I recently read Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller, and it has some interesting insights into how you should bring a product to market. Specifically, it encourages professionals to put themselves in the shoes of the customer and ask one question of whatever they’re selling: “What do I get out of this?”
I think in publishing, we often forget that that’s the question we need to answer, both with regard to news content and advertising. We might talk about features or our newest bells and whistles, but unless we’re answering that question, it’s not doing a lot of good.
This train of thought reminds me of research published through Northwestern University’s Readership Institute a number of years ago, which devoted a lot of field work, surveys, and interviews into understanding the best way to build an audience with a news product.
This was, to my knowledge, the first instance of a comprehensive instruction manual on how to make your product make sense for customers. And of the features that they highlighted as important, not one of them was having the best news pieces or using a special layout.
Rather, the most important factors were centered around customer experience and customer communications. Instead of recommending changes in products, this study recommended changes in positioning your messages and demonstrating clear, defined benefits to your consumer.
With news content, one of the most common needs we’re addressing is the customer’s desire to be (or feel) smarter. So if the customer is asking “What do I get out of this,” then our job becomes proving to the customer that yes, we can indeed make you smarter with our product.
That’s a big ask, but if we follow some of the tactics outlined in Building a StoryBrand, it’s certainly doable. Miller encourages three questions, asked in order to make sure that your product is well-suited to reach your customers. They are:
1. What do you offer?
2. How will it make my life better?
3. What do I need to do to buy it?
To demonstrate the efficacy of this exercise, I’m going to tackle these questions from the perspective of a news publication. And as I do so, I’m going to keep in mind the Readership Institute’s assertion that most of my customers are interested in being smarter.
So first, what do I offer? Well, that’s pretty straightforward. As a publisher, I’m offering information about goings on locally, nationally, and many times globally. This is the most black and white question here, and I would argue it’s also the least impactful.
More important is the second question, how will it make the customer’s life better? This is where careful curation and editing comes in. I might say that reading my paper will help you impress your boss when she’s talking about current events at the office, or it can help you seem more informed than your brother-in-law at the next family dinner.
These are the things that matter, because they’re the real benefits of my product, not just the features. Customers rarely care about things like rewards programs, or even bigger issues like breaking news coverage. Ultimately, those are just words on a page. What customers want are real life impacts; they want those moments where they feel like an informed and conscientious citizen. And if you want to sell to them, then you have to show them the real benefit you’re adding to their lives.
And finally the third question, how can the customer buy my product? This is something I see newspaper companies get wrong a lot more often than they should. You can have the best newspaper in the world, but if your customer has to mail you a check, create a login on your website, pick from 13 different plan options, or even just enter in their credit card information more than once, I promise you that you’re making this harder than it has to be.
It’s 2021; there’s no reason not to have an option to click here and auto-pay with your PayPal. This even works with more traditional marketing, like putting a QR code on print materials so customers can scan it with their phones and get subscribed, or having an option to click somewhere on an email blast and take the customer to the sign up page.
Every additional step in the purchasing process is going to cost you customers, so the more you can streamline this process, the better you’ll find your product selling.
If you’re not seeing the sales that you want, then I encourage you to answer these questions about your own products. Are the answers clear in your marketing materials? If not, it might be time to change how you’re selling. Because if you’re not telling the customer what’s in it for them, then they’re going to find another seller who will.