A Thorough Guide to Website Copywriting

From psychology to rhetoric: copywriting tips for those who don't know what to say

This article is part of my Entreprenerd: Marketing for Programmers book, which you can read online for free.

The lowest common denominator of all websites is the written word. Whether you are a programmer, website administrator, or an online marketer, it’s essential that you know how to write persuasive text. The study of copywriting, then, is the study of how to pull off these acts of remote salesmanship.

Guide to Copywriting

The visitors to your website have problems to solve, some of which are serious (‘how do I fix the exploded sewage pipe in my basement’) and others which are merely trifling (‘which Spice Girls song should I listen to next’). Because of the asynchronous nature of the web, website owners must delegate to their website copy the job of presenting their product or service as the most credible solution out there. Partially, this will be done through appeals to self-interest and through rational argument. And partially this will be done through exploitation of well-known psychological tendencies. The latter style of persuasion, known to insiders as “the dark arts”, doesn’t exactly win awards for uprightness. But, in defence of this wily way of going about things, an exception arguably exists when the seller deploying these manipulative tactics genuinely has the best product on the market. In this case, there may almost be a moral imperative to ensure that the customer chooses this seller’s offering over some inferior substitute, especially when that alternative is so bad as to be dangerous. For a concrete example, e-cigarettes are considered to be at least 20 times safer than tobacco cigarettes. Whenever an e-cigarette manufacturer deploys the dark arts in their sales materials and convinces smokers to switch, they are literally saving lives. Obviously it would be better for people to give up nicotine altogether, but given the addictive power of this drug, going cold-turkey just isn’t a realistic option for many smokers. Instead, switching to the safest way of ingesting the drug is the most pragmatic way to reduce smoking-related suffering.

In spite of its name, copywriting doesn’t just refer to the text in your sales pages—although that’s obviously a hugely important component. It also extends to your choice of images, videos, logo, colours, webpage design, and even sound effects. And copywriting is everywhere—not just on the pages of your website, but also in your advertisements, your brochures, your about page, your auto-appended email footers, your website terms & conditions, and your company’s automated answering machine.

I’d like to share some statistics about the relative behaviour of people who buy something on my website versus those of people who don’t. The point of this will be to demonstrate just how much of your copy the average customer will devour before buying—and just how little an uninterested person glances at before leaving. The average customer spends 25 minutes and 52 seconds on the website before buying, reading 11 pages. At an average reading speed of 300 words per minute, this amounts to about 7500 words. By contrast, the average non-customer spends 7 seconds viewing just a single page. This only amounts to about 35 words (i.e., just a few headlines). This comparison should show that your headlines are critical in getting visitors to stick around and read further. But once they’re hooked, they’ll read nearly everything you’ve written.

Here’s 18 indispensable pieces of advice I have for writing compelling copy:

  1. Emphasise benefits over features
  2. Convincingly demonstrate credibility
  3. Give reasons to act now as opposed to later
  4. Prefer concrete, visual, specific copy
  5. Ensure scannability, readability, and responsiveness
  6. Signal with indirect or unworded messages
  7. Explicitly point out qualities lest they go unnoticed
  8. Compare yourself to the competition
  9. Anticipate and counter objections
  10. Associate yourself with desirable connotations
  11. Repeat yourself
  12. Don’t talk yourself out of markets
  13. Keep the scent
  14. Arouse curiosity
  15. Play on negativity
  16. Anchor numbers
  17. Give detailed information
  18. Depict yourself as someone similar to your readers

Emphasise Benefits Over Features

Emphasise Benefits Over Features

The engineers and designers of products have a blind spot: They are predisposed to thinking of their creations in terms of the features they worked hard to implement, rather than the pain-points that motivated these features’ inclusion in the first place. They speak solely about their products’ specifications, leaving out explanations about how those specs will benefit the customer. But in failing to emphasise these benefits, they hamper their sales.

Let’s continue by analysing a few examples. Amazon’s subscription delivery service Amazon Prime translates their feature “Next-day delivery” into benefit-speak like “Need a last-minute gift? Can’t get out of the house? Realize you forgot to pick up something?” Switching our focus from the bookseller to the books being sold, is it a coincidence that some of the bestselling self-help books have embarrassingly direct book titles? Think and Grow Rich. How to Win Friends and Influence People. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. No one would be caught dead reading a copy of something with such a name in public, yet that doesn’t stop these books from selling astonishing numbers of copies.

Writing copy in terms of benefits can feel a bit weird because it involves brainstorming all the possible good things that can come to customers who use your product. Often, this amounts to stating what is, from your perspective, totally obvious, and proceeding to spell out, step-by-step, how feature X leads to benefit Y. Those most fluent in benefit-speak are able to think up second order benefits (i.e., what are the benefits to having the benefit?). Suppose we are selling a protein bar. Its main feature is that it contains 40g of balanced amino acids. The basic benefit to the typical buyer is that the bar will help them gain muscle. The second-order benefit, then, is that they will look better with their shirt off. And if we take this a step further, the third-order benefit would be feeling more manly and confident. Later-order benefits tend increasingly towards emotional ends—the kind of deep-seated wants and urges that motivate people.

What are some examples of these deep-seated human desires anyway? Sex (diet plans), companionship (UK pub culture), health (gyms and spas), freedom from physical pain (acupuncture), superiority & social status (expensive handbags), physical comfort (air conditioning units), the enjoyment of sensual pleasures (delicious tasting meals), the facilitation of laziness (food delivery), the accumulation of wealth (stock market brokerage), and self-actualisation (meditation retreats). If you’d like to look further into human desires, I suggest you visit the work of the anthropologist Donald Brown, who, in his book Human Universals, describes how every culture he studied shares some universal traits.

Advertisers appealing to second- or third-order benefits cannot always come out and make these claims explicitly; this may come across as cheesy or unconvincing. Instead, these advertisers communicate their messages through subtler means, such as by association or symbolism. We will examine these mechanisms elsewhere in this chapter.

Above, I talked about selling to consumers. With regards to selling to businesses, you needn’t go so far into benefits-speak; business buyers already know their own problems, and have a rough idea about how the solution will look. When marketing to them, you are better off focusing on how you can save them time, money, and risk.

Not-for-profits with millions of pounds in their bank accounts are known to go bankrupt from time to time. How can this be possible? The problem is that whenever a not-for-profit receives donations, it’s often exclusively for one particular purpose (e.g., for the purchase of art or the upkeep of the premises). It’s illegal for the not-for-profit to take money from one of these accounts and spend it in another (e.g., for the paying of staff salaries). In much the same way, your customers (private individuals and businesses alike) have a set of mental checking accounts, each intended only for buying one category of thing, and given its own budget. Two hundred pounds might be someone’s upper limit for replacing a work-related dress suit, whereas that same person wouldn’t think twice about allocating a budget of a thousand to making himself attractive to potential partners. The salesperson who frames the suit purchase in terms of attractiveness may sell a more expensive suit, showing that the choice of which benefit to emphasise affects end results.

Overall, writing about benefits is a more inventive copywriting process than describing features. The only qualification for feature-speak is that you’re good with a measuring tape and can be trusted to accurately pass on information you get from elsewhere. Benefit-speak demands that you get into your customer’s skin—that you play the armchair psychologist.

