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Introducing The Story Funnel

At its core, the Story Funnel concept is how to tell a brand’s story depending on what stage someone is in -- all why not straying from the brand’s core values. This is what we mean by keeping the story straight and it’s an essential part of building a brand.

Jarie Bolander
Jarie Bolander

Many brands struggle to figure out how to tell their story. Part of the struggle is there is how to make yourself heard in a world that is noisy with information and distractions. We should know. We have been struggling to get our story straight at Sutro for the better part of two years.

It’s not that we don’t know the story we want to tell -- rather we don’t have a way to tell our story to all the different people who might interact with our brand, at the different stages of our relationship with them. This prompted us to rethink our story and we came up with this idea of a Story Funnel.

Hooking Prospects, Building Customers, and Paying Off Advocates.

At its core, the Story Funnel concept is how to tell a brand’s story depending on what stage someone is in -- all why not straying from the brand’s core values. This is what we mean by keeping the story straight and it’s an essential part of building a brand.

In addition, the ultimate goal for any brand is to create an army of advocates that love what they do, tell their friends and family, as well as buy more products.

The importance of a clear, concise, and compelling story throughout a person’s journey from prospect to customer, and hopefully to an advocate is at the core of the Story Funnel.

There are three macro-stages and nine mico-stages, which are briefly explained below:

Hooking Prospects -- Getting above all the Noise with emotional appeals

  • Scan -- Catching a prospect’s eye quickly
  • Read -- Creating an engaging story that helps them do a job
  • Action -- Simple actions to take to learn more.

Building Customers -- The sale is just the start

  • Buy -- A compelling offer that the right prospect can’t refuse. It gets their job done.
  • Onboard -- How quickly a new customer can start using your product
  • Using -- Helpful ways to use your product or service + continuing to use

Paying Off Advocates -- Part of your Brand’s Team

  • Productive -- Does the “Job to be Done” easily and repeatedly for the customer
  • Fan -- Tells friend and family about how great your brand is
  • Advocate -- Actively promotes and gets rewarded.

Each one of these stages is fed by the previous stage which means that someone can’t buy from you unless they have first scanned your materials, read your copy, and then took action (e.g. gave an email or even bought). It’s important to realize these dependencies because what we want to do is make it Sesame Street simple to know what our brand is about, like the message, and trust that we’ll deliver on our promises. We’re going to go through each of these stages as well as the work needed to ensure that each stage does what you want. As we finish each stage writeup, we’ll link to it above.

Those who are familiar with storytelling will notice that the macrostructure of the Story Funnel follows the traditional three-act structure. This is no coincidence and it’s actually borrowed from the Story Grid, which is a way to analyze stories to see if they work. More on that a little later.

The Pathos, Logos, and Ethos of Persuasion

In 350 BC, Aristotle wrote in On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse about the 3 Rhetorical Appeals – Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. This has formed the basis of persuasion techniques ever since. It’s also no surprise that it’s commonly used in the best nonfiction writing as well as some of the best brand messaging.

Research on persuasion and buying reveals that prospects buy on emotion (pathos) and justify the decision based on logic (logos).

The Story Funnel uses the same method to build the story at each stage of the funnel. For the prospecting stage, the appeal to emotion (pathos) is used to get the content read -- essentially to “buy in”. The customer stage can then use a combination of facts and figure (logos) and credibility (ethos) to justify the purchase. Finally, the advocate stage relies on clear gains to the customer (logos) as well as the emotional appeal to be part of the team (pathos).

Every Brand’s Dilemma

Every brand has the same dilemma -- how to hook prospects, build customers, and create advocates. Most sales and marketing professionals focus on the process from prospecting to the sale. After that, the level of interaction and investment tends to fall off. This traditional mindset is based on the strong sales incentive process where an entire set of employees’ sole purpose is to sell since they get paid to do that.

Now, this does not mean that customer retention programs like reward cards and perks are not widespread and even effective. What lacks is the full story of the journey. The sale is literally the start of the 2nd act and who does not want to know how the story ends?

