How to Design a Blog that Converts

This post was originally published on the NMX blog. It is reposted here with permission.

Do you like it when readers check out your post and leave, never to return again? Of course not! As bloggers, we have goals, and we use our posts to try to achieve those goals. Did you know you can design a blog that converts? Your posts are only half the battle!

It’s not just about what you say, though. At the end of your posts, you may have a strong call to action, but a poorly designed blog will work against you every time, no matter how well-written your posts may be. So here are a few tips to help you design a blog that sets you up for success instead of failure:

  • Be a pattern interrupt.

WordPress, Blogger, and other blogging platforms make it super easy to install a theme and get started writing. The problem is that these ready-to-go themes are boring. Hundreds or even thousands of bloggers out there are using them, and readers won’t remember you as being something different and special. Be a pattern interrupt instead. Take some time to design a blog theme rather than using one out of box. You don’t have to build a theme from scratch; simply modify it so that you stand out from the crowd.

  • Draw attention with bold colors.

You probably have certain colors associated with your blog. When you want a design element to stand out, use a bright, bold color that attracts readers and stands out from the rest of your content. This is why you see so many bloggers with big red arrows pointing to their sign-up forms. You don’t want your most important design elements to fade into the background.

  • Put your most important information “above the fold.”

The phrase “above the fold” is carried over from print publishing. Placing information above the fold originally meant it was found above where the newspaper was folded in half, since that is what people can see at the news stand. Space above the fold is limited, so you have to chose the information you want to put there wisely. Online, above the fold translates to mean information you can see without scrolling. Screen sizes vary so this changes a bit, but you can general tell what readers will be able to see right away. This is where your most important information to help you achieve your goals needs to go.

  • The top right-hand spot is important.

A trick I learned in a graphic arts 101 class is that people naturally look at a page in an S pattern. That means if you draw a giant S on your screen, that’s how the eye usually travels. As you can see, that S shape starts at the upper right, so this spot is extremely important. Don’t make the mistake of putting something that doesn’t really matter in this location, and if you sell advertising space, consider charging more for this spot. Think of this spot as the prime location for a visual call to action, so place a “buy” button, subscription box, or other strong visual there.

  • Don’t neglect the end of your post.

You may already understand how important it is to end your post with a strong call to action, telling readers what to do next. But did you also know that the end of your post needs to be designed well for maximizing that call to action. This might be as simple as including social media sharing buttons or having links to related posts. But don’t neglect this area when you’re designing a blog to be effective.

  • Do some A/B split testing.

People are weird. Sometimes what works on one blog doesn’t work on another and vice versa. So, do a little split testing. Make a design change (for example, adding social share buttons to the top of a post) and see how people react. If you have the technical know-how, set up your blog so that half of the traffic sees your new design change while the other half sees the old design. Which one converts better? If you don’t have the skills to set up split testing that way, simple try the new design for a week and compare your results to a week without the new design change (look at percentages, not raw numbers). Make only one change at a time so you can understand how the variable is affecting your readers’ actions.

A final thought: Don’t be afraid to change how you blog looks. When you initially design a blog, you set it up to achieve certain goals, but goals change over time. It’s true that you don’t want to introduce a completely new look to your readers every week, but don’t fall into the trap of never changing the design at all. Design needs to evolve with your content so they’re supporting one another as much as possible.

What design changes have you made to benefit your blog? Share your strategies with a comment below!

Link Earning: The Ultimate Guide to Link Building in 2014

Link building is out. If you aren’t focusing on link earning in 2014, you’re not doing your content justice.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of guest posting, despite Matt Cutts’ proclamation that guest blogging is dead as a link building technique. But Matt’s post brings about an interesting question: If guest posting, the backbone of many SEO strategies, isn’t a good option for link building anymore, what is? How can one ethically and effectively concentrate on inbound marketing in 2014 and beyond?

I’d like to suggest that we need to stop talking about link building and start talking about link earning.

What is “Link Earning”?

Link earning will never be penalized by Google or other search engines because it is what the Internet is supposed to be. You’re supposed to link to pages on the Internet that have awesome, relevant content, and other people are supposed to link to you if you have awesome, relevant content.

Link earning is tough, but it’s the 100% white hat way to optimize your site for search engines. You’ll be unaffected by future Google updates. No more worrying that you’ll have to undo your work when Google decides that it’s not allowed. Link earning is the best way to future-proof your website.

