Codename ACHero - aka, the 3 main causes of our failure in storytelling

· marketing ·

WORK

Every brand needs a good story, and every good story needs a hero. One who the target audience can relate with, who is always ready for action and able to jump in and save the day. But I’m guessing you already know that.

What you might not be aware of is that, once upon a time, ActiveCollab embarked on an epic quest to tell stories that would captivate the audiences. And failed. Utterly. The premise was simple - we wanted to write better stories which would attract and maintain a loyal audience on our blog. What could have possibly gone wrong?

Everything.

This article is intended to serve as a testament to a period in our brand history where we spent an unjustifiable amount of time and effort meticulously designing “perfect” content that, in the end, had zero return on investment.

A premise of the story

We agreed on a simple narrative structure we felt confident about. The stories started with the exposition of a problem and its negative impact on our users, transitioned to the moment of clarity when they realize that something needs to be done, culminated with ActiveCollab jumping in to save the day, and ended with a general feeling of relief because life is so much easier now that it’s all over.

An overture to heroism

The first thing that went out of hand was the process of determining the protagonist of our narrative. The most obvious choice was to make ActiveCollab the hero of the ActiveCollab story. And so we did. Hence, the codename ACHero, which was also the title of the project.

Our product was to be the glimmer of hope to all those project managers, team leaders, designers, developers, marketers, and other creative professionals that are overloaded with busy work.

But it just wasn’t relatable enough. It’s not that ActiveCollab isn’t part of the solution, it’s that the stories sounded more like a sales pitch than a blog post that talks about real-world situations. To put it simply, there was no reason to love the hero. You can use a vacuum cleaner to get rid of the dirt, but you don’t really harbor any feelings for it.

We portrayed ActiveCollab as the tool that gets the job done, but we completely missed the opportunity to present how it actually made people feel. It didn’t have a unique voice, it didn’t have a distinct personality, it was just a faceless tool.

The main reason behind our blog sounding like this, rather than an archive of good advice, was our factual approach to problem-solving. We never managed to put that moment of relief into words. All we got was “ActiveCollab does X, and that is awesome!”. For example, we were really happy with 4 Reasons why you need a project management tool. But it definitely wasn’t good enough.

Stories are not about what we do; they’re about how it makes you feel. Strike one.

Did you just assume my pain?

Assumptions are the bane of the marketing world. In this case, we made a lot of them, and they backfired on us. We thought we had an excellent idea about the pain points our customers are dealing with. Almost the entire marketing team had experience working in digital and marketing agencies, which made us confident to assume that the majority of agencies and digital businesses share the same set of burdens.

Although thoroughly researched, the topics we chose to write about were never validated. Once again, ActiveCollab was the solution to the problems we were writing about. This time, the issue was that those were not the problems our users were solving with ActiveCollab.

It all started with How to keep track of your customers’ project requirements. When we looked at the numbers, it was clear that not a lot of people needed ActiveCollab to solve this problem. But we wrote about it anyway because we were so sure of it.

A year in the future, we now have a much better idea of how our customers use ActiveCollab, because we actually validated our assumptions and performed a large-scale customer survey.

Stories are not about what we expect; it’s about what you desire. Strike two.

About to crash

The “ActiveCollab does X” stories were meant to resonate with potential new users, make them fall in love with our solution, and, ideally, buy our product. But ACHero stories were written with users in mind. As a result, they sounded more like how-to guides for people who wanted to get more out of ActiveCollab, than a warm, natural welcome into our ecosystem.

And that was the biggest ACHero blunder. It did offer a solution, but because of the way we went about it, it sounded like there isn’t one without ActiveCollab. The accent wasn’t on showing that we understood our readers’ pain, we were simply charging head-on towards the culmination. We were so bold in our undertaking that we produced articles like How to deliver a quality product on a tight schedule and budget. Our frame of mind was that this sort of endeavor wasn’t possible without ActiveCollab. You can see why this approach didn’t thrill our audience.

In most cases, our blog is the first contact people have with our brand. And we wanted to make the most of it by introducing our product as a part of the solution they were looking for. Instead, we ended up flaunting our product in their faces and coming off as arrogant and preachy.

Readers won’t care about your solution if you don’t show them you understand the problem. Strike Three, you’re out!

Losing time

We had a reasonable premise, good intentions, research we were confident about, and a plan to outreach and distribute our content to new readers.

Still, we ended up losing time because we didn’t tell good stories. To summarize:

  1. Our hero was not relatable
  2. Our assumptions were off target, and that made our stories irrelevant
  3. Our stories didn’t have an appropriate narrative hook that would engage people to read on

For reference and further reading, all the content from the ACHero era can be found in our project management category, starting from Hot to keep track of your customers’ project requirements, and ending with How to meet the deadline every time.

If anything, this was an important learning experience. Brand storytelling is probably the only thing on the content marketing horizon that seems like it will never go out of style. Now, more than ever, the first touch with customers comes through the stories you tell. It can either pull them in or send them running away from your brand. All it takes is one blog post, one landing page, a paragraph of text, or even a single sentence.

Use your words well, and tell good stories.
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