The Marketing Power of a Story

The other day I was talking with a friend. Not about marketing, just about relationships and the stuff of everyday life.

I made an offhand comment which caused her to stop and ask a question. I said, “You know, there’s a story there.”

To which she laughed and replied, “It’s always a story with you.”


Stories are the way by which human beings relate to one another. Stories make it easier to remember facts and information and to associate with the world around us.

Stories are also the key to good marketing.

If you walk up to ten people and try to sell them something, chances are you’ll get to see the backs of ten people’s heads. But if you walk up to ten people and tell them a story, most of them will stick around at least long enough to find out if your story is interesting or relevant to them. A few may still vanish after deciding it’s not but some will stick around for your story.

In order to sell to strangers, you need several things:

  • A crowd of properly targeted people who may actually be interested in your story and/or your product.
  • A story they will be interested in listening to.
  • A product or service that has a logical tie-in with the story you tell.

A well crafted story, and a product or service that has a logical tie-in to that story, is the key to selling to strangers.

Your story could be about the product itself, about the company that makes it, about people who have benefited from its use or about the need for the product in the world.

With a good enough product and a compelling story, price almost doesn’t matter.

So tell me a good story…

When Making a Profit can be Deadly to your Business

In your marketing, is it necessary to always make a profit? Or to at least have profitability as your goal?

We’re not talking about charities and organizations whose goal is not to make a profit. We’re also not talking about “awareness” campaigns or ones in which your goal is to get people to sign up for a mailing list or something like that. (Some of these things have questionable value to begin with for most small businesses.)

So in cases where you are advertising and your goal is for the ad to generate sales, is it always important to make a profit?

The answer is a big fat NO.

In fact, there are some cases where making a profit from an ad can be deadly to your business.

It all comes down to knowing your average customer.

So this is a strategy that will work only for established businesses. New businesses need sales before they die in infancy.

With an established business that already has some customer base and a sales history, it pays to analyze that sales history.

If you know that, say 12% of your first-time customers stick around to become long-term repeat customers and your typical long-term customer stays with you for three years and spends an average of $3,000 over that time, then you logically want to get as many such customers as possible. It isn’t necessary to make a profit on the very first sale because you will stand to profit on each subsequent sale over the next three years.

Do you want to lose money?

Ironically, there actually are times when it makes sense to lose a bit to attract a customer. Grocery stores do this all the time. Say they advertise coffee for some ridiculously cheap price. They might even be losing a few cents on each can of coffee they sell.

Sure, a few customers will come in, buy the cheap coffee and leave. But most will come in for the cheap coffee and end up doing their whole week’s shopping while they’re there. A few may even go on to become regular customers, having been lured away from a competitor.

Most of the time, however, smart marketers want to price their initial offer so that they just break even. The money brought in from sales should be just enough to pay for the cost of goods plus the cost of marketing.

It’s an educated guessing game but if you can do it, you introduce yourself to a lot of potential new customers at zero cost to you. Some of them will go on to become long-term customers. Now you’ve just made a bundle in long-term profits at no up-front cost.

And all those people who take you up on your introductory offer but then never come back?

Well if you’ve done it right, those people cost you nothing. You made no profit but also lost no money on the deal. You also learned a lot about what will generate response and sales. It’s a win all around.

Knowing and understanding this kind of stuff is where a marketing strategist comes in handy.


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Split Testing

Split testing, also sometimes known as A/B testing, is one of the cornerstones of effective marketing.

In it, you test two ideas against each other. It could be two different ads, two versions of a web page, you name it. Measure customer response to determine which is better at achieving your goals, whether they be more signups, more inquiries, more sales, longer time on your website or whatever.

Keep the better version, throw out the “loser” and then try a new idea against the winner.

You may have a winner which stands for many years and beats all challengers or you may have a new winner every week. Either way, you will know with certainty that the ad you are using is the best you can come up with.

Of course I’m glossing over a great deal of hard work and fine detail. There’s formulating a marketing goal, knowing what to track and how to track it, how long do you run the test, how do you allocate the “load” and so on.

Let’s look at that last one a bit.

Say you already have an established winner (called a “control” among professional marketers) that has proven itself over time. Now you have a new challenger which presents a completely new idea and you want to see how well it resonates with your customers compared to your control.

