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12/16/2008 What Story Are You Telling Online?


I’m in the middle of a couple of projects where we’re running into the same issue: How do we tell our story effectively and emotionally on a Web site? It sounds like it should be an easy question to answer, if we do our jobs correctly, but because the Web is such a mix of disparate elements our challenge is that much greater.

Good organization, says the information architect. We need logical flows, personas and smart conversion paths. Great design, says the creative director, with killer photography. No clutter, says the print art director. Flash interactivity, says the interactive designer. Results, says the account manager. Business growth, says the client.

Well, yes, and, it depends. For an e-commerce site you want to make it as easy and logical as possible to find goods and buy them. Chalk one up for IA. But is that it? I think all e-commerce architects should read Paco Underhill’s classic “Why We Buy.” In classic retail, it’s not only about speed; it’s about slowing people down as well. There are some great lessons that we Web folk can learn from offline.

Flash is great, just look at the engagement on TheFWA sites. But what happens when clients can’t afford one of those sites? Face it, HTML is pretty square and more standardized by the minute, despite all the things we can do with CSS.

And what happens when you’re not really “selling” anything online except your business? Sites tend to resemble the brochures they replace, relying on long copy, good design and some pictures. I don’t think those are always effective tools for telling a story.

If you’re not reading David Armano’s blog “Logic + Emotion” you should start. I think he’s one of the digital thought leaders that understand the dynamic tension in digital. Our work needs to have a logical structure. And it needs to touch us emotionally. We have to strike that balance to tell stories, and we need to keep pushing on the medium.

One question is whether storytelling, usually consisting of a beginning, middle and end, works with non-linear interactivity. My answer is: look at video or computer games. It becomes a short beginning and end with, sometimes, a never-ending middle. It morphs and changes as you engage with it.

And then there are some who use classic storytelling online, like the Girl Effect. That was so simple and so well done that it was striking. Yes, it was like a long commercial, but it was more than that. It did a great job at telling a story. And provided tools for people to extend the story.

Whew, this was a long post. But we have a big challenge. We digital folk need to become better storytellers. The good thing is, we have a lot of tools to work with.

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