Thursday, July 25, 2013

What are the 5 most persuasive words in the English language? -- signed Dick Shunary

The answer comes from Gregory Ciotti, content strategist for Help Scout, the invisible help desk software for startups and small-businesses. Go to original post

When it comes to assembling persuasive copy, like any other construction job, you need to rely on your skills, experience, and toolbox.

The toolbox of the writer is filled with words.

In defining what I believe is a critical element of crafting effective copy, I’ll make my case by amending the famous quote from Animal Farm: “All words are equal, but some words are more equal than others.”

And there are certain power words that hold more sway over our decision making process than others. You might be surprised to find that these “power words” don’t seem … well, all that powerful.

This speaks to just how damned efficient they are. Simple language is crystal-clear language, and these words make it clear just what you want your reader to do.

And you might be surprised just how effective these deceptively simple words can be.

I’ve listed these words below (along with studies related to their power) that will show you how to speak more persuasively to your audience.

Warning: I can’t stress enough — just as in the application of writing headlines that work — you must understand why these words are persuasive, and you must use them in the contexts that make sense for your audience and your business. If you just start slapping them on every piece of content you create for no apparent reason, you’ll quickly see just how unpersuasive they can be.

There, you’ve been warned. Now, let’s get on with the show …

1. You

There’s an often-cited study in the copywriting world about a piece of Yale research that reveals “You” to be the #1 power word out of a supposed 12.

Despite the fact that the study likely never happened, I have some actual research that reveals the power of invoking the self.

As it turns out, while people might like the word “you,” it is guaranteed that that they love reading their own name much more.

According to recent research examining brain activation, few things light us up quite like seeing our own names in print or on the screen. Our names are intrinsically tied to our self-perception and make up a massive part of our identity. No surprise then, that we become more engaged and even more trusting of a message in which our name appears.

Research has shown that we will gladly pay more for personalization, so isn’t it about time you start getting personal with your customers?

However, there is one small problem with this finding …

Writing general web copy with name utilization in mind isn’t usually possible, but by capitalizing on the power of permission marketing, you can adapt this strategy easily — many email lists are greatly aided by being able to start off messages with a customer’s name.

While that may not be important for your blog updates, if you maintain a variety of separate lists for your products (and you should), make sure you’re grabbing a first name to make your broadcasts trigger that personal aspect with customers.

2. Free

Everybody loves free.

People love free stuff so much they’ll actually make different choices, even when the respective value of the item or service remains the same.

Dan Ariely revealed this startling fact in his book Predictably Irrational, where he examined a very unusual “battle” between Lindt chocolate truffles and Hershey Kisses.

To test the power of the word “free” in relation to concrete value, the study first asked people to choose between a 1 cent Hershey Kiss or a 15 cent Lindt truffle (about half its actual value, generally considered a richer, superior chocolate).

The results were as follows:

In other words, tastes were found to be very much in favor for the truffle. I mean, who’s going to pass up a deal, right?

Later though, another random group of subjects seemingly flipped on their opinion of these two treats. Ariely revealed that when the price was reduced by one cent for both brands (meaning the Kiss was now free), people altered their choices drastically.

With the new prices, here were the results:

Although in the first test it appears we simply can’t pass up a deal, as it turns out, we really can’t pass up a steal. Although the relation in prices remained the same (a 14 cent difference between the two), people chose the Kiss far more often when it was free.

Ariely points to loss aversion (our disdain for losing out on things) and our natural instinct to go after “low hanging fruit” as the reasons why we are so susceptible to snatching up free stuff.

The danger of free: As we’ve seen here, there is a certain inherent danger in trumpeting free things. Having something for free will attract more people. But that will most certainly include a fair share of “bargain hunters” who aren’t likely to turn into the superstar customers that really grow your business.

Use free only when it makes sense, and only in the right context.

Emphasizing the “freeness” of your free guides, courses, information, support, etc., can go a long way in attracting attention. On Sparring Mind, I emphasize the fact that my newsletter is “free to join,” because although most marketers understand this, many folks don’t quite understand what it means to subscribe.

Conversely, you should use minimal pricing to keep out those barnacle customers who aren’t ideal long-term buyers, or who aren’t truly suited for your flagship offerings.

3. Because

In a study from the classic book Influence by Robert Cialdini, tests were conducted on requests from a person in a hurry to use an in-office copy machine. The tests examined how different requests might affect people’s willingness to allow this person to “cut” in line.

In the first test, the participant simply stated:

Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?

In this scenario, around 60% of people allowed him to cut in line and use the machine first.