But Link Earning is not 100% Organic

If you just wait people to link to your content, you’re going to be waiting a long time, even if you write amazing blog posts. Yes, link earning is organic in the perspective that you aren’t paying for the links, but it doesn’t just happen spontaneously. If you want to earn links – a lot of links – you need to put in the work.

It’s Link Building 2.0!

Buckle your seat belts, folks. This is going to be a long post. I hope it is one that you’ll bookmark and share because it will help you and your friends get links in 2014 and beyond.

First and Foremost, Link Earning Requires Blow-It-Out-Of-The-Water Awesome Content

I’m not going to spend tons of time writing about quality content, because everyone should understand that low-quality, cheap content is not the way to build a successful blog. Link earning requires quality content. If you can’t write well, hire people who can. If you don’t believe this to be the case, if you’re still creating cheap content for quick links, I can’t help you.

I did want to mention, however, that the bar is being set higher and higher when it comes to quality content. You need to blow it out of the water. If you don’t, someone else will. Today, even the most obscure niches have dozens or even hundreds of blogs. You have a ton of competition.

Quality content isn’t just about good writing (though that’s part of it). The best posts also have:

  • Links to other relevant posts on your blog
  • Links to posts on other blogs
  • Stats to back up claims you are making
  • Quotes from experts in your field
  • Screenshots and other images to help readers understand what you’re writing
  • Comprehensive content about the topic
  • Actionable tips
  • Tool recommendations
  • Case studies or examples

Of course, missing something from this list doesn’t mean that your post isn’t quality content, but I like to run down this checklist before I publish a post to see if adding something I’ve missed could make my post stronger.

Got awesome content? Great! Now let’s talk about some specific techniques that will help you earn legitimate, high-quality links.

 Giving It All Away for Free. No, REALLY Free…

On this blog, one of the topics I cover is list-building. If you don’t have an email list and a way for your readers to subscribe, that’s the number one change you should make right now. Seriously, the rest of this post will wait….go sign up at Aweber (aff link) immediately or another email service and get that ish going.

All set up with an email service? Great – let’s continue.

I’m a big fan of using ebooks, reports, and other special content in order to get people to sign up for your email list. However, I also want to advocate something kind of radical: occasionally, give away your best content without requiring an email address.

I don’t just mean a blog post. I mean actual long-form content that you think is good enough to be a list-builder, or maybe even good enough to sell. For example, when it’s all said and done, this post will be over 5000 words. It could easily become a free ebook that I give away to new list sign-ups. Here’s the kicker, though: Instead, I have it open for the world to read, and by doing that, I know I’m going to get a bunch of social shares and, with any luck, a ton of links back to this post as well.

Sometimes, you just gotta give it all away. And I mean really give it away, without requiring an email address, a tweet, or anything else. Add in a few “click to tweet” boxes and you’ll reach an even wider audience. For example:

Click to Tweet: If you want 100s of links back to your blog, create truly epic content like this: and give it away for free @allison_boyer

Your readers will do the work for you. In addition, I also highly recommend reaching out to your friends to ask them to share, and more importantly, link back to you on their own blog if they find the content helpful and want to share with their readers. You’ll be amazed at the number of people willing to link back to your post if the content is amazing and open to the public, no email address required.

Link Earning Through Relationships

As you may have guessed by now, link earning is partially dependent on building relationships with others in you niche/industry. This isn’t so you can band together to scam the system, as groups have done in the past (and still do today). Rather, link earning is all about reaching out to those friends and providing amazing, relevant content to one another.

If you write something awesome and ask your friends to link to it, they might do so. But relationships are great for another link-building technique: interviews. And I’m going to suggest that you take a new approach to any interview you post on your blog. It’s more work, but far more reward.

The first step is to actually snag an interview with someone in your niche. I recommend looking for someone who has a little more traffic than you, and that you have at least a slight relationship. Most of the time, people will say yes to an interview, because it is free press. Who doesn’t love some extra promotion for whatever they’re doing?

