“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”

— Seth Godin


What makes a product worth buying? What makes an ad worth clicking?

In the white noise of the internet, it increasingly comes down to the brands that can tell the best stories.

But prioritizing storytelling often feels too wishy-washy, especially in e-commerce where billions of dollars are spent on direct-response campaigns. Telling brand stories is nice, they think, but optimizing your ad targeting, increasing click-throughs and streamlining checkout has proven to increase conversions. What’s the ROI on stories?

What many brands don’t understand is that consumers have dramatically shifted how they view advertising. Today, fully 92% of consumers want brands to make ads that feel like a story. They’re wary of interruption-based marketing, and they are skeptical about products making them happy.

That’s where storytelling comes in. Because a good story has the power to turn an ordinary object into something extraordinary. In order to be authentic and effective, storytelling should be woven throughout every interaction consumers have with your brand. Here’s why, and here’s how to do it right.

How Stories Create Almost 30x Value in Products

In 2009, two friends named Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conducted an anthropological experiment which they coined the “significant objects” project — by adding quirky stories to product descriptions, they were able to sell cheap thrift store items on eBay for as much as 628% the original purchase price.

Granted, these stories were mostly made up, but they proved a powerful point: Imbuing a product with a rich story had the power to turn $125 worth of thrift store junk into over $3,600 dollars of cold hard cash. When stories are involved, the conversation shifts away from “Should we test raising prices by 5%?” to “Can we double, triple or even quintuple the value of this product by telling the right story?”

As Walker and Glenn concluded, “stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”

Our Brain on Stories

Google’s legendary 2010 Super Bowl advertisement, “Parisian Love,” had no attractive models, famous celebrities… or people at all. It was just a simple screen-capture of a guy doing a series of Google searches. In spite of its simplicity, neuromarketing specialists at Sands Research found that it was one of the most neurally engaging and best remembered ad of the entire Super Bowl. Why?

High levels of brain activity revealed that viewers were deeply swept up in the emotion of the story. Just as they were with Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” about the unlikely but poignant love story between a puppy and a horse.

These storylines are almost painfully simple: love is discovered, hits a stumbling block, and is followed by happy ending. Why does such a cliché story arc tightly grip the hearts and minds of so many people, and linger many months afterwards?

Researchers at Washington University in St Louis found that while immersed in a story, people actually live the protagonist’s experiences—we feel their feelings, even mirror some of their motor functions in our brain.

And during their moments of tension, we feel a deep, personal sense of loss alongside the protagonist—and neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research reveals that we produce cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol also does something magical for marketers—it makes makes people focus closely.

Upon resolution, our brains release oxytocin and dopamine, which foster feelings of empathy and optimism, and even increases our likelihood of spending money. People will struggle to recall specific ads, words and images, but the memory of a story is much more likely to be burned into our brains—meaning we’re more likely to recall the associated brand days or months later when our need for this product arises.

Channeling Storytelling Into Everything

Telling a compelling origin story is crucial for fostering kinship with your company and increasing brand favorability. Incorporating storytelling elements in your product descriptions has the power to help shoppers imagine the product integrated into their lives in a tangible, tactile way. These are, no doubt, things that you have heard before.

However, many e-commerce brands forget to weave stories into the most ubiquitous elements of their marketing. For many e-Commerce brands, advertising is the bread and butter for discovering new customers, converting old ones and getting people to click on your products when millions of other options exist. For whatever reason, many e-commerce companies default to “buy now” messaging in their advertising, and lose sight of the brand storytelling elements that matter so deeply to modern consumers.

Evidence shows, however, that telling stories is equally as important across all marketing channels. The Facebook Insights team found that storytelling can be not only be an effective approach to advertising, but in some cases is more effective than focusing solely on a product-centric, direct-response approach.

“Think about the last time you heard about a great product from a friend,” the Facebook ad researchers suggest. “The recommendation probably didn’t start with ‘buy this now’ but instead was contextualized with an anecdote about your friend’s experience with that product.”

In the same way, Facebook researcher Neha Bhargava found that “most of the time there is a positive lift when a campaign is designed using the storytelling framework,” because it taps into the primal human attraction to stories, and leverages that to pique interest and create value before asking a customer to buy.

5 Easy Tips for Using Storytelling in e-Commerce:

  1. Focus on universal feelings. For stories to be effective, they need to be relatable and easy to follow. The love of a loyal pet. The fear of a new job. The birth of a new child. These are things millions of people can relate to on a visceral level.
  2. Create tension, then resolve it. Whenever possible, take the reader on a journey. Build a believable conflict that pulls people into the story. This will trigger the release of cortisol and capture their attention.
  3. Use words to create movement and sensation. When a protagonist experiencing a physical action, it triggers the reader’s motor cortex. Don’t be afraid to get physical, sweaty, arousing, refreshing or sensory. Make them feel it. Tip: Use of onomatopoeia (bang, buzz, pop!) triggers additional neurological engagement.
  4. Tailor stories to the buyer journey. You should be using different storytelling methods for each level of the marketing funnel (awareness, consideration, and decision). On the awareness level, people only care about interesting stories, during the consideration phase they are more willing to hear your story, or your customer’s.
  5. Be patient. People will only buy your product when they need it — and that might not be right now. Stories will help them remember your brand when the time is right, but you may need to shift how to define success metrics in order to respect a delayed, haphazard (a.k.a human) purchase journey.