Storytelling is Key, in Email and Everywhere Else

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I joined around 1,000 marketers in Nashville this week for the fourth annual Marketing United conference staged by the locally based digital email marketing platform Emma. A conference all about email, right? In fact, no. Presentations roamed widely across channels and technologies, with sessions on AR, AI, voice, and video.

There was a connecting theme, though: the importance of storytelling. It was highlighted in the two opening keynotes — one fiery, one hilarious but thought-provoking — by professional storytelling adviser Kindra Hall, and former Obama White House (and Sanders campaign) videographer Arun Chaudhary. The importance of a brand story to customers is that they feel "they're becoming part of something," said Hall. For Chaudhury, there may be many audiences, and many pipelines to them, but everything leads back to the central message.

I sat down with Cody Bender, SVP of Products at Emma — and with two of Emma's customers — to join up the dots. Is email a good channel for storytelling? "I think so. For one thing, it's fairly persistent. It sits in your inbox, you're not flipping through texts. Also, storytelling tends to be fairly linear; you can send a linear narrative via email, and I think most sophisticated marketers do that today. It can be an ongoing story too, because it can be a long-term relationship. I think if a brand doesn't have a compelling story, and emails are just a series of one-off events over the course of time, it's not nearly as effective. People want to grow with your brand, and see how it evolves, and brands that are really good at that are very successful."

The alternative (in B2C) is just to use emails for discounting, and sending endless offers. "That can be effective, but if you're trying to build engagement, it's difficult to do without bringing the customer along. As much data as we have, creativity and novelty are key. They aren't going away."

Stories of hope

For Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, having good stories to tell in email newsletters is a matter of life and death. The hospital uses Emma to spread education and advocacy, and maintain its reputation as a thought leader in the field of cancer. That's what I learned from Lisa Nelson, senior website editor, whose reponsibilities include the curation and distribution of the "Spotlight" newsletter, which includes cancer information and advice, but above all, stories of hope.

"We educate people about signs and symptoms, upcoming innovations, clinical trials, and new discoveries. We grew up with Emma; we've been with them over eight years. We only had about 200 thousand people in our database, and the tools were pretty limited back then. We worked with what we had. As we grew, Emma also grew, and started offering all these new tools." Today, Dana Faber has over 620 thousand people on that list (some 15 million emails are sent each year). 

The relationship with Emma seems to have been a two-way street. "I'd call and say, we'd really like to start doing split testing. Emma would say, we're doing that, do you want to be part of beta? I always felt like they were already implementing or deploying things that were on the cutting edge, and we could be part of that. It's like being in a conversation."

Click and open rates have continued to grow, even though, Nelson emphasizes, "we're really not selling anything." The list includes, in particular, donors, but also physicians, patients, and the Institute's large staff. Could personalization be relevant in a health context? "We can really tailor emails to what patients, prospective patients, or families of patients really need in their moment of crisis." Different content, including images, can be offered to different audience segments. "For people who clicked through to breast oncology," she explained, "we created a special email about breast oncology, with videos. and I think our open rate was something like 65%."

It must take a team of people to generate all this varied content? "You're looking at the team," Nelson laughed. I was sitting across the table from her, and from Kha Dickerman of Dana Farber's fund-raising arm, the Jimmy Fund. She doesn't, she admitted, create the digital assets; they're mostly prepared by editors and writers for the Dana Farber blog — but she is sole curator and editor of the email newsletter (she also takes plug-in content from the Jimmy Fund on donations and related events).

The newsletter, of course, steers clear of tightly-regulated information like patient data and records, but a high degree of sensitivity is still required when it comes to selecting stories for publication. Full patient consent is required for stories about particular cases, and of course it's necessary to check on the patient's progress right up to publication. "Patients are so generous about telling their stories, because they know it makes a difference to other people. Storytelling really is the core of what we do."

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