Understanding Narrative to Create More Effective E-Commerce Videos

Marketers need to understand basic storytelling skills in order to feature effective online video. You don’t need to be an expert, but a quick overview of the importance of storytelling goes a long way to finding and creating effective video.

To understand a bit more about why storytelling is important, check out this clip from a Beet.tv interview with Chris Anderson, where he describes online video as a reinvention of the spoken word.

Basically, storytelling is so crucial because it’s how people relate to each other. For thousands of years, people have shared their experiences through telling stories. That’s why Aesop and Hans Christian Andersen are so important – they wrote down important parables about what it means to be human. Telling stories around the campfire is another example of how we still share stories with each other.

Today’s modern storytellers use video as their medium. And, given the fact that we have such a long history with storytelling, it’s easy to see how we are just in the earliest days of effective storytelling with video.

For marketers, this presents an opportunity. Even the most basic and utilitarian of product videos can easily include critical storytelling elements, which will make your videos connect with your audience better. This adds tremendous value to the entire buying experience. Customers can read about features and benefits from the copy on your site easily. So, by adding video that creates a human connection, you create another trigger to encourage conversion.

Your video story does not need to be complicated to be effective. But it should adhere to the traditional narrative structure in order to be effective. Narrative structure is divided into three sections:

  1. Set up: All of the characters are introduced, as well as the main problem.
  2. Conflict: As a result of the problem, something happens which causes characters to go through some change.
  3. Resolution: A series of events causes the conflict to come to a peak. After this point, the story is ready for an ending.

Since most of the action happens in the “conflict” section, let’s review the main types of narrative conflict:

  1. Man vs. Self: Where the protagonist struggles against their own nature. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a good example of this type of conflict.
  2. Man vs. Society: The main character fights against some societal tradition. Think Bend it Like Beckham.
  3. Man vs. Nature: The character goes up against nature itself. Think about The Day After Tomorrow, or Into the Wild.
  4. Man vs. Machine/Technology: The machine becomes smart enough to threaten people. The Matrix is a classic example.
  5. Man vs. Fate: The character has a destiny laid out for him, but he fights against that. Back to the Future Part II is a great example of this type of conflict.

Whether you are creating a feature-length film or a 30-second ad, the same narrative structure and narrative conflict applies. Just to prove it, let’s look at how this ShamWow commercial is really a traditional narrative. Take a look at this video if you haven’t seen it before:

So, let’s review the three main acts of this commercial:

  1. Set up: Vince introduces himself and the ShamWow. That’s all of the characters.
  2. Conflict: Vince explains how liquid can get spilled on carpets, floors, countertops, etc. He also talks about the high cost of paper towel. OK, it’s not life-threatening, but it is a conflict. Then, he showcases the ShamWow, and its ability to intervene in any spill situation. Of course, the narrative conflict is obviously “man vs. fate” – are you destined to live with spills? Or will you fight against them by using the ShamWow?
  3. Resolution: The conflict reaches a peak, and Vince provides the resolution: order your own ShamWow!

Every video should contain these basic storytelling elements. You can even use this structure to select the best user-generated video to feature. Or, you can determine which video content to use from manufacturers based on whether there is a basic narrative structure in place.

Understanding the importance of narrative in online video will help you evaluate how and where to use video for your own content.