In essence, digital storytelling is using digital technology to tell stories. For a marketer, it’s the art of combining digital tools with story structures to define or expand an organization’s brand and its audience.
People tell one another stories for several reasons. When done well, they’re memorable, engaging, and persuasive. Traditional storytelling has been used in advertising for years. Just think about the most effective commercials you’ve seen. They all tell or imply a coherent story.
There are many ways to craft digital narratives. Through music, computer-based images, narration, cinematography, and creative writing, you can create impactful stories that connective with your audience.
With so many options, how can you harness the art of storytelling for your organization? This post gives you ideas and examples you can adapt to your own needs. Read on — and get ready to tap into this new form of literacy.
What Is Digital Storytelling, and Why Does It Work?
Digital storytelling is a constellation of mediums and techniques, and brands can find the mixture that works best for them. It includes:
- Blog posts
- Mobile Apps
And anything else that uses a digital storytelling tool to create and publish a brand’s story also falls under this umbrella.
You can tell your digital story in one piece of content or across multiple pieces in multiple formats. Learning about the digital storytelling process and the most effective way to incorporate it into your brand is vital to connecting with your audience.
Elements of Successful Online Narratives
There is a difference between digital storytelling as an artist or educator and digital storytelling as a marketer. However, the seven elements developed by Berkeley's Center for Digital Storytelling are still worth considering:
- Point of view. What’s your perspective?
- A dramatic question. What uncertainty drives the piece, and how does it resolve?
- Emotional content. What issues connect your audience to the story, and how do they emotionally respond to them?
- The gift of your voice. How can you personalize the story?
- The power of the soundtrack. What sounds will you use to support the story?
- Economy. What amount of content do you need to tell your story? What can you cut?
- Pacing. How quickly does the story move? What are the story’s beats and rhythms?
Not every story will have a soundtrack, and other elements may take unexpected forms. But keep these in mind as you craft your tale.
Types of Tales
There’s no limit to the kinds of stories that you can tell. But certain narrative structures often crop up in digital marketing. For example, there's:
- The mountain. A character or community fights against an ever-growing problem. At the climax, they find a solution or possibility, and things are easier (downhill) thereafter.
- The door. A character gets a second chance or a new beginning.
- The window. The story introduces a “real” world but gives glimpses of a second fantasy world, which heavily features the business’s product or service.
- The wheel. One central challenge or opportunity brings together many different stories and people.
- The boomerang. Character journeys and returns, somehow changed by their personal experiences.
Ask yourself if your story fits one of these classic structures. If so, lean into it. These are proven, effective tales for a reason.
Benefits of Digital Stories
These stories help you push through your audience’s advertising fatigue. We all tend to skim over generic marketing language and images, but stories can draw people in and form connections with them. They can surprise or amuse people and make them feel or think.
Further benefits to digital storytelling involve its perceived authenticity. It helps brands to build relationships and trust with their consumers. It also feels more organic and less pushy.
Finally, as mentioned, stories are memorable. One frequently quoted number comes from the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. He theorizes that facts are about 22 times more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story.
Digital Storytelling Examples and Ideas
Ready to be inspired? The following creative ideas each come with an example of an organization doing it well. You can create compelling content centered on any of the following.
1. Appeal to the Heart
One of the classic uses of storytelling in marketing is to appeal to the emotions of your audience and connect those feelings to your brand.
You can write a story featuring fictional characters, or you can spotlight users or the employees of your company. Attach faces to your brand, and invite people into the stories behind those faces.
On its website, the Utah Health Burn Center takes visitors behind the scenes. The article has an interactive narrative that delves into the transformation that burn survivors undergo. It foregrounds the patients/survivors. Only then does it get into the history and mission statement of the burn unit. Utah Health Burn Care hits all the right notes in an inspiring story about burn survivors.
Throughout the long-form piece “They Emerge Transformed,” the writer Stephen Dark blends the experience of the staff with that of the patients. The message of struggle and hope never wavers, and the result is a very affecting piece of content.
While this approach may work particularly well for nonprofits and businesses in certain industries, any organization can tap into its audience’s emotions. Just look at one incredibly effective Kerrygold butter commercial. In thirty seconds, the brand turns a household staple into a tale about family love, pride, and traditions.
2. Surprise Your Audience
Take audience expectations and overturn them. You can introduce a startling statistic or change up your message, tone, or style. The story should still resonate with your brand values, but a little surprise can grab people’s attention or get them to look at your product in a new way.
Nike’s marketing genius is a well-established fact. After all, there are few slogans with the power and longevity of “Just Do It.” They have cultivated a brand image that is all about hard work, stamina, and the pursuit of excellence.