Here are a few more examples (from a fictional smartphone manufacturer) that help delineate the difference between features and benefits:

Feature Benefit
902.11ac wireless Access the internet when on holidays or doing business abroad—even in places that older phones didn’t support.
B8 processor Your battery will last significantly longer without needing to charge, meaning heavy-use days or unexpected sleepovers are less of a hassle.
Super-Duper finger ID technology You don’t need to remember PIN codes anymore…no more getting locked out of your phone and having to rummage for your PUK code.
Bronze graphics technology This phone’s video games will match current generation games consoles in 3D graphics realism. You’ll be able to play blockbuster titles like X.

Before concluding this section, I’d like to share something written by copywriter Clayton Makepeace. He sarcastically illuminates the difference between features and benefits in the context of teaching readers how to market a fictitious hormone-balancing medical product:1

Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night…sat bolt upright in bed…slapped yourself on the forehead and exclaimed, “Holy moley—I gotta get off of the hormone roller coaster?”

No? Me neither!

Have you ever found yourself feeling eager to PAY for a product that would do any of those things for you?

Nope? Join the club

Our “hormone balancing” prospects want to stop having hot flashes and mood swings and stop losing their libidos.

Why? Well, for one thing, because hot flashes and mood swings are irritating—even miserable. And for another—drilling down even deeper—because all of these things threaten the intimacy and security of their primary relationships. Nobody wants to be a hormone hermit!

Nobody really wants to balance their blood sugar levels. But anyone in his or her right mind DOES want to avoid the misery of blindness … cold, numb, painful limbs … amputation … and premature death that go along with diabetes.

Even if we understand the basic difference between benefits and features, our well-intentioned attempts at benefit-speak can nevertheless mutate into feature-speak should we happen to define the problems our products solves at a level too decoupled from deep human desires. The extent to which this happens may depend on the audience you are marketing to. For example, a diet pill advertised as “increasing calories burned by 20%” would certainly be benefit-talk to someone who counts calories and is comfortable with math. But this same message may only be feature-talk to the mass of customers who are less than compelled by the promises of percentages. These customers would prefer a pill that unashamedly but clearly promises to help them “lose a stone in two months”. All in all, it’s better to leave the mechanism of action to the small-print, and instead focus on the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). Sophisticated consumers will simply shrug off your bold marketing claims as fluff and refer directly to the ingredients or to third-party reviews. But by brazenly advertising the ultimate benefits of using your product, you’ll win over the multitude that can’t be bothered with the details.

Convincingly Demonstrate Credibility

Convincingly Demonstrate Credibility

The sales process—be that in text or in person—begins with you getting your message in front of a prospective customer. In the next stage, you demonstrate how you plan to solve that person’s problems. But before they’ll buy, you need to convince them that your claims are credible, and that you really can help them with their problems.

In this section, we’ll be focusing on that final hurdle before the sale—that of demonstrating credibility.

Have you ever visited one of those single-page sales letter-type websites that scroll on forever and ever and promise to reveal to you the “secret to making money online through affiliate sales”? Where the author reels off hundreds of advantages in gaudy red and black fonts set in wildly fluctuating sizes and scripts, where ubiquitously glowing testimonials are submitted by people with suspiciously similar writing voices to that of the original author, and where the price is perennially “reduced” from £499.99 to £19.99, payable via Western Union Transfer? These websites lean into your ear and scream “SCAM”.

And here we meet the first rule of credibility: Avoid practices, memes, and signals used by the less-than-credible denizens of the Net.

Suppose we turn this rule on its head and state it in the positive instead. This would prescribe that we incorporate into our copy the signals and signs used by those whose credibility is beyond questioning. Have you ever visited a major law firm’s website? A typical sounding business name might be “Brown, Goldstein, & Partner”. I’d like to point out a few things of interest. Notice that the firm’s name is composed entirely out of classy sounding surnames, one of which (Brown) is also the name of an elite university, and another of which is suggestive of a precious metal (Goldstein). Notice the ampersand stuck in the middle, instead of the more normal “and”. Notice the word “Partner”, appearing in singular, no less! All of these factors trigger subconscious associations of trustworthiness in the minds of whoever encounters the name. In short, “Brown, Goldstein & Partner” sounds like the kind of name a legitimate law firm would have, whereas something like “John-Joe, Jimmy, and Their Buddies” definitely doesn’t.

The copy on the fancy law firm’s website also sends plenty of signals that help contribute to the sense of legitimacy we feel when encountering their brand. These include imagery of luxurious offices and of their lawyers in expensive suits, enterprisey vocabulary such as “client”, “firm”, and “solutions”, and a web design that is uncluttered and every bit as conservative as the likely politics of the firm’s lawyers.

I mention all this not because I want you to copy a law firm’s website for your business—this style of branding would hardly be fitting for a downtown nightclub or a kid’s pizza place. Rather, I point this out because I want you to start paying attention to your feelings of trust and distrust as you browse the web. Notice the little things, the subtle signals that these websites send, like the tiny padlock above the mention of SSL, the word “secure” printed above photos of MasterCard, or the pictures of the business founders smiling at you from the about page.

So far, we’ve discussed getting your signalling in order. The second way you’ll win credibility is through the social proof of reviews, customer testimonials, association with trusted institutions or people, affiliation with official dealerships2, or showing off a flurry of human activity on your website pages. This last one is the online continuation of an age old practice wherein older sitcoms dubbed over their audio with canned laughter tracks, nightclubs engineered long and artificial queues, and restaurateurs sat their first customers of the night near the window for passers-by to see.

Mathematicians might prove their theories by formal processes like “proof by contradiction”, but the rest of us rely on “proof by the Joneses” (i.e., the law of following the herd). Part of your job as a marketer, then, is to gather and solicit positive words about your product and then highlight these in your marketing materials. A long-standing favourite among webmasters is what I call the brand name-drop, where the webmaster name-drops (with logos) a bunch of major companies and publications that supposedly have positive things to say about the product. I say “supposedly” because, while most of these brand name-drops are legitimate, sometimes they can be surprisingly tenuous and shallow. For instance, I saw a website earlier today whose home page claimed “as featured in MAJOR NATIONAL NEWSPAPER X”. No link to their mention was provided, and when I researched further I found that the website was merely mentioned along with 20 other start-ups in that paper’s roundup article about local companies who attended XYZ event.

Popular too is the testimonial, a marketing device whose magic lies in its ability to voice claims so ridiculously glowing or promises so overly grandiose that no business could ever legitimately make them about themselves (e.g., “Changed my life”, “A thousand times better than the rubbish by competitor X”, etc.)

Testimonials need to be believable to work, so it’s important to accompany them with identifying information about the testimonial writer (e.g., their photo, full name, workplace, and social media profile link). Believability reaches its fullest potential if the person writing the testimonial is already known, respected, or even revered by your potential customers.

Dubiosity is, unsurprisingly, rampant in the testimonial department. Besides outright faking, there is also exploitation of tenuous links and half-truths. For example, I know a marketer who presents positive words said by their golf buddy at Goldman Sachs as being the opinion of the Goldman Sachs institution as a whole.

