My past few writing tips (about paragraphs, transitions and information architecture) have highlighted the differences between writing for print and digital formats. These differences show up in how you handle success stories, too.
But most importantly, your audience’s motivation for reading these stories should guide how you create them.
Rule 1: Match the mood to your audience
Some consultants claim that a success story isn’t a success story unless it’s full of emotion. You’ve got to deeply affect your audience, they say, and that requires telling a story that’s so full of feeling that readers can’t help but respond to your call to action.
Um, sometimes. But not always.
To be sure, there’s room for emotion. I had a client recently that was seeking financial support for a children’s hospital. The success stories we created were about how children were saved by the hospital’s doctors and nurses. The stories teemed with descriptions and drama intended to stir compassion in readers — definitely the right approach for prompting the website’s to write out checks to the hospital’s foundation.
But another client of mine wants to persuade engineers to use its machining services. Emotion has very little role to play in these stories. Sure, we want visitors to feel that the machining company can solve their problems and make them happy, relieved engineers.
We’re not going to convince engineers to take action with heart-wrenching stories about well-crafted parts. Instead, we’ve got to be detailed and factual enough about how we helped clients in their situation for them to think, “Hmm, sounds like I should give these guys a call.”
Rule 2: Sometimes ‘who’ is more important than ‘what’
Name-dropping may be annoying at a dinner party, but it’s often a good tactic in business communications.
For example, a software company that I created some success stories for had a highly technical application that didn’t readily lend itself to detailed case stories. To explain exactly how it worked in solving a client’s problem would be lengthy and dull.
But they did the work for some household names, such as a widely distributed manufacturer of outdoor clothing and an airline. The stories didn’t get highly detailed, but they included references to their success-story customers and prominently displayed their logos. A reader could just scan the list of success-story customers and say, “Whoa, look who’s used these guys! Sounds like they know what they’re doing.”
In this case, it’s not about emotion and it’s barely about the details. Visitors may just glance at a list of such stories without reading them all fully but be persuaded that you’re worthwhile, judging you by the company you keep.
As a corollary, avoid success stories about — or testimonials from — anonymous customers. Readers have no way if these are valid, nor if they’re applicable to their situation.
Rule 3: Shift your formula based on your audience and format
Some consultants advocate writing in a pure, story structure, like you’d read a novel. Don’t break it up with predictable subheads such as “Situation/Approach/Results/Conclusion,” they say.
That’s valid if you have print material that lends itself to a story format. But online, the subheads and tightly structured help guide a reader. True, it’s best if you can use some unique language for the subheads to make them interesting. But if a reader is looking at several success stories all at once, the subheads and structure make it easier to absorb.
Also keep in mind that if you’re really intent on getting across the emotional element of a success story, you probably should budget for a good video. There’s no way that the written word can convey the feelings you get from seeing the person or place that’s central to the story.
Do remember, though, to include text that explains more details if it’s helpful, to give the story its proper SEO value and to give the audience a quick and easy way of taking action.