Establishing a story culture is not easy. There may be only a minimal awareness within a company of what the narrative is for the business. This depends greatly upon the leadership. Is it flat or hierarchical? Open, flexible or bureaucratic and process driven? How information is shared about the brand story is critical to understanding where to optimize opportunities for stoking the flame of the business culture so that employees feel they are part of the creation of the narrative that is driving the business forward. Part of the work of looking at a business story strategically is through asking some tough questions in the process. For instance, does every employee even agree on the company story? Does it resonate with their experience in their workplace? Do they know your pillars, your philosophy, your brand? Are they excited to share that online? Are they allowed to? More importantly, do the customers mirror the story and collaborate on it with the employees?
Since nearly everyone is digitally connected in the workplace now, there is an untapped source of storytelling that also happens to be an enormous power keg of digital goodness and that lies in the hands of the employee who works closest to the customer experience. Not the CEO, CFO, CMO–in fact, forget the top tier entirely for a moment–but the employee who engages with the customer, at a counter, on a phone call, through email, on Twitter, in Facebook posts: These are the storytellers of your brand and the most important ambassadors to nurture, train, and invest in.
In today’s digital landscape, it is critical that businesses pay attention to the experience of the company narrative across the organization because the brand story is no longer controlled by a marketing department but shared across digital hallways, Facebook water coolers, and Twitter chats. Remember those old days of control? Nicely wrapped bundles of brochures, optimized pages that were static, and scripts for customer service representatives to follow that were written by managers?
In any large enterprise, you may now have dozens of digital natives who are multi-screen communicators with social networks larger than some small businesses. They have developed personal narratives online and they aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. There is a knee-jerk fear of these employees saying something ‘inappropriate’ so policies get written to regulate their social behaviour online. However, as Tony Hsieh figured out many years ago, that is a lost opportunity. Tony quickly saw that if he encouraged his customer service team to use Twitter–all day in fact–that he would be benefiting from their natural skills on a social platform and instead of just their networks benefiting, his would too.
But Tony had to strategically create a story culture first. It doesn’t happen overnight. I think that it is in fact, a disciplined approach that looks carefully at identity, communications, values, leadership, and collaboration. If you ask everyone in the company, ‘who are we’ and bravely look at the results you have the beginning of an authentic narrative. If it isn’t the one you are imagining in your marketing department, then you have some work to do. Your story cannot be dreamt up or created in an ad agency: It has to be organic to the culture, to the people who invest their lives into your business, and to their experiences. Today’s consumer senses when a company’s story isn’t authentic. Social media is a great barometer for weeding out tired, manufactured brand stories. One of the most simple ways to create a more authentic brand story is to collaborate on content with employees and customers with a core spine of the story as a jumping off point. This is where values come in. Having a core value system that is instinctively known by employees helps guide them in making decisions about what they are saying about the business. Their pride in the business story is the best marketing tool you can have at your disposal and this only happens when they are made collaborators in the ongoing narrative of the company. If they have no personal investment in the story, they’re not going to be willing storytellers. They won’t want to share your story with their networks, or write pithy tweets about your product.
Investing in your story in every pocket of your enterprise creates a foundation that is better-equipped to engage with today’s consumer in the digital space. Four Seasons invested a reported 18 million dollars into their digital story and created a core group of editors (aka storytellers) to write stories about each property that were unique and authentic to that destination. Sweden famously let its citizens take over the reins of the country’s official Twitter channel (with mixed results) but were absolutely committed to the organic, authentic voice of the people. Award-winning, provocative, and most certainly authentic, the stories that came up could never have been engineered by marketers. That was the point. To let the story be curated by citizens for citizens.
I would argue that companies need to do the same: Let go of hierarchy and a need for so much control and focus on creating a great culture instead. Architecting the story culture to allow for the real experiences of employees and customers to be communicated without a lot of policing from marketing is an important step towards creating a healthier story culture that resonates online. Despite the lack of buy-in from many c-suites, there is no doubt that social media is challenging the siloed communication behaviours of traditional business models.
Business has forever been altered by social media. So has storytelling. The upside is there has never been a more exciting time to invest in creating a nimble, adaptive story culture because the rewards can be felt on every level from senior management to front line staff and most importantly, experienced by customers who truly believe in your story and want to be a part of your storyworld. As Tony Hsieh once wrote of the Zappos culture, ‘our belief that customer service shouldn’t just be a department; it should be the entire company.’ The touch points now span across the entire enterprise and marketers need to shift to being storyteller mentors and digital strategists.
I named my company What Is Your Story? for a reason. I think it’s the most important question a company or organization can ask itself. But when you ask this question, be prepared to do the work, make the investment, and mobilize the people to be willing, participatory storytellers. Because it is as Brian Solis would aptly say, ‘The End of Business As Usual’.Image from Creative Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxtongue/