The Power of Storytelling: How We Got 300% More People To Read Our Content

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Gummy bearsImagine that you’ve written a blog post that can help thousands of people solve a really painful problem.

You’ve written the post, edited it, looked it over a few times to make sure that you didn’t miss anything important, and hit ‘publish.’

You send the post out to your list, share it on all of your social networks, and settle in to see what happens.

And then…

Nothing.

Sure, you get some traffic. Maybe even a comment or two. But nowhere near the level of response that your breakthrough problem-busting content should be getting.

It’s disappointing. And it happens to a lot of us.

The problem is that valuable content isn’t nearly enough.

The power of story

Your valuable content is a vitamin. You know that if you could just get people to take it, they’d be healthier and more successful. But no matter how hard you try, many people can’t be convinced to swallow vitamins. They don’t taste good, and they’re not fun to take.

Vitamins may be what we all need, but candy is what we want. So what can we do?

Think of your awesome, valuable posts as gummy vitamins. They deliver what your audience wants, as well as what they need.

The vitamin part is your value. That’s the problem that your post solves, or the benefit that it delivers. And the gummy part is the story. That’s what makes your content easy — and fun — to swallow.

Great content needs both parts to be successful.

A word of warning: don’t feed your readers candy. That is, fluffy, feel-good “10 tips for…” posts that are fun to read but do little to actually help them succeed in the long term.

They deserve better.

What happened when we tested this

If we actually tested the power of story, what would happen?

We decided to find out.

So for one of the blog posts on our Journey to $100K blog — about the steps we took to get more subscribers — we ran a basic A/B test.

Some of our visitors were sent to a version of the post that started with a simple story that led into the “meat” of the content, while others found a post with a no-nonsense intro that jumped right to the point.

Story vs. No Story

The result?

The post with the narrative intro had nearly 300% more people scroll all the way to the bottom, and average time on page was more than five times higher!

Story vs. No Story Chart

Remember: in terms of pure “value” to the reader, these posts had EXACTLY the same content!

Why stories work

Digging into why the test results were so dramatic, we learned that there’s some really interesting science at play here.

When we hear information-–for example, a/b test results—we activate the part of our brain responsible for processing language. All we’re doing is taking in the words and figuring out what they mean.

But when we hear stories, our brain acts as if we’re feeling the stories.

In one study at the University of Washington in St. Louis, researchers studied people’s brain activity while they read a story about a boy named Raymond.

What they found was amazing: when Raymond picked up an object, the neurons responsible for hand movements in the participants’ brains fired. And when Raymond looked at what was around him, the neurons related to vision fired, too.

stories and the brain study

When we hear stories, our brain acts as if we’re living them.

So when marketers say that stories engage your readers, it’s not fluff; it’s psychology, and it’s incredibly powerful.

Five tips for setting the scene in your next post

I’m not a writer in the traditional sense. I don’t have the training or the skill to write powerful, enchanting prose that grips readers for hours.

But I don’t have to be. It doesn’t take a whole lot to set the scene in your blog.

It doesn’t need to be an epic tale. Ordinary, everyday scenes can pull the reader in, simply by being relatable.

1) Lead with dialogue

A lot of the lessons we learn at Groove come from conversations we have with each other and people outside of the company. Using those conversations as the starting scene for our blog posts helps readers feel like they’re in the room, learning along with us.

Sonia Simone, content marketer extraordinaire at Copyblogger, does the same:

Copyblogger

2) Make something up

No, don’t lie to your readers.

But a fictional story can be every bit as compelling as a true one, if it makes your message more interesting.

Nemo Chu at KISSmetrics builds up a captivating scene to help readers understand an important metaphor about growth:

KISSmetrics

Without the story, the metaphor risks sounding like a business cliche. But by putting the reader in the driver’s seat, Chu’s story makes an impact.

3) Focus on emotions

As the research shows, readers connect most deeply to stories that relate to senses: sight, touch, taste, feel and smell.

Using those to guide the way you tell a story can create a powerful emotional connection between you and your audience.

In his Inc.com post, Jeff Haden vividly describes the scene as he and his client take a trip:

Inc.com

Jeff could have said “When we left the meeting, we noticed a buffet and some workers, but nobody was eating.”

Instead, he painted a picture with his words, describing the color of the staff’s uniforms and the tone of the employee’s voice. In return, we (the readers) are with him until the end.

4) Anchor to a story people already know

Incorporating a story in your content doesn’t necessarily mean you have to create one yourself.

There are lots of stories that your readers already know and remember, and you can tap into those memories to illustrate your point.

