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The Global Campfire

When cowboys talk to each other on a cattle drive, they say things like, "Hey, Tex, three of the herd went up in them there hills. What say you go drive 'em out?"

"Will do, partner. After that, we should stop and water 'em along the crick."

During the work day, mere data is exchanged. This workday data exchange might be analogous to a multiuser, Lotus Notes collaboration. But at night, around the fire, stories are told. It's the stories that the cowboys will remember after the drive, not the daily exchange of data. Data is denotative. Stories are visceral and emotional. Stories effect our entire beings, not just our minds.

And which stories will be remembered the longest? Which stories will be loved the most? Which stories will "succeed"? For the stories to succeed, they first have to be interesting (read: good content). For the stories to succeed, they also have to be told in the native tongue of the listeners (read: no JavaScript errors). And finally, for the stories to succeed, they have to be told, well, in a compelling, mature, engaging narrative voice.

Obviously, marketing on the Web is different than telling stories around a cattle-drive campfire. But although the media differ, the tenets of storytelling are much the same. If all you're going to do at the Volkswagen Web site is display text that says, "0–50 in 6.8 seconds. Front and rear wheel brakes. Standard passenger side air bags," then that's the equivalent of sitting around the campfire saying, "Tex, remember when those cows went behind that hill and I told you to get them and then you went and got them and brought them back? Boy, that sure was something." Boring. Mere exchange of data. Boring, Sidney, Boring. No sense of narrative, no suspense building, no foreshadowing, no climax.

And yet we think that if we just exchange accurate, presentable data on the Web, we've gotten the job done. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is the Web a global network of connected computers? No, that's the Internet. Is the Web Hypertext Transfer Protocol? Well, technically. But if the Web is to be understood as a communications medium (the only useful way to understand it), then it must be more than computers talking to each other. Otherwise, mere data exchange would succeed. But the Web is not a global network of connected computers. The Web is a global network of connected people. And storytelling is still the most effective way to emotionally impact people.

What does this have to do with marketing? Well, isn't the goal of marketing to emotionally impact people? And haven't television commercials naturally evolved into what are now really just ministories? There is a scene in Dumb and Dumber in which our moronic protagonists are both reduced to tears at the end of a 60-second commercial "story." Funny stuff, but also a case in point: Commercials seek to "move" us emotionally in as short a time as possible. If you don't believe me, think back to the Olympics advertising and you'll recall plenty of tear-jerking spiels that prove my point.

Each of these TV commercials has a narrative voice. The "Make 7-Up Yours" ads are detached and sardonic. The new ads against teen smoking are earnest, hip, and realistic. Most luxury car commercials are epic, sweeping, and mythical. Were all these narrative voices present back in the 1950s when TV was in its infancy? Of course not. TV spent a good deal of its first few years figuring out that it wasn't radio. But now TV advertising has evolved to include its own arsenal of mature narrative voices.

And then there's the Web. We are back where TV was in the 1950s. Many of us are just now realizing that the Web is not a database. Some of us still don't get it. And now here I am saying that we need to develop several mature narrative voices for the medium of the commercial Web. Yep, that's what I'm saying. I'd love to explore the nuances of what these new media narrative voices might sound like. But right now, let it suffice to say as clearly and emphatically as possible that we, as Web designers, have little or no concept of narrative voice, and this lack of narrative awareness is killing our sites.

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