By Manya Chylinski published September 23, 2012

How to Help Your Customers Help You by Sharing Their Stories

Every company has customer stories that could be fabulous marketing tools; but not every company uses them effectively in its content marketing program. The case study is the gold standard and something most marketers are familiar with. But customer stories can be just as much of a content gold mine.

Deana Goldasich, CEO of Well Planned Web, explained how during her Content Marketing World session, “Customer Stories: How to Unlock an Abundance of New Content.”

Imagine you’ve just run into your best customer and your best prospect. And you know your customer would have a great story to tell your prospect, who you know is a perfect fit for your product or service.

How could you get your customer to tell his or her story to the prospect?

Here’s how: Introduce them to each other, then shut up and get out of the way. That’s how you would do it in real life, and that’s how to do it with your online content marketing, as well.

Whether your business is B2B or B2C, large or small, the fact is that your customers can tell your story better than you ever will.

Why is that?

  • Customers are really telling their own story: Your company is part of that story almost by accident.
  • Stories that customers tell are not sales-y: No matter how much a company tries to remove the sales speak from marketing materials and stories, a little bit almost always trickles through.
  • There is a very small overlap between what a company wants to tell its customers and prospects and what those customers and prospects actually want to hear: Customers are more likely to talk about what other customers and prospects really want to know.

Customers have stories to tell, and case studies are a great way to share them. But what if there was a way to turn one customer interview into more than just one case study? Here’s one great example: a single customer interview netted more than 38 pieces of content:

  • 1 internal customer email
  • 2 white papers
  • 2 infographics
  • 3 case studies
  • 9 blog posts
  • 10+ external drip emails
  • 11 testimonial quotes

To content marketers and content creators, this is a dream come true. Here is how Deana and her team helped generate this much content from just one interview.

The interview lasted about an hour-and-a-half, and the interviewer did not go into it planning to come out with 38 pieces of content. She went into it expecting to get one piece of content: a case study. The rest of the content was inspired by the case study and the interview. The ideas for the additional content only came about after she reviewed the information gleaned from the interview, wrote the case study, and understood the nature of all the content the team had acquired.

These 38+ pieces of content are not simply repackaged pieces of the case study, either. These are unique ideas and pieces of content gleaned from talking to this one customer.

But before you mine all of this content, you have to get the story from your customer. Here’s how:

Before the interview:

  • Identify the best person to talk to on the customer side. Talk to the sales team, customer service reps, or social media managers — these are the people who know your customers’ stories and know who would be best to talk to in your customers’ organization.
  • Find someone else to conduct the interview — not one of the frontline people who helped you identify who to speak to: Look for content producers or managers, facilitators, storytellers, or outside agencies. Here you want to find someone who is very good at listening and making others feel comfortable in a conversation, even if this person isn’t the one who will be creating any of the content.
  • Think like a reporter and be ready to ask about who, what, why, when, where, and how: This means the interviewer should conduct a live interview (via telephone is OK), and not use email or an online form to gather this information. This has to be a two-way, synchronous conversation.
  • Be prepared and focused: To do this, it helps to write out your questions in advance:
    • Have open-ended questions that prompt descriptive responses, such as: “Tell me about the challenges you face in your role here.”
    • Also have focused questions designed to elicit short, specific types of answers, such as, “Why did you need the services of X company?
  • Plan for the interview to take at least one hour: Getting to the heart of a story can take some time.

During the interview:

