Holiday season feels like a series of tactical maneuvers as marketers try to push customers and clients to commit and convert before year-end. There’s no more time for strategy or thinking, just a lot of putting out fires as you get the details done right. Of course, all this frenetic activity means you and your customers are leaving the post-holiday season completely exhausted from the barrage. It’s time to start thinking about how you want to earn back your customers’ attention.
Earning attention is tricky early in the new year. Customers are focused on returns, and clients have been pressured to close business by the previous year-end, so there is far less need than at any other time of the year. This temporary situation makes it harder to achieve any level of immediate relevance. After all, if your customers needs are low, how relevant can your emails be?
Marketers talk about storytelling a lot, but it often feels like a lost art. The story gets buried under offer and product details, and loses the emotional aspect. It’s worth putting the effort in though. Stories are the heart of content, and content marketing continues as a hot trend for the third year running, according to eConsultancy. With that in mind, here are four tips to make your storytelling work:
- Find your story. It does seem worth mentioning that you will first need to find the story. As an email marketer, you don’t have a ton of budget. It isn’t likely that you have a big agency to come up with a huge idea. Instead, you’ll need to uncover a story on your own. Look to your customer service and sales folks for ideas here, but check out your brand’s Facebook and Twitter feeds as well.
Nordstrom does a great job with this: they collect customer service examples, give them a narrative, and then retell them to their employees and customers. You may have heard about the customer who asked for her just-purchased Nordstrom items to be wrapped via their free gift-wrap service, and then was offered free gift wrap for the Macy’s-purchased items she was also carrying. Stories like these have helped Nordstrom’s lay claim to “exceptional customer service” while at the same time they help the brand educate employees on how to give exceptional customer service.
It doesn’t have to be about customer service. LLBean picks top products every year to spin a mini-story around. These are definitely more “mini” than “story” but are worth comparing to the competition. Take shearling moccasin slippers as an example. Here is Nordstrom’s take on their shearling moccasin slippers: “Genuine Shearling Moccasin Slipper from Minnetonka. A plush shearling lining insulates a soft suede moccasin making it perfect for cold mornings.” It’s not a bad description, but it doesn’t spark any emotions either.
Now take a look at LLBean’s version, Men’s Wicked Good Moccasins: “Why We Love Them. Here in Maine, “wicked good” is as good as it gets. Slip on these soft sheepskin slippers and you’ll understand exactly how they earned their name. Exquisitely crafted with superior shearling, known as one of nature’s best insulators, which draws away moisture so your feet stay warmer on cold winter mornings and nights. We’ve improved these customer favorites with a contoured memory-foam foot bed for even more arch support and a better fit through the heel.” LLBean follows up with a video on how to tie the seaman’s shoelace.
This may not sound like a traditional story – it certainly doesn’t start with “once upon a time”. But it is weaving a bit of emotion around the product. It starts with linking it to the values of LLBean’s home state. It continues by offering a point of reflection. It gives customers valuable information about the qualities of specific aspects of the product – information they can share with friends to make them feel smart about their own purchase – and tacks on a solution to the problem of rawhide shoelaces. (Sure they look good, but I remember them being impossible to keep tied as a kid. Wish I’d known this knot back then). As a customer, I will feel better about buying LLBean’s slippers than I will about buying Minnetonka’s. There is an emotional component that is elicited from LLBean’s description that is not present in Nordstrom’s.
This is a great example of how little moments can make good, albeit non-traditional, emotional stories.
- Make it authentic. Your story needs to sound true, and sound true to your brand. Those are two distinct things. Folgers got it right in their long-running “Peter comes home for Christmas” commercial. Because the brand is known for morning (the timeframe) and coffee (the product) and home (the setting), it wasn’t hard to spin a brief tale about the son coming home for the holidays, making coffee, and having his parents wake up to a happy surprise. With minimal dialogue, it left enough to the viewer’s imagination that the story was far greater than the minute or so of air time. It still packs an emotional punch today.
On the other hand, LifeAlert definitely came up with a story that sounded true-to-life, if perhaps a bit on the horror-movie sinister side. However, it wasn’t true to their brand. LifeAlert was attempting to respond to customer critiques of their often corny “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials. In previous commercials, it has always been clear that the victims are safe. In their 2014 commercial, “Basement”, LifeAlert got scary-real based on stories they’d gotten from customers who had procrastinated getting the service because the ads to that point were so corny. The tone of the commercial wasn’t true to their generally optimistic brand voice, and customers complained. LifeAlert ended up pulling the ad after much bad press. Sure, the story packed an emotional punch. Just not the right one for LifeAlert’s brand.
Keep your stories authentic and you could be surprised by how long they work for you.
- Be smart about sharing. Finding a story to tell is the first step. You’ll want to make sure it can be used by your brand beyond the email channel. Partner with your PR team and other channel teams to make sure your story is used across social, blogs, and other formats. Your story doesn’t need to be a TV commercial like the examples above. In fact, Virgin Media of Australia found a wonderful true story from one of their technicians that gained nearly two thousand shares from their own website. If they had been smarter about sharing, this story could easily have been used in email and PR in addition to their blog – and probably made the rounds of morning TV shows with a Virgin Media spokesperson as well.
These types of stories will help build an emotional response to your brand that will positively impact future sales. They can go far on a tiny budget and with little effort. And they can play very well in the email channel.
- Help your readers participate. Philip Pullman said – ‘writing is despotism, but reading is democracy.’ It is a lot easier to be a despot, but you’ll have a better chance of reaching your goals if you inspire a bit of democracy in your marketing efforts.
American Express’ small business team created a forum called OPEN which offers advice and insights to small business owners. Mixed in with how-to articles are emotional stories like, “How to raise an Entrepreneur”. American Express gains press from this effort, and can repurpose the content in their email marketing efforts as well as on social media.
The most interesting part of the American Express OPEN site is the opportunity for small business owners to share their story. And they do – here’s one example. This creates an emotional connection with the American Express brand. Not to mention, American Express gets credit for lending some brand equity to the small business. There have been many small businesses which have leapfrogged their success in this way.
Encouraging reader participation via a hashtag is an easy way to help give your story a democratic spin, even if you don’t have the opportunity to give it a page on your website with comments allowed. You might even find your next story idea in a response.
Storytelling isn’t meant to be the sole focus for most brands. Keep your storytelling short and light, and you’ll get the benefit without trying to remake your brand’s entire approach to marketing. This is meant to be a short-term assist, not a new strategic focus.
One last note: just because you are using storytelling to engage your customers, that doesn’t mean that they’ve become mind readers. They’re giving you their attention so that they can benefit from your input. Tell them what you want them to do, otherwise they’ll lose the plot and you’ll lose their attention.