Let’s talk about website activity. A brand new web app without any users or content is the technological equivalent of a deserted amusement park in a depopulated post-apocalyptic world. In both, the lack of human movement and activity is eerie and supremely off-putting. The best way to prevent your website from giving off this sort of ghost town impression is by programming it to show user activity. This activity will be real if you’ve been around for long enough, but it might also be artificially generated if you’ve just launched and don’t mind dabbling in the dark arts.

The devices used to demonstrate activity come in various forms, the most common being rapidly updated activity feeds, comment feeds, recently listed product feeds, etc. On top of this, aggregate statistics that display your particular business impressively can also be helpful (e.g., displaying the amount of money paid to platform partners, the average number of dollars saved, the number of website templates for sale in your system, the number of to-dos completed, the number of seconds saved, and so on and so forth).

The next major point about building trust is correspondence to and accountability in the offline world. The website of your typical law firm will transparently and prominently identify themselves, their whereabouts, and how to reach (or sue) them. The law firm’s address and phone number are displayed in the website footer, and a quick gander at Google Maps Streetview confirms that an office of the same name exists at that same address. The firm’s website lists their company registration number and sales tax number—both of which correspond to the data at the company registrations office. They flaunt the fact that they were incorporated 60 years ago, signalling that they must be competent and trustworthy enough to stay in business for such a long stretch of time.

So far, the above shows that the institution has made itself accountable. But the law firm’s website goes further and also communicates that the individuals constituting the institution are also worthy of your trust. The website contains photos of their executive team, and upon googling them you’ll find the normal spattering of social media profile stubs and photos from charity balls, weddings, and half-marathons. In short, everything is very real.

The underlying message in all of this is that the law firm has nothing to hide. Compare all this to the red-and-black sales letter website, where there is no identifying information, no office address, no phone number, no team photos, and no sign that the authors exist in real life.

There’s a tension here for the lifestyle entrepreneur, that breed of modern business owner who wishes to live without the ties of fixed office or schedule. This digital nomad doesn’t want customers calling in on them in person or on the phone. They don’t want anyone interfering unexpectedly with their time. One option for them is to just accept that their desired lifestyle comes with inevitable trade-offs in credibility signalling. Another option, residing in the grey arts, is to resort to hacks and other clever devices. This entrepreneur will leave a telephone number on their website, but this line only connects to a Skype answering machine, enabling the entrepreneur to return the call whenever it suits them. Similar hacks could be done with addresses (e.g., PO boxes, etc.)

The fourth big way to build credibility is to signal confidence in a costly manner—essentially, to put your money where your mouth is. Consider, for example, lifetime warranties and no-questions-asked money-back guarantees. It doesn’t take a game theorist to realise that any company confident enough to make these promises must believe that their product is top notch—otherwise, these guarantees could end up being used so extensively as to put them out of business. In effect, the very existence of a guarantee signals that the business is confident about the quality of their products, and this increases sales. Anecdotally, some companies even report increases in profits following the introduction of money-back guarantees. For them, the improved conversion rate built on their newly boosted credibility more than offsets the losses through refunds. (That said, money-back guarantees might not be such a good idea in markets filled with serial refund abusers.)

My very last general point about demonstrating credibility is that timing matters—it’s especially important to emphasise your trustworthiness at that moment before your potential customer will purchase. That’s why so many websites have what are called “click triggers”—start ratings, micro-testimonials, or assurances about the money-back guarantee—placed next to their buy buttons.

Give Reasons to Act Now as Opposed to Later

Give Reasons to Act Now as Opposed to Later

Which one of this pair is busier? The surgeon staffing the emergency room of a chronically understaffed hospital or the social media community manager? From my standpoint, I would wager that the surgeon is busier, yet both she and the community manager, when asked about their recent work, will report that they have been “busier than ever”. I bring this up to show that everyone considers themselves busy today—even if, comparatively speaking, they are not.

If you combine the modern constancy in self-reported feelings of busyness and the inevitability of distraction in today’s attention-scarce world, this creates a problem for online salespeople: Many leads, even if they adore the product and are on the verge of buying it, may nevertheless drop out of the sales funnel. All it takes to lose them is their receiving a text message from their crush or getting a Facebook notification or having the thought that your longish sign-up form would be easier to fill in when they’re at home later. Once you lose their attention, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get it back.

The introduction of scarcity counters this kind of fickleness by putting on the pressure to act now as opposed to later. Fearing that the scarcity will take away the opportunity completely, the lead ignores all other distractions until they complete the sale.

Broadly speaking, scarcity comes in two varieties: unit scarcity (e.g., Amazon tells you there are “only six left in stock”) and time scarcity (e.g., a clothes retailer tells you that their “sale ends in three hours”).

Unit scarcity works partially on the basis of social proof. People see low availability and conclude that other people must be buying the product in droves. And if it’s good enough for all them, it can’t be a bad choice.

Unit scarcity also works because people have a psychological aversion to losing freedoms—even if the freedom is merely the ability to own something they didn’t even want in the first place. Threatened with this kind of loss, people react, almost automatically, by striving to possess.

Scarcity tactics has been around for a long, long time. Cialdini, in his must-read book Influence, provides some examples from the pre-internet age: Real estate agents pretend a doctor and his wife from out of town are interested in the property you want to buy, or photographers at baptisms claim that “stocking limitations” force them to dispose of unsold photos within 24 hours.

The more plausible the scarcity is, the better. Real estate agents prove they aren’t bluffing about demand for a property by scheduling a crowd of other interested parties to view the apartment at the same time as you. Or, if they don’t want to go that far, they will, at the very least, ensure that some other suitor “accidentally” crosses your path on the way out of the apartment viewing.

If you’re running a fully digitised software business, there aren’t so many opportunities for natural scarcity. Dabblers in the dark arts will thus seek to manufacture scarcity in the most plausible manner they can. On the low-end of the plausibility spectrum are marketers who limit digital downloads of their course to X customers per month in order to “stop the information from getting into so many hands that it loses its powers”.3 More plausible are web retailers with one-day-only 50% discounts, or those who introduce scarcity via coupons which are “limited to the first 50 claimants”. Another plausible road to scarcity is the “beta launch”, where the marketer only accepts 100 customers to their pre-launch product, on the grounds that their support team won’t be able to handle any more than that at this early stage. Just as plausible is shipping scarcity: Some retailers offer free shipping if you order within X hours, and to make sure you don’t forget this, they conveniently place a ticking countdown timer next to their buy button.4

My experiments with using scarcity in my marketing had the effect of improving conversion rates in author recruitment from about 8% to about 35%—a phenomenal jump that dwarfed any other improvement I ever made to this process. My author recruitment flow works as such: Applicants apply to publish their study notes with my company, and we review these applications, accepting those who fit our criteria. Around 2011, we decided to start radically limiting the number of authors we accepted, and we communicated as much in the copy on our author application page. The explanatory reasoning we gave was that 1) too many authors in our system causes too many products to be generated, and too many products causes potential buyers to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the extensive choice;5 2) each additional author creates editing and formatting work for our team to deal with, and we need to limit these costs; 3) we don’t have the manpower to consider author applications all year, so we have to choose a cut-off point (the start of the academic year, September 1), at which time we won’t consider any later applications.

