Content strategists need to think about storytelling as a strategic device. What do you do when you have no story to tell?

How many of you watched Titanic? Do not feel bad -- it made $2 billion, so it had to be some of you.

If you remember your first time watching the movie, there was a mystery presented at the very beginning: What happened to the giant blue diamond necklace? The explorers were there to find it -- the movie we watched was the tale of what actually happened to that necklace. Of course, there was a love story and a giant unsinkable ship sinking threaded through -- but the necklace was in the back of your mind the whole time.

Storytelling as a Content Strategy Technique

This is a narrative device called framing and it is very effective. There has been a flurry of activity about using narratives in content development and content strategy -- known as storytelling.

Storytelling is critical in content marketing campaigns, where the goal of the campaign is to actually CREATE the relationship with the user. But, do they make sense for content strategists to use on destination websites? Do users really want a story when they buy a pair of shoes, choose a doctor or select a recipe to use that night at dinner?

Storytelling Creates an Emotional Pull

The short answer is yes, of course, it matters. I want to read what other people have said about those shoes, I want to see that doctor’s credentials and certifications and I want to hear if other people liked the recipe. Those are narratives around the get, or the buy -- they convince me to move ahead with my purchase or decision.

Much of storytelling around the Web has become user-generated -- so much so that one out of every five purchases made on Amazon.com happens because of a customer review. What if there is no user-generated comment? Is your greatest nightmare to be the first to review a product, and therefore you don’t buy? What if there is no story, no narrative, no persuasive device? How do content strategists create a story when there isn’t one to tell?

Our Job is to Deliver the facts -- Let Them Create the Story

Content strategists are concerned about giving users enough information so they can find what they need. Stories work so well because they create an emotional pull about something --

  • Mary G. from VA said she hated those boots -- well, I’ll probably hate them too.
  • This specialist went to the same medical school as my internist -- I’ll probably really like her.
  • That mom with two little kids said she made that recipe in 10 minutes -- that’s perfect for me.

The stories appeal to us because they are about us. However, if there’s no story to tell about what you’re trying to sell, then you need to get creative. How do you do that?

The Devil is in the Details

The best thing content strategists and Web writers can do is give all the details necessary to persuade the user to make the purchase, or be sold on the idea. Here are some ways to do this without emotional storytelling:

  • Descriptions -- Make sure you tell the physical story about a product as much as possible. They should be in the same place on every page -- height, weight, length, colors, etc. Pictures and video are other types of content that work well for descriptions.
  • Make analytics interactive and transparent -- I don’t mean all of your analytics. But, if you are responsible for the editorial strategy of a site, tell users what other articles have been popular that day. Let users tag and rank articles. It may not have narrative in the conventional sense, but important information is transmitted.
  • Demonstrate success in numbers -- Numbers always tell a story. We’re the number one hospital in the United States. One-third of our users bought these and did not return them. 100% of our users never come back to our site again -- will you be one of them?
  • Tell ‘em straight up -- Some sites do this really well. They don’t bother with stories, or customer satisfaction. They just tell you what you need to know and let you make the decision. Would they be smarter to use more persuasive storytelling content? Probably, but it depends on their strategy.
  • Consider an app so your user can create the story -- Health government websites do this really well. They ask you to input some information about your health condition and then based on those parameters, they spit back what you need to know. If there is so much information on your site, then self-selecting becomes an integral part of user satisfaction.

What do you do to enhance storytelling on your site? Do you think stories are a vital part of the sell process?