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Measuring What Matters

2020 Will be the First Year of the Post-Marketing Era

By Ed Lynes

At the close of each quarter, the entire Woden team gathers to review our performance and plan for the upcoming months. We believe in financial transparency for the whole organization, and share revenue, expenses, and income—the key measurements for success in any business.

“Measurement is fabulous,” according to Seth Godin, “unless you’re busy measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important.” The 2019 revenue result we shared at our most recent meeting was exciting: a small decline from 2018. Thanks in large part to that performance, we’ve never felt better about the future.

We’re measuring what matters.

Marketing Sucks

At its inception, Woden was a conventional digital marketing agency. We grew quickly—from one employee to eight in about a year—and we were miserable. All social, content, or digital agencies put a creative spin on their services, but ultimately have little differentiation. Woden’s angle was story, and we talked a good game about it. But being a “story-driven” marketing agency was just agitprop. Endless social posts, email campaigns, and blog posts were grueling for employees, had little-to-no meaningful impact, and barely connected with our defined purpose of helping organizations develop a clear, compelling story.

Quarter after quarter, Woden posted great financial results, but no one on the team could really answer “why” they bothered to come to work. As we leaned more and more into story-driven marketing, it became clear that for the vast majority of marketers, story was little more than a buzzword. Wodenworkers called themselves “storytellers,” but the more time we spent thinking about how we defined ourselves and our company, it was clear that we were wrong.

Story isn’t a tool to execute marketing campaigns. Story is a strategy that provides a framework for organizational transformation—marketing is just a component of moving that forward.

We asked ourselves: what does a truly story-driven organization really look like?

Stories need to be written down, and we developed our core product, the StoryKernel, to codify a brand’s narrative in a clear, compelling way—a mixture of the science that underpins all great stories, and the art of creativity. We discovered that clients received more value—and meaning—in 400 words of a well-crafted strategic story than in years of social media posts. The power of the StoryKernel is not marketing, it’s strategy: it articulates purpose, personality, position, mission, and message in a seamless narrative.

Our belief is that to realize the power of a StoryKernel, it must be embraced in everything from culture to product strategy to sales to customer experience. This holistic approach required a blueprint for our customers to implement, the StoryGuide, which we created and refined. The more time we spent thinking about how story shapes the elements of an organization which matter most, the further we drifted from marketing myopia—and gravitated toward the belief that the right story is what separates great organizations from all others.

Our immersion in consultative strategic storytelling engagements, in parallel to our ongoing client base, made it became clear we were running two different companies: a digital marketing agency with great recurring revenue and solid growth—and a wholly unique narrative consulting company.

The work associated with the marketing agency had burned out our team and contributed to high turnover that robbed us of the culture we needed to achieve our purpose. This tension came front and center when the creative team crafted their goals for 2019: define the product mix for the consulting agency and build a culture of storytellers that could transform how companies do business. Our marketing business wasn’t anywhere on the team’s radar. 

From Worst to First

We achieved those goals in 2019. Wodenworkers came together to execute a massive product development effort, and we experienced no employee turnover all year. But meeting those objectives required something else—the scariest decision Woden has made to date: Selling our digital marketing business. In one fell swoop, two-thirds of our revenue, all recurring, disappeared.

This was a (big) bet on the potential strategic narrative work, and a vote of confidence in the commitment and creativity of our team to carry their own vision forward. And, it was terrifying. The financial impact was immediate, and negative: Q2 2019 was Woden’s worst ever, thanks to no recurring revenue, products still in development, and a complete reinvention of our business development strategy. At that quarter’s meeting, we maintained our commitment to transparency and shared financial results with the team. 

In the face of that challenge, each and every Wodenworker committed even more strongly to achieving our purpose. As we worked to better position our clients as strategic storytellers, we witnessed a similar evolution internally: the more we embraced and lived our own story, the more invested our team became in achieving its outcome. 

In fewer than 13 weeks, the turnaround was complete: Q3 2019 was Woden’s best quarter ever.

Our own StoryKernel provided a framework for growth. As the StoryGuide improved and we added the StorySeminar and StoryAccelerator offerings, Woden further emphasized holistic applications of storytelling, including alignment of core values, mission statements, brand personality, and product positioning—bringing us closer than ever to achieving our purpose. We became better at articulating why we matter, and our team became more capable of advancing our objectives independently through living that story. And, new clients were willing to pay more for it.

Q4 2019 maintained the pace from the prior quarter, and our team continued to do the type of work that excited them. While that one awful quarter meant revenue for 2019 was slightly down from 2018, our team sees that as an exciting result. Revenue isn’t an objective, it’s a result. And by measuring what matters—achieving our purpose—those results are more meaningful than ever.

Woden is charging into 2020 with three things fully in place for the first time:

  1. An Amazing Team
  2. Incredible Client Experience
  3. A Transformational Product

In earlier years, Woden grew at the expense of all three of those things, almost as if we were building the company backwards. Embracing the same approach we preach to our clients has given us the right foundation, transformed our organization, and put us on the cusp of what will be our best year.

We believe in the power of strategic storytelling more than ever, because we experience daily it in our own culture. We believe in it because we know it uniquely has the power to give clarity and to guide transformation in organizations. 

The Post-Marketing Era

Company names were once literal—over time they evolved to help form identity. Then a logo became a core component of that same identity, eventually followed by websites. Few companies would consider coming to market without developing these core elements of their brand.

The organizational story—a clear, compelling articulation of purpose for your customers—is the fourth pillar required for success.

For every business, the barriers to competition are rapidly collapsing. Technology and service-based economies lower barriers to entry for every market. Globalization makes cheaper goods available more broadly, and competition fiercer. Differing legal standards limit protections for even the most innovative companies.

Genuine, emotional connection between a brand and all of its stakeholders—employees, customers, partners, and investors—is the only durable advantage which remains. The science behind how to form that relationship is clear:affinity is driven by purpose, and connection to purpose is cemented through story

The world is primed for a post-marketing era. We are entering a time where customers increasingly crave authenticity, and why a brand exists matters more than slick marketing copy. In this era, communicating your purpose effectively—yes, through marketing, but also through experience, culture, and product—via the right story is what will build long-term value for brands and the people who love them.

While every marketer under the sun repackages their legacy offerings under the guise of “storytelling,” transformational brands crave a solution that goes beyond vernacular. Woden has been experimenting, developing, and leading in this space longer than any other firm (five years!), and we have the only defined, replicable approach to this type of work.

The brand story isn’t something your new marketing director whips up during onboarding, or that a PR agency knocks out as part of the new client process. It’s a commitment to transform the relationship your organization has with its stakeholders, and to invest in its only true differentiator. 

Inside every organization is a story that matters. The art and science of strategic narrative is changing the way people see and hear that, and, is on the verge of changing the way organizations do business. Welcome to the post-marketing era.

Ed Lynes is a founding partner at Woden. If you want to understand more of the science behind the StoryKernel and StoryGuide, read our extensive overview on the science of brand storytelling. Want to learn about how we help brands, or provide more of the feedback we love? Ed would love to hear from you directly.