What Does it Take to Write a Billion-Dollar Marketing Story?

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In 1984, two artists used a simple process to create a story that captivated an audience for years and generated billions of dollars in revenue.

That same process is being used today by a master copywriter to attract hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers.

With companies creating millions of web pages of content marketing, finding an untold story or a new angle can feel like an impossible task. Especially when you want to avoid creating a story so unique nobody understands it … or wants to pay for it.

So how do you create a story that cuts through the noise and strikes at the heart of your ideal client?

Let me tell you about a simple, 4-step process to get that done right now …

Why a fresh angle is so hard to come by

One of the easiest places to start in writing your business story is what you do and who you do it for.

You’re probably already familiar with a number of businesses whose story is based on this premise, for example:

That’s still a strong place to start, and if you find a logical combination that hasn’t been done before, it won’t take much to stand out from the crowd.

But what if your combination of ideas has been done before?

What if it’s been done not only many times over, but by bigger, better known names? How do you create the additional edge that stops people comparing you to the many other business offering that you have?

The dark side of unique

You may be tempted to rack your brains and find something you can do or offer that nobody else has ever done before.

Sometimes this can work to attract attention and customers.

Or it might just attract attention … and no customers.

Even huge corporations with a gazillion dollar marketing budget have had their fair share of unique flops. Just Google the McDLT burger …

So, what can you do instead? What really works?

Creating a billion-dollar story

In 1984 two cartoonists decided it would be pretty cool to have a best-selling comic strip.

Not just one they would love to write, but one their audience would love to buy.

So they started by thinking what their target market (teenagers) were really into at the time.

After extensively brainstorming a list of teen topics, they circled the top three things which were:

  1. Ninjas
  2. Mutants
  3. Turtles

They matched this combination to their love of comic strips and their skills as cartoonists to give birth to a craze that would go on to generate billions of dollars of revenue in licensing.

I love this story, not just because I grew up watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and have watched several episodes out of nostalgia while writing this), but because it’s a simple way to create a fresh angle that marries what you want to deliver and what your customer wants to have.

I learned about this story from Mike Palmer’s talk at last year’s AWAI Copywriting Bootcamp. He’s the head copywriter at Stansberry & Associates Investment Research. Since being there, he has attracted more than 400,000 paying subscribers and his most successful promotion achieved a gross revenue of $5.2 million.

And it’s this type of process he uses as a starting point for creating fresh stories that catch the interest of of readers.

The beauty of it is that you’re not limited to using it to define your brand or business. You can experiment with it for blog posts, eBooks, products, or new services.

So let’s work through an example of how this might work in a topic with lots of competition: Marketing advice and services for small business owners.

Step 1: Revisit what you do and who you do it for

You can’t write a strong story if you don’t know who you’re telling it to.

If you already have a customer profile, dig it out and set it in front of you. Build a clear picture in your mind of who you want to reach and remind yourself what you can offer them.

Remember, our example topic is marketing advice and services for small business owners.This is a pretty broad area with lots of competitors who are already operating and established. Using the following steps, you can still carve out a story no-one else is talking about.

Step 2: What are your customers happy to pay for?

Your story is only going to work for your business if it aligns with your customer’s demand. In the above example, a few things your customers are probably happy to pay for might include:

  • Sales
  • Leads
  • Email / mail subscribers (assuming those turn into leads)
  • Exposure of their business to their target market

So far this follows a pretty logical order for creating a story, and most people offering marketing for small businesses are talking about getting people more sales, more subscribers, leads, and exposure.

But you can start telling an ever-fresher story by considering …

Step 3: What other conversations are they having?

Entering the conversation your customer is already having is a well known marketing strategy for getting your reader’s attention.

But it doesn’t have to be a conversation about something they want. In fact, it’s often something they’re sick and tired of.

So, in the example above, small businesses may be getting sick and tired of companies promising sales and leads without proof or credibility.

Or perhaps you’ve noticed more business owners want to be known for the personality behind the service, not just what they do.

And with content marketing methods rapidly evolving, you may have seen examples of questions, confusion, and interest surrounding videos, webinars, and infographics.

Eventually, you might come up with a list of interests that looks like this:

  • Increasing skepticism — more demand for proof
  • Interest in well known business personalities / personal branding
  • Increasing interest / confusion over new methods of content marketing

By this stage you might already see opportunities for telling a new story, or creating a new product that catches their attention and still gives them what they want.

