Is the idea of narrative too fluffy for you? Well, we’re going to harden it up.
We can measure narratives. What we can measure we can manage and improve. The presidential candidate websites are perfect examples.
Narrative is not just an abstract idea. Narratives are tangible things that can be evaluated, measured and intentionally strengthened. A strong narrative is the single most important tool for any organization that needs to persuade an audience, make strategic decisions, and align a team around a common mission.
Strong narratives tell us why a thing matters. Why it is important, trustworthy and relevant. Companies selling products or services, political and government organizations, and non-profits urgently need to do this well.
Few organizations spend much time thinking about their narratives. They may fuss over their tag line or spend a few hours on a mission statement. Marketing departments may test and optimize keywords. But they often fail to understand that the reason their site isn’t converting, the reason they can’t get campaign messaging organized, the reason every marketing message they create fades out so quickly, is that they are not supported by a strong narrative.
Explaining narratives is hard.
Measuring narratives, however, is easy. The beauty of the Narrative Strength Assessment (my magic sauce) is that it is easy to understand. Once you apply it to your own website and other materials, you’ll quickly understand where you stand. You’ll know what kind of work you need to do and you’ll have an organized and prioritized approach to it.
Wouldn’t it be great to show an example of how it works?
Fortunately, it is 2016, and we have several interesting presidential candidates who have very interesting websites. Or not. We can take our Narrative Strength Assessment and demonstrate that we can, in fact, measure their narrative strength, and thereby find some quick and obvious ways to improve them.
The candidates are trying to earn the votes of a highly diverse, fractured audience. They need to convince citizens of their credentials, their values, their temperament, their executive abilities and to defend their stance on a very wide range of issues. Meanwhile, because their competitors, various media outlets, bloggers, special interest groups, and your Aunt Jeanne are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting what the candidates say, their publically available materials matter all the more.
In other words, they have a critical need to have a strong, clear narrative that distinguishes and endears them to as great a swath of the American people as possible.
Websites are usually the home base for a company – or candidate’s – narrative. The candidates websites have roughly the same goals. 1. To raise money. 2. To sign-up volunteers and 3. To state their positions.
It is interesting how focused on 1 and 2 most of these sites are and how little most candidates invest in the persuasive capacity of their sites. Note that there are many other contributors to narrative. Speeches, debates and social participation are all factors here, but for the purposes of this research, we are ignoring those.
We’ve examined the narrative strength of each site not to judge its political merits, but its rhetorical merits. We can easily see where each site has the opportunity to strengthen its ability to persuade and convert visitors into voters, donors and volunteers.
Our proprietary Narrative Strength Assessment process, gives us a standard set of criteria to measure narrative strength.
We’ve applied this 32 point scale to measure 4 key criteria.
- Presentation: Can I easily find and follow the narrative? Is it presented in a way that makes it easy to follow and engage with?
- Clarity: Once I find and follow the narrative, do I get it? Can I understand what you’re trying to tell me? Am I left with questions?
- Resonance: Resonance has three components. Emotional resonance – does it make me feel something? Intellectual resonance – does it “make sense” to me? Confidence building – does it offer any kind of proof that what you’re saying is the truth?
- Shareability: If I get it, can I explain it to someone else so that they get it ?
Note that we have a fifth criterion we use to evaluate client narratives – “organization”. This looks at how well an organization manages its narrative internally. But as we have no access to the internal workings of any of the campaigns, we’ve ignored it for this exercise.
Each of these sites is likely to have four basic personas as visitors.
- People who are very likely to vote for that candidate.
- People who are undecided.
- People who are likely to vote for someone else.
- Media, academics and nerds like me.
We’ll keep these groups in mind.
Let’s begin with the front runner’s websites. Note that this analysis was done on February 1, 2016, the day of the Iowa caucuses. Campaigns may make changes to these sites that are not accounted for here.
Assessing the narrative strength of HillaryClinton.com
Hillary Clinton could hardly be more visible in the United States. Journalists, bloggers, editors, and analysts continuously analyze her every past, present and future utterance and action. As former First Lady and Secretary of State, the country is well acquainted with her reputation for extreme competence and diplomacy.
