In this episode, my guest is Camille Ricketts, Head of Marketing at Notion.
Camille is the former head of Content and Marketing at First Round Capital, and you may also know her from First Round Review. Her CV is very impressive as she’s previously worked for Tesla, VentureBeat, and The Wall Street Journal.
There is so much value in today’s podcast, it’s difficult to know where to start. You’ll learn how to identify which customers make exceptional user stories and how to ensure that they understand what you expect from them. Camille also explains how to use the three-tier interviewing system to encourage your customers to give thorough, specific answers.
listen to this episode
- What is wrong with typical online user studies
- The benefits of producing one in-depth story instead of 50 shallow ones
- Ensuring all content produced is useful
- The consequences of shallow user stories on your brand
- Using the inverted triangle to organize your story
- How to convince people to be on your blog or podcast
- The importance of being a good storyteller
- The benefits of recording interviews to make full use of the content
- How to be the painkiller and not the vitamin
- Preparing your customer in advance of the interview
Louis: Get started. Bonjour, bonjour and welcome to another episode of Everyone Hates Marketers.com, the no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast for marketers, marketing consultants, founders and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.
In today’s episode you’ll learn how to create effective user stories or case studies. And my guest today is the head of Marketing at Notion, it’s the all-in-one workplace for your notes, tasks, wikis, et cetera, et cetera. Previously, she was the head of Content and Marketing at First Round Capital where she interviewed technology experts. She had this very famous First Round Review that went all over the web, but also she worked for Tesla, VentureBeat, The Wall Street Journal. And then your CV’s pretty damn impressive. So I have a very experienced guest on board. So that’s why I’m super happy to have you, Camille Ricketts, on board. Good to have you.
Camille: Gosh, thank you so much for having me. I’m honored to be here.
Louis: So tell me about the typical case study or user story that we see online and why they are wrong. Because I can picture it in my head already, and I think people listening right now can picture it in their head. But I want to know from your perspective, and don’t be afraid to be very blunt about what you tend to see online because you have a huge experience in journalism and all of that. We’ll talk about that later.
Camille: Sure. So I don’t want to be critical of anybody because I don’t think that anyone is setting out to create bad user stories. I don’t think that anyone’s sitting down saying, “I’m going to do this in a low quality way. It doesn’t matter that much to me.” I think that we end up making trade-offs when it comes to speed, when it comes to ease of process, particularly because I think a lot of people feel the need to create a lot of user stories and that pressure to hit a lot of volume ends up … Meaning that they sacrifice a certain amount of craft or the process that they use in order to surface the stories is a little bit more expedient than it might otherwise be. So I want to acknowledge the fact that there are multiple challenges. In fact, it’s far more challenging than one would think to produce these great stories.
But I think the result is that you see a lot of brands just coming out with a profusion of blog posts that are complete with a lot of stock photography that aren’t particularly indicative of anything to do with the story or what it is that their particular product is being used for. The actual writing around the story is so focused on their solution but not the details of their solution that it ends up reading very generic. Or just like a string of quotations of people saying that whatever they’re doing is great, but without any sort of anchoring detail about why it’s great.
So I think if you’re not careful, you end up with a lot of short form stuff that not very many people want to engage with, but it’s still taking up a tremendous amount of your time to do it.
Louis: Thanks for putting the caveat of … Obviously this is not my intention as well, to just criticize openly everyone for no reason. It’s very much the same, the premise of the podcast. But we understand that people are under pressure to deliver results. We understand that they are under pressure for them to meet their quarterly targets. We understand that technology gets in the way as well and makes it difficult to [inaudible 00:03:19] for users. But we know there is a better way and this is why this business is specifically used for them.
Something I really like about your work and your mindset, it seems like … And again, I’ve never spoken to you before now, but I can guess it’s through your work that you’ve done in particular with the First Round Review and other stuff, is that you kind of preach less shallow and way more in depth type of content. So it seems like you would rather produce one very in depth story that connects with people deeply instead of 50 that are just, as you said, shallow and short. Am I right or am I wrong?
Camille: Oh, you’re absolutely right. That I would say that if I have a hallmark, it is that I want to focus on going very much so in depth. And even further than that, I would say that everything that I write or everything that I put out, my number one focus is making sure that it is useful. And I think that I have a pretty intense standard for what is useful. It’s not just insights that people can apply or ways that they can think, but I want to give them tips from a credible source that they can apply immediately.
And that was I think what ended up differentiating First Round Review in some ways, is that instead of it being about trends or about different just high level sort of notions of what should be going on at companies, it was like, “Here’s an email template that you should use in order to express X thing.” “Here is a checklist that you should go through before executing something like a layoff that’s very sensitive.” Like tools that were very, very tactile in nature. And even now when I’m at Notion and thinking about how we should produce content, I want to bring that priority of utility into everything that we do.
