How to Make People Give a Damn About Your Business

image of Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet

There’s been a lot of talk about “story” here at Copyblogger lately. Actually, they’ve been talking about story for about four years, but you might not have realized it.

As a content marketer, or even just a blogger who’s trying to figure out the basics, you’re writing a story.

Every day. With every word you put in front of your readers.

So far, Robert Bruce has given us a lesson in dramatic tension; Sonia, protagonists; and Brian, crafting remarkable marketing stories.

But there’s something that wasn’t touched on. Something, to me, that’s the most important aspect of any marketing story.

It’s the “what at stake” — both for the character in your story and the person reading it. It’s the thing that unifies the protagonist, the tension, and the story to make it worth sticking around for.

The story of two star-crossed lovers …

In high school you read the story of Romeo and Juliet. It was the play that introduced us to two households, both alike in dignity, and the star-crossed lovers fighting for their chance to be together.

Shakespeare let us know immediately what was at stake for the characters — forever love. The drama and the swords make it sexy, but what the reader wants to know is if love can defy death. If love is as powerful as the stories have always told us.

Because if Romeo and Juliet can attain forever love, then there’s hope for the rest of us. We’re hooked because we need to know. Our own love is at stake.

Of course, not every story is about love.

With the holiday season in full swing, we’re currently bombarded with stories of all kinds. We’ll see stories about family, joy, loneliness, hope, second chances. And marketers will attempt to tie the tension to why it matters to you, the audience. If they go after the wrong message, audiences will ignore it.

And if they get it right? Audiences will cling for dear life.

An organization that does this remarkably well is the ASPCA. They know how to craft stories that compel people to not only pay attention, but to act. They bring us to our knees showing us abandoned puppy faces set to the tune of heart-wrenching Sarah McLachlan melodies.

The result of this marketing story will be droves of people heading out to their local animal shelter to adopt a new family member. The commercials work because we immediately know what’s at stake: Adopt a puppy or the puppy dies. If the puppy dies, so does a piece of our humanity.

We choose the puppy.

What’s at stake for your customers?

As marketers we use stories as a way of relating a specific need to our customers.

We set ourselves (or our customers) as the protagonist, reveal the tension, and then set the product as what moves the mountain. It’s a good story, but it’s not going to hook anyone yet. Not until you can show what’s on the line.

If you’re telling your customers what your product does, you’re telling the wrong story. What you need to tell them is how it will help them achieve that inner need.

In Brian’s post, he spoke about how knowing your audience is what will cause you to win or lose the battle. He couldn’t be more right. You need to know the inner battle your prospects and customers are facing so that you can set your product or service up as the answer. The story has never been about the purchase itself, it’s about the benefit achieved via the purchase.

  • If you’re selling laser printers, it’s not about how fast the new printer shoots out copy, it’s how that allows the busy mom to spend more time with her children.
  • It’s not how many blades that fancy new razor has, it’s how much closer that shave allows you to get to the person you love. It’s the image of the embrace.
  • It’s not the size of the television screen, it’s how buying it will strengthen your friendships when you can crowd more people around it. It’s the Christmas morning shot where everyone you love is within an arm’s reach.

Whether you’re writing a novel, content for your Web site, or a blog post you want people to not just read it, but act on, you need to show them what they’re fighting for, and the benefits of winning.

Setting up what’s at stake

Sounds good. How do you do it?

Define it: Apple doesn’t sell a product; they sell a lifestyle others want to attain. (Usually one of self-righteousness.)


(Not really.)

What are you selling? To truly know, you need to do what Brian said: get to know your audience. Effective writers move people by tying the theme of the story back to whatever crisis their customers are facing.

Show It Early: Show what’s at stake for your characters (and your readers) from the beginning. Give them the protagonist, what they’re fighting for, and then pan out to show the seemingly-unmovable mountain directly in their path.

Then realize no one cares about the mountain. We care about what that person loses if he can’t get over it. We care about what’s on the other side and what he’s racing toward. The earlier we see it, the more invested we become.

If we cared about mountains, we’d actually be outside.

