Where storytelling meets social influence

August 12, 2013 1 comment

Experience may be the best teacher, but a compelling story is a close second. This is true as much in the workplace as it is in content marketing.

Let me explain with a story from my work life.

The meeting about meetings

In one of her first acts as the new manager, Sami called a staff meeting with one item on the agenda: meetings.

“We’re having a meeting about meetings? What’s that about?” several people wondered. I had my theory.

The weekly staff meetings were out of control. We never made it around the table for individual updates because each time the meeting would get hijacked by the same four people.

storytelling social influence

Storytelling at work.

They would consume the time with tirades about everything that was not working and how others in the organization were thwarting our efforts. Eventually others joined in:

“The sales reps are too lazy to pick up the phone and make a call.”

“I’m losing revenue because the plant is holding up production.”

“We can’t sell this product because the finance department priced it too high.”

The result was always the same: a rehash of the same issues every week with no solutions, but lots of hyperventilating. Mondays at 10:00 were my time of dread.

Sami had attended some of those meetings. My silent prayer was that she would bring change. That prayer was answered in a way I did not anticipate.

She opened the meeting that Monday morning with a statement that caught everybody by surprise. “I think we should discontinue the weekly meeting. I’m not sure anyone is getting any value from them. What do you think?”

The typically vocal group went silent.

Then one by one, people began to list reasons we needed to keep the meetings. This led to a discussion on how to make them more productive. Then the group came to agreement on new ground rules for interacting: offer solutions when voicing a problem; time limits to discussions; no sidebar discussions.

It turned into one of the most fruitful meetings we’d had in a long time.

At the end Sami added one last thing. “I’d like everybody to have a chance to lead the meetings. We’ll rotate each week and the leader is responsible for gathering agenda items, circulating the agenda beforehand and enforcing the ground rules. Everyone agree?”

They did. Enthusiastically.

The whole thing was handled brilliantly, especially that last part. It started a complete turnaround in the productivity of the meetings that spilled over into overall effectiveness of the group.

Related: The secret to bringing influence in any situation

From a management perspective, the lesson of this story could be about enabling teamwork or leading change. From an influence perspective, it is an example of the power of a narrative to motivate and inspire in the workplace.

But is it storytelling?

Lead with a story

Sami’s approach to tackling this management challenge follows a simple storytelling structure, with a beginning, middle and end. Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story, describes this structure for business narratives with the acronym CAR: context, action, result.

Let’s look at the “meeting about meetings” and see how it fits into this model.

telling a business storyCONTEXT

The context sets the stage for the narrative. It is the who, what, when, where of the story. It also identifies the protagonist and antagonist in a conflict. On one side we have Sami, with a desire to improve productivity. On the other side we have the disruptors with a desire to vent.

ACTION

This tells what happened when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict. Sami opened with an element of surprise to break the thought patterns of the disruptors. They were drawn into a debate defending the merits of weekly meetings.

RESULT

At the meeting the action shifted from negative fault-finding to problem solving. In hindsight, we can see the lessons learned: putting the audience into the story, team involvement in problem solving, leading and motivating change.

Stories at work

We often limit our thinking about storytelling to brand stories, case studies and marketing content or presentations. At least I do. But business narratives have the same power to inspire, educate, entertain and engage as brand stories in our content marketing. They can boost your influence in the workplace.

How do you put stories to work for you at work?

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Every day is an interview

John Maxwell has said, “Leadership is built daily, not in a day.”

It’s a simple, yet profound truth. The choices you make and the actions you take each day build equity that makes you a person of influence at work, at home, or anywhere else in life.

It is the true path to promotion.

Here is a story where I experienced this principle in action.

One day I was called to meet with my management team. “John, we’re making some changes to the organization and you are part of them,” my boss said. “We are making you manager over half of the marketing team.”

As they explained the new structure, it became clear to me that 10 of my marketing peers would now be reporting to me. They were a bright and talented bunch. Many had been with the company and department much longer than me. Would they accept me in this new role?

Related: Leaders have followers

promoting leadership

The path to promotion is a daily walk.

Still processing the sudden news, I raised this question. “Won’t they resent not having had the opportunity to interview for a new manager role?”

