Websites in the wild: 5 things to consider when writing website narratives
Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we show you how we crafted a website narrative for a small company from start to finish.
Websites in the wild
Websites in the wild live short and brutish lives. Competition for eyeballs is measured in the milliseconds. Dazzling new ideas are rare.
When an eyeball does click with a website’s content, the website struggles to hold it there, or else it gets the web equivalent of the treatment lonely, desperate drinkers get in bars.
Add to that the tens of thousands of websites out there all drinking from the same virtual watering hole with similar or quasi-similar products, concepts and missions, and you figure you’d have to be giving away a free trip to Tahiti to get those capricious optical nerves to dock on your site for even five seconds. (Which is about the time you have to hook those eyeballs, by the way.)
Actually, as web writers, we’re not standing outside a nightclub in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn with neon sandwich boards at 3 AM luring unsuspecting tourists in for a lap dance. We’re better than that.
Or at least we have a more useful, reliable tool.
Last week we talked about how explaining how stories work will make your clients more amenable to using them on their websites.
That blog post took for granted that stories are a good tool for communicating ideas on websites. I don’t think anyone would argue that they aren’t, but you may be pleasantly unsurprised by the actual reasons.
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Stories are actually just a sort of crutch. If there were a better way to interest readers—like yodeling or juggling Rubik’s cubes—I’d be the first to adopt it.
They’re a crutch simply because they’ve been working for hundreds of thousands of years, and, again, maybe not even in the ways you’re thinking. You don’t need a blazing cave fire and a dazzling narrator, or their virtual equivalents, to make a story work.
Stories thrive as communication tools because they hit us logically with well-trodden structures and emotionally by pulling on our heartstrings. Story arcs with powerful openers, problems to solve and payoffs when you solve them aren’t creative, they’re functional. Messages that you can feel are, like empathetic characters in a novel, a way to interface with readers and hold their interest.
Does this sound selfish? It isn’t any more selfish than writing a killer first line like this one from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.”
Or writing a character that’s relatable. No one would accuse Maggie Estep of being maudlin or emotionally manipulative, for instance, for creating the magnetic, bottom-feeding narrator of Alice Fantastic.
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A website in the wild
At Storyline Creatives, we’ve been lucky. We regularly have the chance to work with people with interesting ideas (or cool slants on ideas that have been around the block) and missions we believe in. One of those companies is a small, Netherlands-based funding consultancy that wanted to reach an international market.
I can feel you rubbing your hands together in expectation already. EU funding and funding laws? What, pray tell, could be more exciting than that?
Actually, that was our job. To make your eyeballs interested enough in this small company’s big ideas to stick around and interact with the site.
Here’s how we approached the challenge. It’s the same advice I would give any website writer faced with a similar task.
WRITE AN EFFECTIVE OPENER
Our character, BECCA Europe, needed a first line and opening chapter that would stop eyeballs. Unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez, we didn’t have any walking dead to throw in to make our first impression more memorable.
If we’d been in default mode, we might have focused on who BECCA was (about) or even what it believed in (mission). Instead, we chose to hit the reader with what the company had accomplished that year because we felt that it would make the biggest impact.
In 2017, we helped our clients raise over €1.5 million to fund their creative projects.
It was concrete, current and in its own way memorable.
If I were a visitor with a creative project with a budget in that ballpark, would I keep reading?
Sure. If there was a good enough incentive.
GIVE READERS A PROBLEM TO SOLVE
The opener of BECCA’s website presents a fact that would presumably be engaging for the type of visitor that ends up there. It’s common enough to put a CTA under a header or description. We could have put a cookie-cutter “learn more” or “read more” button there. Instead, we framed the fact within a larger narrative whose payoff was only a click away.
This is how.
If you were interested enough to stick with us through the opening line—and you’re an organization with a creative project—we’re banking on the fact that you’ll give BECCA five more seconds of your time and click to find out how they raised that money.
CONTROL THE NARRATIVE
Like stories, web narratives have to be built. They aren’t slapped together, even though it sometimes feels that way.
For BECCA, we took the elements they wanted in their story and thought about how they could best be combined on the home page, which is where you have the most space for a unified narrative on a website. Of course, not everyone “reads” a website that way. Some “cheat” and click on different “chapters” (tabs) at will. If you do read this website, however, you do it vertically.
After the eyeball-, heart- and mind-grabbing opener, we thought the next thing potential clients would want was to be comforted by the fact that they weren’t alone. If they recognized any of the companies on our logo slider, great. If not, they could at least see how cool they were.
Creativity and collaboration are reinforced here. BECCA isn’t just a funding consultancy. It’s a company that works with creative, trailblazing organizations to produce great things.
If that wasn't apparent with the logos, we made it crystal clear in BECCA’s impactful signature red with a few select testimonials.
Do you dig our story so far?
If you do, the next section will make you love it.
MAKE CHARACTERS WITH STORIES, NOT IMAGES WITH TEXT
If we go back to the very beginning of our story (lightyears ago in eyeball time), we mentioned a CTA. If you were so excited by our opener and already clicked, you were in for a big surprise, because that button doesn’t take you to a contact form. That would be cheating.
If you clicked, you dropped down to our company stories section, which for us, is the most compelling part of the narrative. It’s BECCA’s meat and your payoff and what we, the website creators, envisioned as the real decider. If you choose to work with BECCA, you’ll definitely do it after reading these stories.
Instead of framing BECCA’s business as “funding projects”, we wrote them as “people projects”. Each of BECCA’s clients was a character looking for something, all of them with relatable visions, whether it was OUTtv, Holland’s only LGBTQ TV station, looking for money to continue broadcasting, or CELA, a youth literature organization, wanting to enrich its program. These are uplifting, impactful stories, each with characters and a story arc of its own.
Best of all, all of these stories have the same ending: BECCA believed in what these organizations did and helped them secure the funding they needed to sustain their visions.
Happy endings are nice outside Hollywood.
This blog post clocks in at 1,300 words, which is about how many words you need to write a whole website.
Obviously, since we’re competing for that Darwinian eyeball window any time we publish something on the Internet, whether it’s static content or a blog, better to trim the fat.
After all, it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that anything you put in a story either has to develop the character or advance the plot. This holds true for website writing too.
If your eyeballs have stuck around this far, come back next week when we talk about integrating text and design.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.