Digital Marketing

What is Digital Storytelling?

By Jessica Bubenheim, on 12 December 2018

Content is king, they say.  While that may be true, "content" is a technical term - soulless. What’s missing in today’s “digital content” is storytelling. Content on it’s own could mean a foto, a text, or even just a combination of words. Words alone can be empty, and without a silver lining, will remain unheard, and won't create a single ripple among our audience in the online surface. Digital stories, on the other hand, do. Stories are the oldest form of exchanging information. Who doesn’t enjoy telling or listening to a good story? Over a meal, on the bus, or on social networks, good stories are what capture us out of our day to day, even if it’s just for a moment. A story outlines experiences, the challenges faced, the solutions found, and the helping hands along the way. Stories that take our minds to another place are an art. This article explores how the greatest storytellers can teach us to apply this art to our own digital stories. 

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Digital Storytelling Definition

Organizations are understood through the products and services offered, the values they live, the actions they take, the events they host, and the questions they spark in their audience. Our perception about an organization's products, services, values, actions, events, and questions depends on what the constellation of elements leads us to deduce. Storytelling is the art of deduction. American director and screenwriter Andrew Stanton (most commonly known for Toy Story and Wall-E) defines storytelling as, “knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings”. 

Digital storytelling is about organizations shaping their constellation of elements across digital channels to allow their audience to draw from them, capture a truth about the organization, understand the corporate values  represented, and most importantly, digital storytelling is about evoking wonder. In the noise of online marketing, digital storytelling aims to hold your audience still for a brief moment in their day.


Create a moment in the digital noise: a story to “make me care”

A great story tells a tale about ‘who we are’ and about ‘what gives our lives meaning’. Your digital stories are a chance to connect with your online audience by getting them to experience the similarities between your brand and themselves. When your audience understands your context, where you are from, the obstacles you are facing, the efforts you are making to get to where you are going and to achieve your ‘why’, they develop empathy for your brand. There isn’t anyone you can’t love once you’ve understood their story. The goal with your story is to make them care - whether this is emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically. How do we make them care? Here are the 4 tips outlined by Andrew Stanton:


  1. Make it relevant. To capture attention, start by making your message relevant. It’s important to show your audience why your story is going to worth their time within the first 10 seconds in order to make them care enough to stop scrolling.

  2. Static stories are dead stories. Life is not static, and so a great story will not be either. Change is fundamental to stories. Hold your audience breathless in moments where anticipation mingles with uncertainty. Create moments of anticipation and uncertainty by including obstacles to your story that lead your audience to question, “how will this conclude in the long term?” and by creating doubt over what the outcome may end up being.

  3. Give 2+2 not 4. Humans are born problem solvers. We are born to deduce and deduct, and so its the absence of information that draws us in. Digital storytelling is about shaping your constellation of elements across digital channels to allow your audience to draw from it and capture a truth about your organization. Allow your audience to take part and complete the sentence for you by giving them 2 + 2 instead of 4.

  4. All about your ‘why’. Everything in your story is an integral part of the mission - in this case, your corporate mission. Every action, event, message, pivot point should relate to your end vision, your organisational missions towards achieving your ‘why’. Communicating your story can be seen as creating a digital roadmap for your online audience to relate with your journey.

Tales of passion: nice people with common sense do not make interesting characters

The renowned chilean author, activist, and journalist Isabel Allende is known to tell stories of women and men, who live with passion and commitment to love, to their world, to an ideal. She dedicates her success to writing about what matters most, passion. The stories that are worth remembering are those of a passionate heart, mavericks, outsiders, rebels, those who bend the rules and take risks. From Allende’s successes, we can draw three conclusions for digital storytelling:

  1. Create a character. A character can either be a persona related to your product/service offering, or it can your product/service offering itself personified. Give your character context through the colours, the mood, etc. Give characters a defining characteristic whether aesthetically or emotionally.  

  2. Control your appearance. Control your digital branding appearance to match what you are bringing as a message through your story. Your digital appearance should evoke the message of your story. Elements of your digital appearance will include: your webpage, your email templates, your social media profiles, your google description, and further branded content. 

  3. Talk with your actions. Command the environment with your actions including digital business activities and online campaigns. Digital activities can include webinars, Facebook live events,  or promotional days for your online offerings. Online campaigns most commonly use hashtags across various social media channels to convey a particular message or corporate value. Convey your passion by serving as the the point of gravity for all things related to the message of your story - all things related to your vision will lead your online users back to you.


Conclusions for digital story planning, telling, and publicising

Shared stories accelerate interpersonal connection allowing us to retain stories longer than data. Using storytellers artistic techniques to transmit information in our digital marketing efforts can drive success in capturing, directing, and sustaining the attention of our online communities.

  • Story planning. To facilitate the planning process, keep a log of potential story content as well as notes on stories for different customer segments and targeted campaigns. In the online rush of content, ensure to start by making your audience car. Always start your planning with the question, “why does this matter”. The answer to this question may change as you develop your story. As the answer to why your story matters matures, this will bring clarity to giving your story a title.
  • Storytelling.  A memorable story will always make reference back to the focal point of importance. As Simon Sinek mentions in his ‘Golden Circle’ theory, the hooking point for an audience is the emotional ‘why’ or in other words, the ‘moral’ or the ‘purpose’ of your story and overall your organisational mission.  