Mirror Character and Customer: Your audience and character don’t have to be entwined in the same battle for the story to work.

Just because I’m not a prostitute doesn’t mean I don’t understand what’s at stake when Richard Gere offers to put up Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman and she’s forced to tell him no.

What’s at stake is self-empowerment. It’s universal and that’s why it works. If Richard Gere can climb that fire escape for her, someone can do it for us, but only if we empower ourselves first.

Tie it All Back: In order for a story to work, we have to see the theme moving from beginning to end. To appreciate the resolution, we need to understand the fight that it took to get there. The clearer you are about setting up what’s a stake in your story, the better your audience understands why characters are acting in a certain way and the more invested they become.

As a content writer, being able to relate the struggles being face by a protagonist to the struggles of your customers? Well, it’s pretty much the holy grail of marketing.

It’s the “Why the hell should I give a damn?” that all stories need. Without it, you haven’t hooked anyone.

It doesn’t matter if your story continues to move that character up their mountain if you’re not moving your audience in the process. You need to show people what’s on the other side and what it is they’re fighting for. It’s what’s at stake.

About the Author: Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer and social media strategist. She’s most known for saving brands (most often from themselves) and for her voracious tweeting. You can follow her on Twitter at @lisabarone or find her blogging about her own struggles with voice at

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Reader Comments (82)

  1. says

    It’s the “Why the hell should I give a damn?” that all stories need. Without it, you haven’t hooked anyone.

    Now that is an excellent way to sum up the post, Lisa – well written. I’m sure this will inspire a lot of marketers out there. Heck, it even inspires me, and I’m not even a marketer!

  2. says


    One thing I like about Copyblogger articles (i.e. like this one), as compared to other marketing/copywriting blogs (i.e. Makepeace Total Package or HubSpot), is that you make the story central. This has been expressed in the many Copyblogger posts you alluded to.

    I like how you mentioned the story is intertwined with the theme. Business Dictionary defines marketing theme as, “Central marketing idea or message, or a product benefit or feature, that is known (or is likely) to have maximum appeal to a targeted market segment.” Free Online Dictionary defines story as, “An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious.” It’s the story that hooks them.

    I do have to question the story example of Pretty Woman. For the life of me, I can’t imagine the prostitute wanted to marry Richard Gere’s character – except that he’s a billionaire and that would make the motive money related.

    I don’t know if you could ever convert a Max user – it’s a cult, in my opinion. Not that I have anything against the Mac. But Steve Jobs and his marketing associates do sell the lifestyle aspect well! I know many Mac users. Mac is also preferred by creative types. But from a practical technology level – a PC has more software available.

    Enough of my story telling. Thanks for another great Copyblogger post on telling the story.


  3. says

    Hey Lisa

    Very true. The human heart hook, is what gets us the most. We need to feel the benefits of the product and understand the pitfalls of not having the product.

    An interesting read, thank you.

    Chat soon

  4. says

    This is pretty relevant for beginner like me.
    Honestly, i haven’t thought about the building a connection with my target audience.

    The article put it straight about quality content targeted to specific audience.Give then the value and
    relate back to their needs.

    This article indeed made me re-think the action item planned for my blog.
    Excellent Post !

  5. says

    Put your self in their shoes so you can feel thier struggles and ambitious. This is how you get people to understand you, because you understand them..once that happen they will start to care about your buniess..just my thoughts.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  6. says

    Two thoughts occurred to my while reading –

    1. The Power of the Hidden Benefit: Some of the copywriting hot-shots teach that you have to nail the deep inner need of the customer. This need is usually NOT what you would first think. It’s the “lizard brain” instinct that drives us forward. You reminded me that I shouldn’t start writing until I’m clear on what this is for my readers

    2. Focus on the Promise Not Just the Struggle: I’ve noticed alot of woe is me writing out there. Seems like people believe that readers actually give a sh*t about their problems. Not so. Readers care about my problems (mountain) if it is going to give THEM an answer. Again thanks for the reminder

    Oh – I would say “great post” too – but I’m sure you are going to get your fair share of those today :)

  7. says

    Hi Lisa,

    Wonderful advice here.

