How to Use Data-Driven Storytelling to Create Engagement

With the rise of big data, a new form of storytelling has emerged, which requires user experiences targeted to individuals with more contextual narratives. As a result, the stakes are higher as users expect brands to meet them on their own terms.

To really delve into the intricacies of each user’s journey, you need to combine data and human insights with the expertise of Content Strategy (CoS) and User Experience (UX). 

As customer experience professionals, both CoS and UX are storytellers. We weave together branded narratives in which the user is the hero and their objective is conversion and brand activation. More importantly, we combine a deep understanding of user needs, attitudes, and behaviors with personalization technology to ensure the world adapts around this narrative, their actions, and their expectations.

Both UX and CoS share a common objective: to ensure this story is told at each step with messaging that resonates and in a form that engages the user. So we endeavor to answer these questions:

  • What story do we want to tell?
  • What can we learn about the user as they participate in the story?       
  • How can we adapt the story to each individual user with uniquely tailored content and messaging?
  • In what form can we best tell the story and how does it evolve over time, channel and context?

The Essence of Storytelling

So what do we mean by storytelling? A story begins with the user becoming aware of a brand, evaluating that brand, purchasing a product or service, using the product and ultimately becoming a brand advocate. This story may cross multiple channels from web to store to mobile, but the messages must feel consistent throughout.

In order to deliver on brand expectations, each “channel” experience has to be seamless. This requirescreating an emotional connection with your audience at each touch point, to inspire them to explore further. 

Learning About Your Audience 

There’s an old adage, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”  In this case, not knowing your audience can definitely hurt you, since you won’t know how to develop a meaningful conversation (or narrative) with the people you want to reach. 

With this in mind, you’ll want to collect information at 3 levels:

  • Regional or cultural needs
  • Group needs
  • Individual user needs

Regional personalization focuses on culture at a broader level.  The group level identifies more specific product behaviors or needs.  Finally, you’ll want to understand individual user needs based on preferences, social commentary, ratings and behaviors (pages viewed, search patterns, purchase data, and wish lists).  

For every piece of data we collect, the user must believe that they will receive commensurate value in return.  And, we have to deliver that value in all relevant areas of the narrative.  For example, if the user orders a shirt in “Small,” then every time they see another shirt, the default size should automatically be selected as “Small.”  Moreover, similar shirts should be promoted on the site based on the preference they have expressed through their purchase. Every piece of information should continue to further personalize their experience. 

These user profiles will evolve over time as more information on behavior is captured from preferences, social commentary, ratings, etc. 

Personalizing the Story  

With user profiles and their unique behaviors in hand, it’s time to develop messaging for each audience to ensure an engaging experience. This is where CoS starts to analyze each audience, brand positioning and what’s important to convey.   

All of this is communicated with an in-depth Messaging Framework. This framework often includes brand messages, positioning statements, subject lines, text, imagery, videos, script interactions, competitive claims and other story elements—depending on the channel or touch point. Out of this framework, aspects of the story emerge in terms of what to say to each audience group or individual. Key messages are arranged in a hierarchy to surface what’s important and this leads to the next step:  understanding where users are in their journey and the best ways to guide them.   

Structure and Form

Considering all aspects of the user journey, both UX and CoS work together to start mapping a user flow, which specifies entry points where users are likely to engage with the brand.

This collaboration produces wireframes, which reflect a sequence of events paired with messaging to guide users intuitively from one experience to the next. In addition, responsive design comes into play for mobile experiences. In other channels, the storytelling may take a different form, but should remain consistent. For example, targeted emails lead various user segments to more in-depth web pages to tell the complete story. However, social posts need to carry the same message in a more concise statement for instant engagement. That’s where wireframes and user flows are critical to understand the best way to connect each experience with a strong story.

During story development, a mechanism should be put into place to capture further insights and collect direct feedback from users. This is key to evolving the story. Were users allowed to continue their journey with the brand from one experience to the next? Did they find the content they were looking for, purchase easily and share what they discovered on social channels? By analyzing the story based on data, you can evolve the experience and continue to increase user engagement with the brand.

While this may seem like a lot to put in the mix, it’s important to realize that the best storytelling involves a thoughtful strategy along with creative inspiration. If you start with a solid understanding of your audience (data), develop a content strategy (messaging) and create a user journey (flow) based on specific audience needs, you’ll increase user engagement and ensure that your hard earned story will be shared.


This post was authored by Jeannette Tollstrup, and Tyler Klein


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