I’ll always remember the answer my director gave me.

“They interviewed for the job every day they walked in the door,” she said.

Her answer made me realize that every single day you are being evaluated by the value you bring. How do you position yourself for promotion in your day-to-day activities? There are many ways, but here is what I learned from this experience.

CREATIVITY

Bring creative ideas that improve the strategy, approach, work process, product, etc. The more ideas you bring, the more opportunities you have to innovate and improve the quality of work. Here is how that came into play in my story.

At that first meeting, my boss told me, “I want you to take that targeted catalog strategy you did, and expand it across the entire group. Lead the charge.”

When I first proposed the idea of producing catalogs, it was met with groans, eye-rolls and a unanimous, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” The company had produced a mammoth catalog with every one of thousands of products in it. It was expensive and a production headache.

But I had a different idea.

I created a series of smaller catalogs with product offerings that encouraged meaningful cross-sales to targeted customer segments. Products featured in these catalogs had the combination impact made popular by Amazon: people who bought this, also bought that.

The new strategy was so successful the management team wanted me to extend it across the whole department.

Related: Don’t think about innovation like a CEO

SOLVE PROBLEMS

There are two kinds of people: those who identify problems, and those who identify solutions to problems. Those who offer solutions get promoted.

The targeted catalog strategy solved a number of business problems. One, it enabled us to reduce the number of solo campaigns, which cut costs and mail clutter. Two, we got smarter about targeting offers that drove inbound traffic and phone calls. And most importantly, it increased sales and profitability.

PRODUCTION

Do more than is required of you. It is the difference between seeing the opportunity and seizing the opportunity. Those who seize it, go beyond what is expected and find a way to do the work better, faster and more efficiently.

Related: The surprising rewards of going the extra mile

Others in my group determined catalogs did not work and chose to continue a strategy of expensive solo campaigns. I knew there had to be a better way and set out to find it. It was a risk with awesome rewards.

My big takeaway from this experience is that you really are interviewing every day. You may already have the job or the client or the customer, but promotion comes from the daily pursuit of awesomeness.

What are you doing today to be positioned for promotion?

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Why be awesome?

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Common words that suck emotional power out of your content

blog writing with emotional words

You can’t bore someone into reading or sharing your content.

Every word has an emotion attached to it.

Every reader, regardless of profession or IQ, has an emotional reaction to your words. It is hardwired into the brain.

So when you are writing a blog post or other content for online marketing, your choice of words is important. Need convincing?

Legendary copywriter John Caples made a life study of persuasive writing. Once, he changed the word “repair” to “fix” in an ad and achieved a 20% increase in response. One word!

Related: A word reduction plan for lean writing

That illustrates an important rule of word choice for writers: When emotion meets intellect, emotion always wins. Analytical words activate the reader’s analytical brain instead of triggering an emotional response. Here is an example.

How would you respond to getting this email?

YOUR NAME HAS BEEN SELECTED BY COMPUTER TO PARTICIPATE IN A PRIZE-AWARD PROGRAM IN WHICH PRIZES ALREADY HAVE BEEN ALLOCATED. TO RECEIVE YOUR AWARD YOU ARE REQUIRED TO PHONE FOR AN APPOINTMENT BEFORE THE EXPIRATION DATE ABOVE.

It is loaded with intellectual words like “selected,” “allocated,” “receive,” and “required.” I think anybody with a pulse would be left cold by this message.

What if we replaced the intellectual words with emotional words? We might get something like this:

We have great news for you. You’re already a winner.

Here’s how you claim your award …

It is essentially the same information. But the words are far more likely to trigger a response.

Weeding the content garden

Like weeds in a garden, intellectual words can creep into your copy, choking its emotional impact. It is so unnecessary. When you are on the lookout for them, it is easy to shift word choice in favor of emotion. Here is a reference guide to get you started, courtesy of my copywriting hero Herschell Gordon Lewis.

content marketing emotion words

Boring or persuasive? You choose

Every good piece of copy has an emotional outpouring of words. But there is a big difference between writing with emotion and dumbing down your message. It comes down to understanding people.

People make judgments about you, your ideas, or your brand based on emotion. Then they justify their response with logic. It happens in that order.

