What is storytelling?The word “storytelling” has a lot of buzz about it these days — from film to web.

You can understand how important storytelling is to film and video.

When you tell a good story, you involve your audience, who identifies with one or more characters. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee talks a lot about stories in this Harvard Business Review interview.

Good stories light up the imaginations of those who are reading, hearing, or experiencing them in other ways.

But a web site?

The web storytelling cheerleaders say things like:

“Storytelling is a method of explaining a series of events through narrative. The events can be real, fictional or some combination of the two. Marketers use storytelling as a tool for illustrating an otherwise difficult concept, to drive home a point or to encourage consumer loyalty through entertainment or emotional connection.” (Zideate)

“Stories and the art of storytelling play a major role in content marketing today. Not all brands realize the importance of unearthing their core story and learning to tell stories in ways that endear new fans and motivate advocates. In case you need even more reason to learn to weave an effective narrative throughout your marketing efforts, here are seven reasons storytelling is important for branded content.” (PostAdvertising)

“If you have ever taken a creative writing class, you probably were told “show, don’t tell,” when writing. The same is true for storytelling within a brand. By simply presenting a setting, character, and action, business storytellers allow customers to enter into the story of their brands in a personal, relatable way. In many cases, the character can be the customer and the action can be the sale.” (WebMarketingToday)

Let’s back up for a moment.

What exactly is a story?

Here’s one definition, a pretty thorough one.


[stawr-ee, stohr-ee]
nounplural stories.
a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
such narratives or tales as a branch of literature: song and story.
the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.: The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.
a narration of an incident or a series of events or an example of thesethat is or may be narrated, as an anecdote, joke, etc.
a narration of the events in the life of a person or the existence of athing, or such events as a subject for narration: the story of medicine; the story of his life.
a report or account of a matter; statement or allegation: The story goes that he rejected the offer.

Another definition:


Story is a particular kind of narrative that produces a particular kind of pleasure in the listener or reader. Aristotle listed its essential components over 2000 years ago: an interesting character with weaknesses and strengths confronts a problem that tests the character’s ability to recognize and overcome his limitations, and his efforts to do so create new problems. If he fails, it’s a tragedy; if he succeeds, it’s a eucatastrophe. In either case, the ending feels “just” to the listener/reader, in terms of the character’s own qualities or lack of them…it is the character and the character’s actions (not mere coincidence or divine intervention) that brings about the final result. (Moonscape)

But nearly every time I see the word storytelling applied to the web, I see no stories.

And I think it’s because people like using a sexy word like storytelling.

Problem #1 is: Most web sites do not offer narratives. With the exception of J. Peterman, the vintage-inspired clothing and accessory manufacturer, I can’t think of one web site that offers actual narratives.

Problem #2 is: Marketers talk the talk, but they never give examples (as far as web sites go). I honestly don’t know what they mean by a corporate website’s story — when there is no beginning, middle, and end.

J. Peterman dress

J. Peterman tells stories throughout its print catalogs and website.

What’s really happening with web “storytelling”

I would argue that great web sites create portals — portals for interactivity. When your audience is interacting with your web site, something special happens — something as good as a “real” story, perhaps.

What you need for interactivity is

  • recognition
  • engagement
  • adoption

The audience, when visiting a successful web site, recognizes him or herself in that web site. That recognition leads to engagement — something about the page excites the audience’s curiosity.

The audience then falls into one or more portals — hotspots, if you will, that create a true interactive experience. Portals are created by a general environment, words (including an actual story at times), images, and videos. When your website has caused your audience to tell themselves a story, and to put themselves in it, you may have adoption. Adoption occurs when an audience acts on a story that they themselves have created.

Successful website interactivity #1

You visit the Harley Davidson web site. You already like motorcycles — that’s why you’re there. You immediately see Harleys as attractive, technically advanced, even sexy. Recognition. You can feel yourself in the “saddle,” as it were. You can smell the desert air. Whatever is in that photograph you assimilate into your life experience, hopes, and dreams. Engagement. You return to the web site time and again because the experience is exhilarating. Or you put in an order for one. Adoption. In other words, you generate the story, not the marketer. The marketer has simply provided you with topsoil, as it were.

Successful website interactivity #2

You visit the Land’s End web site. Let’s say you’re buying a new sweater for yourself. You look for people your age, or the age you feel. Recognition.

That person is standing near a fireplace with his or her arm around a significant other. It’s Christmas. You feel like you’re there, and it makes you think of Christmas the way it should be — merry and bright. Remember that Christmas in 2015? That was awesome, when George and Amanda showed up to surprise you with Florida orange cake and gifts for the kids. Engagement.

In fact, you want those slippers, too, because if you have those slippers, you’re as good-looking, warm, and content as the person modeling them. Adoption.

You’re now fully in the picture and in a kind of day dream. Motivated to make a purchase, a phone call, or a donation.

In conclusion, I think that great marketers create ways to help their audiences identify themselves with their products or services. By and large, they do not create stories.

But, really, who cares? When you involve your audience, you fully brand your product or service.

I just hope that we can stop hearing this buzz word “storytelling” like it’s some kind of panacea for web sites. We should simply concentrate on how to involve our audience — our web sites are all about them.

What is storytelling vis a vis web sites?

by susan time to read: 5 min

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