Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Storytelling is the Future of the Web

Most of the successful marketing campaigns that stand out in my memory all revolve around characters. Some of them are simply charismatic spokespeople, like Geico's gecko, Nationwide's "Greatest Spokesperson in the World, or, I suppose, Burger King's creepy king. Others keenly represent the intended customer—think way back to Wendy's "where's the beef?" lady, or more recently to Apple's mac and PC guys. In all of these cases, it was decided that a more compelling message could be created by using characters to tell a story, rather than putting the product itself front and center.

Relating to characters and their stories is essential in order for people to make an initial connection with brands. Sure, some brands eventually transcend the need for connection and become themselves defining characteristics of people. In fact, Apple's "I'm a mac/pc" was somewhat self-referential in that way. But in the beginning, people need to connect with a story in order to believe that a product or service matters to them.

Of course, this isn't news. This has been established marketing thinking for a very long time. But somehow, the concept of storytelling doesn't seem to have worked its way down from the worldwide mega-brands to the next tier of businesses in which you and I work. But why shouldn't it? After all, we're endeavoring to speak to the very same people they are!

This month I'd like to explore storytelling, dispel the myth that we can't tell stories on the web, and identify some ways we can hone our craft as web-based storytellers.


Chris Butler | August 24, 2010 5:04 PM
Walter: That's interesting! You know, on a personal level, I've been thinking about how people really are the storage "media" for so many stories—stories we take for granted until the people who knew them are no longer with us, and the stories gone with them. We would benefit from having a way to preserve these stories. If it's as simple as passing them on by telling and remembering, that's great, but I'm sure some technologies could be used, too.

Angela: You're right- the way we speak to one another, whether casually or in the business/marketing context, needs to be flexible and evolve. Thanks for reading!
Angela | July 22, 2010 9:04 PM
This topic speaks right to what seems to be major right now in advertising. We started off doing the whole "it's all about you" thing. Apple started it with the i___ convention, McDonald's "your way, right away," then YouTube, etc. The novelty of speaking to "me" has worn off, and now the message is richer and more subtly speaking to the individualism from before by creating those characters you mentioned. Great article!
Walter Minutti Santalucia Jr | July 21, 2010 10:26 AM
Review of Brazil / Brazil Wheaton Glass Company / Storytellers:

This comment is meant to identify the applicability of the technique of storytelling in building the corporate memory. A systematic review was elaborated in the documents obtained from research in four databases, relating to the ways in which narratives were employed in building organizational memory. We conclude that narratives can be employed in the outsourcing and dissemination of tacit knowledge, and scientific literature indicates its use in communities of practice, case-based reasoning, learning histories, workshops and conversations.

We had some ideas to enrich a work to be presented in Congress with a case study in Wheaton. I understand that the "silver-hairs" of Wheaton are the memory of the organization, and until recently we asked whether their contribution was just to remember and tell stories. Recently, the answer came as clear as the mediator's role is fundamental and irreplaceable. A simple experiment is not enough, you need a mediator to explain and construct meaning, transfer culture and tradition.

We do not know a lot of applications in organizations, but for now it seems well suited to the work done by silver hairs or storytellers: the transmission of values, culture, creation of meanings, interpretation of reality. Even with all the knowledge explained, the mediators are still needed.

To fellow researchers and storytellers, are provided with the people here in Brazil to exchange experiences.
Chris Butler | July 12, 2010 9:54 AM
JackV: I think you're probably right that the majority of people in the world consume content rather than create it, but it's also certainly true that more people are creators today than ever before (at least in the context of creative/entertainment oriented economy).

Judy Trolley: I'm glad you found the research portion interesting. I found the story that came from it pretty compelling, too.

