Our lives are made up of thousands of experiences. From our very first memory, they help form our personalities, likes, dislikes, comfort zones, confidence levels—everything about us. Experiences are how we learn, love and live our lives—the memories of these experiences become the stories we use to communicate with others. Think about the last time you were with a group of friends. “Remember when…”, “When we were…”, and “I was once…” are part of every conversation. Because stories are how we share and how we relate to one another, they’re typically at the heart of what makes us laugh, or cry, and often, they are how we learn.

Why Tell Stories?

Storytelling is a really powerful thing. Not only is it essential to communication, but to teaching as well. In fact, Annette Franz (renowned expert in Customer Experience marketing) calls it the “Trojan horse for learning.” She remarks that you can tell stories, and people will listen, and they won’t even know they’re learning! Stories allow you to deliver a message in a way that engages and inspires people, and helps them understand a desired or intended outcome as a result of a series of steps or actions taken.

Quite simply, storytelling is a tool to gain buy-in; it can deliver impact from both the emotional and the rational perspective—capturing both the hearts and minds of the audience. Similar to the way we communicate with friends, when we tell stories in our marketing communications, the audience paints a mental picture of what is expected—and they humanize the experience. Stories can also be used to recognize or reinforce desired behaviors. People connect to stories on an emotional level, and therefore, remember them.

As pharmaceutical and device marketers, we can’t lose sight of this fact: No one “wants” to take our products—they do so only because they feel they “have” to. Most patients view our products as a necessary evil—it’s one reason our industry struggles with poor patient adherence. Thus, to engage patients and HCPs we must focus on the customer journey, not the brand journey.

Brands need to be delivered through a customer experience (CX) that taps into the emotional elements of how consumers engage with our products—and there’s no better way than through storytelling. Communicated at the right time, and in the right place, stories help people relate to our marketing message. Audiences will see themselves in our stories and totally “get” our messages. The more powerful the story is, the more potential it has to spark an emotion—and change people’s attitudes and behaviors.

How to Tell a Great Story

To craft a great story, we need to understand our customer’s experience—and that begins by listening to them. Once we understand their experiences, we can then communicate our brand messages from their perspectives and create messages that become part of their stories. This type of “iterative messaging”—evolving through their experiences and stories—is at the heart of all good storytelling, and its success lies in the Three Ps:

  • Personalization
  • Personification
  • Projection

To best understand the power of personalization, think of the last time you saw Bill Clinton give a speech. He can present to 10 million people—but you feel like he’s talking directly to you. Personification gets people to see themselves in what’s being communicated. For example, a woman is watching television and sees a commercial depicting a woman being pulled into the bathroom again and again by an animated bladder. She finds it amusing, yet she sits back and realizes, “Wow, that’s me!”

Finally, projection allows people to see themselves in the future. This part of the story offers the next actionable and achievable foothold—as opposed to climbing the entire mountain—so people remain focused instead of becoming overwhelmed.

Audiences have times when they are more receptive to one communication style over another depending on where they are in their experience. The take-away for marketers: Great storytelling effectively revolves around moments, conversations and points of engagement. Audiences choose their moments. It’s up to marketers to make them permeable and deliver experiences that build trust by making it easy for the patient or doctor to take away what they want and what they’re going to do. By accurately understanding the customer’s frame of mind, marketers can develop a story for each audience that creates these key points of interaction in the appropriate context. Customers then have the opportunity to tap into those experiences when and how they’re right for them.

The Proof is in the Outcome

Case in point: Emergent BioSolutions’ hemophilia B product, IXINITY, is a great example of storytelling in action. After completing extensive research that included listening to patients, the learnings drove specific objectives that informed the campaign’s storyline.

  • First, introduce Emergent BioSolutions to the hemophilia B community as the specialty pharmaceutical company that cares about and focuses on THEM.
  • Acknowledge that their experiences with hemophilia treatment and support thus far haven’t necessarily met their specific needs.
  • Invite them to imagine a different kind of experience in the treatment of hemophilia B from a different kind of company.
  • Make a commitment to support the entire hemophilia B community.

Emergent’s team launched the attention-grabbing “Trike Guy” campaign at the 2014 National Hemophilia Foundation (NHF) conference to express the company’s deep understanding of the patients—they weren’t kids anymore and now they needed more from their therapy (personalization). The campaign used a striking image, spirited headline and subtle humor to embody the challenges that patients face every day (personification).

To bring the campaign to life and keep the event top-of-mind long after the NHF event, people selected a T-shirt displaying one oversized word: “Fierce,” “Driven,” “Focused” or “Relentless.” These T-shirts, along with a Green Screen Experience, put patients at the center of the action as the main characters in the story, allowing each patient to present the image that best described the desired next step along their journeys (projection).

Off the Chart Response

Another example: In 2014, HealthCentral.com launched a new storytelling campaign to connect and engage people and, in turn, motivate them to enhance their well-being. Their campaign goal: Tell a story in a different way and do something that no other health sites were doing—connect, engage and make a difference in patients’ lives. HealthCentral.com kicked off the series with three stories: One about psoriasis, one about rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and one about Crohn’s disease. And late last year, they created additional stories on multiple sclerosis (MS) and epilepsy. In 2015, they intend to produce 11 more.

Since launching the content series, HealthCentral.com has experienced a 30% increase in annual revenue growth rate. And people aren’t just clicking on the content—they’re engaging with it. According to Rebecca Farwell, Chief Content Officer of HealthCentral.com’s parent company, Remedy Health Media, people spend an average of 17 to 18 minutes with the content. And when the site surveys its visitors about what the content means to them and what they intend to do next, the results are as Farwell puts it—“off the charts.”

Sidebar: What Does a Great Story Look Like?

When Abby was 32 years old, she was diagnosed with a life-changing illness—the day is forever carved in her memory. When she left the hospital, she sat in her car for a long time, stunned, unprepared and feeling overwhelmed. Her thoughts were racing.

“I knew I wasn’t feeling great, but this? What now? The doctor said something about medications, possibly considering ‘other’ treatments, and she said I needed to make some ‘significant’ lifestyle changes. What does that even mean?”

Abby immediately went online looking for answers. Her friends gave her advice. She saw more specialists. She even talked with other patients like herself. It was a daunting process that was overwhelming, confusing and tiresome. Most of the time, it only made her feel worse.

Make Stories Relatable

Every day, a plethora of our “customers” are involved in the communication of disease and treatment information—healthcare professionals, sales representatives, patients, caregivers, friends, etc. We use our best marketing minds to develop and deliver messages to these key stakeholders. But if the perfect message isn’t delivered at just the right time, through the right channel—and if the audience can’t relate to the message—it doesn’t matter what the message is, because it won’t engage them.

The moral of this story: How we communicate is as important as what we say. Messages delivered in the context of “stories” will incite emotion, create “A-ha!” moments, and have a profound impact on the behavior of our target audience.

Great marketers make their customers the characters in those stories and create great stories. So listen to your customers. Get to know them. Find out who they are, how they feel, and what they need to get them through their journeys. And tell the story.

  • Jay Bolling

    Jay Bolling is Executive Chairman at PulseCX. Jay is passionate about developing customer experiences (CX) that influence the decision-making process and leverage “key impact moments” (when customers are most receptive to specific communications) to measurably increase the impact of brand messaging.

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