Does your messaging inspire your ideal clients? Does it motivate them to take the next step in your customer journey? For most adventure travel businesses (and most businesses in general) the answer is a resounding ‘No’. Their tourism marketing messaging goes something like this: “We’re the best! The best there ever was in fact. We’ve been around for yada yada years and won a gazillion awards. We’re the hero so you should give us your business!”
But here’s the thing: your customers don’t care. In fact, there’s only one thing they care about, themselves and their ‘problem’. You see, they are the hero not you. They want a ‘guide’ to help them on their journey to overcome their problem and find success and happiness. This is the central idea of the StoryBrand Methodology, which in my opinion is the most powerful idea in marketing messaging today.
In a nutshell, the Storybrand Methodology goes something like this. The customer is the hero, who has a problem, and needs a guide. The guide gives them a plan and calls them to action, helping them avoid failure and achieve success. It’s the power of story.
It sounds simple, but the difference is profound.
“Story is the greatest weapon we have to combat noise because it organizes information in such a way that people are compelled to listen,” says Storybrand founder Donald Miller.
I have a client who operates high-end photo safaris to the far corners of the globe. Typical trips might be diving in Antarctica, swimming with humpback whales in the Silverbanks and photographing in Lake Baikal to name a few. His customers travel with tens of thousands of dollars of camera equipment, are up before dawn to capture sunrise and do drone filming and produce stunning National Geographic-worthy photos and video. But most of them never make a dime selling their work. You see, they are not pro photographers but successful business people, mostly from Europe. When they go on these trips, they are the hero, getting amazing images they can show to friends and colleagues back home. The tour operator is merely the guide.
“Companies sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems,” says Miller. So in the case above, my client is selling one-of-a-kind adventures, which solves the external problem his customers face in finding unique non mass market tours. But if we go deeper, there’s an internal problem they’re solving. They are really buying ‘status’: ‘Hey, that’s me, I was there. I took those amazing photos of that grizzly with a salmon in its mouth. I’m the hero in the story.’
I find many tourism business owners fail to see their product as a solution to a problem, but if we talk to their customers that’s exactly how they frame it. “I was so tired of cruise ships,” a client’s customer once told me in an interview. Now, I realize this is very much an elite, first-world problem, but for a business selling bespoke adventure cruises, it is a problem they must solve for their ideal clients. As well as internal and external problems, Storybrand also tells us customers have philosophical problems that need solving. These are the big ‘why’ problems, like “Am I making the world a better place?” Adventure tourism operators should strive to determine their ideal client’s internal, external and philosophical problems and uniquely solve them.
When it comes to messaging, one of the best ways to begin is by seeing if your website passes the ‘Grunt Test’. Here’s how it works. Let’s pretend that a caveman (or cave woman) were to somehow wind up on your homepage. Would he be able to figure out exactly what it is that you do, how it will make his life better and how to buy it from you in 10 seconds or less? Try it with your own website right now.
Here’s where you actually do need some copywriting skills, or hire a tourism marketing agency, if you really want to nail it and engage with those ideal clients. I always suggest you aim to ‘show not tell’. I had a tour operator reach out to me recently and his messaging was literally “Adventure Travel for 40-somethings” above the fold on his homepage. That might be a good niche, but he’s clearly telling not showing. As a 40-something myself, I doubt I’d book a tour from an operator that told me so bluntly who they were targeting.
Instead, I suggested he use video and imagery showing his ideal clients (who would be 40-somethings) experiencing his tours, so if I wound up on his site, I’d know exactly that these trips were for me. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. If you’re a fishing lodge and you cater to both families and corporate and incentive travel groups, you’d better have imagery of those happy families bonding over a fishing trip and groups who look like they could be an executive team. Shirtless, tattooed guys with beer bellies would not be a good fit here.
Finally, when it comes to making your ideal clients the hero in their story, this should not be just in your adventure travel marketing but in your operations as well. A while ago, I was working with a high-end backcountry ski lodge that had a photo service. The way it worked was a staff photographer would accompany guests and take ‘hero shots’ of them skiing. These would be supplied to guests after the trip ended, for free. The owner was considering shutting down the service. But when we did a research interview with one of their best customers, a trip leader who brings in a group each year, without even prompting the customer mentioned how much he loved the photo service.
“You can’t shut that down!” he said, after I told him it was being nixxed. “I sold three spots with that.” He went on to explain that he often goes back and looks at his ski photos when he’s having a bad day at work, just to remind himself of the experience. He also convinced three buddies to book on a trip just by showing them the photos of himself skiing. “I’m just some lawyer dude, but when I look at those photos, there I am, shredding powder!”