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How To Write A Persuasive Email

Posted by Christine B. Whittemore on October 31, 2017

This is a 20 minute read.

How To Write A Persuasive EmailA persuasive email is akin to the holy grail for marketers. It's one that will get opened, and read, and possibly even acted on. It's impossible to resist. So, what goes into writing that truly persuasive communication?

When it comes to persuasion, my go-to-resource is Nancy Harhut, Chief Creative Officer of HBT Marketing. Not only are her presentations at INBOUND and elsewhere consistently standing-room only, but you always walk away with actionable insights.

To inspire you to write persuasive content, I'll share with you highlights from two of her presentations: "The ABCs of Persuasive Copy" and "Tapping into Human Behavior to Increase Open, Read and Response Rates" (included when I originally published this article on 12/15/2015). 

And then I'll offer suggestions on how to integrate this persuasive insight into your own compelling emails.

The ABCs of Persuasive Content

As much talk as there is about images and videos being the end-all and be-all for online marketing, the truth is that unless you include words, you won't get someone to open an email, click on an ad or a button, engage with your content, let alone contact your company.

Words are powerful; how you use them affects the persuasiveness of your email content. With the right ones, you can break through the many decision-making shortcuts people default to without thinking to conserve mental energy.

Here are 26 word and copy constructs that cut through those shortcuts.

The ABCs of Persuasive Content

A  - The Authority Principle

Since we were children, we've been programmed to recognize authority figures by their uniforms, their titles. Think religious figures, law and order representatives, doctors.... Bank robbers dressed in police-like clothing standing by an ATM are more likely to be considered helpful rather than harmful.

Endorsements from or association with authoritative organizations conveys trustworthiness:

  • LL Bean. Trusted and tested by the US Ski Team.
  • Citrix website – what experts say: Forrester, Gartner

In the days of direct mail, an endorsement from an authority figure carried significant weight. Nowadays, we see signs of this in social profiles (how many followers someone has) and in social endorsements (how many shares, likes or Tweets a blog article has).

Similarly, an email from the CEO - an authority figure - will carry more weight than one from an anonymous customer service representative.

Include a picture of that authority figure for an even more credibility.

B – Because

Because is a compliance trigger and a great word to use. Why? Because (!) people are more likely to do something if you give them a reason why.

As Nancy explained in How To Create Persuasive Email Marketing With Nancy Harhut,

"Ellen Langer is my “because” hero. In 1978 she conducted a study that revealed the word because is a compliance trigger. When people see or hear the word because, we often just assume that the phrase that comes next is a good, valid reason – without fully processing it. We automatically start to nod yes.  

Essentially, people are more likely to do what you ask them to if you give them a reason why – even if it’s not a rock solid one. This can be a useful bit of information for marketers in today’s competitive, parity-product world."

Compliance triggers produce an automatic yes and you'll notice them used effectively in email copy. For example, Weight Watchers works because it’s not a diet: an email about investment information includes 'because we thought the information was beneficial.' 

People like to stay consistent with their decisions

C – Commitment and Consistency

People like to stay consistent with their decisions. If you can get them to say yes, they are more likely to do it again. And, they're more likely to say yes to easy decisions.

If you agreed to place a small sign about safe driving in your yard, you would be willing to agree to a much larger sign 3 weeks later.

Notice how emails from causes you support include "thanks for your ongoing support” reminders. An invitation to try free sample cosmetics will make it easier to buy products later.

D – Deals

Deals help overcome the pain of paying.

For that reason, minimize the use of words like price, cost, pay, spend. Instead, focus on the gain. For example, "for only $5 you gain..."

Beware of including a coupon code on your forms; that suggests someone is missing out on a deal. Instead, refer to a VIP customer code and place it lower on page

Place eye magnet words in high-visibility sections of your email content

E – Eye Magnet Words

What we write so carefully is first consumed via scanning. Some words pull people's eyes in. These are eye magnets.

For example, words such as 'easy, quick, improve' – lift sales. Free, announcing, new, finally, soon, introducing, you, a person’s name, confessions of, sneak peek, behind the scenes look, secrets – we are more persuaded by information that’s not readily available.

Place these eye magnet words in high-visibility sections of your email content: the subject line, headers. Use bold or a different color so they stand out...

F – Framing

Just as a frame around a picture dresses it up and makes it stand out, so can words. The words you use to describe a company (or an offer) makes a difference in how readers absorb the information.

It's a small $5 fee compared to a $5 fee. Small creates a context for the fee.

