Best Practices for Email Marketing Involve Activating These 4 Mental Triggers

  1. Authority & Trust
  2. Reciprocity & Likeability
  3. Event Anticipation & Scarcity
  4. Community & Social Proof

As I’ve written about before, there’s a thin line between manipulation and empathy. You want to utilize best practices in your email marketing … but are you going to do it dirty, or do it right?

Jeff Walker’s book Launch is my inspiration for this post. In it, he outlines nine mental triggers that encourage people to buy from you (which I have condensed). It’s great stuff.

He did not address the dark side of these triggers, however. If you do them wrong, they can backfire. And you’ll just feel super icky.

  1. Authority & Trust

Establishing you know what you’re talking about is important in email marketing. But it’s pretty naïve to think only good people use this tactic.

Just take a quick look at your spam folder and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s one of my spam emails from yesterday:

Best regards!

This mail may be a surprise to you because you did not give me the permission to do so and neither do you know me but before I tell you about myself I want you to please forgive me for sending this mail without your permission.

(GREAT start, dude. You are dripping with authority!)

My name is Mr.Prince (SIC) Waziri, The Branch Manager of a Financial Institution. I got your contact through a reliable source called database through Ghana chamber of commerce …

I think you can guess where this is going. “Mr. Prince” wants my assistance transferring $7.5M to his account. As an officer of the bank, he can’t be directly connected to the money, of course.

Most of us understand right away that this is a scam. But whoever is behind this Waziri persona is counting on a sliver of recipients falling for this in part because he says he works for a bank.

This is the dark side of the authority/trust trigger. You may not be using this tactic to outright lie and steal, but it is tempting to claim you are more authoritative than you are to manipulate people into trusting you.

Empathy is recognizing that what your email subscriber needs is not a self-proclaimed expert: what they need is someone who can follow through on promises. Take care your claims are based in fact.

TIP: As much as it might dazzle your audience to promise to double their income or cut their expenses in half, it’s far better to say you’ve been helping clients increase their income for 10 years.

  1. Reciprocity & Likeability

If you give, you’re more likely to receive. Email marketing today requires you to give lots of value before you see a return on your investment. No one will like you if all you do is ask them to buy things right off the bat.

But even giving can be twisted into a dirty trick.

We’ve all seen the list-building call to action, something like:


Most of us understand that by offering up our email address, we’re going to get some emails. But what we don’t expect is to be trapped in a subscriber list.

Have you ever “unsubscribed” only to continue receiving emails? Or looked for an unsubscribe option and found only a link to “change your preferences” and there discover you have to enter a password you don’t remember and can’t even attempt entering anymore after a few failed tries?

The dark side of reciprocity is using it as leverage to hold your subscribers hostage.

Empathy requires understanding that your subscriber does not want a binding contract with you. They want a relationship they are free to leave if and when they want to.

  • TIP: Tell your subscribers exactly what to expect from you once they subscribe. They should know exactly what they’re going to get and how often. And tell them up front they can always unsubscribe.
  1. Event Anticipation & Scarcity

Building up excitement for the release of a product is a key email marketing practice. By limiting its availability, you add the element of scarcity and activate your subscriber’s FOMO (fear of missing out).

What’s wrong with that? Nothing … as long as you’re not playing fast and loose with the truth.

If you’re not literally running out of a product, don’t say you’re running out. Is time limited because of your business needs and revenue targets? Of course. But never tell your subscribers you only have five gizmos left in stock when there are five hundred in the warehouse.

It’s not worth it if anybody catches on that you offloaded all that extra stock at bargain rates. Artificially inflating the value is a viable – albeit ethically grey – strategy, but only for the short term.

Best practices for email marketing yield long-term results. As Jeff Walker puts it, he doesn’t have a college saving plan for his kids. He has a list of loyal subscribers instead.

What he means is that whenever he offers his customers a new product, they buy because they know the anticipation he builds is based on genuine value.

The dark side of anticipation and scarcity is being disingenuous at best, a liar at worst.

Empathy is imagining how you would feel finding out you were duped. If you paid top dollar for an item, then see it available online at a fraction of what you paid mere weeks later, you’re never doing business with that vendor again.

  • TIP: Be straight with subscribers. Just say the price goes up after Mother’s Day because that’s when the offer ends, and you don’t plan to make another offer like this for several months. You’ll still activate FOMO without risking a loss of credibility.
  1. Community & Social Proof

The opportunity to build and celebrate culture is my favorite aspect of email marketing. When community is public, that’s where social proof – people responding because others are – comes in.

Let’s say you’re in lawn care. Your email list is full of homeowners who share values around outdoor living, family, gardening, etc.

Now let’s say you put together a gardening book. You activate that community by telling them you’ll be offering it soon (building anticipation). You tell them about the product page, ask them to post comments. Now you’ve got your social proof that this is something like-minded folks ought to see.

There couldn’t be anything wrong with that, right?


Lemme tell ya something. Community is a powerful concept. There is perhaps no greater opportunity to manipulate people.

It’s one thing to feel like you’re a part of something. It’s another to feel like your membership is at risk if you don’t participate.

The positive concept here is belonging. The negative side is shame.

A better example of this is fitness. You can either use email marketing to make people who want to set goals and improve their health feel they belong (and so far, I’d say does a good job of this), or you can use it to make people feel like they’re failures if they don’t attend, read, buy, etc.

Again, this tactic – making people feel bad about anything, from the way their property looks to the way the shape of their body – may work in the short term. Eventually, you will lose subscribers. And you will get bad press. And you will have to deal with your own shame, because you’re being a jerk.

The dark side of community/social proof trigger is shame.

Empathy is wanting others to feel the same sense of belonging that you want to feel.

  • TIP: Keep your messages positive. Activating mental triggers like community and social proof should be about encouraging people to belong, not shaming people for being on the outside.

Look. It’s really about being a decent human being.

The best practices for email marketing are the same as those for sales, which are the same as those for persuasion in general. Manipulation gets short-term results with soul-sucking consequences. Empathy gets long-term results and makes everyone feel like a winner.

Now, let me try:

Hi, I’m Matt Bloom. I’ve been providing small businesses with content marketing services for about five years (authority).

I hope you’ve enjoyed this free advice (reciprocity)!

In addition to content like this that I publish to my blog, my subscribers get exclusive content (scarcity).

My goal is to make this an ever-improving learning space that helps all us small business people reach more customers (community).

So, please subscribe!

Just hit the button below to be whisked away to my lovely subscribe page …