Strategic Subtlety: A Quick Copywriting Tip

Blatancy does not command respect.

Over-statement, in reaction, creates commensurate resistance.

   – Lord & Thomas Creed #1

While I’m a big fan of big claims and bold promises, strategic subtlety can be very persuasive, in a stealthy kind of way.

Take a look at an recent example I got in the mail. Here’s an excerpt from Imagine, a quarterly “magazine” from the University of Chicago Medicine.

U of Chicago

Notice how the writer implies that the University has a noteworthy history of “contributions to science and healing” without coming out and saying it. The sentence gently forces you to draw assumptions, subtly prompting your imagination to fill in the blanks.

This is more effective, not to mention easier to consume, than sharing a list of achievements that most readers will probably find boring.

One of the great secrets to persuasion is that people almost never doubt their own conclusions. A simple statement like the example above convinces us that the University of Chicago Medicine has a remarkable past of medical advancements, which makes a promising future seem almost inevitable.

All of that with no apparent effort to “sell” the idea to the reader.

Consider this: if the writer had tried to convince you of all the wonderful things that have been accomplished in the past, how would you have reacted. The mere attempt to convince is a turn-off. As Lord & Thomas Creed #1 says, “Too much effort makes men think that your selling task is hard.

Strategic subtlety makes the quality of your product, service or brand seem to stand on its own. It’s so good that you don’t even need to explain it.

Where can you use subtlety in your sales copy to improve its persuasive power?


Expect Resistance and Overcome It

Selling is hard.

Rather, selling can be hard.

Each of us has certain built-in psychological resistance to “being sold.” The challenge marketers and salespeople face is circumvent that resistance.

In a 3-part series on the Diamond Website Conversion blog, I’ve gone into detail about several specific forms sales resistance takes on, and more importantly, ways you can bypass it.

No matter what you sell, no matter what field you work in, these obstacles exist in all of your prospects to varying degrees. Do you know how to overcome them?

Overcoming Your Prospects’ Hard-Wired Conversion Obstacles
Part 1: Skepticism
Part 2: Inertia and Reactance
Part 3: Cognitive Biases
(confirmation bias, normalcy bias, etc.)


Cognitive Biases: Overcoming Your Prospect’s Hardwired Resistance, Pt. 2

In Parts 1, of this we talked about how you can write copy for your website that overcomes the skepticism, inertia and reactance that naturally work against your sales message.

Another set of psychological phenomenon applicable to business and marketing is in the realm of cognitive biases.

The brain is not — and cannot be — completely objective in perceiving information. You can become a much more effective communicator and persuader by understanding the angles and spins that our minds apply to every bit of information we consume.

Let’s examine how cognitive biases and think about ethical ways we can use the brain’s predispositions to strengthen our marketing messages.

Confirmation Bias

We are wired to look for evidence that supports what we already believe to be true. We tend to interpret data in ways that agree with our positions. We value people who are on our side of an issue or debate – we have an automatic kinship with them.

The opposite is also true. We tend to reject information that contradicts our opinions. That’s known as the Semmelweis reflex. In fact, information that disagrees with our preconceptions has been shown to strengthen our original beliefs. That’s called the backfire effect.

Our brains need consistency and predictability, so we automatically find ways to support the paradigms we hold. Information that contradicts our ideas about the world is often discarded out of hand.

That’s why it’s difficult for a Democrat to become a Republican, or a Yankees fan to start rooting for the Red Sox.

You need to present your product or service and your message in a way that agrees with what your audience already believes. Confirm their suspicions about themselves and the world around them.

Normalcy Bias

You have to relate to the members of your audience right where they are. People have a hard time spending money on solutions for issues that haven’t “hit home” for them yet. We’re inclined to think:

That could never happen here…”

I’ll never be in that situation…”

Even if we logically understand the possibility, we don’t feel the need commit to anything that seems far removed from our everyday experience. Our brains can’t contemplate every conceivable occurrence that might come to pass in our lifetime. So the status quo becomes our default mental setting and we don’t give much thought to other scenarios.

