Above: ESPN set for the NFL 2009 draft: Image by Marianne O’Leary (CC by 2.0)
How many times in your career have you had to explain why storytelling is important to marketing and communications, even to professionals you think would understand? Would it make you feel better to know that chief marketers at ESPN, the world’s leading multinational, multimedia sports entertainment company, also work hard to convince other professionals about why storytelling is so essential?
Enter Cindy Freed, Vice President of Sales Communications at ESPN in their Sales & Marketing group. A marketer who learned the value of storytelling from working at Yahoo, USA TODAY, and BBDO, Freed is now aligning ESPN’s Customer Marketing and Sales group to the storytelling model. She shared her experiences in a candid guest lecture for the UW Communication Leadership program’s class, “Story-Based Marketing: Using the Power of Story to Achieve Business Success” on Wednesday, November 12.
Sales & Storytelling: Uncharted Territory?
Professor Catherine Captain positioned sales as “the final frontier.”
“It’s injecting story in person,” Captain said. “It’s across the desk, face to face, sometimes over email, but selling is in person. If someone decides they don’t like what they’re hearing, it can be a real uphill battle.”
Yet, when you’re ESPN, how hard can it be to convince an advertising executive to put their dollars towards the channel that is, among many other accolades, the “highest rated in Brand Strength among TV brands?”
For Cindy Freed, the key is in the story.
“We’re at an advantage in that everyone pretty much knows ESPN [ESPN and ESPN2 are in over 96 million U.S. homes and ESPN’s digital products reach more than 89 million unique users a month]. That’s also a disadvantage because everyone thinks they know who we are,” she explained. “What I saw was that ESPN wasn’t necessarily telling stories – our sales team was going into client meetings with very dry information.”
Sales is traditionally a facts-and-figures department, so Freed implemented a storytelling model to aid their sales team as they pitch ESPN to advertisers and media buying agencies to invest with ESPN. With so many new networks and avenues to consume sports programming, the competition for ESPN has exploded.
“Our competitive set keeps evolving – regional to national sports networks, and newer networks that compete with us for men. Also, there are a lot of websites and social media networks that have the ability to target audiences quite well,” said Freed.
She also described a scenario that anyone who’s been in advertising will sympathize with: “We’re often part of ‘cattle calls,’ where, for instance, a liquor company sends out an RFP (Request for Proposal) and will have everyone come in over two days and everyone gets thirty minutes,” Freed said. “How do you stand out?”
How to Stay at the Top
“Given the competitive marketplace, we have to be willing to adapt if we want to keep growing,” said Freed. She realized that storytelling could be ESPN’s key differentiator in maintaining its leadership position.
“I had to get internal buy-in,” said Freed about her commitment to adding storytelling to the tool box of the ESPN sales team. “With sales people, they like numbers, so I really had to convince them why this matters, because they have to hit numbers.”
So she told a story about numbers: “Stories increase audience retention by 26%. And visual stories are even more impactful. If I tell you a story without images, you’ll only remember 10% of it three days later. If I add images to that? Well, the retention goes up to 65%. So I asked our sales team, ‘don’t you think if people remember more, they’ll buy more?’”
Freed summed up the changes succinctly: “We used to say, ‘ok here’s the deck.’ Now we say, ‘here’s the story,” she said. “I tell everybody to start off asking a question, to bring them in right away, what’s the arc – what conflict can we solve for them? I now have people coming up to me saying, ‘Well, here’s what the conflict is.’”
To tell a great story, of course, marketers need to look for that emotional connection. There are a lot of great stories in sports, but as hard as it may be for some to believe, not everyone cares about sports. Happily for ESPN, Freed has an answer.
“People will say, ‘I don’t really get sports but I understand the emotions behind it, and I want my ad to be part of that.’”
As Simple as it Sounds?
Freed’s take on the daily challenges of a story-based approach to sales and marketing came down to three points. Her first response to being asked about the biggest challenges was immediate, and immediately relatable:
“We have complex messages…we’re selling across a lot of networks and products,” Freed said. “We’re trying to make it more visual to make it easy for the people we’re talking to, but also easier for our people to do the talking.”
Freed also recognized the difficult realities of the fast pace of digital marketing and communication tools: “There’s so many things right now that we’re learning as our clients are learning, and that’s a huge challenge. How do you tell a story when you’re still learning it? There’s a lot you have to keep up with.”
Her final observation is sure to sound familiar to sales and marketing teams:
“Lack of time – our sales people have a lot coming at them and for us to expect them to rehearse a presentation with lots of visuals, it’s challenging. We have so many meetings, but for a really good presentation, you need to practice it.”
Yet for all the challenges, Freed remains optimistic and incredibly focused on the power of storytelling. “The people I have working for me are fantastic,” she said. “Surround yourself with good people. I tell them, ‘our job is not to make this look pretty – our job is to tell the story.’”