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Story telling is more and more accepted as an important part of marketing and corporate image strategies. It has become clear that it is a powerful phenomenon and strong effects could be achieved. Unfortunately, there is too less thought given to the implementation of Story Telling on one of the most important communication channels of today: the website. Despite all the praise, Story Telling is at odds with the interactive character of the web.


A story is strongest when is being told perfectly. Only the master story teller knows how and at what moments he should unravel the plot. The story is therefore the strongest when it is captured in a solid, non-interactive form, like film or text. The pages of a website, on the other hand, are browsed in a different order every time. The interaction with the user is central in this process.

How could we design a strong story telling strategy for the web, if we do not take the interactive character of it into consideration? A possible solution for this problem would be to look to another field where interactivity and stories go hand in hand: the world of games.

In the article ‘Game design as narrative achitecture‘ the American professor Henry Jenkins explains in which ways games are capable of telling a story. Because although in games there is also a tension between interactivity and story telling, game designers have been busy for decades to come to a solution. The four strategies that Jenkins distinguished are:

  • Evocative spaces
  • Enacting stories
  • Embedded narratives
  • Emergent narratives

What could these distinctions mean in the context of the web? “Evocative spaces” are spaces that tell a story throught associaton, mainly. A website is a kind of space as well, albeit virtual. One could navigate it, and there is a sitemap. And evocative space tells the story not independently, but it makes use of the knowledge of a story that the audience has already. An example is the website of the Dutch supermarket Plus, where the four characters form the TV-commercial are prominent on every page.

ikea better cotton

(Screenshot from the website from Ikea’s Better Cotton campaign)

“Enacting stories” means that the user plays in a role in the story. This strategy is very close to real (video) games. It will be hard to integrate this strategy in the fabric of the website, but it is being used on a broad scale. Just look at all the “Play the game at our website and win!” advertisements. If the next step would be taken and story telling is added to the gameplay, then we would have a powerful communication instrument.

“Embedded narratives” are stories that are part of the space; stories that you could follow by following the trail left for you on the website. See also the book “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by writer Jules Verne. In this story the protagonist travels in the footsteps of an Icelandic explorer who’d been there hundreds of years before him. By collecting clues, the protagonist learns the story of this Icelandic explorer and what happened to him. For websites this could result in a strong strategy: to distribute the story over multiple pages. On the one hand the visitor would actively reconstruct the story, which enhances the engagement of the visitor with the story. On the other hand the visitor would be invited to explore more pages of the website, in the hope to unravel more of the story. This is a much stronger strategy than the “About us” pages that we are used to.

“Emergent narratives” at last, are stories that come into existence through the input of the user. Well-known examples are: The Sims and Habbo Hotel. The designer provides the tools, and the users make their own stories themselves. This form of story telling is happening already, as mentioned on MarketingFacts. Another valuable lesson from the world of social media: “Let your followers tell your story.” Ford uses this strategy with their Fiesta Movement.

It is important to remember that websites differ fundamentally from other channels like print and television, and that a story could have much different forms and effects. From games we could learn how we could turn a story into an interactive form, like websites. But at the same time it is an invitation to think ahead on the field of gamification, another buzzword of today. Gamification is in fact badgification, most of the time: users could earn badges by doing stuff. But gamification has much more to offer when you look further at the world of games, and story telling is one of these things.

(this post was published earlier on MarketingFacts.nl)