Tuesday 12 June 2018

What could GDPR emails possibly teach you about persuasive writing?

Whether it’s the World Cup, final of Wimbledon, or the humble sales email, competition brings out the best in people (unless you play football for England).

Changes to EU data protection law, better known as GDPR, prompted a deluge of emails. Inboxes were awash with rather desperate requests for your consent, gentle reminders to opt-in, and needy pleas to ‘stay in touch’.

But not every brand did the obvious. In this post, we take a look at the some of the ones that stood out.

The Economist does not beg

1. Urgency

Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, cites the importance of the ‘scarcity principle’: ‘the idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value’.

The Economist’s email immediately stresses scarcity by opening with the superlative ‘last’. It does not plead, nor does it directly address the reader, instead it encourages action by plainly and definitively stating, ‘you will have no other chance to potentially receive something valuable from The Economist’.

2. Putting ‘you’ before ‘we’

This is copywriting 101. Using 2nd person pronouns (you/your) rather than 1st person (I/we) grants writing persuasive power. Its efficacy was revealed by a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, which showed that ‘self-relevant’ messages are more effective at encouraging a desired action.

John Lewis utilised this technique, with their GDPR subject line reading: ‘Today is your very last chance’. In reality it meant: ‘Today is our very last chance’. But a small change in pronouns has a significant semantic effect, placing the reader at the centre of the message.

3. Humour

GDPR emails got monotonous very quickly (even the two successful attempts just cited are only a few words apart). With every brand essentially wanting to do the same thing, they had to work hard to get noticed. A great example of using humour to differentiate was found in an email from Percolate (an electronic music promoter).

Who doesn't love regulated data protection?

The subject line popped out of the inbox as it shouted, ‘WHAT COULD THIS EMAIL POSSIBLY BE ABOUT?’ Before the email opened up to a picture of a vibrant party scene with the caption, ‘HANDS UP WHO LOVES GDPR’. The email was funny, self-aware, and above all different.

4. Emotional benefits

One of the copywriting commandments is ‘benefits before features’. A mistake often found in the GDPR emails was a failure to communicate a clear benefit of staying in touch. Whilst a benefit was clearly absent from many, others were simply too vague.

Resident Advisor (an online music magazine and community platform) nailed their subject line, which read, ‘Life is better with music. Keep discovering it’. The email prioritises the benefit (improving your quality of life) over the feature (Resident Advisor provides tickets, information and reviews for music lovers). By communicating a clear emotive reward, it compels the reader to opt-in.

5. Call to action

The focus so far has largely fallen on the opening to emails, but let’s have a look at the close – the call to action. Wiser, a recruitment agency, created an intelligent call to action that worked for two reasons: 1. It looked different 2. It utilised intelligent phrasing.

In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary's 'Word of the Year' was the 'Face with Tears of Joy' emoji 😂
Emojis are becoming increasingly popular in everyday brand communications. The ‘heart face’ emoji signifies, particularly to a younger audience, ‘you will love this!’ It also rephrases the ‘unsubscribe’ option to instead say, you can ‘tailor’ your preferences. This discourages the reader to unsubscribe as tailoring takes time. So, why not go with the simple option and click the heart face emoji?

6. Guilt

The Labour Party went for an orthodox approach to GDPR. Readers were told that if they did not consent they would ‘ruin Jeremy’s birthday’. It may seem risky, as many people might enjoy the idea of ruining a politician’s birthday, but using guilt to encourage action is a proven technique.

Researchers from the Universities of Mississippi State and Western Ontario have shown that ‘reactive guilt’, the response to having violated one’s standards of acceptable behaviour, has a clearly observable effect on human decision making. Surely, politician or not, no one would ruin an old geezer’s birthday? 

So, what have these GDPR emails taught us about writing persuasive emails? Well, in short: get emotional. Express urgency, 'you' not 'we', humour, loaded call-to-action buttons, guilt... they're all using emotion to get the reader involved and responding. 

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