Whoa, I am totally blown away. 580 of you joined the storytelling webinar that my colleague, Steve Daigneault, and I presented earlier this week in partnership with NTEN and the Ad Council. Thanks so much for joining us!

I’m definitely pumped about writing my next email appeal, and I hope you are, too. Steve and I had a few thoughts that we wanted to share with you coming out of the event, and we also promised we’d answer all the questions we didn’t get to during the webinar itself. Okay! Here goes:

Sharing our number 1 take-away
The big lesson is to make sure you cast the donor as the hero of your emails. Not your organization or your staff or your partners – your donor. Make sure you’re presenting the choice to donate as a meaningful chance to improve the world and a chance to participate in a positive shared story. It may seem counterintuitive, but this approach is more compelling to potential donors than the most vivid, heartbreaking story you have in your organizational collection.

Downloading the slides or the full presentation

If you didn’t attend the webinar, you should start by reading our original storytelling whitepaper or downloading the full webinar recording. We don’t believe in putting a ton of text in presentations, so it’s best to start with one of these.

Then, if you’d like a copy of the slides for reference, download them right here to refresh your memory on:

  • The data around using stories in your emails
  • Our top 3 recommendations on how to use stories
  • 4 reasons why people donate
  • 7 tips on how to effectively use stories when you’re sitting down to draft your appeal
  • 4 gut-check questions to ask yourself after you’ve finished writing

If you didn’t have a chance to attend, and have any other questions about the webinar, just comment in the post below! We’d love to hear from you.

Answering your storytelling questions
We got a lot of seriously great questions during the Q&A section, and we didn’t have a chance to answer all of them – so, as promised, here are the answers to your questions:

Q: I have heard that stories about individuals are compelling for low-dollar donors, but that solutions to big problems works for major donors. What have you found as a difference between low-dollar and major donors?

Q: Have you tested whether different donors respond differently? For example, do major donors respond differently from regular, recurring, lapsed, etc.?

SD: Our testing and analysis is primarily around low-dollar donors and activists. I think our work is a cautionary tale about assuming any story will be useful – and I’d take that caution to heart when thinking about how to use stories with major donors. You either need to test or, at a minimum, get some feedback from your target audience on what types of stories strike a chord.

Q: How do you work donor testimonies into stories? More important, how do you find donor testimonies?

SW: I assume that this is in reference to testimonials from regular donors, rather than celebrities. The pitfall to watch out for is making those other donors (the ones whose testimonials you have) the hero of your story, which muscles out your reader from that role. For that reason, we’ve seen messages quoting donor testimonials in the lede of the message underperform client benchmarks. I’d suggest that if you have donor testimonials, that you work it into your email as a way of describing how your donor would be part of a larger movement of people all working towards the same common goal (this is a great opportunity to apply peer pressure with a light touch), rather than relying on a donor testimonial to compel someone to donate – for example, don’t use your donor testimonial to try to remind someone that they, too, have a family member with the disease or that they feel the same about your issue and thus, should donate. Much like an explaining story, donor testimonials should play a supporting role.

You can get testimonials in a few different ways: emailing a survey (or landing donors on it after they’ve given or taken action), asking your donors why they support you or what they find important about some of the issues you work on; through Facebook, especially with the comments that people may already be leaving on your wall; and during thank-you phone calls to donors. For most organizations, surveys are probably the best option. Make sure to talk to your lawyer about how to obtain permission to use their stories, though!

Q: Will these citations of studies be available to us?

SD: “The power of stories (I): a discussion of why stories are powerful” by John Sadowsky and Loick Roche. September, 2003. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1360346.1360352
“The Science Behind Our Generosity,” by Peter Singer. February 28, 2009. https://www.newsweek.com/2009/02/27/the-science-behind-our-generosity.html
“What Makes Donors Give,” by Ruth Wooden. Chronicle of Philanthropy, Dec 8, 2005. https://www.publicagenda.org/articles/what-makes-donors-give
“The Secret to Happiness? Giving.” by Elsa Youngsteadt. Science, March 20, 2008. https://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2008/03/20-02.html
“Mass Suffering and Why We Look the Other Way,” by Shankar Vedantam. The Washington Post, January 5, 2009. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/04/AR2009010401307.html
“Changing Minds and Changing Towels” by Noah Goldstein, Psychology Today, August, 2008. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/yes/200808/changing-minds-and-changing-towels
(*Correction on the towels stat: 26% improvement for the first test card and 33% improvement for the second test card)

Q: If you really can’t find a good story, do you recommend the more institutional appeal to get better results?

SD: Yes, if the story isn’t good, I would go back to a more traditional institutional appeal. Our testing definitely showed that the quality and type of story used can make a dramatic impact on the performance of an appeal, and you should trust your gut if you’re reading a story and aren’t personally moved by it.

Q: If you have many stories, how do you choose one? For example, if your organization is a federation and allocates their budget to many different organizations, how do you even tell a story?

