Content is often treated like an afterthought in the world of web design, but even the best-designed experience can be seriously hindered by mediocre or misaligned copy. We’re always trying to help the design of the web live up to its full potential, so in this special series, we’re going to teach you three tried & true copywriting techniques that we use to create compelling, persuasive user experiences: Storytelling (that’s this post), The Persuasive Triangle and What’s In It For Me.

Dive in and enjoy!


Once upon a time, humans used stories to express and share their morals, values, their fears, sorrows, their warnings, their hopes and dreams. I like to imagine our ancient ancestors huddled around the dancing flames of their cave dwellings primitive bonfire, sharing tales about what goddess caused the rain to fall, or what sacrifice must be made to appease the sun gods, or the tale of the boy who cried wolf.

All those age-old stories we raptly absorbed as children have become some of our now-favorite movies, TV shows and novels—and even advertising. In fact, did you know that all successful, memorable stories share a similar framework?

Also known as Dramatic Structure (it’s utilized by Shakespeare and ancient Greek drama) or Freytag’s Pyramid, it describes common patterns in the plots of stories explains their structure. It’s a technique we use here at Digital Telepathy (DT) to help our customers achieve their communication goals and business objectives.

Freytag's Pyramid, shown here, is a wonderful way to reimagine your brand's story. It's a powerful tool that can guide your brand's story from Once Upon a Time to Happily Ever After.

What’s even more compelling about storytelling, is that it’s a moneymaker for businesses that utilize it in their branding—a big reason why we apply it on our design partners’ content, too. And if you’re wondering how I know that this storytelling framework is a hook-line-sinker for improving ROI, let me introduce you to professor Keith Quesenberry. Quesenberry’s study, “What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Super for Word-of-Mouth Buzz? Five-Act Dramatic Form Impacts Super Bowl Ad Ratings,” was conducted with business professor Michael K. Coolsen, and published last fall in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice.

In a nutshell, what he discovered is that Super Bowl ads that employ a Dramatic Structure tend to perform much better than those that don’t. Whether that be tallied via Hulu’s Ad Meter or USA Today’s Ad Zone, or other ratings tools—they all show story-based ads as significant outperformers. I interviewed Quesenberry for this piece and asked him right off the bat what inspired him to study this phenomena:

It happened because I was making a transition to academia, “ explained Quesenberry, a former agency Creative Director- turned-marketing professor. “At Povone (his former advertising agency), we managed SpotBowl.com, and basically we would have hundreds of thousands of Super Bowl viewers vote for their favorite Super Bowl ad. I would write descriptions live and post them and allow people to vote until Monday and then release results. I had easy access to this data. We were always very close to the real winner. One of my friends and I got thinking about how stories played into it…

And the rest is, literally, ancient history.

Before that, advertisers felt pretty confident that as long as something was sexy or had cutesy animals, it would sell, explained Quesenberry. But what he and his research team realized is that if you look at the polls, those themes didn’t do well: unless there was a story. Last year, when he looked back on that experience and dove headfirst into all his data from SpotBowl.com, he noticed it was indeed true: stories sell.

Throughout this piece, I’d like to provide some actionable tips on how to apply a Storytelling Framework to your brand and content strategy, as well as provide some instances of where we apply it to our customer’s design projects, too. Now, let’s get this story going.

Breaking Down Dramatic Structure:

Born in ancient Greece and carried forward by Shakespeare, the dramatic structure has been around for ages. But it wasn’t until the 19th century when Gustav Freytag (a rather cantankerous German) crafted the storytelling pyramid that’s still used to this day to create what we now call a story.

Here’s Freytag’s Seven Stages of Storytelling:

1. Exposition: Set the scene. The writer introduces the characters and setting, providing description and background.

2. Inciting Incident: Something happens to begin the action. A single event usually signals the beginning of the main conflict. The inciting incident is sometimes called “the complication.”

3. Rising Action: The story builds and gets more exciting.

4. Climax: The moment of greatest tension in a story. This is often the most exciting event. It is the event that the rising action builds up to and the falling action follows.

5. Falling Action: Events happen as a result of the climax and we know that the story will soon end.

6. Resolution: The character solves the main problem/conflict or someone solves it for him or her.

7. Dénouement: (a French term, pronounced: day-noo-moh) The ending. At this point, any remaining secrets, questions or mysteries which remain after the resolution are solved by the characters or explained by the author. Sometimes the author leaves us to think about the theme or future possibilities for the characters.

Seems simple, right? Break down any Brothers Grimm tale, and there it is. Break down any Disney film, and there it is. I know what you’re thinking: but how the heck can you apply this framework to marketing? Of course, there’s more to it than crafting a commercial that tells a story about a puppy and a horse falling in love. It needs to connect. It needs to be a story that your target audience would like to hear. I asked Quesenberry for more insights on how this looks for brands beyond just advertising. Here are his three tips, plus I’ll show you how we here at Digital Telepathy execute on the Storytelling Frameworks, too.

I asked Quesenberry for more insights on how this looks for brands beyond just advertising. Here are his three tips, plus I’ll show you how we here at Digital Telepathy execute on the Storytelling Frameworks, too.

Three Storytelling Framework Variants:
How DT Does Stories

No. 1

Make the Product the Hero. The hero comes in, and saves the day. “I think a good example would be those Bridgestone tire ads,” said Quesenberry. “The story was there was a person driving with good performance tires and thankfully they don’t hit the poor little animal. It wasn’t the animal or the driver that saved the day, it was the tire. The features and benefits were weaved in.”