We also use some scarcity within the later stages of our application process. In the contract we send to potential authors, we communicate that they have three days to accept our terms, otherwise we cannot guarantee that their place won’t be given to another author. We justify this because we are under time constraints to finalise our content before the academic year starts.

Prefer Concrete, Visual, Specific Copy

Prefer Concrete, Visual, Specific Copy

Coming from a programmer background and mind-set, my tendency is towards seeing the world in abstractions. Ask me what happened in any Marvel or DC Comics action movie—be that Batman, Spiderman, or The X-Men—and I’d say, “A hero saves a city from danger”. I mercilessly scrape away the details that differentiate each movie, leaving in my wake a lifeless and bland generality.

This is exactly what not to do with copywriting. Why?

First, by writing abstractly, we fail to differentiate our products from competing offerings. If all three action movies are about heroes saving the day, then why does it matter which one I watch? Similarly, if 10 other websites are promising “the best ebook on vegan diets” just like we are, then a customer has no reason to choose ours above the others. To stand out, we need to provide memorable and compelling additional details.

Second, the human mind remembers specific, unique, or weird details more easily than dry abstractions. Mnemonic technique, as espoused in the bestselling book Moonwalking with Einstein, emphasises this very point. This thinking predicts that a customer’s memory circuits would remain under-stimulated with a title like The Best Ebook on Vegan Diets, but would be brimming with activity with a title like What the Dietary Habits of Herbivorous Tibetan Bears Can Teach Vegans About Healthy Eating.

In fact, when I read the title The Best Ebook on Vegan Diet, the first thing I see inside my mind’s eye is…nothing! This is because my mental machinery defaults to laziness. If it can avoid constructing detailed images, then it bloody well will. Without something concrete being etched into my memory circuits by the book title, I will be prone to quickly forgetting it. Indeed, even if I consciously force myself to imagine something in response to this bland title, my mind, being lazy, will likely choose from its currency of stock symbols, images, and ideas, reusing images from my other memories rather than inventing afresh. As such, the evocative novelty of anything I conjure up will be minimal, for I will only be seeing the clip-art of my imagination—hardly likely to be memorable.

Third, generality and abstraction is easy to fake, and this could mean that the customer will suspect being lied to—even if the message were in fact totally honest. Think about bland advertising claims such as “Supreme quality”, “Best in California”, or “Better ingredients”. Totally unconvincing, right? Everyone makes the same flaccid claims, and it’s as if the cheapness of the marketer’s imagination seems to predict a cheapness in the quality of the product. On the other hand, think about a specific, non-fluffy claim like “We use (maximum) three-day-old hand-picked Brazilian acai berries in our homemade smoothies, according to the CTC Healthy Practice juice-making guidelines”. That sounds a whole lot more wholesome and believable.

Specific, visual language has yet another advantage compared to summary truths of the same ideas: Our emotional triggers are far more responsive to vivid stories and anecdotes that an unadorned statement of the same facts. We all “know” that millions of children starving is a dreadful state of affairs, yet we only feel motivated to pull out our credit cards to donate after seeing a televised charity advertisement that depicts a forlorn child staring at the camera. When we go to copy-write—which could well be on behalf of such a charity—we too should consciously pull these emotional heartstrings. This could be as simple as a case study of how “this one guy” (who happens to be really similar to the customer) found, partook in, and was positively changed through using our service.

Concreteness mostly applies to text, but also applies to other aspects of copy. ExactTarget, who in 2013 were hosting a conference for marketers, increased their registration rate by 40.18% when they replaced a photo of a bland, contextless laptop with a photo of a crowd of attendees in a crowded conference hall.6 Their original photo just didn’t create the right visuals to fire up their potential attendees. Another way to spruce up vividness is by creating a brand mascot. Mailchimp have their cute little monkey, just as Kellogg’s have Tony the Tiger. The existence of these mascots makes these brands easier to conceptualise (and remember), compared to brands without a memorable face.

I’ll conclude with a rough rule of thumb for measuring the extent of your copy’s specificity: Check that your text contains perceivable concrete nouns (“bears”, “monthly energy bills”, “cups of coffee”), numerical quantities (“12-second tooth-brushing session”, “prices reduced by 35% since January”, “our profit margin is only 5%”, “established in 1994”, “27 cheesy sandwich ideas you HAVE to try before you die”7), proper nouns (“Golden Gate Bridge”, “Arnold Schwarzenegger”), and photos of activity.

Ensure Scannability, Readability, and Responsiveness

Ensure Scannability, Readability, and Responsiveness

When composing sales copy, the part of you that appreciates slow-paced, nuanced, paragraphed prose must surrender the writer’s seat to the part that is into frenzied lists, one-sentence paragraphs, and zealous use of HTML formatting.

The reader of a large, unformatted block of copy cannot quickly extract meaning. From a sales perspective, this means that they cannot quickly learn how your product will benefit them. They may deplete their patience after a few seconds and decide to give your website a skip, only to shack up with a competitor who took the time to present their pitch in a more readily scannable fashion.

To stand a chance of communicating with the modern web surfer who will make a snap judgement in the first five or so seconds of landing on your page, you ought to present your copy using numbered lists, copious descriptive headlines and taglines, generous bolding/highlighting/underlining, and liberal use of white space and document structure. On top of this, you should be aware that some parts of the page are especially salient, and you should therefore strive to place your most important marketing messages in these locations (e.g., in your headlines, image captions, button texts, or within any text boxes designed in ways that contrast visually with the rest of the page).

Due to systematic biases in how humans make judgements, the cognitive ease with which we can see, read, and absorb meaning from text can spill over and transform into positive feelings about the content of the text.8 In other words, the very fact that a message is readily understood nudges it ever so slightly towards being believed and embraced.

This means that we can enhance our copy’s persuasiveness by making it easier to comprehend—for example, by writing in larger font sizes, colouring fonts so that they contrast strongly with the background, limiting ourselves to familiar vocabulary, shortening sentences, painting analogies with familiar rather than distant concepts, writing concretely as opposed to abstractly, laying off acronyms and jargon, imposing structure on your text, and supplementing everything with an ungodly number of illustrative photos.

Of course, all the formatting and structuring in the world won’t do your sales copy one bit of good if your design gets bungled on certain devices. Act-On Software used to send their mailing list subscribers newsletters with layouts that were so unresponsive that anyone on a mobile email client had to scroll left and right in order to read each and every sentence. When this company switched to a design that rendered responsively on mobile devices, they improved their conversion rates by a whopping 130%.9

Although responsiveness on mobile devices is the topic of the day, in the future there will no doubt be new devices and ways for people to experience the web. Marketers who are aware of and ready to optimise for these upcoming technologies will enjoy superior conversion rates.10

Signal with Indirect or Unworded Messages

Signal with Indirect or Unworded Messages

Not all communication is explicitly wrapped up into words. In our personal lives, we constantly send implicit signals to those around us by means of the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the company we keep. An expensive Rolex communicates status and wealth, as does an address in an expensive part of town.

Some signals are sent as unintended by-products of our lifestyle choices and activities, whereas other signals are manufactured with the explicit goal of influencing perceptions and impressions. A man riding a motorbike will be perceived by many as rebellious, and this is so regardless of whether this was his intention or whether his only reason for riding the motorbike was that he couldn’t afford to drive a car.

