The Digital Storytelling Handbook How to tell stories that delight your audience and make an impact for your brand.

Microsoft Source

PART 1 Why do corporate storytelling?

1.1 The enduring power of storytelling

Throughout the history of humanity, there has been one simple truth: We are the stories we tell.

From pictures scratched into cave walls to oral histories whispered around a fire to Super Bowl ads streamed on a smartphone, dramatic narratives are what catch our attention and enter the very cores of our beings to mold our decisions and the lives we lead.

Stories engage our intellect, our emotion and our senses. They’re the best way to help us absorb and remember information. Providing data and details is important and necessary, but on its own, it doesn’t demand anyone’s attention or compel us to do anything. Information can be hard to digest without the sugar of a captivating narrative. “Unless you are a powerful person and people are looking for clues about what you’ll do next, nobody has to read what you write,” columnist Paul Krugman has said. But an interesting story can be impossible to ignore.

NPR aims for “driveway moments,” or stories so intriguing that listeners sit in their cars even after they’ve reached their destinations in order to hear the end.

An analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials showed that the structure of the ad, more than its content, was what determined its success with viewers. It found the most popular ads were the ones that told stories using Freytag’s Pyramid, a structure including climax and resolution that can be traced back to Aristotle and was mastered by Shakespeare.

Life in our modern world of short attention spans and tiny screens hasn’t changed our thirst for narrative. Recent research by the American Press Institute shows that long stories (more than 1,200 words) not only get more engagement, more social media referrals and more page views, but also that they’re also read thoroughly, as much on smartphones as any other devices. A Pew Research Center study shows that mobile users spend more than twice the amount of time reading long-form stories than shorter ones.

"Stories connect us through shared experiences."

Stories connect us through shared experiences. They draw us in. They inspire us to imagine together. They help us authenticate the information that lies within. They move us to act. In short, they are the most influential way to communicate. And corporations that communicate well are the ones that persuade and succeed.

Why we wrote this

At Microsoft Source – the company’s umbrella organization for digital communications with consumers, press and influencers — we’re good at what we do, and we want to share what we’ve learned.

Since the late 1990s, Microsoft has dedicated website space to running feature stories, videos, podcasts and more about company and customer news. Our job is to create authentic, powerful and visually creative accounts of people inside and outside the company who inspire the world to appreciate Microsoft.

In this guide, we hope to inform and inspire storytellers both inside and outside Microsoft.

1.2 Setting you up for success

To become a corporate storyteller, a company must shatter its old molds for content marketing. Before the advent of digital technology, one principal goal for most marketing departments was to land “earned” media stories, leaning on traditional PR sensibilities to do outreach via press releases, buddy mail and personal relationships.

All that still matters. Microsoft continues to seek to land earned stories in news outlets, as should all organizations. At the same time, corporate PR has a new set of tools, and successful organizations will use everything in their toolbox.

Today, we all have the ability to tell our own stories. You simply have to build that journalistic muscle within your corporate communications staff. If you’re going to tell your own story, you must do it professionally and authentically.

Good corporate stories walk a fine line to accomplish a lot. They need to hew to a deliberate marketing strategy but remain authentic to attract consumers suspicious of sales tactics. They need to be true but focus on truths that serve the company. They need to be informative but not dry, emotionally appealing but not theatrical.

Wastebasket with megaphone in it
A megaphone

The best corporate stories focus on people and not a company’s products or services. They make customers and the people who inspire us the heroes. Instead of promoting a company message, corporate stories often use literary elements to tell a compelling story that holds attention and stands out in a sea of headlines, stories and tweets.

"The best corporate stories focus on people and not a company’s products or services. They make customers and the people who inspire us the heroes."

In this handbook, you will learn how modern audiences consume content and how to translate your corporate message into relatable stories. We will share emerging formats for digital storytelling and tactics to tell the best corporate story. We will offer a blueprint for your corporate newsroom, strategies to tailor content to your audience, a plan to incorporate visual assets and tips on how to partner with your stakeholders through the art of the story.

1.3 Storytelling’s role in modern marketing

As more people block ads, skip commercials, reject mass emails and generally ignore intrusive promotions, content marketing has risen as a key strategy to reach consumers tired of traditional marketing. Content marketing creates original material that is designed to resonate with a target audience and drive profitable customer action. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are providing useful content to your prospects and customers to help them solve their problems.

Rather than blasting a broad message on “outbound” channels such as print, radio or TV, content marketing involves creating and distributing content on a company’s own channels, such as websites and blogs.

Successful content marketing requires good storytelling because it relies on content that connects with consumers who want information. Regardless of form — short-form or long-form stories, blog posts, videos, case studies — content must communicate a brand’s mission and draw people in. With expertise in creating narratives that hook an audience and expand understanding, storytellers have become essential in marketing.

These skills are in such demand that the number of marketers worldwide who list storytelling as a skill on LinkedIn has grown from zero in 2011 to 570,000 in 2017, according to a recent LinkedIn post by marketing expert Jason Miller. Storytelling has become so embedded in advertising and marketing that the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 launched a juried award for branded storytelling. 

There’s still a place for press releases, display ads and other forms of conventional corporate communications. But the decline and fragmentation of traditional media has prompted many companies to sidestep publishers and tell their own stories directly to consumers. The ascent of social media and the glut of content vying for clicks have made well-told stories even more important in engaging consumers before they scroll away.

