Summary: 4 tips for using storytelling to create great fact-based content.
Martha Lane Fox (founder of lastminute.com) is right in suggesting instinct should be ditched.
Recently I came across a LinkedIn Update from my colleague Karen Dietz that made it clear that if I started my blog post with a story, I would get:
- 300 percent more visitors, And
- 68.5 percent more reader engagement beyond the first mobile phone screen.
Who would not want to achieve such results? I was intrigued.
Then my colleague Sandra turned around and said:
“Urs, show me the numbers.”
“Sure Sandra, no problem. I just need to dig for them first.”
So I shared my insights with Sandra, but also thought that my experience hunting for these numbers is definitely worth sharing with you!
Learn about 4 things great bloggers do better.
1. Storytelling is what it takes
So I clicked on the LinkedIn post that got me to Karen’s scoop.it page with the story (2016-03-28). There I clicked a link again. This brought me to 5 Storytelling Methods to Captivate Your Audience (2016-02-28), published in the Search Engine Journal.
Here the author outlines that somebody else did an A/B test. One of the blog entries had a story at the beginning and the other started with the topic of the blog entry right away. Sure enough, the former supposedly got 300 percent more readers than the one without a story at the beginning.
The Search Engine Journal’s entry referred me to a Buffer blog entry by Alex Thompson entitled, The power of storytelling: How we got 300% more people to read our content, from 2014-04-22. Here, he supposedly unravels the mystery by going into detail as far as this case study is concerned.
After some digging, I learned that the A/B test was really sending two types of emails containing the blog entry. One began with a story and the other dove right in.
Okay, is testing whether a blog entry attracts readers versus what works better in an emailed newsletter the same? Personally, I think those are two vastly different things.
Plus, Alex never gets around to telling us exactly how many people participated in the A/B test and how the sample was selected (e.g., clients, webpage visitors, combination thereof, etc.).
But the example below does not suggest this kind of storytelling works, does it?
2. Gut feelings are out, science is in
The fact is that science tells us that a person decides whether or not to read your story within the first five to ten seconds. If just your title is 12 words long, you have five seconds left to get the person’s attention – at most.
Using a story about driving a Porsche blindfolded is cute… but will it get your target audience’s attention? Of course, we are all smart and at least one of us will point out:
What is the target audience? Are these geeks doing social media monitoring, managers or housemen/housewives?
This is an important question. Research with over 400,000 page visitors to some of the biggest websites in the US provides the answer. It points out regardless of your target audience, they want a headline that is relevant to them. As well, if the first three lines of text fail to convey anything important, 60 percent will already be gone by line four.
Hence, striving for high quality content means short introductory stories at the beginning might work very well. Long-winded intros are less likely to encourage your reader to go beyond the second mobile screen.
3. Facebook or Twitter: Check before sharing
Getting 300 percent more readers thanks to starting a blog entry with a story is a wonderful result. But I hope you do not mind me asking:
– What type of story are we talking about (e.g., length, relevance, etc.)?
– What type of story will work with my audience?
I was unable to get an answer to these questions in those blog entries as mentioned above.
So I took the trouble to dig a bit deeper in the subject matter. For instance, in the Search Engine Journal’s entry the author had used a model from a study on mice (see below).
I then found the original paper from which the above graphic was taken. Read it here (sign up free to view and download the paper): The Customer loyalty to content-based Web sites: The case of an online health-care service. Journal of Services Marketing, Vol 18(3):175-186, May 2004
The paper yielded some interesting new facts that we should ponder.
For instance, on page 179 of the paper, the reader is told that the study is based on 421 usable responses on a health site. Where the site is located and in which language content is written is not clear.
We are also told that the online survey was responded to by 6 percent of those that were asked to fill it out while visiting the website. Moreover, 93 percent of these respondents are women (see page 180).
Just looking at this information tells us that the study does not allow us to generalise from its findings due to sample selection and so forth.
Also, “Need fulfillment” is set to equal content quality by the Search Engine Journal’s author Razvan Gavrilas. However, as the study clarifies, need fulfillment was measured using four items. We are not given their exact wording except one: Net Clinic meets my personal needs (page 179). For all I know, this could mean finding the doctor’s address I am looking for. That does not measure content quality, does it?
Put differently, the study does not address quality content. Hence, the Search Engine Journal’s author simply misconstrued the study’s findings, then wrote a great story about it. But storytelling based on misinterpreting research findings does not help us gain and maintain our readers’ trust.
This story perfectly illustrates that one best check one’s sources carefully. Unless you prefer to have metaphorical egg on your face as a blogger?
Here are four science-based tips that will help you use storytelling effectively while building trust and reputation for your publication.
5. Bottom line
Asked what advice she wished she had received at 25, Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com led with hiring. Instinct should be ditched, she told the BBC, in favour of a slower-burn audition of candidates (as mentioned by Emma De Vita 2016-03-28, FT p. 8).
Believing a person’s CV or LinkedIn Update (with a link to an article) is fine. Better yet is to go and check the original article, including research, to see if the claims made can be trusted.
In the case of hiring, encourage many staff to talk to the person. If possible, ask the candidate to spend a day or two at your office.
Headlines such as “6 things successful people do every morning” are great teasers. Inc. Wire is a master at this. However, besides some opinions from the authors of such entries, science does not play any role.
Instead, reading tea leaves or misinterpreting research if some is used is most likely the case. In turn, the suggestions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Would you rather trust a therapy to save your life based on somebody’s opinion or the best science and tests?
Are you willing to invest your hard earned cash in something somebody just believes in?
Would you not sleep better tonight if the numbers tell the story?
Let us focus more on observation of behaviour, instead of claims or accounts of people’s behaviour (e.g., as stipulated by authors of a blog or magazine article).
6. Have your say – join the conversation
I have decided to follow Sandra’s advice: “Urs, show me the numbers!”
- What do you advise corporate bloggers to do to write high quality content?
- Do you like reading a made-up kind of story at the beginning of a corporate blog entry?
- Do you prefer the author cutting to the chase straight away in a blog entry?
- Does any news you get from corporate blogs affect your decision-making at work?
The author declares that he had no conflict of interest with respect to the content, authorship or publication of this blog entry.
The sad fact is that in a world where BuzzFeed, Gawker, Vice, Vox and others increasingly chase advertising dollars, fewer and fewer resources are left over to check original sources. Instead, storytelling or headlines use click bait, sensationalism and so forth to get the clicks needed to gain the most pageviews.
The only option we have is to not waste our time on such content. If many of us stop, it will result in fewer clicks and advertising dollars for such sites. I have therefore decided to no longer visit Inc. Wire’s content. Nor do I care about Gawker or BuzzFeed. But I will not hold my breath that things will improve soon… Of course, quality content is not free – somebody pays. In the case of this blog, it’s my company 🙂