In Breakthrough Advertising, classic copywriter Eugene Schwartz taught us to understand “customer awareness.” He identified five levels that are still discussed today:
- Unaware Prospects. They don’t know they’ve got a problem. They don’t know there’s a better way to do what they’re doing. For instance, they might be sending emails to 100 people by inserting a list of addresses in the bcc line — the way we did things many years ago. Or they may have tried one mailing service and decided, “It’s too expensive for what we get,” or, “It’s not really saving us time — it’s too complicated.”
Unaware prospects will respond to stories that help them realize, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” Or, “you have choices.” Copywriter Brian Massey notes that a real estate agency could reach unaware prospects with articles like, “The City’s Hippest Neighborhoods.”
- Problem Aware Prospects. They know they have a problem, but don’t really understand it. For instance, a business might realize they’re running into problems when they send emails as bcc addresses. The emails aren’t reaching their targets and are getting marked as spam. They have no way no track the number of opens. So they know they’ve got a problem. They don’t realize how many email marketing services exist — and how many are easy to use and quite reasonably priced.
- Solution Aware Prospects. These prospects now realize that email marketing services exist but don’t know how to evaluate the differences.
- Product Aware Prospects. These prospects now include your company in their consideration. But they’re still not sure that you’re the best answer to their problem.
- Most Aware. These people are aware of YOU and your solution. They’re ready to become your loyal fans. in this stage you get to be personal.
You can think of these levels as 5 different segments or as levels in a sales funnel. You’ll find lots of information about writing sales letters tailored to your prospect’s level of awareness. But you can tailor your stories to awareness levels too — and in fact, that’s how you know when to tell stories to build relationships.
Unaware prospects . They’re focusing on the problem — just beginning to think about who might solve it.
In the first two levels, your goal is to create an “aha” moment: your target market realizes, “There’s an easier way to do this!”
In the second two levels — solution aware and product aware prospects — your goal is to move the needle on your prospect’s evaluation. Sure, you’ll have an emotional content — but you’re still focused on the prospect’s problem. You tell stories showing how your service performed compared to the competition. Or you tell stories explaining how your service works. In my book on storytelling, I introduce these kinds of stories as concept stories.
But when you’re in the Most Aware stage, your prospects want to build relationships. They’ve already established that you can solve their problems. They want to know more about you as a person. They might need to be reassured about how easy you are to work with, how honest you are, and whether you’re “their kind of people.”
They don’t need the same kind of information you share when you’re answering the question, “How do I know you’ll be a strong advocate for me?” or more broadly, “Why on earth should I hire you?” Those questions usually get answered with an origin story (“why I’m passionate about serving you”) or a success story (“how I helped these clients to achieve their goals”).
We’re talking about clients who want to feel they’re dealing with a friend — not to the point where you compromise your business obligations, but where you look forward to meeting each other.
This is the stage where many successful business owners share deeply personal information…stories that aren’t relevant to what they offer or how they serve clients? They share stories of their marriages, divorces, children, medical challenges, good and bad dates, finding a lost cat, training a stubborn dog and more. They don’t just share these stories on Facebook. You’ll hear them on podcasts and read them on newsletters. One successful marketer — a business coach, not a therapist — opened a podcast interview with a story of his difficult childhood — welfare family, drug-addicted uncle, and public housing.
I’m not talking about stories like, “I was raising three kids so I had to design my business to allow time to care for them.”
That story might be personal, but it’s also strategic. Telling these stories adds credibility to the marketer’s claim, “I’ve developed a system to earn a full-time income with part-time hours.”
As you respond to clients at different levels of awareness, you get increasingly personal.
In the First, your clients recognize your professional level of skill. Then they start to wonder, “How did she decide to work in this field?”
And then you make friendly conversation, perhaps on more personal topics.
For instance, I think of my veterinarian as the dog whisperer. She noticed things about my dog that other vets miss. She’s open to alternative suggestions and works around my preferences and limitations. After a few visits, we started chatting about more personal topics, such as our views of the human medical profession and the challenges of animal rescue. I always look forward to my vet visits and if she’s got a few extra minutes she’ll stick around and chat.
