How Good Stories Inform Good Content, And Other Bad Advice

It’s getting dark out, it’s late and deadlines are fast approaching. Your company just isn’t like all the others. You need a way to seed the minds of clients, partners, and competitors with the compelling, dramatic vision that drives your work and keeps you up on nights like tonight. This is why you chose that company name and motto. Lightning strikes, your fingers fly, and you just know that you’ve captured the spark that powers your industry in a perfect blog post. You close your laptop, and look out at the rain to wonder: will any of your stories impact your bottom line? You smile, out into that dark and stormy night.

Typewriter with a piece of paper that has the text, "Once upon a time".


Form vs. Fashion

Good stories have form, and so does good corporate marketing. The crux of any story is its ability to capture the mind of the reader and run away with it. Time, space, and life itself disappear for a moment, and in that moment you have the chance to leave a lasting impression. That continuing legacy is what matters when you’re trying to inform, attract, or reinforce your audience through narrative content.

Good content is easily defeated by poor layouts, and the best designed layouts don’t matter if the content your reader seeks isn’t where they want it, when they want it. Your website is not a novel, and a dramatic build-up only works when the reader leaves satisfied (or even better, hungry for more). This is why corporate websites in particular need emotional connections, engaging writing, and inspiring designs. Yet, these won’t matter a bit if your calls to action, external backlinks, social media triggers, and information architecture aren’t conducive to building a sustained and engaged user base.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

One of the most basic content development principles you can rely on is an authentic understanding of what your audience wants. Many websites suffer from a simple lack of the content their users need. Many more have the content, but leave it buried, invisible, or behind unnecessary barriers (e.g., “make sure to subscribe to our infrequently published newsletter before you can find your point of contact’s email address”). Understanding how, when, and where a user needs content is key--but let’s start from the bottom. Have you ever wanted to find out the address, hours, or menu of a restaurant? Have you ever visited their website and couldn’t find that information? Did you go to that restaurant?

A great example that never fails to strike a nerve with myself and others: recipe websites. Search for a recipe, and a majority of websites (particularly individual blogs) will feature novella-length overtures about how their grandmother inspired their pizza recipe, how their partner really loves this one topping, how their cousin’s best friend replaced the pizza dough with cake and the red sauce with ice cream and it’s just the best. Then, after scrolling through ads, menus, and paragraph after useless paragraph, you finally find the information you sought in the first place. All of this flies in the face of basic content, web, and design principles.

Then why do they do it? Because, truly, it’s a good SEO practice. Your amazing content needs to fit into its most effective format, and that’s where this “content dissonance” comes from. What’s good for getting users to your site isn’t always good for keeping them there. Know your users, know yourself, and you’ll know where you need to go.

Blank piece of paper with a pencil on it.
Only you can truly understand what your unique audience wants. Maybe it’s longform storytelling. Maybe it’s precise and up-to-the-minute data feeds. Maybe it’s both.

Websites have the opportunity to sign up with Google Adsense to earn themselves (and Google) increased, targeted ad revenue. However, a common reason for poor performance and rankings is simply not enough written content on the website. Generally speaking, the longer your page, the better it will perform… unless your analytics regarding time on page, and click-through and bounce rates suggest otherwise. As before, the end result is eternally dependant on what your audience truly wants, and how you choose to give it to them.

Work With What You’ve Got

It’s not the gospel truth, but for all intents and purposes, the big name in content optimization and how storytelling impacts content is Google. Google may run the show, but you’re the star. Don’t work within their framework; work around it. Understand that you need to grapple with their constantly shifting algorithms, and that frequently means going against your gut in terms of how you want your story or website presented. Most recently, Google has taken measures to punish disruptive or deceptive advertising, root out obnoxious UX barriers, understand paywalls, and reevaluate how content is rated for “quality”.

Sometimes it’s worth it, if rankings matter to you. Sometimes it’s not, if the value your content brings matters more. The best content never needs optimization because it’s already unique and highly searchable out of the gate. Competition with others in your industry, region, language, or hobby can be a huge driver in how to engage your content strategy. If you’re up against thousands of vocal thought leaders, each with their own varied opinions, your content strategy needs to reflect a greater need for value, insight, and cross-platform popularity. If your industry is small, you can find yourself at the top of search listings within days or even hours.

An Arby meal with a hat with cartoon eyes on it, from the new Nintendo game, Super Mario Odyssey.
Recognize the cartoon eyes on a hat design from the new Nintendo game, Super Mario Odyssey? Well, over 14,000 individuals sure did. Arby’s “gets it”.

Thought leadership, social engagement, keyword optimization; these are all important tactics for successful content strategies… or are they? @arbys is one of the most successful corporate Twitter accounts out there, all due to one primary advantage. It’s not verbose stories, it’s not added value, it’s not data-driven keyword analytics. It’s simple: they know their audience, specifically their Twitter audience. There’s no monetary value there, just social value. There’s nothing useful on their Twitter, but it’s a smile, a laugh, or a sharable moment on your feed. @arbys averages thousands of likes and retweets more than their competition because they have what their audience wants: papercraft, nerd culture, current memes, and authentic user engagement. None of this has anything to do with fast food; and that’s part of their rampant success.