Let’s give you some context on our dilemma and we’re guessing yours as well.

It’s All About Love or Is it?

Early on at Sutro, we came upon the idea of Love Your Pool (or Spa) Again. This tagline, while clever, fails to truly get at the heart of what we do -- test pool water.

On the surface (no pun intended), testing pool water is a rather boring affair. You dip a test strip or plastic container in your pool, drop some chemicals on said water, and then compare the colors that result to a sun-faded color card that is stained with said chemicals or worse, warped because you accidentally got the card wet.

Once you have your “readings”, you then figure out what concoction of chemicals you need to dump in said water. The calculations are usually in 8 point font (this font is 12), probably sun-faded, and requires you to do some math. The easiest being converting cups to ounces -- the worst being calculating the volume of your pool. Sounds fun yet if you are a pool owner, you either have to do this daily or hire someone to do it for you.

The Problem with Clever Taglines

So the root of the water testing problem is that it’s complex and cumbersome if you do it yourself. On top of that, pool water chemistry is a complex backyard science experiment that is the single biggest problem with having a pool -- even if you have someone test and treat it for you. Let me explain.

The water in your pool can be affected by all sorts of random events that you have no control over or rather, limited control like a random summer thunderstorm, the hardness of the local water supply, debris level in your water, amount of “human contamination”, etc. If you take all that and couple it with the amount of time it takes for chemicals to stabilize, the love you had for your pool will start to be more hatred -- thus our clever tag line.

The good news is that we truly want our customers to love their pool (or spa) again. We know how frustrating it can be to not be able to enjoy your pool because the water is unsafe. It’s a major source of stress and frustration for pool owners and we know that consistent pool water testing can fix that.

Sutro’s Brand Core Value(s)

What was great about our clever tag line was that some people got it. They looked at our well built, attractive Smart Monitor, put it in their pool, and loved it. These first customers were (and still are) some of the best sources of insights that we have. In fact, most of them were in our Beta program and helped us through the trials and tribulations of building a water testing robot from scratch.

What we failed to see is that as we progressed through our relationship with them, certain things were not as important to them or rather took on a less significant role. One of the most striking examples of this for Sutro was focusing more on what the Smart Monitor could do (e.g. measure chemistry 3 times a day) as opposed to how using the Smart Monitor will make you feel (e.g. pride in a crystal clear pool). Of course, measuring chemistry is an important part of maintaining a safe pool to swim in but that was a logical appeal -- not an emotional one.

This got us thinking about what our Brand’s Core Values (BCVs) are and how figuring that out would help us tell better stories as we evolve and build our relationships with Prospects, Customers, and Advocates or PCAs. Jarie did a post about BCVs for the top most valuable brands on the 2019 Forbes list. We’ll go over some of the findings later on as well as focus on the most common ones as we develop the Story Funnel concept.

It should also be noted that your BCV also drives your Big Idea. A Big Idea is not only what you stand for but what you aspire to. It’s the elevator pitch that once properly crafted, drives your entire marketing, PR, messaging, and storytelling. Since the BCV and the Big Idea are tied together, we’ll dig more into all that later but for now, let’s dig a little deeper into storytelling and why that’s so important.

Story Principles Meets Branding Conventions

It’s pretty much universal that brand marketing is about telling a compelling story to your PCAs. The brand or company that tells the best story usually wins -- all other things being equal.

As humans, we have been telling each other stories for as long as we could grunt. In fact, each and every one of us is alive together because our ancestors told the best stories. The reason for that is simple -- stories teach us valuable lessons about how to survive.

If you apply this universal to brand marketing, you’ll start to see that telling a clear, concise, and compelling story makes all the difference. If branding is all about stories, then it’s only natural to look at story structure and methods to gain some insights into how the story must change as we bring our PCAs down our story funnel. There is no better framework for the analysis of a story than Story Grid.