Step 4: Add in a dose of “you”

Your business story naturally focuses on your customer, and then on the product you offer, but you can add an extra layer of interest by including elements like:

  • Your personal interests
  • Your professional background
  • The reason you started your business
  • Your skills

So let’s look at a couple of different ways we could combine the elements from these 4 stages:

A marketer with a personal obsession for facts, figures, and analytics notices a growing popularity for articles containing case studies and results. He decides to start a campaign of testing one marketing initiative a week, sharing the results, and explaining how to interpret the analytics. He starts promoting his “see-through marketing” explaining that it’s a reaction to business owners struggling to make sense of knowing what marketing actually works. If his story is a hit, he can then start to launch training programs and products that build on this interest and demand from his customers.

Or, take the marketer who has been in every musical since nursery school and feels at home on the stage. She notices more people want to use videos and webinars, but don’t know how to present themselves, smile, to hold their posture etc. She shares her stage experience and trains entrepreneurs to stand out in the “Broadway of online business,” helping them attract subscribers and build trust with confident, charismatic presentations.

The same four steps, but two completely different market positions. And as you can see, these four steps can be combined and interpreted in countless ways.

If you play around with the four steps, you can build a story that combines your strengths, personality, customer demand, and current trends to tell a story nobody is talking about in your industry.

And it’s one way to stop your business being seen as a commodity by your customers.

Instead of being just “another” copywriter, marketer, or web designer, you’re the copywriter, marketer or web designer who … [insert your story here].

What’s your story?

What do you think?

Do you look for a story to connect with when you’re hiring someone? What are the stories of businesses you admire? What elements stand out to you?

Let us know in the comments below!

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Reader Comments (28)

  1. says

    I have been in my industry for over 18 years, and have seen the professionals morph from the Sales engines of the 80’s and early 90’s into the struggling “artists” of the early 2000. What seems to be happening for them is they are starting to find their “voice” and market their personalities to their clients in the hope that they will connect. The one common disconnect I often help them with is being OK with marketing their personalities.

    Thank you for the step by step!

    • says

      Hey Blossom – there’s definitely a rising trend of personality based businesses especially when you’re teaching, training or offering a service where you’re working 1:1 with your clients. People judge you based on whether they like you as well as believing you can do what you say.

  2. says

    Amy, this is an awesome post and brings some really great clarity to creating a different story even in a crowded market place.

    I’m in the middle of revising our content strategy and this post hit just in time.

    Thank you.

    • says

      Hey Donovan, thanks so much. It took a while to break down the process even though it seems pretty simple, good luck with getting that fresh angle for your content strategy! :-)

  3. says

    Thanks Amy. Great story about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Actually its even better.

    Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird – they didn’t sit down to figure out what teenagers liked. They went in deeper. They actually researched into which comics were currently doing well. They zeroed in on 4 comics that were doing pretty good at that time.

    1. Cerebus the Aardvark. Its about a pig superhero who drinks and cusses. But is very smart. Misfit animal superhero.

    2. Ronin by Frank Miller. Ninjas.

    3. Daredevil. It’s about a blind mutant whose other senses are heightened beyond normal human ability because of radio active exposure. Mutants.

    4. The New Mutants. It’s about teenage mutant superheroes undergoing training. Teenage mutants.

    Eastman and Laird mix all of these 4 already successful comics together. And come up with teenage mutant ninja misfit animals undergoing training. They come up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

    • says

      Was it really that much research? TMNT is pretty much a slant on Daredevil down to his origin (the radioactive container that struck the boy who becomes DD then rolls into the sewer to create TMNT – there’s more).
      Seems they just struck gold taking a popular comic and re-writing the concepts in a different perspective.
      Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED the original TMNT comics, just don’t think it’s such an easy thing to do to remake a story and be successful with it.

    • says

      Hey Ankesh!
      Thanks for filling in those pieces – as you say, while the process was pretty simple, it was also deliberate. Those boys knew what they were doing! :-)

  4. says

    I can understand ninjas and mutants being a popular subject with teenagers, but turtles? Really?

    I guess nowadays It would be honey badgers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Honey Badgers.

  5. says

    Hi Amy — let’s all sing that theme song together now! Teenage-mutant-nin-ja-tur-tles…dadum…

    I’ve heard the TMNT success used as an example of how there are no bad products, only poor marketing. What’s more unlikely than turtles able to execute ninja moves? It all falls apart if you really think on it. And yet the marketing push behind them made them everpresent in our lives for a time.

