“By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.” -- Paul J. Zak
Storytelling. It opens our imaginations, puts our kids to sleep, but most importantly, it boosts conversions like crazy.
Yep. It turns out that something as simple as telling stories is a powerful marketing tool. It works insanely well to make blog posts, sales pages, and emails sound much more compelling and “human”, rather than another written piece of something you won’t read.
But above all, it helps the reader create a meaningful connection with whoever is behind that message.
If you feel like your emails are lacking a bit of oomph, then storytelling is the answer. No doubt.
This article will show you how to use storytelling in email marketing.
From “Spammy” and “Salesy” Emails to Appetizing Ones
Who even opens emails nowadays, right?
People are bombarded with so much information and pointless emails every minute that sometimes not even a huge, unmissable offer makes it out of the spam folder. People either don’t realize it’s there, or they couldn’t care less.
When you invest in an email sequence, you want it to be worth the hours you put into it. You want your leads and customers to know what’s up with you and your brand. Whether that’s a new product, a business/life update, or an exceptional offer. You don’t want them to ignore it. You want them to be interested.
Email newsletters don’t have to be boring and unreadable. Instead, they should be something your audience craves. And that’s why you need to create something different. Run from the salesy language people have had enough of. Don’t beg them to buy it--tell them why you bought it, and why they should as well.
That’s about it. To make people open your emails and read every word, you need nothing but a great, meaningful story to set the ball rolling.
What is Storytelling--and Does It Work for Emails?
Time to get a little nerdy.
Storytelling is a blend of art and science. It engages listeners, helps them visualize words and actions, and holds their attention for much longer than if there was no story involved. All that happens thanks to the way stories change our brains.
Whenever we’re engrossed by a fascinating or intense story, our brain releases a chemical called oxytocin. That means we get emotionally involved in what’s being said or on what’s written. We become mellow. Interested. We sympathize with the person on the other side, especially if we’ve been in their shoes before. And this is incredibly powerful to earn your customer’s admiration and trust.
Regardless of the circumstance, telling a great story requires a certain amount of technique. This includes making use of sensory words. Words related to smell, sight, taste, and feel. Use these words to make the listener vividly imagine scenarios and sensations without actually living through those things.
By telling stories, you’re warming your audience up before the real deal: the sale. The subscription. The like, the comment, the click. Whatever it is the action you want them to take. If the story is gripping, they’ll reach the important buttons and calls-to-action.
You don’t need to make stories up, by the way. You could tell something real, but you could also use fictional characters and situations to illustrate your point.
Let’s see what works.
5 Factors that Make Great Email Storytelling
Below are a few real examples from real emails that used the storytelling technique.
Just a reminder that you’re not telling stories for the thrill of it, or because you ran out of ideas. You’re telling them because it’s something your leads and customers would love to know about. As with anything in your business, each email must be carefully planned.
Sounds overwhelming, sure. On top of your crammed to-do list, you still have to sit down and write something awesome every week?!
Well, yes. But it becomes so much easier when you have a blueprint. Here it is.
Great emails are preceded by a clickable subject line
What makes you buy a book?
Not the cover. Not if you’re over 15 years old.
It’s actually the title that first pulls you into the rest of the story.
What does that mean?
That means your subject line must be as interesting and eye-catching as the rest of your email. Don’t expect people to open every email to figure out what’s inside. Truth is, they don’t care. Even if they’re subscribers. You’re the one who has to make it appealing.
You could write the best email in the world, but no one’s going to read it unless the subject line grabs them by the shirt. In a good way.
Think of an email subject line as the entrance to something even better.
For instance, here are a few subject lines that are really, really hard not to click on.
“A typo that cost me 15,000” - from copywriter Cole Schafer’s newsletter “Sticky Notes”
First of all...15 grand? For a typo? That’s insane. This can’t be true. Whoever reads that has an urge to find out why something so small cost so much. If they’re copywriters or freelancers, they’ll want to make sure they won’t make the same mistake.
“Never, ever do this”. - from SEO expert Heather Lloyd Martin’s “SEO Copywriting Buzz” email newsletter
“Never do what? I wonder if I’m doing what I’m not supposed to when it comes to SEO best practices...let me check, just in case.”
“Swords, bellydancing, and repurposing your content”. - from Copy Luv’s Cheryl Binnie email newsletter
These three things are absolutely disconnected from one another. But hey, that’s what makes it so magnetic. It sounds fun and intriguing, especially if you want fresh tips mailed to you with a side of personal updates.
There’s no such thing as an ideal subject line formula. As long as you make it fun, SHORT, quirky, and even suspenseful, you'll have a shot at a higher open rate.
They’re often personal
Don’t assume people don’t want to know what goes on in your personal and business life.
As long as what you’re saying offers some kind of value to them, they’ll have their eyes peeled for what comes next.
It could be something that has happened to you or to someone you know. Or maybe something that has been going on and you’re excited about.
