Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the shit has been hitting the advertising and marketing fans lately. Thanks to a global trend towards greater user privacy protections in the form of the GDPR, Google killing the third party cookie, and most recently, the iOS 14 update, it’s getting harder and harder to find and target the right audience.
People are confused. Some marketers are even considering giving up. Maybe you're one of them. They're spending down huge budgets and not getting results. It can feel really heartbreaking, especially for small businesses. To many people, it seems like the four horsemen of the Facebook-pocalypse have been unleashed.
In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee famously describes his kung fu style as the art of fighting without fighting. In a similar vein, we’re going to suggest something that may shock you. In fact, swallow your coffee before you read the next sentence, because . . . the first thing you have to do to master Facebook is: Forget about Facebook.
Now that iOS users have the ability to opt out of app tracking, they’re doing just that — in droves. In fact, mobile app growth platform
that people give apps permission to track their behaviors just 25% of the time, severing a major data artery that the ad industry has relied on for years.
Facebook, once the advertising lifeblood of many businesses, is getting harder and harder to crack. The result? Ad spend goes up, Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) goes down, and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) goes through the roof. You don’t need us to tell you that’s bad news.
We’re going to tell you something shocking. You’re going to need to forget Facebook (or your advertising channel of choice) for a little while.
In this new world order, creative is king (or queen). Story is now the most important tool you can wield to stand out in a loud, crowded, and sometimes impossible-to-navigate space. But we’ve observed that most people don’t understand the intricacies of how story works and why. They’ve cut their teeth on metrics, numbers, and purely quantitative techniques. They’re used to a sea of stats and quantitative data, and so they’re starting to drown because they need to learn to swim in an ocean of story.
That’s exactly what we’re going to show you how to do: How to tell the stickiest story around, one that will cut through the noise and act like a persuasive dog whistle to reach your audience.
Holding Out for a Hero
Clearly, you can’t control what Google, Apple, the EU, or anyone else decides to do in terms of limiting your ability to target an audience. But you know what you can control? Your story. In fact, it’s the piece of your strategic puzzle that can have the greatest impact on your CAC.
Telling the right story to the right people is how you organically foster a following. It’s how you build your list. And you cannot survive in the modern digital economy without one. Read that again: You cannot survive without a following. Literally no brand can be successful without an ever-growing audience of enthusiastic, social media sharing, content generating, love-to-love-you fans. Even if your audience only grows by a few fans per month, that’s enough growth for some brands survive and thrive.
Compelling storytelling is literally the best and only CAC-lowering way to attract an audience and get them to care about you. It’s how you’ll build that crucial following you need. Stories are, in a word, everything. Think about the last time you binged a whole series in one weekend on Netflix. Why did you do it? To be a better person? To have an excuse to lay on the couch all day? Because you couldn’t get enough of those sexy hard facts? No, of course not! You did it because you were invested in the story. You identified and empathized with the hero (or heroine). You needed to see how they’d overcome their challenge and succeed. It mattered to you. That’s true whether you binged a fictional story or a documentary. Frankly, documentaries that aren’t wrapped up in a story are pretty boring.
Take The Thin Blue Line, the award-winning film by celebrated documentarian Errol Morris. The true story of a gross miscarriage of justice, Morris argues that Randall Dale Adams was wrongfully convicted of murdering a cop in Dallas County, Texas. But the film wasn’t placed on more top 10 lists than any other film of 1988 because it offers a dry presentation of the chain of events, or a dull recitation of facts.
Instead, it uses dramatic recreations and interviews to wrap the facts of the case within a gripping heroic story structure, complete with a wrongly accused hero, a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and a squad of villains in the form of a corrupt justice system. The story is presented in such a compelling way that the movie was instrumental in exonerating Adams the year after it came out. The point here is, he or she who tells the best story wins, every single time. That’s true in filmmaking, it’s true in criminal prosecution, and it’s true in marketing.
🧠 Story matters very much to your brain. In fact, neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak
an emotional connection to a good story causes the brain to release oxytocin. Oxytocin feels good, and increases a sense of trust. Who wouldn’t want their brand to be associated with a trust-inducing feel-good chemical? Plus, as Zak points out, “Narratives that cause us to pay attention and also involve us emotionally are the stories that move us to action.” You know . . . like clicking . . . and converting. And surviving.
Picture this: You’re a monkey. Your survival depends on your ability to swing from tree branch to tree branch high above the forest floor. If you mess up, if a branch breaks, if you choose wrongly — splat! — at best you’re just a flattened monkey burger. At worst, you’re still alive and waiting for the hyenas to come feast on your monkey flesh. To further complicate matters, you’re a little... shall we say, husky. To put it bluntly, you’re a chunky monkey. And that means if you want to live, you’ve got to be pretty discriminating when it comes to the branches you’ll entrust with your life.
With stakes that high, you’d better believe you’d start spotting patterns. Which types of branches break the most? Avoid! Which trees are certain to hold your weight? What works? What doesn’t? You’d begin telling yourself stories about the future: If I grab that branch, I’m a goner, remember what happened to Great Aunt Chippy? Oh but look over there... that’s my path to safety, friends, glory, and bananas. Yessireeee, Bob.
This isn’t just some silly story we made up. An ancestor of yours was doing pretty much (almost exactly) that very thing. Turns out our craving for story isn’t some modern adaptation on the part of our brains to eBooks or movies or technology. It’s part of our DNA.The medium of delivery changes; the brain remains the same.
🧬 It's true: Once upon a time — nine-ish or so million years ago — there was a chubby hominid primate called Oreopithecus Bambolii. We’ll call him Oreo for short. Oreo lived peacefully among the treetops in what is now the Tuscany region of Italy. Life was simple and bucolic, with no predators to trouble him.
But because Oreo was rather full figured for a tree-dweller — weighing in at roughly 90 pounds — he couldn’t just swing mindlessly from branch to branch like his more svelte primate cousins. To get from Point A to Point B in one piece required a bit of forward thinking, just like your imaginary chunky monkey alter ego. Failure to plan could result in a one-way ticket to Splatsville, so Oreo had to carefully weigh his options and clamber very s-l-o-w-l-y through the tree canopy with great caution and care.
To survive, Oreo developed a sense of self and his relationship to his surroundings. He learned to imagine the outcomes of his choices. Essentially, Oreo told himself stories — about himself. And Oreo the Proto Storyteller is an ancestor of ours, one we share with chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. He lives happily ever after through the modern primate family.
, Frank Tallis summarizes the profound effects of Oreo’s DNA on our modern day story-craving brains:
The special circumstances that favored the evolution of sophisticated self-awareness might have simultaneously necessitated the evolution of narrative intelligence. Consequently, self-awareness and narrative intelligence overlap to a considerable degree. We have a natural inclination to think of ourselves—our past, present, and future—as an ongoing story.
Master the right story, and you'll win hearts, minds, and souls. It's biology.
Just the Facts, Ma'am
You know how you’ve avoided your Aunt Marge’s Thanksgiving for the last 4 years? Or the fact that you refuse to talk about politics with your parents anymore? Or how about the time you had to block that friend who thinks the Earth is flat? Look, you tried. You really did. But you had no choice: No matter how many facts, statistics, logical arguments, and actual proof you helpfully provided, it fell on deaf ears. People simply refuse to listen to reason.
You probably blame a number of factors for this sorry state of affairs. Aunt Marge is narrow-minded. Your parents are stuck in their ways. They listen to That Awful News Channel. Maybe your friend isn’t all that bright. It’s the fault of that a-hole [insert politician’s name here]. Maybe so. But guess what? That’s pretty much the same sort of thing they say about you. You can’t both be right.
Or can you?
Here’s the thing. When you try to convince someone to change their mind about something, your natural inclination is to bombard them with facts. How could they possibly deny the incontrovertible evidence that your way is the right way? Confoundingly, it never seems to actually work.
But then again, how well does that approach work on you? Has anyone ever changed your mind by subjecting you to a recitation of numbers, facts, and statistics? Think about it. We’ll wait.
Turns out the real barrier to progress here isn’t your stodgy Aunt Marge, your dim-witted former friend, or even that fake news channel. Nope: The enemy of persuasion is cold hard facts. Facts are boring. They’re dry. They’re forgettable at best. But at worst? They feel like an assault on who we are. When someone counters our deeply held beliefs with a recitation of facts to prove that they are right? It’s insulting. And it’s the opposite of compelling.
So are we saying that it’s impossible to ever compel someone to think or do something? No! The simple rule is this: If you really want to win hearts and minds (and conversions!), attract them with your captivating and compelling content instead of beating people over the head with your superior knowledge of facts.
