Advice for small businesses: marketing without marketing — the story

“The fine line between speaking and being heard is storytelling.” – Greg Power

Editor’s note: In this guest post, CEO and co-founder Cassandra Glessner of San Francisco based nonprift SF Commonality gives some marketing advice that we at Ponoko truly believe in: sell your story and the orders will follow.


Forget marketing. That’s right, I said it; forget branding, synergy, and any other buzzword that make people’s eyes glaze over and brains recoil in horror. The most important thing that any small business start-up should recognize instead is that what you are really selling when you sell anything is a good story.

If people buy your delicious tomatoes or your jewelry or your solar panels, your whats-its, or your widgets; they are buying it because they are sold on the story of it. They compare, in an instant firing of emotional synapses, the story of that product with other stories of the other products out there, and purchase yours because they found yours more personally compelling. Your photographs, your presentation, you yourself — everything you put out there about your product is part of that story.

The most compelling stories are the ones that are true, the ones that people can identify with, and the ones that, crucially, they want to retell. Most of the time when a product has to lean heavily on making up stories about itself, it’s not a very good product, and the stories have to be rather outlandish to even make people pay attention. We’re practically swimming in a sea of examples of this; much of the advertising and marketing around us, in fact.

Creative people, those on the cutting edge of technology, design or those who are introducing a new product, can sometimes find themselves disadvantaged, even with a great or true idea, because their story is one that has not been told before. They have to come up with ways to tell this new tale. Like Copernicus or Tesla, they are a continuation in a long line of great and small innovative thinkers that struggled to bring their (brilliant) ideas to market.

In the case of Copernicus, it took more than his own groundbreaking story that the earth moved around the sun (and not the other way around); it took lots of other scientists telling their own stories about the one he had begun – adding evidence and observation that eventually sold people on a theory that they, to this day, cannot experience for themselves. Not even astronauts can feel space whipping through their hair as we sail through orbit. There is the power of collective storytelling.

This collective storytelling effort, this building on top of building, is why creative thinkers in the Internet age should take heart. For Copernicus it took hundreds of years for his ideas to be widely recognized and retold. Today, clever and pleasing stories shot on a home camera can be (and are) viewed by as many people as clever and pleasing professionally produced commercials shown on television. Open-source images become massive internet memes that people caption and re-caption, altering and expanding the stories they tell.

As a hands-on real person maker, you potentially have the same reach as anyone with a large advertising budget and television ad space–as a small business you can make real stories (the ones about you, that are true) central. They can be about how your jewelry is personalized for each customer and their stories of how that personalization made all the difference to a romantic gift; how your solar panel was lovingly crafted with multiple levels of sustainability designed into it, and is built with help from your family; how it was designed with your customers’ family in mind.

If you can make it funny, so much the better. Humor increases the likelihood that people will remember your story; it makes an instant emotional connection.

Create a story, that’s true and personal and appealing–that demands retelling–and it will be retold.


Cassandra Glessner is the founder and CEO of SF Commonality, a San Francisco non-profit that helps local small businesses and great ideas thrive with micro-finance and multifaceted business support. SFC is now accepting applications. A limited number of those that qualify now will be included in a documentary video that will help showcase their own stories.

Related posts:

2 Responses to “Advice for small businesses: marketing without marketing — the story”

  1. Tetoro Says:

    A different point of view on marketing and especially online marketing, which refreshes a bit the usual global branding strategy we can see everywhere.
    And I do agree, this is where small and medium companies have to compete against the giant corporations. Because the stories of the small enterprises are still fresh and on-going whereas the big companies are not at a consumer scale anymore.

  2. Donna Says:

    In Dallas we call that ‘Selling the Sizzle’. The ‘Steak’ is merely the customer’s memory prompt.