    Building a personal connection with your audience allows them to understand your organisational context and build common reference points between the company’s actions and behaviours in your audiences personal lives. Further building on detailed imagery of the characters involved in your story will accelerate interpersonal connection and allow for longer lasting story retention.

    Lastly, structure is an important element for consideration. It’s important to have a clear beginning, middle and end. Beyond this, a story that conveys conflict, vulnerability, and achievements that are relatable will keep the audience captivated. Build and release tension by balancing: obstacles and success, positive and negative emotions, questions and answers, strengths and vulnerabilities, truths and uncertainties, or preconceptions and revelations. Remember, for the story structure, that the path or journey is the most interesting part, not just the end goal (to reiterate the point mentioned earlier, give your audience the 2 + 2 instead of a mere 4).  
  • Story publicising.  Practice your story with various audiences, so that when you get to your core audience that really matters, you can tell a story that you’ve told many times before. Test your story and put it out there for various groups of people run a/b tests with smaller audiences that may not be the optimal audience to gauge reception and discover. Each social media feedback and engagement  is a chance to practice your digital stories. Digital channels give transparency in reach and engagement which helps you evaluate your digital story and find the right approach to communicating the your digital message.

The beauty of digital storytelling is that it allows for audience interaction. It is true that a listeners story memory improves if they are able to interact and join the experience. Incorporate digital campaigns to allow your audience to publicise their own stories drawn from your brand or make use of live tools on Facebook or Instagram to engage your audience in asking questions. Interaction requires respondents from both sides. When your audience takes the time to interact with your organization's story, its is importance to show appreciation and respect through an appropriate response. Make the digital story effort one of giving and receiving.


Tell A Great Story And No One Will Care It’s An Ad

Remember that ad you saw yesterday on TV right after your favorite show ended? Probably not. What about that pop-up that you closed before it even opened? Even less so. If you don’t pay attention to these ads, why would your viewers?

The funny thing about advertising is that sometimes less is more. Sometimes the key isn’t forcing your way into people’s lives in hopes that your ad will pop up so many times that eventually it will stick. It’s about creating something great, creating an experience that matters. Something amazing, hilarious, entertaining, moving, heartbreaking, heartwarming, motivating, or whatever emotion you like.

It’s about creating something so awe-inspiring, that they get goose bumps, and are itching to know what brand came up with this brilliant idea. Be a storyteller and tell a story that will rope them in and emotionally connect with them – after all, these are people we are talking about, not mere numbers on a screen. They will get to work, school or arrive home, and the first thing they’ll say when they walk in is “Hey, have you seen that brilliant ad that just came out?”, and pull out their phone to show their family, friends or coworkers.

They’ll want to share it with their network, and before you know it you will have created content so great and powerful that it will have moved and propelled itself around the entire world. This is the beauty of the digital age that we live in, the ability to share with the touch of a button, even with people on the other side of the globe. Without a powerful message however, tools and technology become irrelevant, and you will end up lost in the noise of digital marketing. So take advantage and tell a story that will stick with people, and you’ll be remembered for the great thing you represent. Use it to show people who you are, what you stand for and why you exist.

It doesn’t even necessarily have to be related to your product, or even be blatantly obvious what it is that you’re advertising – the whole point is to make it so interesting and attention catching that the viewers will be all but begging to know what your product is. It’s about pulling them in instead of pushing your message out.

Do this, and instead of sarcastically sighing “oh great, another ad”, people will not only not care that its an ad, but they will be reaching out and actively searching for it, and excited to see what new product or service you have to bring in to improve their lives.

Here are some of my favorite examples of video advertisements that I feel have done exactly that, and have taken on a life of their own and been shown on TVs, desktops, tablets and smartphones all over the world – that are so great, that no one cares that their ads.

The man your man could smell like – Old Spice

When Old Spice found themselves in a sales rut, they decided to create a fun and entertaining commercial all whilst mixing it up a little bit, by targeting women rather than men themselves (based on data that they had collected indicating that most of the time it was women buying shower gel for their partners and they were choosing women’s products – not Old Spice). They ended up designing a fast moving, mocking commercial that became a world spread phenomenon within a matter of days of its release. It gave origin from everything to memes, to countless parodies, remixes and plain ridiculous imitations, along with entire sections of shows such as Oprah and Ellen dedicated to it. In the words of Oprah Winfrey herself, “I love that commercial so much, I’m about to buy me some Old Spice”.




Thank you Mom – P&G

Featuring mothers and children from all over the world, P&G created an ad for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games that will make you want to cry, laugh and love all at the same time. I’m telling you now; this will make you want to call your mother.




Dear Future Mom | World Down Syndrome Day – CoorDown

Coordown is an Italian national coordination association of people with Down syndrome. After receiving a message from a future mother who was concerned after discovering her unborn baby had Down syndrome, Coordown answered her and assured many others through a beautiful and heartwarming video. CoorDown raised awareness for World Down syndrome Day with children who have Down syndrome by sending a message to all future mothers, assuring them that although challenging, they have a life as happy as any other child.



All in all, the moral of the story is that in order to cause great impact, you must create great content. Be creative, innovative and think outside the box, there is no point in doing something someone has already done. Instead, start brainstorming and weaving a story that moves people, which doesn’t need to be a direct sales pitch, but instead let them know who you are and what you stand for, which will create an emotion in the audience to want to get to know your brand.


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Jessica Bubenheim

International Business at Warwick Business School. Inspired by Social Entrepreneurs.