Writing sales copy can feel like a lot of pressure. There's a lot at stake, and it's not something we get to practice very often. The good news is, no matter who your customers are, they are all driven by the same things in life. They're trying to find success, acceptance and comfort. While trying to avoid failure, rejection and pain.
So you don't need to be Shakespeare to write copy that sells. But you do need to answer the right questions, in the right sequence. So breathe easy, and let me walk you through that sequence step by step.
All customers are looking to make change in their life, without necessarily having to change. That's the very reason why our products and services have potential value to them.
They either want a physical change, or an emotional change. And they want that change to happen with as little effort as possible. So it's our job to show them how our product will lead them to the promised land, in a predictable, low risk way.
We do that by creating a sales story. Helping our customer connect the dots between their conscious and unconscious motivations, and our unique solution.
The sales story I use most often is structured like a movie script. There are 7 distinct acts communicating 7 critical ideas. Together those ideas tell the story of human change. Believing that change is possible is what gives people hope. And hope is the motivating force that moves people to take action (like buying your stuff).
Act 1 - The hero is threatened by an outside force.
(First we make the technical problem we're solving clear.)
Act 2 - The hero has a flaw.
(Then we empathize with the more human, emotional side of the problem, why it hasn't already been solved and why that's not our customer's fault.)
Act 3 - They dream of a better world and set off to find it.
(We paint a picture of the brighter future our customer is really seeking. The life they want to live, beyond the utility of our tool.)
Act 4 - They find our solution.
(Now we can present our solution. The tool, amulet, guide, weapon, process or system that will help them succeed.)
Act 5 - The solution triggers resistance.
(The least understood part of the process. Our solution must seem to be consistent with our customers existing values and beliefs, or it will be rejected out of hand.)
Act 6 - They must fight a great battle to hold onto the solution.
(We prove our ability to be the champion that our customer is seeking, to fight this battle on their behalf. To create change in their life, so they don't have to change.)
Act 7 - The hero takes proof of our solution back to their tribe.
(We provide the proof, the evidence, and the compact stories, that our customers can take back to their boss/spouse/parent and justify their decision to purchase our solution.)
When executed properly this 7 step process will tap into your customers deepest motivations, presenting your product as the solution, not just a solution. Let's look at each act in more detail...
Above: In the opening act of Star Trek (2009) we see the world threatened by Nero, a vengeful Romulan, just as our future hero, James T. Kirk is being born.
We often create products to "scratch our own itch". But from the moment we form a company, our motivations start to change. We can no longer truly feel what it's like to be the customer. So it's important to redefine who our paying customer is really going to be.
Our market might include more than one type of customer. There could be a primary user who is hands on with our product. And an "approver" like a manager, boss, spouse or parent. Never try to talk to both of these groups at the same time.
If you're selling a child's toy, write directly to the child about how exciting the toy is. Then, create a separate story that speaks to the parent about safety, how the toy makes a great present, and how much pleasure the child will get from it.
If you're selling a tool to an Engineer, write directly to the Engineer about how it will help them improve their skillset and make them look awesome. Then, create a separate story that speaks to their boss, about how many man hours and dollars this will save the company and how much more efficient his team will be.
Never create a generic story that tries to appeal to everyone, or you'll end up being ignored by everyone.
Action: In just a few sentences describe your primary customer, the one you're going to sell to first. Gender, age, education, job, background, interests, level of intelligence and authority, budget, hobbies. And anything else that helps you create an initial picture of who you're appealing to. If you feel uncertain, start by making a list of who your customer isn't, and take it from there.
There are always two aspects to a customer's problem. There's the obvious technical, physical or mechanical need. Then there's the more human, internal, emotional aspect. Let's focus on the technical problem first.
The problem you're trying to solve must be big enough, and urgent enough, for your customers to be motivated. If they aren't pro-actively looking for a solution, if they don't feel like they really need it, it will be really hard to get their attention and too costly to make a profit.
"I'm over weight and need to lose 12 lbs."
"I need transport to take me out to the club and bring me back home."
"My laptop isn't powerful enough to process my video editing."
