We lost half of our agency income in the winter of 2018. While clients left for a variety of reasons, losses on that scale are the kind of thing that can sink a marketing agency. We had a serious problem, and something needed to change.
It was during this period of turmoil that our agency learned about StoryBrand. Developed by Nashville-based, best-selling author Donald Miller, the StoryBrand Framework is a marketing messaging framework based on the hero’s journey. This messaging framework helps businesses and professionals simplify their brand messaging by taking a story-driven approach to communication that places the customer at the center of everything.
"When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as their guide, we will be recognized as a sought-after character to help them along their journey. In other words, your audience is Luke Skywalker. You get to be Yoda. It’s a small but powerful shift. This honors the journey and struggles of our audience, and it allows us to provide the product or service they need to succeed." (from Don Miller)
Becoming StoryBrand Guides helped our marketing agency clarify our messaging, allowed us to overhaul our approach to working with clients, and opened an entirely new revenue stream through StoryBrand referrals. We landed our first StoryBrand client within 30-days of completing the certification and added roughly 1-2 monthly retainer clients per month over the following 6 months.
What’s the StoryBrand Framework?
Pick any popular story, and you’ll find a hero at the center of the action. In the StoryBrand framework, that hero is not the business, but the customer.
When you imagine a hero, there’s always a problem that they have to overcome in order to succeed. Along the way, they meet someone who’s going to help them overcome that problem by guiding them through a process. This guide (in the StoryBrand Framework, this is the business), offers the process that allows the hero to either find success, or fail and repeat the cycle over again until they win. This is Yoda helping Luke, it’s Gandalf guiding Frodo, and it’s how businesses should be positioning themselves to help their customers succeed.
By utilizing this framework, it becomes much easier for businesses to clarify their message and offerings into something that’s simple and easy to understand. Businesses are the guides that help their hero-customers win. This clarity of purpose allows clients, prospects and anyone reading your marketing messaging to understand exactly what you do, and how it will help your customers move along in their journey.
Agency Life Before Becoming A StoryBrand Certified Guide
Our agency had a hard-but-essential period of self-assessment. Becoming a StoryBrand Certified Guide wouldn’t solve our problems unless we had a clear understanding of what our issues had been. When we looked back on our project and client intake processes, some troubling patterns stood out.
How We Typically Used to Work With Clients
Digital ‘Yes’ Men. When clients would come to us with a need, we’d say yes to whatever they asked. We weren’t guiding them through a process that made them better; we were digital ‘yes’ men. This “do whatever you’re asked” approached did not engender respect or trust in the quality of service we were offering, and it wasn’t helping our clients accomplish their goals.
We Routinely Undermined Our Own Process. Another issue that came from saying ‘yes’ to every project and price point that came our way was that it undermined the credibility of our process. We would morph and change and flex to whatever the client wanted. If a client didn’t want to do a customer persona (a critical element of our previous process), we’d drop it. The problem that this created down the line is that when we were making a website, creating a sales funnel, or running an email campaign, we wouldn’t have enough context to craft a clear and effective message. We regularly undermined our own process in the pursuit of securing clients, which ultimately weakened our ability to be effective.
Customers Didn’t Understand What We Did. It was hard for us to communicate what we were offering, and as a result, it was hard for clients to understand what we did. We even had trouble explaining our agency to family and friends, which should have been a red flag. This lack of clarity was part of why customers felt like they could ask us for anything, and why we were willing to go along with it.
The big underlying problem was that we assumed that our customers knew exactly how to talk about their business, and we trusted everything they would say without assessing the clarity and quality of their message. In part, this was because they were an expert in all the other parts of their business: they knew their product, they knew their market, and we assumed they knew their message. We needed to be clearer about what we were offering, and why it would add value to their lives (Can you imagine Yoda saying “well, the force MIGHT help you defeat Darth Vader Luke, but if you just want to swing a lightsaber around for a while we can do that instead”?)
And here’s the thing: they were coming to us because they wanted to hire a marketing agency. They knew they had a problem that needed to be solved. Doing a deep dive into a company’s core message is standard marketing practice, and we were shying away from a critical component of our job.
In retrospect, we should have jumped in early and fixed our client’s messaging upfront by taking them through a messaging framework workshop, even if they didn’t think they needed it. Wavering on this part of our process hampered our ability to add value, and ultimately lost our agency tens of thousands of dollars.
Agency Life After Becoming A StoryBrand Certified Guide
Attending the StoryBrand Certified Guide training transformed our agency. We spent several days walking through the StoryBrand Framework, practicing and working with other attendees to ingrain the principles of StoryBrand deep into our practices. It takes repetition to improve a skill, the guide training gave us the practical tools we needed, but the rest was up to us.
In going through StoryBrand’s guide training, we had to take our agency through the process of creating a Brandscript (StoryBrand’s version of a marketing framework.) This allowed us to better understand who we wanted Lone Fir to be in the lives of our customers. By developing a clear message, we were able to refine our marketing efforts and offerings to focus on becoming a guide that helps businesses grow through digital marketing.