HOW DT DOES IT:

Our client, Manfrotto, a producer of world-renowned photography equipment and accessories, has allowed us to, as one of our many objectives, help support their communication goals by designing their Collection Pages. As you can see on their Befree Collection landing page in the lower left, is a video that shows the product as hero. No matter where the photographer goes, the Manfrotto tripod provides a reliable experience—regardless of weather, or time of day.

A similar technique is also employed on their tripod Compact Collections landing pages. As you can see, the product is hero for three videos that are short-and-sweet and showcase the power of the different models and how they function.

Here's Manfrott's Befree Collection Page—a wonderful example of content and design coming together to make the product the hero.

No. 2

Make the Person that Uses the Product the Hero. The hero was able to rise to the occasion and solve a problem with the product. Think, Orbit Gum’s saccharine-y sweet, British spokeswoman who uses Orbit gum to clean up even the dirtiest of mouths.

HOW DT DOES IT:

During our engagement with Bulletproof, we learned that they had a huge repository of athletes and personalities that imbibe in their Bulletproof coffee and supplement programs. Each athlete or personality had a different story to tell, so we helped them create an Ambassador Page that told the story of their Perfect Bulletproof Day that outlined how they used Bulletproof products in conjunction with their career path and life path. A beautiful way to use authentic stories to inspire consumers and help them craft their own Bulletproof program.

Bulletproof's Ambassador Pages are perfect examples of storytelling showing a person that uses the product as a hero. Using the power of its celebrity endorsements, Bulletproof and DT married those stories with epic design to help showcase a Bulletproof product plan.

No. 3

Make it a Tragedy: Whether it’s a sad or bad ending because they used a competitor’s product, or perhaps it just about pain avoidance. Quesenberry says, “It’s all about the climax.” A good example would be the Snickers “you’re not yourself when you’re hungry” campaign.

HOW DT DOES IT:

Danielle LaPorte, a personal brand, is a big believer in the power of storytelling. Together we designed the elements she requested to infuse her teachings and products, as well as her app, #Truthbombs, with powerful messaging to help her users face their internal struggles or pain.

Another engagement with one of our longtime clients, Danielle La Porte, founder of The Desire Map, uses the power of storytelling throughout her site to promote her teachings as well create effective designs and engaging communication. One instance where we used “pain avoidance” under Danielle’s tutelage, was for the design of her “#Truthbombs” app. With hardcore advice delivered to your phone at your will, truthbombs can make you uncomfortable. It’s about facing that pain you know you have to change in order to be happier. “You gotta let go.” “Circumstances have changed, and so have you.” “Dark. Light. Choose light.” Intense stuff.

How Other Brands Tell Their Story…

Let’s take a peek at a couple of other brands that have successfully used storytelling across channels. How about our friends at GoPro.com. With a click of their homepage CTA (“Watch Video”) we’re immediately immersed into a day in the life of a professional surfer. The exposition is expertly set with said surfette froclicking in the water in what looks to be Hawaii or some other sultry island locale. The story gets more exciting as we watch her explore waterfalls, dive from cliff tops and make new friends, and then she gets on a plane—the rising action, literally. She arrives at a stunning archipelago where she crushes even more waves without fail. The story fades, and she’s still smiling, still a Hero. Plus, she has all the footage to prove it.

GoPro has been using its audience’s stories to build its brand, to tell its story. In fact, they’re so dedicated to using stories to build their brand, they’re rewarding content creators with upwards of $5M for amazing videos created with a GoPro.

Allstate Insurance is another great brand storyteller. They show that even a mature brand can pull some pretty amazing tricks out of their hats and sleeves. The actor, Dean Winters, stars as Allstate’s “Mayhem Guy” who causes all sorts of, yep, mayhem for Allstate customers.

He’s a recognizable face, but not too much so—he’s starred on HBO’s “Oz” and has made appearances on “30 Rock” and “Law & Order.” His Allstate character is hilarious and memorable whether he’s in your attic nibbling on your power lines like a rabid raccoon, or acting like a giant tornado in your living room. I’ve talked to folks who look forward to those commercials. 

But these ad campaigns aren’t successful because of famous faces, cute animals or sex appeal. Nope. They’re successful because they tell a relatable story that evokes memories of something we already know and experience.

We’ve all known someone, certainly, who’s experienced a fender-bender, a flooded basement, and maybe it’s even happened to us once or twice. Your brand must identify with your customer’s everyday headaches and hoopla, but with a storyteller’s flair. There are ways—depending on your brand, product or service—to live happily ever after without sounding like a fairy tale.

And They Lived Happily Ever… After?

And there you have it: The undeniable allure of stories is not just for advertisers, designers and marketers to capitalize upon—it’s even been a successful technique in the world of medicine. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that a storytelling approach worked well for certain demographics that are greatly affected by hypertension (high blood pressure). The researchers reported that, “Social and cultural barriers have been found to contribute to African American patients being far more likely than white patients to suffer from uncontrolled high blood pressure and resulting complications.”

With this in mind, the study focused on using a storytelling approach, “in which recognizable members of a community provide positive messages aimed at controlling hypertension through diet and medication adherence,” and it worked better than mere lecturing.

Stories reach into the recesses of our souls. We have been built on the power of stories. They’ve guided our lives since we’ve been able to comprehend their significance. We’re intrinsically drawn to their power. And at the end of the day, wouldn’t you prefer that your brand, or your favorite brand, told you a really great story versus another stale value prop? We feel strongly that it’s better to be tragic like “Othello,” than “Much Ado About Nothing.”

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