You’d like more people to respond to your emails.
But do you feel sometimes like you’ve run out of ways to make that happen? Then you’ll want to test these seven unusual tactics. You may never have heard of them, but science shows they work.
In fact, they are all based on behavioral science – the study of human action, of why people do what they do. And if there’s one thing behavioral scientists are sure of, it’s that people don’t always act rationally.
These scientists know that people are influenced by things they are not even aware of. We think we know why we do what we do, but often that’s not the case. Or, as behavioral scientist Dan Ariely explains in his New York Times bestselling book Predictably Irrational, “We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make; but alas, this perception has more to do with our desires than with reality.”
The truth is humans often rely on decision defaults – hardwired responses that we use without thinking. Some of these automatic behaviors can impact what people read, whom they trust, and when they buy.
And that’s why the following seven tactics can be useful to any marketer who wants to improve the response to their emails. (Pro tip: Look a little closer and you’ll find they also apply to other marketing content.)
1. Temporal landmarks (timing is everything)
Temporal landmarks are days that represent transition points in our lives. Social scientists have found that these days can be powerful.
For example, Dan Pink explains in his book When that people are twice as likely to run their first marathon at age 29 vs. age 30 or age 28. They’re also more likely to run a first marathon at 39 vs. 40 and even 49 vs. 50.
Why? The end of a decade and the beginning of a new one is a temporal landmark.
When we hit a temporal landmark, we feel it is time for a fresh start. We say goodbye to our old selves and feel open to new possibilities. We also feel more confident in our ability to reach our goals. Because of that, we’re more likely to take action. And that’s the important point for marketers.
Temporal landmarks can be birthdays, graduations, the birth of a child, retirement, and similar life events. They can also be related to the calendar. New Year’s Day, the day many people make resolutions, is a perfect example. However, the start of a season, a month – and even a week – is a temporal landmark.
How to use this:
Connect your email to a life event. Or send it at the beginning of the week, when people are in more of a mindset to start something new. Or, depending on your message, the start of the weekend might be an appropriate temporal landmark. For example, a paint company could say, “Now that the weekend’s here, it’s a great time to do this DIY project.” The key is to make your message hit when people are most receptive to trying something different.
2. Inequity aversion (hey that’s not fair!)
Social scientists find that people have a deep-seated desire for fairness and react against instances of inequity. Brain-imaging studies even indicate that fair behaviors and fair outcomes activate the brain’s reward center, while unfair ones do not.
The ultimatum game, an experiment devised by psychologists and economists, illustrates this thinking. In the game, two people are given a sum of money. One person is told to suggest how to divide the money. If the second person accepts the offer, it stands. But if that person rejects it, neither player gets any money.
From a purely rational point of view, it would make sense to accept any amount offered since it is free money, right? However, research shows that while 50-50 and 60-40 offers do well, most offers below a 70-30 split get rejected. People punish unfair behavior even at a cost to themselves.
How to use this:
When writing your emails, appeal to your target’s sense of fairness. For example, a charity might say, “Every night children right here in our own town go to bed hungry. Do you think that’s right?” Or a martech company might write, “For years, large companies in your industry have had access to data that smaller companies like yours could not afford. We’re here to level the playing field.” Remember, people react to inequity, and as an email marketer, you want to channel that reaction.
3. Input bias (it must be good – look how long it took)
When people use the amount of effort as a proxy for quality, they’re defaulting to input bias. For example, an employee spends hours working on a report and that alone makes her colleagues think it’s good.
Two researchers at Harvard Business School ran an experiment using a fictitious travel website. Some participants saw a progress bar as the site searched for flights. Other participants saw the progress bar as well as the airline names and total number of flights being checked. The researchers found that participants were more likely to be satisfied with the wait time when they could see the effort happening as the progress bar inched forward. Plus, they valued the service more.
Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely talks about people’s perception of locksmiths. He’s found that people feel more comfortable paying a large fee when the locksmith spends a lot of time and effort to fix a lock. But when, due to years of training and expertise, the locksmith fixes the lock quickly, people resent paying the fee even though they got the outcome they were looking for. People equate the amount of time and effort that goes into a product or service with its value.
How to use this:
Take advantage of input bias by talking about how much work went into creating your products or how much research time was spent to develop them. For example, you might say you’re introducing your new service after “five years of research across two continents” or say your footballs are “always hand-stitched, never machine-stitched.” You can use input bias as you write your email subject lines, headers, and bullet points. Remember, people make decisions quickly and reflexively, so this is a fast way to convey quality.
4. Eaton-Rosen phenomenon (save some time and make it rhyme)
Can you complete the following sentence? Nationwide is on your …?
If the word “side” immediately came to mind, it’s no surprise. The insurance company’s slogan rhymes. And rhymes are easier to remember. Not only that, but research from the Scandinavian Psychological Associations finds that rhyming slogans are more persuasive.
