3 Elements of Effective Storytelling in Marketing

7 min
Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus

It’s not only in your best interest to share your organization’s story, it’s your responsibility. When you share your stories and those of the people you serve, you offer listeners the opportunity to take action and change the world for the better.

As a marketer, storytelling develops meaningful connections with your audience and can even move them to rally around your cause. And when you take the time to refine storytelling in your marketing efforts, you can inspire large audiences to make an impact.

In this post, we’ll discuss what makes a good story and different ways you can become a more effective marketer by using storytelling.

The Elements of a Successful Story

Marketers estimate that individuals spend just over 12 hours a day consuming different types of media. Given that, and the sheer amount of content people see every day, you need to do everything in your power to capture an audience’s attention and hold it. Use these tips to help tell a story that draws people in and effectively communicates your message.

1) The Right Structure

The greatest stories you’ve ever experienced are governed by strict structure. It could be the classic Shakespearean five-act drama setup, Joseph Campbell’s 12-part hero’s journey, or Syd Field’s timeless cinematic plot point model.

Big or small, every story needs structure to be successful. Here’s a quick breakdown of how you might structure your storytelling within your marketing efforts.

Act 1, Scene 1

If your reader can’t get past the first paragraph, page, or minute, your story gets cut short and your message goes undelivered. There are countless ways you can begin your narrative, but it’s important the direction you choose lines up with your overall tone, voice, and message. Consider these famous first lines:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • “Mother died today.”–Albert Camus, The Stranger

These lines use different tactics to introduce information and grab the reader’s attention immediately:

  • Melville starts with the main character’s name
  • Hemingway describes background information about who we presume to be the main character
  • Camus hooks us in with an emotional event

When it comes to your story, consider what marketing channel you’re promoting it through and how you want your audience to digest the story. For example, an emotional hook like Camus’ might be most effective as a subject line when your content is directly competing for higher open rates with other emails in an inbox.

The Middle Bit

Despite the broad nature of the problem your nonprofit works to solve, like ending global hunger, it can be more engaging to an audience if you focus on your beneficiaries’ individual stories to connect with your audience. This is due to the identifiable victim effect, which suggests that charitable giving tends to be greater when donors are presented with individual stories rather than large statistics.

This tactic can transform the broad stroke of a tragedy into a personal hardship that is suddenly specific, tangible, and more impactful to an audience. When you establish one-on-one connections between your readers and the people you serve, taking advantage of the identifiable victim effect, it can even boost conversion rates and donations.

In Conclusion

Just as you take special care to begin your story, you also must consider how it ends. In a way, your nonprofit’s overarching story—which is tied to your mission—doesn’t end until you solve the larger problem at hand, no matter what that problem is.

Regardless, as you work to fulfill your mission, every story you tell is a stake in the ground that celebrates your accomplishments and progress: they’re installments in a larger narrative. With the right outlook and tone, the never-ending story is not seen as a failure, but rather as an opportunity to reengage your audience and provide them with updates as you continue to march forward. The conclusion is the journey.

2) Vivid Imagery

If you want your story to inspire people to take action, you need to play to their emotions. To help, use powerful imagery that resonates deeply with your audience.

Photos

Photos can generate an emotional response from someone while simultaneously conveying a lot of information. Consider how they compare to written text and video, which take time for the full picture to come to fruition as the audience consumes them.

With a photo, someone only needs a few seconds to absorb its emotional overtones and impact. For example, look at some of the most powerful photos ever taken, like Tank Man—the unknown protester in Tiananmen Square:

storytelling in marketing

Or American soldiers raising the flag of victory at Iwo Jima:

storytelling in marketing

These photos tell visceral stories of protest, unrest, war, and triumph. They give voice to causes that spread across the entire world. This is some of the power your organization can tap into with the right images.