"I need to eat but I don't have time to sit and wait in a restaurant."
"I need full access to the Internet through my phone."
Action: In just a sentence or two describe the problem your customer is suffering, from a technical, physical or mechanical point of view. What can't they do? What skill are they lacking? What tool are they missing? What's causing them pain? What's threatening their comfort? What do they need?
There has to be a reason why our customer hasn't already solved this problem and why it isn't their fault. We have to take the pressure off them. We don't want them to feel guilty about having a problem in the first place, or they will be embarrassed to buy from us. So we have to establish who or what is to blame.
Solutions don't work because;
The customer didn't implement them properly. (No customer ever wants to hear this)
The technology wasn't advanced enough yet.
The previous solution, from our competitors, wasn't as well designed as our new solution.
The times have changed.
There's a big evil enemy that's conspiring against them.
Action: In a couple of sentences explain why the problem hasn't been solved already, why it isn't the customer's fault.
Our brain craves consistency and certainty more than anything else. We're often more motivated to maintain the status quo, even if it's not working, than to risk an unknown future. That means the default decision for most people is to procrastinate. To prevent that, we have to demonstrate that without action, our customer's problem could actually get worse.
If it's a technology issue, it could lead to you getting left behind in a competitive world.
If it's a relationship issue that's allowed to go unmanaged, it could lead to a breakup.
If it's a diet issue, it could lead to serious health problems.
If it's a work issue, it could lead to you losing your job.
Action: In a couple of sentences explain how the problem could get worse if it isn't taken care of.
Above: Kirk is on his way to manhood, he's full of desire and energy. But he's lacking the discipline and commitment of a well rounded individual.
Motivations to eat, drink, find shelter and gather resources. Motivations to improve and protect our security. To find allies and status within the tribe. Motivations to procreate, so that we can pass on our genes, then raise our children and share what we've learned with the tribe.
Along this journey, we must develop skills and shape tools that move us closer to those goals. Our emotions regulate our progress, telling us when we're on track, or not.
If we already possess the necessary skills, tools or resources, our journey continues smoothly and we feel hopeful. It's only when we find ourselves lacking, that we feel negative emotions and start seeking an external solution. That's when we go looking for something to buy.
We already know the technical problem they're suffering, now we must identify what's going on inside. The internal feelings and emotions that will motivate our customer to act. These will look something like - hunger, rejection, loneliness, fear, anger, frustration, pressure, disgust or sadness.
If we can empathize with what our customers are going through internally, without making them feel judged, they'll feel understood and accepted on a really deep level.
Action: Identify the more human, internal problem, and the negative emotions that are driving your customer to look for a solution. What are they lacking, and how is it making them feel bad?
Above: Starfleet, a symbol of unity and structure, promises to offer Kirk the meaning he seeks, so he joins up and sets off towards a new adventure.
So far we've looked at the problem, and we've empathized with why it hasn't been solved in the past. Now, it's time to paint a picture of a brighter future.
At the moment of decision, all customers are buying the same thing, hope. Hope that we can help them move towards a better life.
To help our customer generate hope, we have to give them the raw materials to imagine a better world. A world where their technical and emotional irritants have been removed. A world in which their company, family and community all benefit from their discovery. A world in which they are the hero.
This is a world of positive emotions. A world where they feel courage and control, power and freedom, choice and recognition, safety and certainty. A world in which we shore up their missing skills and transform negative emotions into their positive counter parts.
Action: In a few sentences explain how your customer's life is going to be better using your product. Think about it from both the technical and the personal perspective. What are they going to be able to do? How are they going to feel better? How will they have more certainty and security? How is their family, company and community going to benefit? How will their status improve?
Above: Within Starfleet, Kirk meets Spock. Spock embodies the discipline and order that Kirk needs to balance his raw desire and become a more rounded and mature individual. Spock is the solution to Kirk's character problem.
And only now is it time to talk about the details of our product, the solution to our customer's problem. Over the next few points we'll look at its features and benefits and what makes it new and exciting (all from the customer's point of view).
