Email: The Genre Everyone Reads

The inbox may be the best place to tell a story

by Jason Falls |

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Susan Blue, director of content at Emma, an email marketing and communications company.

In many ways, content strategy is about finding the most effective and memorable ways to tell your story. And the inbox is an ideal place to do just that. The problem is, most companies send promotion after promotion, and they forget they’ve got a bunch of real humans out there just waiting for something worthwhile to show up. They forget to make things personal. They forget to make things interesting. Eyes glaze over. Expectations are lowered. Emails get deleted.

That’s a shame because email really is the genre everyone reads — inbox-checking is some kind of national pastime at this point, somewhere between baseball and apple pie. And if someone is on your list, they’ve invited you to their inbox. You’ve made a connection with them (yay, you!). So don’t become one of those automatically deleted emails. Engage those folks. How? Craft your campaigns with a story in mind. When you tell a story instead of just selling a product or promoting a cause, your audience tunes in.

Three Ways to Tell a Story About Your Company

Tell a slice of your story

You know those email campaigns that are so broad they basically mean nothing? They may say something like, “Introducing our new collection: We have something for everyone!” or “It’s springtime, so come back and visit!” Yeah, don’t do that. It doesn’t give your audience anything concrete to think about. Instead, pull out one particular glimpse of who you are.

email marketingThat’s exactly what the store Anthropologie does with this dreamy slice of an email. Before this campaign arrived one day, I didn’t know I wanted to “indulge in a land of lemon and cardamom.” But I do now, officially and forever. I’ll admit that I think about this email nearly every time I walk past (or, more likely, walk into) one of their store locations. Instead of selling clothes, those Anthropologie spell-casters lured me in with a story. Does everything they sell have something to do with lemon or cardamom? Definitely not. It’s a hook, and a poetic hook to boot.

Not every snippet has to that evocative, though. Agencies can use this technique by focusing on one particular client success story. Nonprofits likewise can tell the story of one person they’re helping or one volunteer who’s making the world a better place every other Saturday morning. The New York Times recently ran a story about how one person telling her story about donating a kidney created a record chain of organ-related altruism.

Stories aren’t math, but they do add up over time. And, as my closet will attest, stories sell clothes.

Hint at a story that could unfold

Let’s say you sell scarves. You could send an email with pretty pictures of your scarves. Sure, why not? You could announce that you’re selling your scarves for half-price. Sounds fine. But your readers have likely seen pictures of scarves before, unless they’re living in some kind of dystopian society where the vampire overlords have outlawed scarves. (Note to self: Write next teen novel sensation with vampire twist. They no longer sparkle, but they hate scarves!) And they’ve also likely seen scarves on sale before. Again, unless … oh, never mind.

But what if you think of the scarf as more than a product? What if your audience could see themselves enjoying that scarf? You could create a stylish how-to video that shows how to tie that scarf and look like a sophisticated Parisian. Or you could take pictures of your customers wearing your scarves around town. Either way, you’re setting a story in motion.

Latch onto a bigger story to be relevant

email marketingThe most obvious kind of relevance happens every time Valentine’s Day or any other holiday rolls around. But you’re not limited by the calendar when it comes to connecting what you do with whatever’s happening in the world. You can also look to current events. When everyone in the entire world seemed to be talking about the royal wedding last year, Saveur food magazine emailed tips and recipes for hosting a British afternoon tea. When legendary chef Ferran Adria announced he was closing his restaurant in Spain, one travel magazine included trip itinerary ideas for Barcelona in its weekly email a few days later.

By finding a connection to what’s already on their minds, you’re giving your audience a way to participate in whatever the bigger story is — you’re tapping them into the zeitgeist. They’ll appreciate you for that, and they’ll remember that you’re a warm human, not just a sender of emails with one promotion after the next.

So What’s Next?

Set aside some time to think about the stories hiding amidst the products or services you offer. Help your audience experience what you’re all about, instead of telling them. This extra effort will give your audience a reason to pay attention — because, as everyone knows, even scarf-hating vampires find a good story irresistible.

Susan Blue is the director of content for Emma, an email marketing and communications company that serves more than 30,000 customers around the world. She’s equally fascinated by obscure medieval women writers, Chicago Cubs baseball and cute Japanese notebooks. 

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).