Think of you and your brand as a master storyteller sitting around a campfire. The trick is to attract people to join you around the fire by telling a story that draws them in — instead of telling them that it’s 72% warmer around the campfire.
Every time you are tempted to “persuade with facts” instead think “attract with stories,” especially when it comes to your communication with your audience.
that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. You probably won't remember that fact. But try to remember this part of her advice on winning hearts and minds:
When data and story are used together, audiences are moved both intellectually and emotionally. When telling a story, you take the listener on a journey, moving them from one perspective to another. In this way, story is a powerful tool for engendering confidence in you and your vision.
She's hardly alone in this assertion of the power of story. Renowned cognitive psychologist
maintained that stories and narrative are much more powerful vehicles to communicate, explain, and convey the meaning of human experience and thought than any logical or legal argument could possibly be. As such, they’re also the most powerful way to persuade and inspire your family, friends... oh yeah, and your target audience.
We’re not saying that you should spin a yarn of fictional tall tales. Of course you can (and should) plant facts and truth within a good story, but they must form an essential part of the narrative in order to be memorable or persuasive.
two very different types of messaging centered around avoiding unwanted pregnancy. One group watched a news program created by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. It was replete with facts, interviews, and harrowing statistics. The other group watched an episode of teen drama The OC, in which two characters go through the gut wrenching consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. Women who saw the news program remained entirely unchanged in their previously held views on birth control. Women who watched the fictional story, however, reported that they were more likely to take steps to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
You can't please everyone
Men, on the other hand, had a different opinion. Before we dig into the male’s take-aways from the OC episode, we need to revisit some more neuroscience.
🧠 Researchers at McMaster University learned this by scanning the brains of participants using fMRI. They gave them short, action-oriented headlines like “Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient" or "Fisherman rescues boy from freezing lake." Then, they asked the participants to depict the stories of the headlines using either speech, gestures, or drawing (like in a game of Pictionary). No matter what form of storytelling the participants chose, the study found “the brain networks that were activated were the ‘theory-of-the-mind’ network, which is affected by the character's intentions, motivations, beliefs, emotions and actions.”
We already know that a narrative has resonance when it aligns with our beliefs — and we can see ourselves in the shoes of the other person. That’s empathy. Do men not have empathy? Do they have less empathy? No. In some cases, they simply have diverging beliefs from women.
Interestingly, the men who watched The OC episode were less likely to want to use birth control than before they watched the program. Researchers chalked that up to the fact that the men reported not being emotionally invested in the characters.
That’s an important point, and also a very good lesson about how your message needs to resonate with your target audience, and may not persuade those outside your intended group. And that’s okay.
The truth is, we are all invested in our own beliefs. That’s one reason dog whistle politics work. The dog whistle speaks to and reinforces who people already imagine themselves to be. Yeah, we know, dog whistle politics are kind of evil. But, it’s effective for a reason. A particular group of people hears the specific, tailored message that’s intended for them (no matter how wrong-headed or reductionist that message may be) while it flies under everyone else’s radar.
❓ But what if you could harness that dog whistle’s power for good? Instead of appealing to humanity’s worst urges and fears, how might you use the power of story to tap into and inspire positive emotions? To attract and hold attention with your gripping narrative? To help people imagine a way to be better, to do better. To skillfully persuade them to try something new. To believe in something different — or at least give it a shot.
Learning how to be heard in all the advertising noise is pretty much a basic survival skill these days. And you’ve likely noticed that some people seem to attract more followers effortlessly, while others scream and shout themselves hoarse as onlookers ignore their efforts.
Is it magic? A crapshoot? Those darn fickle customers? Did the companies basking in all that customer attention go to the crossroads and sell their souls? No! Of course not. (Well, maybe some of them did make a deal with the devil, but we promise that you won’t have to.)
You just want and need what everyone else is fighting for: attention. And there’s only so much to go around. At this point, we're going to ask that you, dear reader, stop thinking about customer acquisition in the same tired way everyone else does. Instead of fighting for attention by any means necessary, strive to be so attractive that your audience will be magnetically drawn to you and, specifically, your story.
So how can you do that? How can you become irresistible? How can you make sure your whistle brings all your dogs to the yard? How can you get out of your own way and stop mistaking boring, off-putting, forgettable, and sometimes infuriating facts for stories? And more to the point: How can you do that and lower your CAC in the process?
What to Expect
In this book, we’re going to attack this burning question using science to understand — and influence — customer behavior. Not only that, we’ll show you how much easier it is to attract customers by transforming your funnel or flywheel into something we call a “Sticky Story ARC.” If you're familiar with sales or marketing funnels, it's similar to one of those funnels that draw in an audience and get them to stick around. It's like that... but much stickier.
The “ARC” in our Sticky Story ARC stands for Attract, Resonate, and Compel. Each word corresponds to its own section in this book:
In “Part One: Sticky Attraction”
We’ll delve into the Sticky Economics (“Stickynomics”) of how to Attract customers and lower CAC by showing you how to understand and prioritize their unique and pressing challenges.
Then, in “Part Two: Sticky Future”
You’ll learn how to differentiate yourself with a sticky promise that will show your audience you’re the key to the better future they’re longing for. This promise is your Sticky X-Factor: the heart and soul of a story that will Resonate with your audience and ignite their curiosity to learn more.
Finally, in “Part Three: Sticky Reason To Believe”
You’ll learn how to Compel your audience to take a chance on beginning a relationship with you.
Put that Sticky Story ARC together and you get a sticky flywheel that generates lower CAC, higher LTV, and a larger following of dedicated fans. By the end of this book, you’ll also have a way to show your stakeholders and team that you have a rock-solid plan to create and test a Sticky Story that will stand out and be remembered in a world full of noise.
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way . . . .
Sticky is as Sticky does
You’ll notice that we use the word “sticky” a lot. We love the concept of stickiness. Why are we so obsessed? Well, when a message sticks, it’s bookmark-worthy, memorable, and easy to share — as close to unforgettable as you can get. Stickiness is the ultimate level of attraction. Your followers stick around. Eyeballs are glued to screens. Butts are firmly adhered to seats. Dry facts, on the other hand, slip through our story-driven brains. Facts are slippery unless carefully cemented using the power of sticky stories.
But we’re not naïve. The word “sticky” or any of the associated science won’t solve all your problems. Anyone handing out silver bullets is is probably peddling snake oil. You should also know that we aren’t claiming you'll be able to establish some Absolute Quality of Stickiness. The Sticky ARC only allows you to prioritize your best ideas. No offense, but if you don’t think critically and put in the hard work to craft and improve your ideas, we can't help you. As the old maxim goes, “garbage in, garbage out.”
That said, we believe that there are some concepts we can all learn that might make all of our marketing lives a little (or a lot) easier. And the Sticky ARC will 100 percent help you hone and prioritize your idea roadmap.
Like an actual story arc, each part of our Sticky ARC works together, like puzzle pieces. They inform one another, and as such none of them can exist or make sense without the other. In fact, once you figure out and test your sticky Reason to Believe (“RTB”) at the end of this book, we encourage you to go back to the beginning and tweak, iterate on, and improve your Stickynomics again (and again), getting that CAC down even lower each time.
And now . . . on with the show!
Part One: Sticky Attraction
At some point you’re going to spend time and money to reach your audience through inbound and/or outbound marketing channels. We’re not going to get into the nitty gritty of how to launch the optimal multi-channel go-to-market campaign. To keep things simple, we’re going to talk primarily about Facebook — a social channel most people are very familiar with. You might even have a profile and more than a couple friends on the platform. Facebook will be our punching bag for this next section. If you plan on reaching your customers through Facebook, this will speak to you directly. If you’re thinking of reaching your customers through other channels, think of Facebook as a stand-in for those channels.
Remember when we said you’re going to have to forget Facebook (or insert-your-favorite-GTM strategy). Here’s why you should put a pin in that thought. You need clarity. Because. They need clarity. From you.
To find clarity, it’s helpful to take yourself out of your day-to-day and suspend your own reality. Stop thinking so far down the road. Start thinking about the essential elements of storytelling. Spend more time deepening your knowledge of how your audience makes sense of the world. Understand them truly, madly & deeply. If you don’t know who they are now, you’ll be less likely to be the one to help them make sense of their future. You need to compel them to see a bright future — one with you in it. If you’re not in it, you didn’t stick.
Let’s jump back into the world of marketing, where the excrement is hitting the spinning Facebook fan. And, people are starting to come to grips with the new reality of acquiring the attention & trust of an audience (a.k.a. customer acquisition).