Why signal? Mainly because it is more socially acceptable to communicate certain (usually self-congratulatory) things by implicit means than by explicit statements. You’d view a wealthy person as obnoxious and rude for bragging about their net worth, but you’d have no beef with them for inviting you to hang out at their Beverly Hills mansion—yet, in both cases, this wealthy person will have communicated to you their wealth.

Businesses use signals too when they want to communicate facts that might be inappropriate to mention directly. A prominent “we’re hiring” link signals that the company is cash-flow positive and growing, as does a flashy office in the best part of town.

There is potential for dishonest signalling, a concept from the natural world whereby signals are manipulated to give a false impression. An example of this might be a non-stinging bug that mimics the yellow and black stripes of a wasp and relies on this to intimidate its predators. Back inside the office world, I know a young consultant who launched her services with an “about page” containing 15 employee photos, despite it only being her and her alone at the company. She wished to attract big clients and thought that the best way would be to pretend that she was a big deal. (Five years later: she now legitimately employs 50 people–obviously her tactic worked!)

Explicitly Point Out Qualities, Lest They Go Unnoticed

Explicitly Point Out Qualities, Lest They Go Unnoticed

Communication is a brutally mechanical process. Despite the claims to the to the contrary online,11 there is no such thing as telepathy. For communication to happen, our thoughts must be gathered, packaged into words understandable by others, and then delivered, without loss, to our listeners and readers.

Yet owing to a mental shortcoming known as the “curse of knowledge”, we systematically underestimate the difficulty of communication and assume that others magically know what we know.12

Part of the challenge in writing copy is overcoming this curse. To do this, we need to emulate the mind of a complete outsider, someone who has not shared the same intellectual and experiential journey as us, who hasn’t seen what our eyes have seen.

One popular trick that helps in this respect is to describe your offering in much greater detail that your natural tendency would suggest. This entails writing as if your customer were a total newbie to the market and your job were to educate them not just about your product, but also about what each of your features means, why they are significant, and so on. By way of example, imagine that you and a competitor are both offering an identical service, indistinguishable in every way and in all of its accompanying benefits. The only difference between you and them is that your company—and your company alone—mentions the following points in its copy:

  • “We provide official tax deductible receipts for business persons (and students), allowing you to offset your purchase against your next tax bill.”

  • “We allow customers to re-download their ebooks for up to three years after purchase.”

  • “We answer all customer service emails in 24 hours.”

  • “We provide our ebooks in three formats—PDF, MOBI, and EPUB—ensuring you can read on any device.”

  • “We provide secure payments with industry-grade HTTPS security.”

Let me reiterate that your competitor provides these exact same features and benefits; they merely fail to mention them in their sales copy, thinking them “obvious” or “unworthy of mentioning”. The consumer who visits both your website and your competitor’s will simply assume that your competitor doesn’t offer the advantages that you do. The result: The customer chooses to buy from your company instead because it seems like you are giving them more for their money.

Some companies throw in freebies with their orders (e.g., “If you buy this mobile phone, you get this headset for free” or “If you buy this acoustic piano, we will deliver it free of charge”). It’s important for these companies to mention how much their freebie would cost on the open market, otherwise it risks being undervalued by the potential customer.

As well as mentioning advantages and freebies, it is also important that a business remember to tell its customers what it went through to produce whatever it is offering.

Let’s imagine you are an entrepreneur in the clean-tech space running a website that retails residential solar panels to private consumers. Before launching your business, you travelled the world and vetted 200 solar panel vendors, choosing the 20 that offered the very best panels in terms of efficiency and reliability. This background research and product filtering is obvious to you, since you did it, but, without any explicit mention of it in your sales copy, your customers will remain completely oblivious to your journey and the advantages it brings them as consumers. Indeed, they might even scoff mockingly at the seemingly meagre range of panels your business stocks when compared to the competitor that has no vetting process or standards to speak of.

There is no need to be shy about telling your customers, in detail, about the methodology you used to choose the best panels to stock. Tell them about how many doors you knocked on, how many reviews you trudged through, and how many spreadsheets full of figures you crunched. Share with them the criteria you employed in your decision-making formulae so that they can see for themselves. Reveal to them the lofty qualifications of the engineers on your evaluation team, so that the customer becomes aware of the expertise backing your service.

For those of you working in IT, the physical aspect of the production process—over-caffeinated coders sitting at computers in a humid office—may not be so glamorous. But there is still plenty of opportunity to be conceptually dramatic. For instance, why not take a leaf out of Google’s book and name and describe the great things about your algorithm, as they did with PageRank and the Penguin update?

One last thing: It’s also important to inform the customer about what went into your product at just the right time. If you only reveal these compelling details way down in the depths of your about page, you cannot expect the average customer to read them. Instead, you would be better off briefly describing your production process on your landing page, along with a link that leads to a meatier description for those readers interested in knowing more.

Compare Yourself to the Competition

Compare Yourself to the Competition

Presenting a believable, professional, and balanced comparison helps win you the customer’s trust by showing that your company has nothing to hide, and that you’re open and transparent and not afraid of the competition. It’s also possible that, upon reading your comparison, the customer will conclude that all the research was already satisfactorily done for them so they need not bother checking the competitor’s website. These people will finish the sale right then with you instead of potentially getting distracted while they research competitors.

There is also an SEO advantage to comparisons: Some of the most popular search queries are in the form “X alternative”, “X vs Y”, or “X comparison”. SEO-optimised pages on your website that directly answer these questions are sure to capture a slice of this highly relevant traffic.

A source of morally questionable leverage lies in the marketer’s choice of comparator. This moral issue is most often encountered in pharmacological research, where big pharmaceutical companies compare their latest anti-depressant pills against a placebo instead of against the most effective cure currently on the market (be that another pill or alternatives like exercise or therapy). Their choice of comparator, while proving that their medicine works, doesn’t prove that it’s as good as the other offerings on the market. Returning to the world of website copy, it’s up to the marketer whether they want to only compare themselves to the big stagnant market-leaders that everyone knows and hates, or whether they want to also compare themselves to the impressive upstarts.

Assuming you have the appetite for comparative advertising (see the warnings below), the easiest way to get started is to create a table or chart comparing your company to your competitors. This format is useful because customers can read off, at a cognitively easy glance, the factors that elevate you above everyone else serving the market.

Comparing yourself with competitors, while effective, opens you up to the risk of getting sued. When making claims about another company, you need to be absolutely certain that what you say is true and substantiated (i.e., download and keep evidence). It may not even be enough for your claims to have been true at the time of writing—there has been litigation over claims that simply fell out of data. (Those working in the software industry can at least point to a version number, thereby protecting themselves.) Please don’t interpret any of this as legal advice—ask a lawyer.

Furthermore, when mentioning a competitor, you are required to include a disclaimer that you are unaffiliated with you them, just in case a customer sees your competitor’s branding and mistakenly believes your website to be theirs. There are even more rules about this, so do yourself a favour and research them thoroughly before writing your copy.

