Outreach can be grueling work, and it takes an understanding of how people work in order to find any kind of long-term success by putting it to use.
What makes people pay attention? Why do we take some emails more seriously than others?
Let’s look at four insights from psychology that will help you build relationships and increase open rates.
1. Loss Aversion
Also referred to as “the framing effect,” this is the tendency for people to take bigger risks to avoid a loss than to receive a gain, even when the outcome is exactly the same.
The result has been replicated in many studies, but in one example, it went down like this.
First, split the participants into two groups.
Now participants in one group are given $50 and then given two choices:
- Keep $30
- Take a 50/50 gamble where they could lose all $50 or keep all $50
The other group is presented with an alternative set of choices:
- Lose $20
- Take a 50/50 gamble where they could lose all $50 or keep all $50
Notice that these scenarios are actually identical. The only difference is “losing” $20 vs “keeping” $30. While that means the same thing in reality, psychologically it means something very different.
How different? Only 43 percent were willing to gamble in the “keep” scenario, while 61 percent were willing to gamble in the “lose” scenario.
There’s just something about loss that makes us more likely to take risks to avoid it. All in all, that means we’re more likely to play things too conservatively when presented with opportunities and to play things too risky when facing losses.
In any kind of outreach, we need to be careful with the way we frame things. Every interaction is costly, even if money isn’t involved, since there’s always the possibility that time will end up wasted.
Focusing too heavily on opportunities without addressing losses is likely to make people play things conservatively.
Part of the reason for that is the simple fact that nobody wants to risk wasting time, and while we’d all like things in our life to improve, we’re more concerned about losing time and avoiding other complications in our life.
So minimize those potential losses as much as possible. Give every indication that the person you’re reaching out to isn’t going to spend a lot of time on you. Don’t overload them with praise and social proof if it means reading a 3-page email. One paragraph is closer to what people are looking for.
That goes for any potential loss. Treat any potential loss as if it’s going to weigh 3 times as heavy on the recipient’s mind as any potential gain.
2. Belief Bias
This pairs nicely with loss aversion, especially in the context of outreach. Belief bias is the interesting tendency of people to reject conclusions that sound unbelievable, even if the underpinning logic is sound.
Consider a landmark study run by Evans, Barston, and Pollard. They had participants rate statements based on how believable they were. For example “some religious people are not priests” would have been rated as highly believable, while “some priests are not religious people” would have been rated as hardly believable.
They then proceeded to construct arguments “proving” these statements. Half of them were logically valid, and half were not.
Despite this, the participants rated 80 percent of the “believable” statements as having valid logic, but only 33% of the “unbelievable” statements as having valid logic.
In other words, people were blind to invalid logic about 30 percent of the time if the conclusion seemed believable, and they were blind to valid logic about 17 percent of the time if the conclusion seemed unbelievable.
It’s so important not to overpromise, or even to say things that sound too good to be true, even if they actually are.
How likely are you to open that email that promises “male enhancement?” Well, probably about as likely as you are to open the one that promises “100,000,000 views when we guest post on your site.”
If you’re like most people, belief bias kicks in pretty quickly here. Even if the promises contained within those emails were actually legitimate, you probably wouldn’t believe it. I know I wouldn’t.
It goes against our impulses, but during outreach, sometimes we actually need to underplay the value we can provide, as well as play to what our recipients are expecting to be true.
Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient on the other end of your outreach. Look for those phrases and promises that sound too good to be true, the promises that it sounds like you can’t keep, even if you actually can. Avoid them.
It turns out that “underpromise, overdeliver” isn’t just good customer satisfaction advice, it’s often good advice for being taken seriously in the first place.
3. The Word “Because”
Simply giving people a reason for your actions tends to result in a more positive response.
Cutting in line is a bit like sending an unsolicited email. It violates people’s general understanding of etiquette and it puts people on guard. So it’s interesting to see how one simple change in language would result in people allowing somebody to cut in line.
A Harvard study by Ellen Langer found a surprising result tested in lines for Xerox machines.
They had participants use one of three phrases when asking if they could cut in line:
- “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”
- “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
- “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”
Without the word “because,” only 60 percent were allowed to cut in line. But the second and third phrases received 93 percent and 94 percent compliance, respectively.
Think about that for a moment. The phrase “because I’m in a rush” isn’t necessarily the best reason, but it is a reason. The phrase “because I have to make copies,” though, is hardly a reason at all. Everybody in the line has to make copies.
Amazingly, just giving a reason, even a ubiquitous one, causes people to take you more seriously.
That is, until loss aversion kicks in. When the experiment was ran with “20 pages,” only “because I’m in a rush” resulted in compliance.
If you’re doing outreach of any kind, especially unsolicited, recipients will be expecting you to give a reason why. If your recipient doesn’t see that word “because” in the first sentence or so, odds are they’re going to toss you in the spam folder and move on.
I’d actually aim for getting that reason right into the email subject line if you can.
We’re on autopilot when we’re sifting through our inbox, and without context, anything unexpected from people we don’t know is going in the trash. It’s when we see our name, something we did, some event we went to, or something similar that we actually take the time to pay attention. It means this message is actually for us.
I’m not saying that the word “because” is a must, but I am saying that a reason and a context for the communication should be established as quickly as possible, sometimes even before your own name.
4. ‘You Are Free…’
Reminding people that they are autonomous individuals with free will makes them more comfortable to make a choice that’s favorable to you.
The science on this effect is heavily established. One meta-analysis looked at 42 scientific studies including a total of 22,000 participants.
Experiments included in the analysis presented people with an offer followed by phrases like “but you are free to refuse.” The exact phrasing didn’t seem to matter, as long as the point was made that the “consumer” had the option of refusing.
In most contexts, people were twice as likely to say yes if they were told they had the option of refusing.
The meta-analysis even included studies where offers were made via email. While the results weren’t as strong as in person, they were still present and statistically significant.
The evidence suggests that “self-representation” is an important part of the decision making process. In other words, people feel submissive if they agree to an offer without being told that they have the option of saying no. If they’re verbally given “permission” to say no, they’re more likely to say yes.
This insight is important for a couple reasons. The first is that it requires us to let go of the illusion that we can somehow “trick” or “manipulate” a recipient into going along with us. The reality is quite the opposite: we’re more likely to build relationships and cooperate with others if we treat them like human beings who make their own decisions.
Second, it requires us to make a gesture that we probably won’t make without conscious effort. Even recognizing the human on the other end of the communication, it might be tempting to say “no, don’t remind them that there are other options, you’ll scare them away!”
Psychology isn’t mind control, but understanding how people work is crucial if you want people to take your outreach seriously.
Don’t waste people’s time, don’t promise the sky, give people a reason why you’re talking to them, and don’t try to dance around their sense of free will.