A Quantitative Approach to Story Analysis

Story Grid was invented by Shawn Coyne, an editor and author with over 25 years of publishing experience. The motivation for the methodology was to determine if a book “worked’ and if it didn’t, how to fix it. The depth and breadth of Story Grid analysis are beyond what we’re doing here but it does form some of the basis of Brand Core Value, which in Story Grid terms, would be the most important aspect of a book to get right -- its Content Genre.

The Genre of a Story

According to Story Grid, the genre of a story can be broken down into five component leaves: Time, Reality, Style, Structure, and Content. The most important one is the content genre, which answers the theme/controlling idea of the story. Part of the idea of a theme/controlling idea of a story is the values that shift as the story goes on. These values are important because stories are about change and the change in these values is why people read a story.

For example, in a love story, the values at stake range from indifference and hate, on the negative side up to desire, commitment, and Intimacy on the positive side. If you’re a fan of a love story, you’re going to expect to see these changes in values or there is no story. Remember, stories are about change and that’s exactly the same with brand storytelling -- you want to change your prospect, customer, or advocate to a more positive value if they buy, use, and are productive on your product or service.

Core Values, Big Ideas, and the Persuasion Power the Story

Let’s review quickly where we are at and how we’re going to build a Story Funnel for your brand.

First, we must formulate our Brand Core Value to figure out what we stand for. There are about ten we have identified to choose from for most brands.

Second, we must figure out what our big idea is and how our Brand Core Value fits into that. This may seem out of order but really, what we’re going to have to do is iterate between the BCV and the Big Idea until we settle on something that works.

Finally, we need to use persuasion techniques at each macro and micro stage of the story funnel to shepherd prospects, customers, and advocates along the story funnel journey. Our ultimate goal is to make brand advocates that love what we do and share it with the world.

Whew.

What to Expect (and Not) on the Story Funnel Journey

That’s a lot of work and I’m sure more than a little intimidating if you look at it on the whole. Don’t worry. We’re going to take you step by step through what we did at Sutro in the next several blog posts to not only build a Story Funnel of your own but also what metrics to track and what to expect as people travel through it.

Yes, we said metrics.

It might seem odd that you can put metrics on a person's journey through your Story Funnel but that’s an important part of measuring if your story is resonating with people. The fact is that in today’s digital marketing world, there are a lot of metrics that get measured but never understood. It can be downright frustrating to waste countless thousands of dollars weekly on running A/B ads on hunches, “shotgun” creativity, and creating yet another landing page. All those are fine and good to do once you understand the journey you want to take people on.

Setting up the Guardrails

What we want to do (or at least attempt to do) is measure what matters and the act on it within the entire framework of your brand's story. The goal is to be set up for success where you have done 70-80% of the work before you start spending money on narrowing in on the other 20-30% of your marketing efforts. We also want to create some guardrails in which to operate. These guardrails will be driven by both time and collected metrics so that we can gage if we’re “off the rails”.

We’ll also use standard metrics and tools that you’re familiar with to simply and accurately measure where people are at in the Story Funnel.

One other thing.

We’re not going to talk a whole lot about what content to create or what might work for this or that product. There are a ton of great content generation methods and we’ll leave it to you to pick one you like. We’ll provide some recommendations along the way but the goal of the Story Funnel is to be able to tell your creative folks the values and big ideas you want them to create stellar content around. The end result will be your own Story Funnel as well as a Brand Story Guide (BSG) that you can give to your creative folks to create clear, concise, and compelling content. The BSG is akin to a Brand Style Guide that your graphic designer would give you with all the colors, logos, and fonts for your visual creative. It’s also based on the Story Grid Editor Six Core Questions, which is how Story Grid certified editors figure out if a story works. Don’t worry about understanding all of this right away, we’re going to take you step by step through the process.

Let’s get started by Hooking Prospects with Pathos

IntroductionStory Funnel

Jarie Bolander

Jarie is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature with over 25 years of startup experience. He has also written 6 books about business and entrepreneurship.