Even if you don’t have the risk appetite to directly compare yourself with your competitors, there are more subtle means to get a good word in on the back of their brands. One method is to mention a competitor in a neutral or positive light, simply to pick up the SEO advantage. I know of a website that did this and outranked their competitor for the competitor’s own brand name! Another method for picking up a competitor’s SEO juice is through your on-site testimonials. These testimonials can bash competitors as much as their writers wish, as long as you, the website owner, disclaim responsibility for and affiliation with their opinions. (But again, check with a lawyer.)

Anticipate and Counter Objections

Anticipate and Counter Objections

Years ago, I remember seeing a little-known book on Amazon that had the scammiest looking cover I’d ever seen, yet had been rated with nothing but five-star reviews. Even though I was suspicious, I ended up being swayed to buy the book after reading the following (also five-star) review:

“I was sceptical when I noticed that the book had only five-star ratings. I wondered if the reviews were fake. By the time I was halfway through the second chapter, I realised that this book delivered.”

Like many people, I am always unsure whether online reviews by random internet users can be trusted, especially given how easy they are to fake. But the review I just quoted was special because it faced this objection of mine head-on and dispelled it with two succinct sentences. (Or at least, largely dispelled it, since it’s possible that a really sneaky book author could have also faked the above so as to make his other fake reviews look that much more believable. In this case, my scepticism was unfounded. The book in question, Ca$hvertising, was superb.)

In classical sales, you are standing next to the customer in conversation. It’s possible to read their reactions, address their misgivings, disabuse them of unfounded fears, and generally soothe them through the process. With copywriting, there is a physical distance between you and the customer, so the conversation necessarily begins and ends with your copy. The only chance the copywriter has to address the customer’s fears is through their text—and this is why good copywriters don’t shy away from talking about the most common objections.

The downside of raising objections in your copywriting is—surprise surprise—that you risk bringing up a disadvantage that the customer wouldn’t have thought of, and this could scare them away. But perhaps this isn’t as much of a downside as one might think. If the customer had not considered a major downside, then they might suffer buyer’s remorse and demand their money back or leave negative reviews online. Addressing objections, then, is also about setting appropriate expectations.

Bonus Points: Mention a negative, then a positive.

In cases where the objection you are raising points to a drawback, you can lessen the impact by mentioning how this drawback is related to some advantage. For instance, think of the undersized apartment that gets advertised as “small but cosy” or the unadventurous meal described as “simple but wholesome”.13

Associate Yourself with Desirable Connotations

Associate Yourself with Desirable Connotations

When a sports star wears Nike trainers on the field, the message communicated to onlookers, if it were to be written out explicitly, might go something like this: “I wear Nike and, as you can see, I am a famous, edgy, sexually desirable, and super successful sports star. If you were to wear Nike clothing, then you too could be just like me!” The “logic” of these messages is little more than a blurring of correlation and causation. Indeed, during my more cynical hours (and there are many), I imagine that a handbook on logical fallacies could also serve as a handbook on advertising techniques.

The idea that advertising by association could possibly work at all can be baffling, yet advertisers of clothing, alcoholic beverages, and even university educations have been slathering their advertisements with associative symbolism for decades. Fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch built their brand on depicting beautiful, young, wealthy Americans enjoying the summer at their lake cabins. Alcohol distributor Smirnoff creates ads showing attractive finance professionals clinking glasses in trendy Manhattan nightclubs, and there is more than a whiff of sexual adventure in the air.

Given that large, economically rational agents like these employ and have continued to employ these techniques for years, there is plenty of reason to believe advertising by association is effective. I would hazard a guess that these advertisements work by activating automatic associative machinery in our brains. On the rational and conscious level, we “know” that depicting someone drinking a Corona beer on a beach is hardly an argument for Corona being the most refreshing beer to drink there. Yet, like a virus infecting a computer, the association between Corona and beaches bypasses our logical firewall and leaves its mark in our thoughts. Because Corona’s advertisements constantly show us images of their beer next to images of beaches, our unconscious brains simply note that these two concepts go together, without asking why that should be so. And because this connection by co-occurrence goes both ways, the next time we are sitting on a beach, we cannot not think about having a Corona.

This isn’t the only theory about why advertising by association works. Kevin Simler, in his fascinating piece Ads Don’t Work That Way, argues that advertisements change the landscape of culture meanings, and we consciously align ourselves with the meanings that benefit us most:14

Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings—which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a “chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party. Or maybe “chill” doesn’t work for you, based on your individual social niche—and if so, your winning (EV-maximizing) move is to look for some other beer. But that’s ok, because a successful ad campaign doesn’t need to work on everybody. It just needs to work on net—by turning “Product X” into a more winning option, for a broader demographic, than it was before the campaign.

Theory aside, let’s get down to practice. How does one engineer one’s own associations? There are overt means, such as photos and illustrations, endorsements, or choice of examples in your copy. The background is at least as important as the foreground here: Think of the previously regional politician posing for a photo in front of a map of the USA, symbolising that they have “gone national”. Then there are subtle means, such as colour schemes, typography, vocabulary, and writing style. Petrol companies greenwash their corporate branding in leafy shades so as to suggest eco-friendliness. Protein powder manufacturers use aggressive, meaty, size 80 fonts to impress on their market that their powder leads to similarly oversized muscles. Academic and legal writers wrap their prose in dense abstractions, cold solemnity, and obscure vocabulary to suggest their intellectual might. Tabloid and blog writers buck that trend and write in a loose, conversational tone, throwing in puns and smileys and even the occasional profanity.

There is also a lot of subtle associative power in your brand and product names. Naming consultants make earth-shattering sums of money for coining words that evoke desired subconscious associations. Think about the name of the management consultancy “Accenture”. The first syllable, “acc”, reminds me of the word “accelerate”; and the last, “ture”, recalls “venture”. If this were accidental choice, I would be surprised. I’ve got another naming example: A friend invented an algorithm to figure out the cheapest renewable energy components for personal homes. If they christened the algorithm “Deep Green”, then they would associate themselves both with environmental friendliness (“Green”) and with the “Deep Blue” algorithm, the first program to beat a reigning human chess champion.

There is another breed of advertising by association that appeals to people’s reason and rationality, as opposed to exploiting their unconscious machinery or need for social posturing. This rational appeal happens when a brand associates itself with a trusted expert or authority. For instance, think of the toothbrush manufacturer who claims that dentists use their brushes in caring for their own teeth. This message is compelling because a layperson has no way of evaluating toothbrushes, and so they must rely on expert advice in their decisions. And who better to follow than a dentist? What’s more, the fact that the dentists uses the toothbrush themselves is even more convincing than their merely recommending it. After all, actions speak louder than words—even if said actions were not directly observed but instead were only recounted.

Repeat Yourself

Repeat Yourself

The mere repetition of a claim increases the likelihood that those reading it will believe it to be true.15 This last little fact is more than a little sad for humanity, but is great news for the advertiser prepared to dabble in the dark arts.

