Telling stories in online marketing is more important than ever

This morning I heard political pundit Paul Begala make a great point about politics and the media. What he says has lessons for all marketing, but especially marketing online.

He says that a fault of the Democrats is they tend to communicate to the media in lists. “They have a four-point plan for solving every problem.” Conversely, Begala says that Republicans tell stories. Policy decisions aside, clearly the latter strategy works better in today’s media landscape.

What does this teach us about selling things other than political ideology? A lot. We all know (or should!) that benefits have to be communicated along with features. But if you simply list them off in quick succession, you risk diluting any potential to resonate with the consumer.

Go ahead and create the list. But make the benefits of the list clickable. Send readers to a single, strong, supporting story for that benefit.

Then rip another page from the political playbooks. Conduct your online PR one message at a time. Today focus on reliability. Next week, tell your flexibility story. And after that, hammer home the next story, and the next.

It’s important because we all need many rational reasons to buy a product, but before we go seeking those supporting reasons (additional features and benefits), we need that first single story to inspire us to look further.

This technique is especially effective with online marketing because people can arrive at those stories from various ways. Also, satisfied consumers can help, by backing up your story with their own comments, containing unique details and similar stories.


Always look for your dramatizing story — in your press releases, on your product information, and wherever people gather to find out about you. Then focus on those stories, one at a time.

Copy remains key to an online ad’s success, but only in service of the promise

You need only look at the success of sponsored advertising, as found on search engines and elsewhere, to see that copy is key to an ad’s success. After all, these ads are pure text. Not a picture in sight. And by success, I mean the ability of an ad to cause a user to click on the ad to get more information.

Why is this so? Aren’t we a post-literate society?

Get There AdI think the answer is trust. No one has the time to click on a link that doesn’t promise something of value. It’s difficult if not impossible to do that with imagery alone, both online and in the real world. Even red octagonal traffic signs, which promise the opportunity of not getting creamed by oncoming traffic, have a big “STOP” message to improve response rates.

Whether you’re writing a two-line sponsored search listing or a 50-word online display ad, pay attention to every word, and ask yourself if you are promising enough to the reader to generate a click. While you’re at it, here are other tips to keep in mind:

Include a headline. That is your promise in a nutshell.

Don’t shy away from longer headlines. They can work as well as shorter ones.

Dramatize a benefit of your product or service. Don’t just say, “Our GPS cell phone lets you navigate even when you’re not driving.” Say, “Get there on foot or by car.” That’s the benefit of this type of mobility.

Ask for the click. Don’t expect the reader to know that more information is a click away. Unless it’s clearly a hypertext link, be sure your copy asks for the desired action.

The ad pictured above is a good example of all of these lessons. You can see it in action on

Virtual offices need receptionists too

Reading about the Grand Opening of PA Consulting’s Second Life office reminded me of our own impending move. Our agency has bought a century-old, bricks-and-mortar building, located on Wisconsin Ave. near Lake Michigan. Last Wednesday the team got a tour of the mid-renovation, construction-zone-cum-office-building.

When I read about the unique challenges of staffing a virtual office with a receptionist, I couldn’t help but think of the very different challenges we’re facing with placing the reception area in a part of the building that is both publicly accessible and able to accommodate the other physical needs of the space. Here’s an excerpt from the news item liked above, describing the unique requirements of putting out your shingle in cyberspace (including a payroll in Linden Dollars, the currency of the virtual world):

Claus Nehmzow, who leads PA’s Second Life initiative, admitted that he had never met, in real life, the people who designed and built PA’s virtual office. When it was decided to hire a receptionist to greet people at the virtual PA office, interviews were conducted in Second Life. He joked that he was waiting to find out what would happen when the human resources department discovers that he has hired a person without knowing their real name and that the receptionist avatar is being paid in Linden Dollars.

It’s taken us more than a year to plan our physical move. But somehow I suspect that PA Consulting’s branch office on a virtual patch of land wasn’t much quicker. Probably less dusty, though.

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