You’ve probably noticed how hard it can be to convince people that danger may be on the horizon if it’s outside their personal “normal.” That’s one of the reasons disasters like Hurricane Katrina wreak as much havoc as they do. That same bias is present in all of your customers.

Are you selling a vaccine or a pain killer? Ibuprofen is almost always easier to sell than flu shots.

Knowledge Bias

People tend to choose the option they know best instead of the best available option. (This is another reason why “building a better mousetrap” doesn’t guarantee people will beat a path to you door.)

This raises 2 important questions:
1) Are you building valued relationships with your audience
2) Are you providing enough information as your prospects need to feel confident in choosing you?

You can see how important transparency, honesty and credibility. This cognitive predisposition is the one of the psychological reasons behind the Know-Like-Trust concept.

In Jack Trout and Al Ries’ 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Law #1 says that it’s better to be first than it is to be better. Law #3 states that it’s better to be first in mind than first in the market.

How well-known are you in your arena? What can you do to improve that?

Selective Perception

This is all about framing your message properly.

When you properly set expectations in the mind of your potential clients, you affect their how they perceive the topic you’re discussing. You can make them see what you want them to see, just like a magician…

Education is a wonderful selling tool. You can use it to shape your prospects’ opinions about how to shop in your industry, which gives you the upper hand over all of your competitors.

When people we trust share information with us about something, it has a huge impact on how we experience that thing in the future. For example, when I was young, my mother told me that I didn’t like cranberry sauce, even though I don’t remember having tasted them before. I can’t tell you how many years I missed out on eating them, without ever trying them for myself.

When we’re not experts on a particular subject, we usually take what the “real experts” have to say at face value (unless it contradicts our current worldview). They define how we think about that topic. Parents, doctors, mentors, etc. have tremendous influence because of this fact.

So, how are you framing your marketing conversations? What expectations are you setting?


Bypassing Your Prospect’s Hardwired Resistance

resistance keep out

In his 2003 book Resistance and Persuasion, Dr. Eric Knowles explores the psychological reasons people to say “no.” Understanding why your website’s visitors tell you “no thanks” can go a long way in helping you change more of their responses to “yes, please.”

Dr. Knowles talked about 3 main root causes for the natural resistance to the sales process: skepticism/distrust, inertia and reactance. Today, we’ll analyze skepticism in more detail to see how you can neutralize it and increase your site’s conversion rate and profitability.

Skepticism – Resistance to your offer

People are trained from a young age to think that “if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” Nowhere is this more applicable than in business and marketing.

Does the copy on your website make hard-to-believe claims? Maybe you have to make bold statements because your product or service is just that good. Why should you be penalized for having an incredibly great selling proposition?

You overcome skepticism with evidence. Can you back up the claims you make with proof? Do you have testimonials of satisfied customers whose lives you’ve changed? Can you give statistics from authoritative sources that give credence to your statements? Can you demonstrate that you’re telling the truth with pictures or video?

Don’t hold back on the proof! The more evidence you can show that your claims are 100% legitimate, the less room you leave for skepticism.

Want to do even better? Offer a free trial or sample of your offering. It’s hard for people to argue with results they’ve experienced for themselves.

(Just a thought: if you can’t confidently offer a free trial of your product or service because you’re nervous the customer won’t make the final purchase, maybe you need to improve it until you know that if they try it, they’ll buy it.)

A major reason people hesitate to pull the trigger on a purchase is the fear of feeling ripped-off or disappointed when they finally get what they ordered. You can effectively alleviate that fear by offering strong guarantees and/or service after the sale. When they know they can get their money back if things don’t go the way they hope, making the decision gets a lot easier.

Another mistake many businesses make is sounding just like everyone else in their field. If your website looks the same as your competitors, if your copy says the same things in the same “voice,” your potential customers are very likely to think of you as the knock-off of the sites they’ve already seen. When everyone looks the same, everyone is seen as a commodity.  But worse than that, everyone sounds fake and insincere.  Distrust is a conversion killer.