“As a marketer, telling a story doesn’t just mean sharing what your brand has done,” Miller wrote in the LinkedIn post. “It involves a deep understanding of your audience and their emotions that enables you to craft a narrative that appeals on a deeply human level.”

For many companies, content marketing has generated growing returns on investment, including three times more leads per dollar spent than created by traditional outbound marketing, according to marketing advisers Demand Metric and marketing educator Content Marketing Institute.

At Microsoft, our feature stories, which are published worldwide, have been viewed more than 45 million times so far in 2019 alone. Readers spend more time on Story Labs, our venue for long-form, interactive and experimental stories, than anything else on the news site.

PC screen showing Microsoft story

PART 2 The art of corporate storytelling

2.1 Get real

To be effective, storytelling should deal with real people speaking and behaving realistically.

Take for example this Microsoft Transform story about JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, a business that uses Microsoft 365 to help U.S. veterans with business ownership. It uses engaging details, quotes, images and people to give a real-life context.

The story opens by describing a challenge faced by U.S. Army reservist Andrew Weins, who served in Iraq and now hauls away clutter:

“The operation: remove a bulky restaurant oven from a cramped kitchen. Do it safely and swiftly, with military precision. Andrew Weins led the extraction. The plan was his.”

It includes quotes from Jerry Flanagan, an Army veteran who’s enthused about helping other service members find purpose after returning from war. There’s a larger context of real-world problems of veteran disabilities and unemployment. Microsoft 365 is mentioned only briefly, low in the story, and there’s no corporate jargon. Instead, the language is clear, conversational and human:

“We don’t have retail locations. We work out of our trucks and at our kitchen tables,” says JDog founder Flanagan. “(Workers are) all on the road, working from their mobile devices all day to book jobs. So Microsoft 365 is a very mobile, very simple, very effective way of doing business.”

The story both delivered the message and resonated with readers, becoming one of the best-performing stories on the Transform blog. These successful stories employ anecdotes that demonstrate how technology can solve problems, rather than just telling us what can be done. And they are written in language that’s strong, specific, and simple but not simplistic.

"Pick your words carefully. It’s your job to simplify and clarify so your words can go directly into the reader’s brain."

So keep the marketing message subtle. Make sure your language is clear and colloquial. Eliminate jargon and computer-industry boilerplate. Buzzwords like “impactful” and “innovative” indicate the writer hasn’t stepped out of the role of corporate marketer and into the role of storyteller.

In short, pick your words carefully, and make every word tell. It’s your job to simplify and clarify so that your words can go directly into the reader’s brain. That’s hard, humbling work. Do it well and be proud.

2.2 Be truthful

In business, readers don’t want fairy tales. They need to be able to trust what they’re reading and to rely on it when making decisions. Tread carefully when it comes to trustworthiness. Once lost, it’s hard to regain.

As you begin your story, think about why your reader should care. You only get one chance to grab someone’s attention and compel her to keep reading. What will captivate? Find an artful way to include that in the first paragraph and the headline. Why is this piece being written now? Why does it matter? Be sure to at least tacitly address these questions in a “nut” paragraph up high. Don’t force readers to page down for it, because most of them won’t. Find a way to tease the purpose of your story up top, even if you wait until later to really lay it out, to engage your audience and convince them to give you their precious time and keep reading.

Stories are about dramatic change. There’s buildup and climax and resolution.  But since we’re not writing Shakespearean plays, get to the point quickly. The first page is pricey real estate. Don’t weigh it down with history.

Above all, write like a human. Avoid jargon and bizspeak. Write as if you’re telling your story to a friend or family member who isn’t familiar with the topic. And write as if that person is rushing out the door and you need to grab their attention to relay a message without wasting their time. The guiding principle of every successful story is that it shows us something, delivering anecdotes that demonstrate how technology can solve problems, rather than just telling us what can be done. And it’s written in language that’s strong, specific, and simple but not simplistic.

Many readers will be skeptical of a piece when they realize it’s a corporate story and may assume certain things are inflated, glossed over or left out. So when possible, disarm them with honesty and sincerity. Don’t shy away from difficult issues. Rather, take the opportunity to truthfully frame them the way you want them to be understood.

One way to demonstrate integrity is by sticking to the “Show, don’t tell” mantra. Provide demonstrable proof in stories to back up their claims. Artfully weave in relevant data and third-party studies wherever possible. Transparency is key. It may seem counterintuitive, but studies have shown that news organizations following a rigorous practice of issuing public corrections are more trusted than those that either don’t fix errors or that make changes online without acknowledging them.

How does this translate to the corporate world? For the most part, companies won’t issue corrections to their stories, so they need to get them right the first time. Most corporate storytelling goes through a multi-person review process, so there’s ample opportunity to ensure everything is correct before a piece is published. If mistakes are made anyway, it’s critical to correct them quickly before they spread, especially given the lightning speed of social media. If a product or project has faced challenges, a compelling story will find a way to acknowledge those –— lending conflict and climax to the piece — and provide resolution. This not only offers an authentic experience for the reader but also an emotional one that can inspire loyalty.

Microsoft feature stories page on laptop screen
Family in India has a meal together

2.3 Put people first

The stories that grab us are the ones about people — things people have done, ways they’ve transformed something, obstacles they’ve surmounted, help they’ve given or received. They include classic story elements such as conflict and resolution, challenge and victory. A customer has a problem that an employee solves. An employee overcomes a personal challenge. A team comes together to meet an unsolved social need.

