Welcome to part 2 of our 5 part series on applied psychology and its relationship with outreach for link building and inbound marketing. In the 1st part we discussed the principle of reciprocity, how people are more receptive to any opportunities you approach them with, if you offer something to them first. In particular, we discussed how the primary driving factors behind reciprocity are gratitude and familiarity, as opposed to the pure cost-benefit analysis we might expect.
In this 2nd part, we’ll discuss the concept of anchoring, an important influence on how people perceive options and make decisions.
This psychological effect tells us that the way we frame things and the order in which we present things to people can have a pretty dramatic effect on how people perceive what we are seeing and, more importantly, how they decide to make decisions using this information.
It’s not hard to see how that kind of effect can mean the difference between getting response to an email or getting thrown in the trash.
How should we be presenting ourselves to make the best of this effect, and avoid the worst of it?
Let’s start by elaborating on the concept with some of the research.
The First Anchoring Effect: The Focusing Effect
One example of anchoring is called “the focusing effect,” or the “focusing illusion.” Consider one experiment ran by David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman, where people from Southern California and from the Midwest were asked to rate their own life satisfaction, as well as what somebody’s satisfaction would be in either of the two locations.
On average, people assumed that satisfaction was higher in Southern California. But it wasn’t. People in both places rated their own life satisfaction the same.
When evaluating living in another location, people weighed the importance of climate and cultural opportunity more heavily than more conspicuous factors like crime rates and natural disasters.
In a review of the literature on income and happiness, Kahneman and colleagues found a similar result. Past a certain point, income has very little to do with life satisfaction, but people dramatically overestimate how important income is to life satisfaction. Why? Again, because income is such a conspicuous factor.
Using The Focusing Effect In Your Outreach
Have you seen an email like this before?
Subject: Your urgent reply is needed
Congratulations, you won! We are attempting to deposit the sum of $10,546,321 in your bank account but the bank is rejecting the funds. Please send us the following information:
Phone Number: _____________
Attach Copy Of Your ID _____________
Okay. How quickly did your eyes glaze over?
If you’re like most of us, you probably knew about what to expect, as soon as you saw the subject line “Your urgent reply is needed.” If that wasn’t enough, “Congratulations, you won!” would have done it. And finally, of course, asking for your personal information was a red flag.
Why am I showing you this spam email?
The focusing effect tells us that we tend to make decisions that are influenced more heavily by the most conspicuous factors. What if the body of the email were completely legit? Odds are you wouldn’t have gotten that far. The most conspicuous part of the email is the subject line, and it’s the most generic spam subject line you’ve ever seen. You immediately know what to expect.
Another conspicuous factor is the lack of a name. At no point does this email address us by name. If the subject line wasn’t enough to convince us to send this to the spam folder, the fact that they don’t mention our name in the first line immediately puts us off.
Now, I haven’t yet told you anything about outreach you don’t already know. Of course you should include somebody’s name in the subject line and in the opening line of the email body. Of course, the subject line is the most important part of your email. So why go through this exercise? To draw your attention to the psychology behind what is happening with these principles that you already understand, so that it’s clearer why this next example is also likely to fail:
Subject: Hi [name], a link on one of your pages is broken
Hi [name]. I am [name] and I am the Director of Marketing at [agency name]. I have spent over ten years in the field of SEO and I have experience working with companies like [name], [name], [name], and [name]. You can see some of my work at [link].
I am contacting you to let you know that a link on this page is broken: [link]
You may want to replace it with this link to a project of ours: [link].
Now, we are off to a much better start with this email. They refer to us by name in the subject line and the opening line of this email. The most conspicuous part of the email, the subject line, makes it clear what we should expect from the email, and that subject is very relevant to anybody who runs a website.
In fact, many marketers will surely look at this email and wonder what the problem is. I’ve received enough emails like this to know that there are plenty of them out there. We’ve also made this very mistake in some of the earlier years of our career, but we’ve noticed a big change in response rates after changing our approach.
The most conspicuous thing about this email is the disconnect between the subject line and the opening lines. The subject line suggests we are getting a friendly email from somebody who noticed a flaw on our site, but the opening paragraph looks like a sales pitch.
Many marketers might not recognize it as such. They probably see it as “demonstrating expertise” or something similar, a psychological effect in its own right that probably deserves its own blog post in the future. But, I guarantee you that is not how your recipients are seeing it. Opening with a value demonstration of this kind is one of the most conspicuous factors that separates spam from relevant email. It is the “congratulations, you won!” of outreach.
Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of legitimate emails do start out with a value demonstration like this. But enough spams employ this tactic for it to be a conspicuous factor that causes recipients to mark the email as spam, right away.
Not a whole lot would need to be changed for this email to actually work. Here is how I probably would have written it:
Subject: Hi [name], a link on one of your pages is broken
Hi [name]. I noticed that a link on this page is broken: [link]
I actually wrote a post on this topic recently, so feel free to use it instead: [link]
For an idea of who I am you can take a look at my about page or one of my most popular posts:
Notice the difference? Aside from moving the value demonstration to the bottom, I also removed the formal sounding language and replaced it with a more personal tone, as well as made the value demonstration optional by linking to pages on my site.