Louis: And I don’t want to say that I’m in the same level than you. I’m not, that’s for sure. But the mindset that I have with this podcast is very much the same. It’s like this very, very in depth practical interviews about one specific topic and specificity is a big thing. In depth, specific, actionable so that you can really … like from what we’re going to devise together and what you’re going to talk about specifically. If you’re listening to this podcast right now, at the end of this episode, you should be able to literally go to your computer or whatever and start creating stories that resonate with people that are much more in depth.
So I connect with your mindset and I applaud it as well because I know how difficult it is in today’s world to actually stand out this way because of the pressure that we are all under to grow companies or revenue or whatever. So thank you for doing what you do and fighting the good fight.
To go back to what you said, so most user stories online are short, very shallow, not actionable. They use stock photos, something I like to fight against as well. What do you think are the consequences of having such user stories or case studies on your site as a brand?
Camille: So I think the consequences are subtle because I think that they end up being useful in a certain sense, particularly as sales collateral, that type of thing. Because really what user stories are trying to accomplish is this, is you want a prospective customer to see that another brand that they relate to and respect is using your solution to solve a problem, like a problem that they themselves have. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re trying to achieve with a user story. So most of the time you can hand somebody kind of a short, very high level user story in a sales conversation and they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I do respect X brand. So nice to see that they’re also using you.”
But that’s all of the context that they’ll take away. I think that you miss the opportunity to inject some customer success into the collateral that you’re sharing in that type of exchange. Because instead of the person just looking at the logo and being like, “Okay, checks out, that sounds right.” You could give them more information about how that particular brand has applied your product in a way that gives them a leg up when they themselves are trying to have success with the product.
And truly all you’re trying to get those people to do is achieve an aha moment or a win or acknowledge your value as early as possible because that’s what’s going to help them stick with it. So you’re kind of sacrificing your ability to get them even closer to that moment by not giving that additional high utility context.
Louis: Any other bad consequences you don’t really want to have in your business?
Camille: I think you’re just wasting a lot of time to be honest, because truly if people are only going to be moved by the logo and maybe a testimonial quote and they’re not going to really even read the rest of the content that you’re curating, that’s a lot of time. I have so much respect for content marketers. It requires so much time to surface this stuff to actually do the writing. It’s a craft and so if you’re employing one or more people to do this and their writing is not actually being engaged with the way that you wish it would be, you’re missing out on a lot of resource there.
Louis: Let me tell you something else that I don’t necessarily connect with most studies, case studies, user stories that I see online. And I know it’s difficult for brands to nail that because it could be quite difficult for their own ego. But actually I like to read real stories of people who had objections about potentially using the tool, were not sure about potentially using the service. And where in the story where you actually share that. Like whoever didn’t really know if the tool was for them. They had these questions, like really sharing the authentic story that they had and not the kind of the polished, without any spice type of story that we all know is kind of 90% bullshit in a sense.
I’m being very leading here when I’m going to ask this question, but what do you think of that?
Camille: We are in alignment on that. Certainly. I think that user stories that lack fundamental conflict lose the reader early. That there needs to be a story, an arc, a narrative. You can’t just say, “Hey, these people put our product to work and it was amazing. And here they are saying how amazing it was.” And maybe here are some stats that they very subjectively came up with during kind of an ad hoc interview that I’ll share with you where somebody says like, “We’re 130% more productive than we were before.” What does that actually mean? Seeing the backstory of how a lot of those statistics get surfaced, they truly do not mean anything. And I think that savvy customers know that.
So I would say that if you want to bring people along on this journey and really relate to them, which is upfront I think the core challenge of a user story, then you have to include that part where they weren’t quite sure about you or initially they maybe struggled to find the right application for your product or something along those lines, but then there was a click or a turn. And that makes that clicker turn a lot more trustworthy in the broader scheme of the piece.
Louis: So you’ve put it way better than I did. And you mentioned the s-word, story and even story arc, which is a concept that I’m sure you’re going to expand in the next few minutes. Because this is it, to truly connect with people, we must tell things in the right way, in the right order with the right elements or else you’re going to lose them quite quickly as you mentioned.
So I’m really here to jump in is kind of a method or the step by step that you’ve kind of developed through your experience on how to actually create user stories that are effective, relevant, using story arc and probably some journalist type of tactics as well. Because this is something else … And I actually, I obviously looked you up and looked at your profile and your experience, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Have you studied journalism or not?
Camille: So I didn’t actually take any classes on journalism, but at Stanford, I got involved with the Stanford daily newspaper very, very early, like immediately. And it was basically what I did at Stanford to be very honest. I was there every single day. I ended up being editor in chief by the end. And when you are editor in chief of a newspaper like that, you get to kind of get private tutoring in some ways from the most excellent journalists and professors on campus who are your advisors and kind of your phone a friend. So while I didn’t study journalism, it was very much so influential in my education and I think that I got kind of a on the ground learning experience there.
