In the original Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, Wendy asks Peter why no one in Neverland grows up. And Peter replies, “Because we don’t know any stories.” With this anecdote, Andy Goodman – author, speaker and consultant in the field of public interest communications – memorably hit upon the overall theme of this year’s Cause Marketing Forum (CMF) conference: the power of storytelling.

As Andy and many others went on to emphasize throughout the conference, storytelling is the single greatest tool we have as marketers. All of us, Andy reiterated, are storytelling creatures; stories are the foundation of our identity, our history and our memories. And as those of us at the conference last week learned, storytelling is particularly impactful when it comes to cause marketing. Referred to as the “identifiable victim effect,” people are more likely to offer aid when they learn about an individual’s plight, as opposed to statistics related to the whole group. In other words, to really increase giving, you should appeal to the heart, not the head.

The second word we heard most often at CMF 2013 was “authenticity.” From moms to Millennials, today’s consumer is naturally skeptical and apprehensive of ads and marketing. In order to truly resonate, your story must be authentic. And at the end of the day, it’s the emotional connection that will drive consumers to engage with your cause.

While I could go on for ages about all of the engaging speakers, inspiring case studies and valuable lessons learned at CMF 2013, here are just a few of my top takeaways:

  • Make sure you’re choosing the right partner. This may sound like a no-brainer, but whether you are the corporate partner or the non-profit, it’s important to make sure that your values and culture fit together.
  • Passion for the cause is imperative. Choosing to do a cause marketing campaign has to be about more than simply raising money or “doing good.” It has to be something you can be passionate about, otherwise it won’t be authentic. Find a cause that will resonate for your company, employees and, ideally, your customers.
  • Find your brand/cause evangelists. “You don’t need everyone to like you,” said Walt Freese, former Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield Farms CEO. “You just need a passionate group of people to love you.” It doesn’t get more authentic than someone who truly, deeply cares about your cause, and wants to tell people about it. Make it easy for them to do that through social media, microsites, blogs, etc.
  • Values must be true within the building. Before you can get consumers on board with your cause, you have to be living up to those values internally – or practicing “inside-out branding” as Walt called it. A great example of this is Terracycle, whose entire office is made of recycled/upcycled materials.
  • Think beyond the transaction, particularly when targeting Millennials. Simply donating “X dollars per purchase” isn’t enough to reach this audience. You can’t just tell them to get involved; you have to give them the tools and environment to do so. Consider engaging them through activities, rewards and incentives – gamification can be very effective, particularly with Millennial men. This generation also loves to do things in groups, so keep that in mind as well when designing your campaigns.
  • Moms know “real.” According to The Motherhood, 79 percent of moms share online because they were moved by what they read or saw and wanted to help – and storytelling is the best way to form that emotional connection. Share news that you know will matter to them, and make it easy for them to understand. Ask for something specific, and share the tangible milestone they’ll be helping you reach. Moms are more likely to listen to other moms, so make it easy for them to share your story with their community.
  • Celebrities can be great for a cause – if chosen correctly. Similar to choosing your corporate or non-profit partner, make sure you’re choosing a celebrity who makes sense for your brand and shares your values. Pick someone who truly cares about your cause; celebrities can help build authenticity and awareness, but their role must be clearly defined and driven by the organization.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. In one of my favorite sessions of the conference, Phillip Haid of Public, Inc. and Jeff Moat of Partners for Mental Health talked about the importance of risk taking. Highlighting their successful and engaging “Let’s Call BS” campaign, they discussed how risk taking can increase creativity and authenticity, ensuring that your campaign really resonates with its audience. They emphasized that it’s okay to do something fun and different; that “what’s in it for me” isn’t a dirty question; that profit and purpose do go together; and that sometimes you have to change your definition of “failure.”

As Procter & Gamble’s Bryan McCleary reminded us, “Cover bands don’t change the world.” Successful cause marketing campaigns come from doing something different, unique and creative. After all, that’s how the best stories are made.