As makers and merchants we often think about the things we're dealing with in terms of their features;
A realtor might organize houses into 2 bed, 3 bed and 4 bed categories.
A publisher might talk to a writer about making a 300 page book or writing a 1500 word article.
A food company might talk about getting into the caffeinated beverage sector.
A computer company might release a machine with a 2.5TB hard drive.
A carpenter might plan on creating a range of walnut furniture.
This type of "feature" often relates to the quantity, or type of raw materials used in our trade.
Action: Imagine describing your product to someone who has never seen it before. List all of its features as briefly as possible. What is your solution made of? What are its key components? What does it do? What does it involve?
Talking about features to our customers can have its uses. But it's not enough. It will leave them feeling underwhelmed and misunderstood. Features are cold. They are dry. They make products into objects or commodities. They exist so that we can count boxes and order materials behind the scenes.
But our job is to make our customers feel hopeful that they are moving towards their deepest goals, so we need to focus on benefits. Benefits are hot. They are human. They turn objects into tools and tools help us move forwards. They get us excited about what we can do. What we can achieve. Who we can become.
Feature: 5 Gigabyte Hard Drive.
Benefit: Lets you fit 1000 songs in your pocket.
Feature: One bed apartment with tiny windows.
Benefits: Affordable privacy, low heating costs and easy to maintain and keep clean.
Feature: Three bed apartment with tall ceilings and big windows.
Benefits: Light, airy and luxurious, with imposing views.
Feature: 120 page book.
Benefit: A quick read to help you get an overview of the topic in no time at all.
Feature: 1500 page book.
Benefit: A deep exploration into the topic, a complete reference, a book you can get lost in.
Feature: Made of Pine.
Benefit: Real wood for that rustic farmhouse look at an affordable price.
Feature: Made of Walnut.
Benefit: For a harder wearing surface with that high end luxurious feel.
Feature: Contains caffeine.
Benefit: For a quick energy boost and improved focus.
Action: Copy your list of cold features from the last point and then write the hot human benefit (to your customers) next to each one.
Now look at your list of features and benefits, and ask yourself, what's really important to my customers? And what isn't?
You may quickly discover that some features and benefits jump out as being far more important than others from the customer's point of view. And you may realize that, from the customer's point of view, some of your technical features just don't matter that much at all.
Once unnecessary features have been identified, they should be removed from the sales story. If they are important to the everyday use of the product, they can be included in a user manual. But a sales story and a user manual are two entirely different documents and should never be confused.
Action: Copy your list of features and their benefits then re-order it from your customer's point of view. See if you can promote some features and lose some features. If you could only talk about 7 features/benefits of your product, what would they be? If you only get to focus on the top 3 features/benefits, what would they be? If you only have time to focus on 1 feature/benefit, which would it be?
One of our challenges is that the customer's perception has already been shaped by their experience in the marketplace. Either by using competing products. Or just by seeing other people's marketing.
People tend to downgrade ideas that they think they already know and understand. Familiar ideas often seem old hat and don't hold people's attention. So when we actually announce your product, we have to do so with the frame of what's new, different and exciting about it. Why does our solution offer more hope than all the other solutions out there?
Action: Describe what's new and novel about your product, from your customer's point of view? Why is it different? Why is it an "improved formula" why is it better than the existing solution? Why is it going to stand out against the competition? Go strong on one position to stand out against "middle of the road" products.
Above: Although Kirk has now met Spock, the balancing force he needs, there is inevitable resistance. They clash and Kirk finds himself stuck and under attack, on an abandoned ice-world, where he meets old/alternative Spock and learns that they could become lifelong friends if they work together.
It's also the most critical in turning a customer who "likes the idea" of your product into one who "actually buys" your product. So far we've communicated empathy, we've shown a desirable future and we've demonstrated how our product is the right solution. So, why aren't all of our customers screaming "take my money"? Why are we just past the halfway mark in our story?
What we have just given our customer is new information. And new information often threatens our view of the world. The human personality is wired to protect and maintain its own integrity, the collection of values, beliefs and memories that we think of as "us". When anything new enters the picture it poses a threat to what we already believe we "know". Our reaction to that is usually a feeling we can call resistance. And that resistance is the biggest obstacle to all human change (and successful sales). But there are some very specific tools we can use to overcome resistance.