Louis: So maybe while we’re discussing how to create better effective user stories, it seems like throughout that you’re going to explain also link to your experience as an editor in chief and all of that. Because I’m pretty sure that are a lot of concepts that are common between journalism and I’m telling you 50 stories, even if it’s a case study on a B2B software site, for example.
Camille: Yeah, I’d say that the biggest journalism learning to apply to user stories or case studies is the inverted triangle. Are you familiar with that?
Camille: As a model or a framework? Okay. So the inverted triangle is essentially like if you think of a triangle that’s upside down, that’s how you want to organize your story, thinking about the most broadly relevant and important to the most people piece of information at the top. And then you work your way down to the more specific, this is only going to be important to or appeal to a small segment of my audience point at the bottom. And that allows your whole story to have the most relevance to as many of your audience members as possible.
So when I think about a user story, particularly here at Notion, we’re thinking about it in terms of like which features do we highlight? Which outcomes for the customers do we want to highlight? And we want to make sure that we’re starting with the ones that are going to be the most helpful for the highest number of people possible and make the biggest impact for them if they implement the product.
Camille: Yeah, inverted triangle is the number one, but then we do get all the way down to sort of nitty gritty stuff where it’s like, well if this is your particular situation, which is likely not, here’s a very cool Notion set up that can still fit your needs. And that way people who do want to stay with us through the whole story, will get there and that’ll be valuable for them.
I think you want to give people as many opportunities as possible to choose to drill down into more information. And that’s something that we thought about at The Review as possible … as much as possible, which is just okay throughout, it’s kind of a choose your own adventure where like, “Okay, I’ve gotten a lot of great advice already. I’m going to hop out of the story now or I can choose to engage with things on a deeper level.” You want to give people all the choices but presented in a way that it’s not overwhelming and they really do feel like there’s lots of forks in the road where they have permission to stop reading.
Louis: This is already really good and we haven’t even started. So let’s start.
Louis: Let’s say you have to train someone in your team who just joined and this person would be in charge of creating user stories. You can’t really be involved anymore, but you only have 40-ish minutes or less to actually explain step by step how they should do it. So we need to go in detail about it because they might have to interview said customer, they might have to do X, Y, and Z. Anyway, step one, what do you advise them to do?
Camille: Okay, so first of all, you need to get people to agree to give you these stories. So you need to get people to agree to interviews. You need to figure out who it is that you think is going to make for a compelling story before you even ask them to be interviewed. So it really requires going through all of your users and thinking about what is critical to a story that is going to be very convincing to the type of audience you want to move.
So, I mean probably even taking a further step back, you’re getting into product positioning. I don’t want to go too, too far back, but you’re getting into product positioning around like who is your audience? What is it that you are solving for them and what is the value of your product that solves their particular problem? And having very tight concrete definitions of all three of those things.
You need to have that set in stone before you even broach the topic of user stories because your choice of who you feature, it’s totally dependent on your answers to those other questions. You want to choose people who your core audience that you’re going after are going to immediately relate to and respect. I think those are the two things. You can’t have one and not the other. You need to create user stories that are aspirational and that means that the people who are reading these, need to want to be like the people who you are featuring. So that should probably filter out a bunch of people and give you kind of a narrower set to go after already.
And then after that, you want to find people who are avid users of your product, not just casual users of your product. So you want to look at how often they’re logging in or user statistics or something along those lines, whatever you have available to you.
And then you want to also get a sense of how much they have authentic love and joy because of your product. So if you can get any sort of read on that from things they’ve said online, emails that they’ve sent maybe to your customer support team, conversations that they’ve had with your sales team. If you do have the good fortune of already working with a company that has customer success, that tends to be a really great sourcing pipeline because they’re the ones that are making customers happy and then able to introduce you to those already happy customers.
So if you have a checklist, you want people who your audience is going to respect and admire, you want people who use your product a lot and you want people who have a lot of authentic love for your product. Those are the three things.
Louis: So let me cut you right there.
Camille: Yeah, sorry. I hope I’m not being too long winded.
Louis: Yeah, no, that’s perfect. So step zero, make sure you have your foundations in place. We’re not going to talk about that in depth in this episode. We’ve covered it multiple times. If you’re listening to this episode right now and you can search like positioning and you’ll have plenty to play from, but exactly as you said, this is kind of the foundations you need to have. So step zero is that. Step one, then you so select people use your product a lot and select people who are very happy with your product in a sense as well. But then the first thing you mentioned, which was select people who would be respected in a sense, right?
Camille: Yeah. Who your customers want to be like.
Louis: Yeah, so this one … The other two seems pretty straightforward in my opinion. You sell stuff online, you see whether they like it or not. As you said, you should talk to your success team or sales team. This one though, seems a bit more tricky. What do you look out for exactly?
