Priming – How to Use Psychology to Enhance Outreach: Part 3 of 5

April 9, 2018

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Welcome to part 3 of our 5 part series on applied psychology as a method of approaching outreach for link building and inbound marketing. In the 2nd part we discussed the principle of anchoring, two related effects that cause us to make decisions that overemphasize the importance of easily identifiable factors and to evaluate everything relative to the first information we are exposed to.

Today I’ll talk about the psychological effect known as priming, and how to apply it to outreach. Priming is an effect that changes which kinds of stimuli we respond to, and which we don’t.

What Priming Is

The brain is one big network of semantic and associative relationships. When one part of that network gets activated, it causes other parts of our brain to activate in response.

Priming is an interesting result of this fundamental aspect of cognitive structure.

When we’re exposed to one stimulus, it causes us to respond more readily to similar stimuli, and can sometimes hinder our responses to stimuli that are not very similar.

Here’s an example from academic research. If we’re asked to identify whether or not a series of letters is a word, then we are more likely to get the right answer quickly if we’re asked whether “nurse” is a word after being exposed to the word “doctor,” or if we’re exposed to the word “wolf” after seeing the word “dog.”

The effect is so strong that it works even if our exposure to the primer is so fast that we don’t consciously notice it even happened.

These effects can influence our behavior. Consider, for example, the fact that just reading a list of words associated with the elderly will subconsciously cause you to start walking slower. Priming also influences our memory, allowing us to more readily pull information about ideas that belong to the same category. For example, somebody is more likely to remember the word “bus” on a list of words if exposed to the word “school.” This process occurs subconsciously.

There is one type of priming that is especially important for outreach: kindness priming.

This effect was first explored all the way back in the dark ages of 1971 by John D. Teasdale and his colleagues. When exposed to an act of kindness, the participants would find it easier to remember positive stimuli than negative stimuli in a later memory test.

Interestingly, a more recent series of 3 experiments conducted by Diederick Stapel and Willem Koomen found that shorter primes worked better than long ones.

In other words, kindness is most impactful when it’s concentrated in short bursts, not when it is drawn out and made into an “ordeal.”

What’s especially important for us to understand about this, as far as outreach is concerned, is that we’re talking about acts of kindness, not simply being polite, well mannered, or “nice.”

What’s the difference? In most of these experiments, the participants are given a gift, such as a box of candy, as opposed to just a smile and a pat on the back.

The research has also shown that acts of kindness like this can be contagious. One person exposed to kindness is more likely to do something generous for somebody else.

The parallels with reciprocity (the subject of Part 1) are obvious here, but it’s important to understand the difference. Kindness priming isn’t about relationship building: it works because it changes the way a person filters the information they receive from the world.

An important point to stress is the fact that kindness priming makes it harder for people to notice and remember potential negatives.

To put it bluntly, straight up kindness can help you overcome objections.

I’d like to put in a word of caution before we start talking about some examples, though.

This priming effect simply does not work if the act isn’t perceived as genuine kindness. This is the reason why politeness alone won’t do the trick. It’s also why a “coupon” or a “chance to win” is unlikely to elicit this kind of response.

People can see through cynicism, so the kindness should be heartfelt and, ideally, personalized in order to make the maximum impact.

It’s also important to make sure that the kindness is contextualized in some way. We are more on our guard now than ever before when it comes to scams, and people in general believe that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

Take the reverse priming effect, for example. This effect is one that causes people to respond as expected to the priming effect of a brand, but to respond in the opposite manner because of the priming effect of a slogan. Since slogans tend to be perceived as manipulation tactics, people respond by overcorrecting against this manipulation, behaving in a manner opposite to that of the slogan. Since brands are seen as the genuine “personality” of the company, people primed by brands tend to behave in line with the priming effect we would expect from the brand.

For those reasons, we need to make sure that the acts of kindness make sense, don’t catch people off guard in the wrong way, and don’t get their guards up.

Also, bear in mind what we discussed in Part 2), which is that anchoring on a compliment at the beginning of your email can make a request seem more rude or manipulative.

Putting Priming To Use

Much of priming comes down to word association. Consider that while you read this email:

Subject: Mr. [name], I am inquiring if you would be interested in a guest post.

Body:

Mr. [name], I am expressing my interest in writing a guest post for your website. My name is [name]. I am the CMO for [agency]. I have over twenty years of experience working with [topic]. I have formal education on the subject of [topic] and obtained a Masters Degree in [subject] at [school]. I feel that a blog post on the subject of [topic] would be a good fit for your blog. I have prepared a list of titles below:

[title]

[title]

[title]

Please respond to my inquiry.