We were still implementing the same elements of a sound marketing strategy (web design, sales funnels, email marketing, sales letters, search engine optimization, etc.), but we became an agency that understood who we wanted to be, and what we had to offer.
When you’re an agency or business that knows who you are, you know who you want to work with, and you know what you have to offer. If you don’t know who you are, then you’re always at the mercy of whoever is willing to break out the checkbook. There’s no process, no clarity, no guiding, and rarely any value added to the customer at the end of the project. Companies that try to be all things to all people will land clients, but without a clear message and process in place, will always churn customers at a higher rate.
Practically, this means that not everyone who seeks services from Lone Fir is the right fit as a customer. While it’s hard to say ‘no’ to opportunities that we would have said ‘yes’ to in the past (and that would pay good money too!), we know from experience that it’s not worth compromising your identity and process as a company.
Incorporating the StoryBrand Messaging Framework Into Everything
The StoryBrand Messaging Framework centers your customer as a hero, who is trying to solve a multi-layered problem (external, internal, philosophical). Your business is the guide who uses their authority and expertise to help the customer (hero) overcome their problems and find success. The plan that you offer as the guide is the thing that helps the hero win.
After going through the StoryBrand Certified Guide Program, our agency ditched marketing personas in favor of this messaging framework. Through rigorous self-application, we feel confident that any client who starts with building a Brandscript is going to find success.
The power of a well-developed messaging framework is that it can be applied to everything: website design, content creation, landing page design + copy, paid advertising creation + copy, email sequences, marketing emails, brand positioning, calls to action, and on and on and on.
If the old approach was all about the business (how long it’s been around and why it’s the best), then the new way is entirely about the customer, the challenges they’re trying to solve, and how the business is the right fit to guide them to a solution. This requires a complete message reframe, which makes the Brandscript our most important tool.
Changing How We Work With Clients
Post-StoryBrand training, our agency revamped our approach to client work. We set up a standardized onboarding experience that is the same for every client— no exceptions. We had a clear sense of the value we had to offer, and where we could help solve customer’s marketing problems. If they weren’t trying to solve the problems we had solutions for, now that was clear. This required our agency to set some foundational practices, and then create a standardized onboarding experience.
Set Foundational Practices and Values
Set Standard Services. We still develop marketing plans and marketing materials, but our packages and processes are set and focused on delivering repeatable results. Yes, we’re flexible to the unique needs of clients, but all of it within our framework. We’re not chasing random projects that aren’t within our core skillset where it’s unlikely we’d add real value anyway.
Require a Brandscript/Messaging Framework. Everyone of Lone Fir’s client needs a BrandScript and messaging framework. In the past, we would let customers decide if they wanted this or not. The results weren’t great, and we learned our lesson. The development of a messaging framework is essential to creating marketing materials that are effective and add value over time.
Our 7 Day Onboarding Process For Every Client
Kickoff Call. Our kickoff calls are focused on both parties getting to know each other, walking through the timelines of each element of the project and setting deliverables. We always end with a clear presentation on the StoryBrand Framework so that everyone understands what the process requires. We work to manage expectations since clients often fear (and understandably!) that they might be getting themselves into something that won’t deliver because it’s unfamiliar. We need to be guides that remove fear and confusion.
Framework/Messaging Workshop. Our next step is to have a 60 to 90-minute workshop to walk through the actual StoryBrand framework. This is a question intensive session that allows us to get into the core of what your business is all about: who your customers want to become after using your product or service, the problems your customers face and how your business can be the guide. We then refine that information through the filter of the framework.
Focus on Appropriate Deliverables. Once we’ve got our StoryBrand marketing roadmap set, we are free to focus on the deliverables that matter most to your company. This could be designing a sales funnel, creating lead magnets, developing nurture campaigns, executing on web design, making wireframes, etc. Bottom line, it all depends on what we learn about you, your business goals and objectives and what next steps you need to take in order to grow through a solid digital marketing strategy.
Hiring a StoryBrand Certified Guide
At this point, you may be considering your next steps or looking to hire a StoryBrand guide. When hiring a StoryBrand Certified guide, there are a few things that business owners should consider:
Do they have a proven track record? While StoryBrand Guide Certification is a powerful thing, it’s still important to make sure that you have helped people succeed in the past. Pay close attention to testimonials, variety of clients and overall level of experience/portfolio of work.
Do they practice what they preach? The website is almost always a dead give away. Does the person you're considering have a branded website and set of service offerings that reflect the values and clarity of StoryBrand? If not, this should be a red flag about quality of this person’s guidance and process.
Do they have a team that will help you succeed? There is a big difference between working with a solo freelancer (who can only take on so much work) and working with a team. An agency or team practicing StoryBrand Certified Guide principles are going to bring an entirely different level of support, insight, and guidance to help your business succeed.