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Storytelling: the Art of e-Commerce

Updated on August 3, 2013

The power of a good story

Storytelling predates the written word.

Cave art, gestures, and oral narrative were storytelling mediums of the ancient past. Although the methods and media have advanced with technology, the true value remains the story itself. Stories may be entertaining, educational, or enlightening - all too often, they're sad. In any case, the story has value - be it a laugh, inspiration or understanding.

Our lives are essentially a collection of short stories - our first precarious steps, hating orange kool-aid, Grammie sneaking you chocolate chip cookies, that annoying college roommate, the blind date that turned into your first marriage, ... Once we share those stories, they gain emotional value in the hearts, minds and memories of others.

In 2009-10 Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conducted an experiment to test the power of narrative - substituting obviously fictional short stories for the descriptions of inexpensive trinkets auctioned on eBay.

They invested $128.74 in 100 junk objects from thrift stores and garage sales - and generated $3,612.51 in auction sales on eBay.

Photo: Cave Art in Crimea By Konstantin Malanchev [CC BY-2.0]via Wikimedia Commons

The Significant Objects Project

From object to art

The Significant Objects project, devised and carried out by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker in 2009-2010 is a fascinating experiment in human nature and our emotional connection to story.

They sought out a collection of mundane objects, paying about $1.25 on average for the pieces purchased at thrift stores and garage sales. The short stories written to serve as descriptions were solicited from more than 200 writers including Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Lethem, Annie Nocenti, Jenny Offill and Luc Sante.

Their experiment was simple.

By writing a fictional story about an "insignificant" object they hypothesized that the subjective value of the object would increase through the narrative. To test their theory and determine a measurable value, they auctioned off these objects, along with the story on eBay.

It was a resounding success.

(Donkey Candleholder image by author)

Objects of our Desire - The future of storytelling

The Significant Objects experiment was rolled out in several phases over a period of two years. The $3612.51 generated through the phase one auction went to the contributing writers.

In phase two, fundraising auctions were carried out with other writers and objects. The $2,244.11 raised during the second auction were donated to a creative writing tutorial program for teens - 826 National. A third auction raised $1,748.82 for Girls Write Now, a nonprofit mentoring young at-risk girls in NYC.

In the end, all the auctioned objects sold for nearly $8000.00 total!

The Book: Significant Objects - 100 extraordinary stories about ordinary things

This book 'Significant Objects - 100 extraordinary stories about ordinary things' is the third phase of the Significant Objects Project.

Published in August of 2012, this book tells the whole story of how Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conceived and carried out their anthropological experiment on the emotional power of narrative. The stories commissioned to add significance to the objects range from the imaginative to darkly ironic - some actually attempted to de-value the object - describing it's use in unimaginable ways.

Significant Objects
Significant Objects

A fascinating tale of truly unique short stories, memes, and value-added escalation through social media by the writers themselves.


Sharing stories with today's technology - Like it, Tweet it, Pin it, Digg it, Reddit, Stumble it

a conversation
a conversation

Photo: A Conversation By khalid Albaih [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] on Flickr.

Thousands of years ago it was a lot harder and took a considerable amount of time to share a story. Today, it can be as easy as clicking "like" on Facebook, "pinning" a picture to your Pinterest wall, or Tweeting a link to your followers.

The narrative of our lives in the networked age is told collectively through snippets of Texts, Tweets, Instagram, Pins, Likes and pictures and video captured on our smartphones - some of which could be shared with thousands or millions of complete strangers.

We share the stories that capture our attention and mean something to us.

Break through the noise of e-commerce - Creating emotional value to engage with customers

screenshot - kijiji snowblower ad
screenshot - kijiji snowblower ad

(Image: screenshot of Kijiji web page by author)

If you question the emotional value of story in selling everyday items just check out this Kijiji ad from a Moncton, New Brunswick man that went viral in 2011. What was he selling? A used snowblower. He sold the snowblower (but didn't accept any of the job offers that he got). His ad generated almost a half-million views and media attention from CTV, The Huffington Post and Adweek, an advertising industry authority.

The buyer could have found a dozen similar snowblowers - he bought this one purely because of the storyteller's imagination and creativity.

"It was just too funny," Mr. Bruce said. "I thought, I'd rather buy from this guy than a faceless retail outlet." - Alec Bruce


THAT's how you cut through the noise, add value and stand out in the crowd.

Engaging your customers

Just be human

We feel good when Bill the corner store clerk greets us with his familiar smile, or the morning shift server with the bright blue streak in her hair starts preparing our coffee as we're walking in the door, As we shop less at local bricks and mortar stores, we're searching for a new kind of emotional connection that tells us we're in the right place or this is what I need.

It really just boils down to getting your customer's attention and being human. If you're marketing yourself or your products online, create a connection with your customers by telling a captivating story.

Let's all try a storytelling experiment - The Musical Cats

The Musical Cats - LifeAhead [CC by 2.0]
The Musical Cats - LifeAhead [CC by 2.0]

(The Musical Cats photo by author [CC by 2.0])

Ok, I know it's late and you've got to get up early to change the sulfer hexafluoride in the bibliotomic flengromulator, but bear with me, this won't take all that long. No, really.

Here's the deal:

Write a super-short story about The Musical Cats pictured above in the comments section below (moderated). Make it brief - a couple of short paragraphs at the most. Make it funny, sad, ridiculous, or disturbing - make it anything you can imagine - but make it stand out from the crowd.

If you want to take it even farther - share it through your favourite social channel or try it on your own blog, facebook page - whereever you want. (you can use the photo too [href="">CC by 2.0


Have fun and let's discover what the story is with those Musical Cats.

Tell us your story of The Musical Cats

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Three little kittens running amok in the wild, their mother decided to give them a new call. She gave each an instrument, and the three little kittens explore the world to learn more about the thing in their hands. Each day they pranced and they played, with their poor mother in tow, until they are the most famous kitties in the land of snow.

    • Cynthia Haltom profile image

      Cynthia Haltom 4 years ago from Diamondhead

      The three little kitten traded in their mittens must to their mothers dismay. She sent them out into the big world to make their fortunes. They decided to make use of the musical instruments they received in trade for the mittens their mother had made for them

      They wandered the countryside working for mice and tea. They fiddled, drummed and shook the maracas and sang to the King who was outraged that a mother could send such young kittens to fend for themselves, He wrote a decry and forcing the mother to take full responsibility for the kittens so they were no longer living on the streets. She knew it was the right thing to do, so she sought counseling and they lived happily ever after,.