Ardath Albee Q&A
What a thrill to present the 15th in my Q&A series with story practitioners, this one with Ardath Albee. I came across Ardath as part of my great interest in using storytelling in marketing (in part because any marketing use of storytelling also relates to marketing oneself in job searches and career.) I found Ardath especially warm and receptive to my blogging about her, her business, Marketing Interactions, and the wonderful ebook, Why Marketing Stories Have Catch, she offers for free download. See her bio below.
Bio of Ardath Albee from her blog: Ardath Albee spent over 15 years servicing the most demanding customers in the world - acting as a turn around specialist in hospitality service businesses, specifically within the resort industry. Ardath knowns that every day and every interaction is all about the customer. All the time. Making sure people are satisfied and happy isn’t always easy. But it’s extremely worthwhile.
When she transitioned into the technology industry in 2000, she was fascinated with the disconnects she noticed in B2B companies; specifically how their intentions didn’t always translate well within their marketing actions.
There is a huge disconnect between what companies intend and in their ability to translate those ideas into effective, ongoing, consistent marketing and sales initiatives.
As president of Einsof for more than seven years, she helped companies implement marketing and sales performance software, only to see them under-utilize the tools. Worse yet, companies were often unable to leverage the full capabilities of Einsof’s software because they either didn’t understand how to implement the changes in the status quo required and/or they didn’t devote resources to the content requirements that would best leverage the opportunities the software afforded.
She saw the need for marketing to be implemented as a strategy that reaches across the enterprise. She couldn’t justify the disconnect between marketing and sales. She saw opportunities for tools and approaches that, if used to their full potential, could have a dramatic impact on streamlining sales efforts while capitalizing on business results.
Ardath began to successfully implement her ideas with Einsof customers. Writing the Marketing Interactions blog involved Ardath in substantial customer conversations, deepening her knowledge of what companies can achieve while verifying many of her principles. Read more here.
Q&A with Ardath Albee:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative?
A: I’ve always written stories — since 4th grade English class. I have a degree in English literature and use it every single day for business initiatives. I also write women’s fiction for fun, although I’ve come close to publication and pursue that possibility when time permits.
I initially became involved in verbal business storytelling when I was a turnaround specialist for the hospitality industry. Trust me, hotel guests and country club members could care one wit about your business. They only care about the quality of their experience with it.
When I transitioned to the technology industry in 2000, it was intuitive for me tap those insights to generate content marketing campaigns for software, as well as in building solid customer relationships.
Q: What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: As president of Einsof, I saw our customers buying software to empower online marketing and then be frustrated because they were struggling to get results. It wasn’t the software, it was the content they were putting into it. I began helping them get results by showing them how to refine the way they told their stories and knew that I’d found my professional passion.
I’m absolutely intrigued with the process of involving people in visualizing possibilities. After all, that’s what every company is selling. The more realistically a prospect can engage with a story — envisioning themselves playing a pivotal role — the more likely they are to reach out to that company to get the outcome they can “see.”
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Well, that’s a great question. I think there are a number of influences, but mostly I think the reason is the control people are exercising over selecting what information they spend their time with. There are more choices than ever before, people are busier with limited time, so why would they choose to spend that time on things that don’t meet their needs?
The more personalized and relevant information is to the person presented with it, the more engagement is possible. Storytelling is in our genes. We tell ourselves stories every day to explain the world around us. We like to think we have control over our lives, our circumstances and our choices. The beauty of storytelling is that it allows us to put ourselves into the action. The more we can relate to a situation or character role, the more “real” that situation is to us, and so are the possibilities it offers.
Dry statistics, facts, product features, technical details, etc. don’t mean anything without context. Relevance directly correlates to the background information a person has available as recall. This is why change is so hard. If your audience can’t “picture” the new way, then it’s very hard to embrace. Businesses that can help people visualize the differences their products and solutions will make have a better chance at success.
To my way of thinking, visualization is storytelling.
Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)?
A: I participate in LinkedIn, Twitter and write a blog. I also spend time reading other blogs and comment when I can. I’ve met some great people and spent time doing some great brainstorming via email from people I’ve met through my blog and by commenting on others. I answer questions on LinkedIn when I can and browse answers to questions that interest me.