In the next scenario, the request was slightly tweaked. This time the participant said:

I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I am in a rush?

Did you see the ever-so-subtle difference between the two?

Let’s break this down: Not only was the request only minimally changed, but the “because” (his reason) was barely a reason at all! “Because I’m in a rush” wouldn’t stand up as a good excuse for most of us, right? Isn’t a majority of the working world in a rush?

Despite what we might like to believe, around 94% of people allowed him to cut in line this time! If you think that’s strange, check out the request used in the 3rd and final test:

Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?

That went from having a barely passable reason to absolutely no reason at all for letting the man cut. In spite of this, 93% of people let him cut on this third trial, only a 1% drop from when he had a weak reason (“I’m in a rush”) and a 33% improvement vs. the first test.

According to Cialdini:

A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.

Here’s the bottom line: Many companies are proud of the features that their product (or service) can offer, and that’s fine, but you have to remember that when you are focusing on writing persuasive copy, it all comes down to answering your customer’s #1 question:

What’s in it for me?

Although “because” may appear to have some sort of brainwashing effect on people at Xerox machines, it’s only really a matter of reasoning: even giving weak reasons have been shown to be more persuasive than giving no reason at all.

Only trumpet features and product traits you are proud of when they help make your point. Use them to create an incentive for customers to take action. And use “because” when pointing out these compelling reasons, but don’t rely on it as a crutch.

4. Instantly

The subject of delayed gratification is an important one among neuroscientists, as many famous studies (such as the Stanford marshmallow experiment) showcase how being able to delay rewards to a later date is a skill needed to become successful. (I know very few entrepreneurs who would argue against that.)

The reason this interests us as marketers is because it reveals an interesting aspect of human nature …

We want things yesterday!

Several MRI studies have shown just how fired up our mid-brain gets when we envision instant rewards, and how it’s our frontal cortex that’s activated when it comes to waiting for something (that’s a no-no for sales).

Words like “instant,” “immediately,” or even”fast” are triggers for flipping the switch on that mid-brain activity.

If you are in the business of selling web-based software, you already have an advantage here: “instant access” isn’t a vague promise, it’s often the reality. For those in the physical products or services business, reminding customers that they will receive their product quickly (or someone will get in touch with them ASAP) can go a long way in being the gentle push they need to buy.

We’ve seen how even “tightwad customers” can be swayed with these subtle changes in language to insinuate fast pain removal. It’s a reliable tactic for converting more prospects into customers as long as you follow the one golden rule …

Always deliver on your promises. And, whenever possible, overdeliver.

This is an area where many business get too optimistic, and although it’s smart to emphasis these instant rewards, it’s also always a good idea to under-promise and over-deliver, so be sure you can actually follow through on your promises or you may end up with a “tribe” that hates your guts.

5. New

This one almost seems paradoxical.

According neuroimaging research, we actually respond more favorably to recognized brands, and can have a hefty amount of disdain for any drastic changes. (Remember New Coke? Oh, the horror …)

On the other hand, it’s long been known that novelty plays an incredibly important role in activating our brain’s reward center and in keeping us content with our products.

“Newness” is important to products, especially because research has shown that they age far more quickly than “experiential” purchases. (In other words, you’ll hate your new headphones in 2 years, but that concert you went to 5 years ago probably aged in your mind like a fine wine.)

How can you achieve a zen-like balance against these two contradictory sides of the same word?

The important things to consider here are which parts of your business generate trust, and which parts generate utility. It’s your brand that creates trust, and as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Your products however are what customers get utility out of, and stagnant offerings are your first class ticket to an abysmally bored userbase.

Your core brand elements like your unique selling proposition, your dazzling customer service and your quality offering in the marketplace should be approached with excessive caution if things are going well.

With your products, it’s far easier to excite customers with new features and polish. Even if things don’t work out perfectly, a majority of customers will appreciate innovation attempts over no progression at all (unless you pull a Digg v4 and ruin everything in one fell swoop).

New fixes to old problems, new features and improvements, a fresh new design, or even new ways of getting your message out there (Red Bull anyone?) are all essential for keeping your customers “on their toes,” without losing the trust that has cemented you as an awesome brand in their mind.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I've read your column and think I can do a better job. How about a guest post? -- signed Ready to Write

Dear Ready to Write,

I confess; I don't have all the answers. But you might have one or two of them. If you've been a working freelance copywriter for at least two years, send me an email with your article idea for Dear Freelance Copywriter. If nothing else, you'll get a relevant backlink to your website or blog. .