Your challenge as a blogger is to choose words that arouse their senses and lead them to their logical conclusion. Intellectual words don’t do that. They make you sound smarter. They also make you sound boring.

What would you add to the intellectual/emotional word list?

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To blog is human

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Make readers devour your content with these curiosity hooks

create curiosity in blog content

How to hook your blog readers into reading to the end.

On the night of April 14, the ocean liner Californian has progressed to within fifteen hundred miles of her destination, Boston Harbor.

Midnight.

Second Officer Herbert Stone is due for watch on the bridge.

Reporting for duty, Stone finds his apprentice seaman glued to a pair of binoculars, staring toward the black horizon.

He, the apprentice, has sighted a steamer in the distance.

He can make out the ship’s masthead light, her red light, and a glare of white lights on her afterdeck.

Stone asks the apprentice to try for communication by means of the Californian’s Morse lamp.

A bright beacon signal is flashed.

No answer from the steamer.

“Will that be all, sir?”

Stone nods; the apprentice leaves to make record in the patent log.

Now Second Officer Stone is alone on the bridge.

Glancing idly over the water, a white flash catches his eye—a white flash of light in the direction of the distant steamer.

Stone scratches his head, picks up the binoculars. Four more white flashes, like skyrockets burst in the heavens.

Stone notifies the ship’s captain.

Over the voice pipe, the captain asks if the flashes appeared to be company signals.

Stone cannot say for sure.

The captain then requests further communication attempt through the Morse lamp.

By now Stone’s apprentice has returned to the bridge. The beacon signal is employed once more.

Still no answer from the steamer.

Lifting the binoculars to his eyes once more, Stone observes three more flashes in the continuing light show, but now his attention is drawn to the steamer’s cabin lights.

They seem to be disappearing, as though the steamer were sailing away.

At 1:40 a.m., Stone sees the eighth and last white flash in the night sky.

In one hour, all the steamer’s lights have vanished into the blackness.

It is not until 4:00 a.m. that anyone on board the liner Californian learns the rest of the story.

The curiosity hook

paul harvey, master storyteller

Paul Harvey

So begins The Light Show, one of hundreds of stories told by radio personality Paul Harvey. One of the hallmarks of his storytelling was the ability to build curiosity that made you pay attention until the last word.

Listeners would eagerly sit through the commercial break just to hear the rest of the story. Isn’t that the desire of every blogger and content marketer, to hold readers’ attention through to the last word of your content?

It is one of the great challenges in content marketing today, and cause for concern. Here is why.

Recently Slate magazine did an online readership study that quantifies the problem:

The antidote is to build curiosity into your copy to keep readers reading. I learned a copywriting trick that works wonders for this. I call it the curiosity hook. Never heard of it?

Let me explain.

A curiosity hook is a short sentence that signals something important or surprising is ahead. It is a transitional phrase that links two paragraphs either at the end of one, the beginning of the next, or as its own one-line paragraph.

There is a simple reason it works.

It introduces a question in the mind of the reader that can only be answered by reading on. Let me give you some examples:

  • And that’s not all.
  • There’s one more thing.
  • Then I made a discovery.
  • Let me explain.
  • You won’t believe what happened next.
  • Here’s why.
  • That’s when things got weird.
  • So read on.
  • But there’s another reason.
  • Now here comes the good part.
  • Then it got interesting.
  • The story doesn’t end there.
  • Here’s the twist.
  • It gets better.
  • But I didn’t stop there.
  • Then she came to a decision.
  • I couldn’t stand it any longer.
  • And then inspiration struck.

Each of these hooks creates curiosity by teasing the promise of new information. It pulls the reader into the next paragraph. The curiosity hook puts a question into their mind that needs closure: What? Why? How? Closure comes when they read on.

Done well, your reader can’t escape without reading to the end.

And now, the rest of the story

If you have read this far, you’re probably curious how the story ends. Here is what happened.

Neither the Captain nor the Second Officer aboard the Californian had interpreted the white skyrocket flashes as cause for alarm.

titanic storytelling

Drama just nine miles away.

It was a matter of coincidence that they had been seen in the first place. For earlier that night – the night of April 14 – the Californian had reversed engines and parked as a precautionary measure, halted in her course by an immense field of oceanic ice.