As one beleaguered entrepreneur on Reddit said:
“We're a small business advertising one product in a craft supply niche. Our product is the best on the market and is also competitively priced. Our brand has had a social media presence since 2014. This past monthit just seems like FB ads are nothing but a giant black hole for us to throw money in.”
To make matters worse, more people are working, shopping, and building businesses online than ever. That means the price of attention is higher than it has ever been, and it's getting harder to attract the right audience. There’s definitely some decent practical advice floating around out there in terms of how to navigate the new Facebook waters. But while things like “optimize for purchases” and “simplify your ad structure” are sound pieces of guidance, you'll never ever get there without a Sticky Story. As we’ve seen, that’s just brain science.
The first thing you have to do in order to master finding and converting an audience is to stop fighting for attention and forget about converting an audience by tracking and optimizing for conversions, especially through Facebook or Instagram. Because when all you do is try to crunch numbers and obsess on the end goal, you lose sight of the method you need to employ if you hope to actually accomplish that goal. Or, to quote another great Lee line from Enter the Dragon: “It’s like a finger pointing to the moon. If you concentrate on the finger, you miss all that heavenly glory.”
The story is your heavenly glory that will point back to a lower CAC.
🌙 As you’ll soon understand, your real road to sticky CAC looks something like this:
1. Forget conversion optimization
2. Win hearts & minds
3. Tell the right story that...
Breaks through the noise
Ensures viewers will “scroll-back”
Guarantees a lower CAC
Builds your following
Spreads like wildfire
After you have the right story, you can think about conversions, Facebook, and Instagram again. But you may be shocked to find that you don’t even need to spend or optimize all that much after you nail down your sticky story. Some brands don't.
Most of the practice of conversion optimization, CAC, CPA, Instagram, Facebook, and all the nitty gritty of “how do I optimize my campaigns?” is built on top of the faulty assumption of, “if I convince people of the facts and benefits, they will convert.”
Persuasion by strong-arm convincing will never change previously held beliefs. Climate change. Politics. Pollution. Exercise. A new brand of coffee. It’s not simply a matter of persuasion through facts. It’s about reflecting the innermost desires of your audience so they can literally see themselves differently. That’s fostering empathy with a story. It’s about stirring the emotions. It’s more persuasive than trying to convince with facts and benefits!
A lot of digital marketers tend to approach storytelling (when they do approach it) with trepidation. They’re used to data and numbers, and storytelling seems like some strange uncrackable code. Some people even believe that the best storytellers have a crazy magical ability to understand what pulls the human race in and keeps them engaged — keeps them following along, on the edge of their seat. The magic ineffable superpower of people like Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, and John Lasseter.
🚜 We know that brand storytelling has been around for a long time. We certainly didn’t invent it. The first example of corporate storytelling is probably The Furrow magazine, published by John Deere in 1895. It wasn’t used to sell Deere equipment (not overtly anyway); instead, it ostensibly sought to educate American farmers on new technology and how to become better businessmen. In other words, The Furrow was doing early content marketing.
But we promise: It's not magic. It's science. Not Einstein-level science, but principles of human evolutionary psychology that anyone can understand to spin better yarns and pull audiences into their web. In short, you don’t have to be Stephen King to tell a sticky brand story.
Sticky Story Structure
Story over facts. Emotions. Empathy. Great, but now you’re wondering: “Where do I even begin?” It’s really all about understanding the right structure.
You’re probably familiar with the hero’s journey, especially if you’re a marketer (or former English major). The hero’s journey structure is the most foundational and beloved story structure there is. Every movie or book you love is a variation on the basic structure — Harry Potter, Wizard of Oz, King Arthur, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They’re all heroic journeys.
Your users are the heroes of your story. You, your brand, and your company are supporting characters. Your hero has a challenge (a.k.a. the villain) and they want to defeat it. Your heroes long to be better at their job, have more fun, make more money, look better, smell better, be more adored by their significant other . . . . You get the idea. You are their guide. The challenge needs to matter. The intensity and urgency of the hero’s desire to overcome their challenge has everything to do with how intensely your audience of heroes will be attracted to your solution/story.
The most memorable stories — the ones we’re attracted to, return to, and remember — speak to our emotions.
Stories that spark an emotional connection resonate deep in our minds. They make that delicious oxytocin we talked about. Our brains — the frontal and parietal cortices, to be specific — literally light up when we begin to form an emotional engagement with a story.
When we can identify and empathize with the hero of a story — when we see ourselves in his or her challenges, struggles, and desires — a powerful empathetic connection reaches out through the noise and grabs us by the collar to compel us into action.
When you focus on listing out facts rather than weaving a story, you stop making it about your heroes and instead make it all about yourself, and that’s when you lose them.
Think about it — Oreo was the hero of his story. His challenge was navigating the forest without crashing and dying. Imagine if you could go back in time and show him a story about a primate just like him, one who overcomes this challenge by using your Husky Boi Forest Flinger. He would be rapt. He’d empathize with that hero and hand you all his bananas to get his paws on that device. If, on the other hand, you barraged poor Oreo with a list of facts & figures about how many primates were saved last year with your device, he’d probably make like a tree and leave.
When we say that your customer is your hero, from a storytelling perspective we mean singular hero. Your story cannot be about a crowd or a group or a mass market of heroes. Otherwise no one will care.
, scientists found that “The core empathy network including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was more engaged for events happening to a single person than those happening to many people, no matter whether the events were emotionally neutral or negative.” They concluded that the mPFC may be the actual neural marker that explains why we tend to feel more indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people, yet respond with empathy to the suffering of an individual.
To put that in Stickynomics terms, you can only get people to care about you when you give them one and only one hero with whom to empathize.
Let’s look at an example of a D2C product that is slaying the story game and amassing an impressive, CAC-lowering word of mouth following: Omsom.
Part One: Sticky Attraction
Killing it: Omsom
Omsom makes a deceptively simple product: starter packs for Southeast and East Asian meals. The D2C specialty food market is a crowded space; direct competitive alternatives include other D2C Asian food brands like Fly By Jing’s Szechuan seasonings and hot pot starters, Xi’An Famous Foods’ Hand Ripped Noodle Kits, and Huel’s Hot & Savory Vegan Asian Meals. Widen that circle and other competing alternatives include all home delivery meal kits with Asian options — or even takeout. One big reason a consumer might try any of these options is because they want to enjoy quality Asian cuisine at home. What really makes Omsom stand apart from the crowd is how well they weave a riveting story into their simple yet unique offering.
Picture this: You’re bored. You’re mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed. In between the cute kitten videos and posts of your friends’ vacations, you’re offered one product ad after the next after the next. They all tend to blur together: They look alike, they sound alike, and they all seem to be selling some variation of food, beverages, clothes, or makeup. But nothing grabs your attention enough to stop your relentless scrolling.
In a sea of wan Insta pastel and muted tones, the vibrant orange stands out like a peacock in a flock of pigeons. You stop scrolling. Your eyes are magnetically drawn to the mouthwatering foods in the center of the screen. You glance up and read the copy: “Cook restaurant quality Asian dishes in under 30 minutes with Omsom dish starters.”
What? Is this possible? How could this possibly be true? Restaurant quality Asian food without hours of chopping and prepping and running around to a million grocery stores in a futile attempt to find every ingredient you’ll need? The path to this heroic culinary glory is helpfully and simply laid out for you at the bottom of the screen, with a combination of words and cute little graphics: Choose your favorite protein and/or veg + just: Rip ➡️ Pour ➡️ Fire It Up.
Your eyes go back up to the array of temptingly presented dishes. Your tummy rumbles. You need to know more about this Omsom thing. So boom, you click to learn more. And before you know it, you’ve just purchased a Southeast Asian starter sampler. (We’ll get into why Omsom makes it so appealing and irresistible to purchase later on.)
Of course the above scenario assumes you’re actually in the Omsom target audience. If you’re more of a Hamburger Helper type of gal, you’ll keep scrolling until you find your dog whistle frequency. And who is that Omsom audience exactly? Well, the cofounders, sisters Kim and Vanessa Pham
that they wanted to "give Asian-Americans access to a real deal taste of home and to show non-Asian Americans what it means for this category to be done right."
In other words, on the one hand, the product is targeting first-gen Asian Americans who want to recreate comforting and familiar dishes, as some of their messaging (“food that takes you home”) makes clear. On the other hand, they’re also targeting non-Asian Americans who strive to cook authentically within that culinary realm, yet who may be confused or intimidated by some of the ingredients.
But before you scratch your head and wonder how on earth they’re managing to target two such seemingly wildly different audiences, consider what these groups have in common. They share the exact same challenge: the struggle to cook authentic, high-quality Asian meals at home, quickly and easily. Slightly different heroes, same challenge.And as we’ll see, it’s all about the challenge. One thing Omsom does so well is manage to attract and speak to both groups without alienating either one by keeping the real focus on the challenge and the burning desire to overcome it.