Gradual exposure is one of the most important tools available to us for creating human change. We can become conditioned, quite quickly, to almost anything, when we learn about it through a process of gradual exposure.
We are hard wired to be super cautious about anything new. We survive by staying safe and we stay safe by being cautious. What gradual exposure allows us to do is learn that "this thing won't kill me". And we need to learn that lesson over and over, before we become comfortable with anything new.
Once we've realized that something won't kill us (literally or socially), and only then, do we start looking for ways in which it might move us closer towards our goals.
We can talk about the benefits of our Black Forest Gateau all day long, but nothing will be as persuasive as giving our customer a small slice to experience.
Action: In a couple of sentences, explain how you're going to offer your customers a free sample, or demonstration of the product, lowering their fear of the unknown.
Handing over money is risky and most customers have painful experiences. It isn't long ago that "Caveat emptor" or "Buyer beware" was the mantra of the marketplace. Just a few pioneering merchants wanted to stand by the quality of their goods and services, and in doing so build their reputation. Those merchants started to offer guarantees of customer satisfaction.
The magic of a good guarantee is this - even though a small percentage of people will ask for a repair, replacement or refund and even if some of those people are time wasters, the rise in sales usually far outweighs the costs.
Which strategy you choose will depend upon your product and market.
Money back guarantee: There are times when a guarantee should focus on the customer's ability to get their money back. Or, not have to hand over any money, until they have received the product.
Satisfaction guarantee: There are times when a guarantee should focus on getting the result that the customer wanted in the first place. This may result in you giving them something extra, or something different.
Free returns or replacement: There are times when a guarantee will focus on allowing the customer to buy on impulse but exchange the product if it's the wrong size or doesn't do the job as expected. For example, not sure which size of shoe will fit? Order 3 sizes and return the ones you don't want.
Action: Look at your current guarantee (if you have one) and then look at the guarantees being offered by your competitors. Now, think about how you can lead your market with the best guarantee. How you can remove more fear from the buying process than any of your competitors. Remember that the best guarantee is usually the simplest (from your customer's point of view). Describe that guarantee in two or three sentences.
At the core of the human personality we find our values and beliefs. A positive value is anything that we move towards. A negative value, is anything we move away from. Our "beliefs" are the stories we tell ourselves about why we hold those values. Most importantly, no matter what our values are, we defend them vigorously.
If our products reinforce our customer's values and beliefs then it will be "just like them" to buy our product. Psychologically consistent. But if our solution clashes with any of their values, they'll reject us out of hand. It will be "against who they are" and psychologically inconsistent to buy our products.
Because we're trying to create a relationship with our customers, it makes sense to be upfront about our values. Values that we know will connect with their view of the world.
We can talk directly about our values. Or we can talk about heroes, the people, or products we admire. (Heroes are really just physical representations of values).
When we talk about our heroes, their values "rub off on us" in a very real sense and we benefit from association with people who our audience already feels a strong connection with.
Our values and heroes can be stated explicitly in our sales story, or they can be more subtly implied and interwoven throughout our marketing. The first step is knowing what they are.
Action: List the values and heroes that you share with your customers. Start by thinking about the values your customers want to have in their life. Who do they want to be after buying your products? How would they like to be described? Who do they aspire to emulate?
The human brain prioritizes staying safe, so that we can stay alive. To achieve that, we're constantly trying to predict the future, so we know what dangers lie ahead.
Consciously, or unconsciously, all customers are asking "How will this new product/relationship play out for me?".
To answer that question we have to show them how things played out for previous customers who are just like them. That gives them the raw materials they need to predict the future and know that it's safe for them to proceed.
Featuring your clients logos is fine, but not enough on its own to create trust. Testimonials are the next step. Case studies and interviews are even better. So start creating these from week 1. If your first customer is your next door neighbor, your mom, or your cat, then make them your first case study.