You'll see this used effectively in yes/no buttons with 'yes, get the free case study' compared to 'no, I’d rather not know how my marketing is performing.' The framing highlights the consequence of not saying yes. 

G - Guarantee

A guarantee removes risk.

For example, LL Bean offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee; Nutrisystem – guaranteed or your money back; you can cancel at any time; an unconditional 60 day money back guarantee.

The Herd Mentality or Principle of Social Proof: we mirror other people’s actions

H – Herd Mentality or Social Proof

People look to others (especially like themselves) and follow their lead. That's the Herd Mentality or Principle of Social Proof: we mirror other people’s actions. This is why testimonials are so effective, particularly if:

  • They come from a person similar to the person we are trying to convince – horizontal influence

  • They are most convincing if the testimonial suggests, starting where the prospect is and moves them along.

  • If you don’t use someone like your prospect, use someone your prospect likes.

Staples refers to 'customers like you'; notice popular categories and services, or most read content. Look at social networks; they bring to life the persuasiveness of social proof. Also, Amazon reviews and social shares. Beyond the Rack uses terms such as 'reserved by others' and then hope/urgency with 'Check back in 12 minutes'.

I – Information Gap Theory

If there's a gap between what you know and what you want to know, you will take action to fill that gap.

To queue up the information gap theory, use the 5Ws + 1 H (who, what, where, when, why and how) in high read pieces of real estate such as headlines and captions.

(Note that the title of this article starts with "How...")

J – Jargon

Avoid jargon at all costs! It can sound pretentious, and make readers feel stupid. 

With two exceptions: if you want to suggest more value and/or to imply more status. Then you can use a bigger term such as a savings certificate rather than coupon. Or a specific acronym to indicate insider knowledge.

People bring their own level of knowledge to situations.

K - Knowledge

People bring their own level of knowledge to situations. According to the availability bias, they will predict the likelihood of something happening based on the last example they can recall.

Someone who has never flown, who sees information about a plane crash, will conclude that flying is more dangerous than it really is.

So, before asking someone to make a purchase, get them to tap into relevant information first - a time in the past when they could have used your product/service.

Get them to think about relevant knowledge, for example for disability insurance think about the last time colleagues complained about an injury.

L - Loss Aversion

Avoiding pain is a much more powerful motivator than achieving pleasure. People are twice as motivated to avoid the pain of loss than they are to achieve the pleasure of a gain.

Loss aversion can be effective. For example, don't miss your subscription. Or, combine that with the endowment effect with "you have $x of unused credit that will expire in 24 hours."

Which scenario is most effective for motivating you to take action and stop receiving paper copies of your bank statement:

  • Be green, save trees and the planet?
  • Be charged $2/month?

Ensure your communications take little mental energy to understand

M - Mental Energy

It's critically important to ensure that your communications take little mental energy to understand. When you force people to exert too much effort, they walk away.

>> Avoiding 'Paradox of Choice' When Connecting With Customers

The mantra to embrace is KISS - keep it simple, stupid. They interpret that clean simplicity as more truthful and more accurate. It makes it easy for them to say yes, and feel commitment towards you.

Make the benefits easy to understand (e.g., sign up and see outfits that you love).

(This reminds me of Steve Krug's best-selling book titled Don’t Make Me Think about the website user experience.)

N - New

We crave news and novelty. When we find that newness, it activates the pleasure center in our brain. 

Leverage anything new using words such as new, now, finally, soon, introducing...

O - Overcoming Objections

To convince people to take action, you must first identify and overcome any objections or reservations they have. It's important to acknowledge those concerns and flip them around as you would taking lemons and turning them into lemonade.

For example, cancel at any time helps overcome objections.

P - Personalization

People love their own names. Personalization addresses this head-on. It's based on the principle of liking. Our name is an eye magnet to such an extent that people are more willing to donate if a hurricane has the same letter (or is the same) as their name. 

We lose people when we focus too much on ourselves, especially in business. There's nothing worse than having to listen to (or read) content that's all about how wonderful an organization is when you're trying desperately to figure out a solution to your own problem.

It's important to give people something, help them fix a problem, deliver good news to them or entertain them, help them feel superior or even share with them something that they aren’t supposed to hear.

Even more important is to personalize emails - the subject line, graphics, body copy, location - whatever helps to tell a story that connects with the recipient.

Use "you" rather than "I or we" in content.>> This made me think of How Do You Create Buzz?

Q - Questions

Questions engage more than statements. They involve people; they suggest an information gap; they engage curiosity. They also increase engagement by 140-150%.

Put questions in the email subject line. Ask questions in tweets and headlines. Try not to phrase the question in terms of a simple yes/no response.

