What Great Storytellers Can Teach You about Email Marketing

Image of storytellers
Given the choice, which would you rather read: a list of facts and statistics, or a riveting short story? Unless you’re that exceptional individual who loves stuffing his head with useless facts, you probably opted for the story.

With that in mind, does your marketing email sound more like a textbook? Are the people opening your message fighting the urge to yawn, or do your messages really grip their attention?

‘Storytelling’ is a new darling in email marketing circles. Stories activate the imagination, stimulate the emotions, and create the desire to find out what happens at the end of the story. That translates to more traffic, higher click rates, and better conversion figures.

This post shares the classic storytelling techniques found in some of the most loved works of literature. By the time we’re done, you’ll have learnt how to employ those tricks to really give your marketing story an edge.

Let the story begin!

Create a Likeable Hero

Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins and the Little Prince – we each have our favorite literary heroes, and our reasons for liking them. Perhaps it’s intelligence or courage; maybe it’s a loyal heart or a unique way of looking at the world.

The secret power of a likeable character is that the reader can truly relate to their personal story. We start to identify with them; we ‘become’ the character. We see aspects of ourselves in them. The best characters learn and grow, and change. As they do, so do we.

That’s a powerful way that storytellers influence people. If you can get readers to identify with your ‘hero’, you can sway their hearts and minds far more easily. If your audience is clearly identified, the marketing battle is half won.

How can you develop a suitable hero for your marketing message?

  • One way is to tell your own story, or the story of your business. You know your story and your journey better than any other. Readers can relate to a realistic personal story that’s told in an authentic way.
  • You could invent a memorable ‘typical client’ with a common problem. Create a persona for this character. Put yourself in his (or her) shoes, delve into his mindset, and add some colorful details.

Include an Interesting Villain

Dracula, Captain Hook, the whale from Moby Dick, and Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Great storytellers include villains we love to hate. They’re dark, they’re ominous, and they’re dangerous – and that makes them interesting. Do you even remember the name of the ‘hero’ in Godzilla?

The villain evokes powerful emotions. We feel anxious, or indignant, but at the same time we’re intrigued. We want to see if the scoundrel gets what he deserves in the end. Emotionally we take sides with the hero, even if that hero is a bit of a scoundrel himself.

You can use this plot technique to your advantage in your sales copy. By identifying the villain, you’re automatically getting the reader to take sides with the hero – your humble business.

So how do you come up with a suitable villain?

  • In the highly marketable story of Virgin, starring Sir Richard Branson, the villains were the major record labels, then British Airways. In other words, the big corporate competition. Virgin was the underdog. The brand’s rise to fame depended partly on selling that story. Why not take a page out of Branson’s book?
  • Villains don’t need to be people. You can use hassle, ignorance, inefficiency or discrimination – any suitable idea dressed up as a character. If you’re a designer, create some bad design gremlins, for example.
  • Think about what stands in the way of your client’s success. Is it software that’s too difficult to use? Is it an overpriced service? Is it time wasted? Then invent a personality for that problem – the villain.
  • Describe the villain in such a way that the reader’s imagination is activated. Clearly show how your company or your client – the underdog – eventually wins.

Follow the Hero’s Journey

Bilbo Baggins follows very much the typical hero’s journey in The Hobbit. It’s a journey we all know, and it comes in many disguises: Batman, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and many more.

First we meet the hero, and then we find out about an imminent challenge, a problem or a goal. The hero must go on a journey, either physically or metaphorically, to solve the problem. In The Hobbit, the challenge is to take back the treasure from Smaug the dragon, for example.

It’s a useful framework for the plot of any kind of story. It creates a desire to read the story to the end, to learn whether the journey turns out successfully or not. With each twist in the journey the tension builds. There is conflict. The hero must make choics, until the eventual story climax, when everything is resolved.

That’s the perfect place to insert your call to action. Hook your reader’s attention, treat him to an interesting journey (involving your product), and along the way you’ll get him on board. By the end of the journey the reader will be easier to influence.

Here’s how to create a basic hero’s journey:

  • Get the audience to sympathize with and relate to your hero. Paint a familiar world picture.
  • Create a challenge – a call to adventure or danger. Dramatize a typical problem that your product will eventually solve.
  • Test and challenge your hero, and prepare him for the climax that lies ahead. You could step in as the ‘mentor’ archetype – preparing the hero with your wisdom and helpful resources.
  • Create a dramatic climax – the showdown or the major event that brings things to a head.
  • Show the road back. What has the reader learned from the story? Add your call to action here.


Storytelling is in our nature. Since man’s beginnings, people have been sitting around the fire listening to stories. All children love stories, and grown-ups enjoy them too. By using a great story in your email marketing, you’ll be tapping into people’s imagination and their emotions.

Marketing emails are stories too. The theme of the story should ultimately be: “Why buying from us is a good idea.” So, learn from the best storytellers and make your story compelling to read.

In summary, any good marketing story has some of the following elements:

  1. Get people to identify with your hero. It might be your personal story – as you battle the odds to make a difference in the world. Alternatively, create your own Bilbo Baggins – someone the reader really likes.
  2. Throw in a villain and stimulate those emotions. Show how the villain can be overcome, using whatever it is that you’re marketing.
  3. Take the reader on a journey. Create some conflict and suspense, and weave your business into the magic. Conclude in such a way that your reader feels compelled to take action.

What are some of your favorite heroes and villains from books or movies? Share the reasons why you can relate to them and their journey in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!