Words count: How the language you use arouses emotions in the people you’re trying to reach

Expressions of achievement, exclusivity, and gratification work best in email subject lines, but during COVID-19 lockdowns, all the rules changed.

“Independence Day is almost here!”

“Shop for what you enjoy.”


“Our July newsletter”

Scrolling through the list of promotional messages that land in my inbox, I’m often amazed at how few inspire action. Many state the obvious (#1 above), lack context (#2 and #3), or tell me nothing (#4).

And this is even though customer expectations for targeted messages are rising.

McKinsey says that 71% of consumers expect personalization from the brands and businesses they choose, and three-quarters are frustrated when they don’t get it.

The 2022 Customer Motivation Report from language-optimization firm Persado is worthwhile reading if you want to understand how words affect emotions.

Persado says it has generated over 15 million unique campaign messages over the past ten years based on a platform that constantly tests varying combinations of words to determine those that work best in a particular context.

15 motivators

The company has settled on 15 different categories of language that can inspire action.

Achievement – “Congratulations on reaching level 1,000.”

Exclusivity – “Sneak peek sale for our best customers only.”

Gratification – “Your end-of-year bonus.”

Safety – “How to outlast a bear market.”

Attention – “You need to know this.”

Intimacy – “How are you weathering the uncertain economy?”

Excitement – “We can’t wait to tell you the news.”

Curiosity – “Secrets the big retailers don’t want you to know.”

Gratitude – “Because you’re one of our best customers.”

Encouragement – “You’re almost there!”

Regret – “Don’t be left out of this deal.”

Fascination – “Get a behind-the-scenes look.”

Urgency - “Only 24 hours left!”

Luck – “You just hit the jackpot.”

Challenge – “We bet you can’t resist this.”

Acquiring and retaining customers often requires a combination of motivators that may vary according to a person’s relationship with your company or their stage in the buying cycle, says Lisa Spira, head of content intelligence at Persado.

“Motivators don’t remain constant,” she says. “If you bring someone in with an Achievement message and continue to send Achievement messages, then that personal touch will be lost. You need to keep changing and remember that context matters.”

A better approach for prospects who respond to an Achievement motivator is to reward them with Gratitude, after which an Exclusivity message can make them feel special.

Intimacy messages like “Welcome, Anna” on a landing page are particularly effective, Spira said.

External influences matter

Social, economic, and political factors also influence message effectiveness.

For example, Persado noted a profound shift in motivators during COVID-related lockdowns in 2020. Attention messages, which ranked in the top five in 2019, fell to next-to-last on the list, while “Luck” come-ons failed to arouse any response at all, perhaps because few people were feeling lucky at the time.

On the other hand, Gratitude, Intimacy, and Gratification messages all performed better than usual.

“Loud attention-grabbing language didn’t fit well with the vibe of the moment,” Spira says. “Attention came back with softer touch later in the pandemic – more as a friendly reminder instead of a shout.”

Seasonal factors also matter.

For example, “Attention” and “Achievement” messages tend to do well during the holidays, while “Challenge” and “Urgency” calls are more effective in the late summer when parents are rushing to get kids ready for school.

Certain motivators tend to work well regardless of the circumstances: Appeals for Achievement, Gratification, and Exclusivity are strong performers across the board, the report says. Safety is another perennial winner, but during COVID, language like “we’ve got you covered” did better than “protect yourself” when many people felt safety was out of their control.

Use with care

Some motivators are best used with caution.

“Regret is typically a lower-performing emotion, but it works well in some contexts like in financial services during the pandemic,” Spira says. “Regret is characterized by ‘don’t,’ which is a word that doesn’t work that well in general, but it can be effective when people want stability.”

That was the case in 2020 when “that clear imperative produced atypically positive results” for financial institutions, particularly, the report notes.

“Challenge” is at the bottom of the effectiveness list in general but may be useful with specific categories of customers, such as athletes and gamers.

Mixing motivators can elicit strong reactions, such as “gratitude” mixed with “exclusivity,” as in “Thanks for your support; you’re invited to our exclusive pre-sale.”

And there’s one motivator – anger – that Persado seldom recommends. “There are contexts where it can work, but it can be off-putting enough that we rarely recommend it,” Spira says.

Of course, that doesn’t stop political candidates from clubbing us over the head with messages of outrage. Like I said, context matters.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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