  • Record the interview: You can take minimal notes during the interview, but you want it to feel like a conversation not an interrogation. Some people use two methods to record interviews to ensure success. You may not be able to remember all of the conversation afterwards, so this is a critical step.
  • Set the stage: Let the customer know what to expect and that you are here to listen to his story.
  • Keep it comfortable. The best way to have a conversation is when both the interviewer and the interviewee feel comfortable. It’s OK to start with some small talk.
  • Be ready to take detours: Write out questions in advance — especially questions about specific pieces of information you need from the interview. But remember that it’s OK to go off your script of prepared questions if the customer’s responses move the conversation in a really strong direction —sometimes these tangents are where you get your best stories. Yes, there may also be times when you have to gently refocus your interviewee to keep her on track, but that’s what your list of questions is for.
  • Dealing with difficult interviewees:
    • Shy and quiet: Bring your energy to the table and make it a brag-safe environment. Help the subject see his story.
    • Outgoing and talkative: Meet her energy level and let her talk. Help keep her focused with your specific questions.
  • Dealing with interviewees who are hesitant to share specifics. Customers are often hesitant to share sales numbers or specific results. Get creative with this. Ask about using percentages or other ways to share the relevant information without revealing proprietary information.

After the interview:

  • Transcribe your recordings: This is best done by the person who conducted the interview — as he is listening, he can relive the interview and hear the tone, the inflections, the drama and use it to refresh his memory of the discussion. Highlight relevant things you hear, such as results, challenges, or quotes you’ll want to use.
  • Create a content database: Capture all of the information in a database, such as Excel or Box.net or another collaborative tool. Log every bit of content you can: quotes, anecdotes, stories, pieces to use for a case study, ideas for blog posts or infographics, etc. Tag them to make it easier for anyone on the team to find, now and in the future.
  • Use this content for your editorial calendar: The content database can help you fill out your calendar with ideas for emails, blog posts, articles, white papers, etc.
  • Write the content and watch your customer — and the story — shine!

Businesses of all shapes and sizes can benefit from customer stories. When it comes to telling a customer’s story for your business, it’s not about how creative or amazing you can be. It’s about how well you can help that customer tell his or her own amazing story.

What are your experiences with telling customer stories and making the most of the content you get from interviews?

Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Manya Chylinski

Manya Chylinski is a marketing consultant and writer helping B2B companies create compelling content and share thought leadership and success stories. Founder of Alley424 Communications, Manya has experience in a variety of industries including technology, higher education, financial services, government, and consulting.

Other posts by Manya Chylinski

  • http://twitter.com/PortalPrincess Susan Scherer

    Manya-this is great! One question: how do you go about securing customer permission to use this content in so many ways? Is there a blanket agreement that crosses all platforms , use cases & content “chunks”? Or do you go back & ask for approval for each piece?

    • Manya

      Susan,
      That’s a great question. As Kelly mentions above…usually once you receive sign-off on the interview it is usually okay to reuse the content in context. No one–you or the client–wants to have to get permission for each piece. If there is great sensitivity on the client side, I think it’s best to talk about what types of content you’ll be creating and how you’ll be using it as part of the interview prep to make sure they are comfortable.
      Manya

  • http://twitter.com/KDHungerford Kelly Hungerford

    Manya, thanks for much for this post. I attended Deana’s session at CMWorld and it was truly fantastic. The example of one “customer to-38-pieces-of-content” was jaw-dropping!

    We have a blog dedicated just to telling our the stories of our publishers and i can attest to how well putting customers, or users in our case, in front of prospects to educate and inform works. I started the blog a year ago and it plays a crucial role in educating prospective users, or even skeptics, about our service. It’s true – our publishers tell the story much better than we can!
    Susan, I can share insight from my experience with content sign-off if that helps. So far in my experience with clients once I have received sign-off I have been able to reuse the content as long as it is not taken out of context. Only one time with a bank ( and this was years ago) was I required to have each additional asset created signed off on.

    • Manya

      Kelly,
      Thanks for your reply. Yes…that 38 pieces of content slide is seriously impressive. And inspiring! It has got me thinking about how to be more creative with this kind of content. Thanks for weighing in on the permissions issues, too. I recall from the presentation and from my own experience that clients are usually okay with fair use of the content.
      Glad to hear you are having success with this, too.
      Manya

  • http://twitter.com/CTrappe Christoph Trappe

    Great post. Thanks! This is very much in line with some of the things we are trying to implement at United Way in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I shared some more information with examples on our marketing blog here: http://unitedwayofeastcentraliowa.org/marketing-blog-sharing-our-investors-stories/