3 Characterization Techniques to Help Companies Shape and Convey Their Identity Online

Kathryn Hillis's picture

The internet is brimming with content.

Storytelling is quickly becoming a point of focus for companies who are settling into their role as digital publishers, with many businesses placing new emphasis on creating high-quality, compelling materials which can cut through the noise.

But attention to storytelling shouldn’t be restricted to individual content pieces. Our digital identities contribute to larger narratives, whether it’s through the content we produce, interactions we participate in, or the manner in which we’re discussed.

The way a business comes across online can be considered a character of sorts, one with a backstory, motivations, and a personality all its own. But unlike a character that is contained within a book or a film, digital identity is the sum of scattered fragments that span multiple platforms, many of which are highly interactive.

This circumstance makes having a coherent, well-considered digital identity all the more important for businesses.

Beyond the challenge of piecing together digital elements that contribute to an audience’s perception of a company’s identity, there is also the hurdle of figuring out what a company’s core identity even is.

That last hurdle is what I’m focusing on today.

One way of tapping into the depths of a company’s identity may be to approach the task like an author. While some writers have the good fortune of being able to unravel stories effortlessly, many spend hours working through the motivations of the characters they’re bringing to life, even if a character they’re crafting is autobiographical.

Here are some characterization techniques that could help companies better figure out who they are and how they might best present themselves online.

In working through these ideas, the aim is figure out which pieces are core to a company’s identity and should be evident in its digital representation, whether we’re talking about how the business references itself, the type of content it produces, or which pieces it elects to curate.

Figure out the fundamental desire(s) of a company.

It’s important for characters to want things, whether monumental or trivial. Kurt Vonnegut famously made this recommendation in 8 Basics of Creative Writing: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Source: Tumblr, from the BBC drama Peaky Blinders

In order to shape a compelling and humanized narrative about a company, it’s helpful to know the “key wants” of the business and how its history reflects the influence of these wants.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to isolate a fundamental desire, whether we’re deconstructing the motivations of an individual or an organization. Here’s a suggestion from author David Corbett that may help.

“One way to determine which object of desire is fundamental, or represents the best stand-in for the others, is to strip it away, make it unattainable, but fulfill the character's other wants. Is the character content? If not, why?”
-David Corbett, Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV

Tapping into this core desire can serve as a springboard for content and/or curation ideas that reflect the company's fundamental source(s) of motivation.

Reflect on extremes.

Sometimes extreme circumstances can reveal a lot about a character.


Source: Tumblr

The same thing can apply to the identity of a business.

Imagine the the best possible experience your company could provide a customer, something that would be a tremendous source of pride. Think deeply about what that experience looks like and try to unpack why that’s the experience you’re visualizing.

Now think of the opposite. Consider worst possible scenarios. What makes them so bad? Why is the company so keen to avoid them?

In short, we can learn a lot about identity by conceptualizing and unpacking extreme cases. The process can unravel deeper motivations and desires that may not be so clear if you only think about circumstances within comfortable middle ground.

Take ownership over conflict.

Conflict is a fact of life and a force that’s deeply embedded in most narrative structures. It is useful for revealing a character’s deeper motivations which may have not emerged without the pressure of conflict.

Source: Tumblr

Conflict is also useful for revealing adaptability and resilience, two traits that can be powerful in a company’s narrative. Inevitably, conflict will arise, whether due to external forces or internal struggles. Owning and articulating the experience may be an opportunity to share a new facet of a company’s identity.

Thinking about a company like a character is just one of many ways to dive into the identity of a business, and ideally it’s an approach that would be used in conjunction with other techniques. What’s your favorite method for getting to the heart of a company's identity? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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