That unscheduled stop in the middle of the sea had provided the Californian a ringside seat to an unimaginable drama.

The distant steamer had intended those rocket flares as distress signals, and the Californian – only nine miles away – might have rushed to her aid.

Except for one thing. The steamer was sending other distress calls by radio. And the Californian was well within range of those messages.

But her radio operator was asleep.

The Californian’s fledgling radio operator – fresh from training school – was fast asleep in his cabin. And that night the ship’s Second Officer, from his vantage point on the bridge, unwittingly watched the sinking … of the Titanic.

As Paul Harvey famously said, now you know the rest of the story.

Now that your curiosity is satisfied, will you help satisfy mine? Let me know if you think curiosity hooks will help you engage your blog readers. Or, if you have others you’d add to the list. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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How to put a price tag on strategy

value of marketing strategy

A seven-step proposal will help you highlight the value of your creative strategy.

For starters, don’t make it a discussion about your hourly rate.

In a tough economy, marketing agencies, consultants and freelancers face a daily battle against having their talent and intellectual capital commoditized. I saw this happen early in my career.

In the 1990s I worked for a B2B direct marketing agency that did very well. We had several long term accounts with Fortune 100 companies. We did many ongoing customer relationship programs for them that generated profitable sales over periods of 5-10 years.

We also had a few kinks in the business model that made me uncomfortable.

At that time it was still fairly common for an agency to land full-service business. We were fortunate enough to be one of them. Over time, we got too comfortable with the margins from printing, mailing and fulfillment services while selling creative and strategy services near cost.

Related: The triage marketing death trap

On top of that, the sales model for new business gave away strategy. We would present a complete marketing program, with all the research, analysis and creative rationale at the proposal stage. Many times I would walk away from those presentations thinking, “We’ve given them the whole strategy. They could take the plan, thank us, and then do it themselves.”

When economic hardship hit our biggest client, this came back to haunt us.

In response, they implemented a centralized procurement policy to cut costs. They unbundled all of the printing, mailing and fulfillment services from our programs, pulling them in-house. The body blows didn’t stop there.

Since we had been giving away the strategy work, it showed no value on their ledgers. Eventually we devolved from a full-service agency to a creative vendor. Party over.

I remembered that lesson years later when I became an independent consultant. I resolved to never give away the strategy or creative ideas in a marketing proposal. Instead, I use a proposal format that sells the plan and value I bring. It’s much more than a one-page cost estimate, though. Check out this slide deck to see what I mean.

7 steps to proving your value to prospective clients

Including these seven components in your marketing proposal helps to steer the discussion to how you will help solve a business problem rather than how much you cost. It follows a logical flow that more often than not gets the client to say, “Yes, let’s work together.”

Here’s how it flows:

marketing proposal flow chart

1. THE OVERVIEW

The overview is a high level summary that tells the client (I’m using the assumptive close, here) you understand their business challenges. And it states the problem you will be solving together.

2. THE OBJECTIVES

Sometimes I refer to these as “starter objectives” to get the conversation started. The goal is to get written agreement on specific outcomes and how they will be measured. For more on writing smart objectives see this post. Everything that follows is based on the objectives, so getting agreement on them is most critical.

Related: When execution beats strategy

3. SCOPE OF WORK

This part details the specific work you will be doing, and when appropriate, what is not included.

4. WORK PROCESS

Here is where you explain the steps you will take to complete the work and identify all the parties and responsibilities required to make them happen.

5. COST ESTIMATES

Now it makes sense to show the estimated costs. They are based on work process, which is based on the scope of work, which is based on the objectives. This gives a value basis and strategic rationale to the costs. Discussions about the budget can be focused on scope rather than your hourly rate.

6. WORKING AGREEMENT

The purpose of the working agreement is to establish the legal aspects of working together before they become an issue midway into the project. It covers cost estimates, ownership of work, confidentiality, payment for services and other elements of doing business together. Addressing this up front shows you are a professional.

7. BIO/ABOUT US

This is the place to end on a positive note. Don’t make it fluffy boilerplate propaganda. Direct your narrative to the skills, knowledge and experience you have specific to the industry and the assignment.