    • says

      I was singing that theme song pretty much non stop as I wrote – it just gets into your system! :-)
      It does seem like a flimsy concept, but Ankesh gives us another brilliant layer of explanation to show the concept of why combining those things could just be a hit! (And I’m thankful it was a hit).

  6. Steve In Canada says

    A bit off topic: I was in Seoul, Korea and there are “dragon’s beard candy” makers. They are street vendors who all use the exact same script. It is awesome and really draws people in.
    They have little inserts for customizing it to the customer too. “Where are you from? Toronto? CN Tower. Niagara Falls. Shania Twain. I want to marry her.” If some one is from Germany then they say one or two words in German then switch back to the English script. But it is just enough to feel like there is a connection.
    On youTube you can see how tightly they stick to the script. I was wondering who wrote the script and would love to read an anlysis of it.

    • says

      I’ve just seen a great video of one of the guys doing it, explaining it in the different languages as well. He’s got a great patter!

  7. says

    Thanks for breaking this down into steps and making them manageable. BTW: I watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too. I’ve watched the movie about a dozen times. :)

    I think Point #4 is important because some people don’t want to add a ‘dose’ of themselves for fear of rejection or fear of something else. But as Pace and Sonia pointed out in “How to be a World-Changing Writer,” being authentic is important if you want to reach your target audience. Believing in your words and business is a must if you want customers to believe in you and your message, products, and services.

    Business I admire

    I like Sir Richard Branson’s story. He started a magazine, “Student” when he was 16, dropped out of school (it happens), and ventured into the music industry with Virgin Records. He took a risk by signing the Sex Pistols in the 1970s. It paid off.

    Sir Richard dreamed bigger when he started Virgin Atlantic Airways in the 1980s. Let’s face it; his airline is cool and hip. I’d love to book a flight! Plus, the airline’s still going strong, even though it’s had ups and downs along the way. This shows Sir Richard’s tenacity.

    He’s stated numerous times in interviews how he’s influenced by non-fiction books such as Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. There’s more to Sir Richard than just business. He balances it with his humanitarian efforts, which shows his ‘human’ side to those who may be skeptical about him.

    • says

      Branson has a great story. I don’t know all the details, but one thing I admire is his ability to just keep going. He’s tried his hand to so many things, some have worked, some haven’t but he doesn’t give up.

      I think the variety of his interests, businessines, gambles and even failures are a big part of what makes his such an interesting business story.

  8. says

    Absolutely! He’s been in films and TV shows and isn’t afraid to take a risk. He seems to love what he does; he seems to love life. That’s important too. It can’t be all work and no play. That would be boring and mind numbing.

  9. says

    Amy, this is one of the clearest, most concise looks at story-telling I’ve seen, and much needed. So great to see you here , and thanks for sharing this :)

    As an extra — I study screen-writing + fiction-writing often in order to beef up my story-telling abilities.

    • says

      Hey Jason, Thanks! There’s so much overlap between strong fiction and screenwriting and copy, get their attention, keep them interested, rousing the emotions etc. Stories are a huge part of how we even connect with one another as humans.

  10. says

    My whole business is telling stories… so I better be good at it.

    I’m always looking to improve my skill set and learn new ways to enhance the connections I make with my audience. I have to agree with Amandah about step #4; the right dose of “you” can make all of the difference. Many of my earlier stories were anecdotes where I would unintentionally switch between first and second person. I finally worked with a writing coach and she pointed out the missed opportunities to truly connect with my readers by being vulnerable. It’s not always easy, but well worth it if you can muster up the courage to genuinely express yourself.

    Thank you for helping me reevaluate my own marketing story!

  11. says

    The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was my favorite cartoon back in the day. Amy great article. I find it very difficult to create a billion dollar marketing story. Jared Fogle “The Subway Guy”, I think was a billion dollar marketing story. I think it follows your 4 steps.

  12. says

    Hey Amy,

    Great article. For someone who is new to the whole blogging, internet thing this was so valuable. You really have to change your mindset when wanting to move from the corporate stable world to going it alone. There is so much to learn … nothing rocket science but doing the right thing at the right time in the right way with a bit of panache.
    Thanks for sharing.

  13. says

    Interesting! I always missed out the fact that readers love “to read”. It’s like “enough” when we just stated the obvious points and not giving them pleasure to read and enjoy what we deliver for them. Thanks for the inspiration!

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