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Clients say my writing needs more rhythm. How can I get some? -- signed, Two Leftfeet

Dear Two:

When I taught copywriting at the Portfolio Center, the first class was always about rhythm. For my opening act, I brought in a portable CD player and played parts of the soundtrack from The Last of the Mohicans, which has a strong sense of forward movement. I thought if the students could pick up the rhythm in the music, they could transfer it to their writing. Next, I gave them rhythmic excerpts from the noir novels of Raymond Chandler and James Cain, hoping for the same outcome.

About half the class thought I was nuts. The other half thought their writing was already rhythmic enough. If I was lucky, one student got it.  

Adding rhythm to your copy isn't complicated. One way is to establish a cadence in your head and fit the words or syllables to it. That's what I do. 

Want to learn five more ways? Check out this post from Daily Writing Tips.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

What can you tell me about vision statements? - signed N. Lightened

Dear N: 

Let's start with the biblical proverb: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Somewhere in the mist of long forgotten time, that particular proverb was adapted to fit a business audience. In today's world of corporate communications, it now reads "Where there is no vision, the company will perish."

Sooner or later, you're going to have to deal with a client's vision statement. This should help prepare you for that exciting day...

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you ever get there?

Virtually every company has a vision—a set of scared words that frame the guiding idea for the company’s future. Kevin Clancey and Peter Krieg, authors of the book Counterintuitive Marketing, define vision this way: “…a vision is a hope, a goal, a dream; it incorporates the values of the company (or entrepreneur), and it implies benefit for customers. A powerful vision looks outward… [it] expresses the end. It expresses what the company wants to be in the future.”

The authors of Strategy Safari, A Guided Tour Through The Wilds of Strategic Management put it more academically. “A vision articulates a view of a realistic, credible, attractive future for the organization, a condition that is better in some important ways than what now exists.” 

To which I say, don’t bet on it.

We will increase our profits to maintain our position in the EU and NAFTA markets (and other inspiring words from corporate America).

Okay, enough about what a vision is. Let’s jump to something more critical: how to distinguish a true vision from a false one. 

The majority of business visions are inherently false. So assert the authors of The Visionary’s Handbook. “Virtually every vision statement we have ever seen is not a statement about the future but a projection forward beyond the present of an idealized past, an idealized workforce, an idealized marketplace functioning perfectly in an idealized and unchanging economy,” they write.

 In other words, false visions tend to uphold a company’s past performance and glory rather than move the company forward to new opportunities. 

The authors of Counterintuitive Marketing stated it this way: “We’ve combed through 400 annual reports, studied more Web sites than we ever planned to, borrowed from the Stanford study by Collins and Porras, and interviewed CEOs, CMOs, brand managers, and communications executives as part of ongoing marketing engagements.

“The most basic finding from our our work is that most companies do not have much of a vision.” 

Of the corporate vision statements that they did study: “...most of them sounded the same. It is as if the writers and crafters of corporate and brand visions all attended the same seminar—and not a very original one at that.”   

A false vision usually defines what a company is, not what a company can be. Fortunately, false visions are easy to spot. Just look for high “Talking-to-Yourself” content. (By the way, the headline above came from an actual vision statement that I found on the Web.) 

What do bullet points have to do with it?

Absolutely nothing. Bullet points belong in white papers, not vision statements. A company’s vision should be compelling enough (and short enough) for you to remember it without having to write it down.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in the real world. Search on the phrase “vision statement” in Google and you’ll be rewarded with page after page of visions like this one:

The Acme Company's Vision Statement:

  •  In our chosen markets, we are the leader in client satisfaction, professionalism, superior quality and innovation.
  •  We are the architect of responsive and creative solutions to our clients' benefit, compensation and human resources needs.
  • Our teams combine technical excellence with a superior understanding of client needs and the environment in which our clients operate.
  •  We are committed to working partnerships with our clients that add value and consistently exceed expectations.
Compare that to these two short statements. The first is from Master Lock:

“To become the total security company to which people turn for the finest security products and services.”

The second is from Qualidigm, a process-management consultancy:

“To add Qualidigm to the business-to-business vocabulary of the 21st Century.”

Short doesn’t always guarantee a true vision.  Take General Motor’s vision:

“Our vision is to be the world leader in transportation products and related services.” 

Of course, we know how that turned out.

