Talking plainly about bullshit is 15% more effective

bullshit email
Graphic: ViralThread

It’s better to excite a whole bunch of people and piss off a few, rather than trying to be nice to everyone. I have proof.

I want to thank my friends at WriterAccess for finding that proof. I had agreed to do a Webinar for their audience of freelance writers and the people who hire them. The word “bullshit” was in the Webinar title.

If we put the potentially offensive word in an email, would it engage the audience or cause them to reject the company?

The folks at WriterAccess had the guts to try it. They did an A/B test. They emailed 88,000 people and used two different subject lines:

A: How to Stand Out by Writing Without Bullshit

B: How to Stand Out by Writing Without BS

Then we waited for the fur to fly.

Backlash: Negligible

Here’s what went wrong: nothing.

Spam complaints from the “bullshit” email: zero.

Increase in unsubscribe requests: none.

Emails requesting to be taken off the mailing list: Seven. Out of 88,000 requests. That’s less than one of each ten thousand recipients. I was sad to see these, but WriterAccess didn’t find that level of complaints to be problematic.

Increase in yield with “bullshit”: 15%

Version A of the email, including the word “bullshit” in the subject line, yielded 15% more click-throughs and 15% more registrations.


Spam blockers may block subject lines like this. But the despite that, the yield on the email was much higher when we called attention to the real problem: that writing online is filled with bullshit.

In fact, WriterAccess generated over 1,000 registrations (a record for them) and over 400 people actually listened to the Webinar. A 40% attendance rate exceeds industry norms for Webinars. People tuned in, they listened, and they asked lots of questions.

My takeaway from this experiment

I don’t use curse words to get attention. I use the word “bullshit” because it is an accurate description of what I’m railing against. It is not gratuitous.

I think people want you to tell them the truth. I work with grownups. I see no reason to talk to them as if they are children.

There are plenty of filters and blockers out there. I’ve heard from people whose corporate policies block them from seeing this site (on their PCs — their phones can get to it just fine). There are bookstores that probably won’t sell my book. There are prudes who don’t like foul language and will never accept me. That’s okay with me. Leaving those folks behind is a cost of doing business. They’re not my audience.

For every one person who is offended, I will rouse one thousand who are incensed at the drivel that now passes for content and want something better. I’ll take that bargain.

If you use profanity to get attention, you’re probably making a mistake. But if you call a bad thing what it is — even if it offends a few people — you’ll attract followers.

And now I have proof.

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  1. Hi Josh –

    As the author of a website and newsletter called “Damn, I Wish I’d Thought of That” since 2001, I 100% agree with your data. I may lose a few readers who are uncomfortable with title — but it’s a memorable hit with everyone else (who is drowning in corporate blandness).

    1. Your site and newsletter should be called “Damn, I wish I’d read that sooner.” Anyone who gives a damn (and isn’t scared of a teeny little swear) should read it.

      It’s not god damn — which would offend some Christians — but that would be a worse name anyway.

  2. My theory about why swearing works (in this case anyway) is because it tells the reader that they are going to hear the truth. That’s why it appeals to me anyway. I get so fed up with hearing bullshit all day that it’s actually refreshing to read someone saying what they actually think.

    I also think this is partly why Trump and Sanders have attracted so much support from the American public. It’s kind of exciting to hear people say what they really think, especially if it’s on an enormous stage.

    Another example was when Kanye West said “George Bush hates black people”. A moment of truth… NO BS. Even if you disagree with West, it was an authentic moment.

  3. Hello Josh
    Thanks for your without bullshit blog. It initially unsettled me because it made me see that my writing was full of bullshit.
    I am a self taught communicator. I learned by copying the styles of others, which (I now realise) was loaded with bullshit.
    I think you got me just in time!

    I didn’t register for your webinar because the time didn’t suit me. I was delighted to get the opportunity to listen to it later on the link from your post. Thanks for that.