For example, look at how Magdalena Georgieva uses Fight Club — a movie almost all of us know and love — to teach HubSpot readers marketing lessons.

HubSpot

You can pull stories from just about anywhere: movies, TV shows, books, current events, fables or history, just to name a few.

5) Use a picture

Images can tell stories and capture a reader’s attention just as well as words. Stay away from business-y stock photos, though, and stick to something your readers can relate to.

At Groove, we love using stills from shows that we (and our audience) love, like Breaking Bad:

Groove

Note that your images don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the subject of your story, as long as they convey the emotion you’re trying to get across.

One great place to look for Creative Commons-licensed images is flickr.

Try it for yourself

Try any (or all!) of the techniques above in your next blog post to harness the power of story.

You’ll engage your readers and deliver more value than simple bullet point lessons could ever offer.

Just remember: No candy. Ever.

Image credits: Toms Bauģis, Washington University St. Louis

  • http://www.thinktraffic.co.uk/blog Mark Johnson

    Awesome post Alex. We’ve been trying to get better at story telling too. We have also found that accounts of how something was done are more popular than accounts of how to do something.

    For instance:
    How We Doubled Our Traffic In 2 Months

    Will almost certainly outperform:
    How To Double Your Traffic In 2 Months

    I guess the story telling angle helps there too, especially since a story feels more believable, even if you know it is fictional!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree…I think it’s part story, part authority, especially early on. Why should anyone believe that we have what it takes to write an ultimate guide to X?

      “How We Did X” is a lot more believable.

  • Rick

    Just FYI, Firefox gives me an error when I clicked the link in the email:

    Secure Connection Failed

    An error occurred during a connection to blog.bufferapp.com. Peer’s Certificate has been revoked. (Error code: sec_error_revoked_certificate)

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Hm, very odd. I’m not getting that. We’ll have to look into it. Thanks, Rick!

  • Omri

    Alex – Great post as always. Especially love the research reference.
    The only down side: I will now have to find time to read all the link outs. Can’t stop at the middle of a story…

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Omri. I encourage you to dive down that rabbit hole. It’s worth it :)

  • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

    Alex, you reinforce my belief. But I guess we have to move away from squeezing stories out of lists and how-tos because there are just too many out there clogging the path to attract eyeballs.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks for the note, Partha.

      We may have to :)

  • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill

    Good stuff Alex – I know you do a great job with this on the Groove blog as well. Keeps me hooked for sure! ;)

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks man :)

  • Abasiakara Etteh

    Great post Alex. One thing I was looking for was…what’s the point? You said that with ordinary posts, you’d get a little bit of social media interaction. How did that change after you increased time spent on the page?

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks for the comment, Abasiakara!

      We’ve got a post coming on the ROI of our blog soon, but in short, increasing blog metrics like time-on-page has led to increases in trial signups and, ultimately, revenue. Look for that one in a few weeks :)

  • Sherine Grant

    Certainly food for thought. I guess we need to approach content for blogs just like how we approach a speech or presentation. I always do the telling of a story in those circumstances but when I’m writing I tend to get to the point. Seeing the statistical difference in user time on the page etc was a real eye opener.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Absolutely, Sherine. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.BluewireMedia.com.au/blog Adam Franklin

    I loved the idea of delivering goodness wrapped in something tasty. It reminded me of being fed cauliflower in my mashed potatoes! Thanks for teaching us that lesson via your own interesting narrative.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Perfect example, Adam, love it.

  • http://www.thewordchef.com/ Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

    Since I’m big on using food analogies, I totally relate to your vitamin v. candy metaphor. When I talk about this stuff, I usually use bran muffins v. cupcakes. Same idea. Thanks for sharing the results of your experiment. And for the tips on incorporating storytelling. We need more of these kinds of blog posts.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Tea :) I appreciate the kind words.

  • Leo Ji

    I just noticed that this post about stories in posts… started with a story.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Boom. It’s all a conspiracy :)

  • Russell Lundstrom

    Alex, wowsa, one of your best posts yet.

    I’m a huge fan of storytelling albeit it is a hard sell to most companies who have to be “professional”.

    One of my favorite sites is significantobjects.com. There is amazing copy there.

    Fast Company actually put some numbers to this as well. The lessons are obvious…

    $1 snowglobe for $59

    http://www.fastcompany.com/3002804/how-sell-1-snow-globe-59-real-roi-brand-storytelling

    Thanks for reminding us.
    Russell

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Wowsa, thanks Russell :)

      Love it.