This is why their “Play New” campaign is such a surprise. The digital stories it tells revolve around fresh beginnings and discoveries — even when those beginnings aren’t exactly pretty or dignified.
It’s a departure from Nike’s traditional messaging, and its key video shows mega athletes getting out of their comfort zones, too. Basketball star Sabrina Ionescu misses a tennis serve. Sprinter Dina Asher-Smith fails to hit a golf ball. Paralympic champion Blake Leeper struggles to connect in the batting cage.
It’s fresh and fun, and it turns our expectations upside down.
3. Use Your Data
Data probably informs much of your digital marketing already. But you can harness it for storytelling purposes, too.
While it’s true that facts are most memorable when situated in stories, that shouldn’t lead you to discount their power. Use your data to enrich your stories or even to imply untold stories. For example, statistics about the prevalence of a certain disease can break the heart even without focusing on individual tragedies.
Blend your hard data with visualization techniques, and situate it within a meaningful story. Data storytelling increases the credibility of your narrative, and it engages both your audience’s brains and their analytical capabilities. It’s also versatile, allowing you to adapt one set of visuals and other narrative elements to different marketing channels.
Oxfam Ireland tells the story of its year in review with an engaging and interactive infographic. The map highlights both the amazing work already accomplished and the demand for such work. It encourages donors by showing all that can be done — and all that is still to do.
4. Take a Stand
No one remembers the fence-sitters. If there’s a controversial issue that affects your community, stand up and raise your voice.
Nike also subverted traditional messaging in 2020, responding to widespread racial injustice and unrest with “For once, Don’t Do It.” The video asks viewers not to ignore systemic inequality or the crimes committed against black bodies.
This kind of digital storytelling can be especially effective when controversy hits your industry. For example, the beauty industry regularly intersects with any number of issues such as animal rights and representation. One of the most famous ad campaigns of the last two decades is Dove’s Real Beauty, an attack on unrealistic beauty standards and celebration of natural, healthy bodies.
It’s rarer to see that kind of thoughtful engagement in a male beauty brand, but Gillette did just that with its campaign #TheBestMenCanBe. Its stories focus on men embodying modern, socially aware values. It encourages men to hold one another accountable for offenses such as bullying, harassment, and all instances of toxic masculinity.
In “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” Gillette insists that the world has changed and that we need to do better by today’s boys — the men of tomorrow. It takes on the “boys will be boys” mentality and features the #MeToo movement among other social movements. It’s short, powerful, and has been viewed more than 37 million times.
5. Feature Your Users
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to sit back and feature the work of others.
Brands have long showcased real stories about real people using their products. But this style of storytelling has become both easier and more credible in recent years with user-generated content (UGC). True user stories have an authenticity that your best professional marketing can never match.
UGC is the body of material that your consumers create themselves, their personal stories that feature your brand. It includes reviews, examples of people using your product, and any other recorded engagement with your brand.
The proliferation of digital storytelling tools has helped popularize this type of content. Your users are more digitally proficient than ever before. They create some incredible stories. So why not make life a little easier on yourself?
That’s particularly easy for companies who develop the software or manufacture hardware that enables these projects. The technology company GoPro does both, and its GoPro Awards are a marketing streak of genius. Users submit their work for the chance to win prizes and to be featured by the brand.
6. Feature Your Quirks
What makes your company different? What makes your people different? Whether you highlight an employee’s unusual journey or your brand’s offbeat personality, quirks help us to see and relate to both people and companies.
One quirky collection of digital stories comes from a pretty unexpected place. Ernest Packaging takes an unorthodox approach to often-dry B2B marketing with its YouTube channel Cardboard Chaos.
The channel celebrates the strength and flexibility of Ernest Packaging cardboard, and it’s a celebration of the brand’s creativity and sense of humor. Short videos show people making wakeboards, guitars, snowboards, and drums out of the material. It’s weird, wonderful, and makes you remember the brand.
Tell people about your company’s talent show, your unofficial mascot, or your longest employee. Or combine the last two digital storytelling examples — ask users to contribute videos or photos that show off unexpected uses of your product. You even turn it into a competition or pair it with a raffle to get more people interested.
Your Own Digital Storytelling Ideas
There you have it. There are certain elements to take into consideration when crafting online narratives and reasons why you should keep telling tales. Some narrative structures work well for businesses and there are several suggestions to get you going.
Now it’s up to you.
What inspires you? Are there brand stories that have resonated with you in the past? What made them work so well?
But most importantly, what are the stories that make your business all that it is? Those stories deserve to be told. So let us hear them.