Bridge the digital gap: Staying connected with customers in a socially-distanced world

Microsoft’s Miri Rodriguez shares the importance of digital storytelling in real estate

Brand storytelling is not just a method of telling stories for companies, but the actual intent and design of the stories.

In just a year, the pandemic has drastically changed how businesses function. We went from working 9 to 5 in the office to getting used to flexible hours at home. We stopped having face-to-face meetings with our colleagues and opted for video collaborations. We even had to switch to digital operations and connect with clients virtually. 

As you may very well be aware, not all transitions went seamlessly. Though each may have come with its own difficulty, meeting customers and investors face-to-face, especially in real estate is crucial in not only making a sale, but in building rapport. Surely, this connection is not something that we can easily replicate digitally. 

At the first virtual edition of the annual PropertyGuru Asia Real Estate Summit, Miri Rodriguez, head of global intership programme at Microsoft, posed this compelling question: “How do we keep that deep human connection in a digital platform?”

And that’s where brand storytelling comes in. 

Brand storytelling is not just a method of telling stories for companies, nor is it sharing information and opinions, or a marketing tactic. Instead, Miri defined it as the actual intent and design of the stories. 

As with any story, it must have a character, plot, and conclusion. “[It is] being intentional with your design, taking those three elements and actually transferring that information at an emotional level – and that is innovation.” 

Storytelling is only of value if you are able to portray emotion because “people will remember how you made them feel,” stressed Miri as she quoted Maya Angelou. 

During her early years at Microsoft, she recalled first working with engineers and how she was unfamiliar with how the industry works. She was also in the process of finishing her master’s degree at the time, so she was learning about user experience and design thinking where she encountered the five steps of design thinking (Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test), which she later on decided to incorporate into storytelling.  

Lead with empathy 

Empathy wasn’t really a part of business processes back then. It was only until recently when we started to hear the phrases “meeting with empathy, innovating with empathy, and integrating empathy in AI” around the workplace.  

As we introduce new innovations in our business, empathy is crucial as it allows you to consider users’ needs, which can help you come up with more useful features and prevent potential risks. 

“So empathy is truly not only a notion or a concept, it is also an act,” added Miri. She herself shared that she had to learn how to become an empath as it would help her understand the customers, the innovation, and the universal truth, which she described as “the feeling that people have when they come in contact with the assets of your brand, like an email, a salesperson, a tweet, an Instagram story… That’s what I call the universal truth.” 

But to be able to drive innovation and connectedness in your brand story, Miri advised learning the different levels: 

1. Cognitive empathy  
“You want to level off if you want to meet people at their place… empathise with them in their spaces.” Connect and communicate with your customers whenever you want to innovate. Ask yourself the following: 

  • Who is my target audience?
  • What are they doing? 
  • How are they thinking? 
  • How do they consume content? 
  • What’s important to them?  

By answering these questions, you will be more curious about who the service/product is for, which will help you understand your audience better. 

2. Emotional empathy 
 “Emotional empathy is where you, as a brand, think about humanising yourself.” This means portraying your brand as more human, connecting more with customers, and sharing how you are overcoming difficulties, such as navigating new technologies during the pandemic. “It’s showcasing the humanity in your brand,” she added. 

3. Compassionate empathy 
 The hardest among the levels is compassionate empathy. “This is where you, as an individual — no matter where you sit in the ecosystem of your brand and however you’re thinking of offering your service/product — you think about how you’re feeling.” By reflecting more on your own feelings even without being vocal about it, you are able to practice empathy and become more of a cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empath.  

Define your brand story 

Once you have learned to be more of an empath, you can think with purpose and begin reflecting more on who you are dedicating the brand story to (persona, demographic, psychographic), how your service/product can help them (mission, end goal), and how you want them to feel (universal truth). 

Brand story is made up of your brand’s mission and vision, your core values, your service/product, and your social stance. Through storytelling, you are able to communicate these to your audience, reminding them over and over why you exist and why they should choose you every time. 

“You can help them understand what is it that you want them to walk away with when they come in contact with your story. When they become connected emotionally, that’s innovation — to make them feel. That’s the last and most important piece,” emphasised Miri. 

Ideate the characters 

Consider how your customers look like in the story and if they would even consider themselves to be a character in your story. 

Think of the stories, whether in books, movies, or series, that you are compelled to talk about. In most of these, you have been able to connect with the plot because you see a bit of yourself in the character. “So when you present the brand story, where is the customer in the story? Think about that.” 

She suggested using the brainstorming tool SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, Reverse) to be more creative with your storytelling. Brainstorm about the elements outside of the written story, such as the smell and colour, since there are many forms or ways of telling a story that will further help your audience connect. 

Creating and testing prototypes 

With the different story prototypes in mind, you can now choose which social media platform is best suited to communicate your story. These prototypes should not require much effort on your part nor should it cost anything. You will basically just need to test the content and share it with your audience. 

Once shared, so you will be able to see whether they will be responsive or otherwise, revising your prototypes as necessary. 

Throughout the process, we must keep in mind that “innovation is driven by creativity and creativity sits at the heart of our humanity.” To be able to tell our stories, communicate our message, and innovate, we must create and design. We must think beyond the storytelling standpoint and more of an insider outlook. 

“So I encourage you today to become an empath, to lead with empathy, and to be creative in your own space. We are all creative, it’s something that we are as humans. We are storytellers. That’s something that is cognitive to us at the human level.

Think about that in your next steps as you build your brand story, as you connect with customers in years to come. This is for the long haul. It’s not a marketing scheme. It’s not a trend. It’s truly a way to connect with your customers at the best level — at the human level,” concluded Miri.