How to Keep Your Audience Interested by Writing Long-Term Story Arcs

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You know it, I know it, and even if you’re as cynical as I am about shiny marketing fads, you probably realize that our lives ultimately revolve around stories.

Human beings are wired for story.

Stories really are how we make sense of the world.

In my role as Content Manager for ProBlogger, I think quite a bit about what makes a good story. If you’re a normal human being with any interest in others, you probably already have a good instinctive sense of story.

But we can always do better. Something I’ve been experimenting with for various clients — including ProBlogger — is the use of continuing story arcs over more than just a single piece of content.

Let me show you what I mean …

Warning: this is not rocket science

Any time you’ve read or heard the words “following [Name’s] journey in [topic]” — on tv, online, wherever — you’re seeing a longer-term story arc in action.

If you’re old enough to remember The Brady Bunch (I can’t believe I just wrote that!), you might remember their trip to Hawaii, when the villainous tiki Greg wore surfing knocked him off his board onto some rocks right at the end of on episode. All night, I wondered about Greg, who stayed beneath the waves until 4pm the next day, when the next episode aired.

That kind of engagement is what we want to achieve using storylines.

Consciously developing key storylines through your ongoing, rather than one-shot, marketing efforts acts like glue, sticking readers to your blog, social media accounts, and other communications.

We really do see it online all the time:

  • In the pre-launch for a product, for example, the warm-up content is the lead-up to the story’s climax
  • The launch itself is the main action of the story
  • And the eventual denouement unfolds in post-launch press, the brand’s fame, and its positioning as expert in its niche

So we can use it on a campaign basis. But writers working on brands for the longer term can use this idea to develop stronger loyalty over time.

How a story arc works

Let me walk you through a very basic example that shows how using a story arc can add real value to your content marketing plan.

ProBlogger relies heavily on guest posts, which is something that founder Darren Rowse decided to implement as a means to open up opportunities for other bloggers.

That’s great, but that focus doesn’t lend itself to making the most of story. To put it another way, you could come to the blog on any day of the week, and learn something great from a single post. The blog is a valuable source of one-shot information. But aside from thinking “I need to up my blog income; wonder if ProBlogger has any suggestions,” you may not have a desire to come back to the blog on a regular basis.

This is the old version of marketing communications: we cause the audience to associate the brand with a need, and when that need arises, the audience thinks of our brand.

Using storylines within single articles is a good way to develop a brand, but to truly move beyond this need-solution perspective, the audience needs to engage with what contemporary marketers are so fond of calling “the brand story” — the actual story of what’s happening to the brand persona over time.

This is the new version of marketing communications: we create an emotional connection with readers (through story) that causes them to naturally wonder about our brand, and that entices them to come back and check out the latest installment of that brand story.

To do this, the story has to transcend the medium, time, and campaign. It means that as marketers and writers, we need to construct stories, and execute them, in a continual way, and in a way that evolves in real time, along with the market and the audience.

Here are some of the ways we’ve done that at ProBlogger.

A series of articles

Yep, the good old series can give readers a reason to come back day after day, or week after week, depending on how you schedule the posts.

We frequently run series on topics we know segments of our audience are interested in, using exclusively guest posts.

Cross-promotion

Another no-brainer: promote your series in other media. With a guest post on another site. In a video interview. On social media. Through advertising.

If you’re creative about it, those integrated promotions can add to the story. For example, Darren might add to the narrative around a guest post series by tweeting about a post he learned something new from, and explaining what he’s done as a result of it.

For a short-run series, that kind of cross-promotion would happen simultaneously: the post is published, Darren tweets about it within the next 12 hours, say.

But for longer-running stories, like the Queensland Blogging Event that ran earlier this year, the social discussion can be drawn out over a much longer time period.

Spinoffs

Keeping the discussion going around a given story line is a lot easier if you’re prepared to do it in your own posts — and this is something that we do at ProBlogger quite a lot.

For example, earlier in the year we ran a little feature on niche blogging.

This was one of our “weekend project” series, which are intended to provide a storyline for an entire weekend of posts. This is one attempt to use story to keep readers coming back over what are commonly more quiet times on the blog.

As a result of some of the comments on those posts, Darren decided to keep the niche storyline flowing, and followed up with a post on writing for a diverse audience.

The comments on that post generated a subsequent post that went further into the nuances of the topic. Since we hadn’t anticipated the extra piece, and thus hadn’t been able to preempt it by a mention in the first post, we named it similarly to the first, in order to flag our readers that this discussion was ongoing.