    Connect with your audience by viewing your product or service from their perspective. A helpful practice is to look at the consumer choices you make each day. What drives you to buy? What drives you to care? Your audience is no different. They must care to be interested in what you have to offer.

    Awesome ASPCA example. The message cuts right to the soul, right to our feelings.

    Thanks for sharing and have a powerful day!


  8. says

    Nice and relevant advice – every time!

    It’s true, people want to read about what is relevant to their own lives. If you can’t provide it – do some tweaking to that very same post that you wanted to write. Think about it as the reader, not as the author.

    Super, thanks for the great reminder.

    Read Aloud Dad

  9. says

    Am I the only one that finds the ASPCA ads insulting? Record any animal that is well fed and loved in slow motion while laying down, and guess what–they can look sad, abused and downtrodden. “Insulted” is how I feel about the ASPCA ads. I digress. :)

    • Andrew B. says

      Amen, brother. And I’ve donated to them in the past. Now though, instead of feeling like I want to write a check, I feel like I need to take a shower.

      Ditto for the whole “adopt a child in Africa” thing. Best line ever from Sam Kinnison: “I’m sure the film crew could give this kid a sandwich.”

  10. says

    Lisa, thanks for the reminder. I find it so easy to get stuck on the mountain instead of those mountain climbers. Its far too easy to think that just because there is a mountain there that everyone will be interested in it. The reality is that that is just not the case.

  11. says

    The timing couldn’t be better to hear this, Lisa. Thank you. I am holistic wellness practitioner and even in my business there are compelling stories to be derived from living unhealthy lifestyle. My stories will be more intentional now towards the cost of being imbalanced vs managing energy and maintaining health and benefits of meditating, why nutrition matters, why movement matters, community, etc……. increase in productivity, clarity of mind, fulfilling relationships, less visits to doc, ‘wealth’… living in spirit, however you call it that connection to your inner self higher calling. The task of writing will be more fun!

  12. says

    This was a great article. Gave me some tips about strengthening some of my content and trying to direct it as if I am telling my story to just one person.
    Really well written!

  13. says

    Great article!
    It reminds of me of an article I read recently about successful marketing. One example highlighted was the notion that ‘a diamond is forever’. In actuality, we know diamonds aren’t forever and are not even the rarest of gems. But, the idea that a diamond is the ultimate expression of love from one individual to another has been successfully ingrained in us.
    Thank you for a constructive and pertinent article!

  14. says


    I love you. That’s all.

    Wait. That came out wrong. I *mean* that I love your writing style, your content, your ability to write about something that I nod by head in agreement as I read. I love that your posts make me think, inspire me to share, and compel me to read and read again.

    I just forwarded this to our sales and marketing team at Blue Sky Factory. Pretty sure this statement sums it all up: “The story has never been about the purchase itself, it’s about the benefit achieved via the purchase.”

    Still hoping to meet face to face some day…

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  15. says

    Great angle. I’ve always focused on telling my reader how-to do something. I never thought about why they would want to do it in the first place. I’m sure the reasons have made it into some posts by accident, but now I’m going to look for whether I’m answering this question.

  16. Sue says

    Excellent post. Of course, Avon has capitalized on the ‘romance’ idea for years. The Avon Foundation has also worked very hard to promote/help women from all walks of life excel in their chosen fields. But, I still think the real reason any company or product or cause will succeed will be if it provides the ‘buyer’ with ‘a sense of community’ after they purchase the product, experience the joy of giving. Old mentor once told me, ‘People generally won’t remember the item that you sold them, but the experience you gave them–feeling you left them with at the time of the sale.” I suppose one of the reasons why first impressions are/always will be of utmost importance. Although I do not own an Apple mac, perhaps this is the one area in software/hardware sales that Steve Jobs has tapped that other companies CEO’s haven’t been able to.

  17. says

    Great post. As with everything in business this is an easy concept to understand, but much more difficult to execute… but that’s why we have folks like you! 😉

  18. says

    Well done, Lisa! And I love that you are able to incorporate storytelling into your own article about storytelling (and bonus points for taking a dig at Apple while doing it!). Great post, and worth a tweet for sure!