Camille: This is a bit more subjective and definitely is going to draw on your intuition that you have about your market and brands that you understand are already doing a really good job or when you have talked to a lot of customers, because I recommend that any great marketer should have done a ton of customer interviews upon entry. I think a lovely question to include in all those conversations is what other brands do you really love or use or are you obsessed with? So you right away get that kind of subset of brands that they really love or admire.
But yeah, brands that seem to be performing really well, who have raised a ton of money recently in their particular space, who tend to be in the press a lot in a positive way. I think you want to have an understanding of who those sorts of heavyweights are in the markets of your customers.
Louis: I love this because I think that’s pretty actionable. So as you said, I completely agree with you. Customer interviews is kind of marketing 101, especially when you’re starting out in the new company. Completely agree. So you can ask the question, what other brands do you admire? Great. You can also send surveys, like if you send surveys to customers regularly, you can have this question. You can ask your customer, success people to actually ask this question every time they talk to the customer.
I mean, do you have a lot of ways to do it? You can ask like a Twitter question if you’re on Twitter or LinkedIn or whatever instead of guessing it because most of the time you’re not your customer. So the brands I admire may not be the brands that my customer admire and you need to be careful with that.
Any other tips to uncover those people?
Camille: I think that’s probably pretty well rounded. I think that people do generally have a sense of what companies are doing well just by Googling around, which I know sounds imprecise, but it’s better than nothing if you need quick intelligence on that.
Louis: So we have those people, we have like the intersection of people who use the product a lot, who love it and share, talk about it and companies who are kind of admired and respected by their peers. So that’s the intersection of the three.
Now, how do we reach out to those people to convince them to be featured on our blog or whatever?
Camille: Yeah, I mean this is a sensitive thing because you are asking for their time. You’re essentially asking for a favor. You can make a good argument that you are going to cross promote their brand and you can give them some really interesting stats around how much of your audience might see it. Like for instance, at Notion, we talk a lot about how we’ll probably bake in a user story to our onboarding flow and therefore X number of thousands of people will probably see it or be sent it in their inbox. So you want to come up with something around how this is going to be a cross promotional opportunity for them.
But know that that is not going to be as influential as you think it is, I think. And that you are essentially asking these people for a favor and you want to treat this interaction as such. If you can get a warm intro from customer success or sales or some sort of frontline person at your company, that’s the best.
If your CEO is somebody who you know is really influential for these people, find a way to give him the exact text that he or she needs to send that directly to them because a request from the CEO obviously carries a lot more weight or the founder in a lot of circumstances. I guess head of Marketing for instance, you want to kind of leverage that sort of title or position within the organization. So I think the social capital really matters here in kind of an odd way, but just want to acknowledge that.
And then I’d say that you want to make your request as simple and as fully contained as possible. So you want it to be short. And then you also want to give people an exact expectation of what this is going to require from them. So for us, it’s like a half an hour interview and then we’ll draft the story, we’ll send it back to you for your approval. All told, this whole thing should take you no more than 45 minutes.
So you want to be able to set that expectation and I think use bullet points, use numbered steps, make it very easy to scan and get a sense of like, this is not going to be a massive time commitment for me. So if your email can be worded as like, “Hey, I’m this person within the organization, this is why this would be tremendously impactful for us.” You want to give them a sense of how much of a favor they’re doing for you. Because people really do like doing favors. Give them a very quick rundown of what it’s going to actually entail from a time perspective and work perspective from them. And then at the end, make the kicker the fact that this is a good cross promotional opportunity and in what ways that’s true.
I would not offer a discount necessarily in the first message. I would see how that lands and expect a very low hit rate. We get maybe like 20% yeses from the emails that we send out. And so I would say, set your own expectations in a way that’s going to make you less disappointed or less stressed out. So don’t send 10 emails and hope that you’re going to get 10 stories. You’ll be far less stressed out if you send more and expect less.
Louis: I’ve had success in the past by sending cupcakes over the posts to people. Once an email didn’t land or they want not to share, I would contact a bakery near the office and we’d tell them to hand deliver like 12 cupcakes with a personalized note on it. And usually you get it.
Now, it may be a bit expensive, but if user stories is part of your strategy, then I would recommend not to be like a salesman, like where you contact them 12 times before the reply.
Camille: Yeah, don’t.
Louis: But also be creative in the way you ask for this favor. Because exposure as a benefit is kind of weak. So if you talk to SEO people who understand SEO well, you could say, “Listen, this would give you a back link from our site. If your site has good authority, as you said before. Or you can simply say, “Listen, this is your way to help out our community as well.” So I found success by positioning them as the experts who are kind of the people who are going to help out our users as well. So you positioned them to be the expert.
