Can “Bad News” Lift Response Rates?

This is a guest post from Danny Iny. Danny is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, and proud co-founder of Firepole Marketing.

“Bad news” – have you ever received an email with that subject line?

It has been used by a number of internet marketers to increase response rates, notably during product launches, often achieving particularly high response rates.

But it doesn’t always work for us as well as it seems to for some.

Let’s explore why it works for some, and what my own experience with it has been, to understand why it might NOT work for you – and what you can do about it!

Why Would “Bad News” work?

The “bad news” subject line works for a lot of reasons. First of all, it meets all three of Sean D’Souza’s criteria for effective headlines:

  • It’s question-based, rather than answer-based (what”s the bad news?)
  • It’s problem-based, not solution-based (bad news means there’s a problem)
  • It evokes curiosity (what’s the bad news?)

But there’s more than that – the headline works because it triggers loss aversion (“What’s the bad news? How does it affect me?”); people read the email because they want to make sure they aren’t going to be negatively affected.

Which is all great – so why doesn’t it work for everyone?

Problem #1: Context (and Eye Rolling)

Let’s put aside the issue of reader fatigue, which is bound to happen after dozens of email marketers jump onto the “bad news” bandwagon (or any other time a swipe headline is used too often).

After all, the truth is that most of our readers aren’t email marketers, and don’t know how over-used the headline might be, so it can still work just fine.

No, the problem isn’t just that they’ll roll their eyes (though I certainly do that when I see a new “bad news” email pop into my inbox).

The real problem is context – or lack thereof. Here’s what I mean: the people who could potentially deliver bad news to me are my family, my friends, my business partners, my clients, my accountant or lawyer… do you see where I’m going with this?

These people are all sufficiently involved in my life that they could have legitimately bad news to share with me, whether it’s about the health and endeavors of my loved ones, or my own plans or finances.

Notice that random email marketers aren’t on the list, because I don’t care enough about what they’re doing for any news they deliver to be particularly bad.

Problem #2: Integrity and Trust

The second, and even more challenging problem with “bad news” and other apology-type emails, is the risk that your audience will stop trusting you, and in the world of email marketing (and business in general), trust can make or break you.

There are two big ways in which a “bad news” email can damage your credibility and trust with your list:

  1. You’re manipulating them.

    There’s a big difference between manipulation and persuasion; while they can both get someone to take action, persuasion leaves the reader feeling completely on-board with their decision, whereas manipulation leaves them feeling like they were tricked. If your audience ends up feeling like you were employing cheap tactics to get them to buy from you, then it will likely back-fire.

  2. You’re lying to them.

    This is just stupid, but has to be mentioned. I’ve seen a couple of emails that have a “bad news” subject headline, and then the email starts with “actually, there’s no bad news, but…” This is the email marketing equivalent to schoolyard “made you look” pranks, and it should go without saying that you will look like an idiot if you do something like this. If you don’t have actual news that can legitimately be perceived as bad, then don’t do it.

The best rule of thumb to judge whether something you’re considering is within the bounds of integrity is to ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable with your parents, spouse, and children knowing about it. If you’re not, then you probably shouldn’t do it.

So Why Do Successful “Bad News” Emails Work?

In one example, a marketer I know was able to deliver a “bad news” subject line because he wrote lots of other emails before that one. He created videos, sent reports, and used every trigger of influence in the book to engage with his readers, and make them really care about what he was offering.

Then he built up a frenzy of excitement and anticipation around the product that he was launching, and the promise that he was making to his audience.

In other words, he worked his way to the point where an email from him saying “bad news” would make people worry, rather than roll their eyes.

This marketer also lives in the world of internet marketing gurus and “get rich quick” product launches. That audience is pretty jaded, and much more indulgent of marketers who make bombastic claims and present emotional sob-stories (nobody really believes them).

How Has “Bad News” Worked For Me?

Yes, I roll my eyes a little when I see the headline. But it works if you use it properly, which is why I’ve used it before, and I’ll use it again.

To be precise, I’ve used “bad news” twice in my career, and I’m about to use it a third time.

The first time was long ago, when I was young and stupid, and just starting to learn about marketing. It was as part of a launch that I was doing, and there wasn’t any real bad news, though, and so it was a “made you look” kind of email.

I had good relationships with the people on the list, and knew many of them personally, so it didn’t do too much damage, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t do much good, either. And a couple of people did email me to make sure I knew that it was stupid.

So yeah – the first attempt was not very successful.

The second attempt was a lot better; it was a lot more recent, and by this point I knew much, much more about marketing. The bad news was about real scarcity (there was a limited quantity of a physical product), and the list knew and trusted me – I had delivered enough value, and built enough of a relationship, to know that I wouldn’t be jerking them around just for the sake of making a sale. And the results were great.

The third time is coming up really soon. We’re closing our marketing training program to the public on September 1 (or when we fill 100 spots, whatever happens sooner), and that is legitimately bad news for someone who wants it and doesn’t act in time.

Will “Bad News” Work For You?

Whether “bad news” will work for you depends on a lot of other things. It depends on what context you’ve established with your audience, and how much trust and rapport you’ve already established.

And of course, it depends on whether you have news to share that could legitimately be described as bad.

If you’re thinking of using a “bad news” type of subject line in an email campaign, go through this checklist to see if you’re ready:

  • Have you really engaged with your readers?
  • Have you built a relationship with them?
  • Have you trained them to look forward to your emails with cookie content?
  • Have you delivered tons of value?
  • Have you got them excited about what you are selling?
  • Would you be comfortable telling your parents, spouse and kids about this email?
  • Do you have actual news to share that could be legitimately seen as bad?

If all of these fit criteria have been met, then a “bad news” email could work very well. But if they haven’t, you run the risk of a serious backfire – not only might the email be ineffective, but it could also do serious damage to your relationship with your list.

In short, use with care.

What do you think – are “bad news” emails sometimes a good idea? Have you ever tried using them?

Danny Iny’s program on expert marketing for non-marketers is available until September 1st. He also offers a free video course on how to get more money out of your business, website or blog.