Mike Cushing / Digital Marketing / May 20th, 2014

How to Focus the Narrative of Your Website

Many marketers and business owners have a fundamental misunderstanding of their own websites. Yes, it’s a portal to sell your product or service. Yes, it’s a way to inform new users and attract new customers. But at its core, your website is the place to tell your story. To let users know why your company is a world apart from your competitors.

After all, anyone could – theoretically – replicate your product or service. Eventually, any competitor can match you on what you sell and for how much. The only true competitive advantage is the story behind your products. Your culture, your history, your employees; at the end of the day, this is what keeps customers coming back for more.

Focusing your narrative can be a challenge, but it starts with understanding the elements of a story.

Stories Build Human Connections

Storytelling is the most basic human interaction, and one of the most powerful ways to build a relationship. User Experience is all the rage in the web development world – for good reason – and your company’s story is integral to a digital experience that truly resonates with a user.

We’ve all been bored by stories (or just bought the Cliff Notes), but your website can’t afford a boring tale. Your online narrative provides a framework for users to connect to your brand and to your services, and should affect every interaction with your site.

Write Within the Proper Limits

All the best stories have boundaries and a distinct arc, and your website narrative should as well. Some of those boundaries are obvious: keywords and messaging for certain products, calls to action on specific landing pages. It’s your job to ensure that your story isn’t limited by other factors.

Too often site owners think they have to hit a specific word count, or include every possible service on the homepage, and they damage their ability to tell a story by trying to tell too much at once. How you tell your website’s story is just as important as what you’re telling. To tell your story the right way, you need to understand how you want to talk to your users and what your story should say. We gently mocked PayPal a bit for appearing to imitate Spotify in their site redesign, but it’s an effective storytelling method – both brands position themselves as daily interactions that shape users’ lives. Getting that perspective right requires a deep understanding of your own company.

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Build a Brand Persona

To have a story, your company needs to have an identity that goes deeper than who you are and what you sell. Once you’ve established that identity, it should provide the underpinning of your entire online presence. Your brand personality includes your company values, your vision, the work ethic of your employees, even how your brand likes to speak.

When we redesigned 352, our designers sketched out a rough brand persona that encompassed those values before they began to design the new site. They even decided what that persona would look like in real life. Clever, empathetic, forward-thinking, outspoken: just a few of the traits that we embody, but they laid the foundation for every design and content decision that we made during our redesign and even in our social media strategy. To tell that story, your brand identity has to be more than just an idea: it has to come to life throughout your site, and beyond.

More Than an ‘About Us’ Section

Now here’s the curveball: your story isn’t about you. It’s about your customers. It’s about how they are able to interact with your product to tell their own story. Your company is merely the facilitator for customers to build their own experiences.

To be effective, brand storytelling has to be more than an About Us section telling how the company was founded, what awards you’ve won and how your employees love to play afternoon ping pong. Those can be elements of your story, but they’re not the story. An About Us section feels good for you as a site owner, but go ahead and check your Analytics to see how many visitors are engaging with your Company History. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that it’s about a few tenths of a percent of your traffic.

Your story should pervade your entire website: in the navigation, in your imagery and obviously in the words you choose. It should be subtly woven through every interaction that your site throws up to a user.

  • Focus on benefits, rather than features. Your website is fundamentally a marketing tool – but your core narrative should not be driven by marketing. Rather than listing all the things that set you apart, focus on stories that show how your customers set themselves apart by using your product.
  • Tell, don’t sell. Truly authentic content is hard to come by these days. The primary goal of your storytelling should be to inform and persuade, not to push the hard sell.
  • Show who you are. Be human. Use real photos, avoid flowery headlines and tell customers what it means to work with your company.

Write a Space for Your Customers

At its heart, your story needs to include a path for users to walk down, to write their own story with your site. Once you understand who your users are, and have identified the components of your brand persona, you need to find a way to reflect the values of your users within your own story. Your company’s story is an ongoing narrative, and your customers will be its ultimate author, so make sure they have plenty of space to write it.

Image credit: Gunnar Asplund{{PD-US}}