Q: To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: I think a lot of blogs are storytelling venues. I also think a lot of them are thinly veiled sales/marketing content vehicles. The difference is in the personal tone and style of the author(s) and their intent/focus for the blog.
When a blog post is written in a way that gives you a glimpse of the person behind it, someone whom you can relate to, the engagement is higher. Whether it’s because they agree or disagree doesn’t matter. Although lots of people try to avoid controversy. I know I’ve written some posts where I took a stand I knew would be in conflict, hit publish, and then worried that I’d upset someone. Turns out that those posts are the most fun and the ones people respond to and talk about on their own blogs.
Best of all, blogs allow people to voice opinions, extend other ideas and express themselves. And, in a world that’s increasingly putting distance between people by becoming more virtual, it’s important to build a new social structure to maintain a level of involvement that helps you feel a part of it.
There are a lot of different ways to tell stories. Every impression you make online tells a story. Whether it’s a picture, an article, a video or the comments made linking to someone else’s “story.” All those interactions become a cumulative representation of your (or your company’s) story.
LinkedIn is a bit harder to define. You can have a profile and never do another thing. Or you can answer questions and search for and add connections at dizzying speeds. The question I have about those who add anyone and everyone to their contact lists is — what’s the value? Is it like being the most popular kid in school, or do you really know and maintain relationships with all those people?
That said, I’ve also met and done business with connections made on LinkedIn. As in all things, I think it’s in how you use them. How you choose to present your profile is currently the biggest story you tell on LinkedIn. How you answer questions is giving that a run for its money, in my opinion. For example - Your profile may look great, but if your extended story is displayed through argumentative answers to questions, without substantiation for your opinions, I’m going to think twice about wanting to do business with you.
Twitter is still up in the air for me. I love the shortness of 140 characters, but I haven’t quite figured out the value of knowing what people are doing all the time.
I also think there’s a lot of storytelling going on in the ways customers review and rate products, like electronics or books. From a B2B perspective, think user/customer forums. You can learn a lot about what resonates and what doesn’t. And, if you look closely, you can learn a lot about the people posting the comments. It’s a great view into how well the story of a company plays with its customers.
Q: How did you discover that story-based marketing tools, such as B2B Website Stories and Email Story Campaigns were effective?
A: Trial and error. What I learned was that the better I knew my audience, the more relevant my stories were for them. I started seeing response rates climb and stay high. And I started seeing more people “raise their hands” to learn more. The best way to monitor online stories is with analytics and watching the ways your stories influence the behavior of your audience in relation to the outcome you wanted.
When I first started using stories for websites and emails, it was like pulling teeth to get companies to give up their staunch focus on products and “feeds and speeds.” (I do a lot of work with technology companies.) Then commoditization happened on a larger scale and companies started learning that their customers could buy a similar product from a number of vendors. They also found that exposing how they add value to their products became an important differentiator. That shift requires an entirely different story.
Companies will adopt stories a bit at a time. The best way I’ve found is to get them to try one campaign, prove the concept and then expand. “Story” is hard to sell because it conjures up memories of the Three Little Bears, Wuthering Heights or a personal anecdote. The fiction writer in me can relate, but essentially story is really about engaging your audience, regardless of format.
Q: Can you talk a bit about how story generates active relationships with customers?
A: People want to have relationships with people “like” them. To generate active relationships, stories must be told from an almost peer-to-peer perspective. That said, the other ingredient is value. Stories must first be relatable and then add value that’s relevant to the person you’re telling the story to.
This is the biggest argument for segmentation and getting to know your customers. People are interested in different aspects of the story based on their relationship to the subject matter. For example, a CIO will have different interests than a VP of Sales. Telling the same story to both of them is not likely to have the impact you want. You’ll either make your story so general it doesn’t interest either of them, or it will focus more heavily on the interests of one or the other.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that to remain relevant your stories must evolve over time. Just as versions of fairytales have been updated to resonate in today’s world, your stories must do so. Changes happen fast, priorities are shuffled with the latest quarterly results, so you must pay attention and continuously adjust and tune your stories to build engagement with existing and potential customers.