SW: Having a lot of stories is a good problem to have! And the simple answer is: use the best one!

By “best one” I mean the one that best illustrates a problem, is simple to explain, has a place for your donor to come in, is memorable, and has details that make the story feel real to your reader.

If you’re a federation or a membership organization made up of other organizations, stories are a good way to consolidate the work you do in a way that’s clear and simple to understand. Start out by illustrating what you do – you may need to choose one aspect of what you work on, especially if you, your member organizations, or chapters work on a diverse range of issues. Depending on the setup of your organization, you may need to mention in the email the range of work that your organization does further down in the body of your email.

Additionally, it’s no bad thing to write about different aspects of your work in different emails. It gives you a flexibility that single-issue organizations may not have.

Q: Can you elaborate more on how an already credible institution can build credibility through storytelling?

SD: Many organizations tout their high marks on various third party agencies’ scales – but like statistics – these figures aren’t always memorable. A simple story about change that happened because of the organization’s work can make a more lasting impression. One example comes from my work with UNICEF. Last year, during the peak of the famine in Africa, newspapers published a picture of a little boy named Minhaj. The image was incredibly jarring – he weighed less than 7 lbs at the age of 7 months (you can see before and after shots here). He miraculously recovered – thanks to the work of IRC, UNICEF, and others working in the field to feed and save starving children. The story proved that feeding programs and relief efforts were working – even in the most dramatic and desperate cases. These kinds of stories can help show tangibly the difference your organization is making and thereby lend credibility to its programs and work.

Q: For this question the humanitarian issue is hunger (e.g.), can you speak to how to make the choice between using a story/image that illustrates the dire situation (e.g. a malnourished toddler) vs. a story about the impact (e.g. a well fed child who is now able to go to school)?

Q: We can’t tell stories of those waiting to receive our services, but we can tell our success stories. Suggestions around ways to turn a success story into a “compelling story” with an unresolved ending etc?

SW: If what you have available is a success story, you can still tell that success story. You just have to make sure to highlight the current need more than you highlight the success. Use the success to demonstrate that by working together, you can help the current need. The general feel that the reader should get from your email should be inspired – there’s this problem, but I know we can tackle it, because we’ve done it before. Make sure that you’re giving adequate attention to the problem, clearly explaining the remaining need and how your reader can help solve it.

If your organization is comfortable with it, the other alternative would be to take the stories you have of the successes, and simply not tell the ending. You open with the circumstances that your beneficiary faced, and never mention that they have, in fact, already been helped – you simply pivot to saying “stories like these are why we need your help.”

As for which is better – a malnourished toddler versus the well-fed child – there’s no simple answer. As we mentioned, you don’t want your reader to feel as though you’ve already solved the problem. It’s more compelling to open with the existing problem and immediately relate why you need your reader’s help; you might include the story about impact further down in the message, being sure to frame it as an instance of proving that we can help solve the problem. However, there are a few reasons why you might, instead, open with the story of the well-fed child. For instance, if you have donor fatigue on a particular subject, you’d want to use a slightly different angle. You may also have a list which responds better to a hopeful or inspirational message which highlights how it’s possible to solve the problem than they do to a message that is solely focused on the problem. (You’d want to test that to find out for sure.) We’ve also seen anecdotally that hopeful messages sometimes perform really well at end-of-year, when you have a little more leeway with talking big picture instead of immediate-solve-it-now problems.

Q: Would you say that giving because you care would fall under “to be happy”?

SD: Caring about a cause could be an additional reason why people give. The four reasons we gave are certainly not exhaustive. It does feel like caring is a bit more like a pre-requisite for giving – because even if you care you don’t necessarily give – there often needs to be an additional factor that triggers the gift.

Q: Can you define “story?” so far I haven’t heard you actually tell one. You’ve just described something in vivid detail.

SD: By “story” we simply mean something that recounts a sequence of events. Those events may be very limited and it might end up being just one sentence, but it’s formulated in a narrative structure. For example… “when you’re a child and you’re thirsty, you don’t care if water is polluted, you’ll drink it.” Of course it could also mean something more than this, but I’m assuming this shorter version of “story” is what you’re questioning.

Q: How long should a story be in an email?

SW: If you’re opening an email with a story, then you want to make sure your story isn’t pushing the first link down too far. You still want to make sure that link is above the fold, which means that someone who opens your email will be able to see the link without scrolling down. And if it’s an explaining story, don’t forget that it won’t be enough to compel someone to donate – you still have additional work to do in the lede. That means that if you open with a story, it should be quite short: 5 or 6 sentences at most.

If you’re going to use a story below the first link, especially because you want to explain your services or where a donor’s money is going, then you can make your story a bit longer. As long as there are enough opportunities to click on a link to the donation link or action page, length is less important than having good content.

Q: My organization has only 1% of revenue from contributions. This seems to make it hard to make the donor the hero. Any advice?

