Content Strategy as Storytelling

Last year I was invited by the lovely Gareth de Walters to speak at Auckland Content Strategy Meetup Group, or “Acksumgah”.

After throwing out my first thought – using Tarot cards to inspire digital content – I opted for a more accessible topic: storytelling. And since Cate has kindly sent traffic here from her site, I figured I should provide some kind of value by writing up the essence of that talk. Which was fairly well received, I think.

We live in stories

We love stories. Storytelling is as old as verbal communication, written into our cultural DNA. We grow up with stories, learning our earliest lessons from Aesop and Andersen and Disney. Buddha and Jesus both chose stories as effective means of communicating their ideas. Two of the biggest industries in the world – film/TV and gaming – are based on telling stories. If you’re feeling generous, the other big industry involves telling stories, though the stories in porn are pretty one-dimensional.

Good stories are engaging and get passed on.

Good content is engaging and gets passed on.

And that’s the kind of content you want. So how do we bring the two together?

The anatomy of a good story

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. (You can’t stop me. That works better in a presentation than in a blog post.) Here’s a story you’re bound to be familiar with. It’s the plot of a popular film.

Our orphaned hero is stuck living with his aunt and uncle. Fortunately, he learns that he’s someone special, with talents he didn’t realise before. He’s given an item that lets him use these talents and is taught to use it. He comes under the guidance of a wise old man. The wise old man is killed by the same bad guy who killed his parents.

And then he defeats the bad guy.

So, what’s the story? Harry Potter? No, you’re wrong, it’s Star Wars.

Again, that works better in a live presentation where I can reveal things suddenly.

So while the content of those two stories are different, they both follow a very similar form. Good stories, engaging stories, have some common elements and some common structures. And those common structures and elements can help us create good content.

Digital users are not passive

It’s easy to see your user as a passive reader or viewer. Until digital came along, most marketing was about broadcasting messages effectively to passive viewers – TV viewers, radio listeners, newspaper readers. The same went for most story-based entertainment: books, TV shows, movies.

All broadcasting at passive viewers and readers.

But times have changed. Digital is interactive. You have the power to give users the opportunity to involve themselves directly in your content. And this fundamentally alters the way you should approach storytelling.

See, in the past, with broadcast-media stories, you were telling them the tale of a hero and hoping they’d root for that hero, perhaps identify with the protagonist.

With digital, you can make the user themselves play the part of the hero, make them the protagonist of your story.

Making the user the hero

How does your user’s experience start? One of the TLAs I had to learn…

TLA stands for “three-letter acronym”. Just a little acronym humour for you there.

One of the many TLAs I had to learn when I stumbled into the marketing industry by accident was CTA – call to action. “What’s the CTA? It’s this here button.” “What’s the CTA? It’s this incentivised call to like the Facebook page.” And so on.

But if you’re approaching your content as a story and you’re treating your user as the hero, it’s not a call to action.

It’s a call to adventure.

And how do calls to adventure work in stories? Just think about it. The hero isn’t told about everything he’s going to experience in the story. Bilbo wouldn’t have left Bag End if he’d known everything that was going to happen to him, that he was going to end up doing. In fact, heroes in most classic stories are pretty reluctant to get involved in their stories. And so are plenty of users.

So you tantalise, tease, and offer them the chance of something happening to them, of them experiencing something, rather than just viewing your content.

Escalate challenges

The obstacles a hero faces in a story escalate gradually. Harry Potter faces Draco Malfoy long before he faces Voldemort. (Don’t get pedantic on me there.) Luke Skywalker had to deal with Sand People long before he took on the Death Star.

So the challenges your user/hero faces in your story/content have to do two things. Firstly, they have to escalate from low hurdles to high. And secondly, they have to give an escalating sense of achievement and satisfaction as your hero progresses through your content.

Personalise the experience

It’s digital. Let the user tell you about themselves and most of them will. Then use that information to personalise their story as much as possible, letting them immerse themselves in the experience. Use their name. Let them design an avatar. Use Facebook info. Ask them questions about themselves (their favourite kind) and adjust your content accordingly. There will always be limits, but even being addressed by name can help.

And consider the old Pick-a-Path books. Every page used the second person. “You see this, you do that.” You don’t have to be quite that on the nose about it, but keep your eyes out for personalisation opportunities throughout your content.

Surprise and delight

Everyone loves a good plot twist, like when Keyser Söze turned out to be dead all along, or when Tyler Durden turned out to be a man all along. Surprise your user by leading them to expect something, perhaps even to feel clever about expecting it, and then providing them with something entirely different. Just make sure the different thing is actually better somehow than what they expected, or you’ll run into trouble.

Give your user a happy ending

When I put the presentation together, I learned that it’s difficult to find images for “happy ending” that are appropriate for that context.

On an unrelated note, your user should leave your content…

  • …having felt a sense of release or accomplishment.
  • …satisfied.
  • …not frustrated by your content ending prematurely.

But perhaps most importantly, your story must have an ending. Not just end, but have an ending. It’s really easy to put a lot of thought into the bulk of your content – your clever interactive experience, your little web game, your cool game-entry mechanic – and entirely forget to think about the ending.

Take a step back. Ask yourself some questions. How does the experience end? How does your user know it’s ended? What do you expect them to do next? How will they feel about the experience now that it’s over?

Over and over, I see great ideas in digital screwed up by a lack of a clear ending to the experience (“Is it over? I’m not sure…”) or an anti-climactic ending (“Oh, is that it?”)

Last impressions last. And it’s in the first 20 seconds or so after experiencing your content that your user’s going to decide whether or not to share it with others. So put thought into that last part of the experience. Don’t just hit them with a popup inviting them to share with friends, unless you’re really sure that your content’s so damned cool that everyone’s going to want to tell everyone. Make invitations to share a part of the story. Make incentives to share part of the story.

Remember that if users share your content with friends, that sharing will be their friends’ first contact with your content. What does that mean? Make your sharing mechanics a call to adventure. Of course.

Ask yourself…

While you’re coming up with your content, while you’re developing it and when you think you’ve finished with it, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do they first learn about your content? Is it a call to adventure?
  • What makes the adventure tantalising? Why would they take that first step?
  • Are the hurdles low enough at the start? Is the sense of achievement high enough at the end?
  • Have you missed any opportunities to further personalise the experience?
  • How do they know the story has ended? How do they feel now it’s ended?
  • How do they share your content? Why would they share your content?
  • Does your sharing mechanic constitute a new call to adventure?

Roll credits

Obviously this isn’t a colour-by-numbers content generator. It’s just an approach that I’ve found useful when it comes to digital content strategy. Don’t limit yourself by trying to fit your content into a particular story structure if it doesn’t work. Don’t throw in a plot twist in an attempt to check off all the story elements you can think of.

But people do love stories. So use stories to inspire your approach to content.

If that helps.

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