Fatal Flaws: The Missing Narrative.

This is the first in a series of posts on the fatal flaws that often kill businesses and undercut the success of potentially great marketing and PR campaigns.

The narrative is the story that frames your customer’s experience with your product or service. It is seldom ever presented as a fully-formed written story. Instead, it is crafted to guide and inform the user experience. It is presented in small, bite-sized morsels… elements of your ads, your brochure, your customer service policies, the layout and design of your website and sales floor… it all works together to present a cohesive story that tells your customer what to expect.

The story is happening whether you craft the narrative or not. And if you’re not, then it is being made up on the spot as your customer moves through your sales funnel.

Disney does this better than anyone else on the planet. First off, when you step into a queue for any ride at Walt Disney World, you are told exactly how long you will be in line. Expectation #1 has been set. You know what you’re getting into. If 10 or 25 or 45 minutes is too long for you, you won’t get in line in the first place. An entire set of potential angry customers has removed themselves from the process.

As you move through the queue, there is always something new to look at. These details work on a macro level for those not paying close attention to establish the setting (because every Disney attraction is a show– a story– even the rides), and they work on the micro level to begin to tell an intricate story. As you approach the Haunted Mansion, for instance, there is an engagement ring embedded in the concrete before you get to the queue, and the climactic attic scene culminates with a ghost bride. The elements in between lead you to draw conclusions about this narrative, without actually spelling out the specifics.

To craft a narrative, you need two things: a theme and a plot.

The theme is always about a change in the end user… the customer. And it isn’t generally explicitly stated in your communication… it is more a guiding force internally, to keep your efforts cohesive.

For a product, the theme might be “your health/love life/financial situation will be better after ____________!” For a non profit, the theme might be “We see the real you. You are a hero.” For a company facing a PR crisis, the theme could be “wait, this isn’t what it looks like,” or “we know this looks bad, but we’re the good guys. Give us a chance to explain.”

Of course, if you aren’t actively crafting this narrative, yours could be “give us your money, idiot.” That’s a terrible narrative, but if you aren’t controlling it then you don’t have a say in how your story is told.

Once the theme is decided, your narrative needs a plot. At it’s simplest, the plot is “Beginning. Middle. End.” In other words, you first establish the setting and circumstance. Next you help the customer overcome an obstacle in their life. Finally, you establish where you are going from here. Ideally this last part includes repeat business and referrals.

So, your theme informs your plot, and your plot informs your marketing, decor, sales, service and customer relations after the fact. Your customer never actually sees the story… instead they experience it. Your entire sales funnel and the customer life cycle now become a story in which your customer is the hero and you are the trusted mentor that helps them win the day.

If you’re Disney making a dark ride, then the murderous ghost bride narrative is great. If you’re a romantic bed and breakfast, the murderous ghost bride narrative is not so great. The question is, are you going to control your narrative, or leave it to chance.