Stories: The Secret Weapon for Anyone Building a Sales Funnel

In 2007, Jakob Nielsen published an eye-tracking study that showed where people actually looked when visiting a website.

He found that website visitors focused almost exclusively on the main content areas. And they almost completely ignored the right rail, where they knew they’d find ads.

Nielsen coined the term “Right-Rail Blindness” to describe this condition.

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Photo Source: Nielsen Norman Group

This shouldn’t surprise us.

Studies estimate the average American consumer is bombarded with 3,000 to 20,000 advertising messages every day.

As a marketer, this means you have to do something different with your advertising.

You have to do something to bypass their defense mechanisms.

Stories Are a Secret Weapon

Storytelling is a secret weapon for anyone trying to sell anything online.

A story is like a cloaking device: they let you bypass the defenses your audience uses to shield themselves from ad messages.

Stories pull people in through narrative.

When someone hears the beginning of a story, they want to know how it ends—even if they know the story is part of an advertising message.

Why Stories Work

Stories trigger the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks, but they forget completed tasks.

In other words, your brain keeps track of everything it’s started—but hasn’t finished.

It’s like an open window in your brain. Any uncompleted task will cause you a low level of discomfort—until you finish it. When the task is done, your brain can let it go.

This is why cliffhangers are so compelling in novels, TV shows, and movies.

Ever read a novel and told yourself you were just going to read one more chapter? Or that you were just going to watch one more episode on Netflix?

But then every chapter ended in a giant cliffhanger?

That’s how authors hook you into their story, keeping you up late into the night—so that you can find out what happens next.

By using a story in a sales message, you trigger the same effect.

People want to know how stories end, and their brain doesn’t care that they’re reading an ad instead of a sales message.

Stories Are Far More Memorable Than Data

Marketers love data. Nothing’s better than a good 400% ROI case study—or so the thinking goes.

Chip and Dan Heath would dispute that idea.

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the brothers describe an exercise Chip does with his students at Stanford University.

He provides data and background information to a group of students. Then he has them give one-minute presentations to the class.

After the presentations are over, he has the class do something unrelated for a few minutes. Then he abruptly asks everyone to write down everything they can remember about the presentations.

Chip has done this with numerous classes. Here’s how he described the results:

“In the average one-minute speech, the typical student use 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten tells a story. Those are the speaking statistics. The “remembering” statistics, on the other hand, are almost a mirror image: When students are asked to recall the speeches, 63% remember the stories. Only 5% remember any individual statistic.”

In other words, stories “stick” in our brains. Statistics do not.

It’s true of sales messages just as much as it is with presentations in a Stanford classroom.

How Stories Work

You don’t have to be Stephen King to write a good story.

American scholar Joseph Campbell studied stories from across human history, analyzing their pieces to see what made them so compelling.

His conclusion?

According to his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all epic stories follow a similar format, a “monomyth,” as he called it.

It’s known as “The Hero’s Journey.”

The Iliad, The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Star Wars, Finding Nemo—they all follow a consistent structure and format.

It looks something like this:

The Hero's Journey

 

With a little tweaking, you can use the same format too.

The Pixar Pitch: The Perfect Story Formula

If Joseph Campbell described The Hero’s Journey, Pixar perfected it.

Every Pixar movie has been a tremendous financial success.

The company released Toy Story in 1995 and followed it up with 16 straight hits. To date, Pixar movies have grossed over $10 Billion worldwide.

You may not realize it, but every Pixar movie follows the exact same sequence of events.

The characters change. So do the settings. But the story itself is always structured the same:

Here’s how writer Dan Pink outlined Pixar’s formula in his book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Motivating Others:

  1. Once upon a time there was…
  2. Every day…
  3. One day…
  4. Because of that…
  5. Because of that…
  6. Until finally…

When you tell your stories in your sales funnels, you can (and should) use the same formula.

If it’s good enough for $10 Billion at the box office, it’s good enough for your sales funnel.

3 Kinds of Stories to Use in Sales Funnels

There are three kinds of stories that work amazingly well in sales funnels:

  1. Personal success stories
  2. Customer success stories
  3. Persona-based stories

1. Personal success stories

The best stories are personal stories. So if you can, tell your story.

