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Back in May Michael Straker wrote about cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most common psychological effects you’re likely to face. It happens to us all the time, when buying lunch or reading an ingredient label (This Boathouse fruit mix has how many calories per bottle?) or watching politics…especially watching politics.

Today I want to take a slightly longer look into cognitive dissonance, and discuss how it can be used to better your email campaigns.

A little more on Cognitive Dissonance

All you need for cognitive dissonance to occur are two contradictory ideas, or ‘cognitions’. The presence of contradicting cognitions creates a powerful feeling of discomfort, and we rectify this situation, most often, in one or more of three ways:

  1. changing one or both of our cognitions
  2. adding new cognitions
  3. altering the importance of cognitions

Take an example:

Let’s say that I like Barack Obama more than George W Bush because of he doesn’t support torture. Then, once in office, he maintains and extends the power of the government to do so. Suddenly I am faced with cognitive dissonance: so I still like Barack Obama? Why?

  • Changing cognitions: “I like Obama the same as Bush [and I give up on American politics forever]” / “Obama a slightly better president than Bush because he doesn’t torture people as much” / “I like Obama better than Bush because of his economic policy”

  • Adding new cognitions: “I like Barack Obama more than George W Bush because his policies, such as his treatment of torture, show less contempt for public opinion.”

  • Altering importance of cognition: “Well, it’s a big deal, but not as big as the rest of Obama’s policy decisions, which still make him a better president.”

Cognitive Dissonance in Email

Cognitive dissonance obviously has several applications within the context of making an offer. For instance:

  • Let your users eat a grape: Giving a big payoff for very little is a classic marketing technique, and it plays directly on cognitive dissonance. If a user is questioning the value of dealing with you, giving them something at great value creates a dissonance: Company A is not trustworthy, but my last transaction with them was a great experience.
  • The Franklin: As Michael Straker noted, Ben Franklin famously asked to borrow a book from an opponent. The opponent agreed, and after that the two became friends. If you can convince your users to do something that puts them at odds with their preconceived notion of you, they will have to reconsider that notion. How do you do this? There’s a number of ways, but Michael points to fostering commitment with written public statements.
  • The Obama: Not to belittle the work that Obama is doing, but if the inevitable comparison is going to be between you and one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, then people are going to start with the assumption that you are, at least comparatively, ‘good’. Unless you do really badly you’re going to be seen in at least a somewhat positive light. As they say, you don’t need to swim faster than the shark, just faster than the person next to you. Similarly, if you can make yourself seem better than other offers, then you’ve got an initial advantage.

However, I’m less interested in ways to make this work in the context of creating offers, (that’s more Neal/Michael’s place) and more interested in how cognitive dissonance can work with subjects like open rate and click-through.

It’s spam. Or is it…

Let’s face it, the first thing we think when we see a promotional email is “it’s spam”. Even if you’ve signed up for it, that first impression has us ready to hit “report”. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since around 94% of email is spam.

This leaves users with one cognition: This email is going to be spam.

If you can create a dissonance with this idea, then you create the need for the user to resolve it. You create a reason for them to open your email. How can you do this?

Mailchimp did a study a while back, which I’ve cited endlessly, on the best and worst open rates coming through their servers. The top 10 were tremendously bland:

  1. [COMPANYNAME] Sales & Marketing Newsletter
  2. Eye on the [COMPANYNAME] Update (Oct 31 – Nov 4)
  3. [COMPANYNAME] Staff Shirts & Photos
  4. [COMPANYNAME] May 2005 News Bulletin!
  5. [COMPANYNAME] Newsletter – February 2006
  6. [COMPANYNAME] Newsletter – January 2006 [ *|FNAME|* *|LNAME|* ]
  7. [COMPANYNAME] and [COMPANYNAME] Invites You!
  8. Happy Holidays from [COMPANYNAME]

These were all headlines that got 60%-87% open rates. 60%-80%. Thats HUGE. But why? What do they offer? What do they entice with? What do they do?

My theory:

They create cognitive dissonance.

These titles are so lacking in pizazz, in pop, in visibility, and in every other marketing buzzword design tactic, that that when they hit the inbox they clash with users preconceived notions. Users either know right from the top that these are emails they’ve signed up for, or are suddenly confronted with such non-promotion that it clashes with their expectations. They then have a need to resolve this, so of course they are going to open the email.

Just make sure you don’t reconfirm their initial assumption by actually sending spam…

Other things that can help:

As always, email best practices can do a lot to fight this:

  1. Always use a recognizable email address and “from” names
  2. Keep your communication fresh by avoiding list stagnation
  3. Don’t write your subject lines like advertisements!

Anyhow, I’m sure there are a billion other ways that cognitive dissonance can play into an email campaign. As always, if you’ve got ideas leave them in the comments.


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The 2020 State of Digital Marketing Analytics examines the marketing technology that supports the world's most successful enterprises and highlights the challenges and strategies for navigating the new normal..