How Goldilocks, Aristotle and The Three Stooges can increase your email results...

The rule of three is one of the oldest in the book. Aristotle wrote about about the three unities in his book Rhetoric: dramatic unity of time, place and action.

Simply put, people tend to easily remember three things, thus making your messages sticky and engaging.

Throughout the years it’s been used from rhetoric to religion. 

The Latin phrase "omne trium perfectum" (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the 'rule of three', while also (appropriately) using exactly three words.

I have been teaching this to my students in Econsultancy’s Email Marketing Courses now for many years and to be frank, this is one of the easiest applied and most beneficial tactics that you can use to increase both engagement and conversions.

In fact I’ve based my company’s newsletter, 3 Gems, on this principle.

So, let’s get to it and find out why this is so and how we can apply it.

It’s all to do with patterns…

At the root of its success is we, as humans, have been programmed to learn from patterns and 3 is the smallest pattern that can be made.

Throughout history it has been used to communicate complex ideas simply – think of memorable phrases such as:

  • “Blood, sweat and tears”
  • “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”
  • “Faith, Hope and Charity”
  • “Mind, body, spirit”
  • “Read, aim, fire”
  • “Lights, camera, action”

...and my favourite (smile):

Test, test, test!

Some famous sayings of note that utilise the Rule of Three are:

  • “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” - Benjamin Disraeli
  • “Location, location, location” – Harold Samuel
  • “Education, Education, Education” – Tony Blair
  • President Barack Obama speaks frequently in sets of three, his "Yes We Can" speech included more than a dozen triples.

Successful advertisements:

  • A Mars a day helps you to work, rest and play – Mars Advertising slogan
  • Stop, look and listen – Government Public safety announcement
  • Look to the left, look to the right, then look to the left again – when crossing the road – Government Public safety announcement
  • Easy, breezy and beautiful – Covergirl Advertising Slogan

And how about stories?

We have been conditioned through our childhood stories to become familiar with three, by the use of the Rule of Three in our stories, fairytales and myths:

The Three Stooges, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Blind Mice, Three Musketeers to mention just a few.....

And of course all modern copywriters should be familiar with the below:

  • The three dramatic conflicts – internal, relational and external
  • The three–act structure –  beginning, middle and end.
  • The modern cinematic trilogy 

Make it memorable

When packaging our sales and marketing in threes we create something that is memorable: think of “It’s a easy as 1,2,3" & “It’s as easy as A,B,C”.

In an email from Skillshare, it makes it easy for new customers to get started, by giving them three simple tasks….

Studies also have proven that three bullet points are more effective than two, four or five. We can see this in action with a Welcome email from Dropbox.


Three benefits found to be the winner

A new study put together by two marketing and behavioral-science professors Kurt A Carlson and Suzanne B Shu, found that in ads, stump speeches and other messages understood to have manipulative intent, three claims will persuade, but four (or more) will trigger skepticism, and reverse an initially positive impression.

For example, it was found that in the shampoo advertisement ad study they conducted, those who had read three claims rated all the items significantly more positively than participants who had read adverts with one, two, four, five, or six claims.

Personally, I find it immensely difficult when putting together a consulting proposal, to include anything other than three benefits.  

It feels unfinished if I write two or four and I'm compelled to change it so that it reflects three.

It's also a fantastic exercise as it really gets you to consider which are the most impactful benefits.

Visually appealing

In art, there’s a rule of thirds, which involves putting intersections between thirds-lines in the belief that these draw more attention and are visually more pleasing.

Here's an example of the rule of thirds for a landscape photo. The focus is on the land area rather than the sky so the botton two-thirds of the photograph are filled with land and top third is sky.

This can of course be used when designing websites, emails, product photography etc...

Grouping in threes

Every wonder why you see so many photos, paintings and products grouped together in threes. Simply put, it's pleasing to the eye. 


Of course this can be used to your advantage when displaying products. In the first image below, the default product display is five across. 

Why not consider testing whether three product images per row instead, provide you with an uplift?

What about subject lines

Want your email to resonate with your audience enough for them to want to open it? Then consider using the Rule of Three in your subject lines.  

Innocent Drinks use this tactic weekly with its newsletter.


For the past eight years I’ve been the Editor of the DMA Email Marketing Council’s newsletter, Infobox, and after noting a decrease in engagement we decided to test the subject line using the Rule of Three, resulting in an uplift of 30% in CTR.

This was so successful that all the DMA followed suit with all the remaining newsletters. 


