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Portion-Controlled Insights?

It’s been a stellar few weeks for Twitter parodies. London’s venerable Guardian newspaper announced in a solemn April Fools edition that after 188 years of ink, it was converting to an entirely Twitter-based publication. They also promised to convert the paper’s archive (stretching back to 1821) to tweets, including such classics as “”OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war see tinyurl.com/b5x6e for more”; and “JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?”

Meanwhile, NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me  offered some tweets boiling down some of the world’s great novels (including this gem).

But behind the quips lies a real crisis, as market researchers, brand managers, and marketing executives are increasingly overwhelmed by the data deluge enabled by web mining, online surveys, tracking studies, etc. In that context, a nice, 140-character snapshot looks appealing … until you multiply it by a couple of hundred thousand a minute and end up either powerless to master your Twittter addiction, or cowering in a corner, seeking shelter from the onslaught. Indeed, as Diane and Manila noted in their recent blog postings, one of the overarching themes at the recent ARF Rethink conference was Research has lost its ability to hear the unexpected, and needs to find new ways to quickly and digestibly bring the consumer to life.

How do we make meaning from noise? How do we partake of the voice of the customer in sensible, nutritious servings, as opposed to gluttonously, compulsively consuming it like junk food? How do we transform a steady stream of data into an actionable set of portion-controlled insights?

One answer lies in storytelling. Listen to any one of the 35,000 two-to-three- minute segments in the ongoing Story Corps project and you’ll know what I mean by “portion-controlled insights.” Each of these gems instantaneously hooks you, moves you, and teaches you something about the speaker.

In their excellent article on The Persuasive Power of Story, Edward Wachtman and Sheree L. Johnson note that “We tell a story if we want to communicate in a way that captures peoples’ imagination, connects with them at a deeply emotional level, is persuasive and leads to the behaviors we desire.” While these authors are urging brands to employ storytelling to emotionally engage their customers, storytelling is an equally powerful method through customers can penetrate the noise and emotionally connect with you – the CMOs, brand managers, and others in your organization whose job is to forge customer relationships.

On any given day in our communities, we hear capsule comedies, dramas, serial tales, and farces. Whether the story is about something as mundane as turkey giblets (you’d be amazed at how many Thanksgiving stories center around not knowing if and how to remove them – are you listening, Butterball and Whole Foods?) or as weighty as coping with illness (true patient stories and support forums are not only the best use of social media, Pfizer, but kosher even in the eyes of the FDA), they all demonstrate how people make meaning of their lives and encounters, with each other and with you.

Why are they so powerful? Well, consider the narrative structure of a story. From the Iliad to Twilight, a story typically centers around a quest – in business-speak, a challenge or unmet need. Along the protagonist’s journey to meet that need, they meet scoundrels and saints, helpers and distracters – in marketing terms, influencers and competitors. At the story’s climax, the quest is thwarted or fulfilled, which can be translated to say that your product works or it doesn’t, confers expected or unexpected benefits. And in the dénouement, the story provides the aftermath, or as applied to brands, depicts the long-term experience that alerts you to opportunities for product and service refinement.

This is what we writing pros refer to as the “Narrative Arc,” and communities, with their diversity of consumers, are a virtual Noah’s Narrative Ark (pun intended). In short, when your customers tell you stories, you can hear how they make you, the brand, a character, build a plot line that reveals the emotional benefit of a given brand, product, or service, and result in outcomes that will surprise, delight, or dismay – but unfailingly engage you.

What transformative stories have you heard from your customers?

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