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Narrative Design with Pendo's Director of Product Marketing, Marcus Andrews

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This edition featured Marcus Andrews who gave us the scoop on Narrative Design. The full video recording is here 👇🏼

Or read the transcript of some of the highlights:

Question: Can you set the table on the foundations of what Narrative Design is and what you see that being today?

Marcus: "Yeah. So, I mean, the simplest way to think about it is it's a storytelling device technique. Right. I think a lot of people believe in the power of storytelling, but it's also seen as a magic quality that just very few have, like, oh, you're a good storyteller, or whatever. And there's a difference between someone who can come into a room and take over a room and tell a good story. I'm not necessarily that type of person.

But if you can write a good story and structure a good story and create a story that can be told over and over again and differentiates you in the market and help people pay attention and really set up your company for success, that's what their design is aimed at. And it's not a dark art. It's not storytelling is not magic. You just need a framework and a process. And I think for a long time, it's just been all art and not enough science. And narrative design is simply just a way of approaching stories consistently. And it works for me consistently.

And it gives you this framework that you can use to build a narrative for your company that lasts for 20 years or you can use to just write like a blog post that's there a face that you need to crank out in an hour. So that's how I describe it."

Marcus: "I mean, HubSpot did this really well when they started to HubSpot put more money marketing their new game, which was inbound marketing their story versus their actual company. So when they were spending money on advertising dollars, when they're first getting started, they spent more more money on marketing in the idea of inbound marketing than they did actually marketing the company and the brand. And it gave them this really strong identity as the inbound marketing company. And that's all they talked about. And it was a simple story, and they kept talking about it again and again and again. I and it gave them this very clear identity, which is like they knew exactly who they are. They reminded you about it a lot."

Question: One of the biggest questions I have around narrative design is like, what do you actually do to get started here?

Marcus: "Part of the reason why it's so relevant today is because there's so much competition in every single space, right? So if you're launching a CRM today, you have hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of other CRMs that you're going to be competing with. There are very few markets that are young and immature. And what's very natural is that a lot of young companies, when they go into a new market, they adopt the status quo of whatever story is being told.

I learned this the hard way at HubSpot. We got to a marketing message of "It's Marketing Automation Beyond Email". And I did a quick audit of the top five competitors after we had created this message that we thought we were creating in a bubble. And I went out and I looked at like five of our top competitors and they all had the exact same message, which was marketing automation beyond email.

And I'm like, Whoa. And look at your space.... it's very likely that's happening. And if you look at new startups, sometimes they'll adopt the same color scheme that their biggest competitors have and messaging and it all looks fucking same. And you go into a space and there's this conformity that happens. And I think the natural feeling is like, oh, maybe if I'm a young company and I look like the big established company, people will trust me a little bit more and they won't think that I'm new and different and small and not good.

But really the opposite happens.

You just kind of blend in with everybody and nobody understands... you don't have a strong identity. So the idea is understand your space, look at the narrative that's out there, and then design your own narrative. Like, most companies still go out and don't think about this stuff. They don't design their narrative, they just hire some marketers. They slap stuff together. It's usually pretty status quo.

But if you take this time to work on the story up front, pay attention to what's going on in your space, then it gives you a big boost as a company, especially a smaller company, because you can move faster, you can operate with more like purpose and intention when you have a clear story and a clear strategy and it gives you an advantage against bigger competitors."

Question: Are there tactical things folks can do to come correct when they're putting this together? User interviews or intelligence gathering? What's your recommended course of action?

Marcus: "Brian Halligan, the CEO of HubSpot, would always talk about this, but he would say that you got to be like a cultural anthropologist with your target market. If your target market is product marketers, you got to know what is going on with those people, especially what is changing in their world.

Like, with Pendo, our target is really product teams. And we've seen this big shift of companies relying more on their product to get things done right. Like, companies are able to grow through their product with Product- Led growth. They still use salespeople, and they still have sales and marketing teams, but now they're adding in Product-Led motion, and product teams are responsible for that.

So, like, okay, we need to pay attention to that and make sure we understand it and then figure out ways to help them. So that's number one.

You should is also look at things that are changing in the world. A good example of that right now is software industries. We're dealing with a whole bunch of changes. Valuations have really changed. Companies are slowing down in this quarter or whatever. What impact is that having on your specific target audience? What does that mean for product teams or your audience's marketing teams? Or, like, there's a translation bit that happens. And once you understand that change, trying to translate that to the impact that's having with your audience, because people really want to help with that.

And so it's like, hey, we have been paying attention to this change. We're talking to people who are going through it, and here's what we've learned. That is when all of a sudden, you're no longer selling to an audience. You are a helpful adviser. You are like, okay, I'm going through this change. Yes, please tell me what others are doing. Like, help me understand it and help me navigate it.