Or think of your favorite professional sports figure. Fans are curious about Diana Taurasi because she’s a legendary WNBA basketball player: she just reached 1000 three-point shots in less than 400 games, a record that’s been achieved by three players in the men’s game. Or they’re curious about Sue Bird, whose assist-to-turnover record has been compared favorably to point guards like John Stockton.
At the other extreme, when a player most of us hadn’t noticed made a buzzer-beater three-pointer to win a game, she started getting attention. And when Nick Foles gave Philadelphia a Superbowl victory last year, we devoured stories of his family and his personal values.
When you reverse the sequence, starting with the personal, you risk losing the relationship as well as the business. I know lots of people who are great to hang out with, but who don’t offer the best services in their fields. If I hire their professional services and they disappoint me, I’ll have trouble maintaining the friendship.
Of course, sometimes these things work out. But I’ve acquired several clients who had started by hiring friends who soon became ex-friends. And I often wish I could warn clients that inviting your spouse to design your website could be the first step to the divorce court.
So you can ignore the self-styled gurus who advise you to base your marketing on sharing your own story. “Get personal and be vulnerable,” they’ll say. That’s fine for your most aware prospects — those who already know, like and trust you. But you’ll scare away those in the earlier stages of awareness.
We look for stories about people we admire — especially stories that violate expectations.
We particularly enjoy hearing personal stories about people we admire when they violate expectations. For instance, Becky Hammon has become an assistant coach with an NBA team, the San Antonio Spurs. (Their coach probably doesn’t keep her on the payroll because she’s pretty!) What’s surprising is that Becky didn’t follow the usual path to stardom: powerhouse high school, scholarship to champion-winning college, and first-round draft pick. Becky was ignored by college recruiters and joined the New York Liberty as an undrafted add-on player. This kind of Cinderella story wouldn’t have generated interest before fans saw her basketball skill.
To learn more about Cinderella stories, listen to Episode 24 of the Strategic Storytelling Podcast.
Closer to home, we might expect that a particularly classy business owner was born into wealth, attended top schools and grew her business with inherited wealth; our expectations are violated when we discover she learned about business after her family filed for bankruptcy and she paid for her own clothes, shoes and books all through high school.
But when it comes to curiosity, copywriter Amy Harrison points out, you have to violate the right expectations. It’s not very exciting to learn that our heroine was indeed born into wealth and inherited a huge sum that allowed her to start her business painlessly. We need another story.
Curiosity emerges when fans — and clients — experience what Amy calls an education gap. They wonder, “How did this happen? She’s really good at what she does. Where did that come from? What keeps him going?”
What kind of family does a champion athlete come from? Diana Taurasi’s father played soccer in Argentina and she got into basketball after her sister began playing. What was the event that triggered a business owner’s move from life coach to business coach? He started helping other life coaches and now he’s established firmly in his new field. We ask this question after we appreciate the coach’s business skill.
In the early stages, you rouse curiosity about your offer. In the final stage, you can satisfy curiosity about the person behind the offer.
Once your prospect knows you can do the work — and do it well — he’s got a different perspective. If you’re really good, he’s become a fan. Now he wants to know more about you — to get into some background information because he likes working with you. He’s ready to hear the stories you haven’t told anyone else. He’s ready to be surprised that you didn’t follow the beaten path to get where you are… or be surprised that you followed a thoroughly conventional path to reach success.
And now you can tell the stories that would get in the way of reaching a prospect who didn’t know you — someone who might be skeptical, embarrassed or annoyed by stories of your past life and your struggles.
How do you feel when a business owner shares too many personal stories? Do you become more curious as you work with someone and appreciate their skills? Do you enjoy being surprised when you learn more about who they are and how they got here?
If you’d like to learn more about the different kinds of stories you can use for your business, please look up my Amazon kindle book, Grow Your Business One Story At A Time. You’ll discover what makes a good business story and why Cinderella stories rarely support business strategies.
And if you’d like to increase the effectiveness of your marketing and attract better clients by telling stories, let’s schedule a Strategic Intensive. I’m not a fairy godmother. And I don’t wave a wand. But if you go to to this page you’ll see testimonial from clients who share how we transformed their marketing with this program.