Selling by using repetition isn’t as simple as copying and pasting the message to different parts of the page. If you do this, you’ll come across as lazy, sloppy, and way too sleazy—not to mention boring. The art of repetition lies in tastefully drawing out your copy so as to allow the repeats to show themselves in more natural and entertaining settings. This is done mostly through the use of pleasant figures of speech, as found in that most underrated of ancient subjects, rhetoric. For instance, in the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, tough guy Rory Breaker threatens:

If you hold back anything, I’ll kill ya. If you bend the truth or I think you’re bending the truth, I’ll kill ya. If you forget anything, I’ll kill ya. In fact, you’re gonna have to work very hard to stay alive, Nick. Now, do you understand everything I’ve just said? ’Cause if you don’t, I’ll kill ya!

The repetition of the phrase “I’ll kill ya” at the end of every sentence is an example of an old rhetoric technique called epistrophe, defined as the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases. Had Rory only said “I’ll kill ya” once instead of four times, his fearful impact would have been greatly weakened.

Epistrophe has a twin, anaphora, in which the repeated words appear at the start of the phrase instead of at the end. The most famous example has to be “I have a dream…” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Back in the unimportant world of copywriting, Innocent, of smoothie fame, advertise, “No added sugar. No concentrates. No funny business”. The repetition of the word “no” at the start of each phrase powerfully highlights their stance on impurities.

Another example of repetition in copywriting is with Apple’s advertisement for their iPad mini, in which they highlight the concept of easiness: “And because it’s so easy to use, it’s easy to love.”

Our final rhetoric technique for tasteful repetition is epizeuxis, which is the repetition of the same word a few times in a row. The most well-known example is the real estate mantra that it’s all about “location, location, location.”

If you want to move beyond repetition and find a list of other persuasive rhetorical techniques, let me refer you to The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth.

Don’t Talk Yourself out of Markets

Don’t Talk Yourself out of Markets

There is no point in having sales copy that (unnecessarily) turns away promising customers…after all, why would you want to artificially reduce potential market reach?

Despite the obviousness of this idea, some companies fail to see it. For instance, when I was growing up, my local shoe shop (and amplifier of gender stereotypes) placed “girly” Converse sneakers (read: bright colours) in the ladies’ section and the more “masculine” styles (read: subdued colours) in the men’s section. I remember really wanting to buy a pair of white Converse (one of their “girly” styles), but my easily embarrassed teenage self felt that they were off limits, somehow a bad fit for me and my precarious social standing.16

This shoe shop lost their chance to sell to my teenage self because they erected an artificial divide between male and female shoe styles. By imposing unnecessary divisions, you could say they shot themselves in the foot.

I bring this up in this book because certain styles of copywriting can have this same, undesired effect. Suppose that you have written sales copy that exclusively focuses on the value of a set of speakers to sound engineers. The photos used in the packaging, the jargon employed within the text, and the benefits highlighted (“great monitoring”, “non-overdriven bass”) sound great to the music producer, but may alienate the (much larger) market of lay purchasers who would otherwise love the speakers.

I am not saying that your product has to be a one size fits all. Converse probably doesn’t sell too many pairs of their All Stars sneakers to commercial lawyers. All I’m saying is that copywriters ought to be careful not to construct unnecessary boundaries.

Regarding the speaker set above, it may be difficult to reconcile the different marketing messages that speak to the sound engineer with those that chime with the layperson audiophile. If this is the case, the best course of action may be to release the same product twice, with different branding and marketing messages. This sort of thing happens more than you’d think. Just today, I noticed that a knock-off Apple laptop charger manufacturer has separate products on Amazon for the chargers for each type of Macbook—“Macbook 2016 charger”, “Macbook Pro 2014 charger”, “Macbook Retina 2015 charger”, etc. This is the case even though all these Macbook models accept the exact same charger.

Absurd? Not at all. The point of this proliferation of charger names is to clarify beyond doubt to the casual Apple user that this manufacturer’s chargers will fit whatever Macbook model the customer owns. It assures the uncertain customer that they won’t need to check the fine print or worry about having ordered the wrong one.

This is marketing done at its very finest.

Keep the Scent

Keep the Scent

Suppose that one day, while minding your own business on the internet, you encounter a bicycle advert that is set against a backdrop of earthy browns and clay reds. The ad’s text is written in a playful tone and brims with attitude. Underneath the main sales copy, the advert prominently promises free delivery. Intrigued, you click the ad, only to arrive on a drab and serious-looking bike-retailer website. Its colour scheme is dominated by navy blues and whites, its copy is corporate and soulless, and it makes no mention of free delivery anywhere. At this point you feel disoriented, unsure as to whether you clicked through to the right website at all. You hit the back button and try clicking the advert again, only to return to this place of confusion.

There’s a term for this special kind of advertising problem—“losing the scent”—and it’s known to hurt conversion rates for the reasons given above.

Losing the scent can also happen when the content on a web page isn’t easy to connect back to the advert that brought traffic there. Website owners cannot assume that leads will have the patience to connect the dots from the information given to them. For instance, if an advert has the headline “Start a Business” but the landing page has the headline “XYZ Accelerator”, then this mismatch may disorientate visitors who clicked the advert expecting to find a vanilla service for starting a normal business. These visitors mightn’t bother reading farther down the page, so they will never get to the part of the page where the accelerator explains that one of their services is helping young entrepreneurs start businesses. The accelerator would probably have been better off if their landing page headline (connected to that advert) read “Start a Business”. The fact that XYZ Accelerator was performing this service is only of secondary importance to the visitor. Accordingly, it should have instead been mentioned in less prominent text farther down the page.

So far we’ve only talked about keeping the scent between online advertisements and landing pages, but it’s worth mentioning that this same need for correspondence applies at every step of the advertiser’s sales funnel—from paper brochures to social media profiles to marketing emails.

Arouse Curiosity

Arouse Curiosity

Curiosity—the desire to know something—is a powerful motivator. Marketing techniques that leverage curiosity—say by hinting at some fact without fully revealing it—are used with good effect to turn leads into converts. To give an example of how this can happen, look at the experiences of dating website FindSomeone.17 From their homepage, it’s possible for non-members to search for a nearby partner. Originally, their website displayed short profile stubs for all potential matches—no matter how many—and they only asked the non-member to register if they wished to read the profile in full or to contact their match.

Later on, they redesigned their website such that only the first five or so matches were shown, cutting off the rest with a big obstructive overlay that read “Discover Others Who Are Looking”. This overlay was cleverly placed such that it cut through half of the fifth profile stub—you’d see this match’s forehead and eyes but not their mouth. These changes, which reduced how much of their content this website showed to non-members, managed to increase conversion rates by 21%.18 The explanation: Visitors were curious to see what was behind the membership wall.

Quora’s strategy for encouraging registrations is probably based on the same idea. Visitors arriving from external websites (e.g., Google Search or Reddit) can view one page of Quora when logged out. But if this visitor clicks on any link within Quora, they’ll be blocked by a registration wall. The exact design of this registration wall is telling: The question, placed at the top of the page, is visible, along with the first answer, albeit in greyed out and (often) cropped form. The reader, who will at this point become curious, will feel compelled to register to see the rest of the answer.

The use of curiosity is taken to an extreme by click-bait websites that intrigue with their headlines, often only to disappoint in the actual article. A traditional newspaper might report a story under the headline “Obama says gay marriage should be legal”, whereas a click-bait website might report the same with “Now THIS is why I voted for Barack Obama”. The traditional newspaper’s headline might be descriptive and contain the right keywords for SEO, but it isn’t intriguing enough to arouse the curiosity needed to get clicks on social media platforms like Facebook.

