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There was a time when storytelling was done through spoken word or text. It wasn’t necessarily interactive or immersive, at least not like everything has to be now. Stories still were — and always have been — engaging. They had to be. They just weren’t like the elements of storytelling we have today.
Why does this matter? Because it was much easier to understand true storytelling back then. What it stood for, or more importantly, what it could achieve.
One thing that great stories have always done — even back then — is evoke emotions and experiences. You can almost taste or smell something, just by reading a few incredibly descriptive words. With more of a focus on visual content these days, it’s super easy to forget this concept. You can slap an image or video on the page, and everything you need to say is right there, in a single element. It’s easy. It’s convenient. But most of all it’s lazy. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use images or videos. The point is that it’s easy to get lost in the convenience.
Have you ever had a moment where you sit down, start reading the words in a book and find yourself entering a whole new world or reality? That’s what true storytelling is.
Storytelling has to be compelling and engaging, yes, but it also has to evoke feelings, emotions and present the reader with new, unfamiliar experiences. And that, is exactly what you should consider when you build content for your customers and audience.
Even on the web, storytelling in this way is essential, and it helps craft a unique, enjoyable customer journey from beginning to end — just as books do from the prologue to the final chapters.
Every customer or client dreams of a conclusion that can only be achieved through proper storytelling. It is your job as a designer to uncover that story and make it happen.
One client might want to boost exposure for their brand, and another might want to use their website to stand out in a noisy market. These scenarios are the epilogue of a story, if you will. To get there, you need to craft the beginning, middle and even introduction to the conclusion. You need to write and build that story, which essentially leads to what your client is asking for.
It does help to know the importance of a story in modern design and marketing, though.
Sales and marketing speak has been done to death, especially in web copy. There’s not much you can say anymore that will get past customers, at least not without them realizing you’re trying to peddle a product or service. However, storytelling can be used to slip under the radar. Also, it helps build and establish a more memorable message, which can further boost the value and demand of products or services.
By creating a backstory to your products or offerings, you are evoking emotions and sentiment out of your audience.
In 2009, two New Yorkers named Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn got the bright idea to boost value for cheap, seemingly random trinkets from a thrift shop. They did this by hiring writers to create unique stories for each of the items in their inventory. The objects were then posted on eBay, and the stories were added to the product description.
As a result, the items were almost immediately boosted in value. A snow globe, worth a mere $0.99 before they worked their magic, sold for $59. A silly flip-flop themed frame sold for over $20, originally worth $0.59.
The items in their collection were bought up front, for a total of $128.74. However, they were sold for a collective $3,612.51 on eBay. How crazy is that?
It shows just how much added value storytelling and emotional attachment can bring to the business table. This is something that clearly — and easily — you can leverage. It also shows that story can be more ingrained in the process, with the main purpose remaining transparent yet totally hidden from your audience.
Even when the story in question is not about a brand, person or object’s origin, it informs. This is essentially what makes storytelling so engaging. By following through you can learn more about whatever the subject is. What kind of person created the business? What kind of principles and morals does the team follow? What do company execs and founders value most? You can even learn about what kind of stories and memories a brand is interested in creating long into the future.
This is why every professional website that ever existed has an “About Us” page — because people desire to know more. Sadly, if you’re not using that page to tell a story, you’re doing it all wrong.
Italian restaurant Giordano’s has a brilliantly crafted About Us page that tells the entire history of the brand and its creators. Ever wonder where the restaurant got its name? Why that would be Mama Giordano and the Giordano family, of course. Why do they claim it’s authentic Italian food, and is that true? The Giordano family originally immigrated from Torino, moving right to Chicago to kickstart their own pizza business.
More than 40 years later, the brand and restaurant are still here making its customers happy — there’s nothing better than delicious, Italian pizza. How’s that for a rich history?
No matter how big — or small — a business is, it has to start somewhere. It makes sense to share this spark, at least to introduce and establish your story. It also offers humility, which many corporations and organizations lack these days.
But customers don’t just want to know where and when a brand appeared. They also want to know why. The why is the problem you are trying to solve, the inherent value. This can be revealed slowly and efficiently, through story.
For example, let’s say a local Greek restaurant markets itself as “authentic,” without citation or sourcing. You never know why the founders started the business. It’s a mystery where they came from, or why they’re so interested in Greek food. In fact, just about the only thing you do know is the name of the brand, and that it’s supposedly genuine.
Maybe months or years go by, but if you were to find out they’ve been lying the whole time how would it make you feel? The food could be incredibly delicious, but the experience is almost certainly tainted anyway. That business would be corrupted going forward, losing customers, losing trust and, more importantly, losing its power. How could you ever value anything they say ever again, whether through marketing, advertising or even in-person? The answer is that you couldn’t because they lied about something fundamental to their business.
But let’s take a few steps back. Let’s say they didn’t lie, and they truly do offer authentic Greek food. Once again, how would you know? Where is the trust, or at the least, the proof you need to believe such a thing?
By providing a backstory, you are starting a relationship with customers, one that has a foundation in trust. They suddenly know where you came from, who you are and why you are so passionate about your business, and it all works in your favor. This is something that can be portrayed openly, in design, through storytelling.
Think back to your favorite book, comic or even movie. What is one thing that stands out, one thing that makes the story for you? Plot is a major selling point yes, but it’s the characters that embark on a journey. Throughout the story, you follow those characters, you relate to them and you build something of a silent companionship.
This is the same thing that happens when you tell a story through marketing or content. You are creating characters everyone can relate to more than an object or service the business is offering.
A great example of this is the pizza chain, Papa Johns. You know the name, the great food they offer and the founder — Papa, hello? Through some ingenious marketing and storytelling, we know he came from humble beginnings and that he worked hard to establish the business. He is the character of that brand’s story. It’s so apparent that John Schnatter even wrote a book about his history.
We’re going to tell a little story of our own here.
Let’s say a man named Bob establishes his print company and chooses his logo, of an older, muscle vehicle. It’s a cool idea, but without supportive storytelling, it doesn’t really make sense. In today’s world, Bob’s business is booming. It’s now a chain, and there are local stores are everywhere. They also have incredible influence on the web thanks to an official website, social media and more.
Every time you visit the website, local stores, or watch their media — YouTube and TV ads — you’re constantly left to wonder what that vehicle in the logo is there for. After all, Bob’s business has absolutely nothing to do with a vehicle, it’s all about ink, paper and printing materials, right?
Unless you learn what it is, why it’s there and what significance it has to the company or to Bob — all of which can be presented through a story.
You see, that vehicle is the first thing Bob sold to start the business. He loved it, but he wanted a business more, so much that the car was sold for a fraction of what it’s worth. Then, the profits were rolled into a new business, used to buy supplies and rent a small storefront. The origin alone presents a remarkably different experience. Not only does it make the vehicle logo more relevant and clear, but it also makes it more impactful. After hearing that story, every time you see the logo, you’re awash with emotions, sentiment and memories.
Here’s the most important thing, though: None of those emotions or memories are your own. They were manufactured by the story, and that is exactly what a proper story or storyline can do for any medium, online or off.
Remember the points discussed here, the next time you decide whether or not it’s worth putting in the time to craft a decent story to go along with your designs or offerings. The short answer is yes, it most certainly is worth it.