What is marketing’s most powerful word?

If I asked you to name the single most powerful word in marketing, which word would you choose? Many people claim it’s “free,” while others insist on “sex” or something similarly salacious. But none of those answers is correct.

The most powerful word is one of the most common and simple words in English, and one most of us use thousands of times each day.

It’s you. Not you personally, but the word “you.” And the reason that three-letter pronoun works so well is we do take it personally. When someone uses “you” in copy, you subconsciously perk up in the same way you do when you hear your name at a crowded party or restaurant.

When you recognize your name — even if the speaker is addressing someone across the room who happens to share your name — it cuts through the noisiest clutter as though that speaker shouted directly at you. It’s why effective salespeople frequently use names in their sales efforts. “Now, Bill, have you considered an extended warranty?” Our brains are wired to sharpen awareness whenever they detect the sound of our names.

“You” has a similar effect. It tells our brains someone is sending a message intended specifically for us, so our subconscious prods us to pay closer attention.

“You” is even more powerful because so many companies use it sparingly. Read their websites and marketing materials, and you’ll discover they spend a lot of time talking about “we” and “us” and “our.” Professionals and executives also overuse “I,” “me,” and “my.”

If your goal is to connect with and influence someone else, talking about yourself isn’t going to get you as far as talking about them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t share what’s important; it’s just that we pay closer attention when information appears to be about us.

Consider the language used in the typical business-to-business brochure: “Our model AW-1126 veeblefetzer reduces radish processing time and minimizes waste with our unique cradle system. It allows for faster positioning of the radish and provides faster coring.” But when you rewrite it with a focus on the reader, you get: “You’ll save time and reduce waste with the AW-1126 veeblefetzer, thanks to the cradle that lets you position and core radishes more quickly.” Instead of simply describing the product and its benefits, focusing on “you” puts it into the user’s hands. Our brains fill in the images, allowing the reader to “try” the product.

Many marketers are afraid to use this powerful word in websites or other written materials because they remember their seventh-grade English teacher prohibiting it. It’s true that when you’re writing a formal essay or term paper, you’re not supposed to use the second person. Instead of stating “You need to know about the amazing rainforest,” we’re taught to write like “One needs to know about the amazing rainforest.”

But many of the rules that govern academic writing don’t apply to the world outside school. It’s not only acceptable to use “you” in business writing and correspondence; it’s actually far more communicative. In these contexts, “one needs to know” comes across as snooty, pompous, and impolite.

You can also use “you” to predict how well your website or marketing materials will connect with readers. Count the number of times you use “you” and “your” in the copy. Then count the number of times you use “we,” “us,” and “our.” If the first number is larger, you’ve done a great job of reaching out to the reader. But if the proportions are reversed, rewrite it so that there’s a bigger share of “yous.” That will allow you to connect with your reader in a more personal way.