How Microsoft’s storytelling approach makes the brand money, changes perceptions

Microsoft’s chief storyteller explains how his team finds and tells stories that attract customers, change perceptions and make the brand money. He explains how you can do it, too.

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Say you work in the communications department at Microsoft. Which story would you be more interested in covering for the brand’s media channels: the new Kinect software, or the energy levels in Microsoft’s corporate offices?

You would probably choose the Kinect, right?

Steve Clayton, chief storyteller at Microsoft, thought the Kinect saga sounded more compelling, too. But after spending an afternoon with the man who runs the Microsoft facilities department and learning about his unique, money-saving energy software, Clayton decided to run with the energy story.

It ended up attracting 150,000 page views and more than 800,000 retweets in the first 48 hours it was live. Several major industry sites ran the story, too, and within a week, governments and major retailers were asking to buy the energy software.

At Ragan’s fifth annual Employee Communications, PR, and Social Media Summit, Clayton explained how this story and many others have helped change the world’s perception of Microsoft and increase sales for the brand. He also describes how you can craft stories that do the same for your company.

The four P’s

Many communicators wonder what stories they can tell about their companies. Should you do a profile on the CEO again? Should you announce your new product line in a blog post?

This is where the four P’s come in: people, places, process, and products. They are the guides you should use to write stories that are actually interesting to your readers. They are also the topics that will help consumers get to know your company in a more personal way.

Clayton recommends you talk about at least two in each story. He explains, “We’re going to tell a story about Xbox, but we’re actually going to tell that story through the lens of a person, or through the process of how it came about, or through the place where it was built.”

Here’s how Clayton and his team put the four P’s into practice:

People

One story Clayton uncovered was about a Microsoft employee, Karsten Aagaard, who used to be a toymaker. In a previous job, Aagaard built wooden and plastic models of toys for companies such as Fisher Price. He still makes models at Microsoft, but the models he makes now are of mice, keyboards, and controllers, among other products.

The work Aagaard does directly affects consumers, but many customers probably have no idea he is the one who designs their hardware. By telling his story, Clayton opened up customers to a whole new department in the company.

Who are the unsung heroes at your company? Who are the people who have interesting jobs, but don’t interact with the public? Can you tell their stories?

Places

When he wrote Aagaard’s story, Clayton also introduced readers to the model shop—a sophisticated woodworking and metalworking design room where Aagaard and his co-workers build and test product models.

“We were telling stories about people like Karsten the toymaker,” Clayton says. “We were telling stories around … these studios, these places around Microsoft that would surprise people.”

What are the places at your company that would surprise people?

Process

About four years ago, Wii, a movement-focused video game console, was popular among consumers. Microsoft wanted to create its own version, but without a controller—we know it now as Kinect. Most people at the company said it was impossible to create such a console, but Alex Kipman disagreed.

Kipman researched until he found a patent that showed how to make the software he needed. What’s more, it was a Microsoft researcher who had developed the patent. Kipman contacted the researcher, found a company that could provide the technology the patent called for, and voilà—Kinect was born. Today, it is the fastest-selling consumer electronic device in history.

“Those are the kinds of stories that are fun to go and tell,” Clayton explains. “Ultimately we’re talking about a product, but not really.”

Products

Products are typically the last thing a communicator wants to write about. Customers see them as one-dimensional, boring, and a hard sell.

Clayton explains his team’s philosophy: “If the stories came across as being, ‘Come and buy the Xbox, come and buy Windows, come and buy Windows phone,’ that’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to tell stories that would get people to that point rather than trying to do the hard sell.”

How can you tell a story that doesn’t blatantly sell?

Consider the energy software example. Clayton spent an afternoon with Darrell Smith, who manages all the buildings on Microsoft’s campus. Smith digitally wired all the buildings on Microsoft’s campus so he could see exactly how much energy each building consumes. He can see when energy levels spike, and he uses that information to negotiate better prices with the energy company.

No media outlet wanted to run the story when Clayton pitched it, so he and his team decided to cover it for Microsoft’s own media channels.

Clayton and his team developed the story, 88 Acres, based on Snowfall, which was published in The New York Times. The story is divided into chapters and is peppered with short videos and sharp photos.

The story ended up attracting 150,000 page views and more than 800,000 retweets in the first 48 hours it was live. Several major industry sites ran the story, and within one week, governments and major retailers were asking to buy the energy software.

“We basically created a story that created a multi-million-dollar pipeline for products and services from Microsoft,” Clayton explains.

What makes this story even greater is that it didn’t mention a single Microsoft product or service. Clayton says, “It just tells a really good story through the eyes of a hero, with a really good outcome.”

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