  • Mladen Kovacevic

    I just hit “Publish” on a post that discusses this very same thing: The power of storytelling: http://crestride.com/ideas/2014/04/21/content-marketing-simplification-engagement/

    My argument is that you shouldn’t condense or “dumb down” your content simply to maximize its viral potential. A business should ideally have 2 simultaneous streams of content:

    - one that provides additional value to existing customers

    - and one that draws in new audiences

    Also thank you for sharing the results of the A/B experiment you’ve done. It’s always good to see raw data. I hope to have a large enough data set in the future to do some of this myself.

    Cheers.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Mladen! I couldn’t agree more. Dumbing down is stupid. Respect your readers.

  • http://www.hijos-del-atomo.com/ Christian Orellana

    Fantastic stuff, as always. Can’t wait to try this on my next article. Thanks!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Christian. Let me know how it goes :)

  • http://praktiskpraksis.dk/ Helle Marie Buttrup

    This is so true, and a great post. I use storytelling alot in my bloggin and newsletters, and my readers love it.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thank you, Helle!

  • http://www.thewebsitemanagers.com/ Thea Woods

    “Think of your awesome, valuable posts as gummy vitamins. They deliver what your audience wants, as well as what they need…” = Greatest. Analogy. Everrrr! :)

    Bookmarking and Buffering this post for sure. Thanks Alex!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Thea, glad you liked it :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/workfromhomemumsanddadsop Andrew Oldham

    Great post Alex. We have only recently relaunched our blog and this comes at a great time. Storytelling is the best way to grow and engage your tribe. Something we have to do more often.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Andrew. Good luck!

  • http://blu6.co Craig Stump

    But did it convert?

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Yep. Post coming with some really interesting blog metrics in 3 weeks :)

  • candice cummings

    Something that I’ve also been battling with. My blog started as a college project but I would love to revive it and make real use of it. Will make sure to bookmark this article for use!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, Candice. Hope it’s helpful to you!

  • http://semcompass.com/ Ryan Kempe

    Wow awesome post. I read the whole thing and had a massive realisation… You actually sent out 2 emails about this post. I received both. Well, I got one from Groove and I also got one from Disqus keeping me updated on the comments etc. Interesting to note that your Groove email title was “How To Get 300% More People To Read Your Content” and the Disqus title was “The Power of Storytelling: How We Got 300% More People To Read Our Content”.

    I flagged the groove email to read later. But when I read the Disqus email I clicked through. Im not quite sure its because it is obviously the same post and I was warm to it, or whether the slight title differences in title made me click! I believe it was the latter (in reference to Mark Johnson comment). This really hit home for me how powerful the story telling factor is. The Disqus title grounded the article within a story from the headline. Thats much more believable.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thank you, Ryan! Great to know :)

  • http://www.booot.co.il/ Shuki Mann

    Ohh man you did it again!

    Awesome post. Simply brilliant. I think you should be a content writer rather than “just” CEO of Groove :)

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Heh, kind of you to say, thanks Shuki!

  • Paul Gabrail

    Great article. I will be doing this. One thing, however…your math is wrong. It’s not 300%. 6400 vs 2100 is 200% or so.

    Again, great article and I hate to be the guy who points it out, but it’s a common mistake made in math. A 0% increase would be the same number. 100% would be 4300 and 200% would be 6400 or so.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks for the note, Paul. And for the clarification :)

  • sbizideasblog

    Alex, excellent split test and study. While I’ve always suspected that stories were a powerful tool, it’s good to see some real testing to back it up. Also, some great tips on how to use stories too – thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thank you!

  • http://www.stevefogg.com Steve Fogg

    To sum it up: “show, don’t tell”

    great post!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Yep! Thanks, Steve.

  • http://johnrmeese.com/ John R. Meese

    Love this. Great distinction between gummy vitamins and candy at the beginning. There’s enough mindless candy on the internet, as well as plenty of educational “vitamins.” We need to distill the knowledge into that healthy-but-tasty gummy vitamin format for people to accept it willingly.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thanks, John. Glad you dig it :)

  • https://twitter.com/burbankrusset Russet Burbank

    I am a potato and even I find this very relevant. Get your audience engaged. Relate.
    Alex knows. Excellent tips.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thank you, Russet. Impressive typing for a spud.

  • Mike

    Great post Alex. As a reader myself, I totally agree that unless there’s a story that interests me, I never read an article throughout !

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Appreciate that, Mike!

