Why IBM Is Hiring Screenwriters

CMO Spotlight: Maria Winans, IBM Commerce

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Maria Winans
Maria Winans

Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. But teach a man to fish, and he'll never go hungry, as the saying goes. Something similar can be said for storytelling. Try to hard-sell a product once, and maybe your prospect will bite. But tell him or her a compelling story about the product, and you'll leave a lasting impression.

Any industry can -- and many do -- adopt storytelling as a content strategy, but the truth is that no two marketing leaders approach it in the same way. Here to give a behind-the-scenes look at IBM's story shop is Maria Winans, CMO of IBM Commerce and, more recently, chief supervisor of storytelling.

The people

You might think that a company as large as IBM would outsource its content creation to a creative agency. Indeed, Ms. Winans says that this used to be the case, but that it came with a price. "Not the cost of development," she says, "but the absence of expertise that comes with knowing how to create stories."

For this reason, Ms. Winans now hires specifically for this elusive skill, recruiting perhaps the least IBM-like prospects to join the marketing team. For example, Hollywood screenwriters. Their ability to write scripts and plot storyboards lets IBM develop stories at a highly professional level and in-house, making the process all the more efficient and on-brand.

"These folks will help IBM engage specific audiences in a very different manner than we've done before," says Ms. Winans. "Working with the rest of our marketing team, the storytellers will help us translate some of our broader themes down to a very compelling and ideally, personalized conversation."

The process

One way IBM initially exercised its storytelling muscles was by partnering with expert storytellers like TED. In 2015, IBM worked with TED to orchestrate a conversation about innovation. "Presentations were limited to seven minutes, which forced us to make every word count and propel the story forward," said Ms. Winans. "We really learned a lot from that."

Thanks to "big stories about the art of the possible," like the TED presentation and a campaign for IBM Watson, a cognitive learning platform for businesses, the IBM brand has been able to position itself with a wide audience. However, Ms. Winans and her department ultimately hope to engineer the content for a more complex purpose: drawing consumers to purchase.

Says Ms. Winans, "My challenge is to take that big emotion-rich story and appeal to a merchandiser or a supply chain manager with very specific challenges." As IBM's customers have a wide variety of product needs, no story is one-size-fits-all. "We need to be more specific with our product and divisional stories, whether we're talking lead generation or product research or demos," she says.

Data helps IBM craft these personalized stories and "makes it a lot easier to start a fruitful conversation," says Ms. Winans. It also shapes the progress of each narrative. "If we know you react to certain words or images, then we'll be sure to zoom in on those in our stories."

While the marketing team's data drives personalization and delivers an optimized experience, a human touch is still important. "Data informs the story, how we talk to you, what we share and when we share it," says Ms. Winans, but the storytellers on staff tackle the creative aspects of each plot line. "Ultimately, our goal is really to make an emotional connection, and we think we can do that better by being personal without of course, being creepy."

The progress

Ms. Winans emphasizes that storytelling as a means of tracking the customer journey is an ongoing learning experience at IBM. Like true professionals of the trade, she and her team have found that reading the audience is almost as important as the content of the story itself. "We're getting better at not forcing a discussion about product too early in the process," she says. "Before we introduce a solution, we want to make sure we really understand a particular prospect's challenge."

And that when it comes to word count, less is often more. "Ultimately," says Ms. Winans, "this really is another means of being customer centric. We are trying very hard not to waste a prospect's time by delivering superfluous information."

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