The impact of employing curiosity in the titles of articles or videos should not be underestimated. Peter Koechley, co-founder of viral media website Upworthy, writes that one video got a 1500% increase in views when it changed its title from “Zach Wahls Speaks About Family” to “Two Lesbians Raised A Baby And This Is What They Got”.19

So far, we’ve mostly talked about employing curiosity in persuading people to visit your website or register. But curiosity also plays a role within the one page, usually by keeping someone engaged enough to keep reading a long article or sales page. If you arouse a reader’s curiosity in your headlines and opening words, then this reader will keep reading until their curiosity is satisfied. This gives you extra time to convince them to trust you or to buy from you. In a similar vein, authors of crime novels often foreshadow a dramatic scene in their opening pages, so as to hook in anyone browsing the book in a store.

Play on Negativity

Headlines that focus on negativity (“Never Do This”, “Worst Problems with X”) have been shown by content discovery platform Outbrain to receive a 30% higher click-through rate than those that are neutral. When negativity is compared to positivity, the effect is even more pronounced: Negative headlines had an approximately 83% higher click-through rate than positive ones (“Best Way to X” etc).20 The cause of this difference was conjectured by Outbrain to be that “sources of negative information may be more likely to be perceived as impartial and authentic”. This trust in authentic information, then, would encourage more people to click through.

Another possible explanation for this “negativity bonus” could be that human beings are psychologically primed to prefer avoiding loss to acquiring gains.21 On this basis, sales copy that focuses on the dangers of not using a product will be more compelling than copy that focuses on what the customer gains by owning it.

Fear of missing out is yet another way marketers employ negativity. ConversionXL studied how varying the decline text in a pop-up affected sign-ups for a mailing list. They found that the decline text “No Thanks, I prefer to pay full price for my clothing” generated 34% more email sign-ups than text that said “No Thanks!”22. This shows not only that negativity works, but also that marketers should pay as much attention to their declines-to-action as to their calls-to-action.

Anchor Numbers

Anchor Numbers

Anchoring is a psychological technique that flirts strongly with the darker side of the advertising arts. The basic idea is that the mere mention of a number in an earlier, unrelated context can influence someone’s judgement about what an appropriate price or order size might be. There is compelling evidence of this effect, both in the scientific community and in the business community.23

A good example of anchoring in the business world comes from an American restaurant, the Big Texan Steak Ranch, that mentioned a free 72-ounce steak in their marketing. (The catch for customers was that if they didn’t finish the steak, they would have to pay for it.) Even though most customers would never take on this challenge, the figure of 72, emphasised in their marketing materials and in their menus, subtly raised customer’s estimates about how much food they could handle and how much money is appropriate to spend on their dinner.

Back in the web business, anchoring can be used to make your prices seem more attractive. This could be done by mentioning the 10,000 MB of storage supplied to each account of your cloud storage platform, highlighting the 70,000 happy customers you have, emphasising how many thousands of pounds you had to invest in developing the product, or talking about how much your product is “worth” (as opposed to how much you sell it for, which may be much less). Placement of the anchors matters too. Often it’s best to put the anchor just above where you reveal the price of your product.

Give Detailed Information

It is unlikely that a marketer would be able to sell a $9,000 guitar with two bullet points about its features. Before a customer makes a big-ticket purchase, they will want to read detailed descriptive text, so be sure to give them plenty of information about your product’s benefits, features, quirky facts, origin stories, use-cases, celebrity connections, pop-culture appearances, reviews, etc. As well as all this, take the time to provide as many photos of the product as possible, from every angle and in every type of use.

Depict Yourself as Someone Similar to Your Readers

Depict Yourself as Someone Similar to Your Readers

Cialdini, in his ground breaking book Influence, wrote that people are more likely to buy from someone who is similar to them. This similarity could apply in one of many dimensions: gender, profession, socio-economic background, race, interests, hobbies, or dreams and aspirations. The advertiser can communicate their likeness to the customer not just in their choice of photos/copy in sales pages, but also through the information they volunteer about themselves on the company’s about page.

But what is an advertiser to do if, realistically speaking, they don’t have a whole lot in common with their visitors? Suppose that you are an Indian teenager and that your customers are middle-aged American parrot owners. How can you come across as sufficiently similar to them for these American customers to want to buy from you (especially given that many people, though not actively racist, may be subconsciously so24)? The strategy chosen by the owner of ebook Parrot Secrets was to adopt the pen name “Nathalie—A Parrot Lover For The Last 12 Years”, a persona created especially for his customers to identify with.25 Without this in place, it is doubtful that an Indian teenager would have been able to run such a business.

This content is an excerpt from EntrepreNerd, my 337 page book on internet marketing. Buy it now, you won’t regret it!



  1. http://www.makepeacetotalpackage.com/archives/make-your-products-benefits-sparkle/ 

  2. E.g. Express Watches, a watch retailer in the UK, more than doubled their conversion rate by adding a prominent image that read “Seikko Authorized Dealer Site” - https://vwo.com/blog/increase-in-sales/ 

  3. For instance, see author and pick-up artist Neil Strauss, who launched the world’s most terrifyingly named dating course, Annihilation Method, with an artificial limit of 375 copies. Although many people complained about this artificial limit, reportedly he made serious money. 

  4. https://www.whichtestwon.com/case-study/the-count-is-on/ 

  5. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Paradox_of_Choice 

  6. https://vwo.com/blog/choosing-images-that-improve-conversions/ 

  7. Headlines with numbers in them “resonated” twice as well as normal ones without numbers, according to a Conductor.com survey. Regrettably, their data was not based on actual click data. https://moz.com/blog/5-data-insights-into-the-headlines-readers-click 

  8. For a good overview, read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 

  9. https://litmus.com/blog/responsive-design-ab-testing-leads-to-a-130-increase-in-clicks 

  10. Google Analytics data will inform you of the exact breakdown. 

  11. http://www.wikihow.com/Develop-Telepathy 

  12. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Curse_of_knowledge 

  13. This point comes from Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Goldstein, Martin, and Cialdini. 

  14. http://www.meltingasphalt.com/ads-dont-work-that-way/ 

  15. The Illusory Truth Effect: Exploring Implicit and Explicit Memory Influences on Consumer Judgments, 2006 

  16. I am happy to announce that as an adult I proudly own a pair of white Converse sneakers. 

  17. https://findsomeone.co.nz/ 

  18. http://www.goodui.org/evidence/test021 

  19. http://de.slideshare.net/fmsignal/this-title-matters-more-than-my-talk-speaker-peter-koechley-upworthy 

  20. http://www.outbrain.com/blog/2013/07/headlines-when-the-best-brings-the-worst-and-the-worst-brings-the-best.html 

  21. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Loss_aversion 

  22. http://conversionxl.com/popup-defense/?hvid=2EcGFw 

  23. The book Priceless by William Poundstone has countless examples of anchoring. 

  24. http://www.theguardian.com/news/oliver-burkeman-s-blog/2013/aug/15/racist-sexist-you-are-more 

  25. http://www.cringely.com/2009/03/14/parrot-secrets/ 

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