“A story is a trick for sneaking a message into
the fortified citadel of the human mind.”
— Jonathan Gottschall
Product stories are born in garages, showers, and people’s heads. The product story takes root before writing the first line of code or building the first prototype.
That product story is, by necessity, a work of science fiction.
It’s a story of a future world, one better than today. The buyer is the protagonist or hero of the story. The product is a magic bean, a device that propels the hero forward and gives them special powers, powers that make the hero a better version of themselves.¹ The product story breaks the audience out of conventional thinking and supports innovation.
The first audiences for these stories are the backers and the builders.
The backers are the people that will support the work. They give the first-generation product time, credibility, and money. In large organizations, this might be an executive council, or the head of product development, or R&D. In smaller organizations, the CEO. In startups, the backers are the angel investors and venture capitalists.
The builders are the engineers and product managers who build the first products. In Pinocchio, who dreams of being a real boy, they are the blue fairy. In Cinderella, the builder is the fairy godmother.
The builder takes the dream and makes it real.
The ingredients of a product story.
A product story is not a use case, a set of requirements, or a list of features and benefits.
When you hear a good product story, your gut speaks to you. You believe it. The story is emotionally appealing, and you act on it.
The story defines the product in the buyer’s mind. It’s descriptive, telling them where the product fits in the world and what they get from it. If you get the story right, people repeat it.
Product stories are not complicated or filled with jargon. They demonstrate many of the characteristics of good business stories.
Here’s the checklist.
When product stories work, products sell.
Product stories take shape over time.
Take the story of Slack, a $25B unicorn born from the ashes of a massively multiplayer online game.
The Slack we know today was first a set of internal tools built and used by the game’s developers. It was introduced in August 2013 as “your searchable, infinite brain” and “zero-effort knowledge management.” The press called it an “Enterprise Social Network” (yawn) and compared it to Yammer and Hipchat.²
That product story originated with the founders and engineers of Slack. But it wasn’t what they stuck with. Slack did something really clever — it let its users begin to tell the product story.
Slack took off like a rocket ship, fueled by word of mouth.
Early Slack users explained to others what it was, “So I get it– @slackhq is the messaging platform (with integrated services) that you didn't realize you needed until you try it.”
They compared the new product to known products, “@slackhq > @hipchat.” And they heaped praise on it. “I love #Slack. It's an awesome tool!”
Those stories propelled Slack to be used by 30,000 teams and a $1 Billion valuation — all before they hired their first CMO.³
The Slack wall of love.
Slack turned those user stories into a wall of love, a Twitter testimonial to their product, its relationship with its users, and Slack’s growth.
@Upskydown Still amazed by how much @SlackHQ reduced the number of unnecessary emails I could have on a normal workday. #slack 4:31 AM · Apr 1, 2015·Twitter for Mac
@joshvickerson Seriously, forget email. Everyone everywhere just use @SlackHQ. 11:25 AM · Mar 31, 2015 from New York, USA·Tweetbot for iΟS
@simonwitkiss Been playing with @SlackHQ for a few hours and already instantly in love with it. Great team collaboration tool. 10:07 AM · Mar 31, 2015·TweetDeck
The story evolves.
The most difficult thing to describe is something that isn’t there.
That challenge describes the difference between Loudcloud and Amazon Web Services. In 2000, when Marc Andreesen launched Loudcloud, the idea of “pay as you go” didn’t exist.⁴⁵⁶You licensed software and upgraded it, you didn’t pay for it per user. Business insiders scratched their heads. Wired magazine described “custom-designed, infinitely scalable sites that blast off a virtual assembly line” when people were still debating the merits of Unix over NT.
Software as a service was a theoretical fancy.
Six years later, Amazon Web Services launched. Loudcloud and Andreesen had paved the way. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, talked up ‘cloud’ at an industry conference.⁵⁶ Amazon Web Services descriptor was hot — ‘cloud’ computing. The comparator was clear — expensive, slow to spin up data centers. And the outcome — headache-free, managed infrastructure, appealed to the avant-garde CIO.
The product story never exists in a vacuum.
When products don’t have stories.
Without product stories, fledgling innovations will not thrive.
It’s one thing to convince backers and builders; it’s another to convince buyers. The theory of diffusion of innovation, aka the adoption curve, gives us a clue.⁶ The first buyers are made up of innovators and early adopters. Innovators will try anything, and early adopters will follow. Together, they represent 15% of your potential market.
The product story evolves along the technology adoption curve
In those early days, the descriptor and the comparator are key.
What we now call a car was originally a “horseless carriage” — a name with a descriptor and comparator.⁷⁸ In the pre-dawn of the web, the internet was called an “information superhighway.” In 1979 a little company called Taylor Made introduced a “metal wood” to golf. When Lee Trevino won the 1984 PGA championship with a metal wood, a whole generation of golfers rushed to trade in their “wood woods” for a “metal wood.”⁸
A descriptor and comparator are often found in the first phases of innovation.
Everywhere you look, products have stories.
Those stories have the three core elements that came with Lee Trevino’s victory — A descriptor (metal), comparator (wood), and an outcome (I will be a better golfer). And the language around these three elements evolves as the product becomes more mainstream.