A violin played by the band of the Titanic as it sank recently sold at auction for over £900k. While antique violins can often reach seemingly ridiculous amounts, this specific violin went for considerably more than similar violins would normally. The reason? This violin had a story.
People are sentimental and we like hearing stories. In the physical world this is an accepted fact and easy to take advantage of as there is a greater commonality of understanding. However, in the digital world, it is much harder to explain the story behind something.
Consider the digital market in ebooks. Ask someone whether the value of a novel lies in the content or the medium and they’ll claim that they are paying for the content or to support an author. Change the medium to an ebook though and the amount they are willing to pay drops drastically because of a perceived lack of value (amongst other things).
As developers we like certainty, proof and evidence. Code works or it doesn’t, tests pass or fail, pageviews increase or decrease, a site sells more or it doesn’t. The problem with this approach is that it can be difficult to explain to a client or potential client the value of what we do. At the end of a project, as far as a client is concerned, the two outcomes are the site will work or it won’t so they only need to decide whether a developer can or can’t deliver before signing a contract.
Like me, you probably consider yourself an above average developer (although we probably aren’t, see the Dunning-Kruger effect) and you believe that you could have provided more value to the client than the developer they went with if only they understood what that extra value could do for them.
There are two main approaches where storytelling can explain the value we add to our digital work. We can either use stories based around the work that we do or around ourselves as an individual or company.
Site [or Project] Stories
Site stories can be used just as easily when describing past work or when pitching for a specific project. The aim here is to insert yourself and your methodology into the success of the site to emphasise your importance.
For example, you may have worked on a site for a company that started as 2 people working in a spare room that have continued to grow and now employ a handful of other people and ship products nationally or internationally. Presumably, the site will have been a key factor in allowing orders to be taken from further afield and may have optimised the order processing to allow more orders to be fulfilled in the same amount of time.
The temptation is to distill this down to simple facts, “we built this site, it does x, y & z and sales increased xx%” or whichever metrics show you in the best light. However, by taking a bit longer to explain how you fit into the bigger picture for the client you can show how important your part was in allowing the client to grow.
To see how important this is we only need to think about what we know about how certain companies started. For example, we all know that Facebook started while Mark Zuckerberg was still a student but even outside of the tech world there are other examples. Ben & Jerry’s still make reference to their startup story of selling ice cream from a VW campervan in almost all of their marketing. Similarly, Innocent Drinks have a big focus on how they grew from two people with an idea to the multinational company that they are today. The timeline on their website even has a specific point about them sending out their first email newsletter.
However, neither of these companies make a big point about their websites or other digital work. Unless it was all done in house then there will be a company out there who worked on these websites and they could utilise these stories to bookend their own contribution. Even with smaller clients, these stories still add value and understanding if told well. Convince a prospective client to see you as instrumental is the success of an organisation and you’re well on your way to winning the project.
The other side of using stories is more common and involves explaining more about yourself (or your company). When describing yourself explain how you got to the position you’re in and why this makes you the perfect developer for that client. Maybe you’ve only recently become a freelancer and this client can become a regular customer so that you can continue freelancing. If you’re a small company looking to make the step up to the next level of client and the project fits perfectly into that goal. Maybe you’re trying to focus on a niche so that you can become specialised or use expertise that you have from somewhere else.
Whatever it is, let the client know so that they realise they’re more important to you than just another invoice at the end of the month. This may require opening up more than normal about yourself or the company but, if you really are the best developer for the job, then being honest about your reasons can only count in your favour.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Describing the value you add can be one of the most difficult things a developer does. A lot of us aren’t confidence when talking about ourselves or selling to a client but don’t be scared of adding some story elements to your pitch. The insight into how you see yourself and the work you do beyond statistics will help people see why you’re different to the competitors. The facts and figures will always be an important aspect of a pitch but a little storytelling can go a long way.