Email Marketing

Why Storytelling is the Key to Selling With Email

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Terry Dean is one of the sharpest online marketing experts I’ve come across. The Total Conversion Code program he created with Glenn Livingston a few years ago changed the way I, and many of my peers, approach conversion optimization. And his newsletter is one of just two marketing newsletters I pay for each month.

In his 18 years of being online full time, Terry has had a long track record of success in both starting his own Internet businesses and as an “Internet Lifestyle Mentor,” helping many entrepreneurs earn more, work less and enjoy life.

One of the accomplishments Terry is well known for is making $96,250 in sales from a single email he sent out in front of a live audience. So, while there were a number of topics I’d love to interview Terry about, email is the one we decided on.TerryDeanYellowShirt

The $96+K email aside, in this interview Terry shares his insights into why email is such an important part of his and his clients’ marketing strategy and why he believes storytelling in email is such a big part of a successful email marketing campaign.

When we were discussing potential topics for this interview you mentioned two things about email that grabbed my attention. One is that email is your primary lead generation at the moment (and I know you experiment with all sorts of lead gen sources). Two is that email is usually where you get your clients the biggest increases quickly.
At the heart of your email marketing strategy is storytelling. What makes storytelling in email such an effective way to profit from this channel?

Stories are a basic foundation of communication.

For example, professional speakers know their audiences may forget every single point they share within 10 minutes of the end of their presentation, but they remember the stories.  In fact, they’ll have audience members who might not have seen them for years ask them to please tell the same story as last time. 

Here’s a good example.  I wrote an email way back in 2000 about how the Internet allowed me to work from anywhere.  I chose to live way out in the country where my nearest next door neighbor was a cow named Oscar.  The cow was owned by the neighbor and regularly came up to fence to eat the grass on our side of the fence.

I sent one email about that.  I’ve had dozens of people ask me about Oscar over the years.  When speaking at conferences, people who were on my list way back then still ask about the cow.  I don’t know what happened because we don’t live there anymore.

They remembered the message of freedom I shared, because they remembered the story.

A few years from now, will people remember the email you sent last week?

You should share content.  You should run special promotions.  But those, more often than not, appeal to the logic centers of the brain.  It’s stories that bypass the logic center and go directly into people’s emotions.

Big companies understand the power of stories.  For example, right now many people may still remember watching the commercials during the Superbowl.  One that stood out to me the most was Budweiser.

They had a commercial about a puppy who made friends with a horse.  When it was time for the puppy to go to a new home, the horse runs after the puppy and comes back with it.  Budweiser didn’t have to tell you ‘benefits’ of their product or even make a special deal. They simply wanted to tell an emotional story and then connect the story to your feelings of their product.

For email, the easiest type of story to get started with is a case study.  Contact some of your happy customers and find out how they found your product and what results they have from it. Is anyone using what you sell in a unique way?  Those are obvious stories to start with and perfect for proving both the problem your product solves and the promises you make.

It’s interesting you mention Budweiser and branding. Many direct response marketers tend to be dismissive of brand building and may scoff at the idea of using emails and stories to, at least in part, build a brand for their business. What do you say to those people who are more inclined to just put an offer out there in an email and try to make as many sales as quickly as possible?

Please understand.  I’m not telling people not to put an offer out there with a deadline and make maximum number of sales from it.  You should do that.  Often my biggest days are the day a deadline ends for a special I’ve been running.

But you will burn out your list.  The people who constantly send hard offers are the ones who come back six months later reporting that email doesn’t work like it used to.  You could look at this like an emotional bank account you’ve built up with your subscribers.  Every hard offer is withdrawing from that bank account.  If you don’t make deposits through stories and content, it will soon run dry.

The difference between a large company like Budweiser and smaller business owners like I work with is we can’t afford to just tell an emotional story and leave our ‘logo’ there.  That works for them because they have the budget and the time for it to pay dividends.  What my clients and I do is tell story, provide useful but incomplete content in the story, and then connect the story to our product/service immediately.

Let’s take the case studies as a story example again.  You tell the story about the results your clients achieved. While telling the story you share a couple of the breakthroughs for them.  That’s the content side of the equation. Then at the end you connect the benefits they experienced back to your offer.

If you were a consultant, perhaps you end the email with a link to a free consultation form.  With a product, you’d link over to the product sales page.

I call these the 3 E’s of Email: Entertain, Educate, Earn.  Entertain your readers with a story or metaphor. Provide some type of content or education connected to the story.  And every story is leading them to a product or service you offer.