There are hybrid statements out there, too. They jumble vision, mission, culture and values together. They are longer in form, but effective and full of genuine, readable language. Sony and Virgin provide two good examples:

“Sony is a company dedicated to the celebration of life.
We create things for every kind of imagination.
Products that stimulate the senses and refresh the spirit.
Ideas that always surprise, and never disappoint.
Innovations that are easy to love, and effortless to use.
Things that are not essential, but hard to live without.
We're not here to be logical. Or predictable.
We're here to pursue infinite possibilities.
We allow the brightest minds to interact freely, so the unexpected can emerge.
We invite new thinking, so even more fantastic ideas can evolve.
Creativity is our essence.
We take chances. We exceed expectations.
We help dreamers dream.”

This was Sony back in 2003. Times change. Visions change.

 “If there’s a philosophy that runs through every Virgin company, it’s the desire to be different by being better. Better quality, better service and better value. And to this tradition of doing it with a bit of style and having fun along the way and if there ever was one, you’d have the Virgin business ethos.” 

What does Dilbert have to do with it?

In 1997, Scot Adams, the creator of Dilbert, donned a disguise and passed himself off as a consultant to a group of key executives at Logitech International (with the help of Logitech co-founder and vice chairman Pierluigi Zappacosta). The executives were told that Mr. Adams was there to help them draft a new mission statement for Logitech's New Ventures Group. After several hours of Mr. Adams’ guidance, here’s what the group came up with:    

"The New Ventures Mission is to scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission-inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings."

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Where the hell have you been? -- signed A. Fan

Very sorry for the lapse -- I was busy on my day job. Juggling a big load. Emirates Airlines Annual Report and Environmental Report, Mohawk Carpet trade show, Transamerica Life Insurance website, Sabana REIT & MapleTree REIT (both in Singapore), and United States Marine Corps. 
There's probably more, but I can't remember it. 

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I’ve got to write a tagline for a small community bank. Any pointers? -- signed “Tagged Out”

Dear Tagged,
The first thing you should do is visit and peruse their list of 635 bank taglines. It’s a great way to learn what not to write. There are a few decent ones, but the majority range from so-so to really bad.

“Relationship” is a big word for many bankers. Some, however, want more than just a banking relationship. What does that mean? Maybe they’re looking to date or marry someone with a high balance. Here are some examples: 
  • Charter Oak Credit Union – Relationships beyond banking
  • Bossier FCU – Beyond Banking…This is Personal
  • First Reliance Bank – There’s More to Banking Than Money.
  • Red Crown Credit Union – It’s not just service. It’s personal.
  • Sharonview FCU – With us…it’s personal.
  • Bank of India – Relationships beyond banking

Some banks express the obvious; prompting a response along the lines of, “I should hope so.” 
  • Bank of Maine – Honesty first
  • California Federal Bank – We’ll treat your money like it’s your money.
  • California Credit Union – It’s everything a bank ought to be

Many banks are keen on listening to you. I’m not sure they hear anything, but at least they’re polite about it. 
  • Addison Avenue FCU – We listen. You prosper.
  • Commerce Bank – Ask. Listen. Solve.
  • Comerica Bank – We listen. We understand. We make it work.
  • Companion Credit Union – We’re listening…
  • Midland Bank – The listening bank 

And, of course, there’s a chorus of lines that are All About You:  
  • Planters Bank – All About You!
  • Al Hilal Bank – It’s all about you.
  • California Coast Credit Union – It’s All About You
  • Mazuma Credit Union – We’re all about you.
  • Meijer Credit Union – It’s all about YOU! 

Some lines are wacky:
  • Bank of the Sierra – A Mountain of Experience You Can Count On
  • Zurich – Because Change HappenZ
  • Placer Sierra Bank – Real People-Real Service-Real Difference
  • abo Bank – Your significant other bank.
  • North American Bank – Bold. Friendly. Fun.
  • Monterey FCU – Let our style-of-banking improve your style-of-life.

 Some lines appealed to me:
  • Washington Mutual – More human interest. 
  • Abbey National Bank – Because life’s complicated enough
  • Abington Bank – Banking for people with better things to do!
  • Alpine Bank – A bank you can actually like.  [I would change this to “A bank you’ll actually like.]
  • Amplify FCU – Bank less. Live more.

 This is my all-time favorite:

Boomerang Credit Union – where your money comes back to YOU.

 Looking at the list in total, it’s enough to make me question whether any bank or company even needs a tagline. Do banks actually think their customers find these taglines genuine or emotive? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. In my experience, most banks and companies feel more comfortable talking to themselves. So instead of writing a tagline that resonates with your client’s customers, you end up writing one that resonates with your client.  And that’s the way it goes.

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