Tag Archive for: storytelling in marketing

Bethany Christian Services’ Marla Bliss on Why Storytelling is So Important, and So Challenging

Marla Bliss, Director of Donor Communications

As Director of Donor Communications, Marla Bliss is tasked with a mysterious, alchemy-like science. She must convert that nebulous substance we call impact, fueled by dollars, back into monetary fuel.

The primary ingredient that triggers this chemical reaction? Stories. Lots of them.

I talked with Marla about the challenges of storytelling in late September 2017. She had been in her role with Bethany for six years, before which she spent 29 years immersed in a culture of storytelling at Zondervan Publishing House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Her target audience is much more focused here, but no less diverse. Her team draws in over 20,000 active donors with stories of lives changed through a variety of programs Bethany has all over the world, from adoption to pregnancy counseling, refugee resettlement and more.

It’s a huge, extremely complex organization with a budget of nearly $110M in 2016.

“I oversee all donor communications, whether that be print or digital, story collection and production, and work across teams such as marketing and with more than 100 offices across the nation,” Marla said. “It’s a lot of coordinating to ensure everything going out from Bethany has a unified voice and compelling message.”


Among a number of other daily tasks, Marla’s small but mighty donor communications team of three (in a larger donor engagement department that handles events, personal donor contact, etc.) gathers information, stories, and images from branches in 36 states and 15 countries.

Their finance and IT departments count hundreds of cases from hundreds of places: this many adoption plans made, that many domestic or international matches completed; this many refugees resettled; that many children cared for by Safe Families for Children volunteers.

It would be easier to stop at the data, but statistics will only take Marla’s team so far.

“For some donors, statistics do make a difference,” Marla said. “But to most people, a story is what best brings to life how their gift is being used. They want to hear about the difference it’s making in an individual’s life. It creates a compelling emotional connection.”


Stories create what you might call an essential chemical reaction. She said she often hears families are moved to tears to read their own story, and she knows others who read it are struck by those same emotions of grief, longing and hope.

“One I was moved by was about a pregnancy counselor who responded to a call from the hospital,” Marla said. “The expectant mother had just given birth and was making an adoption plan. The counselor gave her a birth mother box that included a devotional and some other items so she wouldn’t leave the hospital empty-handed.

“What moved me was the care and empathy that the counselor had for the birth mom, how she really understood the grief and emotions birth moms go through. It made me proud to be a part of this organization.”


It’s clear how important it is to produce these stories, but how do you connect with thousands of donors, who are supporting a variety of programs, who have different preferences on how to receive content, and ultimately maintain the kind of relationship that encourages future giving?

According to Marla, you have to capture a whole lot of impact to keep the chain reaction going.

Her team produces up to 40 stories per year, each of which need to be collected from clients and staff, written, edited, then published in a variety of formats for different segments of the donor base. Donors see these stories in quarterly newsletters, direct mail pieces, e-newsletters, website, social media, annual reports and print materials donor reps use in one-on-one meetings.

40 stories easily translates into thousands of individual editorial tasks. That’s a whole heck of a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

“It’s rarely one story that compels a donor to give. It’s an ongoing relationship. We have a lot of conversations about what donors have responded to, what they’ve given to support, what they’re interested in,” Marla said.


What’s left to do when you have all the raw materials needed to produce the reaction you need, a proven process to refine the finished product and all your delivery mechanisms are in place to get the product where it needs to go?

Make sure you have enough “scientists”, of course.

“We use freelancers because we just don’t always have the resources in house to develop all those stories,” Marla said. “There’s a lot to hiring, costs involved with bringing a full-time person on, benefits. We have to be good stewards of the money we’re given. The capacity of our in-house writer and how much outside help we need is something we constantly look at.”

Hiring a freelancer is not without its own challenges. This is a delicate science. In this laboratory, if you don’t know how to handle the chemicals properly the whole enterprise fails.

“I need somebody who can convey the emotion, someone who knows the right questions to ask to get to the real heart of the story. I don’t want just a timeline. Why did they adopt? What moved them? What difference has it made in a child’s life? If I relate to it emotively, I know it’s going to be good!”

As a donor communications coordinator, marketing manager or executive director of a not-for-profit organization working to transform lives, you get where Marla is coming from. Capturing and telling the stories of the impact you’re making will always be worth the effort.

If you can’t do it all in-house, invest in freelance writing services … but don’t go about it lightly. Choose someone you feel understands your mission. Someone who you can tell sincerely wants to partner with you to make the world a better place.

Thank you for putting your trust in me, Marla. God bless you and the world-changing work of Bethany Christian Services.

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Connect with Customers by Telling Stories … About THEM

Last week I watched a man do amazing trick: he took the most boring subject in the world and made it fascinating.

I’m in a BNI (Business Network International) group. If you’re not familiar, it’s 25 to 40 or so business people getting together each week to pass referrals to each other. Members have opportunities to educate each other and visitors about their business.

Last week it was David George’s turn to give his presentation. David is a commercial insurance agent.

Insurance = RIVETING subject matter, right? Of course not. And nobody understands that better than David.

He could have done what most people do. There would have been nothing wrong with talking about himself. After all, this is self-promotion time. The idea is to encourage the other members to refer business to you.

He could have said:

“I’ve been doing this a long time and I know my stuff. I’ll make sure you’re covered without selling you too much, and when disaster strikes I’ll be ready to help you file your claim. Basically, I’m awesome.”