Maybe you’re still wondering:
How exactly did they manage to turn simple meal starter kits into culinary catnip and stand out in such a crowded market?
Simply put, it’s exactly what we’ve been talking about: They do it through their story. A perfect little micro hero’s journey that allows Omsom's audience to see themselves preparing the dishes shown. And one reason it resonates is because, whether they’re aware of it or not, they’ve tapped into some behavioral science truths about sticky storytelling.
🧠 You see, not only are we attracted to a good story just for the feel-good fun of it; narrative is built into how humans make decisions about their future. We are all essentially prediction machines seeking to make sense of patterns. In his book
Michael Shermer calls our brains “belief engines . . . evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.”
And stories are the ultimate in pattern spotting and meaning-making. This tendency began as a matter of survival: Our ancestors learned that things like snapping twigs or rustling underbrush could indicate the presence of a dangerous predator. That pattern spotting allowed us to predict our imminent future demise unless we ran for cover. And think back to Oreo the primate: He learned to spot the patterns of behavior that made forest navigation easy and safe by imagining future outcomes. He told himself a succession of stories starring himself as the hero.
When a story is sticky, it aligns with the patterns our brain is already wired to expect — but it also extends the pattern in a more desirable way than we ever thought possible. A brand story sticks when it actually changes our future by changing how we imagine our future and our heroic role in it. It’s why you empathize with characters as different as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Diana in Wonder Woman, and Luke in Star Wars. You identify with them, you imagine yourself overcoming the challenges they face, and you go along for the ride as they triumph and create a better future.
This is why these kinds of sticky stories are the most powerful way to draw an audience into your universe and build a larger following. You become part of their future story. It’s a “Sticky Future.”
The Omsom ad uses words (just 26 of them!) plus design to viscerally and graphically draw their audience of heroes into their better future. The story helps their audience imagine themselves as culinary rock stars, whipping up authentic and delicious Asian dishes to the amazement of family and friends. It lulls people with the familiar comfort of the hero’s journey story, pleasantly tickling the evolutionary pattern spotting tendency of the brain . . . then takes them along to a new and exciting future.
🍜 If you’re one of Omsom’s potential heroes, that breaks down like this:
Your brain notices the patterns and parallels within the story and your own experience.
Your curiosity is piqued, and you're attracted and engaged because:
You recognize the challenge you’ve been facing (empathizing with a hero who wants to be able to cook this food).
You imagine your own future (spinning the pattern out and identifying with this surprising, sticky possibility. "What if I could actually do this amazing thing?")
You begin to believe in a new, better way (defying your previous belief that it’s impossible, you click through, propelled by this exciting discovery, eager to learn more).
Like the Omsom target audience of heroes, your heroes must be able to see the pattern and parallels. See their own struggles and life challenges in your story. See their future unfold in front of them. And then see it happen in a way they never thought possible.
And that, dear friend, is how you begin to build a following.
Great, you’re wondering:
That’s all well and good, but how did Omsom actually get the message out? How did they make sure their audience would see it?
Did they start off by spending a small fortune on ads? Nope.
Did they pin all their hopes in one ad channel? Again: Nope.
Did they say “screw this” and just do billboards and TV spots like the frustrated Redditor we mentioned earlier considered? Again, nope.
Remember what we said about the dog whistle? Omsom built a following on the strength of their kick ass narrative, then they sat back and enjoyed the organic fruits of their labor.
The nutshell version of how that came together is this. Back in 2019 they were just another wannabe food startup under a different name, Oxtale. Their hook was a bit underwhelming and generic: “The new-gen household name for the rising global cuisine movement.” But they got some funding, joined an accelerator and spent 10 months figuring out their story. They clearly did the right kind of research to discover the underlying challenge of their audience of heroes and the Job people would hire them to do. Then they branded the hell out of themselves and launched in May 2020, locked and fully loaded.
Within a couple of months, they were featured in Tastemade, Vogue, Food & Wine, and the Food Network. Then they landed a Today Show spot and took off like a brush fire in a drought. In fact, Emily Chan, Omsom's Marketing Director, told the D2C Podcast that a whopping 90 percent of their growth has been organic and community driven, and she cites their unique storytelling on Instagram and their press coverage (which occurred as a direct result of their engaging brand storytelling) as the reasons for this.
That's the power of a really strong narrative. The truth is, we don't know exactly what Emily’s team was doing behind the scenes. Surely, they didn't just post a great brand on Instagram and everything else just magically grew from there. There was certainly an active effort to get their brand out there. But we can tell you that without their strong narrative, their efforts to get their brand noticed would not have resulted in that organic growth. When they launched their awesome site, it came complete with a really compelling brand and a fully realized narrative.
This story painted the perfect Sticky Future, one that fulfills an unfulfilled narrative and turns the audience into heroes in ways they couldn’t have imagined before. In fact, in the Today show segment, we learn that the Omsom investors warned the Pham sisters not to launch during a pandemic. But they said: No, this is exactly when to do it. This is the moment.
In other words, they took advantage of building forces — people couldn’t go out to eat, they couldn’t go to a million grocery stores. Even if they could find the ingredients, they probably weren’t going to be able to turn out a chef quality meal assuming they could find the time in between working from home and homeschooling. They saw that Sticky Future and they grabbed it. And they positioned themselves as authentic, first-gen Asian food experts to be the qualified and trustworthy guides on this journey towards culinary awesomeness.
And then they served up the sticky Reason to Believe (“RTB”) on a plate, so to speak. On their Instagram feed, they shared user stories showing regular people actually making this food. They showcased success stories. They highlighted collabs with famous chefs. None other than Chrissy Teigen’s mom created a Thai Krapow starter kit and recipe. Who in their JAM could possibly resist? We’ll walk you through how to create a Sticky Future and find your own RTB in a bit. First, we want to show you how to dig into the big challenge your audience of heroes faces so that you can better understand how to craft a compelling narrative that will reach out and grab their undivided attention.
The Why Of It All
We’ve been talking a lot about the importance of addressing your hero’s challenge. But so far, we’ve mostly focused on sussing out what the challenge actually is. While this is a crucial starting point, there’s no way you’re going to be able to craft a truly compelling narrative unless you also dig into the why.
The “why” is going to help you understand how your hero feels. The “why”is going to empower you to tell stories that engage the emotions. And when it comes to a memorable (read: CAC-lowering) story, emotion is your single most powerful tool to win hearts and minds. It’s no exaggeration to say that the “why” of it all is the essential key to harnessing the power of emotion and attracting your audience.
Remember, an emotional connection to a story releases oxytocin, the feel-good brain chemical. And identifying with the hero of a story can spark that emotional connection. In fact, research published in the
indicates that when we experience a story, our brains hone in on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. That holds true regardless of how a narrative is expressed. Words, gestures, drawings — as long as a story is being told, our first priority is to care about and identify with the hero’s struggle.
🧠 Researchers at McMaster University learned this by scanning the brains of participants using fMRI. They gave them short, action-oriented headlines like “Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient" or "Fisherman rescues boy from freezing lake." Then, they asked the participants to depict the stories of the headlines using either speech, gestures, or drawing (like in a game of Pictionary). No matter what form of storytelling the participants chose, the study found “the brain networks that were activated were the ‘theory-of-the-mind’ network, which is affected by the character's intentions, motivations, beliefs, emotions and actions.”
Studies like the one above illustrate that connecting with a character’s “why” literally lights up our brains. And when it comes to your messaging and the story you tell, if you want to light up your audience’s brains — if you want to attract and hold their attention — you’ve got to understand their challenge from all angles. You've got to know the “why.”
It’s common sense, really.
Imagine trying to identify with Luke Skywalker if you didn’t know what was at stake for the character. If Luke were just running around trying to rescue Princess Leia or looking for Darth Vader for no apparent reason, you’d probably never have even finished Star Wars. Even logical Mr. Spock has a challenge with an emotional underlying “why.” We identify with his sometimes painful struggle between the rational and emotional parts of his being. That’s why we care (if you’re in the Star Trek Audience of Nerd Heroes, that is).
Get the “why” right and you can win hearts and minds. Get it wrong, however, and you risk not only being ignored — you might piss off some people. Worst case, you’ll piss off a bunch of Moms...
👶 A 2008 Motrin ad geared towards new mothers had a particular challenge: back aches and pains from carrying their newborns in a baby sling.
