Talking about writing subject lines in a 2018 email, Ramit Sethi wrote:
Be clear, not clever. A subject line like “Hey” or “Critical mistake” is clever. An email like “New course: Creating an online business” is clear. Clever emails might get you short-term boosts in open rates, but people stop trusting you after a few of them.Ramit Sethi
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is obvious, yet when we take even a cursory look at the emails we receive or the ads we see, it's clear that a lot of marketers operate by the reverse principle:
Even massive newsletters like Morning Brew or consultants like Venkatesh (Art of Gig) whom I have enormous respect for make this mistake.
The way you name something obviously matters. Your subject line has to be appealing enough to get your email opened. Your article title has to be compelling enough get your writing read. Your call to action has be compelling enough to get a purchase to happen.
But for some reason, online marketers seem to have taken this to mean that they need to be clever, rather than clear.
Tai Lopez, the highly questionable but undeniably successful online marketer, called one of his 67 Steps "Mike’s Stack Of Resumes, My 96 Year-old Grandma, & Your Eulerian Destiny". I'm not making that up, and I swear it's not even the worst.
Somewhere you don't see this kind of vacuous illusory crap is TV.
TV ads are concise, to the point, with clear propositions and clear calls to action.
Perhaps this is because they're magnitudes more expensive than online advertising, or perhaps it's because advertisers know they have limited attention with which to hammer home their message.
As a result it's direct, concise, and clear as daylight.
Sure, there are high level brand building exercises, but there are also ads that are selling pickled onions and package holidays. And it'd be difficult to sell them in 30 seconds without being quite direct about what they are, why they're good, and why someone should buy them.
Silicone Valley Writing
I came across a tweet from Sam Parr:
From Uber's seed pitch deck:— Sam Parr ⚪️ (@theSamParr) July 14, 2020
Best case: $1b/year company
Likely: $20m/year in profit
Worst: a small limo company
Takeaway: simple, honest, plain English decks are wonderful.
Also: even the big dogs didn't think they'd be big. pic.twitter.com/ZnbKEAr8Ct
Back when they were still UberCab and touting for investment, the writing for their pitch deck was remarkably free of the kind of vacuous SanFran disruptor jargon you might expect.
In fact, it was quite... clear.
In plain, straightforward English they simply told potential investors what to expect in three scenarios. And we all know how that story ends.
When Writing's Done Right
So, what does it look like done right?
Here're some examples from my inbox:
We know exactly what to expect from those emails.
How to make $30k a month. Facebook in the shit. Uber buying things. And you can decide whether or not to open these emails.
I routinely ignore emails from techcrunch. The subject lines are so clear, that I know whether or not they contain anything I'll be interested in.
Why It Matters
If they were to switch to "clever" rather than clear, instead I'd routinely open more emails.
To begin with.
But as the misses start to outnumber the hits, what's actually happening is I'm learning that most of techcrunch's emails are not relevant to me. And the next step is not opening them at all.
Like Sathi says, the short term boost in open rates is rapidly overtaken by a lack of trust.
Clever vs Clear
Clever marketing has always seemed, to me at least, like it's for other marketers. It's supposed to make them go "gee, that's clever", be impressed, and buy the product that they're selling - essentially, marketing to sell marketing to marketers.
Like clever copy writing for other copywriters to be impressed by. Or clever advertising to impress other advertising agencies.
The reasons why are understandable. I've made this mistake myself. After doing this for nearly ten years, you start to do it just to keep yourself interested, to compete with other marketers, and especially to get their attention and praise. But it doesn't help with the number priority: selling things.
Clever marketing is for other marketers.
Clear marketing is for people who want to sell pickled onions.