Marketing Innovation For The Intelligent Enterprise: Storytelling Vs. Just the Facts

Ginger Shimp and Jeff Janiszewski

The following is the fifth in a series of conversations about marketing innovation with Jeff Janiszewski and Ginger Shimp from SAP North America Marketing. In this blog, they discuss how they widened their audience through innovation.

JEFF: In our last blog, we talked about how we were able to repurpose our research reports by turning them into audio reports and how it became evident that we could vastly extend our reach by offering an alternate experience to potential customers.

GINGER: The biggest difficulty was that we were trying to reach thousands of different customers in just 15 of the more than 26 industries we cover, and versioning all of those reports was a project management challenge. However, we believed that was necessary because audiences are less responsive to a generic message. One size does not “fit all” in business.

JEFF: For example, many industries, such as retail or insurance, will refer to their end users as “customers,” but in the public sector they use the term “citizen” or “constituent.” And in the banking industry, they may refer to the end users as “investors.” So even if we’re trying to get the same point across, we still needed to tailor the message – or so we thought.

GINGER: We wanted to figure out if that is necessarily true. We also knew that we had a bit of a gap in our content strategy because we wanted to engage an audience who otherwise do not consume our content and whom we have a difficult time reaching due to their pre-conceived notions about SAP. We began looking for an innovative way to create an effective universal message that would avoid the problem of versioning and would also appeal to a new audience. The answer, we believed, was storytelling.

JEFF: Before there was streaming video, or the Internet, or television, or radio, or books, or even clay tablets, there was a tradition of storytelling. And when you think about it, whether it’s a fairy tale or a parable or a lecture or a song or a folk tale or any other kind of story, the purpose is not only to inform or educate an audience but also to give them an experience.

GINGER: There’s a difference between learning by being told not to touch a hot stove and learning from actually touching a hot stove. A mere transfer of information is not as impactful as having an experience. On the other hand, having an experience, like touching a hot stove, can be a little dangerous. Stories bridge that gap. They allow you to experience something at a safe distance and have an empathetic catharsis. Basically, I’d rather watch the movie Jaws than actually be eaten by a great white shark, and (if you’ll tolerate my circular logic) I know that because I’ve seen the movie Jaws.

JEFF: Marketers use stories all the time, often in the form of testimonials or customer success stories. But we also know that not all stories are equal. Some stories like Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, are a complete bore, despite being well-written. On the other hand, certain stories, such as Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, and so on, have a timeless mass appeal.

GINGER: So, getting back to our marketing conundrum, we wanted to give our audience more than information. We wanted a universal story with mass appeal that would deliver our message through a vicarious experience, and also appeal to our audience’s ears and not their eyes. However, we still needed to understand how we could create that mass appeal to reach those customers in all those disparate industries.

JEFF: Ironically, we discovered that truly universal stories are those that are the most specific. Rather than create some sort of generic everyman story, it’s actually better to create a story that happens with specific character in a specific place and time.

GINGER: Think of the movie Casablanca. Like most people, I’ve never been to Casablanca or Morocco. I wasn’t alive during WWII. I speak no French and very little German. I don’t like gin. I have no idea what “letters of transport” are, and I could only dream of being as elegant as Ilsa. Nonetheless, it’s one of my favorite movies. Audiences are actually more inspired by things that are unfamiliar to them because it intrigues them. And if the storyteller has done his job right, the audience will be able to draw their own meaningful conclusions from the narrative, and that will be more powerful than anything you could tell them explicitly. You have to let them experience it for themselves, at least in a vicarious way.

JEFF: And so we settled on creating a fictional podcast to deliver our message. That in itself wasn’t an innovative idea; it had been done before. But, it was new to us and, given the growing interest in podcasts and the fact that our target audience has a desire to consume information in a different way, it made a lot of sense.

GINGER: Understanding that we had limited bandwidth and no experience creating a podcast, we partnered with Column Five, a creative services firm. After numerous brainstorming sessions to develop a detailed creative brief, we delegated the production phase to them. The result is a nine-episode story titled Searching for Salaí about a supposed time-traveler who claims to have been Leonardo da Vinci’s assistant. Whether he’s telling the truth or merely a charlatan is the substance of the story.

JEFF: Spoiler alert here – as far as we know, time travel isn’t physically possible. So the story might seem strange for a technology company, but we’re pretty sure audiences will understand it’s a work of fiction.

GINGER: Our goal was to amuse and inspire audiences to think about the human-technology interface in a sympathetic way. We wanted to give potential customers a break from their daily grind and call attention to the possibilities of the intelligent technologies, services, and industry expertise central to digital innovation.

JEFF: Given that creating a fictional podcast was new to all of us, I’m glad to say that we managed to get it done on time and within our budget. We learned a lot in the process. I certainly gained a greater appreciation for creatives. There are a lot of brilliant people in creative fields; the trick is finding the right ones and getting out of their way.

GINGER: Except we still needed to communicate our message to them. This wasn’t art for art’s sake, this was work for hire. Once again, we have a complicated technical message that we’re trying to put out, and it’s important to pass that information through the agency to the talent as efficiently as possible.

JEFF: And it’s even more challenging with a podcast, because you’re not dealing with a single creative; you’re dealing with an entire group of creative people who need to work together.


GINGER: We think in the end we created a compelling podcast that accomplished the goal of attracting attention and inspiring our audiences. We also think the novel approach of reaching them through their ears rather than their eyes was effective.

JEFF: Still, we must admit that we hedged our bets. Once we had their attention, it seemed important that we gave them some explicit content about our product, so we wrote two blog series to accompany the podcast. One was a straightforward discussion of the technologies, and the other was a semi-fictional discussion supposedly written by a character from the same world as the podcast.

GINGER: In the end, there are three ways to consume the information: You can read a completely non-fictional blog. You can read a semi-fictional blog. Or you can listen to an entirely whimsical account. Check it out and let us know what you think:

Searching for Salai

JEFF: We’re tracking results and things are looking positive, and we can say at the very least that we should be able to leverage the lessons learned into greater innovation next year. As we said from the beginning, it’s an iterative process.

GINGER: And in our next blog we will reflect more on marketing innovation, offer specific advice on what we learned in this process, and maybe even give some hints about what we’ll try next.

Read the other articles in this series on “Marketing Innovation For The Intelligent Enterprise.”

About Ginger Shimp

With more than 20 years’ experience in marketing, Ginger Shimp has been with SAP since 2004. She has won numerous awards and honors at SAP, including being designated “Top Talent” for two consecutive years. Not only is she a Professional Certified Marketer with the American Marketing Association, but she's also earned her Connoisseur's Certificate in California Reds from the Chicago Wine School. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of San Francisco, and an MBA in marketing and managerial economics from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. Personally, Ginger is the proud mother of a precocious son and happy wife of one of YouTube's 10 EDU Gurus, Ed Shimp.

Jeff Janiszewski

About Jeff Janiszewski

Jeff Janiszewski is an SAP award-winning B2B marketeer with a proven track record of designing, implementing demand generation and pipeline strategies that generate sales across a diverse range of industries and solutions.