But the advantage to rhymes doesn’t stop there. According to the Eaton-Rosen phenomenon, rhyming phrases are judged to be more accurate than non-rhyming phrases that communicate the same information. For example, given a choice between “Woes unite foes” and “Woes unite enemies,” more people believe the first sentence is true.
Social scientists find that rhymes are quicker and easier for the human brain to process. When something is easier to process, it feels right. And if something feels right, it’s not a big leap to assume that it is – which confers a big benefit on lines that rhyme.
How to use this:
While it’s hard (and not necessarily advisable) to write your email as a poem, you can use rhyming phrases in key pieces. For example, a company offering a webinar might consider a call to action like “Don’t delay. Sign up today.” A clothing retailer could test a rhyming subject line such as “The tank you’ll thank.” Remember, if it rhymes, it seems more truthful.
5. Autonomy bias (just leave it to me)
People have a deep-seated need to be in control of themselves and their circumstances. We like to feel independent, and social scientists refer to this as autonomy bias. The ability to make choices feeds this desire and can be powerful.
Over the years, New York City disabled – but didn’t remove – most of the walk buttons on its crosswalk signs. Scientists studied the pedestrians’ behavior at those crosswalks and found that people who pushed the non-functioning button were more likely to wait for the walk sign to appear. Even though the button didn’t actually trigger the sign, people felt they were in control and that influenced their response.
Christopher Carpenter of Western Illinois University researched the but-you-are-free (BYAF) technique. To use it, you make your request but remind your targets the choice is theirs. Carpenter found that it can double your success rate.
How to use this:
Instead of giving people a single option, let them choose from two or three. They will shift their thinking from “do I want this?” to “which of these do I want?” and have a sense of control. You can also frame benefits in terms of control. For example, a company offering training could emphasize that a person who has more skills has more options, which gives them more control over their future. Finally, let your audience members choose how they want to respond to your email. For example, you can invite them to call, go online, scan a QR code, summon Siri, or reply by email. The key is to place control in the hands of your audience members because that will increase the likelihood they will do what you want them to.
6. Hedonic bundling (ordinarily I wouldn’t, but it’s such a good deal)
Email marketers know that bundles work. Social scientists explain bundles can work because they reduce the pain of paying. Instead of a hit of pain accompanying each individual purchase, people incur a single hit when they buy several items at once.
However, not all bundles work the same way. Even when the cost is the same, how the discount is explained can make a difference. Researchers find placing the discount on the most hedonic or pleasurable item in a bundle can drive more sales than a discount on the entire bundle.
According to the Journal of Marketing Research December 2010 issue, when a discount was tied to the less utilitarian, more pleasant item in a bundle, sales climbed from 61% to 82%. In this study, the bundle included binders and chocolate, an odd combination. One was clearly utilitarian and the other obviously pleasurable. Researchers believe that people spending money on pleasurable items may feel guilty, the guilt is removed when they get a discount on the most indulgent item.
How to use this:
Bundle two, three, or four items into a package and emphasize that the discount is on the most pleasurable. For example, a telecommunications company bundles phone, internet, cable TV, and HBO. It promotes a discounted price for the bundle but notes that HBO comes free when people choose this package (as opposed to simply saying the discounted price for the entire package).
7. Labeling (what’s in a name – a lot)
Social science research shows that people behave in a way consistent with the group they’re told they’re part of. Basically, if you’re labeled, you have a tendency to live up to it.
In a study, researchers interviewed people about their voting habits. Then some people in the study were randomly chosen and told they were more politically active and more likely to vote based on their answers. Though that wasn’t true, 15% more of that group voted. It was the power of the labels of being politically active and more likely to vote. People want to be consistent.
Additional research found that asking people if they “intended to be a voter” – using “voter” as a noun – rather than simply asking if they “intended to vote” – using “vote” as a verb led to an 11% increase in voting.
The reason? Nouns give us a sense of who we are. Once we know that, we know what actions we should take.
How to use this:
Choose labels that reinforce how someone wants to be seen. For example, an insurance company might say, “As a responsible person, you know the importance of having enough insurance.”
Or use labels to get people to see themselves differently. Their behavior will follow as long as the label isn’t objectionable to the person. For example, a celebrity magazine looking to convince people to subscribe might refer to the recipient of their email as “an entertainment influencer.” Remember, people start to act like members of the group they’re told they belong to.
Now you’ve heard of these seven unusual techniques. (Just think – your competitors are likely still in the dark.) You know the scientific research that shows these tactics work. All that’s left is for you to start testing – to see which of these techniques gives your emails the biggest lift in response. And remember, social scientists have proved that people often don’t act rationally or make well-thought-out, well-considered decisions. Often, they default to hardwired behaviors that may seem, well, surprising. Now that you know, you can use it to your brand’s advantage.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute