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?”
In publishing, we often forget that that's the question we need to answer, both about 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 much good.
This train of thought reminds me of research published through Northwestern University's Readership Institute several years ago, which devoted a lot of fieldwork, surveys and interviews to understanding the best way to build an audience with a news product.
This research, to my knowledge, was 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 unique layout.
Instead, the most critical factors centered around customer experience and customer communications. Instead of recommending product changes, this study suggested changes in positioning your messages and demonstrating clear, defined benefits to your consumer.
One of the most common needs we're addressing with news content 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 make you smarter with our product.
That's a big ask, but it's certainly doable if we follow some of the tactics outlined in "Building a StoryBrand." Miller encourages three questions, asked to make sure that your product is well-suited to reach your customers. They are:
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 providing information about goings-on locally, nationally and many times globally. It is the most black and white question here, and I argue it's also the least impactful.
More important is the second question, how will it make the customer's life better? Again, careful curation and editing come in here. 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. Customers want real-life impacts; they want those moments where they feel like an informed and conscientious citizen. And if you're going to sell to them, then you have to show them the actual 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. Still, if your customer has to mail you a check, create a login on your website, pick from 13 different plan options, or even 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. It works with more traditional marketing, like putting a QR code on print materials so customers can scan it with their phones and subscribe, or having an option to click somewhere on an email blast and take the customer to the signup page.
Every additional step in the purchasing process will cost you customers, so the more you can streamline this process, the better you'll find your product selling.
If you do not see the sales you want, I encourage you to answer these questions about your 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.
Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.