Getting to ‘YES’

The important thing to remember is the proposal is not the marketing plan. It is a discussion tool to set and manage the expectations for the project. And it is a tool to help you establish the value of the strategy and work you bring. It is your best bet for getting to ‘yes.’

Tell me what you think.

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To blog is human

to blog is human

Sometimes you have to unlearn the writing rules to find a more human blogging voice.

It’s been over a year since I wrote my first blog post and I’m just starting to get to the humanity of it.

I started with the goal of blogging as an extension of my job search. Creating a narrative that shows my marketing chops. That shoots steroids into my resume. That builds my online presence and personal brand. You know, all that marketing jazz.

Turns out, to get good at blogging I had to unlearn some of that marketing jazz.

A blog seemed the ideal platform for me. Much of my career has been devoted to direct marketing copywriting, brand strategy and business publishing. I’ve been an editor for many business newsletters, so why not wade into the blogosphere?

I learned blogging is different.

I had to set aside some of the journalistic tendencies of detached reporting and put more of myself into posts. I had to let go of the “brand guideline” approach to controlling the message and polishing each message to a fine sheen.

Related: Before you write your next post, remember just one thing

The polished, technically well-crafted posts were still missing something essential: a human connection with the reader. They were missing a unique perspective, a personal story and emotional oomph. So I looked for ways to add that to new posts. In reading other blogs, I asked myself some questions:

How were exceptional bloggers accomplishing this?

Do they have unique skills apart from other writers?

How can I figure this out more quickly?

born to blogBorn to blog

The answers came in the mail when I received my copy of Born to Blog, the new book by two of my favorite bloggers Stanford Smith and Mark Schaefer. They have written the essential handbook for personal and business blogging.

It covers the basics of setting up a blog, content planning, attracting readers and monetization. Most exciting for me are the sections that help you focus on your purpose and find your unique voice.

Related: What every blogger can learn from Frank Sinatra

One of the things I love about the book is its examples of blogging success by everyday people who share their personal stories. The stories range from battling weight loss, surviving cancer, reaching fitness goals and sharing their hobbies. They touch readers on a human level, and in the process build a community of followers.

These stories lead into a practical examination of successful blogging traits and essential skills that everyone has and can develop. At least half of the book goes deep into the “inner game” of blogging with action steps to develop the tenacity, focus, flexibility, consistency and courage to succeed.

The authors help you understand the reason why before the how to of blogging. Their stated purpose of the book is to explore “how blogging is changing people and businesses from the inside out.”

It doesn’t stop there.

Discovering your blogging skills

Another insightful section of the book identifies the core skills shared by successful bloggers. It is exciting because they are not unique talents, but skills everybody has to some degree. Through their research the authors discovered:

Blogging isn’t an elite marketing strategy. It’s a natural form of communication with skills preprogrammed into us all. You practice these skills every day. You just need to know how to summon them and put them to work.

What are those fundamental skills? In a nutshell:

  • Dreaming – Do you dream of making a difference?
  • Storytelling – Can you tell a story?
  • Persuading – Do you have passions and opinions?
  • Teaching – Can you answer readers’ questions?
  • Curating – Can you critique or categorize a subject?

If you can answer yes, you can blog. The good news is there are ways to summon these skills and the book shows you how. Chapter nine provides a simple evaluation tool to help you identify your strengths so you can focus on your dominant blogging skills.

Born to Blog is a perfect example of the maxim “good things come in small packages.” In 165 pages it gets to the guts and glory of blogging. Whether you are a blogger or part of a social media marketing team, it will help you connect with your audience on a human level. I wish I’d had it when I started a year ago.

[Disclosure: I have met Mark and guest-posted on his blog.]

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The triage marketing death trap

marketing strategy trap

The road to extinction is paved with shortsighted thinking that neglects your customers.

One of the greatest marketing challenges for businesses large and small is to balance short-term tactics with a long range strategy. If you’re not mindful, you can get permanently stuck on shortsighted priorities.

I call this triage marketing.

It’s like triage in the television program M*A*S*H. Many a calm moment was cut short by the sound of approaching helicopters and Radar O’Reilly announcing, “In coming.”

What followed was managed chaos.

