Storytelling for Web Marketing

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
— Hannah Arendt

Homer's Odyssey
A scene from Homer’s Odyssey.

Storytelling is one of the most basic of human instincts. From Neanderthal cave paintings to the adventures of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, early human history is filled with our need to educate and delight others through stories. We all tell them to share our adventures of everyday life, and we all relish the craftsmanship of master storytellers like Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor.

What you may not know is how important storytelling can be in marketing your own business on the Web. Back in January, Entrepreneur magazine featured an article called How to Become Your Company’s Storyteller to demonstrate how important storytelling is to enhancing any company’s brand on the Internet. We’ve all seen the obligatory “About Us” page on most business web sites. But these pages often fail to connect with readers because they are generally filled with vacuous marketing language instead of compelling narratives about how the business started and grew to meet its customers’ needs. In telling such stories, you not only tell your customers what your business can do for them, you also boost your online ethos—how trustworthy or credible others perceive you to be.

In web marketing, part of the process of building online ethos is using storytelling to help your audience identify with your business—that is, how they see their interests overlapping with your own. You still need to persuade them to buy your products or use your services, but that generally won’t happen unless you forge a link between their interests and yours. As Hannah Arendt suggests in the opening quote above, the ultimate impact of storytelling is subtle and unspoken.

Mike Monello, one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project, has parlayed our online fascination with storytelling into a full-time marketing business called Campfire, which specializes in helping its clients—companies like HBO, Verizon, Samsung, AT&T, and Harley-Davidson—tap the narrative appetite of Internet users. In a Shots magazine interview, the Campfire partners talk of how they used unique forms of participatory storytelling to broaden Harley-Davidson’s market to include a new generation of potential riders. Such stories can take place across multiple media in a process known as transmedia storytelling.

This renewed focus on digital storytelling is what is driving the popularity of many social media sites, particularly those such as Storify that provide longer narrative structure. Storify lets you search the archives of other social media sites to find information about a topic you want to explore in story form. You then build the narrative with their online tools before sharing it with family, friends, and the world at large. Such structured narrative is useful for web marketing, but storytelling can also be used on basic social media sites like Facebook. David Kerpen, author of Likeable Social Media, feels Facebook and other social media provide small business owners the chance to share their stories in ways unavailable in the past:

When you hear the story of how a company was born, or one about the impact an organization has had on a customer’s life, or about the unique experience of a group’s staff member or partner, you feel an emotional connection with that company…. In the past, storytelling to the masses was expensive and could only be accomplished through television advertising or a public relations executive pitching a major newspaper. Now, storytelling is free, or near-free, through social media (144).

Perhaps one of the best storytellers of our media age is the filmmaker Ken Burns, whose narrative techniques have forever changed our perceptions of the Civil War, jazz, and baseball. In the video below, Burns says all storytelling is manipulation, yet hopefully a sincere manipulation in service of emotional truth. Though his films deal with large historical events, much of what he has to say about narrative can also be applied to telling stories about your business.

Filmmaker Ken Burns discusses storytelling

So tell your customers about how you struggled to start your business, about the mistakes you made starting out, about the successes you’ve had in helping customers through the years, about a star employee who has gone the extra mile. Just make sure it’s a good story, or what an editor of mine at United Press International used to call “a good yarn.” These kinds of stories are much more effective than the empty marketing language you often find on business websites.