When Storytelling Is Bad for Your Business (And What to Do Instead)

There is this hyped up technique that is making rounds these days called “storytelling”.

I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but in an unlikely case you didn’t:

Storytelling in marketing means that instead of using a lot of data and complicated busines-sy words, you are supposed to tell a story. A story of a hero who struggles in life but then discovers your product and suddenly solves all his problems.

The point of this exercise is to evoke the emotional response in your prospects so that they identify themselves with that hero and envision how your product or service will make their life better.

Storytelling is used not only on sales pages but also in blog posts that aim to showcase the expertise of the website owner or the benefits of their product.

Funny story: All other people with blogs and things to sell obviously heard of it, too. And now wherever you look: Long stories. Lots of telling.

I bet you used storytelling in your latest blog post.

Agonized over a grabbing opening trying to find a perfect metaphor. Made sure to sprinkle the middle part with humor and personality. Worked your butt off to make that ending inspiring and memorable.

And yet, it didn’t work.

Your blog post didn’t go viral, and new subscribers never showed up.

Maybe you just need to tell a better story next time?

The thing is, sometimes people don’t give a damn about your story, and it’s not your fault.

Sometimes, the best story you can tell goes like this:

“Hey, want this checklist (like on this picture but with bigger letters and checkboxes)? Then click this button.”

(The end)

If you think I’m joking, this is exactly what happened to me three weeks ago.

Here’s the story of how I got 70 new subscribers in 3 weeks by cutting the storytelling.

(Yes, I wrote a post arguing against storytelling… while using storytelling, and it makes perfect sense).

How storytelling (almost) cost me dozens of subscribers

3 weeks ago, this happened:

google analytics stats
Huh?

I submitted a page with my website checklist to StumbleUpon (first time ever and just for fun), went to bed and woke up to 200+ views 6 hours later.

(I’ll soon share about how exactly it happened and what I did to make the effects last. Want to hear about it? Join the insider circle.)

The stats kept rising during the day, and I was already anticipating dozens of new subscribers.

But then the strangest thing happened.

I was having hundreds of people looking at my post, but nobody was downloading my checklist, although that page usually converts at 9%.

#panic

I immediately installed a heat map software to see how people were interacting with the page: How far they scrolled, where they clicked, etc. (I took a free trial of HotJar, but any software that provides you with this info would have been ok.)

This is how my page originally looked:

My page with the lead magnet: Before
My page with the lead magnet: Before. Long story. Lots of telling.

When I looked at the heat map and the session recordings, I was up for a big surprise: The majority of people wasn’t even getting to the infographic itself!

Watching the recordings almost made me scream:

“Where are you going? You haven’t even seen the main thing!”

To understand how StumbleUpon works:

  • Most of the people don’t actively choose to look at your page.
  • They get it randomly presented to them because they selected the topic under which you submitted your page as their interest.

    I submitted my page under “SEO”, so now some people who had listed SEO as their interest were shown my page when they pressed the “Stumble” button.

  • For StumbleUpon to keep showing my page (and for me to keep the traffic to it), people need to keep “liking” it.

It was clear I had to change the page asap.

So I put myself in the shoes of the people who’ve been “stumbling” over my page and did the following:

  • I cut out all the bla bla in the beginning and told people what to expect from the page using as few words as possible.
  • I placed the infographic as high on the page as possible. Before, people needed to scroll 2 times for it to appear on the screen. Now it was visible already above the fold.
  • I removed the “add this image to your website” part after the infographic and left only one call to action: The “Download” button.
  • I explained why the PDF you could download is better than the infographic.
  • I made my call-to-action visually prominent by adding a gray background to the corresponding section.
My page with the lead magnet: After
My page with the lead magnet: After. No stories. Nada. Zero.

I then hit “update” and kept watching how the readers interacted with the new version of the page.

It worked!

Now when it was clear from the start what to expect, where to find it and why the PDF was worth downloading, more people were scrolling further, and I started getting more subscribers.

Phew.

Now I could leave the page as it is and let it do its work in peace.

My results so far:First week: 32 subscribers. Second week: 23 subscribers. Unsubscribed: 3. Overall: 71 subscribers and counting.

I didn’t do anything after updating the page on the first day. This is still happening because I cut the storytelling.

The major lesson learned (and why it applies to you, too)

When you wrote your post first time, you may have imagined talking to your favorite subscriber or connecting to an attentive reader.

Of course you need all those adjectives, metaphors and cliffhangers! What would they think if your language became that dry?

And this may have been a good decision the day you’ve shared your post with your email subscribers and followers on social networks.

But those visits died down now. Now, different people come to read your post – people who’ve never heard of you before and are simply asking Google questions.

If your audience has changed, your content has to follow.

Which means if they don’t want to hear your story, you shouldn’t tell it.

Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?

“OMG, but how I’m going to connect with my readers, make them know, like and trust me without storytelling?”

Well, you can’t connect with someone who is running away from you, no matter your writing skills. To even get a chance to connect with your readers, you first need for them to stop and be willing to listen.

And sometimes, the following plan works better than storytelling:

  1. Give them what they want as fast as possible.
  2. Impress them with super useful content they can’t find anywhere else.
  3. Trust that they’ll appreciate your content enough to stick around and listen next time you talk to them (from their inbox, for example).

