Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is storytelling the whole story?

Every “top ten” list in the fundraising arena talks about the importance of using storytelling but it would appear that using it well is another story. I recently read two online posts that demonstrate there’s a difference between good ideas and good execution.

In a recent post, M+R Strategic describes an amazing test they conducted to determine the effectiveness of storytelling in a direct mail ask. They created two random lists – each of 300,000 recipients – and mailed each list one of two versions of a direct mail letter. Version 1 was “written using a more general, institutional approach that outlined the organization's accomplishments and need.” And the second version was “written using a more personal theme based around the story of one young person diagnosed with the debilitating disease the organization is working to cure.”

Which one performed better? According to the experts, there would be no question. Version 2 with its storytelling approach should win hands-down. The reality? Version 1 – the boring organizational approach not only fared better; it raised four times the money of the storytelling letter.

In a similar test, Which Test Won (a great site to test your marketing intuition) reports on a split direct mail ask that was done for a hospital in Florida. One version of the letter briefly told the story of a patient that was successfully treated and included testimonial quotes from the patient. The second version talked about the advanced technology being used at the hospital, describing it in technical terms and advising the reader of the costs associated with acquiring equipment. To make it more interesting, both versions suggested specific donation amounts but the amounts in Version 1 (the storytelling one) were higher.

What would the experts say? No question – version 1 with its storytelling and higher suggested gifts. What really happened? Version 2 attracted a response rate that was over 40% higher and an average donation that was almost $60 higher.

So, what’s going on here?

It seems clear that just telling a story isn’t enough. Other factors must be considered. In fact the story in the Which Test Won storytelling letter isn’t particularly compelling. I actually found it a little confusing and the letter never really tells us what the money is needed for. In the end the suggested donation amounts seem unconnected to the rest of the letter. On top of that the non-story letter is easier to read and its layout is much better. Somehow there is a sense that my (smaller) suggested donation will make a difference. The M+R post doesn’t allow us to read or see the letters in question. So we don’t know if the story was well told or if the ask was compelling or the letter was laid out well.

Ultimately storytelling is a means to presenting a case for giving. It cannot be divorced from the strategy behind the campaign or the brand of the organization. The finesse of storytelling is to be moving and authentic while at the same time meeting marketing and messaging objectives. In addition, it must be incorporated into a letter that is well crafted and written with a target audience in mind. In the end, storytelling may be effective but doing it well is clearly not easy. And worse, if done poorly, it can have detrimental results.

End of story.


  1. Seems that perhaps donors are waking up to the fact that while there are hundreds of thousands of powerful stories to be told (at least dozens at each organization) they only have so much money to give and they want to see it spent efficiently and purposefully. Simply tugging at the heart strings may not be as powerful anymore as demonstrating organizational effectiveness and success.

    Brett Ridge

  2. Brett, thanks for your comment. I'm a big believer in the power of emotion. Maybe the reality is that heart strings have to be tugged well in order for the pitch to be effective. Poor attempts at being emotionally evocative end up being cheesy or misunderstood.