You vs. We: Which Is the Best Way to Phrase a Campaign?

New study highlights the impact of choosing the right pronoun

It’s a quandary many marketers face: What’s the best pronoun to use when referencing a target audience? Should you be talking to them using you-phrasing? Or are we better off using we-phrasing?

It turns out one little word can have a big impact on campaign success.

The concept of you-phrasing as a replacement for we-phrasing, while slightly obscure, has been around for decades in the academic realms of social psychology and behavioral economics. The premise is that you-phrasing does a better job of unconsciously grabbing attention and transferring ownership to the listener. It gets a would-be buyer to personally try on the concepts being shared.

However, a lot of marketing and sales best practices still proclaim we-phrasing to be the better approach, defending it with seemingly rational explanations that the word “we” focuses on collaboration and partnering, while “you” sounds aggressive and accusatory.

In fact, according to a recent survey by Corporate Visions, more than 47 percent of respondents said they use we-phrasing deliberately to position themselves as a trusted partner. Meanwhile, 40 percent said they use you-phrasing to put the focus on customers and encourage them to take ownership of their challenges and possible solutions.

Testing you vs. we

Which pronoun is more effective? Data needed to tell the story.

Working with Professor Nick Lee of the University of Warwick Business School in the U.K., Corporate Visions’ researchers created two different studies to examine the impact of changing pronouns.

The first study used a “cold” email sent to unsuspecting prospects who had no knowledge or notion that they needed the products or services from the company sending the email. The goal was to measure the interest level and urgency to solve the problem being presented.

In the second study,  a “warm” communication, was provided to prospects who had expressed interest in a particular solution and now wanted to learn more in order to possibly make a decision. The goal was to measure interest and purchase intent.

In each study, four messaging approaches were created and tested: You/you phrasing where the problem set-up and solution were presented as you-phrased messages; we/we phrasing, where both were we-phrased; you/we phrasing, where the problem was you-phrased and the solution we-phrased; and we/you phrasing, with the problem taking the we-phrasing and the solution being you-phrased.

In the “cold” email, you-phrasing was considerably more effective than we-phrasing for most of the questions asked, especially those linked to interest and intent.  For example, participants felt 21 percent more responsible for solving the expressed problem in the you-phrasing condition than the we-phrasing condition. This is critical because, as marketers, you want your audience to take ownership of the issue and be willing to champion the opportunity.

Similarly, the audience felt much more strongly (13 percent) that they “must take action” in the you-phrasing condition rather than we-phrasing. Obviously, increasing urgency to do something about a problem is a key objective for your demand creation messaging.

Impact on buyer intent

The second study created more in-depth content, simulating the kind of information that might be found on a website landing page or a piece of marketing or sales collateral. But the results were similar: You-phrasing had a stronger impact.

Again, you-phrasing was considerably more powerful than we-phrasing for nearly all the questions, including the most important objectives of a solution presentation: “convincing case to purchase” (+11 percent) and “likely intention to purchase” (+10 percent). Thought of another way, if you decide to stick with we-phrasing, you will present an 11 percent less convincing case, and your buyer will be 10 percent less likely to make a purchase.

Given how hard it is to create pipeline and conversions, marketers should be looking for any and every advantage you can give yourself. Based on this research, it appears there’s one improvement you can confidently and easily make to gain a competitive advantage—replace your we-phrasing with you-phrasing.

Tim Riesterer has dedicated his career to improving the conversations marketers and salespeople have with prospects and customers. He’s written three books on the subject—“Customer Message Management,” “Conversations That Win the Complex Sale” and “The Three Value Conversations.” His company, Corporate Visions, provides marketing messaging and content consulting, along with sales skills training to help acquire more customers and expand their business.