Use specific language to show readers how well you know them, how well you understand their needs and how experienced you are in delivering solutions for those needs. Speak directly to your audience in language that resonates with them.

Don’t try to talk to everyone. Generic language almost always misses the mark.

Inertia – Resistance to change

If you’ve lived on this planet for more than 10 years, you know how difficult it can be to convince people to change their established routines. People like to do things the way they’ve always done them (even when they know there’s a better way). Studies show that our brains go out of their way to form habits, then “reward” us with happy hormones when we maintain them.

It’s Newton’s First Law of Motion applied to human behavior; bodies in motion stay in motion. We tend to keep doing what we’re currently doing, and it’s hard to start something new.

Habits are hard to break. And there’s a sense of comfortable familiarity and security that come from keeping things the same. So we resist change.

As marketers and salespeople, we often think the way to make our propositions more compelling is to increase the perceived payoff customers will get when they buy from us. That’s why we pile hundreds of dollars of bonuses on top of our offers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; giving more value is always a good idea.

What we don’t realize is that habits are their own payoffs. That’s part of the reason people get set in their ways.

Alan Weber is quoted as saying “Real change happens, when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.” The same is true when it comes to selling your product or service from your website. You may have difficulty demonstrating that the payoff of using your product (which they haven’t felt yet) is greater than the payoff associated with their current product or lack thereof (which they’re currently enjoying).

Consider trying another route. Instead of focusing on the payoff of taking action on your offer, show your visitors how much it costs them to keep doing things the same way. What do they lose by continuing on the path they’re currently taking?

According to Weber, change happens when that reality hits home. Then your prospects can replace their old purchasing habits with better ones – yours!

Reactance – Resistance to persuasion itself

Jeffrey Gitomer wrote in The Sales Bible, “People don’t like to be sold but they love to buy.” When you look at your own experience, you can see the truth in this statement.

Of course, that fact is one of your biggest challenges as an online marketer. People want to buy things to satisfy their desires and remove unpleasant aspects of their lives. They just don’t want to feel like they’re being “sold.”

Claude Hopkins wrote that “Any apparent effort to sell creates corresponding resistance.” It’s an instinctive reaction. Instinctively, our brains think “Hey! This guy is trying to benefit at my expense. Well, he’s not gonna get me!

A customer’s sales resistance is related to a psychological phenomenon called reactance. In layman’s terms (as per Wikipedia), reactance is a person’s subconscious rebellion against what he thinks someone else wants him to do.

We see the other person’s will as a threat to our freedom to decide and act as we please.

When a salesperson asks “how can I help you?” you don’t believe her true intention is to help you, do you? You think she wants to help herself. You imagine that she’s going to do everything in her power to make you purchase what she wants to sell you, not necessarily what you want to buy.

You’re sure she’ll try to make you buy now; you want to make up your mind in your own time.

People want to operate on our own terms, not those of a salesperson (or anyone else). So we resist.

You neutralize reactance by not appearing to sell. You hear a lot of talk about push vs. pull marketing regularly. That’s largely what this issue boils down to.

Have you ever noticed that commercials on TV are louder than the program you tuned in to watch? Obviously, that’s an attempt by the advertisers to get your attention, and it works. You can’t ignore the blaring sound. But is that a good thing? Most would agree that it’s not.

No one likes to be pressured and no one likes to be shouted at. It may grab your attention, but it’s also irritating and puts you in a negative mood. That defeats the purpose of your message.

Don’t “shout” your sales message. Hard-selling is counterproductive. Instead, seduce. Give your visitors reasons to listen. Make them want to know more about what you’re talking about.

Engage your readers by talking about topics that are truly important to them. Tell interesting stories. Create a sense of curiosity. And really communicate what’s in it for them. When you start sounding like someone who just wants to sell something, you’re in a heap of trouble.