Customer-led storytelling is a creative strategy that’s buzzing in industry blogs as a top trend, but though it can be deployed to great effect, it’s hardly new. The infomercials of the ’80s, before-and-after photo sets used by dentists and doctors (and all B2B customer case studies), are examples of customer-led storytelling.
However, social platforms have explored the potential of this strategy because of the volume of content and ease of connection between consumer and brand. Regular people have the ability to share their stories easily with their communities and with brands. And brands have the infinitely valuable opportunity to weave the most impactful stories into their marketing.
Feeding into this, in some part, is the shift toward using micro-influencers. There’s a very fine line between micro-influencers and regular people who are loud on social media. Many brands feel that as long as they’re engaging micro-influencers, why not create campaigns around the larger-than-life, most interesting, compelling and relatable real-life customers?
It’s the most authentic of endorsements, and it typically is the least expensive from a talent engagement perspective.
It’s tough to identify what brands are really leading the pack in customer-led storytelling because there are so many — but for this post, I’ve rounded up some examples of brands that are making great content across various industries and distribution platforms.
Here are eight brands that get customer-led storytelling right:
1. GoPro turned UGC adventures into a billion-dollar brand.
In its early years, this company built its brand off customer-led video storytelling. The founder, famously, had only conceived of the original inexpensive waterproof mountain camera as a way to capture and share his POV while surfing — but it turned out that all types of athletes, daredevils and creative folk had ideas of how to capture and share their action.
GoPro began to collect and curate the best of it, and in that process not only viral-marketed its way to a billion-dollar brand but democratized adventure sport content.
2. Square shares how customers achieve their dreams.
Convincing small merchants and entrepreneurs to switch from conventional transaction processing to a new, cloud-based system with minimal hardware involved is not necessarily difficult — after all, all small businesses are always looking for ways to make more sales and pay less in overhead.
However, data security and ease of implementation are two major concerns that never really go away. Small businesses may be wonderfully creative, and they may have superior products, but they aren’t always tech-minded.
The beauty of Square’s “For Every Kind of Dream” video series is that it shows how Square users are able to pursue professional dreams thanks to Square technology. Their stories may not ever mention the Square product directly, but they don’t need to — by sharing their story via Square, it’s implicit that the software was essential to success.
3. Warby Parker takes the “try-on session” to social media and VR.
More than just an eyewear brand, this direct-to-consumer giant pioneered the “try it before you buy it” e-commerce model for accessories.
Ten years ago, people couldn’t comprehend an eyeglass shopping experience that wasn’t handheld by optometrists and salespeople but instead took place in the comfort of home. In order to educate more people about how the shopping process works, the company encourages customers to share their try-on sessions on social media.
They share using the hashtag #warbyhometryon, which, at last count, was up to nearly 25,000 posts — and is no doubt getting a boost with the brand’s foray into AR try-on sessions.
Meanwhile, for stories of Warby Parker customers who are getting out of their homes and onto an IRL stage, there’s the Wearing Warby section on the main website, which showcases inspiring personalities in the arts and humanities.
4. National Geographic is the revered granddaddy of photo contests.
While this publisher uses the best professional nature and adventure photographers and writers in the business, it knows — and has used for years — the passion, access and high-level skills that many of its readers possess.
Every year, nature-lovers and regular readers of the National Geographic universe manage to capture photos that dazzle and engage a mass audience on par with the professional photo series commissioned.
User-generated content contests, such as the annual National Geographic Photo Contest (always a social media shared favorite in the Wildlife category) and the more niche Wanderlust (for travel photography) generate thousands of submissions.
That translates to massive engagement for the brand and a bonanza of content they can use for free — with the creators’ enthusiastic permission.
5. The North Face pushed for D&I in the outdoor adventure space.
This outdoor wear brand and outdoor equipment company has such an inspirational and adventurous customer base, its Instagram feed is practically on par with National Geographic at times.
While the brand sponsors elite athletes and explorers, many of the jaw-dropping moments on its social feed are brought to you by regular folks who climb mountains or go on expeditions just for the thrill of it.
The brand is also actively making inroads in diversity and inclusion, with new campaigns that showcase women athletes in non-moneymaking sports (jiu-jitsu, ultra-running).
As part of its NeverStop Community initiative, the company announced that it will collaborate with 1600 young women from urban areas who typically don’t get a lot of exposure to outdoor pursuits.
6. Tesla customers show the human face of a tech giant.
Few personalities have as devoted an online following as Elon Musk, but sometimes it’s hard to find an overlap between the Twitter warriors who worship Musk and the affluent futurists who own and drive Teslas.
Apart from in Silicon Valley and a few other privileged tech bubbles, there aren’t many places where you regularly see Teslas driving down the street. So, in order to showcase the actual faces of Tesla who aren’t Elon Musk, the company produced and published a series of customer stories in text-photo format (for the main site) and video (on YouTube).
While plenty of automotive companies have utilized real-life customers in their marketing, Tesla gets this shoutout because the stories featured are so against the Tesla-driver stereotype.
There’s an adorable family that lives off the grid in Hawaii, a fleet of Dutch taxi drivers serving airport customers and a Canadian couple who uses its Model S to road trip around towing a tiny trailer behind it. There’s even a craft brewer who uses his model X for beer delivery runs.
Maybe those people are a few tiers above the normal household income level compared to Subaru or Leaf drivers (they definitely are), but from their stories, they’re just regular folks who really appreciate a super-quiet, pup-friendly electric car.
7. Trulia introduced homes via the neighbors.
Finding a fabulous new house in a dream neighborhood is a milestone achievement that people make only a few times in life. But the moving process itself is one of the most stressful life events, behind only major illness, divorce, etcetera.
How to continually promote one’s service in the former space while also attempting to address the pain of the latter? Trulia has a blog jam-packed with real estate agent intel (and gossip) and practical info, as well as first-person home buying stories and quirky articles that use social media to really explore different neighborhood personalities. (“Neighborhoods that Love Their Wild Turkeys” would not exist without community Facebook groups and local news pages.)
Video content on YouTube also takes a neighborly approach, introducing different quirky characters and notable neighborhoods in top Trulia top markets.
8. Microsoft Surface Pro celebrates creative entrepreneurs in broadcast spots.
Two beautiful blond sisters who design apparel in Alaska, based out of a tiny boat in the middle of a lake. A hardworking yet stylish TV producer who confides to the camera (and to millions of people, because this is a primetime commercial spot) that it feels weird being on this side of the lens. Former NFL players turned cupcake bakers — so big, so brawny, so adorable!
These are the winsome personalities that Microsoft tapped to promote its newest tablet computer. Do these people really run their entire businesses off the Surface? They say they do. And we want to believe…