How do we structure a case study? We interview our customers and have them tell the story of our product from their point of view.
Start by identifying the specific customer and the position they hold.
Explain the problem they were suffering.
Explain why the problem wasn't their fault.
Explain why they were worried it would get worse.
Explain the goals they had, what they wanted to achieve.
Explain the logistics of how they used your product to solve their problem.
Have them explain how much better their life is with you in it.
Action: Include testimonials and a case study from at least one credible customer that demonstrates, in their own words, your ability to successfully solve the problem at hand. (And make sure you've set up systems to collect more testimonials and case studies in the future).
Above: Kirk and Spock must fight a great battle together, putting their past clashes behind them, in order to save each other and the things they value most.
Before we can change, in any area of life, we must fight a great battle. A battle in which we kill our past beliefs, so that the future can be born.
But in a sales context, our customer is usually looking for change. They don't actually want to change.
What that means is, we're offering to do the hard work for them. We're offering to be the champion who fights this battle on their behalf. So explaining why we are the perfect champion, is what this section is all about.
People like to buy from people who are just like them. Almost.
In general, humans don't like the idea that other humans are smarter or more capable than them. It creates feelings of envy. We prefer people who seem to be just like us. And when it comes to buying, we prefer to buy from people "just like us, but who have achieved what we want to achieve". We like to think "If they can do it, I can do it". It makes us feel like the things we want are within our reach. If we appear too far ahead in our success, or too far removed from our customer's level, we effectively become invisible to them.
So, to be visible and relevant to our customers, we must tell them how we suffered the same problem as them. And how we created a solution to make things better for ourselves or someone close to us.
Action: In just a few sentences, create an origin story by explaining the customer's problem from your personal perspective. Tell us why you care about solving this, why you have skin in the game, how you came to be in this business.
People prefer to do business with other people, not faceless corporations. It's entirely natural to feel a little uncomfortable promoting ourselves. But it's critical to be visible, literally and philosophically, if we want to earn our customer's trust.
Action: Create a personal profile for each member of your team, especially those who will come into contact with customers, and include a smiling headshot. Each person should answer the following questions…
How do you specifically help the customer solve their problem?
Why are you the perfect person to help them solve that problem?
What specific expertise or experience do you have that allows you to help solve their problem?
What are your out of work interests that make you "who you are"?
What's something unique or interesting about you?
Setting expectations in any relationship is really important and it's no different when we're starting a relationship with our customers.
There are two important questions to answer. 1) What do we expect from our customer? 2) What should they expect from us?
Any aspect of our business can be delivered in multiple different ways. We can ship quickly, or we can ship slowly. We can offer no quibble refunds, or we can set conditions. We can be available 24/7 365 or we can be open for business one day per month. We can offer a high level of personal service, or adopt a self service model.
Of course we want to test and optimize those choices for our given market. But just as important as making those choices, is making them clear. That way our customer knows exactly what kind of relationship they are entering into with us.
Action: In just a few sentences explain how you want to deliver your product or service to your customers. What's most important in the context of delivering your product? What level of service, speed, or delivery are you set-up to offer? What sort of sustainable relationship do you want to have with them? Do not make promises you can't keep, rather set expectations that are realistic and reflected in your pricing.
Above: Kirk returns home, a more balanced individual. With help from Spock he now has discipline, as well as desire, and is rewarded by his peers.
Once they have knowledge of our solution, our customer must take it home to their boss, team, family, or community. They may well face some level of cynicism from the people in their life. So we must make it easy for them to retell a story that makes sense of their purchase (or intended purchase). A story that justifies them as the hero and makes them ambassadors for our brand.
Unless we position our price correctly, our customers first impression might be that we are too expensive, or too cheap (which can be just as damaging).
Goldilocks pricing is what we want. We must be able to demonstrate that we're not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
We do this by highlighting competing solutions. One more expensive, and one less expensive. Then demonstrating why we are the superior choice to both.
Fewer people are comfortable being at either extremes of a price range. So, it's our job to prove that our "just right" pricing is exactly where they will be safest and happiest.
