targeted people who may actually be interested in your story and/or your product.
  • A story they will be interested in listening to.
  • A product or service that has a logical tie-in with the story you tell.

A well crafted story, and a product or service that has a logical tie-in to that story, is the key to selling to strangers.

Your story could be about the product itself, about the company that makes it, about people who have benefited from its use or about the need for the product in the world.

With a good enough product and a compelling story, price almost doesn’t matter.

So tell me a good story…

Billions and Billions Served

Savvy marketers have known for decades about the power of social validation.

Photo credit: Ken Mayer

Any time you see or hear a line like “4 out of 5 doctors prefer…” or “10 million satisfied users can’t be wrong” you are being plied with social validation.

While going against the grain may be a good strategy for investing, when it comes to finding products and services to actually use, it often pays to follow the crowd.

When you pull into a restaurant parking lot and find that it’s empty, alarm bells should be going off. Either they are not serving yet, the food is terrible, the prices way too high or some other thing but if no one is eating there, you can be sure something is wrong.

With the explosion in smartphones, mobile communications and computer technology, crowdsourcing has taken off in a way that it never could before. Sites like Yelp enable users to post online reviews for all manner of products and/or services.

There are a bunch of terrific new apps coming out which take a slightly different twist on the concept. So let me list a few of my favorite crowd-enabled apps and websites.

1. Gas Buddy

This smartphone app, available for all smartphone platforms, will help you find the lowest gas prices within a 10 mile radius of your current location. Its millions of users are invited to report and update gas prices for any station they visit or pass. The app will tell you how recently prices for a given station were updated so you have some idea how accurate they are. You can also sort listings by distance or by price and even view stations on a map. This free app has saved me a bundle of money!

2. Waze

A GPS app that I’m absolutely in love with. It is available for iPhone, Android, Windows and Symbian. Beyond being merely a GPS with voice directions (by the way, the voice comes in your choice of both genders and over two dozen different languages!), Waze offers so much more. It alerts you when you are approaching traffic cameras, disabled vehicles, accidents, police speed traps, construction zones and so much more. It will even try to route you around these things whenever possible. Every Waze user is invited to submit reports of things that may affect driving conditions. Those reports are then sent to other nearby drivers who can corroborate or refute them.

You don’t even have to use Waze as a GPS. Simply turn it on when driving on familiar roads and leave it running in the background. It will not give you turn-by-turn directions (you don’t need them on familiar roads) but it will still warn you about road hazards ahead. This app saves me so much time and aggravation.

3. Indiegogo

This is really a website rather than an app. Its purpose is to enable small charitable fund drives, though there is no screening as for what constitutes a charitable cause. Users can request funds for anything they want from starting up a band to running a homeless shelter. You simply say how much money you want and what you intend to do with it. Others can decide for themselves whether or not they care to donate and how much to give. Users could give anything from a few cents to many thousands of dollars. It’s a great way to collect donations.

4. Quirky

A website that facilitates crowd-enabled inventing. Someone comes up with an idea for a new product and others can vote for it, thus endorsing it as a good idea, or even contribute refinements and improvements. Once an invention has been sufficiently refined and is deemed popular enough to be a likely commercial success, funders will help the inventor(s) bring it to market. Many extremely clever inventions that were developed in the Quirky community are also offered for sale on  Quirky’s website.

There are many other examples of ways in which technology is enabling the collective wisdom, observations and experiences of the larger community to improve the lives of all. Share your favorites below so everyone can benefit!

My Insurance Agent ROCKS!!

I love my insurance agent.

How many people can really say that? Insurance is one of those things we all resent having to pay for, especially because it’s mandatory.

These days, insurance companies sell mainly on claims that they have the lowest price. My agent’s company is no different and I assure you if we felt we were being gouged we’d jump ship in two seconds flat. The thing is, price is not our number one consideration.

This article was prompted because I just got off the phone with my agent. I was “randomly selected” by my state’s motor vehicles division for an insurance audit and called her to get the documentation I’d need to show that my car is properly insured. She not only agreed to provide the necessary documentation but also volunteered to just handle it all on my behalf.

No extra charge, no asking for a medal or a referral or any kind of recognition. She just handled it.

The thing is, it’s always that way.

Any time I call, no matter what the question or the issue, she is eager to help with a cheerfulness that makes game show hosts seem sedate.

She has also taken the time to get to know me personally. We talk about kayaking. She asks about Sue and the kids. I’ve met her dog, who she sometimes brings into the office.

Never once has she pushed me to buy coverage I don’t need or want. Never has she even asked me for a referral. So here I am giving one voluntarily. Because my insurance agent rocks.

If you want to be as happy with your insurance agent as I am with mine, call

Pam Steinebach

Nationwide Insurance


I think the message, as it relates to marketing is obvious so I won’t belabor the point too much.

Great customer service, especially in this age when it is so rare, is highly valuable as a marketing tool.

Why Should I Do My Best?

Sometimes, it’s tempting to think that it’s okay to turn in a ho-hum performance. Especially when there’s “clearly” no payoff for doing your best work.

Indulging in such thinking is a trap that will sentence you to a life of mediocrity and failure.

Let me use a real-life example that happened to me recently to illustrate the value of always doing your best.