You shouldn’t use storytelling because everyone’s telling you to use it. You should use storytelling because it helps get your point across better so that your readers can achieve their goals faster.

How do you know if you need to cut the storytelling?

A. Do you have a post that:

  • gets a lot of traffic from search
  • features a resource related to the search query

What I mean is this:

People who searched for “website checklist” (search query) are certainly looking for a website checklist (featured resource related to the search query) and don’t need to hear the story about how you created it.

The same with “bla design patterns”, “blop vegan recipes”, “bloop ideas for fun activities with kids”, etc.

Don’t believe me? Think about how many times you scrolled passed those opening paragraphs looking for the part of the article that would answer your question?

If you have a post like that, doing this may increase the number of people who’ll download your resource:

  • In your first paragraph, use only as many words as necessary to explain what the visitors can expect from this page and why they should keep reading.
  • Showcase your resource as soon as possible.
  • Add the first call to action as soon as the value of your resource becomes apparent for your visitors.

After that, you can add more text for the people who may still need more info.

Now you can storytell your butt off. Whoever is reading that part of your blog post is clearly interested in what you have to offer and will be happy to hear your story.

B. Do you have a post that ranks well and gets clicks for an informational query?

Informational queries are queries like “what does copywriter do” or “are beans healthy”, for example.

If you have a post like that, make sure you start answering that particular question as soon as possible and don’t start with your life story or how to say “beans” in Japanese.

Will they leave the page right after they got their answer, without reading your post till the end?Depends on how well you answer their question and what you do right after that.

This depends on how well you answer their question and what you do right after that.

Here’s a wonderful example from a post called “What is technical writing?” by John Espirian.

Example of "answers first - storytelling later"
A great example of “answers first – storytelling later”. Read that chat now I must!

Sure, he also uses storytelling in his post, but after he answers your primary question. And because he does it in an unusual way (the image of a chat can’t but capture your attention) you’ll keep reading and getting to know, like and trust him.

And when later you or one of your friends will be looking for a technical writer, you’ll remember that nice guy John.

Final words of wisdom

You can’t put all the people who will read your post in one “box”.

Some of your readers know you. Some of them don’t. And the luckiest ones didn’t even ask to see your post (hello, StumbleUpon!)

But in most of the cases, you know what “box” the majority of the people who land on your page are coming from:

  • Subscribers, right after you hit “publish”
  • “Google searchers”, if your post is ranking well
  • People who clicked on your ad on Facebook, if you posted an ad on Facebook
  • Whatever Google Analytics tells you is your primaryy source of traffic for that page, etc.

I know, you wrote that post with your target audience in mind (ok, let’s pretend you did). But your target audience is an abstract concept. And your current sources of traffic are “Google Analytics real”.

So next time when you are:

  • agonizing over an opening paragraph,
  • rewriting that joke for the third time,
  • or wondering why people are not signing up for your freebie,

…ask yourself:

Is your “storytelling” on that page truly helping your readers? Or is it in the way between them and their goal?

If it’s the latter, you know what to do.

4 thoughts on “When Storytelling Is Bad for Your Business (And What to Do Instead)

  1. I love storytelling – when it makes sense to tell a story. Sometimes, the topic you’re writing about prompts readers to want to get to the meat of the thing right away, or at least have a contextual set-up that doesn’t read like a novel or autobiography.

    Other times, it makes sense to contextualize the point of the blog within a story, but only when the story really ties in to what it is you’re talking about.

    Funnily enough, the most successful post I’ve written on my own blog is told through a story – but one that’s heavily related to the subject matter, so it works and makes sense. My second-most popular post gets right into the data and reasons why my readers should follow my advice, without much storytelling at all.

    You raise some really good points and I think we as writers and bloggers need to really ask ourselves if a post deserves to be written as a story first and foremost or if we should skip the storytelling and get to the point.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Thank you for your kind words… and I totally agree with you.

      Storytelling can help you capture your audience’s attention, deliver your message in a more comprehensive way and motivate your readers to take action like nothing else. But as it is with all good advice, you can’t just use it every single time.

      I’ve been noticing for a while that I myself scroll past the opening paragraphs of the online articles trying to find the relevant parts of the posts way too often. And only when I’m impressed by the answer the author of the article gave me I will read further or even come back and will read from the beginning.

      Storytelling is like chocolate. It’s delicious if consumed from time to time. But if your readers are reading a lot online, they may have consumed too much “chocolate” already and at this particular moment are looking for a simple sandwich 🙂

  2. Hello Gill,

    Loved this post, you have provided an in-depth explanation of story telling and its benefits. I believe we must keep readers engage so for that we need story telling in our posts.
    It’s nearly impossible to find well-informed people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Laura 🙂

      I, of course, agree that we must keep readers engaged. But we should always ask ourselves what exactly would keep them engaged in a particular situation? And the answer isn’t always storytelling.

      Sometimes they just want a quick answer or are looking for something ultra-specific (as in my example in the post), and even the best story ever will get in the way.

      Storytelling is just a means to help your visitors reach their goals (for example, make a complicated answer to their question easy to process and fun to follow) so that they will help you reach yours (get more subscribers, comment, shares, etc.).

      So, yes to storytelling, but only when it helps your visitors 🙂

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