But what is her narrative, and how well does her website represent it? Let’s look. We start at the homepage. Simple. Speaks to her supporters. Minimal explicit narrative. There is a subtle nod to gender alliance (I’m with her), patriotism and pride as evidenced by the flag and uplifted chin. [Note that she has since updated this image to be a group of young supporters. This is an obvious nod to her need to appeal to younger voters, and yet still does nothing to distinguish her based on her experience, leadership style or positions. It is, in short, still entirely generic]
Figure 2: HillaryClinton.com homepage Feb 2016
Scrolling down on the home page we see a few headlines meant to promote the candidate’s credibility.
We see links to her economic program, borrowing a page from husband Bill “It’s the economy, stupid” Clinton’s campaign book. We also see a link to “Caucus for us” and “Accomplishments” message. Solid, though hardly rousing.
Someone looking to understand her positions would probably next visit the “issues” page.
If we look at her “issues” page we see generic text and imagery, followed by an alphabetical list of issues. What’s wrong with a list? Normally a list gives us a sense of priorities. This alphabetical list, however, shows no prioritization whatsoever, and gives no hint as to an overarching philosophy, approach or message. In order to appreciate her stand on the issues, you need to read each one. Hmm.
A quick analysis of the nearly 30 issues, however, show that they are all in some way focused on either prosperity, justice, or national security.
It would, therefore be reasonable for the campaign to consider elevating those themes, and organizing the issue list around it. If those are not the right themes for the campaign, they would be wise to think hard about what the right themes are and ensure the issues list supports that.
Clicking on any of these issues leads to a dedicated Issue page. These Issue pages are better presentations, with more substance, many using imagery and video. The headlines convey a point of view. The pages are, however, wordy and slightly disorganized. Some pages are more built-out than others. None of the pages are optimized to guide a reader’s eye. (In contrast, BernieSanders.com’s issue pages are highly optimized in both rhetoric and digital readability. His site will be the third installment of this series, after Trump. Cruz, Rubio and Bush follow.) They do each have a clear call to action, and social sharing mechanisms. The fact sheets – downloadable in-depth position papers – are very substantive for those issues that have them, but a visitor has to be very determined to actually find them (I first found them on my fourth visit to the site). So the bulk of her validating information is not highly visible.
In summary, as you click through HillaryClinton.com, there is no easily identifiable mission or vision statement. Her approach and proof points are present and supported with considerable content – but not easy to find or follow. Uses of imagery and media are limited. Appeals to volunteer are vague.
The Narrative Strength Assessment yields a score of 8/32 for HillaryClinton.com. Is this score horrible? No, it’s actually typical of many websites, especially in the technology realm. The value of the assessment, however, is that it gives us powerful clues as to where to focus. In this case, the key challenge is to establish organizing concepts and design that helps a visitor understand and articulate the core platform and vision. Since this is an information rich website, it would take work to redo all of it at once, but short, simple efforts on the main pages will make a very significant narrative strength improvement for the site overall.
Score card for HillaryClinton.com:
Basic Recommendations for HillaryClinton.com
HillaryClinton.com is primarily focused on gaining campaign donations, and does little to address undecided voters. Even strong supporters will have to work to find the core of the narrative that they can use to convince others and strengthen their own convictions.
This could be significantly improved with a little bit of work:
- Ensure some forward looking theme(s) or mission statement is visible on the homepage – and every page.
- Organize the issues page around those key themes.
- Use imagery that is more realistic and highlights the candidates unique experiences, strengths, and positions.
- Build a template for Issues pages that make them easier to skim and appreciate.
Narrative is real, and critical to winning over audiences. We can measure how strong a narrative is, and we can clearly identify strengths and weaknesses. This means you can intentionally and methodically build the narrative you need.
When you can measure narrative strength, and identify the strengths and weaknesses of its component parts, you gain a powerful strategic advantage. Your website, your marketing efforts and even your R&D will start to come together very quickly.
Here’s a challenge. Look at the score card we filled out for HillaryClinton.com and visit the site yourself. Do you score it the same way? What about your own website. How does it score?
Up next: DonaldJTrump.com