How to use Storytelling in Direct Response Marketing

A weary marketing manager sits down at her computer, once again, to review performance results from her most recent direct response campaign. “All of these long hours, the expenses, the planning,” she laments, rubbing her forehead with tired fingertips. What’s the use hiding her frustration? There’s no one left at the office to see or hear her. “Our products are phenomenal!” she cries. “And our customers agree—so why,” she asks the tracking spreadsheet in front of her, “aren’t we attracting new leads?”

Want to know what happens next?

That’s great! That means we’ve effectively pulled you into our hero’s story. Perhaps you see yourself there, at that desk at the end of another long day at work, wondering, “What does it take to drive better campaign performance?” You’re eager for an answer—a new idea, a new approach, for what it takes to boost your results.

Spinning Yarns, Telling Tales: It Works
Well, we’ve given you one idea here. Storytelling. It can be a tremendously effective way to engage customers and drive them to take action. If you don’t remember or are not already familiar with ad writer Martin Conroy’s work, let us acquaint you.

In 1974, Conroy penned one of the longest-running direct mail campaigns for The Wall Street Journal. It ran continuously (with only minor edits, mind you) for 28 years, from 1975 to 2003. Through simple storytelling, it so effectively appealed to people’s desire to succeed. It begins,

“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both—as young college graduates are—were filled with ambitious dreams for the future. Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion…”

Completists may want to read the full text, but the gist of the story is that both men went on to work for the same company. One of the men became its president, while the other was a mere manager there. The difference? The more “successful” of the men read The Wall Street Journal, which gave him the knowledge and insight he needed to secure a superior career trajectory.

The Appeal of a Story
The Wall Street Journal ad copy sparked something in its readers, many of whom went on to subscribe to the newspaper. There may not be a better (or more famous) example of storytelling for marketing success, but it’s one of many.

That’s because storytelling is part of human DNA. Stories invoke sensations (the sights and sounds of a beautiful late spring afternoon, for example) and can touch us deeply on the inside—tapping into our desires, aspirations, and fears, even challenging us to ask and answer questions that we may otherwise be too reticent to address.

For marketers, stories help to humanize. By bringing something real and authentic to the table, stories facilitate an emotional, personal connection with other customers—or even the people who make the products or deliver the services. (You’ll Love These 4 Ways to Use Emotional Marketing to Boost Response.)

As such, stories boost a brand’s trust factor and can help customers (in a non-salesy way) find relevant solutions—through a satisfying resolution, of course, that they experience as the story reveals how a solution works.

Storytelling In The Digital Age
Even Facebook ads can tell stories. An AdWeek article explains how using the storytelling framework can make Facebook ads more effective:

• The funnel-based campaign approach guides a person down the purchase funnel in three phases: “Meet the Brand,” “The Teaser,” and “The Hook” (the final ad contains the CTA).

• The priming-and-reminding storytelling approach uses multiple formats like display ads or video ads to educate people of the brand’s relevance to their lifestyles: “Set the Stage” shows the brand’s value proposition, and “The Synopsis” creatively reminds people of the storyline found in phase one.

Importantly, social media ads are easily shared with other prospective customers. An ad or traditional post (in any digital format) that tells a great story is more likely to make a connection and “go viral.” How to Generate Leads With Facebook Ad Campaigns.

Bringing Your Stories To Life
So how can you start using storytelling to connect more authentically with customers, engage them in action, and improve your campaign response? Here’s where things get a little technical. You’ll have to decide what story you want to tell and then work with a writer to execute your vision.

Target Marketing shows how you can tell your story through a planned sequence, applying Freytag’s Pyramid to your copywriting and story:

• Exposition – important background information, like the setting or a character’s back story
Rising Action – series of related incidents build to a point of interest
• Climax – the turning point, where the protagonist (your hero) starts seeing results
• Falling Action – conflict between protagonist and antagonist unravels, maybe with some final suspense
• Denouement – where conflict is resolved, marked by a release of tension for the reader

With this in mind, why not use the format of a direct mail package to tell a story in a controlled, action-oriented way? Your recipient starts the story by reading a compelling teaser that entices them to open the envelope. They move on to headline and body copy, which fleshes out the story and draws them into the brochure. Finally, there’s some resolution in the call-to-action listed on their business reply card. See how that works?

If you don’t use a direct mail package to tell your story, you may create a video, an aforementioned Facebook ad, or even a sequence on your website that leads visitors to a certain CTA. While shaping your story, consider what Seth Godin, author and marketing thought leader, shared on his blog back in 2006 about the hallmarks of a great story:

• It’s true
• Makes a promise
• Trusted
• Subtle
• Happens fast
• Doesn’t always need an 8-page color brochures or a face-to-face meeting
• Doesn’t appeal to logic, but appeals to senses
• Rarely aimed at everyone
• Doesn’t contradict itself
• Agrees with our world view

That’s great storytelling advice for the ages. Why not give it a try?
But wait—you’re probably still curious about how our story ends. Our hero contacted us for help assessing her marketing goals and campaign components, and we came up with a plan to turn her results around. No longer weary and frustrated, she’s feeling confident—seeing new leads coming in and ready to tackle her next campaign.