  • Jacqui

    Simple yet invaluable Alex. We sometimes churn out post after post focused on the next topic that we need to get out without thinking about the poor reader who needs to digest it. Elicit emotion and contextualise/personalise it for your reader. So very, very important. Thanks for the reminder. Jac :-)

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thank you, Jacqui! Really glad you liked it :)

  • http://redplatypuscreative.com Red Platypus

    This is brilliant and has got me excited – it’s what we’ve been trying to tell our customers since day one. The power of a story can win the audience over. Bookmarking this to share!
    Cheers,
    Carmen

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      I appreciate that, Carmen!

  • Ricardo Saldivar

    This is awesome, I actually started my blog like that, plenty of stories, but slowly I though it was better to go straight to the meat! I think I will try to go back to story time.
    Thank you!!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Glad this was a helpful reminder, Ricardo :)

  • http://www.b2bmap.co.uk Grant Draper

    Awesome post and I agree Mark. Had me at 300%. Wouldn’t mind doing a piece based on this post for a new blog I’m working on (WIP!) Any chance I could get the two versions please Alex? grant at grantdraper .co.uk :)

  • ehlmatenna

    whoa..thank you or this…it will really help me alot.. ^_^

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thank YOU for reading :) Hope you enjoyed it!

  • http://www.squirrly.co/ Alexandra Petean-Nicola

    Coming up with a crazy scene, from a day to day life to which you can compare what you are trying to explains works in most cases. It makes the audience curious and touches their emotional side as well.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Couldn’t have said it better, Alexandra. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://josepaulmartin.com/ Jose Paul Martin

    Alex, interesting post. I really believe stories can be powerful. Was the test result because they were forced to dig more (by reading the full thing) for the same information, hence spending more time? Just curious… what is more important – a reader reading more, or taking action i.e. was there a “CTA”?

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      The most important thing is to create as much value as possible for the reader. If you don’t provide that, the CTA and the stories are useless :)

      • http://josepaulmartin.com/ Jose Paul Martin

        Alex, in your example, let’s say the value is definitely there in the test article… there’s no doubt about that. Are you saying that because he is spending more time its more valuable? In an attention deficit world, aren’t we skimming more with the explosion of content. Sorry, I’m a bit lost about how ur positioning this thought…

        • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

          Sorry, that was more of a general statement :) Knowing that providing value is the most important part, the story is the layer that helps the “attention deficit” world feel more connected to the content, which in turn helps them stay engaged. You can have a story in which you can skim too. Photos and images are key for driving that person down the page though. More coming up here on the power of images in a future post :)

  • Catherine

    Its a good post, but I think I’m the opposite. I like to get right to the point, straight away, not wade through long stories to get to it. I must be in the minority I suppose.

  • http://www.maureencioni.com/ Maureen Cioni

    Great info Alex, thanks for the metrics. One of my goals is to incorporate stories into the dry world of mortgages.

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Awesome Maureen! I’d definitely suggest it :)

  • Malcolm Cox

    Excellent article. I am a Christian preacher and teacher – lessons and sermons that contain stories always command greater attention at the time and retention afterwards. There is a reason Jesus told so many stories. If more speakers used stories we’d all be less bored and learn more!

    • http://www.groovehq.com/ Alex from Groove

      Thx Malcolm, glad you enjoyed it! Gotta love a jesus analogy :)

  • Daryl Eicher

    Great job Alex. I particularly liked your tie in to neuroscience. We’re all wired for stories and you’ve brought that home in a short and sweet way – sans the candy. Bravo!

  • Haig Panossian

    Great, practical advice. I also think we can apply IDEO’s human-centered design method to guide our stories. I explain how in a recent post on my blog, check it out! http://wp.me/p4jVL5-3q

  • http://leverageyourtimemarketing.com/ Eric Bryant

    People will pay more attention to a story that is told rather than a statement that is made. Thank you for this post and for reminding us that we need to be storytelllers!

  • Lavanya D

    I have been trying to follow this – I am a storyteller and this def works in my favour. But I am unsure as to how to modify this into content marketing (which is my new job!) And when you tell stories don’t you run the risk of sounding ‘folksy’? How do you make your story resonate with a global audience?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Lavanya! That’s a great question! I think for me the element of storytelling comes back to the idea of problem-solving. So you’d tell a story, ideally one that addresses a problem or highlights an area of improvement that people can really latch onto. Tell people the problem, paint them a picture of life without the problem, then explain how to get from A to B. :)

      How does this sound?

      • Lavanya D

        Hi Kevan,
        Thank you for your reply. Your idea sounds workable. I think I am going to put it down on paper as “1.2.3″ and stick it on to my cubicle wall!
        Thanks a ton!

  • Jay Ricciardi

    Unfortunately, some broken images on this now

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks so much for surfacing this, Jay! I’ll see if I can get those fixed up! :)