E-commerce Storytelling: How to Captivate and Sell with Three Ingredients

Storytelling isn’t new. Nor is its power to captivate. But can you use stories to sell in e-commerce? You sure can. Here are a few inspiring implementations

Aaron Orendorff
July 09 2018

Humans are storied creatures who find meaning and interpret their lives through narratives. Naturally, storytelling is paramount when it comes to your about page, case studies, and blog posts.

But, do stories really affect something as transactional as e-commerce? Does e-commerce storytelling sell?

Turns out … absolutely. The most striking example comes from the little-known project Significant Objects. Partnering with a handful of the world’s best storytellers, Significant Objects set out to prove that stories create cash value.

Their 2009 experiment purchased $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk and — by adding storied descriptions to them in place of product descriptions — transformed the original purchase into $3,612.51:

This unassuming yellow little bear cost $1 to buy and sold for $51 all because of a story.

The problem is that even though storytelling is deeply ingrained in our human experience and neurology, we struggle to apply its principle to business.

Why? Because to unleash the power of stories in e-commerce, what you need isn’t so much flowery language or worn-out gambits like “Once upon a time.” Instead, e-commerce storytelling means framing your marketing strategies in total so that each stage of your funnel is built on the overarching story your brand is telling about:

  1. The E-commerce Story Hero
  2. The E-commerce Story Goal
  3. The E-commerce Story Supporter

#1 The E-commerce Story Hero

The biggest mistake you can make with storytelling is casting you, your business, your product, or your service as the hero. Let me be as blunt as possible: your visitors don’t care about you … they care about themselves. You are not the hero. Your customer is.

What defines a hero? Copyblogger puts it perfectly: “The hero of the story is the one who is transformed as the story progresses, from an ordinary person into someone extraordinary.”

Instead of making yourself the centerpiece of your e-commerce stories, build them around your audience. The easiest way to make your customer the hero is to utilize user-generated content (UGC) from current customers in your ads themselves.

For instance, rather than serving up brand-centric ads and social content, Pura Vida Bracelets leverage a host of micro-influencers in their offsite and onsite campaigns. Notice that while the images below contain the product, Pura Vida isn’t the hero; instead, it’s Kim Rose:

Pura Vida then uses those same UGC images on their product pages as well as through their shoppable Instagram feed run by Foursixty, one part of their extensive e-commerce tool stack:

The power of the above sequence comes from its aspirational focus. It’s a story told in miniature that cleverly places their would-be customer into the shoes — or, wrist — of a micro-influencer they already identify with.

The customer-as-hero theme becomes even more pronounced in the UGC associated with their referral program:

Another great example of this principle in action (pun intended) are the hero images and headlines on Muse’s Brain Sensing Headband homepage. While Muse doesn’t include UGC, the messaging is still decidedly built around the customer and not the product:

What’s so brilliant about Muse is that they capture the essence of storytelling in just a few lines, all of which revolve around the visitor.

#2 The E-commerce Story Goal

Now that your e-commerce story has a hero, the next thing you need is a goal. Once again, the goal can’t be about you … it has to be about your customer.

While that might sound obvious, it’s easier said than done. Crafting the right goal means climbing into the mind and heart of your customer:

  • What are the dominant emotions associated with your product?
  • What are the tangible outcomes your customer wants?
  • How do they feel facing down that desire pre-purchase?
  • How will they feel afterward (e.g., post-purchase)?
  • Who will they become in the process of pursuing their desire?
  • Where will they end up after the desire is achieved?

A powerful way to frame the goal in your own mind is by asking yourself two questions that make the buying journey about salvation not sales:

  1. What hell does my customer want to be saved from?
  2. What heaven do they want to be delivered unto?

While those are deep questions, the good news is your story doesn’t have to come across quite so existential. Going back to Pura Vida, you may think that bracelets don’t lend themselves to deep desires. But that’s exactly why they spend so much time in their videos focusing on their philanthropic efforts:

For Pura Vida, hell isn’t merely an unadorned wrist; it’s a life lived without purpose or meaning. Even better, that theme carries over directly into their “Charity” product collection:

In contrast, Muse’s goal is far more focused on the heaven their product delivers customer’s unto rather than the hell it delivers them from:

Digging deeper into the journey by visiting the “Why mediate with Muse?” page, that heaven is intensified:

Pay special attention to Muse’s relentless focus on the benefits of their product as they relate to achieving their customer’s goals. Remember, storytelling doesn’t have to be overt — e.g., “Once upon a time” — but it does have to be tangible.

#3 The E-commerce Story Supporter

So far, each of the above storytelling elements have focused almost exclusively on your customer. The final ingredient of a powerful e-commerce story is … you.

How? Not by suddenly co-opting the story. But by injecting yourself alongside your hero in the quest for their goal to vanquish their adversary. To illustrate, let’s go back to our test cases.

For Pura Vida, while their products have shined as vehicles for customers to achieve both the heaven of style and a meaningful life, perhaps the best example of that story culminating is on their Monthly Club page.

Notice how Pura Vida positions themselves not merely as bracelets, but as supporters in their customer’s quest to find:

  • Exclusivity
  • Belonging
  • Purpose
  • Excitement
  • Happiness

Muse does the exact same thing by framing themselves as “your personal mediation assistant.” Muse is the “how” of breakthrough mediation, not the who (the hero) or the why (the goal).

Because this last ingredient is so critical to a sales-worthy story, I want to show you a few more examples of how to present yourself as the supporter.

In the info-product space, Examine takes on the role of a guide (i.e., a teacher) to help readers navigate the overwhelming and often deceptive waters of online nutrition:

Their subscription page reinforces this support while (1) placing readers front and center as well as (2) highlighting the trust factor:

On the SaaS side of e-commerce, Quuu Promote’s copy is doggedly focused on their user. The second-person pronoun “you” or “your” appears no less than ten times in just the first two screen scrolls. Better yet, the SaaS presents itself as the supportive solution to the hells of low-share count, ad-blockers, and being ignored by influencers:

Stories Do Sell

Stories inspire. Stories captivate. And stories sell.

Why? Because as Brains Crave says in The Psychology of Stories: The Storytelling Formula Our Brains Crave: “When we hear a story, our brains change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts activated, but so are whatever areas that would be used if you were actually in the story yourself.”

However, integrating the power of stories into your e-commerce success does not mean dropping them wholesale in each and every piece of content you create.

Instead, storytelling demands clearly identifying three ingredients and then seeding that story across every element of your funnel:

  1. The hero: your customer
  2. The goal: their heaven
  3. The supporter: you

Have your own favorite example of e-commerce storytelling? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Aaron Orendorff

Previous the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is now the founder of iconiContent, where he’s busy “saving the world from bad content.” He’s also a regular contributor at Mashable, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider, Content Marketing Institute, and more. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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