Talking about digital storytelling reminds me of a time when I was five years old. When I was in kindergarten, I loved storytime. Every day, I’d anxiously wait for our teacher to bring out the puppets, which signified that it was time to sit on our circular rug and listen to tales Astrid the Alien learning to count or Donny the Dolphin practicing her ABCs. Storytelling was, to me, the most exciting part of the day.

Today, I’m still excited by a great story. I get sucked into TV shows like Breaking Bad and Doctor Who. I enjoy the plot of a movie more than the acting or special effects. And books? Forget about it. I become obsessed with books that tell an amazing story.

Digital storytelling fascinates me. Twitter gives people a short peak into our thoughts. Google+ allows us to expand on and share ideas and opinions. Instagram and Facebook allow us to share snapshots of our everyday lives with not only our friends and family, but also complete strangers. Vine adds video to the mix.

While most people use these social tools in a very stream-of-consciousness way, brands can easily tell a more cohesive story. Yet, most small businesses are falling behind. Instead of digital storytelling, they’re just digital selling…which is becoming less and less effective.

The question is, how can you make sure that your small business is telling the right digital story, rather than contributing to the white noise of junk people don’t want to see? How can you make your digital storytelling suck less?

The Moral of Your Digital Story

The very first step, and one that is often overlooked, is to clearly identify your brand’s “moral of the story.” This is the image your want to the portray, the emotions you want to cause, or the information you want to convey to your audience. Typically, the moral of the digital story is somewhat abstract, but the success of you entire digital storytelling campaign hinges on clarifying this moral, which is not the same thing as your goal.

A really great example of digital storytelling is Google Chrome’s “Dear Sophie” video:

The “moral” of the digital story is that Chrome, and the entire Google brand, is for personal connections. Imagine how different this ad would be if the moral of the story was that Chrome is cutting edge technology.

You don’t have to be a big brand like Google to have a moral to your story.

For example, let’s say you own a bridal salon. The moral of your digital story might be that you’re a classic, upscale salon that has been helping brides for 50+ years. How could you digitally tell this story? How about creating a video or Instagram campaign where you show side-by-side images of mothers and daughters who both purchased their dresses from you, wearing their dresses on their wedding days.

Now let’s say that your bridal salon’s “moral of the story” is that you have dresses at every price point, even for brides who think they can’t afford a nice gown. Your goal is very different, even though you both have the same goal: finding new customers and selling dresses. In this case, you might create a series of blog posts where you profile brides on extreme budgets and how they created amazing wedding experiences, despite their lack of money (including purchasing a dress from you).

Without the moral of your brand’s story, it is nearly impossible to create a cohesive digital storytelling plan. The moral of your story is your brand. What do you want people to have in their mind when hear your company’s name?

Understanding the Plot Component of a Good Digital Story

At the end of the day, digital storytelling is about more than just pinpointing your message. The storytelling part matters. When I was a kid, I wasn’t excited about Astrid the Astronaut’s message about learning to count. I cared about the adventures she went on. I cared about the story.

This is where I see most small businesses fall short. Without a plot, you’re just doing what every business is doing online – sharing tidbits that give people zero incentive to pass on to their friends. Let’s say you’re a fitness studio, for example. A picture of the salad you’re eating for lunch today at the office isn’t going to go viral, even if it does relate to the moral of your story (that you’re a healthy brand).

That’s not to say that you should never share a picture of your lunch. But digital storytelling is a little different. For a story to work, something has to happen.

An English major will tell you that a good plot has five story elements: the exposition, the rising action, the climax/turning point, the falling action, and the denouement/resolution.

  • The exposition: This is the introduction to the story, the set up.
  • The rising action: A conflict of some sort is introduced.
  • The climax: The turning point of a story, where you’re most interested and want to know what is going to happen.
  • The falling action: The reader see what is going to happen.
  • The denouement: A resolution to the conflict, where loose ends are tied up.

Here’s an example of great brand storytelling that you’ve probably seen, from Dove:

And here’s the breakdown of the plot elements:

  • The exposition: The forensic artist introduces himself and the women talk about walking into the room and being sketched.
  • The rising action: The women describe themselves.
  • The climax: It is revealed that a second person is also describing the women.
  • The falling action: The women see the images side by side and realize that they are too hard on themselves.
  • The denouement: The women have revelations about needing to recognize their own beauty.

Now, obviously, this is for a single video. Your overall brand story might be something that you’re sharing over the course of months or even years. Your brand’s digital story is something you may have to tell over and over, in different mediums. But whenever you tell that story, it should have the above five elements.

Evoking Emotion with Digital Storytelling

Emotions are extremely powerful for digital storytelling because people tend to take action when they’re feeling extreme emotions, like anger or empathy or happiness. Remember, your entire goal isn’t just to entertain someone with a story. It’s to make a sale. Your content has to convert, and if it doesn’t, your digital storytelling campaign isn’t a success, even if it goes viral.

The key is to understand your audience. You can’t evoke emotion if you don’t know what makes someone tick.

Is your target audience male or female? Do they have a family? What are their hobbies? What is their sense of humor like? Are they educated?

Keep asking questions to help you dig deeper, so you can figure out how to emotionally touch your target market. Some people respond better to videos that tug on the heartstrings, while others respond better to blog posts that make them angry because they see an injustice in the world, while others still respond better to Twitter updates that make them laugh.

Digital Storytelling Tools

Before closing out this post, I wanted to give you a short list of tools to help you create a better digital story for your small business. You might not have the budget of a big brand, but you can still make a big impact.

Meshfire: If your business is more than just you, I highly recommend Meshfire as a team social listening and management tool. There are many such tools out there, but in my experiences, Meshfire is the best, even for being a relatively young company. They’re especially helpful for executing campaigns, because you can assign tasks to specific members on your team, keeping everything organized within the conversation platform, instead of in a separate team management program. (I will say this about Meshfire: I will like it more when I can connect to all my social accounts, not just Twitter, but I’m assuming that is coming down the pipeline!)

Storify: I love using Storify (now owned by LiveFyre) to curate content for digital storytelling. Using this platform, you can collect videos, blog posts, social updates, and more in one place. Better yet, it’s not just your own content that you can curate. You can collect content from anyone speaking about a specific topic and gather it in one place. For example, People Magazine used Storify to curate a digital story about “Star Style at the Grammys” by collecting social updates from celebrities posting images of their clothing, hair, nails, makeup, and more.

Vine: You can tell your brand’s story on any number of platforms, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, definitely give it a try. Vine taps into how people like to consume content today – video content is more engaging, but people also have very short attention spans. Check out this post from BJ Emerson for more tips on using Vine for storytelling, along with examples of brands who do it well.

What’s your favorite digital storytelling tool? Leave a comment below!

Image credit: “book open 3” by pandora_6666, modified

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