Outside the operating room was a doctor in triage, whose role was to examine the wounded to determine which needed immediate surgery. The rest were patched up temporarily and helped later. It was the epitome of a short-term strategy.

The marketing equivalent is to focus on quick hits: generating immediate leads for the sales team, running a promotion to spike direct orders, or other scattered activities. The trap is sprung when short-term strategy becomes the constant mode of operation.

Marketers walk a fine line here. To win at content marketing and online customer responsiveness requires real-time execution or you miss opportunities. Who wouldn’t want to be the next viral marketing or newsjacking success story?

Related: The case for getting a journalist on your content marketing team

However, in the heat of battling day-to-day priorities, it is easy to lose sight of the important long range vision for growing the business. In many cases short-term thinking is ingrained in the corporate culture.

A triage culture

I first observed this as a front line marketer in a large company years ago. There were two aspects of the culture that perpetuated a short-term mindset and shortsighted behaviors.

The first was the budgeting process and learning to game the system.

See if this sounds familiar. Your marketing budget was set in January, after a month long planning process. In April, senior management and the finance wizards would make the first of quarterly adjustments. This meant they were looking for unspent money to take back. This evolved from quarterly to monthly exercises.

triage marketingHow did marketers adapt? You spend or lock in everything you could in Q1. If you phased your budget to customer purchase preferences – in this case, they spent most of their budgets in the last quarter – you lose large parts of your marketing budget. It fostered a mindset that said ‘Responsible planning be damned; use it or lose it.’

A second, equally powerful culture driver was the compensation plan.

Like most companies, bonuses were paid out for reaching ever more aggressive revenue targets. The targets were based largely on new sales revenue. Since compensation drives behavior, this resulted in activity focused on acquiring new customers and new product sales.

I’m not opposed to bonus incentives or driving growth. Not at all. In my time, I made the company tens of millions of dollars and earned some great bonus checks. I also witnessed some chaotic, shortsighted and nonstrategic behaviors in the race for revenue.

Related: Don’t think about innovation like a CEO

One example was the pricing policy behind some of the year-end automatic shipments to subscription customers. All products were sold on subscription with the agreement that updates would be automatically shipped and billed. Want to guess where this is going?

Pricing for updates were set by the finance wizards based on the revenue needed to make revenue goals. That meant some customers where charged an exorbitant amount for very little value. In the process of meeting the short-term goal, we incurred high cancellation rates. This alienated customers and set us back for the upcoming year.

customer relationship marketingRemember me? I’m your customer

It’s too easy to forget the customer when in triage marketing mode. In the short-term, there is no incentive to invest in customer relationships critical to sustained business growth. You give short shrift to:

CUSTOMER RETENTION
Triage marketing focuses on acquisition over retention. One study at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia found that retention pays dividends. If your business has a 70 percent customer retention rate, every revenue dollar today will be worth $4 in ten years. And an 80 percent retention rate will increase today’s revenue dollar to $6 in ten years.

CUSTOMER LOYALTY
Triage marketing focuses on promotions over customer loyalty. Promotions sell a product trial, but not ongoing brand loyalty. They may even attract the wrong customers, who never become loyal. It costs six-to-ten times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to keep an existing one. Conversely, a Harvard Business School study found that an increase of five percent in customer loyalty can increase overall profitability from 25-80 percent.

CUSTOMER LIFETIME VALUE
Triage marketing allows little time to create deep relationships with your best customers. Relationships continue to grow, encounters do not. For example, an automobile dealer once calculated that a lifetime of cars sold to one customer would be worth $322,000. The 80/20 principle, where 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your market (i.e. your loyal customers), literally takes a lifetime.

In the past 10 years, there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the marketplace from seller to buyer. Customers have greater access to reliable information on the Internet. Social networks give them unprecedented power to talk about your product and service. They don’t care about your short-term objectives.

Marketing strategies based on short-term thinking won’t win you customers or sustain your business in the long run. Back in 1973, Peter Drucker said the purpose of business is to create a customer. If you’re in triage, you need to get back to the basics. Your survival depends on it.

What are you doing to combat the perils of short-term thinking in your organization?

Are you on a journey to marketing awesomeness? Let’s travel together!

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