So that worked as well in the past. But I love your steps. Like everything you said, like step by step of email, that super clear what you expect out of them. Don’t expect a high hit rate, as you said. I mean that’s [inaudible 00:25:01] I completely agree with you hundred percent.
So we send those emails, we’ve identified those people, we send those emails. A few people reply, what do we do next?
Camille: So then you want to set up an interview with them. You also want to prime them to give you good information. And that doesn’t mean having them do additional work before the interview. Honestly, it just means giving them enough context to understand what you want to discuss that it goes in their brains and they start to work on it unconsciously. This was a big thing that we discovered at First Round, actually, that when I first started there, I would just go into these interviews without having given the person a sense of the questions I was going to ask or the topic that I was going to go after. And not only did I learn how necessary giving people a heads up on those things was, I learned how much better the content was going to be because of it.
So I ended up actually developing a process where I would have a 30-minute call in advance of the first round interview just to talk about topic, just for us to get excited and on the same page about what it was we were going to focus on. And then in between that call and the actual interview, I would send questions, not a lot of questions, just five that were like a good overall summary of what we were going to do. And I found that even if people said that they didn’t even write notes or anything like that, the fact that they had seen the questions primed better responses for them.
So I’m trying to apply this to the user story thing now where in advance you want to be like, “Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. Let’s find a date, here’s exactly what we’re going to do. I’ll send the invite, be the one that takes care of all the logistics and here are the things that I’m really excited to chat about with you during the course of the conversation.”
Try to schedule it in the near term. I would say don’t necessarily have things out on the calendar several months in advance because then people kind of forget or circumstances may have changed, but just make it really pithy, get out of their way fast, but also seed some of the thoughts that you want them to ruminate on.
Louis: Yeah, makes total sense
Camille: Does that sound good to you?
Louis: Yeah. It does because I’m checking my own processes I’ve used in the past and yeah, it checks out for sure.
So the one thing I’ve encountered in the past is when you send us questions in advance, some people who are not very comfortable with talking, like being interviewed or just having a conversation, we tend to over-prepare and they would come up paragraph. It’s difficult then to break away from the blanket kind of answers you get that are very robotic in a sense. So how do you deal with this particular situation?
Camille: Yeah, this is definitely something that I learned on the job at The Review and we developed what we ended up … me and my colleague Sean Young, who was my incredible partner at The Review, developed what we call the three tier interviewing system, which is meant to anticipate this exact thing that you talk about where when you ask somebody a question, their impulse is almost always to give you kind of a platitude as a response. Where they’re like, “Oh …”
You ask them like, “Oh, well what made your team so successful at that?” And they’ll say something like, “Well, we only hire the A players,” or something along those lines. Doesn’t help anybody. They’ve heard it a thousand times. In the user story context, you might be like, “Well, what was it that was so helpful about this part of the product?” And they’ll be like, “You know, it helped us increase communication flow.” And you’re like, okay, that’s kind of good. But what does that actually mean in practice?
Your goal when telling a user story is to help your audience visualize exactly what it is that people mean. So you want to ask them the second tier question, which is really just saying, “Well, how? How do you do that?” And see what people come back with. And sometimes the second tier, you have to stay on that second tier for a while and ask it in different ways a few times.
But even give them, I think guideposts to how they can elaborate. A lot of people don’t know how they can elaborate or they assume that you’re not interested in that level of detail. So you have to encourage them that you are. And so you have to say something along the lines of like, “Well, what interview questions would you even ask to hire an A player in that position?” Or, “When you say that communication has been improved, can you give me an example of two people on your team who you think actually have clearer communication with each other and about what?” So you have to invite them to give you more detail. Because most people don’t want to overwhelm whoever they’re speaking to.
And then the third tier is like, give me a concrete example. Whatever it is that you’ve said, however you’ve told me you do it, now give me an example from your past that illustrates that particular thing in practice.
Louis: This is really, really good. You need to write a book about it and sell it. Because it’s actually so true when you do customer interviews, this is exactly what you see. So what I do at the start is I like to just ask some dummy questions that are very easy to answer to get them in the groove. And then increase the difficulty, exactly as you said, I don’t have this three tier system. It’s not as clever as what you’ve been doing. But definitely I never take the first answer as truth. So I never really believe what they say and always want to dig deeper on it on like what? What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?
To prime them though, do you think there’s any way in the email before to really prime them about the fact that we are genuinely interested in what you have to say. We are expecting you to give us some examples, you should have any … like we’re going to dig deep into your story. Do you do that?
Camille: Yeah. I think when you list … I tend to stick to this quest, like either three to five questions that I send to prime people. And I will, as part of that, say, “And I would be so excited to have exact examples.” Or “Don’t be surprised if I am interested in X, Y, Z more detail about this.” I do try to initiate them into that way of thinking, but it’s very hard to do. Most people will not know exactly what is meant by that so you have to be able to lead them through it in the conversation.