Regards,

[name]

Is this that bad? Not particularly. If this were sent to a website that already regularly publishes guest posts, there is a decent chance that this would be successful. If I received an email like this, it certainly wouldn’t be a deal breaker.

However, the language in this email is pretty stiff. If I received something like this out of the blue, and I didn’t run a blog that was regularly publishing guest posts, the stiff language would probably have me convinced that this was a template email. The lack of reference to any existing content on my site or anything else having to do with me would confirm that expectation.

This is context dependent, of course, since some industries and outlets will expect more formal language than others.

But, specifically in the context of reaching out to a site that doesn’t regularly publish guest posts, that isn’t calling for submissions, and that is run by a single influencer, this type of email is unlikely to receive a positive response.

Why?

The language has us primed, if not for spam, at least for a job application. The word choice, grammar, and choice of focus all put us in the frame of mind where the person who is contacting us is pleading for a result that will benefit them and not us. Most email recipients aren’t interested in taking on the role of a job interviewer.

Here is an example of a successful email:

Subject: Hi [name], I put together something about [topic] I thought you might like

Body:

Hi [name]. I know you’re a fan of [topic] and I liked your post about [topic] here: [link]. I noticed these topics do really well on your blog, but I didn’t see anything addressing [niche]. So I was inspired to put together a post called [title]. Would you be interested in giving it a read? Feel free to publish it if you like it. I’m happy to publish it on my blog if you’re not interested.

Thanks,

[name]

Now, a lot of things are different about this email, but I’d like to draw attention to two things in particular.

First, the language style. Our emails almost always do better if they are written in an informal style. We certainly find ourselves more willing to respond to emails that are relatively informal. I’m not saying that you should send emails with poor grammar and spelling errors. That’s likely to have the opposite of the intended effect. What I am saying is that emails with a formal tone prime us to start behaving like a hiring manager.

Second, I’d like to point out that, unlike the first email, this one focuses very little on credentials and almost exclusively on context. The choice of focus primes the respondent for a very different kind of behavior. The email is essentially a short story of why we decided to write the post, with some mention of why, in that context, it should be a good fit for their blog.

Notice that this allows us to take things even further than the first email would dare to. We’re actually approaching them with a completed post, which many argue is a no-no for sites that don’t request guest posts.

Together, the choice of language and focus primes the recipient to view the email as a friendly offering from somebody who shares similar interests (which, by the way, is exactly what it is), rather than an email from a job applicant desperate for a response (which is very much what the first email feels like, even though that’s not what it is).

This is also an example, to some extent, of kindness priming, because we’ve gone forward and made an effort of making something for them. It’s seen that way because we’ve explained why we thought they would be interested in the post, in a way that makes it feel much more like a gift. To be clear, that’s exactly what you should think it is, if you want this to work. If you approach this method like it’s a Trojan horse of some kind, a way to infiltrate their site and place a link, your recipients will likely notice that something seems off, especially after your long term behavior reveals itself. We should keep it in mind that people have the opportunity to research all of your past online interactions, before responding to your email.

As a bit of a bonus point, I’d also like to point out that we don’t attach the guest post or paste it into the email content. Email attachments are a red flag for a cold email, not to mention they are presumptuous. It’s equally presumptuous to paste the text into the email body, and the wall of text might prevent the recipient from reading even a few lines of the email. Frankly, it’s just more polite to ask first.

Priming is arguably one of the most unpredictable psychological principles, so it’s important not to think of it as some kind of sleight of hand. In the context of outreach, priming is simply a way of setting tone and context for your outreach. It reminds you to think about how your choices will influence the way your recipients will categorize your email. How they categorize your message will change how they respond to it.

Not every email should obey the approach discussed above. Sometimes you will want the recipient to categorize your email in a more professional context, and there certainly are categories of behavior outside of formal and informal.

Think carefully about how you want recipients to perceive your outreach, and change your approach to meet the associated expectations.

Want to learn more about the psychology of outreach? Check out Part 1 on reciprocity and Part 2 on anchoring.

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About Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya is the founder of The 20 Media, an SEO and content marketing agency, and advisor at MoveoApps, a mobile apps development company. Pratik has contributed on sites like Moz, Fast Company, Social Media Examiner, KISSmetrics, and Content Marketing Institute to name a few. He's a "must-follow" SEO expert according to Search Engine Watch and has been named one of the top content marketing influencers by Onalytica. He's passionate about fitness, entrepreneurship, start-ups, and all things digital marketing. Hit him up on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik for a quick chat on any of these topics.