In the video, a woman narrator implies that baby slings are worn as fashion statements. She states (with a whiff of sarcasm) that “supposedly it’s a real bonding experience” and points out that babies carried “close to the bod” cry less. “But what,” the narrator asks, “about me? Do moms who carry their babies cry more? I sure do!” That said, we’re told that she’ll put up with the pain because it’s for her kid, and “because it totally makes me look like an official mom. . . . and if I look tired and crazy, people will understand why.” The ad ends with the tagline: Motrin. We Feel Your Pain.
Thousands of moms — insulted at the snarky tone and insinuations that they carried their babies for fashion rather than out of love — begged to differ with Motrin’s tone deaf tagline. They took to the then-newish Twitter platform in droves to voice their feelings. Thanks to the internet backlash, the video went viral, but not for the reasons Motrin had hoped it would. Sure, Motrin got the “what” part of the challenge right: Moms who carry their babies (in slings or otherwise) can get backaches and other pains. But as for the underlying “why”? Clearly they completely screwed the pooch.
You can avoid pissing off moms and sparking this type of PR meltdown by digging into your hero’s challenge from every angle. What are people trying to do? What do they desire? Why do they care? If Motrin had bothered to do this properly, they might have understood that moms would bend over backwards to show how much they love their children. That they carry their babies because they care for them, not because they want to appear trendy or justify looking “tired and crazy.” The challenge of carrying a baby in a sling without incurring backaches could then have been framed in a more empathetic light. Motrin may have then understood how to feature a truly relatable hero mom with whom their target audience would have empathized, rather than be angered by.
So how can you possibly figure it all out and pull off an Omsom level sticky story? (Better yet, how can you avoid another Motrin Mom disaster?) Well, begin at the beginning. You probably already have some idea of the challenge your potential audience faces. One way to think about it is that it’s the Job people would hire your product to do. So start by writing down a simple, basic, hero's challenge hypothesis; one that accounts for both the what and a basic why:
💡 Hero's Challenge Hypothesis Formula
My audience is trying to [do a thing] because they want [to be this person/feel this way]. Not being able to [do this thing] makes them feel like [the repercussions and feelings when they fail]. Therefore, people would hire my product to help them [do this Job] and [achieve this goal].
🤱🏽 Motrin Challenge Hypothesis Formula
My audience is trying to carry their babies because they love their children and feel compelled to be caring mothers. Not being able to do this without pain makes them feel less able to fully focus on their newborn. Therefore, people would hire my product to be free from pain while carrying their babies and fully focus on caring for their little bundle of joy.
Then, dig a little deeper. Write down everything you think you know, and everything you don’t know but need to find out.
That means thinking about:
What are your hero’s goals?
Look at things through the JTBD lens. Why would someone hire your product? How do they want to feel? (the emotional job) What do they need to accomplish? (the functional job) How do they want to be perceived? (the social job)
Who do they want to become?
Why does this matter to them? What’s at stake? What happens if they fail?
How intense is their desire to overcome the challenge?
Who exactly they will be when they're with you (when you're their Yoda what can they achieve)?
And what would they be willing to do/pay to become that hero?
Essentially, you're going to gather qualitative data from your audience to make an educated bet about CAC-Critical quantitative info. You’ll take that into your Sticky Future and Sticky RTB to eventually test, and then you’ll circle back around and continuously refine your Stickynomics.
Bottom line, what you’re really trying to figure out is,is the challenge you’ve identified valuable? Is what’s at stake worth money to your heroes?Enough money to make your product economically viable?
To properly CACulate the value of your hero's goals, you’re going to need to really dig into the intensity of their desire to overcome their challenge. The stronger and more intense the desire, the more attractive and attention-grabbing it is, the more it’s worth it to them, and the more they’ll pay to have someone help them overcome it.
To figure this all out, you’ll actually need to get out there and talk to your potential heroes. And there’s an art and science to it, as you’ll see.
Sticky Audience Discovery
Let’s be real: Anyone can get an audience. You read that right. Getting an audience is easy if you resort to clickbait or other sensationalistic approaches to grab people’s attention. But clickbait audiences are slippery. They’re like a one night stand: good for a minute and then poof! Gone forever. Like a fart in the wind.
Instead of wasting your time tooting away, we want to teach you how to find and foster a long term Sticky Audience. We call the members of this sticky audience your “JAM,” or juicy addressable market. They’re the ones who . . . you know, stick around because you get them. You really get them. If clickbait is just empty calories that leave audiences hungry for something real, then the right story is a never-ending buffet of satisfying comfort food.
And the stickiest audience of all? One who commits to you in the form of a subscription. Subscribers. If you’re D2C reading this and think that doesn’t apply to you, please allow us to disabuse you of that notion immediately. The most successful D2C companies already know a formula that we want you to memorize:
Formula for Long-Term Audience Attraction
🔎 This formula goes beyond the obvious (think Dollar Shave Club, Stitch Fix, BarkBox, and a little service you may have heard of called Netflix). Literally any D2C product can and should have a subscription component. Omsom knows this. So do:
Nightguard subscription service Cheeky
Olive + June, who offer a mani/pedi perks membership
Battery powered blender BlendJet, which offers a juice pack subscription
Even urinary tract health is a candidate for a subscription angle. Just ask Uquora, a subscription service that offers products to help prevent painful UTIs.
We could go on, but you get the picture.
What you’ll be doing in Sticky Audience Discovery is honing the dog whistle frequency and getting super specific. Yes, of course you’re also going to be casting a wide net. As we’ve discussed (and as you know already), thanks to iOS 15, the disappearance of the 3rd party cookie, and increasing consumer privacy measures, you can’t target ads in the same way you used to. You have to go broad with that. But if you want your dog whistle to attract your JAM, then your story needs to be super specific and narrow. And you can only determine the right frequency if you understand the very specific “why” surrounding your JAM’s challenges and behaviors.
For a real world example, look no further than the Omsom story. It certainly ain’t your grandmomma’s Sloppy Joe starter! In fact, the messaging will not even be a blip on that audience’s radar. And that’s a good thing. Their dog whistle attracts a particular group of heroes who face a specific challenge and find the Omsom solution story desirable enough to click through, learn about, and pay good money for. In other words, Omsom knows how to cultivate a sticky audience. And that, as we’ve seen, creates a following of fans, generates buzz, gets people talking, leads to organic SEO, and lowers the F out of CAC.
Sticky Audience Interviews
Finding and attracting your sticky audience involves stuff we’ve already talked about: first, knowing what the challenge is and then going deep to understand all the underlying motivations — the “why.” We helped you work through a basic qualitative hypothesis and pose questions to yourself that you’ll next need to dig into with your JAM in your Sticky Audience Interviews.
These interviews will explore the importance and urgency of your hero’s challenge — and more specifically, the intensity of your JAM’s desire to overcome it. This relates to Willingness To Pay (“WTP”). We get super specific about testing pricing plans and WTP elsewhere (Sticky Landing Page Link) but right here, right now, we’re laying the groundwork and evaluating WTPA, or Willingness To Pay Attention. Attention is a precious commodity, and when you pay attention to something, you’re essentially saying, “This thing might have value to me. I find this attractive.” WTPA is a strong indicator — although not a guarantee — of WTP.
So first things first: How will you actually find people to talk to?
There are a number of approaches you can take:
Go to forums or groups where you think your JAM members are active. This can be time intensive but it’s an accurate and authentic method to find interview subjects. Plus, it’s free.
Scour LinkedIn based on a relevant skills search.
You can use recruiting software. It’s quicker than doing the legwork yourself, but the reality is, it’s also less accurate and more expensive.
Aim for a minimum of five recruits; 10 is better. Once you get into the actual interviews, you’ll know you’re done when you start hearing the same answers over and over. If you don’t hear similar answers, then you may be asking questions that are leading your subjects in different directions, or they may not actually be a part of your JAM.
Once you’ve identified participants, set up a brief screening questionnaire (“screener”) that will help you weed out people who aren’t actually members of your JAM. Each potential participant will need to fill out their screener. It shouldn’t consist of more than a handful of questions, and should be quick — five minutes, max — to fill out. Pro tip: Take this opportunity to ask your interviewees for referrals to two or three others who are in your JAM.
Tips for Writing Effective Screeners:
Screen for behaviors, not demographics (e.g., they shop at Aldi, not they’re a 35 year old mom).
Ask precise questions. Again, these should relate to behaviors (e.g., “how often do you . . . ?” “what do you do if . . . ?” etc.)
Identify unsuitable candidates early (i.e., ones who aren’t a good fit, who don’t engage in your target behaviors, who won’t put any effort into the testing, or who are just doing it for some perceived reward). You can do this by asking targeted questions that require a brief but thoughtful answer.
