Intended Ambiguity Demystified

While driving through a small Midwestern town on a recent road trip, we came upon a sign in front of a business that mystified me. There were three words posted on the marquee, and they didn’t make sense. As I tried to decipher the ambiguity of what they meant, my curiosity spun as I tried to resolve the meaning of “Hot Loaded Italian” …

Intended Ambiguitiy Exemplified
Intended Ambiguity Exemplified: Win what? And from whom? And why did you draw a computer mouse to illustrate a contest?

While driving through a small Midwestern town on a recent road trip, we came upon a sign in front of a business that mystified me. There were three words posted on the marquee, and they didn’t make sense. As I tried to decipher the ambiguity of what they meant, my curiosity spun as I tried to resolve the meaning of “Hot Loaded Italian.”

Hmm. Hot loaded Italian … what? As we neared the sign, we could see it was in front of an Arby’s restaurant which offered more context. At least now we could assume “Hot loaded Italian” was a sandwich instead of someone who was beautiful (or angry), intoxicated (or packing heat) and from Italy (or of Italian heritage).

Intended ambiguity may, at first glance, seem like an oxymoron. But, let’s dig deeper to explore how it can work for you.

“Intended ambiguity,” stimulating “unresolved curiosity,” is a powerful headline and subject line copywriting technique. Why? Because it arouses thought, curiosity and questions, the mind spins until the question is resolved with an answer. And that draws your reader in.

By using a few words that aren’t a complete thought, but tantalizing in what they suggest, you create an air of mystery and hook your reader into wanting to know more.

If you’re a dog lover, here’s another intended ambiguity puzzler:

“Dogs Indoors at Risk”

The unresolved curiosity here? Dogs, presumably inside a home or apartment, are at risk of … what? Sleeping?

Then there are emojis in email subject lines that can also create a sense of unresolved curiosity. As I was writing this column, an email came in saying:

“We’re making improvements that we think you’ll ♥”

At first glance, I missed the emoji heart, thinking the sender erred and left off a word. But there was unresolved curiosity with the use of the emoji.

Then there are ambiguous unresolved claims.

“We’re ahead 30 percent.”

Thirty percent ahead of what? We hear claims like this in political campaign speeches all the time these days. The claim hits us, the mind either spins for a moment wondering “30 percent of what?” or accepts the statement and moves on to keep up with the rest of speech.

Intended ambiguity can be a strategic copywriting tool. Use it for headlines and email subject lines to stimulate unresolved curiosity and the irresistible urge for the reader to pause and want to learn more. But, be careful—there’s a fine line between drawing readers in with ambiguous words creating unresolved curiosity, and repelling them through simple vagueness or borderline deception.

(Looking for tips about how to attract more customers? Download my free seven-step guide to help you align your messaging with how the primitive mind thinks. It’s titled “When You Need More Customers, This Is What You Do.” Or get all the details in my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code” available at the DirectMarketingIQ bookstore.)

Emoji: Digital Shorthand for Direct Marketers

Our culture is gravitating to visual displays of shorthand, and we’re relying less and less on words. For certain age groups and demographics, it appears that words and text is becoming out of date. Why? Emojis. You’ve seen them. But you may not have considered how you can leverage them in direct marketing. Here’s an emoji primer along with six ideas you can use for more visual emotion.

Our culture is gravitating to visual displays of shorthand, and we’re relying less and less on words. For certain age groups and demographics, it appears that words and text is becoming out of date. Why? Emojis. You’ve seen them. But you may not have considered how you can leverage them in direct marketing. Here’s an emoji primer along with six ideas you can use for more visual emotion.

First an emoji primer: Emojis originated in Japan, and means “picture letter.” Emojis are a single image that conveys an emotion or attitude. They are different than emoticons that are created with characters on a keyboard such as “:-)” to convey a smile. Emojis are shorthand in the digital age. Mobile has been a driver of the use of emojis because they are quick to use.

Unless you’re immersed in the emoji phenomenon, who would have known that last year some 2,834 new emojis were released by the Uniform Consortium (most of the 2,834 emojis have been in widespread use for years). Each has an official name and definition. By comparison, with a mere 26 letters in the alphabet to deal with, one wonders if adding a few well-chosen words may be quicker than scanning through nearly three thousand emojis for exactly the right one, but I digress.

Two recent observations in my life have prompted me to think about the emerging digital shorthand of emojis:

First, after the iOS 8.3 upgrade came through, I observed the sudden addition of emojis on the keyboard (at that time, I had mistakenly called them emoticons, which they are not). In fact, there are 300 emojis. And a Vulcan salute if you want it added. I like to use voice dictation for text and email on my iPhone. I don’t know about you, but I find the placement of the emoji buttons on an iPhone annoying because of my big fingers. I’m constantly touching the key that opens a flood of 300 emojis when I wanted the voice dictation button.

Second, while onboarding with a new digitally-driven client where everyone works virtual and all communications are posted on Skype chat, I saw team members answering questions using emojis. Even though emoji appearance is mostly intuitive, I still looked up the emoji so I was confident that I knew how team members were replying. On Skype, there are dozens of emojis ranging from the usual smiles and frowns to “TMI” (too much information), being worried and a birthday cake.

Then it dawned on me:

It’s clear that millions of people love emojis, so for direct marketers, it’s time to become aware of their power to transform how you communicate.

As our culture becomes more impatient, and attention spans are shortening, people want to shrink the seconds required to respond via email or text. An emoji can be the ticket to effortlessly conveying an emotion.

So how can direct marketers use emojis? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Direct Mail: A person doesn’t have to be a Millennial or Gen Z to recognize smiles, fingers crossed, a handshake or thumbs up. Remember: it’s visual shorthand.
  2. Social Media: Emojis are already built in and easy to use. Liven up content marketing posts with an emoji.
  3. Email Marketing: Why not? Put an emoji in HTML to add some fun and pizzazz.
  4. Website: Many emojis display movement, such as a bobbing head when illustrating someone laughing, and are a way to draw the eye to a desirable emotion.
  5. Blog Posts: I’ll let this light-hearted version speak for itself.
  6. SMS Text: With mobile as the reason emojis are taking off, it’s only natural to use them if you’re using SMS text (and especially you’re conserving on the characters you’re using). Of course, make sure your customer has opted-in to receiving your texts so your legal bases are covered.

Will emojis be the here for a long time to come, or a fad? Who knows? But I suspect that at least for the near term, you’re going to be seeing emojis more and more.

So what do you think? Would you ever use an emoji in your direct marketing messaging?