In 2011, I joined the hypergrowth martech startup Wildfire. The company went from an idea to being acquired by Google for $350M-ish in under 5 years. Our growth was insane. At Wildfire, we had a good product, a great team, and an awesome GTM motion. But our secret was we were riding the wave of a brand new category — social media marketing.
At the time, social media for marketing had massive momentum behind it. Every CMO on the planet wanted to invest in social but was desperate for a strategy, tools, and tactics. We were eager to help them with all of this and were basically the only company doing it. We had maybe one real competitor.
According to the Martech Supergraphic, we had 15 other companies in our entire category in 2011. We had a wide-open blue ocean to run at. It was the ideal growth condition.
Today, the 2019 version of that same category (social) has 321 martech solutions in it. On top of that, over the last 8 years, the overall Martech landscape has grown ~4,500%. This is not the ideal growth condition.
Back then, CMOs we’re calling us. Today, winning mind share from CMOs is impossibly hard.
Software has exploded in the last 10 years, and now every category is crowded — really crowded. And even if you have new technology, it’s likely not creating an entirely new category that everyone has to have. On top of that, C-level buyers are now pulled in a hundred directions, so standing out and capturing attention is a monumental task.
But some companies still do it.
They rise above the noise and demand the attention of every CMO (or CEO).
You know these companies:
- HubSpot: Inbound Marketing
- Drift: Conversational Marketing
- Gainsight: Customer Success
- Gong: Revenue Intelligence
How do they do it? Well, they know a secret. Instead of looking at their technology and trying to compete in the corresponding crowded category, they create their own.
They do that through something I call Narrative Design*.
Dave Gerhardt is a huge fan of this strategy, I asked him why.
“Why a narrative design? Because stories are everything. There is so much noise & competition in any market/any category today. Even if your product IS better, no one is going to believe it because that is what everyone is saying. You have to win by creating a STORY that earns you the right to then tell people about your product/service. You have to show them the future — and then how you can help get them there.”
*Sidenote: Narrative Design is a term used in video game development to describe how interactive stories come to life. It describes the work of the authors who create a world and the rules that exist inside them. It’s a perfect analogy for this new approach to telling stories in marketing.
Unpacking Narrative Design
The easiest way to unpack narrative design is to compare it to how most companies think about stories today. More and more, companies are developing a process for their messaging. They build stories based on well-researched product positioning built by product marketers. Much like good positioning, Narrative Design is a communication vehicle that helps these companies deliver their story to an audience, but outside of that, they couldn’t be more different.
Product positioning adds context and structure around your solution so buyers understand it quickly and can digest its value. Narrative Design builds a new universe in their mind. Product positioning can help you win in an established market. Narrative Design creates (or re-frames) a new category, where you’re the only entrant. Product positioning clearly communicates value and tees sales up to close deals. Narrative Design builds new markets, where you may not even need salespeople to close the deals.
Let’s examine Narrative Design by contrasting it against product positioning.
Product Positioning vs. Narrative Design
1. The 'why' behind narrative design
Product positioning, and the massive cookie cutter collection of templates you’ll find to help, generally focuses on the problem your customer has. It positions your company or your tools as the only way the buyer can solve their problem. It goes on and on about the value you’ll receive, and it tells you about all the things you’ll get back by using it. (Especially time, always time!*)
*Sidenote: If your only value prop to buyers is that you’ll save them time, you have to try harder or try something else. While it may be true, it can’t be the only thing you talk about. Software and technology should save you time and effort by default. It’s a given, it’s not interesting, and everyone else is saying this. And for the love of god, effort is basically the same thing. At the very least, try and translate time into more meaningful outcomes or add meaningful benchmarks.
Narrative design starts with a change that has happened in the world and how that change has sculpted human behavior. This change creates a new “category” or “game” (as Andy Raskin likes to say). Games come with choices, rules, and an environment. This is why Narrative Design is the right name. It’s much more than just a messaging exercise.
Sidenote: I love how Andy Raskin thinks about positioning. Andy and Brian Halligan (HubSpot founder / CEO) are the two folks who have taught me the most about narrative design and where the inspiration for this post comes from. They are the real pioneers here.
2. How Narrative Design persuades
Product positioning is persuasive because it quickly pinpoints an area of pain that buyers have and exploits it. A good example is Kitten Mittens. Charlie Kelly starts his pitch with the iconic line “Is your cat making too much noise all the time?” Then, he proceeds to pitch you on his solution to that problem — Kitten Mittens. OK, no one actually has that problem, but the formula Charlie uses in his ad is an old one, and one that people have learned to totally tune out.