Goldilocks principle

This principle (sometimes called the Goldilocks Effect) was discovered by Joel Huber and Christopher Puto in the early 1980s.  

The term ‘goldilocks effect’ derives from the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the story Goldilocks decides, amongst other things, to eat one of three bowls of porridge; the first being too hot, the next too cold, but the final one she picks for being 'just right'.

Applied to pricing, it is used to describe the practice of providing a premium as well as a budget option alongside the regularly priced product to make the standard option seem more appealing, as seen with the Typead example below.

We just can't seem to resist the middle option and most smart brands realise this and design their pricing accordingly.


An interesting test was performed to a pricing landing page which was re-designed to be simpler and instead of offering four options, the page was redesigned to offer what appears to be three option, by reframing the offer and including the trial within each option.

By applying the Rule of Three, it increased visits to the lead generation page by 93.71% with a statistical significance of 96%.


So hopefully I've provided some food for though with regards to the Rule of Three. It's easy to implement and amazingly effective.

I'd love to hear from any of you as to any results from testing based on the Rule of Three or anecdotal findings...

Kath Pay

Published 24 March, 2014 by Kath Pay

Kath Pay is founder & CEO of Holistic Email Marketing and a contributor to Econsultancy. She also is the Trainer for Econsultancy's Advanced Email Marketing and Email Marketing courses and has authored Econsultancy's "The Fundamentals of Email Marketing" report.

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Comments (7)

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Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

Shu and Carlson put it beautifully in their behavioral science study

"Three charms, four alarms"

Something I covered only last week during my email presentation at On the Edge Digital.

There is much more to learn from behavioral science and what causes people to act (or not act).

I ran a live psychology experiment last week with the audience to reveal another important human behavior.

The results of the experiment and what they tell us about behavior are available here

over 4 years ago

Kath Pay

Kath Pay, Snr Consultant at Holistic Email MarketingSmall Business Multi-user

Hey Tim - looks like you've joined me in championing using psychology within email :-) - nice to see.

As mentioned in the blog, the recent study by Shu and Carlson holds many interesting findings - it's very exciting to be able to put these to use within our email and digital marketing campaigns I think!

over 4 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

Kath, this is great, and a copywriting truism often forgotten about. It's the only thing I remember from high school English - parallelism. (Oh and I also remember that the longest English word is disestablishmentarianism.")

I've refined it into something that works extremely well in email copywriting: the "sh*t sandwich." Strongest point first, weakest second, middle last. Works 60% of the time, all the time.

over 4 years ago

Kath Pay

Kath Pay, Snr Consultant at Holistic Email MarketingSmall Business Multi-user

Love it Parry - not sure that I'll get away with using when training marketers - but I'll give it a go and attribute it to you :-)

Funny enough, the sandwich effect is also commonly used within radio stations. When a new song (that they want to be a hit) is released, they sandwich the new song in between 2 'sticky' songs.

Sticky songs are those songs which the majority of the listening audience leaves on i.e. they don't switch stations. By 'sandwiching' the new song between these 2 known sticky songs, we grow to associate the new song with pleasure and are more prone to liking it sooner rather than it having to 'grow' on us.

over 4 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

@Kath so that explains Nickleback! One mystery of the universe... Solved! :-)

over 4 years ago

Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

Hi Kath, I know you don't post often and this on the rule of three is gold. Nice work.

And I totally agree. I've been using behavioural science research in email since 2010, after reading Dan Ariely's classic "Predictably Irrational". Since then I've studied many more related academic works. Its great fun and shows how often our common sense and gut belief is wrong.

As per your favourite 'test, test, test', I've tested using principles such as loss aversion and guess what? It didn't win. It can win in some contexts but the point is not all.

My review is the research gives us a direction but it shouldn't always be implemented blindly.

Further principles I've used include; Anchoring, Comparisons, Choice, Consensus, Scarcity. These are explored with email examples in slides here

over 4 years ago

Kath Pay

Kath Pay, Snr Consultant at Holistic Email MarketingSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks Tim for your kind words. And I totally agree that the research gives us a very good place to start in order to test and find out if any of these psychology principles do resonate with our audiences.

If you ask any of my students what one of their main takeaways is from any of my training is to test all the principles that I put forth and not to accept or implement them blindly.

I saw a great example yesterday on Which Test Won which tested Social Proof and found that it provided a negative it won't work all the time for sure - but it was a good test to perform!

over 4 years ago

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