We Are in the Storytelling Business

I studied film and history college and my lifelong dream is to write a novel, no matter how crappy it turns out. I’ve always been fascinated by stories. Done right, stories can transport you to new places and incite various feelings within you. You can end up caring deeply about something or someone you knew very little about just minutes ago. An effective story can make you switch long-held beliefs or turn you into a staunch advocate or the meanest hater.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the work we do at Barrel and how we talk about ourselves. For a long time, we ran with our default story: we make websites. It was a flat story because it didn’t explain the impact of our work, who we helped, and why we mattered. We hoped that people would see the nice work we did and give us a call. This worked well enough for some time that we didn’t really give the story much thought.

Two years ago, we decided to build our portfolio with certain types of clients. Our goal was to target what we labeled “healthy lifestyle” brands. We speculated that if we could build a strong roster of clients in this space, we could use that to win new clients more easily. This turned out to be a good idea, and today, our concentrated portfolio is a source of strength. We have countless examples to show prospective clients that have a health and wellness angle. In fact, we turned this into a story: we’re an agency that loves working with healthy lifestyle brands, and we’ve amassed a great deal of experience helping brands in this space to grow. It’s a much better story than “we make websites.”

Today, the story has evolved even more. We tell our clients that we partner with brands to attract, convert, and retain customers. We have two diagrams that illustrate our approach. The first one shows the way we look at a client’s digital marketing ecosystem and the various ways we can assist. We mention that for some clients, we may have focused on just paid media or email marketing while for others, we may have touched just about every part of their digital marketing efforts.

Platform - Content - Distribution & Acquisition

The second diagram shows how we use the Attract > Convert > Retain model to find opportunities to help grow the client’s business. Under each are some of the common marketing activities we’ve engaged in to help our clients reach new audiences, get them to sign up, and increase the overall lifetime value of their customers.

Attract-Convert-Retain

These have been immensely useful in telling a different kind of story to our prospective clients: we have a strong understanding of our clients’ challenges and a proven framework for helping them achieve results.

You may have heard the term “brand positioning” thrown around in client meetings or design discussions. For Barrel, our latest story is a good example of brand positioning. Imagine, in the client’s mind, a line-up of the 3-4 agencies that they’ve met and spoken to about a particular project. Through our diagrams (process + understanding), our case studies, and our confidence, we literally establish a position in our client’s mind that is clearly differentiated from the other agencies with a unique offering that the others haven’t even bothered to discuss. This helps us become the obvious choice.

Walking the Walk

Of course, the stories we tell about ourselves would quickly become ineffective if we couldn’t back them up with concrete examples and a verifiable track record. Business development, as I have mentioned above, relies heavily on effective storytelling. I’d argue that beyond biz dev, everyone at Barrel is involved in the business of storytelling.

Let’s talk about our work. The designs, the code, the creating and gathering of content, the deployment of websites, the sending of emails, the posting of social content. What’s it all for? We’ve used the term “creating impactful experiences” in the past to describe our work, but what was the impact and why did these experiences need to exist? My belief is that we’re actually all working towards creating stories that will connect with the end user. This end user–the prospect, the returning customer, the reader, etc.–is our audience. If the story is good, the end user will feel something, and that feeling, we hope, will compel them to take action, whether it’s to sign up, purchase, or get in touch.

A quick aside: it may seem like I’m swapping out the word “experience” for “story”, but I believe that stories are actually a subset of the larger user experience. A great user experience may employ multiple stories for different circumstances/audience segments and attach different goals to those stories (e.g. think of a brand like AirBnB and the stories you want to tell a potential guest versus the stories you want to tell potential hosts).

Here’s a diagram to illustrate my point:

Stories for the End User

Think about how our team contributes to the Content Layer and the Presentation Layer. So much of our efforts go into synthesizing the content with the presentation layer and then making sure they’re delivered in an efficient manner. The end result, if we’ve done our jobs correctly, is great storytelling that’ll make end users feel something and nudge them to take the next step.

It’s easy to get lost in the nuts and bolts of what we do each day. The details are incredibly important and we’re committed to delivering on a high standard of quality. But it’s critical for us to take the time to frame our work as contributions to a story. It’s a great test for filtering out the non-essential elements and helping us focus our time and efforts on the components that will resonate with our audience.

So we tell lots of stories. Our landing pages, our emails, our Facebook ad creative, etc. But it doesn’t stop there. As we’ve played an increasing role in helping our clients with digital marketing, we’ve also had to become adept at telling the story of how our stories were doing.

Well, isn’t that just reporting, you might ask. You know, a Powerpoint/Keynote deck with some numbers pulled from Google Analytics and wherever else you can get data. You get on a conference call and walk the client through it. Once a month, once week, or whatever the agreed upon interval is, right?

I would argue that a good way to diminish a client relationship is to do a half-assed job on reporting. A good way to grow the relationship is to embrace the reporting opportunity as a way to tell stories that will assure, inspire, and excite the client.

Here’s the diagram of the layers that make up stories for the client:

Stories for the Client

Putting together compelling stories for the client is hard work. First, we need to make sure we’re gathering the right data and that the data is accurate. Most of our data center around user behavior (what they’re clicking on, how much time they’re spending, etc.), business KPIs (sales, average order value, etc.), and platform metrics (CPC/CPM for paid, site speed, etc.). Note that data by itself is fairly useless. It’s just numbers and letters stored in columns and rows. You can make it a point to have as much data as possible, but without interpretation, it will just sit there, cold and meaningless.

This is why analysis is so critical. This requires making sense of the data through a variety of methods. We may combine different sets of data, arrange and group them in various ways, clean up data that we deem to be noise, and add some formulas to compare or sum up different categories. We may even create charts and tables to help us visualize data in formats that are easier to process.

When we’ve put in the time analyzing the data, then it’s time to take a step back to see if we can spot trends, identify opportunities, and make actionable recommendations. This is where we prove our value, and the strength of our insights will determine how successfully we can instill confidence in our clients as they make decisions on activities to greenlight and budgets to spend.

The storytelling we do for clients is most common in the periodic reporting we have scheduled each month or every few weeks. However, the same layers apply when we prepare for client meetings such as project kickoffs, various workshops, and Strategy Presentations during our Catalyst/Discovery engagements.

Everyone is a Storyteller

In the 21st century, the ways we tell stories continue to proliferate as new technologies emerge and our interactions with people take on new formats. I believe that by embracing our role as storytellers and continuing to develop our skills with that in mind, we continue to position ourselves as valuable partners for our clients.

We help our clients through storytelling and a number of different ways. Learn more about Barrel and the work we do for growing brands.