You wouldn’t want to risk 50% of your customers on a gamble but you do want to test the challenger on a large enough sample to make it statistically valid. Depending on the size of your customer base, it’s normal to show the challenger piece to between 5% and 20% of your customers while the rest continue to get the control version.

Split testing requires an incredible amount of meticulous tracking and record keeping. It really takes a full-time, dedicated person to do it right and most big marketers have entire staffs fully dedicated to split testing. That’s a huge commitment but the payoff is more effective marketing and more sales.

Story As Sales Letter

Photo credit: Orin Zebest

A loud clang, a sickly-sounding whir and a faint waft of smoke.

That was what woke Jeannette Pearson from a sound sleep.

Snowflakes fluttered almost noiselessly outside. The intensely bright moon set the landscape aglow.

The whole scene should have been serene and peaceful but for that sickly whir and the musty, acrid, smoky smell. It gave her a dark chill that had nothing to do with the winter cold outside her cocoon of blankets.

Her heater had given up, possibly for good. Little Amy was probably already shivering in the next room.

It was 2am. What could she do?


For some reason, that phone number stuck out in Jeanette’s memory. Amy had seen it on a sign a few days earlier and asked why some phone numbers had letters.

Jeanette dialed and was relieved that someone answered….

The End of The Story

I have been playing around with the concept of creating an entire sales letter in the form of a dramatic story.

Using stories as part of the sales process is nothing new but what I have been experimenting with, as you can see above, is something slightly different.

As a pure story, it really isn’t bad. It wouldn’t win any prizes but it isn’t awful. As a sales letter, it really doesn’t seem to work at all.

Photo credit: mcfarlandmo, on Flickr

It’s possible that, with enough massaging, I could find a way to make it work. Maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough.

But the more time I put into it, the more I find myself writing a story versus selling a service. (This was not a piece for an actual client, but an intellectual exercise to keep my skills sharp.)

Instead I think it will be abandoned except as it appears in this article. It can serve as a reminder to me and others that storytelling has a rightful place in sales but it can never replace sales. Its purpose is just too different.


The Worst Copywriting Mistake I Ever Made

Image courtesy of Mark Anderson. Cartoon by Frank Robbins.

My first copywriting project bombed.

Not just bombed, it got literally zero responses. Not one.

I did almost nothing right.

It was only a 1,000 piece mailing and luckily it was for my own business so the only person I hurt was myself. The business died a quick and merciful death. The lessons learned will linger for many years. And that’s exactly as it should be.

I (rightly) had the bright idea that direct mail would be a good way to promote the business. That’s one of the few smart decisions I made among a sea of very bad ones.

This was for an offline start-up and I had no customer list, so I rented a mailing list from a big list broker. I don’t remember now what the list cost me but I want to say it was around $250 for 1,000 names. (Yeah, they saw me coming.)

I paid to get my own bulk mail permit (another $100 or so) and did everything myself. Everything. The list scrubbing, writing the copy, mail piece design, all the formatting, printing, envelope stuffing… the whole works.

It was actually the second time I had gone through the process of getting a bulk mail permit (the first time being for an employer) so I guess now I know more about the process than most. Even more than most people who work in direct mail.

Image courtesy of Mark Anderson. Cartoon by Mel Calman.

After postage and other incidental expenses, I think my total cost for the mailing was something just north of $1,500. In hindsight, I look at that as tuition in the School of Hard Knocks.

The only other thing I can specifically point to and say I did right was that I knew enough to write two different sales letters and do an A/B split test. Of course I did the test all wrong, but the fact that I did a test at all was a small point in my favor.

At the time, I thought I had copywriting skills. I did not.

I had been a subscriber to a number of copywriting newsletters for a while. That gave me enough understanding of the industry to be very, very dangerous (mainly to myself.) But I hadn’t actually taken a single copywriting course, nor had I ever worked as a copywriter. Or even in any form of advertising.

The little bit of knowledge I had was highly generalized. The most useful skill I actually had was a natural aptitude for writing.

Of course on some level I actually knew all of this. Or most of it anyway.

I also knew that typical response to a mail drop was in the range of 1%-2%. I thought that if I could get a 1% response — 10 customers — from my 1,000 piece mailing, at expected revenues of $165 per customer, I’d be on my way.

It didn’t work out that way.

In the 10 or so years since that sobering incident, I actually did study copywriting and a host of other useful business building topics. In hindsight, I can see all the things I did wrong.

It was a cheap education.