Kurt: That's a good question. I suppose the best example for me to identify would be our story and how we've told it using our site. I consider our newsletter and blog the primary way that I participate in telling our story directly, which, in its most basic form is that of a team of enthusiastic web professionals who work to remain, intellectually and practically, at the forefront of the industry and lead its clients over the course of a long-term business relationship. Within that story are the smaller stories that elaborate on our capabilities, or better said, our point of view on all the disciplines we employ in our work. The newsletter articles and blog content are the ongoing articulation of that point of view—what we think about how planning should work, how a CMS should work for users and developers, how the design process should work, what it means to develop good content, principles for testing and QA, how to nurture a website over the course of time after it launches, etc. A personal element comes to the story from all the different voices that participate in telling it—from those who work at Newfangled and write content and work with our clients. As far as a case study is concerned, I don't have one at the moment, but in a way, my post about how we redesigned our website early this year elaborates on the way we tell our story.

Coach Lowell: I hear you. I think there are still plenty of readers out there, and since SEO is still valuable to us and our clients, writing still has a significant place in our content strategy. But, I'd love to have more video content and find myself suggesting that for our clients as well. Now that YouTube has become a search engine on its own, having content there is even more important.

RLS: Glad you enjoyed it, too. On the "Is Google Making Us Stupid" note, Nicholas Carr recently did an interview that was recorded for that you can watch on Hulu. You might want to check that out.
RLS | July 11, 2010 8:41 PM
@judytrolley right on. Really enjoyed the book/movie/tv stats and found that whole portion a very helpful answer to all the fretting that's going on right now about "is Google making us stupid." Thanks for putting this together.
Coach Lowell | July 10, 2010 9:06 PM
I'm not a web developer, just a consumer and sometime generator of web content. Sorry writers, but I don't have the patience to read anymore. Give me a story via video - not too, too long - and I'm yours.
Kurt | July 9, 2010 6:36 PM
enjoyable read. what would an example of a story in this context sound like? maybe a helpful part 2 would be a case study of this being done right?
Judy Trolley | July 9, 2010 5:09 PM
I'm surprised no one has mentioned the findings on the second page yet. I was honestly shocked at what I saw there. (Of course, the charts are very pretty!) Had I been asked about our attention spans, especially as they pertain to books, I would definitely have thought we would be reading less in general. And when we do read, shorter material for sure.

As for the film and television statistics, it just would never have occurred to me to consider how much time we devote to particular narratives within that media. The idea that we watch too much TV is old hat, but the idea that we're watching TV much differently from how we watched a decade ago is much more relevant. What about your point about Lost? Fascinating! Their success in maintaining the interest of viewers for that long with one very complex story is - I think - unprecedented.

I'm sure I'll be thinking about this information quite a bit over the coming weeks - at least until your next article - and considering how to apply your insights to what I do.
JackV | July 9, 2010 4:22 PM
@mark shipley is right on in saying that not everyone can tell a story. It's not a matter of lack of opportunity, but lack of ability. Sorry to say, but true.

As for the abundance of sharing of other peoples' stories, well that's just because of the first point: most people consume rather than create. That's a society of people for you where few lead and most follow. And the stories that the masses hear/tell are about the very, very few.

Thanks for bringing the mass-discourse of the webtech world one step up, though. Most of what you read online, story or not, are weak attempts at creating new ideas. There's some fresh material here.
Chris Butler | July 9, 2010 9:40 AM
Alex: What a great question. I think that the way your story can be told is by "small" stories that cumulatively tell the "big" one. If you think about it, the popular serial books and films take this approach too. The Harry Potter series, which I mentioned in the section on publishing industry data, is one grand story made up of seven smaller stories. While they progressively tell the tale of Harry and his Hogwarts friends, each book has a contained story of its own.

When you write for the web, it's similar: each article you write should be a contained thought that is satisfying to the reader even though it may be examining only one aspect of something critical to your story. For example, the Newfangled story is a fairly broad one that encompasses all kinds of concepts, so we can "zoom in" and write individual articles on design and development implementation, SEO, measurement, content strategy, and the like without veering off course, so to speak. All that said, repetition isn't necessarily a bad thing. Particularly with blogging, posts get buried over time, leaving you with the opportunity to rewrite or resurrect old posts. With our newsletters, we often repeat concepts, particularly if some technological change merits an update to that thought. I hope that helps!