Questions are also valuable for broaching difficult subjects (e.g., Vanguard asking about saving for retirement). 

R - Rational and Emotional

People make decisions for emotional reasons and then justify them for rational reasons. For that reason, we need both rational and emotional selling points in a persuasive email as BMW does leading with emotion and following up with the monthly cost.

A calculator can help with the rational justification whereas images and words might support the emotions.

Stories activate different parts of the brain.

S - Storytelling

Storytelling has existed forever. Stories activate different parts of the brain. The more parts of the brain that are activated means that we retain information longer, and understand concepts better.

For example, Jet Blue features powerful customer stories (testimonials) that convey real perspective on travel (e.g., a 6'3" woman delighted with increased leg room).

Stories add value to your product/service. Example of Significant Objects Project - buy items at flea markets then tell their story on eBay, significantly increasing the value of the objects as a result.

The more you are able to stand out with your marketing, the more respect, interest and loyalty you will create. Why? Because you are respecting people's natural curiosity. You are providing them with something talk-worthy and entertaining. You are sharing stories. 

>> See StoryTelling The Business Way With Ron Ploof

T - Time

People will spend less time on your content that you did creating it.

Therefore, make your content as easy to absorb as possible. Don't bury a lead; bring it up immediately. Be clear and concise. 

Use bolds, subheads, bulllets and list. Add white space. Make your content easy to scan and absorb.

Use bolds, subheads, bulllets and list. Add white space. Make your content easy to scan and absorb.

U - Urgency

When an item is in limited supply, the scarcity principle kicks in. It's a strong motivator for action.

You'll see it in use with descriptors such as "only x tickets left" or "for a limited time only" or "this offer may not be repeated."

V - Von Restorff Effect

People are hardwired to notice things that are different or out-of-place. For example, a missing tooth.

In an email, consider using an emoji in a subject line. Or, there's the "Oops, I'm sorry I sent the wrong email".

W - Wordplay

As writers, we have available literary devices to be more memorable, capture attention and increase engagement. 

  • Rhyme - reason bias. Easier for brain to process so must be right.
  • Simile - like or as. Example: Crazy egg is like a pair of Xray glasses
  • Surprise - we are hardwired to predict what's next. Surprise focuses attention. Example: 'dressed to chill' when the brain expects 'dressed to kill'

X - X Factor

Since persuasion is mostly about words, the X factor is about visuals. Visuals can give your copy more mileage since 65% of people are visual learners.

  • People will follow the eye gaze of a visual.
  • Graphs and charts suggest scientific veracity and truthfulness.

You is one of the top 5 persuasive words in the human language. It's a subsititute for a person's name.

Y - You

"You" is one of the top 5 persuasive words in the human language. It's a substitute for a person's name.

Remember WIIFM. People don't care about your products/services. They might care about what it does for them, though.

Downplay I, we and our. Instead, increase the use of you.

Z - Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnick Effect addresses how humans are hardwired to finish what we started. That's why cliffhangers are so popular (e.g., House of Cards, Game of Thrones).

Abandoned cart emails tap into this effect, as do loyalty programs that encourage completing actions. 


Definitely watch Nancy Harhut present "26 Words & Copy Constructs that Instantly Make You More Persuasive" from INBOUND 2017 in this 47:53 minute video.

13 Persuasive Content Insights For Driving Interactive Behaviors

This presentation was titled Tapping into Human Behavior to Increase Open, Read and Response Rates. Although focused on direct mail, the insights highlighted are equally relevant for writing effective and persuasive emails.

1. People respect authority.

See A - Authority above.

2. Humans are naturally curious.

If you check out Nancy's original presentation (link above), you'll learn about the Coconut mailer used for a medical conference in Hawaii.

See S - Storytelling above.

3. Gatekeepers make very deliberate assumptions.

Gatekeepers want to avoid blame. They will assume something is important if it looks important. And, if they make a decision once, they generally fall into that pattern.

Even worse are the automatic gatekeepers such as email rules and filters and unsubscribe lists.

>> See Get More Customers? Offer Opt-in Email, Text Messages

>> See How Not To Get More Business: 7 eMail Retail Experience Horrors!

4. People look at who and where mail is from.

This is at the heart of contextual marketing and personalization.

Just as we scan for mail from people we recognize in the mailbox (or letters with beautiful stamps), we prioritize the email inbox tsunami by looking for messages from people we know and want to respond to. 

>> See How Contextual Marketing Can Make Meaning For Your Customers

We’re inclined to touch things.

5. We’re inclined to touch things.  

Interaction increases response rates and engagement.

