ARTICLE
August 13, 2021

Narrative Design: Craft a Story Using Conspiracy Principles

Louis Grenier
Founder of Everyone Hates Marketers

When I’m designing a product narrative, I think back to when I was in high school. I had a friend who believed in all sorts of conspiracy theories, including the moon landing being fake, JFK being murdered by people inside the “Deep State,” and, of course, 9/11 being an inside job.

We used to watch a bunch of YouTube documentaries and read articles from very obscure websites. It was a time where I felt very anxious about my future. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was trying to understand who I was as a person.

So, of course, I started to believe in those conspiracy theories. Weirdly, it made me feel better. I was making sense of the world. It made me more at ease. Thinking that 9/11 was an inside job was a much better version of reality; a small group of people was responsible for all the terrible events the world had witnessed over the last decades.

Why conspiracy theories exist

It turns out that's precisely why conspiracy theories exist.

It's a human reaction to confusing times.

According to Rob Brotherton, a psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, humans “are all just trying to understand the world and what's happening in it.

Product narrative design can be understood by how people tend to believe in conspiracy theories
Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories

A scientific study examined why conspiracy theories seem so prevalent in our online era (Goreis & Voracek, 2019). “Fear and anxiety were reported as positive predictors of conspiracy beliefs. As people are anxious, fear a threatening situation, or have low perceived feelings of control over situations, they tend to conspiracies.” This was especially true in people who need to exert control over their environment — they like the feeling of being in control at all times.

It’s much easier to make sense of the world around us when we can blame a particular enemy, a specific reason why things are happening. It’s precisely what happened to me in my late teenage years.

The truth is much more chaotic: those events happen almost at random, by different groups of people who have nothing to do with each other, which is challenging to process.

What conspiracy theorists and customers have in common

When you're trying to convince folks to buy from you, they feel what conspiracy theorists feel: the need to be in control, to relieve their anxiety.

Andy Raskin, a positioning consultant I've interviewed on the podcast told me:

It's really about how you're creating urgency in the buyer's mind to change.
Andy Raskin on helping marketers develop product narrative design

When people are looking to buy, they're looking for a change. They want to solve a problem. They want to become a better version of themselves.

Just like conspiracy theorists who want to cope and make sense of the world, customers feel the same. They seek control in some way. They want to make a change, and your product is there to help.

They want to understand why things happen, the cause of their pain.

Product narrative design: What we must do as marketers to convince folks to buy from us

We marketers must help the people we seek to serve to make sense of the world. It's our job to identify the source of their pain. It's not good enough to tell them about what we do or the product we sell.

We must wrap everything we tell them around the change they seek to make and the enemy, the status quo, that is the source of their current pain and anxiety.

We must help them gain back control by comparing the “old game” they’re currently playing with the “new game” they could be playing.

Andy Raskin again:

The teams that are really winning are doing something different. And it's really about a war against the status quo. It’s not about ‘How are we different from direct competitors?’. It’s ‘How is the game you have to play different from the game you used to have to play?’

Visualize a box.

Put all the reasons why your customers feel anxious or out of control in it.

Select the most pressing, discard the rest.

Now give that box a name.

This is the status quo. The old game. The reasons for their pain.

By going through this process, you’re helping your customers to understand the world. You’re doing the emotional labor for them, so they don’t have to. Just like conspiracy theorists who seek comfort and control, a specific enemy is identified.

And their world becomes less chaotic.

Three concrete examples of product narrative design

Example #1 - Star Wars

Let’s get away from the marketing world to illustrate this concept.

The first example comes from Andy Raskin again, with the main plot of Star Wars:

Luke has been bellyaching, complaining that he wants to have an adventure, all this stuff, and Obi-Wan comes to him and says, "Hey, let's go have an adventure. Come with me to," I think this place is called Alderaan. "I'll teach you how to be a pilot, the force, the whole thing." What does Luke say? Luke says, "Ooh, you know what, it's getting late. I have to go home." He basically says no.
Luke Skywalker is an example of the power of product narrative design
Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars
Because Luke is not in massive pain, he doesn't want to change, but then the Empire bombs Luke's foster parents and kills them. Now, Luke sees the future very differently, and we as the audience see it too, of course.
Probably, he's going to be dead because he's a sort of bratty kid. But then there's this other game that he's being invited to play. You could call it the grown-up game; he’s been playing the kid game, and Obi-Wan asks him to that.
So, what do we have to do? We have to kill the parents of the prospects. Of course, figuratively.
What we mean by that is we have to show them that there are indeed stakes, that this new game is the one that the winners are playing, and that not playing it, and not playing it well, is a road to ruin, that you're going to lose.

Example #2 - Hotjar

Hotjar’s new positioning, which I helped develop, is another example of assisting customers in making sense of the world around them to make a more informed decision.

After interviewing customers and analyzing voice-of-customer surveys, we found out that virtually all of Hotjar’s customers were also using analytics tools like Google Analytics.

We also found out that it was the primary source of their pain: those tools couldn’t show them what visitors were really doing on their website. They were left in the dark. They had to make guesses. They were not in control.

So we gave that box a name: traditional web analytics.

That was our status quo—the reasons for our customers’ pain:

Hotjar's headline is an example of product narrative design
Hotjar's positioning focuses on the status quo that causes web analytics users pain.

In two short sentences, we show prospective customers that we understand their pain, relieve their anxiety by naming the status quo, and introduce a “new game” so they can get back in control.

Example #3 - Everyone Hates Marketers

With EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the enemy is: being forced to use marketing bullshit.

I don’t blame folks who have to use marketing bullshit to reach their target or please their boss.

Instead, I blame the “old game” they’re forced to play. I blame the massive pressure we’re under to deliver results, all the while being under-resourced. I blame the average products we’re forced to sell to people who don’t really need them.

Three questions to ask yourself when designing your product narrative

If you want to make the world seems less chaotic for your market, ask yourself these three questions:

  • What is the cause of their pain?
  • Why are they seeking to change?
  • What is standing in the way of their progress?

A good status quo tends to follow these rules:

  • It’s the ‘old game’ some people are forced to play.
  • It’s leaving both losers and winners.
  • It’s one of the leading causes of your market’s pain (without blaming them for it)
  • It’s either external or internal (beliefs, habits, etc.)
  • And it’s sometimes the result of a more significant trend.

Just like conspiracy theorists who feel the need to identify an enemy to relieve their anxiety, identifying an explicit status quo helps your customers to make sense of the world and give them back control.

To summarize

  • People believe in conspiracy theories because they seek to understand the world around them, to overcome their anxiety, and to gain back control.
  • People feel the same when seeking to change and buy a product or service.
  • As a marketer, your job is to identify the “old game” some people are forced to play, which leaves both losers and winners.
  • This status quo can be external (think cultural, technological, or political changes) or internal (think internal beliefs or habits)

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