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The rule of three is based on the principle that the reader or audience is more likely to absorb information in groups of three in speech and text.
When creating content for social media, sales presentations, or digital advertising, there is one rule to stick to that can have the biggest impact on how effectively your message is received—the rule of three.
This rule states that for a consumer to actively think about purchasing your product or service, you have to hit them with the advertisement three different times.
For example, if a company wants to sell you something, they should send you an email, a direct mail letter, and give you a phone call. This is just an example, but you get the point.
The rule of three can also be explained as a principle where things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than any other number.
Why Does The Rule of Three Work?
Three is the smallest number needed to create a pattern, which is the key to its power.
The simple patterns created in groups of three make it ideal for marketing people and copywriters to communicate complicated concepts or ideas in a memorable and meaningful way.
Also, some very brainy academics have worked out that three bullet points are more effective than, say, two or four.
So to make a more solid proposal, make only 3 points; that way, the reader can more effectively scan, reading points one, three, and two, and then be free to move to the next subject.
One reason three-part messaging is accepted so widely is how people have processed information since childhood.
People learned their ABCs and grew up with the three bears, three little pigs, three wise men, three blind mice, three musketeers, Three Stooges and Snap, Crackle, and Pop.
They played rock-paper-scissors, tic-tac-toe, and duck, duck, goose.
The number three has been used widely throughout some of the most memorable works from our childhoods.
We are likely preconditioned to respond favorably to elements grouped in threes.
It’s no accident that the number three is pervasive throughout some of our greatest stories, fairy tales, and myths.
Three choices enable us to avoid the ones that are too hot and too cold, too big and too small, and select the one that is just right.
It’s also no coincidence that some of the most famous quotes throughout history are structured in three parts, nor is it surprising that the rule of three also works wonders in the world of comedy.
Newton’s three rules of motion in the world of physics. The musical triad is the three-note building block of musical harmony.
We have the concept of the triple deity when it comes to religion, such as the holy trinity. You find the rule of thirds in basic principles of composition for art and photography.
If we consider color, it is no surprise that there are three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue.
And in music, the third note of every scale provides the most basic harmony that human ears find pleasing.
It all comes down to the way we humans process information.
This combination of pattern formation and brevity results in more comfort, and therefore more memorable information.
We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity, and three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern.
Think in terms of three when crafting your content strategy, and you’ll likely end up with a more engaging outcome.
The rule of three works because it activates our lizard brains and tricks us into thinking that repetition equals importance.
While this tactic hasn’t entirely disappeared—tune into any primetime network television program—it has evolved substantially.
Impact On The Human Brain
Dating back to ancient Greek rhetoric, the rule of three is fully immersed into our current day-to-day lives: “past, present, and future”; “the three stooges”; “stop, drop, and roll.”
The rule of three has worked pretty effectively since, perhaps, the beginning of time. It might be a wise idea to apply it to your marketing.
This power of three is so culturally ingrained that many use it even when the concept doesn’t apply.
For instance, most believe Winston Churchill promised his nation his “blood, sweat and tears” during World War II, but the British statesman offered up his “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
This somewhat more complex message got collectively reorganized into a three-part quote that was easier to grasp.
We find Aristotle’s dramatic unities of time, place, and action in the dramatic arts. The modern cinematic trilogy, e.g., The Godfather (and you also find it in science fiction novels).
Politics speechwriters, politicians, and great orators have used the rule of three to create ‘idea clusters’ that make things easier to remember.
Leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair (to name just a few) – litter their speeches with the rule of three techniques to persuade, reassure, and rule.
Steve Jobs And The Rule of 3
Did you know Steve applied the rule of three in nearly every presentation and product launch? No wonder we all listened.
One of the best examples of using the rule of three in a presentation is Jobs’ introduction of the first iPhone in 2007.
During his presentation, he claimed Apple would be introducing “three” revolutionary products—a new iPod, a phone, and an internet communications device.
Jobs repeated each slowly until the audience finally figured out he was talking about one device.