Note: if you’re writing about someone you know, make sure to ask for permission. Or use a pseudonym.
When you talk about yourself in your true voice, you build a trustworthy image. When you tell people about certain events, and they can relate to these events, their brain goes “hey...that person gets me” or “I like that person’s vibe!”. And that’s how loyalty is born.
Remember Cheryl Binnie’s “swords, bellydancing, and repurposing your content” email mentioned earlier? Here’s an interesting, personal bit.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the email. But see how this makes the personality shine through? A little descriptive update and relatable chit-chatting goes a long way.
When they’re not personal, they're insanely creative
Sometimes you don’t have a great story to tell, and that’s okay. You don’t always have to be talking about yourself. Life isn’t always interesting.
Interestingly, some brands do a beautiful job of painting a funny picture in our minds using creativity. Sometimes, that involves using their brand persona to spread the word.
They don’t necessarily need to be a persona, so to speak...
Take a look at what Bark Box subscribers received in their inbox.
Yes, you probably pictured an entrepreneur pup wearing glasses and working behind a computer like I did. And that’s SO heartwarming. Besides getting a monthly themed box of doggy goodness every month, subscribers are delighted by cheery emails like this one.
If your brand has a character (human or not), you’re more than welcome to portray that character in every aspect of your marketing. Including email newsletters. It gives your brand a unique, memorable voice.
It’s so much better to read something that doesn’t look like writing at all.
It feels like your eyes glide effortlessly through the screen as if you were having a heart-to-heart with someone.
That’s what “chatty” writing means. It’s writing that applies a “let’s talk” approach with the reader. The fancy name for it is conversational writing.
Note that conversational writing is a lot different than abbreviated internet lingo. You don’t have to use OMGs or IDKs unless your brand’s voice calls for it. The secret is to write as if you were talking to your audience.
Here’s an example from Heather Lloyd Martin’s SEO Copywriting Buzz:
See how smooth that reads? It really feels like she’s talking directly to the person on the other side.
When done right, chatty writing brings you closer to the reader. You sound approachable, and you encourage people to take the action you want them to take.
Next time you’re writing an email, read it out loud. Does it sound natural, or does it sound weird? Remember that it should sound like a conversation with the reader. Another tip is to record yourself saying the contents of the email and then transcribing it.
Again, it’s all about building trust and sending your leads a subliminal message that says “hey, I’m just like you. And I want to help you. You can trust me and my offers.”
They tie into your conversion purposes
Now, here comes the strategic bit of storytelling.
Yes, you’re writing to update your customers and entertain them with something personal. But your end goal will always be to earn conversions. This is marketing, after all.
A story is the ideal tool to pave the way for a conversion. For example:
There are a lot of ways you can link stories to what your business offers. Writer Cole Schafer did it marvelously in this email, in which the moral of the story is: always proofread your work, or else you might lose great deals.
Throughout the email, he was smart enough to mention his copywriting guide and lead the reader into juicy calls-to-action.
Your Turn: Here’s How You Can Start Telling Stories in Your Emails
Stories are everywhere. Really. You just need to have an open mind.
Start paying attention to what happens around you. Anything you can use to bring great insight to your audience. It could be something routine, such as knowledge you’ve gathered from the latest conference you attended. Or maybe it could be something totally unexpected, like how an ice cream vendor during a trip to the beach gave you interesting sales ideas.
Of course, the stories you tell will depend on what your business offers and how they blend into it. Still, you can find inspiration in the most unusual ways, people and places. Keep looking.
“What could this bring to my audience?”
Every great story has a moral, but your audience doesn’t care unless it helps them in some way.
Before you write a draft, have a clear goal in mind. Will this bring new insights to my audience? Will it help them achieve a short-term goal? Will it evoke some sort of emotion in them? Will it offer a mindset shift?
The key here is not making it all about you or your brand. Unfortunately, they won’t care. Each and every email must fulfill a purpose and offer something useful to the reader. Whether that’s a tip, a coupon, or an exciting update. And your story must play a role in that.
What’s in it for them?
Communicate with satisfied customers
Customer success stories are pure gold.
When you’ve run out of words to say, just borrow them from someone else. But make them real.
If a real person can communicate real results, people’s defenses go down. It’s not you saying it, but someone who experienced the benefits of your product for themselves.
So, whenever you have the chance, ask loyal customers for testimonials. Contact them, and ask for permission to write about their success story in detail. These will be your biggest conversion opportunities!
Last but not least: stay hungry for knowledge.
Storytelling, too, is a matter of practice.
For your information, not one soul is born with a gift to tell stories. Their inspiration and knowledge comes from books, movies, podcasts, observation, and of course, writing.
If you want to master storytelling, then first you need a repertoire. Learn as much as you can, about anything (not only work-related stuff). The more knowledge you have in your repertoire, the more stories you’ll have to tell.
Sound like too much for an email marketing campaign? Start working storytelling into your emails and check your open rates later.