Use Stories to Engage Web Site Visitors

"Read me a story, Aunt Leslie.” Having spent a week with a three-year-old this summer, I heard that request a lot. And I was happy to comply, reading various adventures of the Berenstain Bears, much to his delight and mine.

Back at work, I had occasion to look at more than 80 showroom Web sites for a marketing project and my eyes glazed over after the first few. I could almost predict verbatim what the site was going to say before I even clicked on the home page. Everyone sounded the same. The copy was all canned marketing speak: “We are known for customer service. We are known for our expertise. We are the premier kitchen and bath showroom in town.” Why or how would a consumer, designer or architect choose one firm over another?

Missing in almost all of those sites were stories. And that’s a shame because stories are so powerful. From the time we are young, they create emotional involvement. They engage. They are memorable. They are believable.

Plus, they attract attention and cut through the cacophony of messages bombarding consumers every day. “We talk a lot about stories here at Neuromarketing for one reason: Our brains love stories, which makes them a powerful tool for marketers,” Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence, points out.

When reading straight data, only the language parts of our brains work to decode the meaning. But when we read a story, not only do the language parts of our brains light up, but also any other part of the brain we would use if we were actually experiencing what we’re reading about. What this means is that it’s far easier for us to remember stories than the cold hard facts, Dooley notes.

So how do you tell a story? Three good ways are to tell stories about your customers, your employees and your business or brand. You can tell these stories in person, on your site or blog, in a newsletter or in a video.



The critical elements of a good story, according to Keith Ecker, content strategist at Jaffee PR, are:

  • Characters: You need to have at least two.
  • Content: The who, what, when and where.
  • Motivations: The why, an unfulfilled gap.
  • Conflict: The juiciest part of the story.
  • Resolution: The realization, epiphany or takeaway.

So let’s start with some customer stories. Rather than boast about your customer service, or your design expertise, tell stories from your customers’ perspective about how you solved a problem for them. Think about typical jobs you’ve done and typical customers you have, then tell a story about each.

For example, I just saw a powerful video featuring a designer friend and her client who was downsizing. The woman was very afraid she would not have room for all the dishes and glassware she used for entertaining. She was worried about the whole experience of downsizing and what she would be giving up. It clearly was an emotional issue that went well beyond just storing dishware. Giving up the cherished dinnerware meant giving up a lifestyle.

The designer talked about various solutions and how they came to a decision on which one was best. Then the client talked about how easy it was to roll out the shelves to lift out her dishes. Everything fit so well, she could still entertain easily in her smaller home without giving up any of her precious collection of glasses and dishes.

Note the mention of “rolling out” the shelves and “lifting up” the dishes. Researchers have discovered that words describing motion stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas, making stories more emotional and more memorable.

Do you do jobs in a challenging environment? Then tell how you solved a problem. For example, “We had a customer who lived in a charming old high rise and wanted a large refrigerator but was afraid it wouldn’t fit in the elevator or even on top of the elevator. He didn’t want to substitute a smaller refrigerator because he entertains for large crowds and he worried that the caterers would not have enough space. So we hired a crane to bring the refrigerator through the window. Last week he had a charity event for 100 people and the event went off without a hitch. We solve problems like this all the time.”

Illustrate outstanding customer service. For example, “Once we had a customer who called in a panic on Thanksgiving. She couldn’t get her new oven to turn on. Her whole family was there, including her very judgmental mother-in-law. Turns out, she had accidentally locked the oven controls. We were able to walk her through the correct setting. Soon the aroma of roasting turkey was filling the kitchen. Much to her relief, they all enjoyed a perfectly cooked, juicy tender bird.”

Note the use of words referring to smell and taste. Studies have shown they have much more impact on the brain than neutral words. Use them whenever you can.

Maybe you have a lot of boomerang households. Tell a typical story of one of them. “We had a client whose son came home after college to fulfill his dream of creating a tech startup. The problem was he and all of his buddies were tromping through the house at all hours as they burned the midnight oil in the basement, greatly disturbing his parents. They were conflicted because they wanted to be supportive of their son. At the same time, they wanted peace and quiet. We solved the problem by adding a bathroom off of the basement. Now the parents enjoy a good night’s sleep and feel good about having their son at home.”

Or another example: “We had a client whose mother was moving in. A week before her arrival, she fell and broke her hip. The family was worried about how the mother was going to manage. We assured our client that we could create an accessible bath that would keep her mother safe, but she was afraid it might look too institutional and even hurt the resale value of the home. We proposed several solutions and the client is now delighted with the light and airy new bath with a no-threshold shower that her mother finds easy to use. In fact, she says it’s the most attractive bath in her home.”

Prospects are often worried about projects running behind schedule. So rather than just say how reliable you are, tell a story, such as: “A couple came to us before their daughter’s wedding wanting to redo the kitchen. They envisioned a beautiful ceremony in their backyard and a small reception at home. They were afraid they had waited too long to start and were worried the kitchen they dreamed of would not be ready in time. We knew we were on a tight time frame, but we made it happen in X amount of weeks by creating a lovely design based on products we knew were readily available. Because of our longstanding relationships with our suppliers and crews, everything came together on time. Guests at the wedding marveled over the smooth, cool granite countertops and the rugged wood cabinets.”

Note the words “cool, smooth and rugged.” Researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors such as “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, making a story memorable. Phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Instead of “a custom kitchen design should reflect your personality and lifestyle,” tell a story about how you created such a room. “We had a customer with two miniature long-haired dachshunds whom she adored, but they were always getting in the way when she was cooking. She felt guilty having to put them outside when she was fixing dinner. So we created a separate eating station and bed for each dog on the opposite side of the island. Now she can cook in peace and she feels better knowing her dogs are happy, too.”

Instead of “We offer a range of quality products from top manufacturers and have knowledgeable specialists,” which is what everyone says, tell a story. “We had a customer who had heard about the new touchless faucets but was afraid they might be a gimmick. We showed her how the controls on different types work, and which ones to avoid because they sometimes turn on too easily. We were also able to tell her the correct way to locate the mechanism under the sink to avoid malfunctions.”

Employee stories can be about how someone got a job, their role within your organization, how they are successful, why they wanted to work for you or even what they do in their off time.

Brand stories can often involve your history. But rather than the standard, “We are proud to be a second-generation family business,” share a story about what you learned from a parent. “Dad never missed a kitchen and bath show for 25 years. He always said it was essential to stay on top of new products and ideas. He was one of the first to switch to computerized design.”

Maybe there will be a story one day called “The Berenstain Bears Remodel.” We’d all read that one.