When it comes to the actual Sticky Audience interviews, your goal is to have the conversation feel as informal and casual as possible so that you can gain real insights. That said, you still need to make sure you cover the same general areas with each participant in order to gather conclusive and consistent data.
Also, remember to never put words in their mouths by inadvertently asking leading questions. You’re trying to understand their challenges, problems, priorities, desires, and interests in as unbiased a way as possible. In other words, you don’t want them to say something just because they think it’s what you want to hear. You have to remain neutral. You are Switzerland.
Done right, these interviews are going to help you understand their challenges from every angle and get at the all-important underlying “why.” You’ll also begin to get a better sense of the competing alternatives. This will be crucial intel in Sticky Future, when you strategize ways to literally blow their minds with the narrative of a new and better life that they never could have imagined.
As you formulate your questions, think about four main areas to explore:
1. Problem questions
The first category of questions relates to the problems your audience have. What problems do members of your JAM face right now? What’s the BIG Challenge? What’s at stake? What’s the intensity of their desire for a solution? What Job are they hiring solutions to do for them right now? What frustrations and pains are they facing? To get to the bottom of this, ask questions like:
Example Problem Questions
What keeps you up at night?
What are you trying to accomplish?
How do you go about accomplishing this now? (What solutions do they use? Remember, doing nothing is also a possibility.)
What did you hope (this solution) would help you do? What actually happened?
What does a perfect outcome look like?
What would a perfect outcome feel like?
What worries you about NOT achieving your goals? What happens if you fail?
What’s standing in the way of these outcomes?
2. Priority questions
The second category of questions relates to the priorities your audience have. This will help you get an idea of how valuable a solution might be to your audience. To get to the bottom of this, ask questions that trigger your interviewee to start ranking.
Example Priority Questions
What are your top three challenges and concerns?
What’s the number one outcome you’re striving for?
What’s your number one frustration?
Rate the intensity of each problem you face
3. Pattern questions
Third, make sure to dig into behaviors that help you recognize patterns and commonalities among your JAM members. This will help you later on when you’re marketing your own solution.
Example Pattern Questions
When do you face these problems?
When do you address these problems (i.e., engage in other solutions, even if that’s nothing)?
What triggers you to remember that you have this problem?
Where did you look to find the solution(s) you use now?
How much money do you spend to overcome these challenges now?
4. Competing alternatives questions
In the final category, you’re digging a bit deeper into your audience’s thoughts and feelings about the competing alternatives. This will help you see where you can really stand out (something we’ll dive into much deeper in the next section). You’re trying to find out what’s attracted their attention in the past and why (and why that attention didn’t last)? What’s failed to attract their attention and why? What, if anything, they’ve actually tried (and paid for) to try to overcome their challenge and why?
Specifically, you’re going to explore how your recruits perceive and rank competitive value props relative to one another, and the underlying reasons why. You’re sussing out the hierarchy of what might attract their attention, and what they've paid for in the past, if anything. This is going to help you understand what your audience values most (and least) as it relates to the importance and urgency of their challenges. And remember, if they've done nothing it's important to dig into the why of that, too.
In practice, that means first presenting your audience with the websites of the competing alternatives and asking them to explain what’s most and least interesting to them. At this point in the interview, it’s more about following up on the answers you’ve gotten from your interviewee thus far, so the way you phrase your questions are going to be unique. However, here are some prompts that can trigger you to come up with the right question on the spot:
Example Competing alternative Questions
What do they perceive as the value prop?
Have they tried this solution? Why or why not?
If they haven’t, would they try it? Why or why not?
What in particular is most appealing and/or off putting about the messaging?
What features are most/least interesting?
Then, using a sorting method like force ranking or MaxDiff, have the participants rank each option from most to least appealing (include the option of “none of these/no solution” to account for those who would rather do nothing). Without leading them in any direction, ask them to give you specifics about how they’re choosing to rank the options: Why does their first choice stand out? What makes it most interesting compared to the subsequent choices? Why does their last choice rank so low? Etc.
Sticky Audience Follow-Up
Despite your best efforts, there’s a decent chance that the simple fact of your presence — whether on a call or in person — could influence some of the responses you get. Maybe your recruits are embarrassed by their choices, or they may think you want to hear something specific, so they try to please you with their answers. That’s one reason we recommend following up on the competitor ranking portion of your interview with a brief survey. Another reason we like to do this is that it allows your recruits time to mull their answers over, rather than feeling put on the spot.
So send your recruits a simple multiple choice survey asking them to choose their favorite competitor. Using what you’ve learned in the interviews, offer a range of supporting reasons for them to choose from as well. Make sure to include the option of doing nothing, also with potential reasons why (they think all the solutions are inadequate, or they have a workaround that they’re okay with, for example).
Finally, have them put their money where their mouth is. Offer them a $10 gift card, and ask them to choose which solution they would theoretically spend that money on. This intel is going to help you get a better sense of the messaging and features people value and find attractive so that you can strategize ways to stand out from the top contenders with messaging you can take to the bank.
Once you’ve completed all phases of your Sticky Audience Discovery interviews, evaluate the results. Take particular note of problems, priorities, and patterns that are shared among a majority of your interviewees. Go back and answer all of the questions you couldn’t answer before you interviewed your JAM, and amend things you thought you knew based on the new qualitative data you’ve gathered.
These interviews should give you actionable insights into the important, urgent challenges people face and the relative value they place on competing solution messaging. This intel will help you lay a foundation from which to build a sticky, re-imagined future that people will be more likely to want to pay money for. Later, when you design your landing page, this information will help you create a value-based pricing structure to test.
Now take what you’ve learned and make your initial CACulation: What’s the most pressing economically viable challenge facing your heroes? How much time and attention do you think it’s worth to your JAM? How attractive would a real solution to this challenge be? You’ll use this as a springboard to build a Sticky Future in the next section.
Remember that every journey has to begin with a first step. We’ve begun by practicing Stickynomics and understanding the challenges of your heroes. But this will be refined once you’ve created their Sticky Future, found the sticky RTB, and road tested your message to see if it sticks (i.e., has an acceptable CPA).
Part Two: Sticky Future
This section helps you form the beating heart and shining soul of a sticky product-led marketing approach to story-powered growth. If you’re currently not a product-led marketing organization, don’t worry! This is the perfect way to get your feet wet. Now is when the rubber meets the road and you learn how to become a very bright, clear, and resonant signal in all the noise.
You need to be able to answer a very important question in the minds of your audience members: “What can you do for me that no one else can do?”
The Unfulfilled Narrative
It’s time to find your Sticky X-Factor and craft messaging that will resonate with your audience. To do that, you’ll strategize ways to demonstrate that you are the key to the better and brighter future your JAM is yearning for. They’ll be able to visualize it in a visceral way, projecting themselves into your story as the triumphant hero, winning at life in a very specific and crave-ably delicious way.
By now you’re probably wondering what exactly we mean by “unfulfilled narrative.” We thought you’d never ask! The concept is rooted in humanity’s innate compulsion to storify our lives. As we’ve discussed, we humans tell ourselves stories about . . . well, everything. We turn everything we do and everything we want to do and everything we want to be into a narrative.
🐒 Remember how Oreo the primate told himself stories about his brighter future in order to avoid becoming a monkey burger for predators to feast on. Flash forward millions of years, and the stories we tell, watch, and listen to are probably a bit more sophisticated than whatever Oreo’s inner monologue must have sounded like. But the instinct? It’s still there.
That means if you want to matter — if you want people to care — then you must tell a story. But not just any old story. To really stand out, you’ve got to fulfill an unfulfilled narrative by casting users as the heroes of a story they could never tell (or even imagine) on their own. This involves painting a vivid picture of the brighter future they’ll enjoy with you. That’s the Sticky Future they’ll crave. That’s your Sticky X-Factor.
Yes, of course our imaginations play a big part in the stories we tell ourselves, but we can only fully articulate or conceptualize certain narratives based on what we already know. However, that doesn’t stop our longing for things that are beyond our ability to articulate.
When a solution comes along and does a job — like helping people be healthy and disease free — in such a radical new way that it speaks to unfulfilled longings that people couldn’t even articulate before? That’s as magical as the first vaccine. That’s a major breakthrough. That’s what we call the Sticky X-Factor.
💉 Someone in the eighteenth century who just watched a loved one suffer through smallpox no doubt dreamed of a world without that horrific disease, but until Edward Jenner’s 1796 vaccine, their narrative of how that could actually happen remained unfulfilled.
📜 Or consider Gutenberg’s movable type printing press. This machine’s capabilities to mass produce the written word pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages, launched a global news network, and fulfilled an unfulfilled narrative by giving a vast new swath of humans access to knowledge (and the power that goes with it) to an unprecedented degree. It changed the world in ways too numerous to list here. Yet the job it was doing wasn’t new — instead of a town crier, now you could have . . . a mass-produced town flyer.
