If you’re ever going to sell anything online, copywriting is a much needed skill. The conventional copywriting wisdom says that you should more or less try stick to the following formula:

  1. Tell the reader you understand their need,
  2. Tell your prospect why your product is the best solution they can buy,
  3. Offer all kinds of proof like testimonials, charts and so on,
  4. Explain all the ways the product will benefit the customer,
  5. Present the price in a way that makes it sound like a great deal,
  6. Give a (better than) money-back guarantee,
  7. Add bonus products to really motivate the customer to buy,
  8. Make it a limited time or quantity offer,
  9. Ask for the sale and tell them exactly what steps to take.

Is the exact sequence that persuades people or why should this work? What scientific data is available to use about persuasion? Which research can we rely on to make our writing more persuasive?

Here’s a summary of the most prominent books and publications on the matter.

The work of Robert Cialdini

Mr. Cialdini is undoubtedly the biggest authority on the field. His books are bestsellers and have been in the “must-read” list for marketers and copywriters for years.

Cialdini came up with six scientific principles of persuasion that will help guide you to become more effective at getting people do what you want. In case you have no idea what those principles are, then here’s the summary:

Principle 1: Reciprocity
People feel obligated to give back to others who have given to them.
How to use it: teach your prospect something useful in your copy, give away free stuff and better yet – add value to your prospects long before you even start to sell them something.

Principle 2: Liking
We prefer to say “yes” to those we know and like.
How to use it: talk/write like a human, connect with the reader, share details about yourself. Blog. Be friendly and cool (like Richard Branson).

Principle 3: Social proof
People decide what’s appropriate for them to do in a situation by examining and following what others are doing.
How to use it: show how many others are already using your product. Show off your numbers. Use testimonials. Link to 3rd-party articles.

Principle 4: Authority
People rely on those with superior knowledge or perspective for guidance on how to respond AND what decision to make.
How to use it: Demonstrate your expertise. Show off your resume and results. Get celebrity (in your niche) endorsements.

Principle 5: Consistency
Once we make a choice/take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently with that commitment.
How to use it: Start small and move up from there. Sell something small first (a no-brainer deal), even if you make no money on it. They now see themselves as your customer, and will be much more likely to return to make a larger purchase.

Principle 6: Scarcity
Opportunities appear more valuable when they are less available.
How to use it: Use time or quantity limited bonuses. Limit access to your product. Promote exclusivity.

SEOmoz has a great illustrated article on all of these principles. Naturally you can get the full picture of these principles from his book Influence. His other book – Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive – builds on that and adds some practical ideas. See the list of these 50 ways here.

Robert Gifford and five elements of an effective message

Mr. Gifford is a professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. He is co-author of a relatively recent American Psychological Association report that examined the interface between psychology and climate change.

He explains what makes people receptive and how to get messages across effectively:

  • It has to have some urgency.
  • It has to have as much certainty as can be mustered with integrity.
  • There can’t be just one message: there must be messages targeted to different groups.
  • Messages should be framed in positive terms. People are less willing to change their behaviour if you tell them they have to make sacrifices. If you tell them they can be in the vanguard, be a hero, be the one that helps — that works.
  • You have to give people the sense that their vote counts and that their effort won’t be in vain.

While his work focused on the message of climate change, it will work in your sales copy too.

The art of persuasion by Angela Lee and Brian Sternthal

Research by Kellogg professors Angela Lee and Brian Sternthal offers insight into effective messaging. In a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, Kellogg professors say the key to an effective message is finding the fit between the consumers’ goals and the level of abstraction.

The researchers found that when consumers aimed to fulfill aspirations and satisfy achievement goals, more abstract messages — for example, those highlighting the freedom TiVo provides — stimulated favorable brand evaluations. On the other hand, consumers who sought to fulfill their responsibilities and satisfy their security goals were more persuaded by concrete messages, such as those emphasizing TiVo’s replay and slow-motion features.

So this means that first you have to figure out the emotional vibe of your prospect – or figure out what kind of motivations you’re targeting with your product. If you get it right and the level of abstraction fits the goal, people understand messages better and are more easily persuaded.

Messages that stick

Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.”

Isn’t that true? Some stories – especially urban legends, conspiracy theories, and scandals circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people who really try to spread their ideas – businesspeople, scientists, politicians, journalists, and others – struggle to get anyone to remember what they said.

Two brothers, Chip Heath (a Stanford Business school professor) and Dan Heath (a corporate education consultant at Duke) found after extensive research that the ideas that ‘stick’ all share the following six principles:

  1. Simplicity – Your message has to be simple – stripped down to it’s core intent. You must come up with a profound compact phrase that would summarize your whole premise.
  2. Unexpected – In order to capture someone’s attention, you need to break a pattern – in other words to present the unexpected. You need to understand and play with two essential emotions – surprise and interest. Surprise gets our attention and interest keeps our attention. Got a conventional product? Get a new one.
  3. Concrete – People won’t remember vague stuff. What helps people understand new concepts is concrete language. Concreteness is an indispensable component of sticky ideas. Don’t say ‘fast acceleration’, say 0 to 60 mph in 3 seconds.
  4. Credible – You need somebody who people trust to confirm your case. The trustworthiness of your source makes all the difference. People need something / someone credible in order to believe you.
  5. Emotional – Feelings inspire people to act. If you story does not invoke any emotions, you’ve lost.
  6. Stories – How do you get people to act on your idea? A credible idea make speople believe. An emotional idea makes people care. Put both of them together into an idea as stories have the amazing dual power to stimulate and to inspire.

Remember to read their excellent book ‘Made to Stick‘.

Buy buttons in the brain

Research in neuromarketing (put together in this book) reveals interesting things about our brains. As it turns out, we have 3 brains. Well, not really, but the brain does have 3 layers. Each layer has it’s own functions: the “New Brain” thinks, the “Middle Brain” feels and the “Old Brain” decides – it reviews input from the other two brains and controls the decision making process.

The ‘Old Brain’ is the part that humans (and it’s predecessors) have had the longest – like 160 million years or so. So the part of the brain that controls decisions is pretty primitive and mostly concerned with survival.

We’re usually trying to talk to the ‘New Brain’ – the sophisticated one – but it’s the brute that makes all the decisions, so we need to dumb it down. Here’s the formula:

Selling probability = Pain x Claim x Gain x (Old Brain)3

First you need to identify the prospect’s pain (the greater the pain, the higher the chance of sale) and make sure they acknowledge the pain before you start to sell them anything. Second, you’ve got to differentiate your claims from your competitors. The strongest claim is the one that eliminates the strongest pain.

Next you have to show convincing proof of these claims. The ‘Old Brain’ is resistant to new ideas and concepts, so your proof must be very convincing. Show tangible evidence, data, testimonials, case studies.

And finally – deliver to the ‘Old brain’. You need to start with a ‘grabber’ – something that really gets the  attention (‘if you’re selling fire extinguishers, start with fire’, like Ogilvy said). Second – the ‘Old brain’ is visual, hence start with a big picture.

Remember – the ‘Old brain’ is concerned with survival. So it only cares about itself and not anyone else. Your message needs to be entirely about the prospect.

Get the book to find out about all the other ways to push the right buttons in the brain.

Last but not least

You can find lots of good stuff from a book that is now freely available (as it was written in 1923) – Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins. Here’s the link to the free pdf download.

Image credit: Ed Yourdon