email marketing
Marketing Content Strategy

For Email Marketing That Sticks, Story Matters

7 Minute Read

Yesterday morning, Christine Spratt returned to work after a two-week vacation, with a medium latté (skim, no sugar) in hand. She’d been off the grid for the entire vacation, so she knew she’d have some catching up to do re: her inbox, but it was worth it.

Since she was the first one into the office (per usual), she set some light music to play on her computer and logged in to summit the mountain of emails that her inbox had become. Her good nature soured when she opened the worst example of email marketing she thought she’d ever seen:

Subject Line: Hi, Firstname


We are a web design and web application development company. We deliver result-oriented solutions in a cost-effective manner to maximize your productivity. We offer complete web services at affordable rates.

Our team of experts build intelligent websites that actually perform and exceed your expectations.

If you are interested, we can provide you more detail.

Gross, she thought. Another impersonal email disaster. Christine quickly deleted the email and continued sifting.

Later that afternoon, Christine logged in to her marketing automation platform to check open and conversion rates on her latest campaign. They were low. Suspiciously low. So she clicked into the email to see where she might have gone wrong.

There, to her horror, she saw an email that was nearly identical to the one she’d received earlier. Impersonal, flawed, and flat-out lazy. She was horrified. This needs to change, she thought. But how?

Much like its analog predecessor, email marketing can matter more than other forms of communication because it’s personal. An email is written, in theory, to a particular person—it stands to reason, then, that its message should resonate with the addressed individual. So, why are so many emails crafted in such impersonal ways that they leave addressees unchanged—or worse, turned off completely? It’s time to restore email to its former glory by crafting emotional stories that drive readers to take action.

When Email Goes Wrong

That sample email up there? It’s a real email I recovered from the spam folder. A real, low-quality, cold-call-style email that’s completely ineffective.

Why? For starters, there’s zero personalization. This email was sent to as many people as possible in the hopes that it would pass through spam filter and reach just one person.

There’s also a pretty weak call to action. There’s a promise of solutions, maximizing productivity and exceeding expectations, but the “how” is never revealed. Is it better UX? SEO? CMS? A response would probably include skepticism and plenty of questions trying to figure out if there’s any value inherent to the company that sent it.

Most importantly, the email does not tell a compelling story. From its very bland subject line (and the personalization error it clearly encountered) to its vague content, there’s nothing within the email that sticks with the reader. Again, this email would never come from a brand or major company, but failure isn’t too far away from this example.

There could be better messaging or more practical examples, but all it takes to miss the mark is poor targeting or a message that does not apply to the user. A story can get around those problems to deliver an email that can lead to a marketing transformation.

Why Story Matters

“Storytelling is the most natural form of communication,” said Robert McKee, a writing lecturer, in a 2015 interview. And, according to McKee, most marketing boils down to emotion or information. Whether it’s a puppy with sad eyes or trotting out numerous awards, most ads are trying to appeal to either the heart or the mind. Currently, there’s so much competition that it’s getting harder to reach consumers. True stories combine emotion with information to cut through all that noise. That’s why, as McKee teaches, storytelling can lead to a marketing transformation.

“When you take the data from a PowerPoint presentation and dramatize it into a beautifully told story, [consumers] not only get all the information, but they get it emotionally,” said McKee.

Stories with clear inciting incidents that disrupt protagonists’ lives will lead to many questions in the mind of the viewer or reader. That’s some great engagement that can lead to higher open (and conversion) rates.

Other ways to improve storytelling in email marketing include originality, universal themes, and respect for the audience. It can be easy to forget that consumers, like us, are people. They have day-to-day routines, hopes, dreams, fears, and motivations. Engage them, respect them, and chances are they will respond in kind.

Storytelling can seem a bit scary because you’re a marketer, not Kurt Vonnegut. Luckily, however, email marketing is second nature—and the important lessons you’ve learned about creating successful emails in the past can be applied to future emails as part of your content strategy.

Emails With Story and Heart

theSkimm is the epitome of everything right with emails. With millions of active users and millions of dollars in funding, theSkimm is a runaway success through smart storytelling and engaging emails.

You get an immediate feel for the voice and personality of theSkimm as soon as you open the daily newsletter, which opens with a fun aside and a daily quote with a clever insight. What follows is a breakdown of major news stories that put each event into context. There’s a lot of additional information that frames the news in away that’s easy to understand along with the potential ramifications. Each item is its own story that fits into the larger narrative of making you smarter in a way that’s fun and simple.

C/O theSkimm

theSkimm has the perfect balance of personality without ever losing sight of its mission. Plus, there’s the bonus of affiliate partner deals and links to other content from theSkimm. And when it comes to calls to action, the brand is unparalleled: people who love the brand have ample opportunities to share individual pieces of content, and are rewarded for their promotional efforts.

Uber is another example of a successful email storyteller. Usually, their stories are pretty simple: there’s a great deal that’s happening for a limited time followed by instructions on activating the special rate. But, Uber excels at event-specific emails.

Uber's 2017 Email.

In few words, Uber is able to tell a very succinct story. There’s a protagonist (you), an inciting incident (you need a ride home from a party or out to fireworks in your busy city), and an option to put your life back into balance. It lets you fill in a lot of the details (parking in the city is stressful, an Uber eliminates that stress; getting home after a party can mean finding a designated driver—Uber can do that for you instead), but by painting a familiar and empathetic picture, it makes things personal.

What’s more, because New Year’s Eve is a very busy time for the brand, consumers are often subject to surge pricing and inflated prices—which can leave them feeling ripped off or upset. To combat that negativity, Uber created the above email with a few tips to beat surge pricing and links out to a relevant blog post.

That personal touch goes a long way because the consumer has the power. During the busy holiday season, 62 percent of consumers stated email offers and deals influenced their purchases. Another survey targeting the coveted Millennial consumer indicated that these users were more open to emails from brands, but subscribed to fewer emails than older readers.

If you’re not telling stories in your email campaigns, readers are tuning you out. So get personal, get vulnerable, and tell your readers a story they can get behind. The results will justify the effort every time.

Interested in learning more about crafting content that tells a story and wins customers’ attention? Join us at an upcoming Storynomics workshop to learn from the world’s foremost educator on brand storytelling, Robert McKee.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Register for Forward 2019!

Charles Poladian is a journalist by trade, but a true creative at heart. The New York-based storyteller has covered health, space, tech, video games, eSports, breaking news and trending topics for various websites, including International Business Times. At IBT, Poladian drove traffic through smart SEO, keyword integration and engaging content with an average of 300,000 unique visitors a month.

Recommended for you