And I even say things like, “Oh, I’m a huge nerd about X, Y, Z thing.” Or like, “Oh, I’m super fascinated with this bizarre little quirk that you mentioned.” Or something along those lines that makes them very … I guess makes it clear how excited you are.
I think that’s so much of a good interview is the energy that the interviewer brings to it. You’d want to be leaning forward and be like, “Oh my gosh, wait, can you go back to that thing? That was really exciting for me to hear.” You want to give people a lot of nonverbal cues, I think because that’ll invite them to share even more-
Louis: This was really exciting-
Camille: -than they would otherwise.
Louis: This was really exciting for me to hear, Camille. Now I’m just trying to play it back what you’ve done. No, but it’s true. It’s really interesting to hear your structure and the way you’re doing things because it validates a bit what I’ve tried to do in the past but to a level that I hadn’t really ever thought before, to be honest.
So I think listeners would really take a lot of value just from these first few steps and I know we have a few to cover. So we’ve identified those customers, we’ve reached out to them in a huge level of detail. We’ve made sure that we explain what to expect from them. And we are also using kind of a three tier question system to make them give good answers, right?
Camille: Yes. Yes.
Louis: So what’s next?
Camille: So sorry, you’re breaking up just a little bit.
Louis: Okay. Yeah, I can see I’m breaking up. So don’t worry. Can you still hear me okay? Or is it still breaking up?
Camille: I’m so sorry. Should we reload?
Louis: We don’t have to because the audio will keep recording and then I can cut it out so don’t worry about it. I would advise maybe you can switch off the video and I switch off mine.
Louis: So, you’ve talked about a few things that are super interesting. First, how to find the right customer to reach out to. Second, making sure that in your communication, you make it extremely detailed and very, very clear what you can expect out of them. Third, is to actually start running the interview. But also having this kind of three-tier interview system in place, so that you never take the first answer for granted, you always dig deeper and ask for example. Right?
Camille: Mm-hmm (positive). Yes. Absolutely.
Louis: What’s next then? Once you have this interview done, I suppose, what do you do once you have this raw data in front of you?
Camille: Yeah. You want to record the interview, so you have full optionality with all of the material. You obviously want to ask the person’s permission, but you want to record as much material as you possibly can. At Notion, we love to do interviews over Zoom, honestly, so that we can record a tour that they give us of their notion workspace. That gives us a lot of really good detail around how they actually use it, what it looks like, how we can ground our user story and specifics, even specific images.
We also record the conversation and get that transcribed. This is a system that I developed at the review, that not everybody likes, but it has helped me an awful lot. Where I put the transcript and a blank piece of paper next to each other on my screen, and I will go through the transcript and pull over to the blank piece of paper everything that sticks out to me as useful.
I’m really looking for the high utility point, that I shared earlier. Like, what are all of the actual tactics that were shared? What are pieces of advice that were shared? What are instructions that they’ve given? I try to start with all of those things, and that’s what I ended up organizing into my outline. Because I think that that is actually the most important material, that’s going to differentiate my final product.
From there, I try to extrapolate from each of those sections of things that I’ve organized now, like what are the overarching points. Or when it comes to your product, you want the headlines to be statements of benefit that your product is providing. These tactics are the details about how they use your product, or features that they’ve made use of, are the supporting details of these statements of benefits.
That’s when I will build my outline. From there, I’ll write through the story, and try to be clever and make the language sing as much as possible. But those were the bones, that I like to start with.
Louis: Okay. So I love that. Let’s go back to what you said before, which is super interesting and super important as well, make sure you record the conversation. I mean, that’s just absolutely critical. Make sure you record it and make sure you get it transcribed, which is also critical.
Camille: Getting it transcribed enables you to really, as you said, extract the right information. But then there’s also something you make them do, right? Using Zoom or whatever other video software you want to use, you can make them share your screen.
If your tool is a software, if what you’re sending is software, you can really make them, instead of just… for them to tell you an example of how they use it, you can genuinely ask them, “Well show me how you’ve done it. Show me exactly the step you took.” They can share their screen, and this is how you can really get very granular, right?
Camille: Yes. I think that a big mistake that gets made is that people are like, “Oh, I’ll just take notes.” And then, you’re actually like furiously typing during your interview or you’re handwriting notes. You’re trying to describe to yourself what it is you’re seeing on the screen with that, if you don’t record. That’s going to end up being very hard to parse later. I think, just give yourself all of the materials you possibly can have.
One thing that we like to do at Notion with our user stories, is actually put screenshots of how the people are using the product into the body of the post. I’ve only actually seen a much fewer number of other companies do that. But I think that it’s good for actually grounding readers in, “Oh, that’s how this thing would look, this is how this thing would look for me.” The only way that you can actually make those screenshots possible, is if you record your initial interview with this person.