If people are only going to remember three things about this letter/email/flyer/advertisement, what do you want those three things to be?
Divide Into 3's
Providing options makes customers feel in control of the situation, but too many choices can be confusing and actually can impede the sale.
You might have more than three products or services to offer, but consider categorizing all of your selections into three categories.
For instance, restaurants might have multipage menus but break them into appetizers, main courses, and dessert categories.
Consider organizing your offerings into “good,” “better,” and “best” levels, based on price or features.
3s In Marketing Efforts
When you think about main vehicle brands, there are only three: GM, Ford, and Chrysler.
In mobile phones, Verizon, ATT, and two much smaller providers are vying to be third – T-Mobile and Sprint.
T-Mobile tried to merge with ATT, but the government did not allow it after protests from Sprint and others.
Coke and Pepsi, the third choice, have a much smaller share of the cola market.
Any content marketing, product marketing, or general marketing professional knows that to market well, you have to deliver a message that is well received.
We send our messages through a medium, but the audience must receive them for efforts to have any return on investment. Think of the rule of three as a turbo engine for your message.
It will get to an audience easier, faster, and with better results—regardless of the media type.
Sadly there is a downside to this rule of three.
When you think about how organizations use taglines, the recent trend is to find three descriptive words, plop some periods between ’em, and call it done. Three. Word. Tagline.
Sure it is comfortable. And it might even sound memorable, but the only thing memorable about it is that there are three words, not what those three terms stand for.
Three Bullet Points
It’s no accident that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and films, and literature are often written as three connected works in the form of a trilogy.
If you are writing an article, try to present things in three clusters. Offer three main ideas and present those ideas in bullet points of three.
If you are writing a story, consider using the storyline to form a pattern in three. Charles Dickens knew this.
Or would he have been successful with only two out of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? Not likely.
As a copywriting technique, the rule of three is powerful. So if you want to engage with people, if you want to persuade people, if you want your ideas to stick in their heads, think in threes.
Address Decision Makers
When selling to a large corporation, you usually must make more customer contacts than expected.
To avoid the frustration of seemingly endless pitches, use the power of three to customize your presentation toward different contact types, acknowledging varying motives and interests.
Promote three specific products, or use three anecdotes, examples, or supporting points.
In addition to informing your audience without overwhelming them with facts, this use of three helps you organize your thoughts and professionally structure your message.
It's Not Always About The Little Things
Let’s face it, aggressive retargeting doesn’t necessarily give customers a reason to brim with excitement from a passing brand, nor does it mean you’re winning at multichannel.
There is no doubt that three derives its power from the evolution of the human brain. Our brains evolved in a way to protect us from harm—people like a choice but not too many choices.
As part of our protection system, we like to have choices. We know that if we don’t have a choice in a dangerous situation, we may not survive.
We often obsess needlessly over trivial things, losing focus on the few most remarkable features that truly set them apart.
For the most part, consumers don’t care that much.
It’s so easy to get lost in the morass of “benefit soup,” where you bombard the customer with a list of everything the product can do, which often reduces the impact of the few key benefits that truly matter.
In other words, customers expect value in exchange for their attention, and just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
This is likely why there’s a massive distrust in marketers today.
It’s important to understand the three most marketable aspects of your product and then focus all of your attention on bringing those to life.
Producing the most favorable impression of a product or service in marketing can effectively use the rule of three to minimize skepticism and maximize positive impressions.
The Bottom Line
Today’s rule of three is an ever-evolving game of testing, trial, and error, and creative manipulation to figure out the optimum way to connect with your customers in a way that produces a continuous rate of return.
Whether you are presenting an idea for a strategy, a product, or a brand identity, your idea will be more sticky when you stick to the rule of three.
Consider one of the most important ideas of modern times, the constitution of the United States.
To present completely new ideas when it was written, Thomas Jefferson needed to make them good and sticky. To drive the point home, he used triple iterations. Did it work? You bet.
If you understand the power of three and incorporate it into your marketing, you will increase your success rate significantly.
Consider jumpstarting your lead generation to new heights.