Make sure the interview itself is focused and as valuable as possible. I like text interviews, but you can also record a podcast interview or even make a video together. Here’s a great video with Katie Couric about how to best interview people:

Next–and this is the part that few bloggers do, but will really get you those links–put together an “interview promotion package” for the person you’ve interviewed. This should include some pre-written tweets about the interview (I usually include 5 as options), as well as copy for a short email and a short blog post announcing the interview. These should be valuable, not promotional. For example, let’s say you, Joe Schmo the blogger, interviewed me about widgets and why you should always buy high-quality widgets instead of cheap widgets. The kit you put together for me might include this type of blog post:

“Recently, I was interviewed by Joe Schmo on The Amazing Blog about widgets. I wanted to share with you a quick tip from the interview, which is one of my best pieces of advice about buying widgets…”

Then, simply copy and paste a short piece from your interview (or include a short clip or piece of the transcript) and link back to your own blog to read the rest of the interview. The email you pre-write could be very similar.

Do NOT pressure the blogger to use this pre-written copy. I can’t stress that enough. Simply make the resources available. Most people will be blown away how easy you made it to promote, and they’ll either use what you give them or edit it to their needs and post a version. The end product? You have a nice, juicy, super relevant link back to your blog.

This isn’t of course the only way you can use your relationships for link earning. You can also:

  • Become a case study. Use a blogger’s tip, record what happens, and offer to share your finding on their blog, either as a guest post or in a post they write that simply uses your stats.
  • Write a follow-up to one of their posts. Let them know that this is an additional resource they might want to link to at the end of their post so readers can get even more information.
  • Find a dead link on their blog and write good content to replace it.  When I see a dead link on someone’s blog (especially if it is an external link), I know that’s an opportunity for me to fill a gap. If it fits my niche, I’ll write a post to fit the bill and let the blogger with the broken link know about it so they can replace if they see fit.

Remember, don’t be afraid to ask for promotion when you have great content to share. One of the biggest mistakes I see bloggers making is doing an awesome job on content, but never letting their network know about it.

While we’re talking about asking for promotion…if you’re enjoying this post so far, take a moment to share it?

Be the Collector of Data

You know how the best blog posts include stats? You know how everyone links to those stats? Well, no one says that you can’t be the one to collect that data!

Now, be aware that starting a data collection project can be like opening a can of worms. I actually recommend working with a respected market research agency, not doing this yourself. Without meaning to, you might write questions that are unclear or leading. By working with a trusted company, you’ll also attract the attention of journalists in your industry, not just other bloggers. I’ve seen people get big press coverage this way – and who doesn’t want a link from a PR7 or PR8 site?

When collecting data, I recommend that you start by knowing your goal. You might not know the outcome yet, but your questions should be cohesive, allowing you to put together a study that actually make sense. Don’t just ask everything you’ve ever wanted to know. Ask questions that will allow you to write a great piece afterward, and that will have other bloggers in your niche linking to your findings. The stronger your relationships with other bloggers, the more links you’ll get.

For more tips about conducting a story and using it to earn links, I highly recommend “An Eight-Step Plan to Get PR-Driven Links” from Jess Champion.

Reverse Guest Posting

As noted, I still believe that guest posting is an awesome strategy, despite what Matt Cutts thinks. You just have to be smart about it. And I don’t mean smart as in “try to scam Google.” I mean smart as in “use guest posting how it should be used – for branding and relationship building.”

The same applies when you publish guest posts on your own blog. Do so in a smart way. Only publish posts that you would be proud to put your name on, because even if someone else wrote it, that’s essentially what you’re doing in Google’s eyes and in the eyes of your readers when you publish a guest post.

Publishing guest posts on your own blog is a great opportunity for link earning, believe it or not. Once you have your traffic built up on your blog, I recommend “reverse guest posting,” which essentially contacting people and requesting that they write a post for you, rather than contacting them and asking if they’ll publish a post you write.

How does someone guest posting on your site lead to a link? Simple: ask people who have a “as seen on” page on their website or sidebar, like the one on my sidebar. Once you’ve published their guest post, make sure you send them the link, as well as a graphic they can use if they want to tell others about their post on your site. Like with the interview link tip above, don’t pressure the other blogger to use your graphic/link. That’s a good way to ruin a relationship. If you make these assets available, most people will simply use them.

Not everyone will say yes to writing a post for you, and that’s okay. Writing quality content takes time, and for some bloggers, publishing guest posts isn’t high on the priority list. Some may say yes, but only if you can afford to pay them for their time, which I recommend if you have the budget

Want more people to say yes to a guest post? Build stronger relationships! (It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?)

Social Links

Google has said that social shares from Twitter and Facebook do not affect SEO, but I suspect this will change in the future, at least somewhat. No, I don’t think that number of social shares will directly correlate to your search rankings, but I do think that Google would be foolish to ignore social shares complete. After all, a tweet is like a vote that your content is good.

What we do know is that Google+ is already starting to play a role in SEO. I know a lot of people don’t “get” this social network, but to ignore it is to ignore the future of link building. Social, and Google+ specifically, is going to play a huge role in SEO in the future.

So how can you earn more social shares on Google+, other than the obvious fact that you need to write great content? Here are some quick tips:

  • Ask people to share. People sometimes just need a little nudge. All you have to do is ask. (And be specific an ask for Google+ shares if that’s what you want.)
  • Make sure you have a G+ share button. I’m actually surprised at the number of blogs that do not. When you want someone to share, don’t make it hard.
  • Build your own community on Google+ and share your own links. “Circle” people who are extremely active on this network, not the same people you follow other places, to help you build a following of people who will share on Google+, not just a large follower number.
  • Optimize your own shares with hashtags. On Twitter, hashtags are golden. On Facebook,  very few people use them. On Google+? Well, in my experiences, it’s somewhere in the middle. They aren’t quite as helpful as hashtags on Twitter, but they are certainly used and can help more people discover your content (and subsequently share it).

I’d love to hear your tips to getting more  shares on Google+ (just leave a comment on this post), since I’m still pretty new on this platform and getting to know my way around over there.

I also recommend checking out this video on how to better use Google+:

Social sharing has another benefit for link earning: the more people who see your posts, the more links you will get. People will write commentary on a topic and link back to you, include you in round-ups of information, and more, all because they saw your link in the first place. More readers = more links!

Actively Participating in Communities in Your Niche

SEO professionals have recommended joining forums since pretty much the beginning of time, and while dropping a link in your signature isn’t completely useless, this isn’t the whole story. You’ll get a ton more links if you’re an active part of the community…and if you’re smart about it!

First, when you join any community (forum, LinkedIn group, Facebook group, etc.) make sure you read the rules before you start posting. Some communities are extremely strict. The last think you want to do is drop a bunch of links to your blog that get deleted and get you banned from participating. In some communities, there are even rules against links in your signature.

Once you ensure you’re adhering to the rules, here’s my step-by-step process for getting links in a community setting:

  • Fill out your profile completely. When you’re new to a community, people want to stalk you to see if you’re really worth their time. Include your social accounts and your link, if there’s a space for it.
  • Add a signature, modeled after what the most active users are doing. In some communities, it’s standard to have a bunch of links in your signature. In others, it is not. Your goal here is to fit in, so take a clue from the most active community members.
  • Introduce yourself if there’s a intro thread. If there’s not, just jump in to the conversation!
  • Start adding to the conversation. Here’s the key, though: position yourself as an expert from the start. Answer questions. Talk about your experiences. Stay away from debates and arguments, and instead position yourself as a person people can come to for answers to their questions.
  • Do NOT link to your own blog at first. Simply be helpful in the beginning and point to others’ work when relevant. Unless someone directly asks for a link, refrain from linking until you’re an established member of the community.
  • Skip the one-line replies. Look for opportunities to add as much value as possible with your comments. The one-liners like “great info” are shallow and don’t help you establish yourself as an expert.
  • Start your own threads. Once you have a few weeks of strong activity under your belt, start adding threads to the conversation instead of just contributing to existing threads. Remember, you’re positioning yourself as an authority, so contribute with a thread that doesn’t just ask a question, but adds a lot of valued information. Think of it as a mini blog post.
  • Drop your links when relevant. I recommend waiting at least three months before you start adding links and then, when you do, do so with caution. Don’t be too spammy.

Why does this work? Because you’ve spent time positioning yourself as an authority in your niche, your links mean more to people. Not only will they click the information, but they’ll also start sharing your links as well. This works especially well if you become the end-all resource about a certain sub-topic in your niche. That way whenever someone asks a question about trucks in the automotive forum, you’re the go-to truck guy. People will share your links even when you’re not there.

After three to six months as an active community member, you can take the next step with community link earning by reaching out to your contacts in the community and asking for guest posts and interviews. When you have an especially good post, you can also ask people in the community to help you share the link.

As a bonus, joining communities is a great technique for finding topic ideas. When you see a very popular thread or notice several people asking the same question again and again, it’s probably a good indication that you should do some keyword research – people are probably searching for related terms.

Securing High-Quality .Edu Links

Links from .edu are typically considered authority links by search engines, so earning a link from one of these sites can help boost your rankings. The problem? .Edu sites are not a dime a dozen like .com sites. But with a few different techniques, you can get these sites to link to you.

  • Be a guest lecturer. It’s actually easier than you think, even if you don’t have a connection at the school. Simply contact the department head for your niche and ask if any of the professors in their department are looking for guest lecturers about a topic you can expertly present. Put the slides or a follow-up post on your own site so the professor can link to it from the university site (at most colleges, professors have their own page where they can include links, and sometimes even each individual course has its own page).
  • Find dead links and replace them. Professors are busy people, and often the resource links they list on this .edu page are out of date or even dead. Find them, write replacements, and contact the professor in charge of updating the page to see if they’ll replace the dead link with your own.
  • Write resources that are missing. Likewise, if you look at a professor’s resource page and see that there is nothing about a specific topic in your industry, write something about that topic and email them, asking them to include your link on their resource page. As always, make sure your content is amazing.

Keep in mind that professor/course pages are the only places where you can get links on .edu sites. Most colleges also have community resource pages, housing resource pages, career search resource pages, and more. Browse around to find great link opportunities based on the topics you cover on your blog.

In case you’re wondering, yes you can earn links in the same way from .gov sites. Look for local .gov sites that provide resource pages where you can either replace a dead link or fill a gap with a resource that they don’t have linked on their site already. Make sure your quality is top-notch, because .gov sites won’t link to anything that is at all suspicious or low-quality.

Diversifying your Anchor Text

Something important to remember with all of the above-mentioned link building techniques: it’s important to mix up your anchor text if you aren’t doing so already.

In the past, it used to be that the more links you had using a specific keyword as the anchor text (i.e. the linked text), the better the linked page would rank for the keyword. Google recognized, however, that this system was way too easy to game. So, if you have a ton of links with the same anchor text, especially if that text isn’t the name of the page or website, Google might think you’re building links unnaturally.

So, as you are building links, it is extremely important to vary the text you are linking. In fact, you might not want to use keywords at all. Google is getting smarter and now looks at the words used around the link, not just the words which are themselves linked. Make sure your links make sense within the context of the copy and stop focusing on the keyword you have linked.

This is a great post from Cyrus Shepard that I recommend about what kind of anchor text you should use.

Paid Links

While you might not want to hear it, paying for links is the best way to get targeted traffic to your website. You don’t need to have a huge budget, but you do have to have some patience and a stomach for a little risk. Not every ad campaign will be successful, but your goal here is to see a positive ROI – and enough of a positive ROI to justify the time you spend on paid links.

Before we go any farther, here are a few types of paid links that I do not recommend in any way:

  • Purchasing text links on a website’s sidebar: The exception is purchasing no-follow links, which is an okay strategy in Google’s eyes, but in this case, the juice isn’t passed (see more about nofollow links below).
  • Purchasing links within sponsored posts: I know that many people still consider paying for sponsored posts a valid link strategy, but I think Google will get harder and harder on people doing this. The FTC’s guidelines now state that a blogger has to disclose sponsored posts, so it is fairly easy for Google to figure out what posts are sponsored so they can either ignore those links or penalize your site.
  • Reciprocal link schemes: This is when you pay to participate in a circle of links, where Site A links to Site B who links to Site C who links to Site A. The thought is that since no one links directly to one another, Google won’t figure out that they are paid links. Google is systematically shutting down link schemes, though, and more importantly, sites that participate in these kinds of schemes are typically irrelevant to your site, so the link will look suspicious to Google.

The type of “paid links” that I’m talking about are ads, through Google Adwords, Facebook Sponsored Posts, and other ad networks.

I could write another 5000+ words on paying for ads, so instead of doing that here, let me give you a few really value posts about the topic:

Keep in mind that any blog post about Internet marketing can become quickly outdated when updates are made in any ad platform, so take advice with a grain of salt and do some research to make sure that advice you read is still sound.

