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The Truth About Storytelling

Attention, emotions, brand development, world peace. Some online marketers believe storytelling can achieve anything. But can you really achieve anything just by telling a story?

Storytelling is one of the most important techniques in online marketing. When the Catalan biker Joan Rojas set off on a journey, he always tied cut-up underwear around his neck,so he'd stay nice and warm. However, this never looked good and it wasn't pleasant to wear either. Since this Spaniard was from Igualada, a part of Barcelona that was well known for knitwear factories, over months, he developed thin tubes of cloth in flamboyant colors to protect himself from the wind and cold. He even had them knitted so they wouldn't have a seam and would be pleasant to wear around the neck and head, and even fit around his wrist.

Biker in Need Turned Entrepreneur

I'm talking about the original buff scarfs. And now you know a story that you won't ever forget. This tube of cloth tube is now an emotionally loaded product for you. There is a nice guy who created something new from a necessity - something we all might need at some point. Next time you buy a scarf, you might think of the biker with underwear around his neck and might choose an original 'buff' with a higher probability than you might have just a few seconds ago.

buff-tuch Storytelling Content

Figure 1: Problem solved, company founded: Joan Rojas 'pre-researching' buff weary

That's the power of storytelling: If a story is worth reading and a bit quirky, it will entertain the visitors of a website and stick in their memory, opening up the possibility of conveying a USP or company's authenticity.

Sometimes a Shop Should Be Entertaining

Now, that's an example of storytelling. Sadly us online marketers can't always pull all the stops and found companies. Much too often, we end up in a boring category page, wondering what we could write about 'shovels'. But there too, you can sometimes find stories. Manufactum for example writes:

"Children like to dig, and digging implement among the garden tools is the spade. The sharpened front edge of this spade makes digging into the ground easier, for instance in order to dig planting holes, the edges of beds, breaking up clumps of earth or cutting up roots." (Source)

I don't know what the conversion optimizer has to say about this - but I quite enjoyed the read.

Screen-Shot-2018-03-01-at-18.30.18 Storytelling Content

Image 2: More than a shovel - the story of the Manufactum shovel. (Source)

So storytelling in marketing is, if I know the story BEHIND the product and tell it. Of course only if there is a story...

The five elements of a good story

But don't let a crazy, hyped-up believer fool you: storytelling isn't the solution everywhere and for every text. Not every process needs squeezing into a heroic journey. And you don't always need all five elements to a story:

  • The protagonist (the hero)

  • his objective (that he is desperate to achieve - emotionally)

  • The antagonist (the opponent, or a strong resistance)

  • A message (the 'moral' of the story)

  • A plot (i.e. 'intro, rising action, climax, conclusion')

Sometimes it's even enough to pepper a boring company description with some of these elements. Maybe the founders were on a mission? What resistance did they meet? Maybe it's a resistance that we all know (nonsensical laws, overpowering competition, etc.)?

If, for example, you want to explain the 'nofollow' attribute, you can infuse some parts of this guide with storytelling elements. You can then describe how Google, the protagonist (doesn't always have to be a friendly hero) directs a huge part of his algorithm to backlinks - and initially tries to disallow non-editorial links. But even this corporation fails at this, because paid links are necessary and often make sense of course. And how Mountain View then comes up with the idea of giving webmasters the option to validate a link with an attribute in the link tag. The story could even be continued (link-sculpting and what became of it).

Screen-Shot-2018-03-01-at-18.34.10 Storytelling Content

Image 3: Wikipedia on 'nofollow'. Couldn't you describe that in a nicer way?

Of course it's a good idea to have a friendly protagonist and an evil antagonist. It also helps if there is an objective that the protagonist wants to (or must) achieve at all cost. A message, of course, is necessary, too. But not everything has to sound like one of Grimms' fairy tales. Think about how you might explain to your parents what your daily job is. You don't tell them in bullet points - you describe situations, talk about people and their reactions, or how you managed to make your website successful. So, if your parents understand that - why not your customers as well?

Where it Might Help - and Where it Won't

But beware: Storytelling is not a panacea. If, for example, you're presenting comparable products with technical features, bullet points are a great idea. Never forget that sometimes it's quite handy to get to the point quickly. A lot of text is not a quality in itself - and Google has long stopped counting the words on web pages. The search engine is just too clever for that now. Remember: Blabbering is out, targeted storytelling is in.

Let's talk about online marketing: If we are talking about storytelling here, the question naturally is, whether it actually helps the website. And, yes, it is:

1. Lower bounce rates:  If you manage to enthrall users with a great intro, naturally they won't leave your page again right away.

2. Longer time on page: They’ll also stay longer on your page. Especially if you manage to build suspense using text, images and possibly videos that they would like to follow.

3. Content semantics: If you're telling a story, you should ideally set the context with the right words, and that is what we mean when we say semantic and what TF*IDF tools appreciate.

4. Opportunities for  longtail:  Include some longtail opportunities in this context. Maybe you will find some term combinations that you wouldn't have considered before.

So there are many upsides of storytelling. The only thing is: You need time to practice. That's why you shouldn't just start something and try to pull a story out of the hat for everyone and everything. Place it where it fits in easily and makes sense. Some ideas:

  • Do you have an 'About Us' page? That's where you start. Explain how you came to this web project and what you were up to before.

  • What problems do your products solve? Maybe there is a problem in there that everyone can relate to?

  • Are there any user stories? Maybe even some that are exemplary for a lot of people?

  • What is your vision? Can you put it in words?

And now: Tell me your story!

Yes, storytelling is a skill and often a very good idea. I look forward to you telling me your stories and what became of them. I especially look forward to good examples - because they are rarer than you might think considering the hype around storytelling.

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Published on Mar 1, 2018 by Eric Kubitz