Did you lose 100 pounds in a year?

Did you take a business from zero to six figures?

Did you freelance on the side before finally quitting to work full-time for yourself?

Those stories are incredibly valuable, and you should use them heavily in your messaging, if you can.

2. Customer success stories

If you can’t use your own story, use customer success stories instead.

Find customers who are willing to go on the record. Have them tell their stories—on video if at all possible. Or at least in a letter.

Prospects are always wondering, “This thing they’re pitching sounds great, but does it really work the way they say it does?”

Customer success stories reassure skeptical prospects. They let them know the product or service they’re considering selling works in real life with real people.

3. Persona-based stories

What if you can’t use a personal story or a customer success story?

No worries.

Persona-based stories can be incredibly effective too.

In a persona-based story, you use a persona that represents your target audience. Then you tell a story with your persona as the main character.

For example, using the Pixar pitch, we could write:

Once upon a time, there was a recent college graduate who was looking for a job. Every day he searched the online job boards and applied to dozens of openings.

One day, a friend told him how she was making three thousand dollars a month online selling products on Amazon.

Because of that, he took a course on how to sell products online. Because of that, he started making money on his own.

Until finally, he stopped looking for a job, because he was making enough online to support a far better lifestyle that he dreamed could be possible at age 22.

See how compelling that is?

In four paragraphs and just over 100 words, I’ve pulled you in, engaged your emotions, and gotten you excited about selling products online.

All without a personal story or a true testimonial.

When to Use Stories in Sales Funnels

Now you know why you should use stories in your funnels (to stand out and to bypass our natural tendency to ignore sales messages).

You know what stories to tell (personal success, customer success, or persona-based stories).

And you have a formula for how to structure stories when you use them (The Pixar Pitch).

Let’s talk about how to use stories in the three stages of a sales funnel:

  1. Top of the Funnel
  2. Middle of the Funnel
  3. Bottom of the Funnel

1. Top of the Funnel Stories: Grabbing Attention

The big promise is easily the most common tactic used by marketers at the top of the funnel.

That’s why you see so many ads that promise:

  • Triple sales in 15 days with one simple CRM hack
  • Cut your expenses in half
  • Rank #1 in Google for any keyword on the planet

These pitches can work, but they also tend to get lost in the flood of ads we see every day.

They don’t bypass our defense mechanisms the way stories do.

But look what happens when we present our big promise within a story:

  • How I tripled sales in 15 days with one simple CRM hack
  • How ACME cut its expenses in half
  • The exact strategy we used to rank #1 in Google for 15 crazy-competitive keywords

See the difference?

Our brains flag the big promise pitch as “possible spam.”

But we react very differently to the story-based messages.

The Zeigarnik Effect kicks in. Our brains open a window and ask, “What’s the rest of the story? How did they do that? We need to find out.”

2. Middle of the Funnel Stories: Generating Interest and Desire

In the middle of the funnel, your goal is to convert the attention of your audience into interest and desire to learn more about your product or service.

In this part of the funnel, use stories that take prospects step-by-step through the process of getting results with your product.

Demo videos can be a great tool in this step of the funnel. Demos are especially effective if you record yourself or a real user in the process of using your product or solution.

3. Bottom of the Funnel Stories: Overcoming Objections + Closing the Sale

The bottom of the funnel is about closing the sale. Here’s where you need stories that help prospects make decisions.

This is exactly why you see so many testimonial quotes at the bottom of sales pages—usually surrounding the big “buy now” button.

For example, one of the best stories you can use is a happy client that says something like, “I was unsure at first, but buying this product turned out to be the best investment I ever made.”

Final Thoughts on Stories That Sell

At our most basic level, we all have a story. Luckily, content is king.

We have dreams. And we have obstacles in our way that are keeping us from achieving those dreams.

When you tell stories, you tap into these stories we tell ourselves.

Tell stories well, and you’ll gain the opportunity to show people how your product can help them finally achieve the success they’re dreaming of.

Nathan Collier
 

Nathan is a content marketing expert. He’s been writing professionally for over a decade and has extensive experience creating content online. He’s also a former journalist.