How teaching and storytelling can build a profitable business
Business | September 3rd, 2013
For years I couldn’t figure out how to get attention for my business products. Since no one knew the products existed, I couldn’t make sales.
With a more expensive product I could use direct sales: calling and emailing customers to educate them about the product, then ask for the sale. That worked, but was always slow and painful—and not the least bit scalable.
Worst of all, that high touch sales process doesn’t work for products under $200. There just isn’t a high enough profit in each sale to make it possible to spend time on the phone with every customer.
I watched other businesses spend money on ads, but that seemed to work best for big national brands that could spend money on awareness and didn’t have to make sales from every ad. And ads require money to spend. Something most small business owners don’t have.
Besides, even if ads were a possibility, the moment you stop spending you stop seeing results.
Another way for attention
I needed another way to reliably get attention and turn that attention into customers. Oddly enough the answer was sitting in front of me, it just took me all that time to realize it was the solution to my sales problem.
I read articles and blog posts by the experts in my industry. I clicked through from those article to their books and software products. Often purchasing both.
For project management I use Basecamp by 37signals. Without their popular blog I never would have heard of the product.
For invoicing I use Freshbooks, also from reading their blog giving advice on how to invoice my freelance clients.
For video hosting I use Wistia. They have a great product, but I’m not sure that alone would be enough to convince me to use them over YouTube, a free alternative. Instead, it’s that Wistia put out an amazing series of videos that taught me how to produce great videos on a budget.
As a final example, I purchased Rework by Jason and David at 37signals. Why? Because they had taught me so much about business already, I was desperate to learn more from them. My purchase was one of many thousands that helped launch their book onto national bestsellers lists.
All these companies used free teaching to gain attention, then turned that attention towards their related products.
After finally noticing this trend and the impact it could have on my business, I finally decided to give it a try. My next project was a book, called The App Design Handbook, that teaches developers how to design beautiful iOS applications.
Step one was to write app design tutorials and publish them on my blog. Each one got attention, and I funneled that attention to a pre-launch email list about the book. Within two months I went from no audience to nearly 800 people who asked to hear more about my book when it launched.
On launch day the members of my email list purchased The App Design Handbook in droves. I watched sales climb throughout the day until they finally peaked at $12,500 for the first 24 hours!
Far more revenue than I had ever seen before in a single day. At that moment I knew that teaching wasn’t just a tool for famous experts, but that it could be used by anyone to build a following and sell products.
Since that moment I’ve sold two more far more profitable training books and launched an email marketing startup, all of the customers acquired through teaching great content.
But not for everyone
Teaching worked—and I told everyone it worked, but I had a problem. I knew how this worked for some types of businesses, but some business models didn’t seem to fit.
For example, If you want to sell an email marketing tool, teach people how to do email marketing effectively. If you want to sell training to photographers, give away some training for free to build an audience.
But that only covers some types of businesses. What about the expert photographer who wants to sell fine art prints.
The up and coming photographer that would buy training from the expert wants to shoot photos, not buy prints from the expert.
The art collector doesn’t care about the details of f-stop and aperture, they want to buy beautiful art that has a story.
Someone in the market for custom furniture isn’t trying to learn how to make furniture, they just want a beautiful, functional dining room table.
That puzzled me. How does teaching help sell fine art and custom furniture?
It’s in the story
What does the art collector want to buy? They don’t just want a beautiful photo, you could get that from any home decor store for under $50. The art collector wants a photograph that has a story.
Imagine you come over to my house for dinner. Just before we sit down you notice a photo of a western ghost town hanging in my dining room. It’s such a strikingly great photo that you can’t help but ask, “where was that taken?”
How would your interest level change if I responded, “no idea, I bought it Walmart.”?
The only response to that is “Huh, it’s a neat photo.” The conversation moves on.
But what if that photograph had a story? That would completely change the conversation.
If instead I say the photograph was taken in a small ghost town in Idaho. Then I go on to tell you that it is one in a series of seven photos taken by this great photographer out of Washington state. Last fall he went on a road trip through seven different old mining towns, capturing one perfect image in each town.
The photographer wrote on his blog about the story of each town, his process finding the perfect shot, and the tales of his journey along the way. Available for free on his blog, or in a coffee table book you can purchase that includes all the photos.
The photo hanging in my dining room is a limited edition print that I purchased after following his journey. I also have that coffee table book that you can look through after dinner. His story, the story of each town, and the details of the entire trip are all included.
Now are you interested?
A form of teaching
That story is just another form of teaching—really it’s more of sharing. Just about everything has an interesting story. When told well, that story does two things: first, it increases the perceived value of the product, and second, it makes you want to follow the creator and learn more about their work.
Interesting stories get shared. That’s marketing.
Teaching + Story
The two techniques could also be combined. When I self-published my first two books on design I shared the details and the backstory on my blog (that’s the story). Soon I had almost as many people following me for marketing and self-publishing as I did for design. Then I started writing more specific tutorials about publishing and marketing (teaching), before releasing a book on the topic.
The fictitious photographer we talked about earlier can sell training, art prints, or custom work. Teaching—giving information away for free—will help is training business, but it will also get more exposure for his prints and custom work since he will now be seen as more of an expert.
Art prints, with a good story behind them, will demonstrate his expertise and if he shares the process will bring even more followers to his site. Soon he will have an audience following him not just for his work or teaching, but also just for who he is.
Teaching and story can be two sides of the same coin. Not every product can benefit from both story and teaching, but combined they make a very powerful business model that brings customers directly to your products.
I need your help.
I’m writing about teaching and story for a new (secret) project. Do you have an example or case study of using teaching or story in your business? If you know of a good example from another company feel free to share it as well (just make it clear that it’s not your own example).