Louis: As you said before, like you really want people to visualize things. This is incredibly important, because you want people in their head to imagine what it’s like. That’s much more powerful than just blanket statement that are not super interesting for them.
You take notes [crosstalk 00:04:52] of the most important things. Using the transcript, as you said, you take a blank sheet of paper, you take the transcript, you start to extract the important information. I suppose from years of experience, being ultimately editor-in-chief and a marketer, you have a knack for understanding the interesting point of the story.
But if you had to describe it to someone that you need to offload these tests to, what would you tell them to really identify as the core of the story, the things that are super interesting? What are the parameters that make them interesting, in the first place?
Camille: Yeah. I think that for all of marketing, you really want to focus on the things that make you different. Two things, actually, you want to focus on things that actually make you substantially different, observably different, and I’ll talk a little bit about that. But you also want to make sure that you are not a vitamin, that you are a actual painkiller.
I don’t know if you’ve heard that analogy before, but a lot of companies, especially startup companies, software companies, I think, fall into one of two buckets. Where they make a product that either makes something in your life a little bit better or makes you better at it, and that’s a vitamin. Then there are companies that make a product, that actually solve an existing pain point. Make something that was hard, easier; make something that was really a hassle much clearer, something like that.
So the most successful companies, in my opinion, and I think if we looked over time, are the ones that were painkillers, not vitamins. People don’t necessarily want to pay a ton of money for a nice to-have or something that is going to make them a little bit better. They want something that is going to solve a real problem for themselves.
I think that for figuring out which information you want to highlight in your case study or your user story, you want to make sure that you are focusing on the features that are actually different from your competition, are actually different from what people would expect. And that doesn’t include things like, “Our customer service is better,” or, “We are better designed.” Those are subjective things.
You want it to be something that is factual, really grounded in something that anyone could see. You also want to focus on the things that make it clear that you are a painkiller, not a vitamin.
Louis: I love this. I really do. Make things different, identify the things that are truly different, and identify the painkillers and not the vitamins.
There is another process that sales people use, and marketers use as well to define the market. One of the parameter to define a good target audience, is to know whether they have a bleeding neck problem. Which is a bit of a shitty way to say… you can visualize it. Do they have a problem so bad that, yeah, there is like literally bleeding neck and you need to do something about it now.
Now that may be a bit over the top, but that’s kind of the idea we’re talking about. Something that you need to solve, a pain that you need to relieve, not just something that make you 5% more productive.
Camille: Exactly. Yeah. I love that. I love that. I love how graphic that is.
Louis: Very graphic.
Camille: One thing that I often think that we miss, you don’t want to just acknowledge your user’s pain point, you kind of want to lean on the wound a little bit. Make them really understand either how much money they’re losing or, how much time they’re wasting or something like that. Which doesn’t sound very nice, obviously, and I’m joking mostly. But you do want people to really understand the magnitude of the problem, that you are solving for them as well.
Louis: Now, you don’t want to turn into a snake oil salesman either, right? So there is always a balance between making sure you respect the brand, as well as making sure that you give enough data or agitate the pain enough. You always need to find kind of the right balance, because if you go too much on the agitating the pain and putting salt on the wound and putting a finger in the wound, you start to become someone who might not be that respected. You need to kind of find the right balance.
There’s something you said at the very start, at the S World story arc, and I think this is a next step and probably the final step. Once we have all of those elements we’ve identified what makes you different truly, and what is a pain killer or something that really relieves pain, the bleeding neck problem, once again, I suppose we’re putting that into a story arc and we’re making sure that we are writing it in this way.
Camille: Yes, definitely. I think that you definitely don’t want to be going over the top in any way. In fact, I think you want to take a fairly restrained tone, where you don’t want to sound like a carnival barker, where you’re like, “Here are all of the amazing benefits. Step right up, and see everything that we can do for you.”
I think that you want to actually take kind of a conservative approach, that you are constructing an argument. You are not telling, you are showing. You are not going to tell people exactly what it is that you want them to take away from this necessarily, without being able to present them with enough evidence that they would be able to arrive at that themselves.
Louis: This is so powerful. I think you have a good way to really summarize things very well, to their essence. It makes it for a very interesting conversation, to be honest. Can you repeat what you said, just there, so that everyone can really sink that in and digest it. Can you repeat the core elements there?
Camille: The core elements of the entire process? Or, of [inaudible 00:10:40].
Louis: What you just said. Show don’t tell-
Camille: [inaudible 00:10:46] Yeah. I think you really, you want to see your user story as one major thesis, which is your headline. What is it that you are wanting people to understand after they’ve read this? And then, that piece is broken up into several mini theses. Where you are making statements of benefits, saying, “This is something that our product is going to do well for you, or a benefit that you are going to reap when you use our product.”
