How to Tell a Story With Text Messaging

Kevin D. Hendricks
How to Tell a Story With Text Messaging

Text message marketing can be more than reminders, notifications, and donate links—you can tell a story. Embracing storytelling is a good way to take your short message service (SMS) marketing to the next level.

But how do you tell a story in a text message? We’ve got tips to help you make it work.

The Power of Storytelling

It’s important to remember how powerful storytelling can be. A good story will stick with people. They’ll come back to it. And they’ll tell their friends. 

Kids Fighting Cancer

The Pablove Foundation fights childhood cancer with love. One of their programs teaches kids fighting cancer how to do photography. “Just watching the joy that it brought not only to the child, but also to the parents to see their kids smiling and laughing and having fun—it’s powerful,” said Breeana Gumpert, Pablove’s associate director of development.

That story is powerful. It evokes a cancer ward but with kids smiling and laughing. It’s an unexpected juxtaposition. Bringing smiles to an otherwise dark place is an inherently hopeful act. That’s the goal of any nonprofit, and it’s the kind of thing that makes people want to give and support the cause.

An Inspiring Founder

“If you’re in the charity world, you’re a storyteller,” said Jeff Baxter, the vice president of community engagement for the HEADstrong Foundation. “So the more honed in and polished your storytelling capabilities and communication lines are, the healthier you’re going to be.”

They’re another nonprofit with a compelling story: Their founder, Nick Colleluori, played division one lacrosse in college before succumbing to cancer. Nick saw a connection between the brotherhood among lacrosse teammates and support needed for families fighting cancer. He bridged those worlds during his own treatment, and inspired the work after his death.

Saving Lives

“What motivates me as a journalist by trade is the patient stories," said Stacy Buono with RWJBarnabas Health. If stories motivate you, imagine what they’ll do for donors and supporters?

"I get to interview the mom of the two-year-olds in the children’s hospital whose life was saved by some crazy treatment that they do at Robert Wood Johnson that they don’t do anywhere else,” said Buono. 

So Tell Stories

See? All it takes is a few sentences to share a story and pull people in. They don’t have to be long or involved. They’re little glimpses of humanity, a window into the work your nonprofit does.

When you package those stories into an SMS text message, you’re giving more than just another fundraising appeal.

It’s connection, popping up on a mobile phone. 

Your nonprofit organization can embrace storytelling to engage people where they are, right there on their cell phones. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Storytelling is a low-cost form of communication:

  • Share your mission: What’s your elevator pitch? Tell the story of why your nonprofit matters.
  • Share a win: What’s your most recent victory? Tell the story of how you got a win and the impact that’s going to make.
  • Share who you help: Who does your nonprofit serve? Tell the story of someone helped by your nonprofit and the difference you made in their life.

15 Tips for Using Storytelling in Text Messages

Need some suggestions for fitting your story into an SMS campaign? We’ve got fifteen tips to help you tell stories on your text messaging platform:

  1. Specific: Good storytelling is specific. Who’s involved? When did it happen? What did they do? Some things might need to be vague for privacy purposes, but give as many specific details as you can. The more you can make it concrete, the more it will connect, be remembered, and shared.
  2. Active: Good storytelling is active. Something happens and that’s what makes people lean in to hear what happens next. So focus on the action and use strong, active verbs to describe the action.
  3. Conflict: A vital part of any story is the conflict. In many nonprofit contexts, that’s going to be the needs you work to meet—a family is homeless, a mother is fighting cancer, a school library needs books. Make sure the conflict is clear—why is this an issue and why should we care? The stakes need to come across clearly.
  4. Characters: Every story has a cast of characters. In your case, these are real people. Again, you may have privacy concerns that keep you from revealing too much, but as much as you can let your supporters see real people. They can humanize your cause. Let people hear directly from them with quotes. We connect with people, so make sure your story centers people.
  5. Hook: Why should people keep reading? Your story needs a good hook to suck people in. Your opening sentence needs to pop. Start with something important or surprising or funny. Shorter is usually better.
  6. Plot: A typical story has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s called plot. And it can be a good way to structure a nonprofit story. Where are people at before you helped? What did you do to help? How did that change things. You could tell that story in three sentences (or less). “Our team found a stray dog with a broken leg. We rushed the poor pup into surgery and then into our foster program. That puppy lost her leg, but found a family!”
  7. Interactive: An engaging text messaging strategy is to be interactive. It’s a medium that invites replies and conversation, so invite people to share their story. Not only is it a good way to connect, but it gives you more stories to share next time.
  8. Brevity: Brevity is the soul of wit. It’s also key to text messaging. It’s a short medium, so your story needs to be brief. We’ve got some tips to keep your texts short.
  9. Experiment: Try telling a long story over multiple text messages or even multiple days. You should still embrace brevity, but you can use multiple messages to tell a more complicated story. Or try sending a long message (you can send up to 1,600 characters at once) vs. several shorter messages. 
  10. Fundraising event: Spice up your event reminders with engaging stories. Tell the story of what last year’s fundraiser accomplished. Talk about the incredible experience donors had as well as the impact of those donations. People will be more likely to say yes to your upcoming events. You could also use QR codes at the tables to point to stories.
  11. Multimedia: They say a picture is worth a thousand words for a reason, so add pictures, GIFs, or video using multimedia message service (MMS) to bring your story to life. Even adding emojis can be a simple way to add visual interest to a text message. People prefer to watch video on their phone, so text messaging can deliver that video right where they are, much more reliably than email.
  12. Teaser: Use text messaging to point to a different medium with a longer form story, whether it’s video, an article, or something else. Make the text message a teaser. But make sure it’s worthwhile to get a longer version—sometimes short and sweet is more effective.
  13. Personal: Text messaging is personal. It shows up on their mobile device—and people carry their phones everywhere and use them all the time. They opt in to receive your messages and open rates show they work. Make your story even more engaging by making it personal. Segment your audience and reach out to donors who supported a specific project: “You changed Maria’s life. Her dad’s layoff left her family homeless, but your support of our emergency shelter kept them off the street. Now Maria’s dad is back to work and they’re moving into a new apartment. Thank you!” You could post the same thing to social media, but it wouldn’t be as personal or targeted.
  14. Thank you: When you say thank you after a fundraising campaign or event, share a story of how their donation is making an impact. That’s a ready-made story, and it’s good donor engagement. The best part is your donor is already part of the story. So they’re invested and want to know what happens. It’s also a good way to bring new donors back for more.
  15. Question: “A big push for us this year was ending things with a question,” said Special Olympics Virginia Director of Development Katelynn Howell. That’s a good way to be interactive, but it’s also a good call to action.

Give it a try. Put some stories in your SMS messages and look at your response rates. You’ll get better at storytelling with practice, so make it part of our ongoing outreach and texting campaigns.

We’re Here to Help

If you’re new to SMS marketing, we can help. We can talk marketing strategy or nonprofit marketing campaigns, go over pricing, or explain the difference between bulk texting and peer-to-peer texting.

  • Text-to-give platform: Storytelling can boost your mobile fundraising goals, and it’s easy to hit the mark with our fundraising tools. People can text a custom keyword to a short code and get a quick link to your donation form. It uses your existing donation platform, so it’s streamlined and user-friendly. They can use a credit card right on their smartphone through your donation page.
  • Giving tools: We offer integration with multiple fundraising platforms, plus other tools including workflows, ringless voicemail, and a fundraising thermometer. We can help you cultivate your contact list and flesh out your CRM with phone numbers, handle follow-up on mass texting responses in real time, and more.
  • Solid support: We value customer experience. Our functionality is simple and easy to use, but if you ever need help we’re here. We’ve got FAQs, pre-written text message templates, webinars, and more. Plus, we’re happy to take a voice call.

Book a demo today and let’s get better results for your marketing efforts.

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