So you're looking for change. You're looking for how people are adapting to change. You're trying to help people adapt to this change. And so I don't know if a company ever did this right, but you could say there's been a pandemic, teachers have to adapt, they have to adapt by doing X, Y, and Z. We call this new thing Virtual Learning.

And you know what? Here's the Virtual Llearning playbook that we've picked up on. And you can do this without us, but we've built some tools to help you with a Virtual Learning playbook. And, like, here's how."

Question: Once you get this put together, how do you roll it out? Where does it live? How do you implement it? I've been stuck there product marketer in the past. I put this great presentation together. There's this deck, there's this notion space that kind of becomes shelfware or how do you kind of break through and have that actually put to use and making an impact?

Marcus: "Yeah, that's one of my favorite things because it's at least half of the battle, right? Like trying to push it through different companies. And that's the hard part. And that's usually the battle that the PMM and the PM will face.

So the place where I had the most success was when we worked with the CEO on it. So we were launching a new product line at HubSpot -- Service Hub, and I had this whole narrative that I created, which I was really excited about. I took the pitch, I went into the C-suite, I gave him the pitch and the story.

The CEO said, okay, this is fine. But he went up to the whiteboard and he basically drew the five slides of Narrative Design on the whiteboard. And he's like, I want you to take your pitch and I want you to put it into this structure. So that made everything a lot easier. When the CEO is the storyteller and believes in it and knows about it, then doors are going to open that were closed before, which is great, that's usually not going to happen for everybody. And that's okay because you can sort of do this on multiple levels.

So what we did with that story -- Service Hub -- was that we were launching a product line. So one place it's really successful and really helpful is that you have a big product launch is to use the narrative design process to create a new game. If you're like creating a company, you're launching a new product, there's some opportunity where it's like, wow, we need a way to connect with the market to support this big launch. Then you can create it. And it's very natural for your marketing team and your sales team and even your CEO and whoever to pick this stuff up. To pick it up and adopt it because it is the strategy.

So as long as there's clear strategy coming from your CEO, if you turn that into a story as the marketing lead, then it's something that will successfully get out to the other teams and be used."

And you can think about narrative design as the steps match pretty well to your marketing funnel.

So, like, you go to your VP of Brand or Content with the narrative design story, you can help focus them a lot on the change that's happening in the world because that's the thing where you need a lot of top of funnel support.

And the bottom step, for another example, is, like, what is this new game and why it's so hard? And then, how does your product help people play this new game and achieve success with this new game? That's a sales story. Like, your sales team really needs to be able to tell that story because they need to talk about, like, what is this new thing that everybody's doing? And then, how does your product help solve for it?

Matt O'Connell from Vistaly asks, should the narrative be driven or decided by the CEO / founders? Or is it okay if the product marketing team owns this?

Marcus: "So the company strategy and the product strategy is always going to come from the CEO and founders and the CPO or whatever. You as the product marketing team, you're not making that part up, right? Like, your job is to articulate what that strategy is in a story. So if the strategy is that we are going to focus on SMB companies who create hardware in Europe, you're not changing any of that. You just need to hone in on that audience and think about the story for that audience. So a lot of the time, it depends on the CEO and founders.

Sometimes they're marketers and storytellers, sometimes they're not. If you create an awesome articulation of their strategy, they will be into it. But you've got to pull them into the process and you got to help them shape it. Every founder will care deeply about it."

Quesiton: How do you test if a narrative resonates with potential users and ultimately leads to product adoption and sales?

Marcus: "Yeah, so, I mean, there's a lot of ways to test it. I think your sales team is usually the best way to test it. They will give you direct feedback when they see something. But also, I love snooping on sales in Gong and just seeing how they're using the new slides and it's awesome. And you can pick up a lot there too. And, you'll know, if they use it, you have to give this to sales as a tool.

Sometimes I'll create these slides for Sales and it's like an amazing salesperson will just use one side and I'm like, If they still close deals, it's fine, it's cool. I've also seen sales people use the entire narrative, so, like, what are they using versus if nobody's using your story, you've probably got to start over and try again. If they're using it and kind of using it, cool.

But basically, is the prospect's head nodding? Is whoever they're telling the story to, are they like, "Yeah, that's us, that's the problem we have, like, yes, we're dealing with that. Tell me more". So that's one way.

And you can sit on those sales calls or you should take the pitch deck out and practice yourself with customers or prospects and then also with content. Is your content resonating in social? Like test it on LinkedIn. Like, go out and try to have your CEO and founder or just you go and post stuff on LinkedIn and see if it gets a response and try it in talks.

It's never finished. You should never dramatically change the narrative, but you can always iterate on it and change things and improve it. And you should be doing that based on feedback."