Johanna: Thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Johanna | July 8, 2010 6:28 PM
One of the best articles I've read in a long time!
Alex | July 8, 2010 4:38 PM
Chris, very thoughtful piece. You've given me a ton to consider. One thing I'm curious about is how the story stands the test of time. You mention the pro's and con's of short and long form content, but even the long form stuff probably has a frequency level that might stretch any story thin. From what I can tell, the most active bloggers in my industry might post a few times a week, and those that write longer format stuff like whitepapers or newsletter pieces stick to a monthly or quarterly schedule. Either way, a lot of content! So how do we tell the story without just repeating ourselves at some point?
Chris Butler | July 8, 2010 4:26 PM
Mark Shipley: You're right that time and funds are scarce, yet both needed to do this right. I probably didn't say it directly, but many companies won't be able to do this themselves for all the reasons you mention. But marketing firms (like yours) are ready, willing, and expert to do it for them.

Mark: Right on!

Katie: Great point! I can imagine many companies using their own "about" pages as brief, introductory exercises in telling their story online. Thanks for linking to the UX Booth article—they're a great resource, too.

Charles Bohannan: I think you're right—coming up with the story is certainly the most ambiguous task, one that I think many will struggle with more than they anticipate. But finding ways to exercise that thinking, whether by talking it out, writing it, or engaging in dialogue that can be transcribed, is essential to getting those creative juices (I can't believe I just wrote that) flowing.

Mike Brown: Cool—I'd love to hear more about your experiences.
Mike Brown | July 8, 2010 3:21 PM
Great post! I've specialized in writing and producing "creative non-fiction" for companies, brands, and products all over the world for TV, web, print, and live presentations. It works! The audience is more engaged. And the sales show the results.
Charles Bohannan | July 8, 2010 2:27 PM
Chris -- a well-written and pioneering treatise of storytelling on the web.

I feel the greatest challenge in storytelling is coming up with a story - it's not a systematic process. The storyline has to grow and evolve organically with readers.

You really don't where it's going to lead. And so the best we can do is provide editorial strategy and oversight.
Katie | July 8, 2010 1:59 PM

As I was reading this post, I began thinking about how I'd advise clients on applying the concept of storytelling on their site and the first, most obvious thing that came to mind are About pages. One trend I'm seeing are about pages that include historical timelines, and dig deep into the how the company has evolved to where it is today. 37 Signals does a particularly great job of this. Also, this UX Booth has some other about examples with a storytelling slant.

Thanks for another great newsletter.This will be a great topic for some of my upcoming TMS meetings.

Mark O'Brien | July 8, 2010 11:20 AM

I think that this trend that Chris has brought up here represents a great opportunity for marketing firms. I agree with you that storytelling is a very difficult art, especially in marketing applications.

Agencies are in a great position to have a great deal of impact on their client's web sites through helping them with their online marketing content strategies.
Mark Shipley | July 8, 2010 10:04 AM
If you're marketing on the web, storytelling is your best content strategy as everyone likes to read/watch/listen to new stories. Unfortunately, writing down stories worthy of the attention from others takes talent and/or time. It's nice to think that anyone can tell a good yarn, but we all know that some people can tell a joke at a party and get laughs while others get groans. Same goes for writing for the web.

Many of the businesses that we work with simply don't have the time (which is why they hire us). They have businesses to run, and hopefully, personal lives to get to at the end of the day. For them to drop everything and sit down to write a few well penned paragraphs (or make a three minute YouTube video of the story) would completely disrupt their workflow. And besides, that's not what they do best or have chosen to do with their time.

It would be nice to think that advocates of these non-mega businesses would create stories about them and post them on the web for free. This is the promise of the social web, and it does happen. But most of what I see currently happening on the social web is sharing of other people's stories, not the creation of new stories (unless the socializer is promoting their own content).

Bottom line for me - story tellers have always been a unique breed among the human race. Those that gain attention usually have an idea, the talent, the time, and the inclination to share their story with us. Their motivations are either fame or fortune. It is unlikely (but not impossible) that these non-mega brands can offer fame as a reward, so they need to offer fortune. And there is only so much fortune to go around.

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