Narrative design builds a new reality (game) in the mind of the buyer — this game comes with rules and serious stakes for not abiding by them. There are very clear winners and losers / wrong and right. HubSpot’s original inbound marketing did this terrifically. They gave example after example of how people were beginning to block and ignore outbound, interruption-based marketing, and that if you didn’t adapt to this change, you would lose. They also implied that it was sort of morally wrong. Why interrupt when you can attract? It’s the right thing to do.
Here’s how Brian Halligan summed up why the inbound marketing narrative was so powerful for HubSpot:
“The Inbound Marketing narrative was so effective because it placed the listener within the story. In the world of consumers, all of us mere mortals were already behaving in a new mode to ward off interruptions: caller ID, spam filters, pop-up blockers, DVRs. Once our audience was already nodding in agreement, it was an easy step to envision the same behavior happening in the immediate near future in the business world. The people who work in businesses are the same people who are consumers when they are not at work. You could see the light bulb go on with almost everyone who heard the story.”
3. How Narrative Design makes money
Once product positioning establishes pain, it then presents a solution. In the Kitten Mittens example, the solution would be to buy the mittens that go on the kittens. This is where product positioning is cocky. It tells you why it’s the very very best. Words like modern, best in class, and incredible get thrown around a lot at this point in the process. Sometimes there is data or social proof to back it up, but even when that is done well, it can’t compete with Narrative Design.
Narrative Design has already told you about the winners and losers of its new game, and next, it introduces its product by empathizing with your struggle to become a winner. HubSpot did this well with Inbound Marketing. They pitch went something like this:
We know, of course you want to do inbound over outbound marketing, but we understand how incredibly hard it is to pull it off. You have to figure out the strategy, buy separate blogging, social media, SEO, and email tools. Not to mention convince your executives and train everyone on the new process.
Of course, HubSpot has all of these tools and resources, so buying them means you’re buying their reality for your company. You’re buying the idea of becoming a winner at inbound. They don’t have to talk about how great their tools are, or say they were better than the competition, because there wasn’t any competition. Their narrative created a monopoly in your mind, like all good Narrative Design does.
As of today, HubSpot has a market cap of around $7B, even though they were late to enter the already-crowded markets of Marketing Automation and CRM.
4. How It Sells Over Time
Product positioning is limited in how you can use it over time. You only have a few options to create new news that captures the attention of your audience. You can continue to make new, bigger claims, launch new products that ladder up to your positioning, or celebrate stories related to how you customers use your tools. The second two are good ideas, but they are being done by everyone these days. So, even when they are done really well, they can only do so much.
Narrative Design creates a club of people that you can constantly celebrate and who can be celebrating themselves. This can be done through events, individual stories, new tools, shows, co-marketing, partners, and so on and so on. There is an evergreen narrative that serves as a vehicle for whatever you like at any given moment. You're constantly coming back and celebrating the club in new ways. This makes your messaging consistent and provides an easier way to make something minor into something really big and newsworthy.
How To Use It:
Product positioning and Narrative Design are not mutually exclusive. You design a narrative for your company and category, you build positioning for specific features and products. Ideally, you design your narrative once and tell the same story for years.
Positioning can and should be done for each launch, then brought to life through the lens of your larger narrative.
Think of each as separate tools for separate occasions. Hire excellent product marketers to build great positioning, launch products, and help with designing your narrative. But don’t expect them to do it for you. The marketing leader and CEO have to be the chief architects of Narrative Design. It’s a business strategy used by all teams not a marketing narrative. It’s wise to make your PMMs part of the narrative design process, however. They’ll be the ones bringing it to life and spreading the gospel. It’s critical that they are always evangelizing the narrative so they company and don’t lose sight of it.
What to do:
If you want your startup or enterprise company to succeed, great product positioning is table stakes. But if you want to invent a new category, or launch a startup, or introduce a new product line, don’t expect your product positioning template to get your there. You need to think deeper, and more strategically about the world you want to create in the mind of your future community.
This year is going to be a big year for better product marketing and positioning. More companies are getting more intentional about their messaging, and building great positioning that informs it. But very few are designing narratives that guide all of this. It’s hard and requires a ton of internal alignment. Jumping on this now is still a massive opportunity and one that will give you an edge, even in the most crowded categories.