Blake: "I think that's the sign of kind of a next level product marketer is that one that's, hey, this has been out there two weeks. We noticed this, this, and this...

So we're going to adjust this and let's try this. And they're kind of in action. They don't just sort of ship it and go to sleep"

Adam from LaunchNotes asks "How is the importance of narrative design similar at Google, HubSpot, Pendo? How was the implementation with narrative design across those three companies?

Marcus: "Yeah, I mean, Google is like so many different companies at this point and it wasn't a framework really had when I was there and they're just not as narrative driven. I mean, some of their products are.

HubSpot's extremely narrative driven and everything they do is a story. And I think they use marketing as a tool better than most companies.

And then Pendo is different too because it's not as story driven as HubSpot, but we do have this big story that we talk about a lot, which is just software companies becoming more product led and basically this big shift that's happening with product led growth in sales and marketing and all these parts of organization shifting, becoming more product led. But I think one thing that is helpful is that you got to know your audience a little bit too.

Like the implementation of a story at a company where you're really focused on SMB and mid market like HubSpot, you're going to spend more time on telling the story at scale through your marketing channels. And at Pendo, where our companies are more upmarket and we're focused a little bit more on the enterprise, we're using that story moreso with our sales team and in some of those less scale channels where the messaging is going to resonate, that's a big one. You got to know your audience and know the channels to reach them and think about how you implement this. Where is it going to help you the most based on the right ways to reach your audience?"

Question: Any tips for how to tie our launches back to our narrative, even if we're just announcing some small improvements? Or do you have any examples?

Marcus: "Yeah, I mean, they should always ladder up into this larger story. So like from the HubSpot example is like inbound marketing. So inbound marketing is hard to do because you've got to create a blog and start using social media and all these different things. The product is what solves the challenges of doing inbound marketing. Every launch you have should always ladder up into it so you could start every post off with a paragraph about whatever that larger narrative is and then use that narrative to get down into a specific section of the challenge of the new game and then how you're solving it with that product.

But yeah, your larger narrative is this uniting thread that makes all of your features feel like they're part of the same strategy and vision and goal. And they're not just like a one-off disparate thing. You don't want to narrative design every single feature launch. You want to have one overall company story. Your individual products should fit in to that larger story in different and unique ways. It should be its own story."

Blake: "Yeah, and that's great advice. I'd add to that that even the smallest improvements are going to ladder up into some part of your platform, and that part of that platform exists for a reason. So kind of connect those dots for the customer and let them know, like, hey, we're doing might feel like a small update, and it is. But it's actually part of us sweating the details on this key part of our platform, which is really important for this bigger kind of narrative that we've been talking about. So that's why we're doing it. Getting into the why and connecting those dots for folks."

Question: Would you recommend getting customer feedback / buyin while creating brand narrative?

Marcus: "Yeah, definitely. To understand the change in the world and then to understand how the right way to adapt to that have to be talking to customers. You can't make that stuff up on your own, otherwise it will not work. So maybe you can see some of these changes happen. Like back to that teacher pandemic example. The pandemic is obvious this change is happening. It's even obvious that it's going to have a big impact on schools.

But how are teachers dealing with it and adapting to that change? You're not going to know unless you're a teacher. But that's only been one experience. You got to go and you have to talk to people. That's still the primary way to do it. I always like to lean on my partner teams as much as possible. Like, I can go out and I can talk to one salesperson who has an awesome perspective because they've talked to 20 people and I can learn a lot from them pretty quickly. But you should also do the work to talk to individual customers."

Question: Do you think narrative design and storytelling is a skill that can be developed, and if so, how?

Marcus: "Yeah, absolutely. I think every PMM and PM...if you're going out there and trying to get hired and stand out and differentiate, you need to have some skill that you're really good at. For me, it's storytelling. It's narrative design. Developing that skill set is something that I just invested in to do so 100%... I think that it can become a skill of everybody, even if it doesn't feel like one, and to build it, there's a lot of good resources out there.

I've written a lot about it. I have a course with the PMA -- Narrative Design Master class, which I rolled out with them, which I feel like it's a pretty good course if you want to deep dive into this stuff. And you can read some of my blog posts and you can read "Think Bigger".

You could take this narrative design course, but then you got to get it into practice, too. You learn it and you got to practice it, and you won't get good at it until you've had some time to develop it and really get the reps on this stuff. And it's easy to get reps on it because you can do this stuff on your own. You can get reps just posting to LinkedIn that's out there.

And you can follow me on LinkedIn if you want to learn more about this stuff and easily and are feeling lazy the easiest way, which is totally cool, it's follow me on LinkedIn. I post about this stuff all the time, and you'll find resources."

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