Building a successful online store in today's hyper-competitive ecommerce landscape requires more than an attractive website, a nice product display and easy checkout. When a customer reaches your shopping cart, it's often after he or she has encountered your brand throughout a long journey filled with multiple stops and detours.

In the past, users followed a linear path to a purchase. Consumers today are accustomed to mingling with companies in a multi-channel environment across multiple platforms. Captive audiences are a thing of the past, which makes brand storytelling vital to distinguishing your brand in a crowded marketplace.

Optimize customer affinity, not just selling processes

Many retailers make the mistake of focusing only on the functionality of online shopping. Inventory, transactions, pricing, promotions and delivery are all critical to success, but merchants often forget the importance of creating an emotional connection with customers and aligning them with the company's selling efforts.

Linking a brand to the emotional goals of consumers is challenging for many merchants, particularly when the products they sell don't easily ignite the imagination. For example, many power tool manufacturers do a poor job of storytelling, instead focusing most of their energies on the end stage of the customer journey. So what type of storytelling do people want to hear about a hammer? The answer is often found by examining your customers.

Look for stories in your customer's needs

On the surface, there may be nothing particularly inspiring about a hammer, but when you listen carefully to customers, opportunities for great storytelling will emerge. One customer may like your hammer because it's the same one he used to mend fences with his father during childhood. Another shopper might be an aspiring carpenter who is just starting her own business. Listen carefully to your customers and discover their motivations, fears and aspirations. By aligning your brand with what drives customers, you will find the right emotional ties to link your products with their lives.

Vary your approach and focus on authenticity

Good storytellers have to vary their approach in order to keep customers engaged. Simply rehashing the same story over and over will bore them and cause your brand to lose its credibility.

Authenticity should be your primary goal in every piece of storytelling you share, even more so than polish and glamor. Content is only productive when there is a payoff for the audience, so it must be relevant, interesting, informative or entertaining without fail. When plotting out your content calendar, look at each story through the eyes of your customers and assess the quality. Is there a genuine benefit? Is it repetitious? Is it relevant, interesting and authentic? Audiences are very aware of brands that are only interested in selling them stuff, and those brands are easily ignored. Companies that offer real value in exchange for a moment of the customer's attention provides a reason to come back. Authenticity makes all the difference.

Show, don't tell

Successful brands understand that storytelling isn't a marketing tactic; it's the basis of every communication they share with the world, including the way they describe themselves online. Businesses that struggle with storytelling are often stuck in the mindset of trying to tell the world how great they are. Their websites boast of amazing accomplishments, brag about the length of time they've been in business, and offer empty platitudes about great service. This approach fails to make any real connection with customers and sometimes actually turns them off.

Good storytelling brands do not tell people how great their products and services are. They show them by demonstrating an acute understanding of the customer's problems and how their products solve them. All communication – visual, aural and written – should make it clear how your products enrich people's lives and help them overcome challenges that stand in the way of their goals.

Good storytelling is a learned skill that cannot be perfected overnight. Merchants can only discover what works for them by testing different content types, analyzing the results and evolving with the changing interests of consumers. Storytelling is the key to creating an emotional bond with people online, and with it comes real brand equity.

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