Your Web Site As a Narrative Device: Introduction

  |  August 22, 2002   |  Comments

Stories are memorable; they increase interest and understanding and leave deep impressions. Here's how to make your Web site tell a story.

My most recent columns have been focused on needs-based design. What does site design have to with customer relationships, which is what this column is supposed to be about? Isn't CRM just about fancy technology, data warehouses, customer segmentation, and loyalty programs? Definitely not.

The intuitive design of your Web site speaks volumes to consumers about your brand and how you feel toward them. Their interaction with your site evokes stronger loyalty than any data mining or loyalty program ever could.

One of my majors in college was theater (playwriting and directing). A lot of my playwriting skills are used when I create a site from scratch for a client. This column begins a new series centered on the idea of your Web site's narrative and through-line. I'll explain the theory this week, then follow up with specific projects and case studies.

Tell Me a Story, Daddy

We all love stories. The human brain easily latches on to a narrative and remembers it. This is why life's important lessons are told in the form of narratives, from the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" to the Bible.

The through-line of a story is a combination of its high-level plot, the similar elements that carry through the story, and its chronology. One through-line of "Huckleberry Finn," for example, is the journey of two men and how they relate to each other while rafting down the river as they encounter seemingly unconnected but purposefully ordered situations that shape their views of society and each other.

How can you use narrative devices and through-lines to increase a customer's interest and understanding of your company's products and services?

Only Part of Your Story Is Interesting

When I talked about needs-based design, I spoke of trying to understand why your users come to a specific page and designing that page around the user's needs. Now, let's abstract that idea one more level. After understanding the basic types of people entering your site, you must take these needs-based pages and stitch them together in a way that tells the story appropriate for that user. Someone coming to my site to find out more about my company's professional services practice may not care that I am a lecturer. So, which pages should I put in front of that user? What about users coming to my site to learn more about direct marketing and personalization? What pages should they see?

A Web site is like a book. An author usually doesn't say, "Read the chapters in any order you want." Likewise, when you create a Web site that doesn't provide the user any guidance on the pages that should be viewed, you risk screwing up your narrative and through-line.

Macro Narratives Versus Micro Narratives

There are at least two kinds of narratives at work on your site. The macro narrative is the overall structure of the site and the order of the pages for a specific through-line. This might be the combination of pages (along with their order) that best convinces someone of your high quality of craftsmanship.

The micro narrative is a short story. A perfect example is the customer testimonial. Ever wonder why these are so effective? One reason is they serve as micro narratives. A good product description can also be a micro narrative. When reading a customer testimonial, your mind envisions the short story the customer is telling you. The tenants of these narratives probably focus on how the customers used the product and how they felt about the product and the company. Because we latch on to stories, micro narratives are more compelling than simply knowing the company got "3 out of 5 stars."

The Story Begins

Now that I have outlined the basic concepts behind creating narratives and through-lines on your Web site, I will get down to brass tacks. There are many strategies and topics involved. I'll discuss them, one by one, in future columns.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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