And that would have been perfectly fine.

He didn’t do that, though.

Instead, David spent most of his time telling us a story that wasn’t really about him. It was about a client whose restaurant was destroyed when a car crashed into it.

He told us about what he saw when he arrived after getting the call. The dining room was in shambles. The restoration company he’d called was on the scene, taking pictures of the debris.

He told us about the employee who was seriously injured as she was preparing food; about how she is now permanently disabled; about the GoFundMe page the owners set up to help cover her medical expenses.

Why did he tell us all this? First, because he’s a good guy who genuinely cares about his clients. Second, he understands that he could talk to us for hours about how great an insurance agent he is and it wouldn’t make a shred of difference in our level of interest.

What we relate to is not what he does, but why he does it: to safeguard his clients, people just like us.

David told us a story about someone else from his point of view and in doing so told us more about himself than he otherwise could have. Maybe more than he realized. He demonstrated his ability to care. He gave us the eyewitness account of someone who was ready and willing to be there.

What kind of stories are you telling?

Are you just gathering up testimonials from clients to promote yourself, or are you demonstrating the strength of the relationship you have with your clients by telling stories about them?

Are you just soliciting reviews about your products, or are you giving positive reviews of the people who use your products?

Are you just boasting about the quality of your services, or are you delighting in the positive effect those services have on your customers?

In other words, your marketing can either be self-focused or customer-focused. It’s the difference between advertising and relationship-building; between bragging and serving; between arrogance and humility.

Which do you think your customers are more likely to respond to?

The Greiner’s GoFundMe page to support Tina Scruggs is at www.gofundme.com/phuhc438.

Does Your Content Say Why You Do What You Do?

I originally published this article in 2015. This update is a significant improvement. Enjoy!

Earlier this month I attended a presentation on content marketing from Jeff Echols, a guy who believes in the power of stories to create meaningful connections. He helps clients articulate why they do what they do.

One of Jeff’s sources of inspiration is leadership specialist Simon Sinek, author of the book Start with Why, who says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”


In Sinek’s now classic TED Talk “How great leaders inspire action,” he spelled out how Apple understood this.

He asked, what if Apple had merely stated what they do, just like any other company?

“We make great computers. They’re user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”

Instead, they communicated something that was far more impactful: their belief in individuality, creativity, boldness.

“With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

Buying an Apple product made a statement. It was about solidarity with this way of interacting with the world. By the time the iPhone came out in 2007, Apple was already set up for world dominance because we all believed the iPhone was developed from a set of strong core values with which we agreed.


Put yourself into the shoes of the consumer for a moment. The last time you bought something, I’ll bet it had far more to do with the story presented about why that product is in the world than you realize.

  • Consider that pair of running shoes you wear. How much more did you trust their quality because you believe that brand exists to support a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle?
  • Consider the car you drive. What stories have you heard, or told, about auto workers or safety or the environment that give you a sense of pride when you take it out on the road?
  • Consider the food you pick up at the grocery store. What are the values you believe are instilled in these brands? Cultural identity? Enjoyment of life? Thrift?

I for one bought a pair of Nikes last year because on some level I believe they care about runners, and therefore make quality shoes that won’t hurt my feet. I drive a Pontiac Vibe because it was developed jointly with Toyota, which I believe takes pride in long-lasting, fuel efficient automobiles. And I shop at Aldi because their primary value of thrift and DIY bagging matches my Midwestern sensibilities.

By and large, we choose products we believe in, because of why we perceive they exist.

This concept is even more relevant when we’re considering hiring a person.


We connect with people who communicate what they believe and why they’re in business.

So, why do you as service providers do what you do?

While you’re pondering how to answer, let me buy you some time. I’ll go first.

Every word I write is about improving the quality of life for someone, somehow. I am inspired by the ways my clients apply their knowledge, skills and passions to helping people. I love using the written word to capture those passions, inspire others and ultimately help readers accomplish their goals.

I could have just said, I’m a good marketing content writer. Wanna hire me? But, as Jeff and Simon say, anyone can tell you what they do and most people won’t care.

What resonates with people is the why. We want to know what drives you, because deep down, it’s what matters to us the most.


Often, no.

Think about the last time someone told you how accomplished they are. Did it make you want to hire them?

  • I’ve been helping people file their taxes for 25 years.
  • I put 28 families into a new vehicle last month.
  • We have been helping families through the estate planning process for over a hundred years.

Somehow, impressive as all that is, we’re just not sold. The numbers are meaningless to most of us. We can’t relate.

What does sell us is when we come to believe that someone cares about what we care about. The above examples of marketing copy are significantly improved when we shift the focus to the why.

  • I used to hate doing my own taxes. That’s why I became a CPA. I want to spare you that headache so you can get on with your life.
  • I’m a car guy. I love cars. I don’t care what you drive off my lot, only that you love your vehicle as much as I love mine.
  • Our hearts break when we see families hurt and confused after a family member dies without leaving a will. We are determined to create a clear estate plan for you so your loved ones don’t have to go through that.

Frustration, satisfaction, prevention of pain. These are ideas we can relate to.


Everyone is driven by some desire, some purpose. Including you.

It’s no accident that you get up every morning and do the job. There is a reason you represent the organization you do, and that’s what people want to know.

It’s what helps them understand you and trust you. It makes them want to support you.

All right, your turn.

Why did you get up this morning?

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