A real breakthrough product or story might not always be quite as epic as the printing press or the smallpox vaccine, but it will be in perfect resonance with the progress and success that a group of like-minded people seek to achieve. When your breakthrough completely and fundamentally changes the nature of that success, then that job needs a new narrative . . . a new story . . . a new way to talk about it. And until that happens, it’s an unfulfilled narrative just waiting to be capitalized upon. But it only works if and only if you can tell the right story (narrative) about it, to the right people, in the right way, at the right time.
And so, some of the big sticky questions you need to ask in this section include:
Big Sticky Questions
Where is there a void in your JAM’s lives?
Where can you best fit into their hero’s journey (and make it better)?
What can you provide that literally no one else can?
How can you whet their appetite and show them that you fill that void?
Finding Your Place
To figure out your audience’s Sticky Future, you must further explore how your story can resonate on the right frequency and stand out in the “distractosphere.” You’re intimately acquainted with the distractosphere — you live in it. It’s the world of constantly dinging notifications, Netflix, podcasts, TikTok, social media feeds, text messages — on and on and on and on. It’s pure noise.
Understanding your place in the cacophony involves a very close examination of the spectrum of competitive alternatives. Like most people, you probably figure your competition consists of those things that are adjacent to you, somehow “like” you, or in your general category. In the last section, you learned more about these alternatives in your sticky audience discovery interviews.
If you’re a stationary bike, you think Peloton and a few knock offs — and maybe a treadmill — are your main competitors. Wrong. At the moment that someone could be riding a stationary bike, just think of all the other things they could be choosing to do instead. Reading a book on their Kindle. Going for a run. Watching Netflix. Planting flowers. Prepping for the workday ahead. Sleeping. Looking at Twitter. Doing their nails. Doing nothing. You get the picture.
We know what you’re thinking: How could those things be alternatives to a stationary bike? They don’t even do the same job. Well, that’s sort of true, but at any given moment there are a myriad of ways in which we could be spending our time. Maybe we don’t get on that stationary bike because it’s no fun. Maybe sleeping helps us forget that we’ve blown off our important fitness goals. Maybe we go running instead because the bike is uncomfortable. The point is, you need to be the most appealing option by fulfilling your audience’s unfulfilled narrative and solving their most pressing, urgent, intense needs in a way that nothing else can.
To make sense of all this and figure out the full spectrum of your competitive alternatives, we’ve found it’s super helpful to think about the time of day someone might interact with you. Then, plot out the alternatives as a time-based gradient. Once you can see the complete competitive picture, you can start to theorize about what clearly differentiates your use of someone’s precious time over something else.
Why would someone choose your product at say, 8 a.m. on a Sunday instead of the many other things they could be doing?
How could the JAM you’ve researched and come to understand find fulfillment with your story in a way they can’t with the alternatives?
What story can you tell to give yourself the best chance to slide into the daily rhythm of their lives and make your audience more likely to pay attention to the thing you show them next?
In other words: What’s the unfulfilled narrative at play here? What’s your number-one breakthrough? What’s your Sticky X-Factor? And how can you clearly convey it in your messaging?
Casting the Bones
You’ve heard of foreshadowing in literature? If your English 101 is rusty, essentially it’s when the reader (or the viewing audience) is given a clue about what’s going to happen later on.
Think the classic shot of a knife on the counter to foreshadow a violent scene ahead, or Han Solo saying “I have a bad feeling about this” before something bad happens. That’s ham fisted foreshadowing, but it’s foreshadowing nonetheless. Here’s another example: the red shirts in the original Star Trek series. If you are familiar with the tropes of that show, then you know that shortly after the away team lands on a new planet, the person wearing the red shirt is going to die. It never fails. Newbies will have no idea about the red shirt’s impending demise, and if you “predict” what’s going to happen, they’ll think you’re either a psychic or just lucky. But you’re neither of those things. You just have expertise based on knowledge and experience, and you know how to read the signs. That’s exactly the kind of expertise you’ll bring to your product story (using foreshadowing) to find the unfulfilled narrative and tell sticky stories that will intrigue your JAM.
We’re talking about looking for all those red shirts that no one else can see. People want to know how the story is going to turn out, but they’re unable to pull the pieces together and articulate the narrative.
Foreshadowing is about looking critically at what’s going on in your world, applying your own expert and/or insider knowledge, and identifying the conditions for a breakthrough story.
You’re looking for those tiny ripples — the foreshadowing filaments — that indicate the existence of unfulfilled narratives, and possible radically changed futures. Then, you say: “Okay, what can I do now to tap into this ripple? How can I bring the future into the present?”
As we’ve said before (and we’ll say again!), it’s important to always remember that your hero (i.e., your customer) is on a journey. They want to be better. You know — to boldly go where no (wo)man has gone before. There is an unfulfilled narrative waiting to be written. What do you as the author see that they don’t? What’s coming up in their future environment that might make them more successful? Or less?
In practice, this means looking at the ripples of developing trends in four primary areas:
What bleeding edge tech is just waiting to be exploited?
What are people just beginning to do or accept?
What regulations are opening up new possibilities?
What formerly taboo behaviors or beliefs are gaining acceptance?
Then you project yourself into the future to discern the stories that might matter most to your JAM so that you can get there first, ahead of all the competitive alternatives you’ve researched.
But before you get carried away and throw all your energy into one idea, you need to prioritize these foreshadowing elements. Get your team together and go through a checklist, and honestly answer the following questions:
Is this feasible? Can you even build it? If not, ditch it. Get your engineers on board for this. We're serious — we've seen too many ideas go down in flames because people were fooling themselves about feasibility.
Is this viable? Is this part of a long-term, sustainable business plan? Again: Be real with yourself. If it's not viable ditch it. Move on. Save yourself.
What’s your level of certainty? How certain are you that this foreshadowing will actually happen?
How specific can you be? How much specific information do you have about this piece of foreshadowing?
How obvious is it? The more obvious it is, the more people may have already had your idea. (But that doesn't mean you should abandon the thread — your story could still fulfill an unfulfilled narrative in a way something else doesn’t.)
How easy would it be for you to gain a competitive advantage? What’s your relative ability to quickly/easily/cheaply capitalize on the foreshadowing you see?
How will you be able to maintain a competitive advantage? How far and how long does this piece of foreshadowing carry the narrative once it begins to be fulfilled? Does it create an unfair competitive advantage for your company? Are there barriers to entry to that foreshadowed element?
Once you’ve narrowed down your unfulfilled narratives, you’ll then create a User Desirability Map. What does this ideal future look like for your audience of heroes? How will they succeed? What steps will they need to take to fulfill the unfulfilled narrative(s) you’ve identified? How will they find you? And since we’re talking about narrative here, make sure you nail your story basics from the get go; this will inform your messaging and be important in upcoming steps.
Remember — always position your JAM as the hero and make sure you know:
What's at stake
As we’ve said, this should feel intense. The more intense, the greater your opportunity. Think of intensity as breaking down into two main components:
Importance (Why does it matter at all?)
Urgency (Why does it matter now?)
How you’ll help users overcome their pains and get the job done
You should be able to distill this into a yellable why: This is the memorable encapsulation of what makes you special. It’s essentially your Sticky X-Factor.
What pain they’re trying to escape
In story terms this is the villain. If what’s at stake is matter, then the villain is anti-matter. The villain is the foil to the possibility of success. It’s your hero’s Achilles heel. People are regularly pushed to take action when they experience new painful circumstances. Something makes them cold, hungry, wet, confused — and they urgently must take action. So in your messaging, make sure to take full advantage of this fact. Emphasize the inadequacy of the old solutions and how crappy and pain-filled they are. Downright villainous, in fact! At the same time, minimize any perceived pain of adoption of your product. Make it super obvious that you’re easy and breezy and about a million times better than the old thing.
Maximizing attractive Pulls
Pulls are the sticky things that draw people to you like . . . well, like bees to honey. These forces of attraction are related to the paths we can see that lead to our desired future. As we seek out or are made aware of more pathways, we are pulled toward, excited by, and attracted to new ways to close the gap between a miserable today and a better, pain-free tomorrow.
👓 Warby Parker is a great example of a company that fulfilled an unfulfilled narrative by blasting the competing alternatives out of the water. In early 2010, the eyeglasses industry was still dominated by one single behemoth — Luxxotica — which worked behind the scenes to keep prices artificially high across the board.
