Toying with our B2B Brain Chemistry

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Ryan Skinner

09. 11. 2012 | 4 min read

Toying with our B2B Brain Chemistry

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Best practice in crafting calls-to-action is getting so good I want to rip my eyeballs out.

So I’m casually checking my email when I see an email from a guy named Jeff Taros with the subject “I forgot to mention”.

I open it. Of course.

I don’t know a guy named Jeff Taros, but I might anyway, if you know what I mean. I’ve forgotten how many people I’ve forgotten to remember. Maybe he was that funny guy at my brother’s wedding. Who knows? And he said he forgot to mention something. What is it, Jeff? What is it, man?! What did you forget to mention to me, Jeff Taros?!

It’s a cold sales pitch from a marketing automation company, and Jeff’s a sales rep (or, should I say, business development executive).

Two thoughts go through my head in the split second before I hit delete:

1. Damn you, Jeff Taros

And, lest I forget to mention it, Jeff:

2. Damn the email subject line you rode in on


10 tips to write email subject lines that boost your open rates

This is probably the greatest topic of thought leadership known to man. We humans are facing species-ending challenges, and there are currently 3,530,000 pieces of thought leadership about getting people you don’t know to look at your email based on the subject line. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

But here’s the rub: I work in a digital agency; we’re supposed to know that best practice, share it and use it for ourselves and our clients. And, I’ll admit ambivalently, I do.

Just last month, I personally sent out Velocity’s email newsletter via Marketo with a cycle to repeat if the first and second weren’t opened. The subject line of the second and third emails: “Don’t miss this post-Olympics boost!” and “Pictures > Words”.  Obviously, I was testing the “obscurity” route to getting an open. (For the record, the open rates for the three emails were 28%, 10% and 14%.)

Yeah, to hell with you, Ryan Skinner. However, our newsletters are sent from our MD’s email address. Sorry, Stan.


What’s the greater good?

We’re digital marketers. Core skill: Getting people to do stuff online. Whatever shred of psychology we can use to achieve that cold-blooded end, we will. Hell, we’re supposed to.

Some would say that cutting a corner a la “forgot to mention” does greater harm (now I hate you, Jeff, and your company) than good (actually opened the email). They would tell you to focus on the end-game – getting to revenue. In that case, “forgot to mention” equals fail.

The counterargument’s probably even stronger, though. Sure, you’ve burned some people, but at least the mail’s been opened. The fraction of people that enter your funnel’s going to be greater. Better to be less than virtuous but out in the marketplace, than virtuous in a closet somewhere.

Even an expert at Econsultancy – the glorious and shining bastion of all things digital marketing right and good – wrote: “We can write very descriptive, almost academic titles describing posts, but what’s the point if no-one reads them?”

Good question. What really serves you in the long run?


Does what deserves attention, get it?

The problem’s greater than email subject lines, blog post titles and calls-to-action. Everyone’s toying with our brain chemistry – pushing buttons and pulling levers that touch deep into our animal psyches.

I remember that there was a certain fascination with subliminal messaging in the 90s, probably culminating with John Cleese’s fantastic ad for Schweppes. That was a corny hysteria about what marketers were doing in the shadows.

The issue now is that marketers are doing their stuff in the open, and tying it to legitimate psychological research. It’s not a sin anymore. It’s a virtue.

Take gamification. The very foundation of a $1.84 billion market cap company is the ability to exploit hidden triggers in our psyche – they’re doing to us what B. F. Skinner did to pigeons.

Farmville’s for morons, OK. The kind who are also susceptible to simple mind tricks (“these are not the droids you’re looking for” or “tweet this post right now”).

I’m not a moron. I don’t play Farmville. But I opened Jeff Taros’ damn email. And I probably fall prey to a half-dozen ploys designed to do an end run around my brain chemistry every time I go shopping.

Sometimes I fear it’s working. The brain chemists will soon control us all.


Eat your vegetables

Hey, you might say, that’s marketing. Oh, but hey, it isn’t. Marketing is not implicitly about deceit. Neither is promotion. Done well, both should entertain, not deceive. There be a line, though it be faint.

Despite short-term successes, I think the classic tricks of digital marketing thought leadership are going stale. People are learning to avoid the stuff that tickled their brains just a year ago or two. That’s culture for you.

I seldom open “10 tips to…” or “8 reasons that…” or “12 ways to…” content anymore. In fact, it actively turns me off.

Don’t get me wrong. I still write the stuff, but I try to do it less and less. Because I figure everyone else’s starting to feel the same. And I don’t open emails with obscure subject lines from strangers any more.

It’s as if we’ve surfeited on candy. And now we could kill a stick of celery.

My advice: Eschew the kinds of optimization and thought leadership that feel like they’re exploiting weaknesses in our psyches, and favor those that tap positive emotions, such as humor, consistency and personality.

I hope Jeff Taros reads this.

Published in:

  • attention

  • best-practice

  • call-to-action

  • digital-marketing

  • e-marketing

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  1. Doug Kessler

    November 12th, 2012

    In the old days of direct mail, I once got a piece of junk mail disguised as a tax refund envelope (it was about that time of year).

    There may be a fine line between intriguing someone to open a message and tricking them. This was nowhere near the line. Jeff Taros is closer to it but I can see why you resented his.

  2. John Goodridge

    November 21st, 2012

    Glad you mentioned what the product was for. Did you have go back to the email and look?

    I can’t even remember what product was being punted on the last trick email I opened – although I have a feeling it was also marketing automation software (what’s with that)

    The danger is that the lasting emotion, which glues the memory in place, relates to the trick and not the content. Either admiration at the cleverness, or anger at being duped. It’s like those oh so clever TV spots, where you can recite the dialogue and picture each frame, but can’t remember the brand.

    But if email response is a key metric then I can understand why Bus dev execs (titter) would devlve into the black bag to make their targets. Which raises a whole bunch of other issues, right?

  3. Barry Feldman

    December 13th, 2012

    And then there’s even lower skank: the slime buckets who know damn well you won’t read their email, so they cold call via your site’s contact form. It is possible anyone’s ever won an account this way? Yesterday, I got form-spammed by a company trying to sell me dirt cheap blog writing. I’m a WRITER! They offended me twice.

    My favorite is the relentlessly worthless SEO scum-sucking peaheads who form-spam you pitching their great search talents. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that an SEO co. who feels form-spam is some sort of modern version of direct response is screaming “WE SUCK AT SEO!”?

    Great article Ryan. Love the image too. Compels me to share a story of mine:

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