Where is the storytelling? (Or good stories make good Web sites)

I've been doing a lot of surfing lately. I've got my professional interests, of course, but, more importantly, my two children are now at an age where they are able-and eager-to play on-line without my immediate supervision. They don't want me...
March 1, 2000

I’ve been doing a lot of surfing lately. I’ve got my professional interests, of course, but, more importantly, my two children are now at an age where they are able-and eager-to play on-line without my immediate supervision. They don’t want me to help them ‘hunt and peck’ letters on the keyboard anymore, and they don’t want me suggesting where to click.

So I’ve been previewing a lot of kids and family sites. And I’ve been mostly disappointed because there are no stories being told out there.

You may ask, ‘Stories? What do you mean by stories? We’ve got 1,432 and a half links on every page, we’ve got banner ads tailored to individual visitors, we’ve got pop-ups and servers and buffers and `bots and cookies and milk. What’s storytelling got to do with anything?’

Storytelling is everything. The story is the narrative/linear experience that pulls viewers through a book, a movie, a theme park ride and a Web site. A story represents the fact that human beings need to be welcomed, hugged, comforted, teased-to put it simply, engaged-before being asked to suspend disbelief, ride a roller coaster, or click through to who-knows-where. And a story is the context in which all of this happens. Why do people wait in lines for certain movies? Why do kids rush home after school to watch certain TV programs? Stories.

Think of E.T. the movie or E.T. the theme park ride. Beginning, middle and end. Phenomenally successful experiences made with good stories.

Let’s look at kids Web sites. There are brand-name toy sites, television character sites, pop star sites and educational sites. Most sites open with a bewildering array of flashing lights, whirling icons and poorly designed mascots. When my kids get to any of these pages, all they want to do is print out a picture of it. They are not being motivated-by a story-to click through.

One site in particular opens with confronting confusion: sounds are sounding, whirlygigs are whirling, and animatics are animating. The mascot character, a hip roller-blading animal, is, however, just hanging out. Visitors have to grope around by themselves to figure out what to do. The only clearly labeled links are tucked into the bottom right-hand corner of the home page. People with small monitors (the vast majority of us) have to scroll down and over to find the links, if they bother to look for them at all.

Imagine this site with a story: ‘Mascot and Mascette need your help. Play five games, earn five merit badges, and help them solve a mystery!’ With just this little bit of storytelling, we’ve taken a mess and turned it into a mission.

Sites for grown-ups are the same. While they may be awesomely organized, they are still, for the most part, messes. I think that Webmasters are so mesmerized by the amount of flying logos and data that can be crammed onto a page, that they forget that people have limitations. Film editors and roller coaster designers know they must work around certain human limits. Wal-Mart, the largest and most successful retailer in the world, understands this. They have greeters at their doors. Retail studies have found that people need a moment or two, upon entering a store, to get their bearings. Doesn’t it make sense to treat visitors to Web sites the same way?

Greeting the customer and helping her get her bearings is just the beginning of the story. You also have to keep her interest during the whole middle part. In a movie, the audience’s interest is held because they identify with the main character. In a Web site, the visitor’s interest is held because she is the main character. Make sure she feels properly motivated to fight the bad guys and save the day. Make sure she feels properly motivated to pass all the end-caps on the way to the checkout.

The most important part of the story is the end, the final bell, the final ka-ching. If we send our visitors out to affiliated sites (the equivalent of the concession stand), have we created a payoff big enough for them to come back? Is there some sort of reward-physical or emotional-that the audience member/Web site visitor will take home with them?

Here’s the ultimate challenge: can we create Web site stories so compelling that people will sit in their seats after it is over and applaud the credits? The Internet is the newest, most powerful means of communication ever created. It is changing the face of commerce, entertainment and government in ways we cannot even imagine. But there is one thing that I am certain of. On the Internet, like television and movies and radio and town criers and cave drawings before it, the story will rule.

Bill Weber is the director of marketing at Motion Picture Enterprises.

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