Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Medium here.
How to structure your story to resonate with different personas
In helping CEOs align their teams around a strategic story, there’s one question I hear more than any other. Recently, I heard it from a marketing leader at a public tech company valued at over $1 billion:
“We’re in an unusually complex situation in that we have to speak to multiple target audiences —multiple industries, multiple buyer roles (CEOs on down to field reps). Can we do that with one story, or should we be telling many stories?
When answering, I always reassure the questioner that his or her “situation” is totally normal. In other words, I try, as nicely as possible, to call bullshit: all of us have to speak to multiple audience segments.
What not to do: Separate stories for each audience
The point of tailoring your pitch for different segments is to help a diverse range of buyer types “see themselves” in your story. This might suggest you should craft multiple stories, one for each segment:
But if that’s all you’re doing, there are huge drawbacks. For example, what if you’re addressing a a conference audience consisting of buyers from different segments (industries, roles, etc.)? Furthermore, if your story is geared to one segment—say, users—you’re missing the opportunity to arm those people with the narrative ammunition they’ll need to engage colleagues who actually write checks, such as their C-level budget owners.
Worst of all, the “tell me who I’m talking to and I’ll give you the pitch” approach leaves you lacking a “front door” message for the brand. A striking example—and one that I found heartbreaking, given that I hoped she would become President—was Hillary Clinton’s campaign website:
A better approach, clearly, is to have a simple, powerful, high-level story that connects the low-lever ones together:
But what does that actually look like, and how do you build it? Specifically, what remains consistent in the story you tell to everyone, and what varies by audience?
Change is the glue
In The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen, I laid out a framework for structuring a high-level strategic narrative by dissecting Zuora’s. (Zuora, which recently celebrated a successful IPO, sells a platform for running subscription businesses).
The cornerstone of Zuora’s pitch is an undeniable, relevant change in the world. (In fact, every great pitch starts by naming this kind of change.) Zuora kicks off every sales conversation, website visit, and CEO keynote with some version of this slide:
Of course, Zuora sells to buyers in multiple industries. To make its “change” story relevant for each of them, Zuora shows that the change is playing out across industries. No accident that the industries portrayed here are the ones Zuora targets:
Every CEO I work with has found that a slide like the one above—I call it the “it’s playing out across segments” slide—is key for telling their story across audience types. If you’re speaking to a heterogeneous crowd (people from different segments), you can use this slide to invite viewers to ponder how the change is playing out in their own corner of the universe. (In sales discovery conversations, literally asking that question yields gold.) If it’s a homogeneous audience, you can still make the powerful point that the trend is playing out globally (across audiences) before diving into what the Promised Land looks like locally. For example, if Zuora were speaking to a music industry audience, it might show a slide like this one next:
Zuora also has to speak to multiple buyer roles, since closing a deal can require buy-in from client leaders in IT, product, finance, and marketing. Just as Zuora shows the subscription trend playing out across industries, they show it impacting these leaders in how they approach their jobs:
The metaphor here is evolution: if the subscription economy is a global environmental shift, Zuora shows how each “species” must adapt. The “from-to” messages, in other words, present a persona-tailored Promised Land. At its most recent conference, Zuora even presented a Promised Land message for tailored to consumers:
In other words, the “change” part of your story (subscription economy, etc.) is the “glue” that binds together tailored sub-stories; it’s how you start the conversation when you’re talking to anyone. Then, if you know your audience is of a certain type, you can present a tailored Promised Land message:
In order to reach an audience-specific Promised Land, members of that audience segment will face obstacles (if they don’t, they don’t need your help). Enumerating these audience-specific obstacles in conversations with prospects has turned out to be one of the most fruitful means of sales discovery for teams I’ve worked with.
The structure above covers most multi-audience messaging challenges, but there are a few special challenges I’ve come across that I’d like to address.
If you’re doing a complete 180, you can just tell a new story. But many pivots are less radical. For example, a leadership team that has achieved some level of success may deem its current product area unsustainable or spot a larger opportunity. These “light” pivots present a special multi-audience storytelling challenge: How do you tell the new, more promising story without abandoning old audiences?
Ideally, you define a new high-level story (change, Promised Land) that serves as an umbrella for both old and new audiences, exactly as above. Sometimes, though, the pivot is just too extreme. In those cases, teams make the hard decision to “cut loose” the old story—still telling it if they know they’re speaking to that audience, but leaving it disconnected from the new “front door”:
Marketplaces— businesses that bring together buyers and sellers—have a critical choice to make about their “front door” message: Should it target the buyers or the sellers?
Mercari, which lets people buy and sell possessions, tries to address both (“sell or buy”) but puts a stake in the ground in speaking first to sellers:
Airbnb, meanwhile, speaks first to buyers:
I’ve tried to identify a rule of thumb about when it’s best to choose buyers and when sellers, but keep finding exceptions. I suspect it has to do with which side is more in demand and/or which is more likely to attract the other. For example, in 2016 Uber’s home page showed a Promised Land message (“Get there. Your day belongs to you”) and a image that spoke to both drivers and passengers, but the primary call to action was for passengers:
Today, while the message remains unchanged, the image and call-to-action more clearly target drivers, most likely because passengers get Uber on their phones (not uber.com), and Uber needs drivers to fuel its expansion into new services and territories:
Crafting the story for investors will be the subject of some future post, but the short version is that they really are just another audience for which you can tailor your high-level story of “undeniable, relevant change in the world.” Here’s a slide from Amplitude’s Series C deck that describes a new world in which a product analytics platform like theirs is so valuable:
Investors’ Promised Land, of course, is profiting in the new world, and your job is to help get them over the obstacles: believing the market is large enough, finding the business model sound, and trusting your team.
About Andy Raskin
I help CEOs align their leadership teams around a strategic story — to power success in sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. Clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, KPCB, GV, and other top venture firms. I’ve also led strategic storytelling training at Salesforce, Square, Uber, Yelp, VMware and General Assembly. To learn more or get in touch, visit andyraskin.com.