Use Storytelling to Maintain Customer Interest

Last month, I traveled by train from Chicago to Portland, Ore. No offense to anyone who loves Amtrak, but 44 hours is a long time on a train. It was more expensive than flying, I had just come back from a long overseas trip followed by a speaking gig on the East Coast, and I was ready to get home.

Despite the fatigue, I took the train for the purpose of telling a good story. See, around the same time I was getting ready to launch a big project, the Empire Building Kit. Its goal is to help people build a sustainable small business in a year by doing one thing every day. In it, I use the case study method of interviewing "emperors" who successfully built a one-man or one-woman shop oriented toward something they were passionate about.

Sounds good, right? Well, I knew I had great material and I knew my blog followers would like it, but with a bunch of other projects on the pile, I kept procrastinating about setting a launch date. Around the same time, I was trying to book my ticket back from Chicago, and the best flight options were sold out. On a whim, I decided to check Amtrak, expecting it to be a last-ditch search before I buying a different plane ticket. Then I saw the train's name: It was called the Empire Builder.

"Now there's an interesting story," I thought to myself. "Why not launch the Empire Building Kit while riding the Empire Building train?"

After I heard that the train was called Empire Builder—on top of which a fun travel company in Seattle sent me an Empire Builder laptop bag—I was committed to the idea of doing a live product launch from the train. Sign me up.

keep even nonbuyers happy and engaged

Three weeks later, I met up with J.D.Roth, fellow blogger and author of Your Money: The Missing Manual, for the trek back from Chicago. We ended up doing the live product launch from what I called the "bloggers' lounge" on the train. (Apparently other people use it for sightseeing, but all those towns in North Dakota looked the same to me.) Amtrak isn't exactly wired for geeks, so we brought our own setup that made the train car look like a mini Apple Store, complete with multiple laptops, MiFis for Internet access, and a one-day-old iPad.

After we worked out the logistics, I still faced a problem: how to keep the rest of my community of blog readers happy and engaged. Whenever you sell something, not all of your prospects are interested. I think that's O.K. The key is not necessarily persuading them to join the group of buyers, but retaining their interest in your broader mission. They might buy something later—or in my case, keep reading my free blog, which is what I'm most interested in anyway.

I hoped that my story of roaming from place to place—complete with video updates, a contest, and a community survey—would keep things going so I wouldn't lose too many people. Normally my unsubscribes go up during a product launch. I also hear complaints from people who think everything should be free. (I don't agree with that.)

This time, the opposite happened. The unsubscribe rate declined, instead of increasing. Twitter went haywire with people talking about it. Even though the price point was higher than previously, I encountered virtually no objections or complaints.

I even got some unusual fan mail: "Chris, I'm probably not the best fit for the EBK, but I love the story. Every day we log in and wonder where you're at and what's happening."

I thought it was pretty good to get fan mail from someone who wasn't even interested in the product. Think about how you can use the power of story in your own business.