Under each of those mini theses, you need to have a case that you’re building. The evidence in your case are: the features that enable that benefit, the ways in which the customer that you are featuring has used those features, what they’ve said about those particular features and how they’ve been connected to that benefit.
You do not want to be telling people outright, “Here are the things that we do well, and take those with you.” You need to be able to make an argument that is going to help them arrive at those things themselves, even if you did not state them as explicitly.
Louis: Yeah. And this is kind of the balance that you need to strike. How long do they typically be for you? Do you think there is a proper length for this type of format, or do you think it really depends?
Camille: I think that they can be really short. I think, even though at the top of this conversation I said, most of what you see out there is very short, and high level and breezy, and doesn’t go into a lot of real depth. You can go into a lot of depth in a short amount of writing. I don’t think that length is necessarily, correlated to quality.
But I do think that you want to provide enough detail, and that should really be your benchmark of quality. Where, when you read through the story, are you providing enough, very clearly drawn detail, that whoever reads this is going to be able to immediately understand what is going on for this other customer you’re telling the story about, how they actually put your product to work. What are the things that they did with it.
Also, what are the granular details of how the benefit was produced. Not just, “They started using this particular feature, and then they were able to drive 10X more traffic to this site.” What were the actual tactical details, that went into the implementation that helped them get that result.
Louis: This is perfect. I think we’ve covered the steps to create a very effective user story, pretty well. Thank you for taking the time to do this, Camille, it was super enjoyable and super thorough. I just have a few questions to ask you, before I let you go.
Louis: The first one is, what do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
Camille: Ooh, good question. I honestly think, and I hope this doesn’t sound too pat, that it goes down to being a really good storyteller, because almost everything else about this discipline is going to be automated. The lucky thing for us, is that stories draw on humanity. Where humanity is at any given point in its development, and what is important to us right now, what has been important to us in the past? What is going to be important to us in the future.
That is something that, as humans, we’re still going to be uniquely successful at picking apart, and understanding where the actual emotional root of things are. What it is that people are going to be anxious about. What people are going to want solved for themselves.
I think that being a good storyteller, and understanding like what the fundamentals of storytelling are, and how it’s changing, and what all the tools are at your disposal in order to eliminate stories, that’s going to be the biggest skill over time.
Louis: Amen. I totally agree with you. What are the top three resources you recommend marketers? So, it could be podcasts, conferences, books, anything at all out of the ordinary as well.
Camille: I’ve read a few amazing books on marketing recently. A couple that I would recommend are, Obviously Awesome. This is a book about positioning, but it really is bigger than that. It’s the most crisp dissection I’ve ever seen, of exactly how to position a product.
Marketers have to do this many times over. It’s not just positioning a company or the one product that they have, but they have to continually position features and announcements. This is the book that has best equipped to me to do that in a process driven way. So, highly recommend that. It’s called Obviously Awesome.
The other one is, Marketing Is by Seth Godin. I know that he’s an obvious person to point to in a lot of ways, but that’s for good reason. So if you haven’t actually read that no matter how far down the road you are as a marketer, highly recommend.
Louis: So yeah, This Is Marketing, by Seth Godin, the title. And then, April Dunford who wrote Obviously Awesome, I had the pleasure to have her twice on this podcast, actually.
Camille: Oh, amazing.
Louis: She even told the story of how she wrote the book, which is something you might want to listen to in your spare time. Because it’s an interesting story. What’s the last resource you’d like to share? Because, you share two. What’s the last one?
Camille: Last resource I’d like to share. I would say that of all of the other brands out there that have been writing about marketing, that HubSpot is by far the most developed. I find myself, whenever I’m reaching for quick advice, or just need like a gut check, or I just need to very quickly understand how to build a skill, HubSpot seems to always have the resource that I’m looking for.
Louis: Yeah, it’s actually very impressive. Anything you’re looking for around marketing, you can bet that they’re going to be in the top three results in Google, which is a feat in itself. So yeah, well done to them for that.
Camille, once again, you’ve been an absolute pleasure to talk to. I really like the way you’ve distilled everything into very, very clear steps. Sometimes it is difficult for me to get inside of my guests, because they have maybe troubled to visualize things and to explain them in a visual manner, to make it very practical. But you don’t have this problem at all. It’s been very easy to talk to you, so thank you.
Louis: Where can listeners- [crosstalk 00:17:26] Sorry?
Camille: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you so much.
Louis: You’re very welcome. Where can listeners connect with you, and learn more from you?
Camille: So I’m on Twitter at @Camille Ricketts. That’s my primary social media channel. But then I would say, just check us out at notion.so, we are the all-in-one productivity tool for notes, docs, wikis, tasks, and databases. If you are a person who loves to feel organized, Notion is for you. So, please check me out and check us out there.
Louis: Great positioning. Once again, thank you.