In doing so, I’ve removed all of the conspicuous factors that the recipient might associate with spam. The tone of the language alone is a major conspicuous factor. Taking this approach makes it feel much more like a helpful email from somebody who noticed a broken link, which of course is exactly what it is. But the previous email didn’t feel like one.
Now, no matter how informal the tone, recommending the link as a replacement is conspicuously self-serving, but there’s an important difference. I’ve led by showing them where the broken link is, not how wonderful I am. The recipient is definitely going to fix the link, and that gives reciprocity a chance to do its work.
The Second Anchoring Effect: The Adjustment Heuristic
We don’t just anchor our decisions on what’s most conspicuous. We’re also incredibly susceptible to the first piece of information we’re given. This is called the adjustment heuristic.
In an article published in the ScienceMag, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman uncovered a unique way of predicting the number of African countries in the UN. This was based on the number on which a roulette wheel lands. On the other hand, Dan Ariely found that people were willing to bid more money on items if they were asked to write down the last two digits of their social security number, if those last two digits were high.
As if that weren’t bad enough, even being aware of this effect doesn’t stop it, even when people are offered real money.
As a result of this bias, people are more likely to perceive a wine as inexpensive if wines are listed from most to least expensive, for example. This phenomenon is called the adjustment heuristic, which causes us to evaluate everything we say in one context as an adjustment from what we were first exposed to.
Using The Adjustment Heuristic In Your Outreach
What does the adjustment heuristic have to do with outreach?
The focusing effect discussed above means that when somebody is reading your email, they are going to start by comparing your email to the others that they’ve seen based on only the most conspicuous differences, rather than by taking a close look and making an entirely educated judgment.
In contrast, the adjustment heuristic means that any conclusions people come to about your email will be viewed as adjustments from their first impression, which makes the first few words very important in setting the tone for the rest of the email.
No matter how many conspicuous factors you successfully address and deal with properly, there’s one you can never do anything about in your initial email. That conspicuous factor is the fact that the recipient simply does not know who you are. That is the most conspicuous difference between spam and non-spam. The impact of this effect is hard to shake, which is why you need a very solid reason for reaching out to them, one that gives them enough reason to pay attention.
Since you can’t change the fact that you don’t know each other (yet), understanding the adjustment heuristic is incredibly valuable here.
Because everything you say is evaluated relative to the first words out of your mouth, you need to make the context very clear. Open up with something that indicates genuine connection, and what you say afterwards is more likely to be seen within that context.
Let’s look at an example of an email that fails to use the adjustment heuristic properly:
Subject: [name], I liked your post about [topic]
Hi [name], I really liked your post about [topic]. I especially agree with the part about [topic]. It’s always been my experience that [elaboration] and what you said really hit the nail on the head for me, so kudos.
I wrote a post about [topic] here: [link]. Can you link to it?
This is another example of an email that many marketers might think is pretty good. It’s certainly not one of the worst, though. It gives context for the email, and it clearly demonstrates that the sender has done their research before sending the email. So what’s the problem?
The adjustment heuristic tells us that the most expensive wines on a wine list look more expensive if they’re listed at the bottom. For similar reasons, after anchoring this email on how much they loved this blog post, asking for a link just seems even more manipulative and self-serving than if the email had just led with that.
You may be wondering what a better approach could possibly be. After all, leading with “I wrote a post about [topic] here, can you link to it?” clearly isn’t a good approach either.
Here’s how I might approach a similar email:
Subject: Hi [name], I liked your post about [topic] and thought you might find mine interesting
Hi [name], I just came across your blog post about [topic] here:
and it reminded me of a similar post I thought you’d like here:
It’s always been my experience that [elaboration] and what you said really hit the nail on the head. When you mentioned [elaboration], I thought you’d be interested to know [detail]. [More elaboration]. If so, feel free to reference my post in the future.
I won’t lie. There’s a decent chance that fewer people will actually open this email than the first one. However, I have noticed that emails like this are more likely to receive a response or earn a link. There’s nothing charming about feeling manipulated by somebody who emailed you to say they loved your post, then reveals that the only reason they are contacting you is for a link.
It’s much better to set the appropriate tone for the goal of the email, right off the bat. Here, we’ve anchored the discussion on the similarity of our posts and how ours is relevant to them. In doing so, we’ve kept the subject line relevant to them as well as to the actual motivation behind the email. Our email doesn’t take a sudden turn for the worse that alienates the recipient.
The adjustment heuristic tells us that there’s no value in trying to be sneaky. The longer we put off our “terrible secret” the more terrible it will seem. Your recipients are running a business too, or at least trying to earn attention online. They understand the need for promotion and they’ll understand as long as your email is relevant to them.
They won’t appreciate you disguising a pitch as a compliment.
If you want to learn more about the psychology of outreach, take a look at Part 1 to learn about the principle of reciprocity.
Stay tuned for part 3.
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