Nofollow Links

As noted above, if you want to purchase links on someone’s sidebar or within a post, you can do so without pissing off Google by using nofollow links. This is a simple tag that tells search engines, “hey, don’t consider this link when you’re ranking us for certain keywords. So, if you’re going to buy links, make sure you ask for nofollow links from the other webmaster.

Now, Matt Cutts has said that nofollow links are kosher, in most cases. What’s important to remember, is that if you’re buying links or otherwise getting nofollow links on a massive sale and in a spammy way, Google might still take action against you, but this is rare. See Matt’s advice on this topic here.

While nofollow links don’t pass link juice like a normal (dofollow) link, they’re an important part of a high-value link profile. Any page that has a variety of links should have a both nofollow links and dofollow links, so if you only have dofollow links, Google might be suspicious that those links are unnatural. I personally believe that this view of overall link and content profile will become increasingly important to Google. We’re already seeing the first step with authorship via your Google+ profile. Google knows that if your content is strong on one website, it is probably strong on the other one as well, even if the other site is new and doesn’t have a ton of links.

The bottom line about nofollow links? Don’t ignore them as part of your overall link earning strategy. Remember, these links will help with organic traffic and branding, so even if Google didn’t consider them at all, they would still be valuable. Read more about nofollow links here.

The “Be Everywhere” Effect with Link Earning

No matter what technique you’re using to earn links back to your website, you can amplify the effect they have with a move I can “Be Everywhere,” which as the name suggests means that you time your links – guest posts, interviews, etc. to go live during the same week.

In terms of SEO, this doesn’t matter at all. (At least, not as far as I know.)

The effect that it does have is that people will see your name over and over again. Typically, by the third time they see your name, assuming that your content is good, they’ll be curious enough to click the link back toy our site to check out who you are and what you do. This can really have a snowball effect: as more people are curious enough to check you out (hubba hubba), more people will share your links, which means your name will be even more places.

I really recommend this video from Pat Flynn, who is a master of being everywhere:

It’s not always possible to time your links to go live, but you do have some control over your links in some cases. When possible, consider timing your links.

Internal Links

Before closing out this giant post, I want to emphasize how important it is to have a solid internal linking strategy.

Google likes structure; all search engines do. They work best when spiders can crawl from page to page, analyzing how content is related. When a post is left hanging with few internal links to it, your external linking strategy won’t be as effective. I highly recommend having a solid editorial calendar so you can plan and track internal linking.

As you create content, it can be a huge job to track your content, so I recommend having a spreadsheet where you note how a piece of content was promoted through your own social shares and internal links. That way, you know that every post you write is getting some link love. This can also help you generate post ideas, since you can look at your list, note which posts haven’t been linked to recently, and create content that provides a perfect linking opportunity.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when linking internally:

  • Link often, but don’t overdo it. Give your readers the resources they need to make sense of what you’re writing, but remember that you don’t want the post to simply be a collection of links. I like to link about once every 100 words for shorter posts (less than 1500 words) and once every 300 words for longer articles. Some of those links will be external and others internal.
  • Make sure the links are related. Your internal links won’t help you if the content you’re linking to isn’t related. Think like your reader. What will help them most? That’s where you should place your internal links.
  • Update older posts with new links. Every month, go though the 10 posts on your blog that are most popular and update them with new links (and new information) if possible. You should also make sure that there are no dead links, either internally or externally.

You can also give new posts a little link love boost by linking from pages that are currently ranking really well. In your Google Webmaster Tools, look at the links to your site. Your homepage probably tops that list, but check out which posts also have a lot of people linking to them. These are general posts you can use to send some juice to posts that need it.

One final note, because I can’t stress this enough. You must, must, must, must, MUST have good content. That’s what link earning is all about. Back in the early 2000s, when I was a freelance writer, I was always really confused by the Internet marketers who wanted to purchase $3 “spun” articles to clutter the Internet with crap content stuffed with keywords and filled with links, based on how Google could be scammed today. It’s no wonder that some people consider SEO as a whole a big scam. The tips in this post? Use them for good, not for evil. If something feels too easy, there’s a good chance that in future, Google will penalize you for it.

Digital Storytelling: Why Most Small Businesses Suck at It (And How to Make Sure You Don’t!)

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