Almost any story, whether it’s about a wonky policy issue or a cool new app, is more compelling when told through a human lens. This helps illustrate why a topic matters and how it affects real people. It makes the story relatable and breathes life into what otherwise might be a dry, impersonal read.

An anecdotal lede — a beginning to the story that uses a short vignette to illustrate what the article is about — is often used to help humanize your story. This approach was made famous by The Wall Street Journal. (The word is pronounced “leed” and is spelled “wrong” to make it distinctive.)

Here’s an example of an anecdotal lede on a story about a Microsoft researcher who built a prototype watch that can short-circuit the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease:

“The gift arrives in the nervous hands of its inventor. She aches for her creation to work. If it does, one life will change immediately, and maybe thousands of lives will change later. She’s wrapped the box in glitter paper. Because Emma Lawton adores all things sparkly. The inventor, Haiyan Zhang, 39, hands over the box. Then she holds her breath.”

This sets the stage and draws the reader in. It signals that something big, possibly life-changing, is at stake. It tells readers enough to pique their interest and create suspense. What is the gift? Who is Emma, and why is she receiving it? What did the inventor create? Readers can’t help but read on.

So how do you find and develop stories that put people first and humanize an issue?

"Upbeat stories are great. But not every issue in life is totally and happily resolved, and the best stories acknowledge that. Stories in which technology conquers all obstacles are hard to believe. "

Stories abound in the workplace, and your work contacts can be great sources for ideas. Ask what’s going on in their departments and whether there’s anything that might make for an interesting story. Look at areas your organization is focusing on. Read company blogs, websites and employee newsletters to look for story ideas. Keep your eyes and ears open all the time. Stories can be found in unlikely places.

Keep a list of customers who are using your services in interesting ways or to change the world. People outside the organization provide third-party validation and authenticity. If you’re writing a story about a new service or product, don’t just talk with the employee who oversees it. Find a customer who’s using the service and can tell you why it’s important.

During the interview, ask open-ended questions to elicit the detail and emotion that makes for rich and compelling stories, such as:

  • How did you feel when that happened?
  • What prompted you to do X?
  • Did you encounter any challenges or obstacles along the way?
  • What was it like to accomplish X?
  • Can you tell me about the day when X happened?

Upbeat stories are great, but try not to be maudlin, trite or predictable. Not every issue in life is totally and happily resolved, and the best stories acknowledge that. Stories in which technology conquers all obstacles are hard to believe.

2.4 Tailor content to the audience

Write the story with its intended audience in mind. Will it appear on an internal site for employees? If so, for which group of employees — engineers, administrative assistants, marketers? Is it intended for a specific geographic location or a worldwide workforce? Or will it be published on an external-facing site, and if so, is it one aimed at fans or at a broad readership that includes skeptics?

If the answer is “all of the above,” don’t despair. In the hands of a skilled writer, a story can appeal to technophiles and technophobes alike, and it’s a good general practice to write for as broad an audience as possible. Avoid acronyms or abbreviations that a reader would not quickly recognize. Readers move on if they get to a sentence with words they don’t understand or can’t pronounce — even if they’re reading silently. Likewise, they’re turned off by overly explanatory writing that feels beneath them.

It’s important for a writer to understand the mission of an assignment before taking it on. Some pieces are intended not for the public but for a specific group, and they should be produced accordingly. If, for example, a blog post is aimed at an audience of engineers, the writing should assume a certain level of technological familiarity. It may be key to quote experts they will recognize and respect.

Once the audience has been identified, consider what the story needs to accomplish. The goal might be to prompt readers to take action of some sort. It might be to promote a certain company or an organization’s culture. Or it might be simply to inform readers in an engaging way.

2.5 Grab attention with ledes and "nut grafs"

After the headline, the first sentence, or lede, is the most powerful tool to entice a reader to stick with the story. It should evoke emotion or interest. It’s written tightly. It grabs you as a reader.

But soon, a reader needs to understand why the story matters. A “nut graf,” usually found a few paragraphs into a story, delivers the relevant information that readers should take away and engages them in a way that makes them want to keep reading.

As a writer, you don’t have much time for enticing. Consider:

  • People generally lose concentration after 8 seconds, based on a Microsoft study.
  • Microsoft Stories fares much better, but the stats may still surprise you: The average time spent on long-form features from Story Labs is 1 minute and 42 seconds; for regular features, it’s about 1.2 minutes.
  • Adults 18 and older spend less than 2 hours a week viewing news on computers and smartphones.
  • Time spent viewing trending news is even lower: less than a half-hour a week on computers and smartphones.

Don’t let these stats discourage you. Yes, they’re a harsh reality of the modern, time-squeezed, distracted world we live in. But they also challenge us to be the best writers we can be, and crafting strong ledes and nut grafs is a big part of that.

Here’s an example of a straightforward news lede on The AI Blog:

“Microsoft plans to significantly expand its Montreal research lab and has hired a renowned artificial intelligence expert, Geoffrey Gordon, to be the lab’s new research director.”

