There’s a very old story.

A shepherd boy is bored tending his sheep, and so to amuse himself, he shouts ‘Wolf, Wolf!” And the villagers come running to save him, and discover it was a ruse. And he laughs.

And then he does it again, and they still fall for it, bitterly.

The third time, an actual wolf shows up, but the villagers don’t. They don’t believe him when he cries ‘wolf’. And so the wolf eats all the sheep, and maybe it eats the shepherd boy too.

And the moral of the tale is that no-one believes a liar, even when they’re telling the truth.

Everyone is shouting for your attention

I have a special folder in my gmail inbox.

When I sign up to someone’s email list, I use an address that funnels all their emails into that folder. It’s a very full folder.

I’m on some of the lists, because they’re people I like to read. Folks like Danielle LaPorte, Michael Ellsberg, James Altucher and Seth Godin.

And the rest I’m on because they’re my peers, or my competitors, and I like to keep a track of my market and see what other people are doing.

And for the most part, I fucking hate the marketing emails they send me.

I’ll skim down the list and look at all the clever subject lines designed to hook me into opening them up. And it’s like 100 people at a party all shouting at the same time to get my attention.

And it makes me want to click away and never come back.

Just get as many people to open it as possible

I studied online marketing, and email marketing for quite a while, then I practiced for quite a while, then I taught it a bit. Now I’m fucking with the ‘rules’.

I know the tactics to get people to open emails.

I look at all these mails in my special folder and I’m impressed, because some of these people are really good. Better than I am. The subject lines are persuasive and clever and enticing.

And if you could get more people to open your email by using a good subject line, why not do it, right?

That’s what the marketing aficionados teach. It’s all about the subject lines. Good ones get more people to open your email. Bad ones get less.


Except I think the principle is (deeply) flawed. Because everyone is crying wolf.

Subject: I’m dying. And this is the last email I’ll ever send to you

It would work, right? People would open this in their droves.

But what do you do with the next email?

Subject: Only kidding. I’m not dead, but you can get a discount on my new thing

I remember when we were selling our course at Waking Up the Workplace. I wanted as many people as possible to open the mail. So I used this.

Subject: This is the most important email you’ll receive from us this year

It worked!

It also didn’t feel that good. But I was ok with that, since I wanted people to buy the thing, because it was a good course. And they did.

But now I’m trying out a different approach.

Don’t be persuasive

“Hey buddy. Have you ever suffered from not finding your purpose? Well I was just like you too, until I discovered these 5 principles of living a successful life. And now I have a 6-figure business. Click here to learn the secret. But do it today, otherwise this message will self-destruct.”

And maybe they do click the link, and maybe they’re underwhelmed.

And maybe they never open your email again.

And you wonder why your business is not really flowing.

So you go even harder at your marketing…

With this site, I decided to do things differently.

I wanted my email list to be a quiet place. One where I didn’t shout for my reader’s attention.

I wanted it to feel like I was sitting in a coffee house with a friend, and quietly leaning over…

“Hey man. I’ve been working on this thing. It’s about slurpies. I just finished it, so if you’re interested, take a look. I hope you dig it.”

And if people are interested, then they do check it out, and hopefully they like it.

And then next time I let them know about something, they’ll check it out again, because they liked it last time.

And then I don’t have to persuade them of anything. Because it’s like a friend making a recommendation. And they trust my word.

It’s not a magic spade

“It’s a spade. If you want to dig a hole, it will help you.”

And if no-one’s interested in your spade, go make something else. Or find people who love holes.

Don’t try and trick people into checking out your spade by telling them it’s magic. Or that it will help them discover their purpose. Or enlarge their penis.

It’s a good spade. That’s enough.

And if it’s actually not a good spade? Then get your priorities straight, and stop marketing junk, rather than creating great stuff.

This is all very well, but does it work?

A valid question. Ask me in another 4 years for the definitive answer.

But what I can tell you, is that by focusing on my writing, not hyping shit, and aiming for trust, not email opens, I’ve consequently got a consistent email open rate that’s higher than any list I’ve ever seen.

Now, my list is still small, and maybe this is front loaded goodwill, and I snaffled the loyal friends and followers early on, which massaged the numbers.

Could be.

Like I said, time will tell.

But either way, I’m pretty sure that if you measure it over the long term, trust is going to beat the shit out of persuasion.

Plus it just feels good.


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Ewan Townhead

I hope you enjoyed the article. If you're interested further in my work, you can find out more about me here, and my coaching here.