Blog ROI: Storytelling10 ways to maximize your blog's ROI: Part 6, telling a story over time

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Typewriter: It was a dark and stormy night

Not every story fits in a few neat paragraphs - especially stories that are still unfolding. Maybe you're taking on a major advocacy project. Adding a green roof to your office building. Or tracking an intern's apprenticeship in the skills and culture of your industry.

Either way, you have a story that can engage readers over an extended period: weeks, months or even years. And when it's a story that reinforces your brand and engages readers, you have something with the potential for real value... if you can tell it to them.

But telling that story through traditional channels can be difficult. Advertising is expensive, and it's a major commitment to devote an extended ad buy to one story; news media, while they may cover you from time to time, almost certainly won't broadcast every development - and there's no guarantee they won't lost interest.

A blog, on the other hand, lets you tell an extended story easily. Devoted readers can follow every development via RSS; others can check in from time to time. And if your story is a compelling one, you can build an audience over time - people joining you halfway through can experience it from the beginning, thanks to your blog's archives.

Commenting allows readers to become part of the story, whether it's by cheering from the sidelines, as active participants with offers of help and support, or as story-tellers in their own right, inspired by your tale. That's the kind of engagement traditional media can't offer.

Here's how to put extended story-telling to work on behalf of your organization and your brand:

  • Tell the right story. You're looking for something aligned with your brand (which doesn't have mean a story about your brand itself, but rather a story that reflects its underlying attributes and values). You want something that's interesting to your readers, and can sustain that interest over time. And you want a story that you can tell well - where you have ongoing access to the people involved, so you're delivering first-hand information to your readers.
  • Look for concrete details. Any good storyteller looks for those nuggets of tangible, sensory detail: the way snow squeaks under a construction worker's boots in extreme cold, the tangy aroma of cilantro hitting a frying pan, the papery-thin skin of an elderly woman's hand clasping yours. Used judiciously, they can bring a story to life.
  • Use photos, audio and video. They can often tell your story more efficiently and more evocatively than text. The right sound or image can quickly engage a reader's senses and emotions, and impart a sense of immediacy and shared experience - especially when we're seeing people's faces and hearing their voices.
  • Stories are ultimately about people. Find the people behind your story, and let us hear their voices. A choice sentence quoted from someone at the heart of the story can do much more for you than paragraph after paragraph of factoids or statistics. Pair it with a photo, and you can deliver something with real power. And don't feel like you have to bring in someone new in each post; seeing how someone's situation and perspective change over time can be one of the most engaging parts of a story.
  • Stories are also about conflict. What are the opposing forces in this story? Who are we cheering for... and against? The "villain" doesn't have to be a person or organization; often, we're fighting against time, a natural disaster, illness or a social condition.
  • Identify your theme. Usually a particular story speaks to some deeper idea... hopefully, one that has a lot to do with your brand or mission. That theme should help keep you on track as you tell your story... as well as helping you find echoes of your theme on other blogs that can open up opportunities for engagement and conversation with them.
  • Welcome the new reader. You want to build your audience over time - so it shouldn't be hard for someone to get up to speed on your story. That might be hopeless with, say, Lost... but you can include a sidebar with an overview of the story so far, linking to a more detailed summary page. And consider offering an occasional "the story so far" post.
  • Involve your readers in the story. Can they suggest something - a name for a new building? Can they collect questions to pose to the people at the centre of the story? Encourage conversations about the story in your blog's comments, and keep those conversations going with your replies. And if your readers can have an impact on the story's outcome - by raising funds, for example, or lending some volunteer labour for an afternoon - find a way to make that possible.

And here are three ways to tell when your storytelling is building toward a happy ending for you and your organization:

  • Your story's audience is building over time, enhancing this channel and extending your reach.
  • Your readers begin talking about the story and the underlying brand values, on your blog and elsewhere in the social web.
  • Other channels - including the news media - pick up on the story.

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