Right away, you know what the news is: first, that Microsoft is going to expand its Montreal research lab in a big way, and second, that a renowned AI expert has been hired as the lab’s new research director. There is no waiting, no hesitation, no wasted verbiage in the two sentences that make up this lede. Now, here’s an example of a feature lede:

“In an unmarked, windowless building at a confidential location, bad things happen to good hardware.”

That opening from a Microsoft Stories feature not only piques our interest, it makes us hungry for the second paragraph, which is this:

“Surface Pens are forced to scribble nonstop for months. Packaged Surface devices crash hard inside a ‘shock tower.’ And Surface laptops endure a grievous gauntlet — tests mimicking a lifetime of exposure to high heat, deep cold, rain, humidity, dust, fog, chemicals and ultraviolet radiation.”

What is this place? Where is it? We absolutely have to go the third paragraph, where we get the nut graf — that is, the nut, or essence, of the story, telling us what the rest of the story is going to be about.

“Welcome to your device’s darkest nightmare, Microsoft’s reliability lab at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington,” the story says. “At this tech torture chamber, a cadre of engineers and technicians hunt for weakness, stressing every inch of every type of Microsoft product, from hinges to hard drives, keycaps to cases.”

To write a good lede and nut graf, keep in mind what you want your readers to learn. Ask yourself, “If they could remember one thing, what should it be?” and keep the focus on that. This also means you shouldn’t try to tell the whole story in the first few paragraphs. Isolate what you think is the content with the most impact.

"To write a good lede and nut graf, keep in mind what you want your readers to learn. Ask yourself, “If they could remember one thing, what should it be?” and keep the focus on that."

Remember that you don’t have to use all the good stuff at the top of the story. You can return to a person later on in the story and can even end the piece by circling back to the anecdote it opened with — often an effective way to wrap up a story.

Make sure that your lede isn’t too complex. Sometimes ledes are written like a checklist, getting everything you want the reader to know in there. This can make them long and boring and can require the reader to work at understanding the sentences. If readers must decipher information, they’ll have less brain space to think about what you want them to know. Mostly, they’ll just get frustrated and quit reading. That’s a shame if you’ve got an great story to tell.

John McPhee, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New Yorker, wrote a story about ledesPoynter senior scholar Roy Peter Clark, who has been a Pulitzer judge, has reviewed some candidates’ ledes and explained why he liked each one – or rejected it quickly so he and fellow judges could move on to the next entry.

Want to learn more about ledes? Check out this post from NPR about storytelling tips and best practices. You can read more about nut grafs in this Poynter Institute post.

2.6 Sweat the headlines and SEO

Part foghorn, part lighthouse, headlines (also known as heads or heds) are built to rise above a swarming sea of content to convince readers to spend a few precious minutes with the tale you’ve come to tell. Headlines are your story’s loudest voice.

“Headlines are lifelines to our readers,” “They grab attention, build trust and help time-pressed consumers focus on the stories they care most about.”

Some classically great headlines:

  • Small step for man, giant gaffe for NASA
  • Men walk on moon
  • Obama: Racial barrier falls in decisive victory
  • Ford to city: Drop dead

And some dogs (often unintentionally funny):

  • Missippi’s literacy program shows improvement
  • Utah Poison Control Center reminds everyone not to take poison
  • Most earthquake damage is caused by shaking
  • Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons

Headlines should convey three quick messages:

  1. Hey, look here!
  2. Trust me: this is good!
  3. Now click!

Pushing your post in front of readers’ eyes often relies on the deft use of digital storytelling’s most vital acronym, internet SEO (search engine optimization).

Your clever word combination should not only tickle the reader’s interest. It must also strike just the right notes with search engines to match frequent queries and elevate your content to the top of curated story lists.

How do you make your headline SEO friendly? Insert common words or phrases — keywords — to describe your subject, the Poynter Institute advises. If possible, use the proper names of people, places, companies and organizations that might pop up as your readers scan the web. And when citing a name, try to include both the first and last name, because internet searchers typically type both.

Though those are solid guidelines, Poynter also offers a word of caution: “You are writing for readers, not search engines. Sometimes headline writers get carried away with SEO. It’s counterproductive to put these goals ahead of clarity and common sense.”

Clarity, brevity, accuracy and credibility are essential. Headline writers should also aim to span both the serious and whimsical side of storytelling. But if you’re itching to drop in puns or a virtual wink through wordplay, ensure that your catchy headline matches the tone of your topic. Cutesy doesn’t go with somber.

Photo of Matthew Bennett
Example of strong story headline

Shorter heds tend to work better, though it remains unclear exactly how long is too long and how short is just right. Headlines of 90 to 99 characters have the best click-through rate, according to a study by Polar, a branded-content consultant.

But the optimal length depends in part on where you post your story. A study by online marketer HubSpot found that sticking to about 40 characters optimizes the click-through on Facebook, ballooning to 100 characters is best for LinkedIn, and using as many as 130 characters helps you win the day on Twitter, Inc. magazine writes.

Because more than 20 percent of the traffic to Microsoft Stories and blogs is referred by search engines, it’s important to know how information is portrayed in search results. About 60 characters appear in a Google result headline, with another 140 to 165 characters in the descriptions beneath. Snippet tools like this one can help you approximate the appearance of search results pointing to your stories.

A modern story’s measure of success often involves how often readers share it on social channels. If a headline grabs their attention and imagination, some of them will still post, tweet or re-tweet your story, expanding your potential audience, posits PR Daily.