When it comes to your marketing efforts, remember that choosing the right photo is just as important as choosing where it lives on the page. For example, images thrive in today’s social media ecosystem:

  • Instagram is fueled entirely by photographs
  • Tweets with photos receive 150% more retweets than those without
  • Facebook photo posts get 53% more likes, 104% more comments, and 84% more click-throughs on links than text-based posts

You should never force photos into places they don’t organically fit. However, given these statistics, it’s important you consider using them in ways that align with your mission and story to foster more effective storytelling that drives action.

Videos

Videos are powerful tools that bring your stories to life beyond what photos and text can do. With videos, your audience gets an entirely new perspective: they see, hear, and feel what it’s like to be inside your story.

Pro Tip
Your video’s narrative and music are just as important as the images on the screen. Spend just as much time crafting your message and choosing the right music as you do filming.

For a strong example of how this comes together in a marketing effort, look to Masterclass. They partner with major personalities and celebrities to teach fundamental skills like sports, cooking, filmmaking, and more.

To promote their courses, they film short videos that are highly engaging and shareable. Check out the advertisement they created for music composer Hans Zimmer’s class:

This video introduces you to the course, shows what you can expect to learn, and puts you in the room with Hans. While your nonprofit might not have access to major celebrity names, you can still create a professional caliber video that markets your mission. And if you want to go beyond your top-level mission, try shooting videos of:

  • Staff, volunteers, or beneficiaries testimonials
  • Inspiring moments from your events and fundraisers
  • Your founding story
  • Tales of the impact you’ve brought to the world
  • Thank-you messages from beneficiaries

Descriptive Language

The language you tell your story with impacts that way it’s received by your audience. If you want to captivate readers, it’s important that you prioritize action-oriented wording that’s easy to understand and relate to. This effort can create a sensory experience for your readers that helps them go beyond the copy to feel your story.

To accomplish this, you must show instead of tell. It’s a practice most writers are taught during their education, but it’s easily applicable to all, especially nonprofit marketers who want to tell compelling stories.

For example, if you’re telling an impact story about a beneficiary you might tell your audience this individual has a difficult life because there’s no access to clean water nearby. Instead, show your audience what it’s like to walk a mile in this person’s shoes:

  • Don’t just explain behavior, explain why they behave a certain way
  • Show their mood through their actions
  • Describe body language, tone of voice, and other details that illustrate emotion
  • Use colorful language to describe the setting

It could sound like this:

The ground is parched from the heat and the nearest source of clean water is over five miles away. That doesn’t stop [Name of beneficiary]. They can’t stop, because there’s an entire family back counting on them. So, they walk for what seems like a lifetime and bring that life-sustaining water home.

3) Tailored Content

As a storyteller, you need to meet your audience halfway. That is, if you create beautiful stories about things your readers aren’t interested in they might not get any attention. In order to get a clear understanding of what your audience is looking for, and tailor your content accordingly, you can:

  • Conduct a survey
  • Analyze your email open and click through rates to get a sense for which types of content are most popular
  • Ask your event attendees what they like
  • Solicit feedback in blog comments
  • Participate in conversations on social media

How to Get Started

Even the best storytellers need to practice their craft to maintain their skills. Set your next marketing story up for success by taking some time to sit down and complete this 20-minute exercise:

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. Will you start your story with a hook, or will you first provide background information?
  3. What are the problems or obstacles that arise along the way?
  4. What is the character’s critical choice, or the climactic moment of your story?
  5. Is there a small resolution that contributes to the larger goal? (Here, think of how individual books end within a series).

If you’re interested in learning even more details around effective storytelling in marketing, make sure to download our guide here:

Free Download: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Storytelling

Otherwise, for face-to-face tips, strategies, and insights join us in Boston for the Collaborative where we’ll have many different sessions dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.

Editor’s Note: This post was recently updated with current best practices.


Resources


Where social entrepreneurs go to learn and grow

Join over 20,000 leaders just like you who get their weekly dose of technology, innovation, fundraising ideas, and the latest industry trends.