The results are born out in the comments, where readers acknowledge that they’re enjoying the ongoing discussion, and those who missed the first installment comment that they’re off to read it next.

The #QLDBLOG story

I mentioned earlier the Queensland Blogging adventure that Darren hosted earlier in the year. This was a big story for ProBlogger and its readers, and we used a traditional story arc to help engage our audience with it over time:

That’s a pretty standard story arc. And you can see how this kind of story — which isn’t related to a direct “need” to do with pro blogging — would stick in someone’s imagination, luring them back to the site in order to find out what’s happened to the story since the last installment.

We didn’t want to lose the momentum of that story, so Darren posted from the event itself:

The social discussion through this story was ongoing, providing real-time additions and nuances that are invaluable in real-world stories, and help bring reality to what might otherwise have seemed overly crafted story components.

Finally, later in the year, we ran a series that provided a sort of epilogue to the main story. It showed how the bloggers who went on the trip had applied what they’d learned in their own blogs. This follow-up series rounded out the main story by drawing it back to the key tenets of the ProBlogger brand.

(Also, if you look at that post, you’ll note that it continued another story we’d been exploring on the blog, about networking and the importance of people in pro blogging success.)

Make your stories last

These are just a few ideas for implementing continuing storylines, as opposed to continually creating one-shot articles for your site.

Create ongoing stories around the key themes of your brand, and you’ll have a continuous source of ideas for content, promotions, and communications that work together to build brand engagement and loyalty over time.

How are you using, or building story arcs in your communications? I’d love to hear about your techniques in the comments.

About the Author: Georgina Laidlaw is a freelance content developer, and Content manager for problogger.net.  She lives in the countryside near Melbourne, Australia. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Wow!

    This is an amazing piece of content. Will apply the tips stated here

    Thanks Georgina

  2. This is exactly what I’m doing with my new blog http://www.dylanbredengerd.com. I get a lot of emails from people I mentor personally, and those emails form the basis for a lot of my content! More often then not the email conversations continue for a while, forming a great story arc. Why not turn those personal communications into content? Surely SOMEONE else has need of the the conclusions we arrive at.

    • I’m developing the “24” of blogs. Think about that show: They discovered the perfect formula for creating “entertainment crack cocaine.” Talk about a story arc! My wife and I got addicted after the show had stopped airing, and thank goodness! We were watching 3 and 4 episodes a night on Netflix! I don’t know how you people ever waited an entire week between episodes when it was on TV! And this from a guy who isn’t into television.

  3. Georgina, I really enjoyed reading about the use of story arcs in blog writing. This is a concept I really hadn’t thought about before. On my blog, I aim for a monthly topic that I approach from a different angle in a weekly post. Would that be a form of a story arc?

  4. Hello, Georgina,

    The concepts here are both easy to understand and to integrate directly into my blog which I appreciate. However, this does not mean that that they are simple, you have just made complex ideas easy, a sign of a strong writer.

    Your phrase “niche storyline” is novel for me, and I love the psychology and appeal behind it. By hitting that niche in an ongoing story, you are able to practice positive SEO strategies while engaging the reader in the long term. The longer duration facilitates a a profound level of intimacy with readers, which is so important because your niche story has drawn in your ideal reader, from a marketing point of view.

    Maintaining the level of excitement or engagement in the schedule of your serial posts accomplishes your goal of getting clients to return, draws the reader into the brand story, and intensifies the intimacy. I think the idea of creating tension or conflict is valuable because it drives all stories.

    In literature, for example, a story without the tension that builds and eventually releases, fails to function for the reader and ends up being a waste of time. In terms of the niche storyline, readers will not return to your piece, nor will you be able to achieve intimacy and connection.

    If the connection and intimacy wither, not only are you left without a story, but without a client as well. Thank you for a great post!

    Darin

  5. Mickey Spillane said, “The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” He was absolutely right, and the man retained a loyal reader following that he was still writing for to his dying breath. What you’ve presented here is a great tutorial for using story arcs to advance your business and brand. Love it!

  6. Thanks for this – I like the way you have given us several routes to achieving the extension of interest. The series of articles was an obvious starting point, but I already have a couple of ideas for the sprinoff route.