Before Warby launched, if you wore prescription glasses, the notion that stylish frames could be obtained for anything less than a small fortune and a big headache was unimaginable. Paying a fortune for your prescription glasses was a painful reality. And trying frames on at home for free? No one had come up with a sci-fi story that crazy yet. In other words, this was an unfulfilled narrative just waiting to be written.
Warby Parker took advantage of nascent trends in technology and adoption by keeping their business exclusively online at first, and casting their tech-savvy users as heroes in a journey to stylish and affordable prescription eyewear.
While we generally caution against conflating yourself with your users, sometimes it’s a good thing. In the case of Warby co-founder Neil Blumenthal, it led to a high degree of certainty that the trend he sensed was in fact very real. In college, he lost his $700 glasses and couldn’t afford a new pair for a whole semester. The pain, it turns out, was both very real and very profitable. Their story resonated with such a vast swath of their target market, they hit their first-year sales targets within three weeks after launch, and found themselves with the good problem of having to waitlist 20,000 customers.
When you nail this whole unfulfilled narrative thing and find your Sticky X-Factor, people think you must be some kind of wizard.
Defining your Sticky X-Factor
Your Sticky X-Factor hinges on answering a huge and important question your JAM will have: “What’s in it for me that no one else can offer?” A satisfactory answer to this question is why you’ll stand out. It’s what makes you attractive. It’s what will make your Sticky X-Factor . . . well, sticky. In Part One, you figured out what would grab people's attention, and now is when you learn how to get them super hyped and excited about you.
Finding your Sticky X-Factormeans asking yourself: What’s the most game-changing, desirable, jaw-dropping, and unique benefit I offer? What is the stickiest (and most share-able) promise I can make (and keep)? What do I do that literally no one else can even come close to doing? This is directly related to the top unfulfilled narrative you've identified.
This is your USP on crack. It’s the most exciting, heart-pounding, viral aspect of the Job people would hire you to do. If you’re Roomba, your Sticky X-Factor is the fact that your product frees people from doing menial household chores. Instacart’s Sticky X-Factor gives people the superpower of more free time — and in a post pandemic world, a feeling of safety from contagious disease. Back in the 1970s, the Ronco Smokeless Ashtray freed homeowners from a stinky house that smelled like cigarettes; on the flip side, it freed up people to smoke wherever they pleased without inconveniencing others.
Actually defining your Sticky X-Factor — nailing the words and phrases you will own — will involve audience research. It begins with the top unfulfilled narrative you identified, and draws on all the work you’ve done so far.
Your messaging should take into account:
Problems and frustrations your JAM faces and what’s at stake for them;
Alternatives your JAM has tried (direct and indirect competition, nothing, etc.);
How those solutions have failed them; and
How your breakthrough is 10x better.
With all that in mind, before you can test anything, you need a hypothesis to actually test. In this case that’s going to be your Sticky X-Factor’s definition, and the words and phrases you expect people will use to describe you. That looks something like this:
💡 Sticky X-Factor Template
My Sticky X-Factor is [what you do] and it’s a breakthrough because [it creates this Sticky Future for people].
🤱🏽 Omsom Sticky X-Factor
My Sticky X-Factor is a range of authentic Asian meal starters. It’s a breakthrough because it allows people to create restaurant quality Asian meals in under 30 minutes.
Then, boil your Sticky X-Factor down to a short verb-packed phrase that you believe will pique curiosity at the outset of the audience's first impression of your breakthrough, so you can have an easy mental shortcut they can use to remember why it's different. For example, Ride-sharing or Predictive Analytics or Robot Vacuuming or Loud + Proud Asian Flavors.
to gather your sticky audience members for testing. Your goal in these tests is to look at ways to unpack the brighter Sticky Future you’re providing so that your JAM members are most likely to see themselves as heroes in your narrative. Essentially, you’re testing to see if your Sticky X-Factor is actually sticky.
On a practical level, that means you’re figuring out your stickiest, most resonant messaging hierarchy. You’re learning how to quickly and decisively answer the “What can you do for me that no one else can do?” question. As always, you don’t want to lead your audience and you don’t want to put words in their mouths. Begin with your short verb-packed phrase. What does that convey to them? What do they think it might be about?
Then, show your audience your breakthrough. Of course, you may not have a real product yet. But you can show them a graphical representation. If you were Roomba and you didn’t have your finished product yet, that could be a short CGI video of the Roomba vacuuming a room while someone relaxes with a glass of wine and a book, for example. If your product is less visual — say, a vitamin supplement or flavored coffee subscription — tell them exactly what it does with as little embellishment as possible. Remember, you want to determine if they’ll be able to identify that brighter future on their own and describe their own role in it in a way that aligns with how you’ve defined your Sticky X-Factor.
You want this to feel conversational and unscripted, but you also need to make sure you ask each participant the same types of questions so that you can accurately compare results. To that end, ask interview subjects to:
Sticky X-Factor Interview Prompts
Describe what they just saw in their own words.
Explain what they would do with your breakthrough.
Tell you about what problems this breakthrough might solve, if any.
Describe what your breakthrough might allow them to do that they couldn’t do before, or to do in a different way.
List other ways they might have tried to accomplish this in the past.
Talk about other types of activities they may have engaged in (as opposed to something that’s a direct competitor). For example, maybe sometimes they take a nap instead of vacuuming. This would be important to know, as you could fold it into your messaging. Naps are fun, and Roomba lets you nap and vacuum at the same time, for example.
Describe how they would feel if they couldn’t have your breakthrough, now that they’ve seen or heard what it can do.
Return to your short verb-packed phrase. What does it mean to them now?
Refine and hone your messaging hierarchy based on what you learn.
But you’re not finished yet. Once you’ve answered what you can do for people that no one else can, they’re going to have another big question: Why on earth should they trust you to do it? To answer that, let’s move on and figure out your Sticky Reason To Believe.
Part Three: Sticky Reason to Believe
In the first section of this book, we focused on understanding what story will attract your Sticky Audience and lower your CAC. Then, we explored the ways you can stand out from the crowd by fulfilling an unfulfilled narrative and delivering an unforgettable breakthrough that will resonate with your audience. Then, we showed you how to test your messaging hierarchy around your Sticky X-Factor. In this section, you’ll take what you’ve learned and test the sticky reasons your audience should actually believe in you enough to take the next steps in their journey with you. In other words, you’ll learn how to convince them that you can be trusted.
Foundation of Trust
In the world of marketing, the Reason To Believe (RTB) is just what it sounds like: It’s the reason customers should trust you and believe in your promise. It's how you convince them to take the chance and commit to you. And that’s an accurate definition, more or less. But we don’t think it’s complete.
For one thing, “commit” is a relative term, one that exists on a sliding scale based on your needs. Asking someone to commit to you could mean signing up for a sales call, doing a trial subscription, purchasing a membership, or buying a physical product. It’s really a function of the type of journey you’re asking people to take. But whatever form the commitment takes, the very first step must be built from the solid bricks of trust.
If you want to really be the signal in all that noise, you’ve got to combine a compelling RTB with an exciting, unique, so-cool-they-can't-look-away promise and a rock solid guarantee that will show people you're willing to put your money where your mouth is. The sticky promise is your Sticky X-Factor. Put these two things together and you’ve got a truly Sticky RTB. Think of it as the Godfather RTB: It’s the offer they just can’t refuse (in a nice, non-mafia kind of way, of course).
Providing your JAM with a Sticky RTB so that they’ll be convinced they should take a chance on you means answering the two most important questions they’ll have:
What can you do for me that no one else can? (The Sticky X-Factor)
Why should I believe that you can fulfill your promise? (The Reason to Believe)
In formula form, that looks like this:
Your audience of heroes needs the answers to these questions in a clear, striking, easy-to-grasp way, convincing them that you’re worth considering over everything else out there. What’s the mind blowing superpower your heroes will gain through your subscription? Why are you the only guide qualified to show them the path to success?
Your Sticky RTB will inform your landing page, your ads, your messaging — everything. It will be woven into the fabric of your brand story and every single piece of messaging you put out in the world, no matter how long (a blog post or email) or short (a Tweet or TikTok). In other words: This is the kernel of your sticky reputation and the reason your heroes will cross the threshold and begin their journey with you.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Why should my JAM trust me to deliver on this promise?
How can I best convey my RTB in a memorable and exciting way?
How can I convey my authenticity to my audience through story?
To understand the important role RTB plays in influencing your JAM’s behavior, check out the chart below. It draws on Stanford behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg’s work around motivation. In a nutshell, he posits that in order for a desired behavior to take place, three things need to be present: motivation, ability, and a trigger to perform the desired action. Triggers are far more effective when a person has high motivation and the ability to perform a behavior.