Tell a Story to Engage Your Audience

There are many ways to organize product information to communicate with an audience. Facts are typically grouped by such things as how a product is used, what it’s priced at, or what is known about a particular audience. However, corporate web sites have overlooked a technique that people have used for thousands of years to convey information: storytelling.

Telling stories is something that seems to be part of human nature. We grow up listening to stories told by relatives. Later in life we buy novels that lead us through a series of events over time. As these stories unfold, they evoke an emotional reaction from us. Movies, too, tell a story over time, leading to an emotional climax. The entertainment industry is in business to entertain, but, occasionally, these stories help the audience learn about some aspect of life.

In other words, compelling stories engage an audience for a long period of time, typically longer than the Internet industry can keep visitors on a web site!

Many years ago, while learning how to be a news reporter, I started paying attention to the techniques of reporters at the large media outlets. I became aware of how well reporters at The Wall Street Journal illustrate major economic shifts by telling a story about one person. This technique has become popular in television news, too. Shows such as “20/20” and “Dateline” feature the plight of an individual in order to illustrate problems facing the broader audience.

In the past few years, “digital storytelling” has emerged as a combination of writing techniques and multimedia technology. Conferences have taught writers and technologists how to use multiple media on the web to entertain and educate an audience.

Digital storytelling on the web is now growing along with the growth in high-speed broadband access to the Internet. Oxygen Media uses storytelling to appeal to its audience.

However, your audience doesn’t have to have high-speed access to gain access to compelling stories.

An example of how stories can be told using email is the SodaMail network of newsletters. Several of its authors tell stories to an audience that is eager to receive each issue. “EmailStories,” a serial online romance, and “That Reminds Me,” reminiscences by the niece of Eleanor Roosevelt, are two popular offerings. Not only does this storytelling model appeal to the audience, but SodaMail’s advertisers find this editorial environment appealing as well, because it translates to high click-through rates.

It’s a little surprising that most corporate web sites don’t take advantage of this technique to capture attention and lead prospects to make a purchase or inquiry. Most corporate web sites present product information as a snapshot – saying here are all the reasons why you’ll like our product. They don’t recognize that the decision to buy is a process: A prospect becomes a customer by recognizing a problem, learning about solutions, researching products, and, finally, making the decision to purchase product A instead of product B.

While companies can’t afford to turn their corporate web site into infotainment sites, there are ways to take advantage of storytelling to generate revenue. Using case studies is one way to do this.

Most case studies use a standard format. First, they explain the problem faced by the customer, then tell how the company’s product solved the problem. The story concludes with an enumeration of the benefits the customer received by using the company’s products. The case studies on the Compaq web site, for instance, lead the reader through the process of gathering information, making a decision, implementing the solution, and being happy with the solution. Its case studies are made more reader-friendly by the use of the customers’ own words.

Another example is Kodak. The company recently modified its site from the standard corporate issue to one that helps consumers use photography to tell stories. Photography is a great way to tell or illustrate a story because it conveys visual information that is hard to put into words. Of course, as broadband becomes more universal, streaming media offers marketing-oriented storytellers, such as Peter Crockett, great opportunities.

Most companies have interesting stories to tell, and it’s a good bet that yours does, too. How about telling of the salesperson who helped a customer save millions of dollars? Or about how your company helped a customer bring a new product from the lab to market?

By the way, that reminds me of the time that… but that’s another story.

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