SD: Maybe it’s not just your donors that are heroes, but other types of supporters. I’d think about who your supporters are – it could be activists – or maybe there are institutions or partners that play a critical role in your success. Some of the concepts we reviewed could be used with other audiences. I’d be mindful to make sure however you use these concepts that the stories you tell feel real and authentic.

Q: How do you also extend an email message into direct mail to tell the story across mediums but without sounding repetitious?

SW: One of the big differences between email and direct mail is that direct mail is often significantly longer. And when you have stories available, your direct mail pieces have several stories, where your email will likely just have one. Repetition across channels can help reinforce a story as well – so it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to reuse a story in direct mail and in email.

This is also one of those instances where the craft of language can work in your favor. If you frame or phrase your story in a different light (hopeful versus determined, focusing on the mother’s plight versus the child’s plight, etc.), it’s unlikely that your supporter will remember the name or identifying information from one medium to the other, as long as the mail piece isn’t dropping at exactly the same time as your email is launching.

Additionally, as we mentioned, you don’t need a story. If you feel like you’re reusing stories several times because you simply don’t have enough stories, try a different tactic! Your story is serving a specific purpose, but it’s not the reason that people are donating.

Q: How do you retain donors with stories that already know your story and have been donating over the past couple of years?

SD: We all need reminders. I know my sister loves me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to hear her say how much she loves me, or why. I don’t see any harm in expressing gratitude to your supporters over and over – even if they know they’re heroes already. Maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they’ve forgotten what amazing things they’ve helped accomplish. I think you can reuse great stories – but also look for new stories – sometimes that’s as simple as making a list of the top 5 successes your organization had last year and then translating that into a story.

Q: How do you see the difference in use of stories v. testimonials?

SW: Stories can be used for a wider range of purposes than testimonials can. Stories can explain a problem, explain how you’re solving it, show your impact, demonstrate how you’re a trustworthy organization, and grab attention.

Testimonials can be used to demonstrate that you’re effective and trustworthy, though you have to be careful not to use them at the expense of bragging about your donors. Testimonials can also be an effective way to peer pressure your donor.

Overall, testimonials should be used somewhat sparingly; telling a story (or using story-like language) can be used much more frequently without seeming as much like a “tactic.”

Q: Would you use some of the compelling stories in thank you letters after the donor gives?

SD: I’d be more inclined to save those compelling stories for appeals. Remember, compelling stories are unfinished stories that have unresolved tension. You don’t want to tell that kind of a story without giving your donors a way to change the outcome. That kind of narrative wouldn’t happen in a thank you letter. Rather, I’d use explaining stories in a thank you letter – something that can illuminate in a unique way how they are helping make change by donating to your organization.

Q: Do you recommend this approach with corporate donors?

SW: Corporations obviously don’t provide grants based on quite the same reasons that your supporters donate. Still, the tactics of using vivid language (to explain things to people who are far from experts or insiders in your field – even more so than your supporters!) and demonstrating explicitly that they are serving a need that’s not yet filled is useful for them internally. More than that, it’s useful for them to demonstrate to their customers that they’re doing good in the world. Those things can only help you.

Q: Does this approach work for corporations?

SD: We don’t have a ton of experience working with corporations, just with mission based non-profits. I think it’d be hard for me to credibly extrapolate that what we found in these tests would definitely work for corporations as well.

Q: What is the best way to tell stories: from the 1st person or 3rd person?

SW: I’m not sure one way is better. Third person is probably easier to pull off well. When it’s first person, there’s always the chance that the story will focus too much on the narrator (whether the narrator is a staff member or a beneficiary), and not enough on the reader. But I suspect that having a first person narrator can sometimes be more powerful and better at grabbing attention, especially if they have a unique voice that stands apart from your more standard non-profit way of writing.

Q: The proof of your tests seems to very strongly go against stories for fundraising. Yet you seem to have blasted past this and assumed it’s the wrong story that was the problem in each case. Is it possible that institutional messages simply do better?

SD: We blasted past this mostly because scientists have proven time and time again that stories are powerful, that they are how humans retain and process information, and that they can often influence people to act or make different decisions. We didn’t think our testing debunked all of the available research out there – and assumed that there was something we’re doing wrong with stories. We’ll go back to see if we can publish additional data on story versions of appeals performing better – and we’ll also put it on our testing list to try this year.

Q: Given documented underperformance of stories, we need more advice on what kinds of stories DO work. Is there documented success of explaining or compelling stories? And what exactly is the difference?

SD: The primary difference between explaining and compelling stories is that compelling stories are those that are unresolved, that have a problem, and that present a solution where the reader can do something to change the outcome of the story. Explaining stories are simpler – and tend to describe something in a narrative format – and this helps present information in a way that helps the reader retain and better understand the issue and the organization’s work.

I’ve asked our team here at M+R to see if we can publish more data on stories that have worked. For now – I don’t have anything that we can share. We’ll definitely put this on our list of possible tests and white papers to publish this year – it seems there is some interest in seeing more data.