Accomplished character actor and memoirist Stephen Tobolowsky reflected in a September 2012 National Public Radio interview on how true personal stories will always connect with audiences better than narratives artificially crafted to make a point.

Referencing his book The Dangerous Animals Club, Tobolowsky said, "True trumps clever any day of the week. So I really try to make sure that all of my stories in the book are (1) true, and (2) that they happened to me. It's far more important to tell a true story even if it's not perfect in all the details than to make up a clever lie."

Although many see content marketing as just that—marketing—smart marketers know that what they're delivering is a great story. At the heart of that is truth, education, and personality—however imperfect it all may be.

Small business owners are directly involved in all aspects of their business and have personal connections with customers. It stands to reason, then, that they have a wealth of powerful stories at their disposal.

Want to become a content marketing rock star? Grab attention and connect with potential customers through those stories. Here's how to do it authentically.

Celebrate the ordinary

Don't you hate it when businesses brag while obviously trying to look like they're not? In the age of social proof, authenticity is one of the most important qualities to cultivate in content marketing for small business.

Customer stories are the new building blocks of sales and marketing. But if you're just replacing company pitchmen with creepily jazzed customers in your content, you're still missing the mark.

It's tempting to pack your promotional mix with your most remarkable and enthusiastic customer testimonials. But a mix of ordinary and extraordinary user-generated content, case studies, and customer profiles is more believable and helps your content pass through today's hypersensitive marketing-hype filter.

Show how success takes many forms

It's human nature to connect most strongly when we see our own truth in someone else's story. Still, results vary (your product or service will work better for some than for others), and we all know that.

A selected group of only exceptional results will grab attention, but unfiltered stories about the experiences of typical customers carry more authority and weight. So when you select customers to highlight, make sure they've had varying degrees of success using your product or service.

Don't make it look like you bought it

More likely than not, your customers are neither actors nor professional marketers. Don't expect them to speak in tidy soundbites. Conversations are more appealing than declarations, so when you're interviewing customers, encourage them to speak freely and naturally instead of trying to get it "just right." Great customer stories are a little unkempt.

Furthermore, if what they say seems memorized, it looks fake. Resist the temptation to get customers to use key phrases or lists of points you'd like them to make. Getting the meaning across leaves far more impact than using exact words.

Instead of telling them what you'd like them to say, simply ask them to tell you a story about themselves and their experience with your product or service. Now you're starting a conversation.

Create a standard interview framework

Even though you want to elicit a range of stories and successes, you still need some level of consistency so that every customer story delivers a winning outcome. Whether you're doing a video interview or a written one doesn't matter; always begin the conversation with brief, basic questions that will help the subject get comfortable being interviewed:

  • How long have you been a customer?
  • Have you done a customer story before?
  • Do you have any questions or concerns?

Reassure them that they shouldn't get flustered by little flubs, pauses, and stammers and they should keep going (especially if you're doing a video). Everything will be fixed in editing, so they are free to stop and restart or repeat/rephrase whenever they'd like.

Once you get them comfortable, you can go into more specific questions that will shape the piece of content. If you're doing a case study, you'll want to ask about their challenges and how your product/service solved those challenges. If you're looking to highlight something specific about this customer (their model or culture, for instance), ask them open-ended, but specific questions that will allow them to talk freely and openly while still answering your questions.

* * *

With those actionable tips on authentic marketing, your small business should position itself to absorb and apply the truth provided in customer stories.

Fabricated "moments of truth" will be transparent to audiences, so embrace the genuine responses, and share them; doing so speaks honest volumes about your small business.

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Make Content Marketing Authentic: The Case of Customer Stories

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image of Jay Pinkert

Jay Pinkert is director of content for Infusionsoft, provider of and all-in-one sales and marketing automation software for small businesses.

LinkedIn: Jay Pinkert

Twitter: @FollowtheLawyer