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Marketing From the Heart

by Doug Lipman

Why is marketing hard for storytellers?

For one thing, we're up against a hard situation. Like all artists, we do important work: imagining and communicating what human beings are like and can become. Yet, as invaluable as we are to society, we are not rewarded well or supported well. We are even expected to be both artists and marketers. Few people master two such careers!

Also, like many in our society, we misunderstand the nature of marketing. Because many of us think that marketing is "selling things to people who don't want them," we are often reluctant to take the steps that would let society benefit from our work.

Once we understand what true marketing is and does, we can use it to gain eager partners in our important and unjustly difficult work.

The Truth About Marketing

Most of the mass marketing we see around us is probably not good marketing - and it's certainly nothing like what would make sense for a storyteller. It is based on convincing large numbers of individuals that they need a single, mass-produced product. Even in business circles, there is a growing awareness that such large-scale, impersonal marketing is being replaced in many arenas by individualized marketing based on relationships.

The first truth about good marketing is that it is not impersonal, not heartless, not manipulative. It aims to inform those who want something that we have it to offer! It aims to meet individualized needs.

The second truth about marketing is that it starts from our uniqueness. We have something to offer the world that is different from what anyone else has to offer. The role of marketing is to respectfully inform those who want us that we are available.

What I Have to Offer

The first step in developing my marketing plans, therefore, is to notice what I have to offer.

This step is simple, but it may not be easy.

Here are some questions that may help me identify my strengths:

  • What is easy for me?
  • What is joyful for me?
  • What is it about my work that people seem happy about?
  • When things are flowing smoothly, what happens around me?

When I try to answer these questions, I face a paradox. My unique gifts probably stand out to other people. To me, however, they may seem ordinary. Or they may even seem like liabilities: in my childhood, my unique qualities may have created some inconvenience for those charged with caring for me. Among my peers, my special qualities may have provided handy excuses for insults directed at me.

If my own strengths are invisible or even painful to me, how do I identify them? Usually, others can describe me better than I can. Therefore, this is a time to ask for help from my friends and colleagues. I can ask people (one at a time, or in a group session) for a chunk of their time to say what they think I have to offer - and to listen to me think aloud about what I think. They can also listen to me answer the questions listed above.

While I have others listening to me, it may help for me to think aloud about performances or workshops that have felt wonderful to me, or to read aloud the spontaneous praise that audiences or employers have written to me. Reviewing these successes - especially with an attentive listener on hand - may help me notice what they have in common.

I don't have to worry if I can't settle on a single strength that defines me. In fact, I have many unique gifts. Each gift can lead to a different marketing plan for a different audience.

Finding Those Who Want Me

Once I can articulate what I offer, I brainstorm next about who needs it.

Suppose, for instance, that my strength in school performances is my ability to get children wanting to tell their own stories. Then I can ask myself, "Who might want that exact strength?" My answers might lead me to unexpected markets.

As one obvious answer to this question, I might expect writing teachers to want children to be motivated to tell stories. But others may want this strength, too. For example, those teaching drug-abuse education may also want such a motivation. Perhaps someone is even helping older children to talk to younger children about negative experiences with drugs. Wouldn't this person want students to desire to tell stories? My strength might actually be important for any sort of peer education, or for values education. In the right circumstances, it might even appeal to teachers of far-flung subjects. Might there not be science teachers, for instance, who want their students to be eager to describe their experiences as investigators during their science projects?

Once I have brainstormed a list of possibilities, I can choose one or more to actually investigate.

The Informational Interview

For each potential audience that I choose to investigate, I can gather more information by scheduling informational interviews. My ideal interview candidate is not only a member of the group in question - say, science teachers - but also someone who has seen and loved my work.

During the interview (which can be held in person or over the phone, and may be as short as 15 minutes) my first question is something like, "You've seen my work. What benefit does that work potentially bring to other science teachers?"

Here is the place where I need to observe carefully. I need to absorb the exact way that my interviewee describes the benefits of my work. For example, I may think that I offer motivation to students to tell stories about their science projects. But my science teacher friend may say something like, "You help young scientists explore the narrative reporting of their scientific explorations." This is the first thing I came for: the way my potential audience describes the benefits of my work. All my future descriptions of my work to this audience need to be in their terms, not mine.

My second question is, "What sort of science teachers care about students' narrative reporting?"

Once I get an answer, I ask my third question: "How can I reach these people?" The answer may include professional conferences, magazines, web sites, professional associations with newsletters, etc. Now I have an idea of the channels these people already use for reaching each other. Utilizing such channels, if possible, will usually be much more efficient than creating my own channels or using direct mail.

Finding Allies

In my informational interview, I learned who may want what I have to offer, how to reach them, and how to describe what I offer in their terms.

At this point, I want to find the people among them who actually want what I have to offer. I want to create relationships with these people. I want to become their ally.

Why do I use the word "ally"? The science teachers who care about what I care about - getting students to "explore the narrative reporting mode" - are not best seen as "customers." Instead, they can be thought of as others who share a vision with me, a vision of young scientists eagerly describing their research. If I approach them as allies, they are more likely to respond as colleagues exploring a joint interest than as customers resisting a sales pitch. And we are more likely to succeed in using our combined intelligence to make that joint vision a reality.

Each contact I have with my new potential allies can bring us closer to discovering where our desires overlap - and to joining forces to realize our visions.

Building Relationships

When I identify a potential ally - perhaps because she or he responds to an ad or comes to a workshop I offer at a science-teaching conference - my next goal is to build a relationship with that ally.

Relationships are usually built one small step at a time. If I run an ad, I ask people to take one easy step: call or write for a free packet, or email or call to find when I'll be in your area.

Each step can lead to another. When someone calls me for a free packet, I often send a letter with it saying, "I'll be calling you in ten days to see if you have any questions about this packet." The initial contact leads to a letter, which leads to a phone call, which may in turn lead to another phone call, etc.

At any point, I can decide that this particular relationship is not worth pursuing. If things go well, though, we will discover that our visions overlap. Then we are allies! I have found another natural partner in my work.

Finding an ally may result in a booking now, or it may not. But this relationship is more important - to my work, and to the world I want to influence - than any particular booking.

As a result, I want to nurture these relationships over the long term, to find ways to keep in contact. I can keep my allies posted on my work, and show my interest in theirs. Periodically, I can just call them up and ask how things are going - and then listen to them sympathetically.
As a performer, I build relationships with audiences. But I also build relationships with PTO chairpeople, directors of arts centers, and conference organizers. These relationships are not incidental to my work as an artist, but a key part of it. The function of marketing is to help me build a web of relationships that will support me, my work, my allies, and my audiences.

This article appeared in Storytelling Magazine magazine.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
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