We all know that there is a difference between an email from a “Nigerian prince,” an automated alert from your webhost, a client’s latest request, and baby photos from your college buddy.
In the basic equation of method + message = results, there is little difference between these expressions. Of course, the results are different because the messages are so different.
In this article, we explore how email storytelling generates success. We see the value of storytelling in all types of communications. Professional speakers will lament that the audience will forget their message in 10 minutes, but they’ll remember the story used to introduce the message.
Most of us (of a certain age) can remember the classic TV ad where Mean Joe Greene gives the kid his jersey for a Coke. Audiences connect with brands through storytelling. Results are generated through these connections. Smart content marketers include storytelling as a prerequisite for their email marketing.
Permission is Everything
Email marketing generates the highest return of all digital marketing channels (current 2020 estimates are over $38 in value for every dollar spent) because it requires a user to share their email address.
Permission is power. We’ve discussed several ways to convince users to share this permission. From popup CTAs to landing pages that reward a user for sharing their email with a gift, discount or bonus, the first step in all email marketing is collecting email addresses. If you haven’t found a way to generate permission-based email addresses, stop reading and take a look at Start with Hello.
Once you generate permission, your email strategy must recognize this permission, establish your authority and authenticity, and pursue your business’ marketing objectives. Weaving these goals together is best accomplished through storytelling.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Stories create emotional connections between the sender and the receiver. Emotions build memories and for marketers, these memories result in top-of-mind awareness that can be leveraged to generate results.
The emotions that are created and the stories that a brand tells are part of the brand personality. The importance of creating a brand personality can’t be overstated in modern digital marketing. One could easily argue that brand personality is the key to all influencer and social media marketing.
Regardless of the brand personality, all storytelling requires the same constructs:
Character(s): Telling a story requires characters that connect with the audience and embody the action. With email marketing, the character can be a product or service, the company’s philosophy or vision personified, or a recognizable spokesperson. Famous marketing characters include Steve Jobs, the Kool-Aid Man, and the Snickers bar. Once you breathe personality into your brand, your character comes to life.
Conflict: Every good story requires some challenge or conflict to create interest and emotion about the character. In marketing, the conflict can be innovation, challenging the status quo, or new ways of thinking. In digital marketing, we find the hurdles of overcoming technical limitations, business / market frustrations, and unexpected competition make great sources of conflict.
Resolution: All good stories have an ending. I hate the story that goes on and on without ever getting anywhere. Resolution between your character and the conflict may not always be, “happy” but it is necessary to keep the audience engaged and wanting the next story. A perfect example is the furniture “going out of business” sale. That is a great story to sell a lot of inventory until the sales goes into its second year! The resolution can be value, purpose, new use of a product or service, or a combination of many other attributes. A key to a powerful resolution is a call-to-action (CTA) that is clear and easy to execute.
Email storytelling follows the classic story arc and character, conflict, and resolution are the essential elements needed to create the emotional engagement vital to convince a prospect to become a customer, and convert a customer into an advocate.
The 3 Basic Storytelling Methods
There are major brands that send email without a story or a message beyond some version of “buy now.” In general, these emails succeed exclusively on the numbers game. Brands know that open rates will be low, unsubscribers will be high, and they may sell a few items.
Though this may work in the short term, these “buy now” messages destroy the value of user permission and ultimately results in email fatigue. To avoid these issues, professional email marketers convince recipients to engage through linear storytelling, interactive storytelling, or multi-option storytelling.
Many brands use multiple types of email storytelling though some methods fit better with certain brand personalities.
1. Linear Storytelling
This narrative method is the most traditional. The story starts at Point A and ends at Point B with the audience observing the characters, conflict and resolution. Most transactional or eCommerce emails for lifestyle products use a linear storytelling approach.
Reasons it works:
- Emotion is overt. The character exists within a specific setting that the audience understands and embraces. The audience can easily translate the character’s experience to their own and associate emotion with it.
- The message is personal. The emotion of the story and association with the character encourages the recipient to imagine themselves within the story.
- Simplicity. Both content and technology in linear storytelling emails is simple. There is little ambiguity and the audience knows exactly what the brand wants the audience to do. Often, these emails have only one CTA link.
Example: A shoe retailer announces a discount offer for shoes with a straightforward discount offer for any pair of shoes. The CTA provides a discount code that leads to the retailer’s home web page.
2. Interactive Storytelling
Technology can be implemented in an email to convert a linear story into an interactive story. Though this story arc is similar to a linear story, interactive stories shift the control of the story from the sender to the receiver.
This is accomplished through the addition of interactive content that the sender guides the recipient to use. Though all outcomes may lead to the same end, the user is given the ability to guide the storytelling. Interactive Storytelling works because:
- Action is engaging and recipients actively participate in the experience. As technology becomes more personalized, this approach, especially when data defines which interactive elements a user receives, creates a customized or personalized engagement.
- Ownership is emotional, and interactivity shifts the ownership of the story from the sender to the receiver. That sense of ownership leads the recipient to want to know the resolution. That desire, guided by technology, creates a strong emotional bond with the brand.
Example: Our shoe retailer sends an email announcing the shoe sale and the email features specific types of shoes that each has a separate CTA leading to a custom-landing page.
3. Multi-Option Storytelling
Multi-option storytelling requires that the email contain various endings based on the options the recipient chooses. This story resonates with the unique interests of each user and creates intrigue that drives interactivity so each user can create their own ending to the story.
Multi-option storytelling has several benefits:
- Interaction creates ownership and users must interact with the email to build the story. This action often requires that the user explore and discover the options within the story. From a brand’s perspective, this time and effort pulls the user closer to the brand.
- Preference is permission. If the email gives control of the story to the user and the user can select their preferences, the brand is building stronger permission, affinity, and authority even though the user feels that they are in control.
Example: Our shoe retailer sends an email announcing the shoe sale that features products that the customer can explore. Based on the user’s behavior, a CTA is presented to learn more about how the shoes fit their lifestyle. The CTA links to a custom landing pages that provides more information about the shoes and additional links to related products.
Select the narrative method that makes the most sense for your message and brand, tell your story through email and build your relationships through the permission that your audience has given you.
One More Thing …
This overview on email storytelling has focused on the structure and fundamentals needed for success with email marketing. Even with all of the fundamentals, an email will fail if the content is weak.
Make sure to take the time to create stories that you’d want to read about characters that are interesting to you.
If the idea of executing on an email marketing strategy seems overwhelming, know that you don’t need to go it alone. We’re in this with you. If you need a little help, just drop us a line, anytime.
Rainmaker Digital Services