Storytelling and email marketing: how to create a winning strategy

02 February 2021Reading time: 6 min.

A story can be told in a myriad of ways, including email. In fact, not all campaigns have to focus on directly communicating offers and product information. Sometimes the real key to success is delivering a message that stays with and establishes a connection with the user. 

Man lives on stories: from popular legends passed down orally to the creation of movies, to the success of Netflix and today’s endless production of TV series.

Storytelling comes precisely from the desire to exploit this human predisposition to approach users in a new way, unlike the often ineffective direct promotion techniques. 

What is storytelling?

Storytelling is the art of telling a story which aims to excite, involve, and persuade the reader. The approach can be used in many areas, from economic and political to corporate and advertising. Especially in the latter, we have been witnessing a real rise in storytelling as an unconventional marketing technique in recent years, as it can establish a connection with the user and convey a message of value and quality. In addition to being highly appreciated by recipients, who by now are tired of overly aggressive and repetitive push sales approaches, storytelling can prove to be a winning strategy for:

  • increasing user engagement 
  • indirectly and implicitly facilitating conversions 
  • increasing brand value
  • improving brand reputation

How effective storytelling develops

Storytelling doesn’t mean simply telling a company or product’s story. The technique has very specific elements and methods

Regardless of the type of narrative, every story must have these essential components: 

– the hero. Without a main character, there is no story. The hero is usually a protagonist with an initial inner conflict that must be overcome in order to achieve a goal. Applied to marketing, the hero can be the company, one of its products or a person who embodies the brand’s values, which the target can easily identify with. 

– helpers and opponents. Every decent story must combine a positive hero with a negative character who represents the antithesis of his values (and, therefore, the brand’s values) and one or more helpers, essential for the hero to reach his goal.

– the hero’s journey. Just like in a coming-of-age story, the protagonist must endure a series of trials and overcome obstacles to reach the ultimate goal. An initial balanced situation must always be followed by the so-called breaking point which gives way to the hero’s events that lead to the happy ending. 

– reader engagement. Without the typical conflicts of the journey, the story would be uninteresting, coming to seem unlikely. We all encounter difficulties in pursuing our goals and it is precisely these difficulties that lead us to identify with the hero and become engaged by the story. Without the drama, there would be neither involvement nor, least of all, a morale to draw a lesson from. Yet the mere presence of difficulties is not enough to truly engage the reader: the narrator must use formulas and language explicitly addressed to the audience to make them feel like an integral part of the story. 

Five tips for integrating storytelling into your emails

Among the dozens of emails that fill your inbox, which catches your attention more and leaves a mark: the nth last minute offer, or a message that tells a story, in which the product is only in the background? 

Using storytelling in your email campaigns not only lets your stand out by offering original and captivating content, but also lets you establish an empathetic bond with your audience, with you personally choosing the type of story that contributes to creating your company image and your brand reputation

Here are five tips for integrating storytelling and email marketing.

1. Define your buyer personas

A winning strategy is always based on knowing your users. To build an effective story, you firstly need to understand your audience’s needs and preferences. Establish the target you want to reach and consequently define the buyer personas, which will guide your choice in elements to include in your story. Only in doing so can your message create engagement and facilitate conversions.

2. Pay attention to content

An original and captivating approach to storytelling alone isn’t enough to make an email interesting. This is why the type of content you choose to tell is fundamental. It must be:

  • informative and high quality. Your message must create added value and be useful for the user.
  • relevant and pertaining to your business. For example, a travel agency will choose to tell the story of a tourist resort or use a traveler’s logbook format to implicitly promote their services, while a restaurant could tell the story of how its chef got the idea for one of its star dishes. 
  • plausible and simple. In order for the public to identify with your story, it must have a plausible subject that is not too realistic (otherwise it wouldn’t be a story, but news) and not completely imaginary (so as not to hinder your audience’s identifying with it). Simplicity also facilitates reading for users, who usually receive dozens of messages and don’t have much free time. 

3. Tell the story of your company or customers

When integrating storytelling into your emails, you can choose two different approaches: 

  • tell your company or product’s story. This will make it easier for you to convey your values and mission to the audience and personally create the image you want representing your brand. Try to preserve authenticity without seeming arrogant.
  • tell your customers’ story. This approach clearly engages readers and helps them identify with your story. Before using this approach, it’s important to first carry out an accurate preliminary analysis on the target audience and their habits and preferences. 

4. The emails shouldn’t sell, but tell 

Your stories must have a message and communicate values. The sale of your products is a secondary and implicit purpose which is only the background to your story, without being the focus. Storytelling is just that: transmitting a story that facilitates conversions only indirectly and as the result of a connection established between you and the user through the story. 

5. Don’t forget the medium you’re using: email

Storytelling in an email is certainly different than in a blog or website. Firstly, you have limited space available. But that doesn’t mean that a story can’t be told. 

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”

This simple phrase by Hemingway is the most cited example of storytelling that clearly shows how a story can even be told with just a few words. Unfortunately, however, we’re not all acclaimed authors and the storytelling itself can prove difficult: make sure that your story is long enough to contain all the essential information, while not being so long that it discourages reading, and make sure it’s readable as an email, especially from mobile (very important if you consider that 78% of opened emails are opened on mobile). 

Also remember to always insert a button for your CTA, an element that can’t be missing in the layout of any email, and to increase the attractiveness of the message through images, GIFs, or video content

Examples of successful storytelling

We’ve chosen a few examples to give you a concrete idea of how you can integrate storytelling and email marketing.

Storytelling applied to newsletters 

Newsletters are ideal for using a narrative approach, as they are created to share information and strengthen the sense of community.  An example of storytelling integrated in a newsletter can be seen here by Pennamontata, which often dedicates its weekly mailings to a specific theme, developing a story around it. The purpose is to inform and intrigue the reader with a different setting from usual newsletters, without any reference to a product/service. 

pennamontata nl storytelling example 1
pennamontata nl storytelling example 2

Welcome email and storytelling 

Can a newly subscribed contact be welcomed through a story? The answer is yes! A wonderful example is this welcome email from The Hustle, which chooses to use a funny story to make the newly subscribed user smile, offering stimulating and original content. 

the hustle storytelling and welcome emails example

Storytelling to celebrate a company anniversary

Brooks Brothers provides a classic example of storytelling focusing on telling the company’s story. The brand chose to celebrate its 100th anniversary by sharing the story of the company’s origins and its iconic products with the community. The use of images and graphic elements serves the purpose well and the products are used to tell the story, without a direct promotional intent. 

brooks brothers storytelling for company anniversary example

In summary

Storytelling is a technique increasingly used in marketing which is proving effective not only because it’s highly appreciated by users, but also because it can create an empathetic bond with the user. 

If you’d like your emails to stand out in your recipients’ inboxes, try this approach: choose the type of email you consider most suitable for a story and try to tell yours using the elements and advice we’ve provided in this article.

This article was written by

Paola Bergamini

Paola Bergamini

I was born in 1993 in Como and I escaped from this little town to study in Milan, where I graduated in 2017 in philosophy. I've always been interested in marketing and communication and I love writing and reading. As Content Editor at MailUp, I try to keep up to date with Email and Digital Marketing news, in order to share trends, theories and tools about this constantly evolving sector.

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