Using Online Stories to Sell a Product

Another way to get the word out about your product service? Post content online that catches on with potential customers and prompts them to share it

Back when I was a journalism student at Northwestern, an instructor tore into me one afternoon for returning from an event with "no story." There's always a story, he told me, and he was upset that I didn't try hard enough to find one. He was right. Today I can find a story anywhere, in any business or individual. We all have stories to tell. As a small business owner, your story is a valuable asset, a differentiator, and the key to shaping your brand.

"Content is the great liberator," online marketing strategist David Meerman Scott recently told me. Scott's new book, World Wide Rave, offers advice about how anyone can create content to build a brand online. According to Scott, "Prior to the Web, we had to rely on advertising and public relations to get attention. Now you can get attention by creating something that's very interesting and posting it online." Scott says that if the content is valuable, people will share it—the key to building a global audience. Scott himself has built a formidable online presence (and impressive offline business) by giving away content. Here are some of Scott's tips for creating content that people will eagerly share with others.

Get to know your customers. The more you understand your potential buyers, the better you can target your online content. Scott offers the example of a tricycle manufacturer. The people using the manufacturer's products—toddlers—are not the direct customers. Parents and grandparents are making the purchasing decision. In addition, both sets of customers might have different reasons for buying a particular model; the parent might want something safe, functional, and affordable while the grandparent might want to buy the best of the best. In this case, the tricycle manufacturer can create content that appeals to both categories of customers: a YouTube (GOOG) video for parents showing the factory where the product is made and perhaps a blog or micro-site for grandparents to use to swap stories and photos of their grandchildren. The point is to create interesting content that people will share, says Scott.

Solve problems. "Nobody cares about your product," says Scott. People "care about solving their problems." Scott advises business owners to resist the urge to hype their products and services. Instead, he urges them to create content that helps people solve real-world problems. Once people start learning something from you, they will share your content, the search engines will reward your site with higher results, and your prospects will be much more interested in your product.

Tell stories. People love to share stories. If someone approaches you at a cocktail party and says: "I want to tell you about my product," it's a turn-off, says Scott. But if someone says: "I want to tell you a story, " you'll find that person more interesting. "Every organization should have a story about how it was formed."

Scott's advice reminds me of a business owner I recently met. Dave Munson started Saddleback Leather in 2004. The story of how Munson's adventures in Mexico led to his leather business is featured prominently at the top of his company's home page. In it, we learn how his friends in the U.S. complimented him on the distinctive leather pouches he would bring back from Mexico. We also learn about how difficult it was for Munson to the start his business (Munson complements his story of struggle with photos of his decrepit apartment in Juarez, Mexico—the only place he could afford at the time as a struggling entrepreneur). Today he has a successful San Antonio company selling leather backpacks, pouches, and briefcases. In addition, Munson posts YouTube content—video clips of his pouches surviving situations like a crocodile attack in Australia that get passed around the Net.

Munson told me his content and videos are intended to be shared. "The stories and videos help the company grow is because people share those pages… Even if the original viewers don't buy a product, their friends do."

Generating interest and buzz for your products is not about buying expensive advertising or begging the media to write about your company, says Scott. "Sadly, many organizations don't realize they have a much better option—they can tell their story directly to an interested market."

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