Touching is harder with email. That's where strong visual graphics are important, especially if they support touch and interaction and pave the way for physical interactions.

However, you can include a clickable button to take your engaged visitors to a digital site where you can feed that curiosity!

>> See How Digital-Physical Mashups Affect Inbound Marketing and Retail

6. Our eyes gravitate to certain words.  

See E - Eye Magnets above.

7. No really can mean ‘tell me more.’  

People buy solutions to their problems. If the first (or fourth) contact didn’t connect, you may need to try again.

Consider a lead nurturing sequence where you provide the recipient with options to disengage as well as modify subscription preferences. Depending on how persuasive your email is, you may find that you generate a positive response after multiple instances of being ignored.

Some responses are automatic: because, new, easy, improved...

8. Some responses are automatic.  

See B - Because above.

With direct mail, a coupon or rather the dashed line that surrounds a coupon will lift readership by 23% regardless of the value.

Using "easy, quick, improved" will increase product sales.  

Long copy is considered trustworthy compared to short messages. This is particularly relevant for website content and blog articles. Even Google considers long copy more trustworthy. 

>> See How To Create Great Content For Your Website (and Business Blog)

>> See How To Get Found On Google

9. People are most interested in themselves.  

See P - Personalization and Y - You above.

10. People make decisions for rational and emotional reasons.  

See R - Rational and Emotional above.

11. Avoidance of pain.  

See L - Loss Aversion above.

The principle of reciprocity is powerful.

12. People feel obligated. 

The principle of reciprocity is powerful. We like to pay in kind for what someone does for us.

We also want what we cannot have. That's the principle of scarcity: if it's scarce – we want it.

13. We do what people like us and people we like do. 

See H - Herd Mentality above.


This presentation - The Science Behind Emails That Persuade - goes into even more detail. 

NEDMA14: The Science Behind Emails that Persuade - Nancy Harhut from New England Direct Marketing Association 


Persuasive Content Takeaways

Remember that emails don't exist in a vacuum. They exist in your recipients' contexts as well as your own. Be thinking how your emails fit into a bigger picture. Your goal is to create emails that customers welcome, open, engage with and love. 

Here are four tips to do so:

1. Be thoughtful up front 

  • Make each email message you send unforgettable using the principles detailed above. If you have nothing to say, reconsider sending the email.
  • Be human; personalize your email, add a photo of yourself to your signature, and let your personality come through in your message. Make it about your recipient.
  • Keep your message short and make sure your copy is scannable for easier consumption online and on mobile.
  • How can you create engagement with each email send?
  • More is better with links in email messages. Links give people more opportunities to click on them as they read. Direct readers to actual relevant content on your website rather than to your home page. Think how to add value with each link.
  • Don’t send one-size fits all email marketing.
  • How can you move the conversation with your customers along based on your emails? How can you learn more about your customers with each message? What questions can you ask so you can build trust with them on their terms?

2. Details matter in email marketing

  • Check your work. Spam filters judge you, recipients judge you and typos will lower click rates.
  • Use personalization tokens to customize your email
  • Fill out the email preview text
  • Test how your email looks in different mail clients and on mobile 
  • Add <alt> tags to your visuals in case the email client doesn't immediately make them visible.
  • Add enough padding to your call to action buttons so fat fingers have no problem clicking on them on mobile.

3. Always be experimenting

  • Mix up the kinds of messages that you send and monitor which create the most engagement.
  • Don’t overdo email messages with graphics. Graphics do help; however, emails with no graphics work, too. Try no graphics email and measure results. Too many graphics can look spammy. Mix it up.
  • Experiment with your send dates. 
  • Can you further segment your lists based on the engagement you've generated to strengthen the relationship? 

4. Commit to good list hygiene

  • Don't hang on too long to contacts who don't interact with you. Focus on the people who are engaging with your content and actively manage unengaged contacts.
  • Take the people who haven't interacted with you and enroll them in a 'win-back campaign' after 3 months. Send an email highlighting your best content from last 3 months, say you missed them, invite them to come back, give them an attractive offer. Breakup if this still doesn’t generate engagement. 

>> See How To Create Email Marketing Customers Welcome? Show Respect!

Ready to Make Your Own Emails More Persuasive? 

Are you ready to embrace the art and science of persuasion in your emails? How will you start?

For more inspiration, check your own email inbox. Which messages make you look, open and click? What was it that triggered your response? Would you apply that to your own emails? 

Download the Content Marketing Guide!  

This article was originally published on 12/15/2015 and has been updated. 

Topics: email marketing

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