Words Matter -- Even In Ransom Notes

I like to think that kidnappers A/B test their ransom notes. For one thing, there’s money on the line. Also, the tedious process of cutting and pasting letters from various periodicals into a ransom note gives kidnappers plenty of opportunity to think carefully about the words they want to use. With ransom notes, the message is everything, and the design serves only to conceal the sender’s identity.

So should it be:

$1 million, or your husband dies

$1 million so your husband lives

From a design perspective, both notes are identical. Each has the exact same number of characters: 27. But the messages differ in a critical way. Each is a threat that invokes fear, but only the first is an overt threat, while the second is implied.

The second call to action is also hopeful in a way that the first isn’t: There’s not only a chance hubby will live, there’s a plan for accomplishing just that objective. There’s a big difference between the verbs “dies” and “lives,” and a slight, but important difference between the prepositions “or” and “so.” Change the words, and you change the meaning—a good lesson for kidnappers and email marketers alike.



Write with intent and tone in sound bite form

Try making a word cloud from all your promotional and customer communication emails for the last year. Certain words will naturally dominate the cloud for the obvious reasons: those words are among the most effective, each brand has its own style considerations that reflect the brand’s values, and frankly, the English language only has so many ways to say “sale.”

The word cloud, then, is an ideal graphic representation of a successful email marketing vocabulary — or a good way to show you that sales messaging can dominate your brand and potentially cheapen it if over- used.  

But the confines of the cloud also have a cost. The more we use a word, the more we stretch that word’s meaning into something that’s predictable, mundane and eventually, meaningless (and in our world can be evolved into a business condition to act). There is a fine art of words, messaging and promotion that have to be balanced. Writing with intent and tone requires a deliberate choice to push beyond the safety of the cloud. Words matter. We owe it to our audience to choose words that are meaningful.

SELL or persuade?

CAPITAL LETTERS SELL. Do you believe that claim? You probably do, but not because I capitalized the first sentence in this paragraph.

Colleagues shared their success stories of email blasts with subject lines in all caps. Your dashboard supplied data that helped you verify the claims of your colleagues.

Perhaps you read a white paper on the neuroscience of reading. You were persuaded, not sold. And while a sale is a lot easier to measure in your dashboard, the value of persuasion pays dividends forever.

Calls to action can be creative

Act now / Act yesterday

Learn more / Combat ignorance

Like us on Facebook / Boost our self-esteem on Facebook

On the left, we have three common calls to action. On the right, we have three creative attempts to say the same thing in a different way. The left is proven and dependable. The right is novel. As email marketers, we love language we can depend on, language that’s proven to deliver predictable results. Creative calls to action can risky propositions for email marketers because creativity is unpredictable, but therein lies your risk tolerance. .

So why should you ever take a creative risk with a call to action? Because words matter. A creative risk might fall flat, or it might be the most effective email you’ve ever sent. You can always run a limited test of a creative call to action, but you’ll never know what an outside-the-box idea will yield until you deliver it to an inbox.

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