  7. Really enjoyed this, I just hadn’t thought of a connection between story arc and blogging, thanks for the tips.

  8. I like the idea of story arcs. I’m not very good at them, but I try to employ them in my blog writing. I try to do this with my cornerstone content each quarter. I try to put together a series of post centered around my core business. What I’m not doing well, is building the narrative or arc between post. Good idea and love the Queensland arc idea.
    Thanks!

  9. This is great Georgina!

    It’s so easy to think only in terms of single posts and completely miss opportunities like having an overarching story.

    I guess an added bonus is that even if people come to the story late, there’s a good chance they’ll go back and do a “series catch-up” from the start of the arc? Which can only help increase the shelf-life of those earlier posts…

    On a micro-scale I’ve used a similar approach on Twitter in the past. I was involved in promoting a short series of comedy videos for the BBC by tweeting as the main character (a famous historical figure inexplicably transported into modern times).

    Although the videos were self-contained episodes, we found we could create separate little stories in real-time on Twitter and let them unfold organically. The character’s followers would chip in with comments and advice and we’d let them influence the story, which they absolutely loved.

    In fact his reported adventures on Facebook and Twitter got much better levels of engagement than the original videos did.

    And the great thing was that these stories could go absolutely anywhere because we weren’t filming them – just relating them on Twitter. So we could let our imaginations run riot.

    People love stories. And they really love stories they can be part of!

    Glen

    • Glen, I agree—social media is a great place to hook people into a story arc, whether the story’s wholly contained within that social network, taking place on your site, or taking place in your life :)

  10. It’s true! Stories are everywhere in our lives. I’ve wanted to rename this age we’re in the Age of Narrativism instead of postmodernism, but that’s another topic.

    I’m running a theology blog that is highly informational, but I’ve integrated my own story into the information as well as the story of the typical Christian sex-addict. This has been very effective in bringing people back to the blog as well as thumbing through several posts in the first visit.

    Thanks for giving me more ideas to implement story into my blog!

  11. Thanks for this great post. I’ve got it bookmarked for reference and will start implementing tips right away!

  12. How would you incorporate story lines into a impersonal blog. For example a companies blog?

    • You’re company sells a product or a service to a person with a personal story. Figure out how your company is making your customers’ lives better and tell those stories. You’re customers are a goldmine of content!

    • Problogger is essentially a company blog, the examples Georgina shared weren’t personal ones.

      As Dylan says, you can also share stories about clients.

      Finally, you can use a mini analogy story like I did here, to get the reader pulled in and involved: http://www.copyblogger.com/digital-sharecropping/

    • Yep, Trevor, there are stories everywhere: within the industry in which the company blog operates, within the company itself, and within the relationships it builds with others (clients, partners/suppliers, peers, etc.). So there are lots of opportunities for story arcs there :)

  13. People love to read stories. It is a great idea to use storylines to get readers engaged. I like your Queensland Blogging adventure example. I am planning a free seminar with Christmas prize draw for our members. I will apply the same strategy and see how it works :-)

  14. I love the idea of story arcs. it’s an idea of I’ve sorta-kinda tried to incorporate into some of my blog posts, but never to the extent you have detailed. What great insight.

    I will be keeping this concept in mind as I continue to grow my blog. Thanks for the well thought out article.

    Cheers!

  15. I make very long video series’ on YouTube, each with its own central theme. However, every video is a complete story in and of itself.

  16. Thank you for a great idea Georgina. I hadn’t considered that approach.. Your six post template is a very useful guide for future arcs. Adding that sixth post re the live commentary is a great add on, and shows that by considering what tools we have available at any given time we may improve what we have even more. We could apply a mind map to this.and who knows what benefits could develop?

  17. I noticed that on ProBlogger Georgina.

    I think the biggest takeaway is a REMINDER THAT STORIES WORK! Great of thrashing it out. Looking forward to more on this. I also just happen to love the term “story arc”; has a grand feel to it, no? :P

    All the best :)

  18. This is great. Can’t wait to use the story arc in my marketing for 2013!

  19. I like this. Screenwriting is one of my passions, so I am always thinking in story arcs. I’ll try and incorporate more of this when I market my blog.

  20. Multi-part series really do provide a lot of benefits — not only do they keep the audience tuning next for the next thrilling chapter of the story, but they also allow the writer to take some time and go into depth instead of hurriedly skating through the material. They can even form the bare bones of a future book, e-book or full-blown multimedia course. I usually preface the whole thing with an introductory post laying out the expectations for what’s to come. To me, this serves as the big setup for the story — the “once upon a time,” if you will.