37signals made a simple change in wording, from the phrase “Free Trial” to the phrase “See Plans and Pricing”. And BAM! 200% uptick in signups. If that doesn’t prove the value of choosing your words carefully, I give up.
Non-Boring English 101 – Denotation vs. Connotation
What 37signals discovered is the difference between denotation and connotation.
Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. It’s a meaning that we can all agree on. For example, ‘spoon’ is defined as “a piece of cutlery with a shallow bowl-shaped container and a handle”. Ok, I can agree to that.
Connotation, on the other hand, is all the meaning that an individual ascribes to a certain thing. If someone is an exotic spoon collector, the word may connote things like ‘adventure’ or ‘excitement’. On the other hand, if someone works in a spoon factory, the word may connote things like ‘work’ or ‘fatigue’.
There are cultural connotations as well. As we dig into our culture, we find lots of connotations that are common to large groups of people. A word like ‘executive’ may be defined as “a person responsible for the administration of a business”, but in America it may connote things like ‘money’ or ‘success’.
In almost every case, a word’s connotation has a greater effect than its denotation.
The True Meaning of Free
Free is a word that’s been put through the ringer for decades. There are so many shades of meaning that no one can really be sure what they’re getting when they get something for free. Perhaps it doesn’t cost money, but it does require sharing personal information. Or maybe it requires you to fill out a credit card application, or take a survey. While I would argue that these ‘free’ things are not truly free, they are nevertheless labeled with the word.
And all of this jumble of meaning has made consumers wary. We don’t trust the word. We’ve seen it used disingenuously so often, it puts us on our guard.
The True Meaning of ‘See’
It’s not about what 37signals did by changing their wording. It’s about what they didn’t do.
What they didn’t do was raise the little hairs on the back of our necks. They didn’t make us think twice about clicking that button, wondering what we might be signing ourselves up for. They didn’t set off our internal alarm, the one that rings whenever we see a sales pitch coming our way.
They chose words that made us comfortable and reaped the benefits.
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