And often my best producing specials, the ones with deadlines, are also connected to a story.  For example, you run a 25% off everything special… because it’s your 20th wedding anniversary.  That is a natural place to throw in a short story and how it applies to your business. The special offer itself becomes more believable simply because of a “Reason Why” type of story.

You’ve mentioned using case studies as stories a couple of times. What other types of stories have you found to be effective in your and/or your clients’ emails?

When doing discounts and limited time specials, I’ll use “Reason Why” stories.  Here’s the reason why we’re making this offer.  It could be an event like Christmas, a birthday, or a “holiday” based on the business, itself such as the seventh anniversary of your first website.  Or I could be sharing the reason why the prices are so good, such as we purchased a huge inventory at discount prices or it’s a scratch-and-dent sale.

An “Origin” story is almost always used in the initial autoresponder sequence.  Think about super hero characters such as Superman.  He has been a “brand name” for more than 80 years.  That’s enduring.  And most of us could say his origin story by heart because it’s been retold so many times.

Your origin story is what got you into this business.  What problem or gap did you see in the industry?  What motivated you to take action and start this business?  It’s both inspirational and demonstrates why you’re different from the competition.

Another story that usually makes it in early to an email sequence is your “Vision” story.  This is the vision you have for change in your industry.  It’s your “I have a dream” speech similar to Martin Luther King, Jr., and how he changed the face of the world with his vision.

Your subject may not be as world changing but does change the lives of your customers.  What vision do you have for change in your industry and providing better service?

I regularly use “Rapport Building” stories.  These are not always directly product related.  They’re simply a part of the shared human experience to make a connection with your readers.

For example, if my customers owned small businesses, I may tell them about something frustrating during the week, such as an employee who drove me nuts or a vendor who didn’t get the product delivered on time.  In other words, I understand what they go through daily.

Or it might seem totally unrelated, like the email I wrote after my dog died.  No product promotion in that one at all, just sharing some grief… and it was amazing the number of comments that came in on a blog post, including the number who said they were more motivated to buy from me because they had that shared connection of loving dogs.

That’s a few types of stories.  I’ve used a bunch more effectively in email sequences, but those should be enough to get the creativity flowing.

They’re in good company, because I still say I’m not a good storyteller.  It doesn’t come naturally to me at all.  My personality is more of an old Joe Friday, “Just the Facts, Ma’am.”

I have clients who are uncomfortable with the idea of sharing personal stories in their emails. Also, I know there are a lot of people who feel they’re just not good storytellers and/or don’t have good stories to tell. What’s your advice for people who fit into one, or both, of those groups?

The beauty of email is you get to choose what you reveal and don’t reveal.  You become a famous person no one outside your niche has ever heard of.  There won’t be any paparazzi chasing you down and taking photos of you at inopportune times.

Stories are easy to find in daily life, because the stories you tell can be the exact same ones you’d tell a friend or co-worker at lunch: “You won’t believe what happened to me last week!”

I’ve yet to meet anyone who never says anything about their life to friends or family.  Nothing interesting has ever happened to you?  That’s unlikely.

The best way to improve your storytelling skills is to listen to storytellers.  Any popular professional speaker will have his or her signature stories they tell. Watch what they reveal or don’t reveal. Become a reader, including fiction. Watch movies. Movies are looking for ways to affect your emotions, whether it’s an action mover or a tear jerker.

My suggestion for someone uncomfortable with sharing any stories is to start with the easy ones already mentioned, such as a case study, your Origin story, or a Vision story.  Once you see the results from those, you become more open to other types.

Start slow. Begin by just inserting a little tidbit about your life here and there.  Perhaps mention your pet. Say something about your husband or wife in passing. Mention a vacation by the beach and how much you hate coming back to the cold.

Your whole email doesn’t have to be a story. You’re just inserting one paragraph that shows you have a normal life… just like them.


Terry’s put together a free report that shares, step by step, how to increase your email opens, clicks, and sales using stories.  It’s called “7 Unique Ways to Create Profitable Emails…Even if You’re NOT a Writer.”  You’ll also receive a cheat sheet with 64 story shortcut questions to make the process easy.

Download it today at

Read other Crazy Egg articles by Adam Kreitman here.

Adam Kreitman coaches business owners on how to make their websites more compelling to their prospects.. and to Google. He owns Words That Click, a firm specializing in Conversion Optimization and managing Google AdWords campaigns for small businesses.Follow him on

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