Regardless of industry or available resources, brand is the north star for product teams the world over.
Stop what you’re doing and thumb through your LinkedIn feed; every third post is extolling the power of categorical ubiquity attained through some combination of nebulous stratagems and the rapid consumption of decades-old books (every fifth is selling you a $1,500 course on how to use the hero's journey to sell more widgets, but I digress).
This is not to say that “brand” isn’t inherently valuable; it’s perhaps the most important asset a business can invest in. But it can be extremely difficult to leverage something so ... squishy.
Enter product story, a more practical application of narrative.
Crafting a product story that resonates with your customers is essential if you hope to build—and more importantly, maintain—competitive advantage. A strong product story can help every member of your organization contextualize your product’s value, positioning your solution as essential to the success of prospects and customers alike.
In this blog post, we’ll dive into the concept of product storytelling, touch on the three keys to crafting a product story of your own, and take a closer look at four businesses that use their product stories to capture market share.
Product story: A crash course
A product story is a narrative in which your customer (the hero) overcomes some business challenge thanks to, you guessed it, your product.
More importantly, though, it’s the means by which you arm internal stakeholders with the who, what, and how of your product so that they can, in turn, show current and future customers why they need it.
What does a product story do?
A good product story foments customer empathy and positions your product as the most effective solution to the problems that keep your customers up at night.
It cuts internal jargon to get at the ideas that make complex concepts digestible to your end user. Take HubSpot for example. The subhead reads:
“Finally, a CRM platform that’s both powerful and easy to use. Create delightful customer experiences. Have a delightful time doing it.”
This simple proposition (an exceptionally usable platform that will help me bring joy to my customers) immediately builds a framework through which a prospect may begin to consider the company’s growing suite of sophisticated products:
Without the former, the latter could definitely intimidate prospects and confuse sales, marketing, and CS personnel struggling to simplify a robust offering into something relatable.
Why does product story matter?
Why is this necessary?
Just because you know your product inside and out doesn’t mean everyone in your organization does. Your sales reps and marketers might have a handle on how easy it is to use and the results it can deliver for your customers, but without a captivating product story, they simply won’t be able to do it justice.
Your product story should be the distillation of everything you work so hard to gather—user data, competitive intelligence, customer testimonials, etc.—into something tangible your peers can actually use to help customers.
A feature matrix isn’t compelling. A testimonial (on its own) isn’t compelling.
A product story is.
Key #1: A good product story starts with who
Blasphemy, I know.
But with all due respect to the inestimable Mr. Sinek, a product story that doesn’t first consider its characters (read: your customers) isn’t going to move the needle.
Fortunately, nobody in your organization is better prepared to understand your product’s impact on who than, well, you. Odds are, you developed the buyer personas—representations of your ideal target customer—used by your PMs to scope features and your AEs to craft pitches. Think back to the interviews you conducted to create those assets.
What were the biggest and most common pain points you identified? How did your product alleviate or eliminate them? How long did it take?
Having answers to these key questions helps you develop context, which helps create a narrative that positions your product as a silver bullet.
Let’s take a look at how everyone’s favorite expensive fitness hub, Equinox, does just that.
In a post-pandemic world, who’s likeliest to pay $249/month for eucalyptus towels after spin class? The same people who were willing to do so when things were “normal.”
The story Equinox is telling is one that understands customers’ pain (a consistent, luxury exercise experience in an uncertain world) and positions the product as a 360-degree solution that can be used anywhere, any time.
Equinox is no longer a mere “gym.” It’s a suite of tools—physical and digital—purpose-built to help top-performers crank their success meters to eleven.
Key #2: Don’t let language get in your way
Copywriting deity David Ogilvy’s September 7th, 1982 memo to agency employees, titled “How to Write,” contains ten unassailable tips for better writing (and thinking, for that matter). But it’s numbers two and three that we care about today.
- Write the way you talk. Naturally.
- Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
This means leaving the jargon at the door. Bidding adieu to run-on sentences and page-length paragraphs. Embracing simplicity.
The more complicated your product is, the simpler your product story needs to be. And while you can’t suddenly make the masses experts in Node.JS security or the metaverse or [insert third esoteric niche], you can use accessible language to convey the reasons why your solution is the solution.
Let's look at InVision:
Run your brainstorms like the teams at Xbox.
Drive alignment like the team at AmEx.
Kick off your campaign like the team at Asana.
I’m not lost in impressive specs and ubiquitous feature matrices; I’m thinking about how InVision can help me improve brainstorm processes so that I can be the next Steve Ballmer.
If they were to explain how the visual collaboration tool Freehand worked, most prospects would run for the hills.
So instead, they use a combination of simple language, aspirational examples, and customer testimonials to show you exactly what the app does (transforms collaborative work) and how it can help you become more like your heroes.
Key #3: A narrative arc builds empathy
In most organizations, hammering on the value of your product’s features and benefits and slinging case studies is commonplace for members of your sales, marketing, and CS teams.
Unfortunately, without an accessible, coherent, and consistent product story, these anecdotes and assets tend to fall flat.
Everyone in your organization needs to understand that there’s power in your product story. Yes, it’s a tool for conveying complexities in a more understandable way. But it’s also the most effective way to foster empathy in members of your team and your ideal customers.
For the former, the product story builds a sense of understanding for the problems prospects face and, more importantly, how your product can fix them. And in the latter, the product story is one of empowerment; it shows the customer how, by simply welcoming your solution with open arms, they can finally win.
Let’s look at how Airtable, “the platform for building collaborative applications,” does just that.
Beginning: Life before your product
Rapid development, collaboration, and data transparency.
All are important, few are addressed effectively. This makes life difficult for all teams, the resource constrained in particular. When you can’t simply throw time and money at a custom solution, you get stuck.
Airtable makes every member of your organization into a creator, because software shouldn’t dictate how you work—you should dictate how it works.
Middle: Your product has entered the chat
Airtable takes something everyone is familiar with (for better or worse), the spreadsheet, and turns it into something—for lack of a better word—magical. They don’t say “relational database” even once; instead, they focus on empowering the hero with a tool that can be used to do literally anything.
End: Life with your product
You’ve onboarded Airtable, your whole organization is using it, you didn’t have to hire an agency to build an app. Life is good.
It can get even better.
Through integrations and a rich, open source app environment, the customer can remix the tools they’ve used to gain efficiencies and solve business problems and share them with others facing similar challenges.
Now your customer is writing the story.
Create a product story that works
Bottom line, your product story needs to:
- Use data
- Explain the why and how of your product
- Exist for a specific audience (your prospects/customers)
Do this and you’ll provide necessary context for anyone in your organization to articulate why your product is great.
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