Founder & CEO Beyond Philosophy
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How behavioural science increases response rates

2nd Sep 2021
Founder & CEO Beyond Philosophy
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Some of you may know that I also have a podcast. We’ve begun a new feature on the podcast where people write in about their problems. A podcast listener asked me how to increase the response rates to their email campaigns. Since email response is an issue many of you are dealing with, I thought I would share how you can use the behavioral sciences to increase your response rates. 

Most of us do not take the time to write and edit and optimize our email campaign hoping that our customers will ignore it. You want people to do something after they read it. 

If the response rate is poor, meaning few customers do what you wanted them to, the email fails. 

The behavioral sciences present us with a couple of different theoretical approaches that can help us figure out what could be going on here. The first is Framing or the idea that information emphasizes some parts of the message more than others. The second is Loss Aversion, which is the concept that describes how people hate losing things more than they feel good gaining things. Let's take a closer look at how each of these applies to email communication. 

How You Frame it Could Change How Customers Respond

Framing is the basic idea that information doesn't come across as pure distilled intelligence. Instead, it has a perspective that emphasizes some parts of the data more than others. The most common framing types studied in psychology are gain versus loss framing. 

For example, if you were going to try to persuade someone to do something in their behavior, like throwing away an ugly shirt, you could take two paths. You could tell the person about what they will gain (e.g., better feedback from friends, more acceptance by society, etc.) by ditching that shirt from their wardrobe. Alternatively, you could tell the person all the things they will lose (e.g., the respect of friends and family, their spot at the cool lunch table, etc.) if they don't throw it out. In other words, it's the same information framed negatively. Another example is presenting the survival rates of surgery. If the survival rate is 90%, that means the mortality rate is 10%. As you can imagine, hearing that you have a 90% chance of surviving is quite different than learning you have a 10% chance of death. 

Loss Aversion is the most studied type of Framing. People respond to loss frames much more strongly than they respond to gain frames. So, for example, if you tell me that the surgery has a 10 percent mortality rate, I will be much less likely to want to have the surgery than if you tell me there's a 90 percent survival rate. So, focusing on the gains is good, but focusing on the losses is much more persuasive, meaning more likely to get a response.

Consider the news.  Most news channels and newspapers present bad news. News organizations are also trying to get a response out of people. They're also trying to get people to tune in, to pay attention, to watch more. 

However, as it always is with the behavioral sciences, other things that influence our responses are happening here. For example, there is also Negativity Bias, which suggests that humans prefer negative information over positive information. Therefore, if the news media frames the story in a loss-oriented way, people pay more attention, remember it more, and react to it more strongly than when stated in a gain-oriented way.

It is critical to make a distinction between framing losses and being negative. Sometimes when we talk about loss aversion, we do share negative information. Some clients bristle at that idea because they feel like their brand message is positive, and they don't want to focus on the negative in their messaging. 

However, focusing on a loss is not always focusing on negative information. The loss could be something or an experience that people will miss out on if they don't respond. For example, a bank sent two mailers to customers to encourage people to change from using cash to using debit cards. In one version, the bank talked about the benefits of the debit card relative to money. In the other version, they spoke of the losses you would incur from using cash. It was the same information in both cases, but the message either focused on the gains associated with that behavior or the losses associated with not engaging in that behavior. 

We've talked a lot in recent years about FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO is an example of Loss Aversion effects because the person doesn't want to miss out on the opportunity. FOMO is not a negative message, per se, but it does focus on the loss the person would feel. 

Framing is an excellent place to start when trying to increase the response rates on email because it's free. You only need to think about how you're framing the information you are providing and adjust it if necessary. For example, are you communicating in a way that is most compelling to customers? Or are you sharing the message how you always have or how your competitors do? Framing should be a deliberate decision.

More Areas That Can Help Email Responses

So, how else do we increase the response rates on email? A few other areas are critical. 

The subject line is essential also. When we do the headlines for our content, we use a service called Headline Studio. There is a skill for coming up with a suitable title. Headline studio uses seven or eight different areas, such as character count, headline type, reading grade level, number of words, and word balance, and things like that. The tool grades your headline in all these areas. I'd be shocked if they didn't build behavioral science into this as well. For example, it often tells us to increase the emotional or uncommon words. Science shows emotional things get people’s attention. The unexpected does, too. A headline or subject line that sounds too much like something you've read a million times before will not. 

Also, email timing affects the attention it gets. If you get an email from an organization every day, it's easier to screen that out. It's not going to seem like news. 

It is also essential to understand your customers' goals and motivations when trying to get their attention. You might have heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which explains how when you're thinking about something, you notice instances of it much more often out in the world. So, for example, if you want to buy a new car and have one in mind, you start seeing them everywhere. This concept works for emails, too. If there's some goal that you have or a problem you're trying to solve, then an email that addresses that area will pop out at you more. So, for example, if our listener who asked us how to increase his email response rate saw an email in his inbox on the topic, he would notice that email right away. 

Three Things To Do to Increase Your Email Response Rate

To keep this practical, let's review how these behavioral science concepts can help you increase response rates on your email marketing. 

  • Consider framing. There's no neutral information. All information that you communicate is being stated in one way or another. You might need to adjust the way that you're communicating the information. Do you think about it? Are you planning your Framing? Gain-Loss Framing is just one kind. You could also consider presenting things in the most favorable light or in the most surprising way. I find it helpful to reverse things, meaning if it's a 90/10 split for 100 percent, then I try both ways to see what communicates the message the way I would like. 
  • Test it. I test things all the time. We do A/B testing with emails to see which one has the most significant response. 
  • Understand your customers' needs. It's so common to think about the email from our perspective rather than the customers. We know what we have and what it excels at, so we try to tell people that. However, our customers have problems they are trying to solve, and you need to align that with what you communicate. If you take their perspective, it'll give you a better idea of how to grab their attention, how to persuade them to get inside your customer's head.

When you invest in an email campaign, you are not hoping  readers will ignore it. Instead, you want them to do something. When they aren't doing what you want with it, it's time to look at how you present the information. By using the behavioral sciences and framing your message differently, and focusing on losses instead of gains, you might be able to stand out from the influx of other hopeful emails in the inbox—maybe even your competition's.

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