You can try test-marketing your headline before you send it out to the world. CoSchedule Headline Analyzer (sign-up required) is one digital tool to measure how shareable people may find your first words, critiquing whether a hed is too wordy or too negative.

Hasselblad camera
Closeup of Hasselblad camera lens

2.7 Think visually

Less than 1.5 seconds. That’s how long Facebook says people look at a post before scrolling to the next one on their mobile phones. On a desktop newsfeed, that pace slows to a leisurely 1.7 seconds. Either way, our job as storytellers is earn a person’s attention in that sliver of time.

The best way to do that is with a compelling photo. A great photo can act as a “thumbstopper” on a fast-scrolling social news feed or crowded website. It gets the user to pause long enough to read the headline and to start reading the story below.

Sometimes photography doesn’t just support the written word in corporate storytelling — it is the storytelling. From photo-heavy social networks like Facebook and Twitter, to photo-first networks like Instagram and Snapchat, the photo is often the first step a user takes to discovering your content.

People are the heroes of the stories we tell at Microsoft, and by extension, the heroes of the photos we share. People are empowered by the software and hardware tools we make, but their achievements are what we aim to depict.

Though the quality and prevalence of mobile phone cameras has increased dramatically, there is still no substitute for professional photography. The importance of photography to corporate storytelling requires and deserves an investment of dollars, time and attention.

So what makes a photo with impact?

Like the single image used on the front-page of a newspaper, a great photo can tell a story in a single image. They often have these characteristics:

Real People Resist the urge to use stock photography wherever possible. People can smell it a mile away. Instead, focus your imagery on the actual people, places and activity in your story. People won’t just see the difference. They’ll feel it.
Less Than Perfect Is More Than OK Avoid images that are too staged or flawless. There’s no need to meticulously arrange every object. Capture your subjects in natural scenes and poses.
Independently Compelling If you saw nothing but the photo above, would it be interesting to look at, or does it rely on the written word to give it meaning? A caption can provide additional description, but the photo should be compelling on its own.
Emotionally Connective Does the photo connect on an emotional level? As in the image above, that emotion can come from the look on the subject’s face, the interactions between people, or the action taking place in the photo.
Visually Appealing Do color, composition and focus work together to make a photo that is visually pleasing, like the one above? If you look at it as a very small image — as many of your readers will be on a mobile device — does the image still “read”?
Concisely Descriptive Does the photo tell a story that is easily understood, like the one above? Can one describe, in simple terms, what is happening in the photo?

Your brand’s photos should align with your company’s personality. For Microsoft stories, our pictures adhere to the tenets above and also conform to our brand’s aspired-to nature — “warm, relaxed and ready to lend a hand.” Therefore:

  • We depict real life, with natural lighting and authentic environments. We avoid highly stylized photo-processing effects.
  • We look for the action and the emotion in a photograph. Technology is naturally integrated into the scene.
  • We portray executives interacting at a human level with people. The “sage on the stage” shot may be necessary for event photography, but we look to capture more personal moments too.

Here are questions to ask before assigning a photographer to a shoot:

  • People: Who are the heroes of our story? What should they be doing in a photo?
  • Places: Where are the locations we’ll be shooting? What is the lighting? Are there any elements in the scene to avoid? Is there a way to photograph the place from unique perspective (from up high, down low, outside to inside)?
  • Details: What are the small visual elements that provide color and texture to our storytelling? Are there establishing scenes that indicate the place or local culture?

2.8 Produce narrative video

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a well-executed video is of incalculable value. But a poorly done video, or even a glossy, tightly edited video with no brand impact or emotional resonance, is worth absolutely nothing. In fact, it is misallocated money, time and energy.

Video has grown to become a major focus of corporate storytelling. Simplified camera and digital-darkroom technology, falling production prices and a proliferation of online video-distribution choices have made video more accessible and appealing to more brands.

"It’s futile to set out to make a viral video. That’s like deciding to write a bestseller or direct an Oscar winner."

By 2020, video will account for 82 percent of all consumer internet traffic, up from 70 percent in 2015, according to Cisco. That’s nearly 1 million minutes of video shared every second. Those are impressive numbers, though they also mean that most published video will never find an audience.

In fact, the first rule all brands should know is that it’s futile to set out to make a viral video. That’s like deciding to write a bestseller or direct an Oscar winner. And if you are simply trying to re-create the latest viral sensation, you will be running deep in a pack of wannabes chasing the same elusive magic.

Branded video content should aim to resonate with the audience on an emotional level rather than focusing on the actual product or selling points. It is all about building a positive image of the brand, or about influencing the audience to think and feel a certain way about a topic, idea or product that Microsoft cares about.

So how does one evaluate success? The answer depends on your goals. Even if a viral hit garners millions of views, if the brand isn’t well represented or those views come from an audience that will never purchase your products, that effort may be wasted. It’s also possible that a video with a lower overall YouTube view count could convince essential tastemakers or decision-makers to change their opinion about a brand. Here are some key things to know:

Video costs have come down, but it can still be a costly undertaking relative to other media. It is best to be conservative with your investment by front-loading the process with significant pre-production. That means that you have a strong idea of your narrative and goals by the time the cameras start to roll. However, you should also be open to letting the shoot evolve in unexpected ways.

There are three main models for video production, depending how much you do in-house and how much is outsourced.

Agency/studio model: This is the standard approach. Pay an agency or video studio to make the video for you. This is a higher-budget option and offers less control, but you will be less burdened by the day-to-day details of the project. The risk is that if a rough cut technically fulfills the scope of work but doesn’t convey the messaging or emotion you hope to convey, you may incur additional costs to fix it.

In-house model: If you have a team or individual in-house who is experienced with video production and can write, produce and direct the video, you can hire out the camera, audio and editing work. You can also hire a producer to take some of the responsibilities off your in-house person.

Hybrid model: Have an in-house person do the writing and work as the producer, if not the director, with an agency. The agency can deal with all of the crew management, but your in-house producer will remain central to the process and can make sure that your goals stay at the top of the agenda.

At Microsoft Stories, we have found that we like the hybrid model. We believe that production should be a collaborative process between our team and the production studio or agency. If you simply sign off on some storyboards and emails and don’t check in until the rough cut, you are handing over the process to those less familiar with your brand or with the issue you’re addressing.

Perhaps the most common misstep in creating branded content is producing a video that lacks narrative and emotional impact and tries to compensate by shoehorning in product placement. This is often seen when the producers rely too much on music and neatly edited videos but lack storytelling structure.

In contrast, a well-made video needs to build the narrative so that it encompasses the product or message. It should have a three-act structure — that is, intro, body and conclusion. The climax at the end of the second act should relate to the product or brand attribute. For example:

  • The protagonist is introduced.
  • She recognizes a challenge or is faced with a difficult situation.
  • The audience isn’t sure she can resolve the situation.
  • She uses the product/brand to prevail and regains balance.

Branded Videos That Work

Intel's "Meet the Makers”

Intel's "Meet the Makers” five-part series profiles people who uses the company's products to help others and create new experiences. One profile explains how an inspirational 13-year-old, Shubham Banerjee, prototyped and built an affordable Braille printer. Intel fits into the narrative as the creator of the printer's core technology.

Volvo Trucks

Volvo Trucks’ “The Epic Split” creates a spectacle — yet another approach to using video. The opening narration ambiguously refers to a “body crafted to perfection,” presumably that of Jean-Claude Van Damme featured in the spot. Only after Van Damme's eye-popping stunt, which requires extremely precise driving and immense strength, are the sponsor and the spot's purpose revealed in the simple tagline, "This test was set up to demonstrate the stability and precision of Volvo Dynamic Steering."

Burger King

A longer narrative can be effective, as in Burger King’s video that simultaneously plugs its food and explains the concept of net neutrality. It shows how people can rely on fair and consistent pricing at Burger King, at the same time letting the company piggyback on a newsy issue — one that is important to young people and can be shared on social media as an explainer.

Red Bull

Red Bull's approach to video incorporates the brand and the themes it seeks to convey — the active and extreme lifestyle. Its videos present engaging content in a distinctive style.


It’s easy to toss around trendy technology terms like “internet of things” or “quantum computing” without ever explaining what they mean or why they matter. The Microsoft Story Labs series “Explanimators” fills that gap, providing viewers with an animated encyclopedia of the most transformative technologies of our time. The show’s animated format is ideal for visualizing complex concepts, and each episode is told through a different short, humorous story. Who knew a debauched alien freakazoid named Zorg would be the perfect character to help explain how blockchain works?

Some other forms of video include:

  • Animation: The sky is the limit with animation. Live action requires tracking limits on money, shoot locations, special effects, number of actors and number of shoot days. But once you pay for an animation, pretty much anything visual falls within the same budget. World travel? Check. Space travel? OK! Time travel? No problem. Throw in a Tyrannosaurus rex while you’re at it. Animation is arguably the most creative video form.
  • Virtual reality (VR): This technology for creating a totally artificial digital reality is not yet mainstream, though the requisite headsets are becoming less awkward and online outlets for sharing VR are improving. VR is not something to do just because you can. If you have a concept that works, especially a behind-the-scenes experience or a location that people usually couldn’t experience, then VR may be of value. Multiple shots, movement and complex narratives are still difficult and therefore expensive in VR, though that situation is improving.
  • Augmented reality (AR): Overlaying the real world on top of VR also remains an expensive, challenging alternative to conventional video. Reasons to use this technology have to be clear — don’t let an agency sell you on it without a strong rationale. Your goal is to create something with real impact for your brand, not just a pretty showpiece. Still, there will be more and more opportunities for AR in the coming years.

2.9 Measure what matters

It all comes down to numbers — or does it?

Traffic is not always a great indicator of success. Stories such as a big news announcement will get a lot of traffic. But 1,000 or 2,000 page views for a story that is far less prominent than a big news announcement can be significant, especially if readers were important influencers whose opinions of Microsoft evolved because of that story. Such success is remarkable, though hard to measure.

"Page views are a key metric for most digital news websites. But they don’t paint the entire picture for Microsoft storytellers."

Headline strength can be measured by using two different headlines for the same story posted on Facebook, with one headline being seen by some viewers and another headline seen by other viewers, then examining which of the two does better and why. For example, did a longer or “stronger” headline result in readers’ spending more time with the story?

Metrics also provide a sense of not only page views and visits but also of how much time people are spending to read a story and of how and where people are finding the story.

If a story ranks among the month’s top 20 by number of views, it’s worth asking questions to give the ranking more meaning. What was happening on the particular days the story spiked? What was going on with social media? Was there a social push behind it? Those answers help isolate factors that contribute to success and yield valuable insights for crafting and promoting future stories.

Closeup photo of typewriter keys
Typewriter with paper in it

Part 3 Structure, mechanics and management

3.1 The corporate newsroom

Building and managing a corporate newsroom begins with a vision, guiding principles, a mission and strong leaders who advocate and passionately believe in what they do. This team employs modern storytelling techniques to amplify a company’s most important moments and messages, positively influencing how people think, feel and talk about it. Their audience includes the general public, customers, public policy makers and the media.

A corporate newsroom leads the company in establishing a central hub for a unified voice and direction for the company’s storytelling efforts. It showcases pieces written by the company, partners or industry leaders that provide guidance and help fuel the conversation.

"A corporate newsroom employs modern storytelling techniques to amplify a company’s most important moments and messages."

This team creates or coordinates content for owned channels (i.e., the company’s own webpages and blogs). It coordinates companywide news and features, both text-based and video. These stories can show solutions to problems, increase corporate value, reveal exclusive behind-the-scenes insights and convey company culture.

3.2 Key roles in the newsroom

Microsoft Stories’ newsroom includes writers, editors, designers, developers, photographers, video producers, metrics experts and a team director. Many of these wordsmiths have a background in journalism. They are familiar with strict ethical standards and take pride and responsibility in meeting deadlines. They are sticklers for accuracy, which equates to the credibility that must be first and foremost for any brand, just as for any news organization. All these traits remain vital in what they do for Microsoft.

No matter what their background, all of the members of the Microsoft Stories team strive to put the reader first. They want to make sure the best possible stories are set before the readers, like putting a good meal on the table that a diner can’t wait to enjoy (and share snaps of on Facebook or Instagram!).

Team members have a low tolerance for lingo lunacy and acronyms that confuse a reader. They are unafraid to ask follow-up questions if something is unclear after interviewing a source. Microsoft Stories’ team members also know that transparency and good communication — with everyone from their interview subjects to their editors — is key to success.

The Stories team believes in the mantra of “no surprises” when it comes to an interviewee seeing a final draft of a story or to an editor giving a story a first read. How a story is going to be handled — what direction it will take, what emphasis it will have — should be discussed in advance. That doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements, but this approach minimizes them.

Writers are our workhorses. They juggle multiple stories and project manage them from end to end, including shaping initial ideas, coordinating and conducting interviews, writing, managing internal and external reviews, setting up photo shoots, obtaining visual assets and even designing and laying out stories for online presentation.

In any newsroom, editors are often the unsung heroes. At Microsoft, they vet ideas as the first point of contact for stakeholders interested in working with the Stories team. Their names don’t generally appear on stories, but they are key to navigating the editorial process from beginning to end. In addition to shaping and editing stories, they also flag potential land mines and are advocates for a successful product.

Editors help manage the multiple stakeholders who may be involved in a story, serving as a vessel and a filter for their input and ensuring that the writer has the information she needs. They steward the shared vision for a story but also push back on changes that serve marketers before readers or that lessen a story’s narrative punch.

Here are some of the qualifications and skills our writers and editors all have:

  • Extensive journalistic experience or a demonstrated ability to write and edit lively, engaging news and feature stories on deadline
  • Good diplomacy and people skills
  • Ability to work collaboratively and flexibly with different personality and management types
  • Project management experience
  • Experience partnering with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, animators and other visual storytellers

In the Microsoft Stories newsroom, writers report to editors, and editors report to the newsroom director. That leader should have a clear vision for the newsroom and support the team of writers, photographers, artists, editors and others with enthusiasm, knowledge and advocacy within the wider company.

The newsroom director must have an overriding sense of fairness, a thirst for excellence and success, and the ability to articulate what excellence and success look like. The person in that role needs to be able to focus on the Big Picture — the quality of the site itself and the stories – and not get bogged down in minutiae or decisions that should fall to writers, editors or others on the team.

3.3 Best practices

Here are some operational guidelines that we at Microsoft Stories have found to be most efficient and productive:

We hold regular editorial meetings, both for the team and with communicators across the company so everyone is aware of storytelling efforts on different channels. This helps reduce redundancy and promote cross-company amplification of newly published stories on various sites, blogs and social media channels.

We establish a clear editorial timeline and story scope from the beginning of every story. Requests for the newsroom to cover stories should go to an editor who determines the news value and whether a proposed story fits with the newsroom and company’s mission. Bringing the news team in early helps stakeholders plan and scope their project.

Editors and stakeholders decide early on whether the story will be short, mid-length or long. They consider whether it would do well with interactive features such as a quiz or poll, and with video, photos or sound samples.

Editors assign stories to writers, with guidance on the story’s goals and which stakeholders are overseeing it. Understanding precisely who will be reviewing the story as it comes together can help prevent problems down the line, such as inadvertently leaving someone out of the process.

This is a good point to have a conference call with a project’s program manager and the PR or communications person driving the story. It’s a chance to familiarize those stakeholders with the news team’s processes and voice, which will be different than a press release or marketing materials. Writers can also send links to, or examples of, the team’s writing to show what kind of content the newsroom produces.

This is also the time for the news team and communications leads to determine who should be interviewed and to zero in on the most important voices.

During this call, or as early on as possible, it’s important to convey how vital it is to have strong photography, preferably from a professional photojournalist. If there are any internal politics or sensitivities around the story, those should be confidentially shared with the writer so she can proceed accordingly.

