Storytelling has been around before the first word was ever penned on a piece of parchment. It has evolved with us and influenced the culture around us. Stories are consumed in a myriad of different ways, and the digital age just gives us more options–from long blog posts to 140 character tweets; old photo albums to fifteen second snapchats.
Storytelling can also be used on your website to connect with users and increase engagement. A website with a well–thought out hierarchy, carefully crafted content, and user-first approach to design can tell a story that people will remember and share with others. Do you remember the first time you watched a video on YouTube? You probably couldn’t wait to share the experience of watching hilarious cat videos with your friends! YouTube had created a method for people to share their stories, and contained that inside their own storytelling framework. With a net worth of over 70 billion dollars, I’d venture that this tactic is still working out for them. Before we dive into how to use this strategy on your own site, let’s look at why it’s so successful.
David Ogilvy was one of the original “Mad Men” of the fifties and sixties and is considered by most as the “Father of Advertising.” David walked to work every day and would pass by a homeless man begging for change and holding a sign that read “I am blind.” The homeless man would often hold a small cup of change to his ear and rattle it—trying to see how much he’d collected. One day, David was feeling particularly generous and tossed some change into the beggars cup, to which he said to David “Thank you. God bless!”
David stopped to talk to him for a little bit. He explained to the beggar what he did for a living and asked him if he had permission to modify the sign a bit. The beggar told him to go ahead. David stooped down with a marker and changed the sign to read “It is spring and I am blind.”
Later that day when David was walking home from work, he noticed the beggar now had not only an entire cup full, but 4 cups overflowing with coins! David stopped to talk to him again and was met with praise: “What did you do to my sign? People have been amazingly generous today!”
David had taken a simple statement I am blind and turned it into a story It is Spring and I am blind. It was a story that everyone passing by could connect with on an emotional level. They were able to engage with the beggar and feel empathy towards him. The sign—the story—was a bridge between the beggar and everyone else.
This has long been a successful strategy of art directors, Disney animators, video game developers, and even website owners. The story is the bridge between the user and whatever the idea is you’re trying to get across to them is. Whether you goal is to get users to donate money to a cause or sign up for a newsletter—the formula is the same: create a story around it.
Let’s look at a company who has really taken the idea of emotional design and storytelling to a new level: MailChimp. MailChimp revolutionized the email marketing scene and continues to innovate in the UX space. They even offer a great UX newsletter. They were able to take something inherently boring—the dreaded email campaign—and turn into a fun and engaging task. Part of this is largely due to their hilarious mascot. When logging into your dashboard, you’re often greeted with a funny and light-hearted message.
The smart folks at MailChimp had taken the time to research their audience instead of just taking guesses about what might work or basing choices on their personal taste. They realized that adding a little humor into the interface and using bright pastel colors and friendly rounded corners would make a normally dull part of their users’ day actually fun!
So let’s go over a few things you can do to help create a story around your site that will engage with your users:
- Create Personas. Personas are documents you create based on your target audience. They aren’t real people necessarily, but representations of your actual users. These documents help you keep the user needs in mind, as well as their preferences and limitations. Having intimate knowledge of your users will open up lots of new possibilities for connecting with them.
- Just like MailChimp and other successful brands, do your research! You never know what valuable information will turn up that you can use to connect with them.
- Always ask why. Instead of saying “Let’s add an image slider to the homepage,” try asking “Why are we adding an image slider to the homepage?” Most of the time, you’ll realize you’re trying to address a deeper problem and can arrive at a solution that’s better for your users.
- Utilize some art direction in your site planning. Is there an overarching theme you can use? If your site is focused on highlighting the mental health struggles of combat soldiers returning home, brainstorm ways that you can connect your users with this subject matter. Perhaps you can focus on intimate photos of the soldiers with their families and look at it from the point of view of those family members.
Next time you’re making changes to your site or doing a new design, consider how you can create a story around it to draw your users in. If you have examples of sites you think already do a good job of this, feel free to drop them in the comments section below!