One of my primary means of promoting myself locally is through public speaking. I go out to civic organizations and other groups to give free presentations on topics related to copywriting, marketing and advertising. I never charge for such speeches and I never try to sell anything. I go there on a purely educational basis.

That alone limits my upside, right?

It gets worse. Recently I was asked to give a presentation to a Kiwanis Club in a town about thirty miles away. Of all things, they asked me to talk about QR Tags.

When I arrived, I found that the club only had seven members and all but one of them was well over retirement age!

If ever there was a case where there was clearly no payoff for me turning in my best performace, surely this was it. I could just coast through this little speech, take the free lunch they offered me and be on my way.

Instead, I told myself that a professional turns in his best perfomance every time no matter what. I would use this as an opportunity to further hone my speaking skills.

I spoke to that group as though there were seventy people in the audience instead of seven. Without treading on anyone’s vanity, I spoke loudly and enunciated clearly for those whose hearing had already succumbed to the ravages of time. I was gracious and professional. I patiently answered every single question, even when they began to go a bit off-topic.

Unbeknownst to me, one of those seven people in the audience was the Regional Lieutenant Governor of Kiwanis International. He had tremendous influence over twenty-two other nearby Kiwanis clubs in the region.

I was still blissfully unaware of this fact when I asked for a testimonial and a referral.

What I got was a glowing email sent out to the heads of all twenty-two of the other clubs in the region.

Several of them contacted me on the strength of that testimonial. I ended up doing several more free speeches. All of them to much larger and younger audiences. Audiences filled with small business owners who were still in the trenches.

Ultimately, several of those who heard my later speeches hired me to help them with marketing their businesses.

That one speech to seven elderly audience members, in which there was “clearly” nothing in it for me, has led to many thousands of dollars in ongoing business leads. All thanks to my being a professional and putting forth my best effort.

No matter what.

Your Name in Rice

I’d like to share with you the story of how I proposed to my wife. I want to tell this true story partly because it makes me look like a much better salesman than I actually am but mostly because it has a lot to do with making the sale through memorable customer service.

To understand the story, you must first realize that my then-girlfriend worked one weekend a month. There just happened to be a big outdoor arts and crafts fair going on the weekend she was scheduled to work. She was interested in seeing it so I met her at work with a change of clothes and we went to the fair directly from her workplace.

It was a typical arts and crafts fair with many vendors offering creative and beautiful items. Strictly speaking, none of the items were necessities so we were really just browsing.

We passed a tent with a sign out front that said:


I was familiar with these people who will write your name on a grain of rice then put the rice into cheap jewelry. My girlfriend had never seen such a thing and was curious. So we went in.

Then she became fascinated.

The woman inside the tent was a master at sales. She was warm and genuine. She loved what she did. She had created many display pieces including Bart Simpson’s entire family tree written on grains of rice and mounted to a cardboard tree.

She demonstrated her craft by making a grain of rice (sans the cheap jewelry) for us for free. We spent at least 20 minutes in the tent and even sold some other visitors on getting their names on rice. Then we left without buying anything.

And that’s where our real story begins…

The next day, while my girlfriend was back at work, I snuck back over to the fair and went back to the rice tent.

I asked the woman if she would write “MARRY ME” on a grain of rice.

The woman broke out in tears.

Not just tears. I think she was going into hysterics. A friend of hers plus several would-be customers who were in the tent at the time also all started crying. Apparently I was on to something here.

It took the woman several tries and nearly half an hour to create my grain of rice. She couldn’t see clearly through her tears and her hand was shaking almost violently. During this time, a crowd began to gather. She told every browser who came into the tent what I was doing and most of them stayed to watch.

Finally I had my grain of rice. But I wasn’t done yet. Not a single one of her acrylic vials that holds the rice was small enough to make a decent ring so my Plan A was out the window. Time to move on to Plan B. I chose the least objectionable necklace vial that she had but declined the cheap silver chain that came with it.

Instead I went to a real jewelry store and bought a very nice sterling silver chain.

Then, because it was rice, I went to a Chinese restaurant and got a take-out container and had them fill it with fortune cookies. I draped the necklace over the cookies and sealed it up.

I sent a text message to my girlfriend, telling her I had something for her and asking her to stop by after she got off work.

When she arrived, I handed her the take-out container.

“You got me leftovers?” she asked. “Good. I’m starving.”

She opened the container and saw the necklace. Once she recognized the vial, but before she’d read what was on the rice, she stopped and asked me, “You went back to the rice lady?” And then she held it up to the light and read what was on the rice.

And she cried.

So how does this tie back to marketing?

You have to understand that there were two sales made that weekend. The rice lady sold us on buying a grain of rice and I sold my girlfriend on marrying me.

Both the rice lady and I worked hard at creating an unforgettable experience for the “buyer”.

Neither of us spent much money. The rice lady gave us a free grain of rice; costing her far less than $0.01. All told, I spent a little less than $150; dirt cheap compared to a diamond engagement ring.

Yet in both cases, the imagination and the specialness that went into creating a memorable experience all but guaranteed a sale.

Not just a sale, in both cases the experience was special enough to make us want to tell others about it. That’s word of mouth advertising at its best.

What are you doing to guarantee a sale — and an endorsement — from your prospects?


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