Telling Stories: A Powerful Way to Boost Conversion

by James Young

Looking for A/B testing ideas? At Tangible, we’re inspired by the three modes of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos. (If you’re saying, “that’s Greek to me,” well, you’re right: these terms were coined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.)

Logos speaks to the rational. These are your logical reasons to buy: the facts about your product or service makes it so good. It’s the rational appeal of how many features it has, or how much money or time it can save you.

Ethos refers to social proof and character. This is what others say about you, and how credible you are, through your ratings, reviews, testimonials, and more.

Pathos consists of emotional appeal, imagination, and narrative. A writer that I work with often calls this “the things your customers dream about after they have visited your site or product.” It’s the story of your product/service and its appeal to your customers’ aspirations.

Appeal to your audience’s imagination

The richest of these to mine for testing ideas is, I believe, pathos. Lately I’ve found that using a narrative appeal to a customer’s imagination can be quite powerful. We’ve seen revenue increases in the tens of millions of dollars, and conversion metrics over 200% (that’s a 100% increase in conversion over the baseline recipe). This discovery has been quite shocking, and has made me wish I’d delved into the pathos form of storytelling sooner.

So how do we get a potential customer to “dream” about the way the product or service could change their lives? First, you need to capture their imagination. It’s less difficult than you may think: we’ve been able to get accountants (yes, accountants) to dream of becoming the CPA equivalent of a rock star.

The story is everything

We work with a sales coach at Tangible, and she encourages us to “tell stories” about what our clients’ products and services are all about. Weave a great story in your customer’s mind, and they’ll “live it” as much as you do.

An article in Build magazine talked about how by adding stories to your selling efforts, you’ll see the value of your product increase in your customers’ minds. Build sited an experiment on eBay wherein they were selling cheap, throw-away products. The products that had stories built around them, in a distinctive voice and style, sold for up to 2,706% higher than the normal and equivalent “non-remarkable” products. The “back story” crafted by a talented writer made all the difference.

Focus on the theme

Think about the concept of story/narrative like you might think of a movie theme. It’s the unifying or dominate idea of the movie. Such a theme is best if it’s brief and focused. A bad movie wanders all over the place (you know the type, where not only do you want your money back, but the last two hours of your life as well). Good movies (and good narratives about products and services) stay focused.

The theme shapes the writer’s strategic choices … [guiding] your aesthetic choices toward what is expressive of your theme and may be kept — versus what is irrelevant to it and must be cut.

— Robert McKee, Story

The theme sets the stage for you to introduce the characters; set up the problem; work through the problem; and (finally) get to resolution. Just as it works for every good movie and story, it will work for your offering.

If only it were that easy

The truth is, it’s not easy to get your stakeholders to buy off on this. It takes a lot of pre-work. Often your clients are so handcuffed to their overly tested marketing messages or RTBs (reasons to buy) that they have a hard time accepting change. However, when we’re brought in is when they’re trying to get conversion — and the last creative that used these prescribed messages is not working. They speak to wanting change, but hesitate to move beyond the usual. This hesitation can come all the way down from top management.

So what we do is get our stakeholders to tell their stories to us. First, we set up the group with this concept of a movie theme; we talk about what makes a good one. As above, we say, focus on the narrative, because narrative = focus.

So, how do we uncover successful narratives?

The best people to tell you which stories you should be telling are your stakeholders and clients. They know the product. They’ve been sitting in on support calls. They’ve sat in LOTS of focus groups.

But to get these stories out of them can be tricky. We’ve lost our storying telling ability as a culture. Now, we only allow our authors and movie makers tell the stories for us. What happened to the good old days when our ancestors sat around and told the stories about why and how we should hunt the woolly mammoth? Those where the important stories and they were not forgotten. No user manuals or tech support calls were necessary.

I’ll give you some insight as to how we do it at Tangible. We hold a brainstorm session, and ask our participants to talk about:

  • Main customer goals for the product. Why would they use it?
  • The key features of the product or service. Just start listing them and talking about them in a free-form way.
  • The feelings they want to instill in the customer. How do they feel before (and after) they use the product?
  • The primary differentiators of the product. What does this product do that the competition doesn’t?

I like to be up in front of the white board with sticky notes, writing all these items down, and then putting them in each of the four categories above. We also have someone just taking notes of what the team is saying. If you listen carefully, you will hear the STORIES that are being told. They start to come out and flow out naturally, even when they’re talking about dry product features. Keri Maijala, a writer I work with on this methodology, is a master at finding key phrases that the client or a stakeholder says, and spinning it right back to them as gold.

Another great way to get stories is to chat with the technical support folks. Usually they’re very nice and have TONS of stories to tell you. (A note of caution: sometimes their managers can get upset at you for taking up their time, so do your pre-work on setting up such chats.)

By the end of the brainstorm, you should have a whiteboard full of sticky notes — and a long document of stories.

Dream a little dream

Next, you need to sleep on what you just heard. The next day, what makes you dream will float to the top like cream. As a smaller creative team (sans stakeholders), you should start to organize these stories. What did you hear?

  • The story about how the great customer support that makes the difference in the product
  • The story about how this product changed the way people have done business for the better
  • Or, the wonderful story about how good the product made people look and how much it boosted their confidence.

Now for the pitch

The next step is crucial. You’ve gotten your stakeholders to buy off on theme and narrative as strategies worth pursuing. You’ve gotten them to understand that cramming more feature copy into the A/B test will just make your narrative lose its focus (and its effectiveness). Now you need to organize these stories into concepts to pitch. Just like in Hollywood: “pitch it to me in 30 words or less.” Or in Silicon Valley, the “elevator pitch.” This will take a bit of crafting. But in the end you should have just that: a narrative pitch. (I don’t like to show pictures at this point. Go ahead and show them just the words.)

Below are some examples of different narrative pitches.

Once we’ve heard feedback (and gotten sign off) on the narratives, we then move to the wireframing stage, in which we craft the narratives in a much more visual way.

(One quick tip: before we do the pitches, we make sure that our client fully knows we’re not ignoring those very important RTBs, feature bullets and marketing messages. We show them on a separate slide, so they know we wont ignore them but don’t feel like they have to cram them into the narrative pitches.)

Let the story begin

In conclusion, I think this process is necessary because we have evolved to be afraid of telling stories (pathos), so we cling to our hard and fast facts (logos). We need to bring our stakeholders along on the journey of telling a story. The stories are theirs: we’re brought in to bring out the stories and make sense of them, then give the client the courage to test them with their customers.

Reviews of each wireframes or visual Design begin with a review of the associated narrative pitch. This way, we’re all on the same page regarding what we’re trying to convey in each A/B test recipe. If we’ve done our job, the recipes will each focus on a narrative that’s meaningful to the client’s target. And the next story the client will tell is about how their “narrative” test recipe crushed the one they’d been clinging to for years.

Ideas by James Young. Structure by Chuck Vadun.