  19. says

    I try to do my best with satisfied the needs of my users and customers. In order to know what they need, it is important to listen and ask questions to try to assess their wants and needs.

  20. says

    Are you (a) just trying to sell me shit, or (b) do you believe in something bigger than yourself and want to change the world? That’s the essential question in the back of people’s minds when confronted with any marketing message.

    Zappos doesn’t sell shoes. It’s a service company, that just happens to sell shoes. It’s committed to WOW! customer interactions that redefine expectations. They are also committed to changing the world, specifically the culture of how people do business. They even started a new division that teaches that message for how other companies can turn culture into the brand innovation driver –

  21. says

    Hi Lisa!

    Great post — puts me in mind of the old National Lampoon magazine cover that showed a gun to the head of a lovable dog, with the caption “Buy this magazine or we’ll kill this dog!” Think it sold a lot of copies…

  22. says

    We are all storytellers. The question is how well are you telling your story. Those that tell their story better are seen as the expert and leaders in their market place.

    Great post Lisa.

  23. says

    Lisa, as a novelist, I love this explanation. You’re speaking language I GET. Thanks–you’ve given me much to think about with regard to my blog. You know, it’s funny, because I teach theme and storyline, and I don’t think I’ve quite got it down in my blogging, so I’m excited about working on that.

  24. says

    I also believe that relationships with your customers are very important. I prefer to walk a further distance to buy from the lady that smiles at me and asks me about my little ones than buying from a fancier place who do not care about me.

  25. says

    Thanks for the great post Lisa. That is the best explanation of benefits over features that I have ever heard. I like the idea that if you approach content writing like you would a novel then you cant help but draw your audience/customer into the story.

    I find that identifying my audience is my main weakness. Since content writers can work for so many different types of industries, I get bogged down by all of the options. Do you know any websites or resources that explain the process of audience identification in detail?



  26. says

    I was in a process of updating some contents for my website and I needed some direction. The main reason I am updating is because the current copy didn’t produce results that I wanted. So Lisa’s article is very useful. Thank you Lisa.

  27. says

    This information in this article is worth at least 100 dollars. I’m glad that I’ve read it, I’ve learned another few things I didn’t knoe before.

  28. says

    Nothing is new here. But the article remains powerful because you are an excellent communicator. I will surely come back and read this again before I read another post. You are right, it is not enough to tell stories. It is very important to highlight “what is at stake”.

    Thank you.

  29. says

    Hi Lisa

    Another great post for the Copyblogger “school of most excellent information”.

    One thing that I take from this post and others on this site, is the huge level of thought that goes into each one. There is no way you whipped this one together in 15 minutes (or maybe you did!).

    I find a huge challenge personally in shaping a “story” like a storyteller. You did it here really well. Trying to emulate what gifted blog writers seem to do naturally when they post is quite a challenge for me as a mere mortal who sometimes struggles with the art of word play.

    Reading the posts on this site certainly helps give direction on how to – back to practice makes perfect I guess.

    Thanks for sharing.

  30. says

    II believe an old sales presentation acronym FAB remains pertinent.
    F= FEATURE – What it is
    A = ADVANTAGE – What it does
    B = BENEFIT – What it does for your customer.

    Unfortunately too often it is assumed people will infer the benefit from the advantage. The benefit, for most of us, may be the biggest motivator to act. Spell it out. What does it do for your customer?

  31. says

    Everyone is only interested in what’s in it for them. Nothing else will matter to a customer, prospect or audience if you can’t clearly point out what they get from doing business with you.

    Thank you for brilliantly showing us how in this post.

  32. says

    I am just getting into the world of blogging. The last year or so has been an education and I am finding out that I still know absolutely nothing. This was light, informative funny, real and kept me reading, Thankyou :) I agree about the apple thingy it stinks that they actually have the product to back it up, this guy is still favoring my p.c. though. Apple reminds me of Starbuks it took me along time to enter in that door and now I am hooked. I guess becoming an apple junkie may only be a matter of time.

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