As the reporting process begins, writers ensure that interviewees know that this is an external story (meant for public consumption) but that they will get to review it before it is published. After the initial interviews, it can be helpful for the writer to send the editor, key stakeholders and the communications lead a brief outline of the story.

Once a story is written, an editor carefully reviews and edits it before it is sent to stakeholders for review. This is an opportunity to flag any issues the writer may not be aware of and to ensure that stories are in the best possible shape when stakeholders see them.

The writer, editor or the director determines what process works best for story reviews and asks stakeholders to follow it. It’s most efficient to limit the review to people who are directly knowledgeable about the story and who understand its context and goals; otherwise you risk winding up with uninformed or cursory reviewers working at cross purposes.

To keep the review process moving, writers set specific deadlines for comments and let stakeholders know what level of feedback they are seeking. Typically, this includes spotting factual inaccuracies and ensuring that products and programs are clearly described or articulated.

To eliminate errors or surprises, Microsoft Stories allows anyone who was interviewed to review a story before publication. If there are internal and external stakeholders, a story should typically first be sent to internal stakeholders to lock it down before sending to external stakeholders or sources. Everyone should be on the same page inside the company before it’s shown outside the company.

To avoid churn and confusion, we emphasize that a final version of a story should be final. Edits after a final document has been sent creates confusion, version-control issues and needless extra work. Avoiding that vexation is a good reason to have everyone work from the same document.

3.4 Essential tools

The team needs several tools, both software and hardware, to do its job. To communicate easily, team members need some kind of communal chat site, such as Microsoft Teams. They also need email (Outlook or another app) for all kinds of correspondence, both to the team and to stakeholders.

For in-person or phone interviews, a digital recorder or a smartphone app (such as Voice Memos or TapeACall) is helpful. Even simpler for phone calls is an in-ear telephone pick-up. Online, interviews can be recorded using Microsoft Teams.

After recording an interview, many writers use Trint or another machine learning-based transcription service to speed up the time it takes to transcribe the interview. Online-based services such as Transcribe can also save time. It’s best to transcribe immediately after an interview, when your memory can fill in gaps and unintelligible responses.

Our team writes and edits in Microsoft Word. It can also be helpful to use Word Online or OneDrive for collaborative editing and reviews. Other tools that could be useful include:

  • Photoshop, to add captions or credits to metadata when sharing photos. More basic photo-editing tools are fine for simple cropping and image toning.
  • Code Writer, for editing video subtitles.
  • A snipping tool for sharing images and illustrations via email.

3.5 Stylistic consistency

It’s important to have a writing style that unifies the look, writing conventions and messages the company wants to convey to the public, stakeholders and partners. A uniform style helps readers readily identify the company and distinguish it from other brands. It also ensures a solid foundation of high editorial standards across the company.

We suggest adopting the Associated Press Stylebook.

3.6 Partnering with stakeholders

The Microsoft Stories team relies on and collaborates closely with internal and external stakeholders who help bring stories to life. Those might include a marketing manager, a PR lead, a policy team member, or customers, grantees or nonprofits.

Building trust with stakeholders starts with empathy — understanding what stakeholders are trying to accomplish and what demands and challenges they might be facing. Like anyone in an organization, stakeholders have supervisors they must answer to and a perspective shaped by the work they do.

It’s also important to understand that stakeholders have varying degrees of experience with corporate storytelling — that’s where education comes in.

For stakeholders unfamiliar with corporate storytelling, it can be helpful to start with a short explanation about what a corporate newsroom is, what it does (i.e., uses journalistic principles and practices to tell engaging, compelling corporate stories) and how it differs from the way traditional media or marketing groups operate.

For instance, a traditional reporter would typically not let a source review a story, while a corporate storyteller collaborates with stakeholders and lets them review and edit stories as needed. A reporter might write a story that sources aren’t pleased with, while a corporate storyteller’s job is to positively describe the work stakeholders are doing and elevate the company’s brand. While a reporter strives to be an impartial outsider, a corporate storyteller is an advocate working inside an organization.

Even if stakeholders are generally familiar with corporate storytelling, it’s a good idea to start the conversation by laying out the assignment as you understand it and asking the stakeholder what the story is intended to be about and what high-level points it will touch on.

This might sound obvious, but talking through a story beforehand helps ensure that the writer, editor and stakeholders are envisioning the story in a similar way. Finding out after a story is written that a stakeholder had a different story in mind can create delays and require rewrites.

During the review process, if a stakeholder is requesting an edit that doesn’t make sense or is poorly written, a writer can diplomatically ask what their intention is in seeking the changes, how she can help them get there and work to find acceptable language to achieve that.

To build trust with stakeholders:

  • Emphasize value. Let them know how a well-told story can engage audiences and boost awareness about the work they’re doing.
  • Set clear expectations. Talk with them to ensure that everyone is aligned on the scope and focus of the story, who will be included in the piece and who needs to be a reviewer.
  • Define roles. Be clear on what type of story you will deliver and when. Set agreed-upon dates for deadlines and publishing that anticipate sources and reviewers will have busy schedules and may not respond immediately.
  • Provide reassurance. Let stakeholders know that you are on their side and that your objective is to write a story that both you and they are happy with.

Visit us at Microsoft Stories.