November 20, 2017

Try imperative voice

Write to and about the reader

They had me at “You’ll save 80 hours a year.”

Write with the imperative voice

Save time, avoid effort Envoy, the grocery delivery company, promised to save me 80 hours of grocery shopping a year. Image by Patrick Fore

Envoy, a grocery delivery company, does a great job of focusing on the benefits of its service:

You’ll save 80 hours a year.

Or more. It’s amazing how all those lost weekend afternoons and “oh no, I’m out of something” trips add up.

With Envoy, you’re on your way to a new world. Where you’ll have the freedom to get more done. To focus on what matters more. Or to simply relax and enjoy a well-deserved break.

But why “You’ll save 80 hours a year”? Why not just “Save 80 hours a year”?

That’s the imperative voice. And it’s a power tool of benefits writing.

Why choose the imperative voice?

We learned in third grade to call the imperative voice the command voice. And it can be a command: Do the dishes. Make your bed. Clean your room.

Ann Wylie: avoiding errands since 1959 Envoy promises that I’ll get more done, focus on what matters more and relax and enjoy my weekends.

When communicators use it, though, think of it as the invitation voice: Save money, save time, avoid effort.

Why imperative?

1. Imperative voice gets shared.. Imperative words like see, make and look can help blog headlines go viral, according to a Rippen analysis of 3,016 headlines from Buzzfeed, ViralNova, Upworthy and Wimp.

2. Imperative voice boosts email click, open and read rates. Benefits verbs like add, open and try increase email reading, according to a study by Return Path, a global data and marketing firm. Return Path looked at more than 2 million email subscribers from 3,000 retail senders over a month last year.

Benefits verbs in subject lines increase email reading, says Return Path

Benefits verbs in subject lines increase email reading, says Return Path
Average read rate for subject lines containing this keywordKeyword influence on read rate
Register24.19%+6.70%
Open16.48%+1.73%
Add16.56%+1.13%
Download25.03%+0.3%
Try13.71%+0.28%
Click12.27%+0.20%
Call13.47%-0.41%
Aim15.05%-0.86%
Get14.92%-0.87%
Buy13.56%-1.25%
Put11.49%-1.50%

A Phrasee study adds weight to this evidence: Experiential words like celebrate and love performed best in Phrasee’s analysis of more than 40 billion successful (and not so successful) emails to identify what works and what does not in subject lines.

Imperative voice works, according to Phrasee
PhraseePhrasee score™Open rateClick rateCTO rate
Celebrate646.3%-18.1%-22.9%
Buy6118.0%-16.0%-28.8%
Get your5410.7%43.4%29.6%
Love52-12.6%-26.3%-15.7%

*The Phrasee score is a normalized, weighted score that aggregates the overall effect a phrase has on response. The higher the Phrasee score, the more reliably positive the results are.

Adestra obtained similar results: Verbs like buy and save outperformed adjectives, including free, according to the U.K.-based email service provider’s analysis of more than 3 billion emails (free download) to learn which words work — and which don’t — in subject lines.

It’s the verb, Silly!

It’s the verb, Silly! Notice that the most effective words are verbs; half of the least effective ones are nouns. Images by Adestra

So the research is in: The imperative voice improves communication. So, what are best practices for the imperative voice?

1. Show them what they can do.

Instead of writing about us and our stuff, focus on what people can do with your stuff.


Need some inspiration?

Think imperative voice for email subject lines. Check out Unfunnel’s list of favorite benefits headlines, including:

  • “Borrow” all my checklists …
  • Check out new “man cave” [PICS]
  • Discover The [desired result] Secret
  • [Verb] Your Way To A [desired result]
  • Stop [undesired result]
  • Get [desired result] Without [undesired result]
  • Get Rid of [problem] Once and For All
  • Improve/Increase Your [desired result] In [time period]

Think imperative voice for headlines. One issue of New York magazine included all of these imperative headlines:

  • Have a drink: 53 best bars to loosen up in this spring
  • Own this city (department heading for a column about things to do this weekend)
  • Eat Out (department heading for restaurant reviews)
  • Drink up (department heading for bar reviews)
  • Hire this … (department heading for profile of a job seeker)
  • Score some swag (email contest promo)
  • Get this (online promo)

Think imperative voice for news release leads. Steal a trick from this release lead from a Silver Anvil Award-winning PR campaign by Natural Resources Conservation Service:

As spring temperatures go up, it’s an excellent time for farmers, ranchers and gardeners to focus their attention down to the soil below them. A spring check-up of your soil’s health gives clues of your ground’s ability to feed plants, hold water, capture carbon and more. No fancy equipment required. Just grab a spade or shovel and prepare your senses to dig a little and learn a lot.

Grab a spade … prepare your senses … dig a little … learn a lot. #LoveIt!

Think imperative voice for content promotion. “If a guy is walking into the street, you’re not going to shout out to him, ‘Hey, How Not to Get Hit by a Car.’ You’re going to say, ‘Hey, Look Out!’” David Zinczenko, editor of Men’s Health, told The New York Times. “The same thing applies to cover lines.”

Are you involving readers — or just preaching to them? Try inviting them into your content with the imperative voice.

2. Make lists parallel.

Back to Envoy for a minute. Here’s the list of benefits it shares on a webpage:

  • Your favorite stores
  • A shopper you trust
  • Live life to the fullest
  • Always the best prices
  • Eat healthier, for less
  • Support local

Three of these things just do not belong Three of these benefits use the imperative voice. The rest are not imperative.

So what’s wrong with this list?

Three of these things are not like the others. “Live life to the fullest,” “Eat healthier, for less” and “Support local” all use the imperative voice. The rest of the items on this list are not imperative. And that means this list is not parallel.

To fix that problem:

  • Choose verbs. When you set up a benefits list, imagine a line that says, “That means you will …” You don’t need to write that line; just know that it’s there. That line will force you to use verbs, not nouns, for your list. That means you will … live life to its fullest; eat healthier, for less; support local.
  • Make lists parallel. Now note which of these items doesn’t follow that line. That means you will … your favorite stores. That means you will … a shopper you can trust. That means you will … always the best prices.
  • Fix your list. Now you can see what to do. Rewrite every “benefit” that’s really a feature (or a noun). Instead of “That means you will … always the best prices,” you’ll wind up with “That means you will … save with the best prices.”

Is your list parallel, benefits-focused and verb-based? Then press Send.

3. Write an invitation instead of a command.

Remember that Phrasee study that showed that experiential words like celebrate and love get top results in subject lines?

Tell us what you think

No, you tell me what I think! Of course you’d love to hear my thoughts. But I don’t have a few moments to click the image and write a review. For better results, write an invitation message — what do I get if I give you feedback? — instead of a command.

Guess what didn’t work? Command words, like spend, perform less effectively in subject lines. (Because who wants to spend?)

So make sure you’re writing an invitation instead of a command: Learn how to get twice the work done in half the time, not Register for our webinar.

Is your message a benefit? Or a command?

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