Action: In just three sentences explain how your pricing is "just right", compared to more expensive and cheaper alternatives.
At its core, an offer is anything above and beyond a straightforward transaction. It's about tipping the scales and making the customer feel extra good about making the purchase.
Offers are all about quirks of the human mind. Quirks that exist and will not go away, whether we would like them to, or not. We simply can't resist special deals and perceived discounts, because they make us feel special.
Amazon: free shipping is an offer. And was a key component of Amazon's early marketing. The only argument that bookstores had to throw at Amazon, was that their books were more expensive because they had to add shipping. So Amazon said "Free shipping" on everything. Of course, there is no such thing as free shipping. Atoms still need to be transported by plane and truck and human. There is only the perception of free shipping.
McDonalds: a meal deal is an offer. If you buy these 3 things together, it will cost you less. Meals containing little plastic toys of your favorite movie or cartoon characters are also offers.
Buy Two, Get The Third one Free: Popular in supermarkets across the world and responsible for shifting huge quantities of food you wouldn't normally buy.
1/2 Price furniture: There are furniture chains who double the price of their furniture for most of the year, except for just a few holiday weekends, where they half the price. These key furniture buying weekends are where 90% of their business is done anyway.
Tom's shoes: There are now a whole host of businesses following this model. Buy one and we'll donate one to a needy party in the third world. A basic piece of footwear now becomes a story, a virtue signal and a feeling of doing good.
O'Briens: This freshly made sandwich shop gives you a free handful of potato chips with each sandwich. If you don't ask for them, or pay for them, they have no calories and no guilt, right?
Action: In just a couple of sentences, explain an offer, above and beyond the basic transaction, that will get your customers excited about sealing the deal.
If your customer is on the fence, it's much easier for them to procrastinate than it is for them to commit. And once they leave, the chances of them coming back plummet. So, as well as having an offer than makes the deal sweeter, always consider having a time sensitive reason why it's better for them to act now, not later.
Here are a few ways we can use time to tip the scales…
If you buy now you'll gain something extra...
"Sign-up and for today only you'll receive this bonus"
If you buy right now we'll reduce the price...
"Half Price Holiday Sale"
"Book your holiday in winter for 30% off"
If you buy right now you'll be special...
"Pre-order and be the first to receive."
"Exclusive access for the first 100 ticket holders."
If you don't buy now, the opportunity will disappear...
"One offer, one time"
"New Year's Day Clearance Sale"
"Only 10 Places available"
Action: In just a couple of sentences ask for the order and give your customer a solid reason why they should buy your product or service right now.
We've already talked about the importance of testimonials and case studies to help our customers predict how a sale might work out for them. This makes them feel more secure and more likely to proceed. But there's another type of endorsement that's closely related and has a slightly different impact - the celebrity endorsement.
We can define celebrity in any number of ways, but what we're really trying to achieve is an endorsement from someone who is much higher up the social hierarchy than us, or our regular customers.
Humans are incredibly social animals, so we're all involved in multiple hierarchies. You might feature a case study from an engineer at Amazon that contains 100 lines of them explaining how you solved a technical problem for them. But a one line endorsement from Jeff Bezos would become a powerful part of the story that your customer can take back to their tribe.
The level of celebrity endorsement you can achieve depends on how far along the process you are and how much you're willing to invest. Start with where you are and the resources available to you today, but always be thinking "who's the celebrity around here?" or "who's got the most credibility in this hierarchy" or "who will people be most impressed are involved with us?".
Action: Find at least one "celebrity" endorsement that you can feature to support you, your product, your company or if you're just starting out, the general industry or direction you're taking. (Make sure you have their permission).
Well done, you've reached the end of the drafting process. At this stage, you should have all the makings of a persuasive sales story...
You've made the technical problem you're solving clear.
Then empathized with the more human, emotional side of the problem, why it hasn't already been solved and why that's not the customer's fault.
You've painted a picture of the brighter future your customer is really seeking. The life they want to live, beyond the utility of your tool.
You've presented your solution. The tool, amulet, guide, weapon, process or system that will help them succeed.
Your solution is compatible with their existing values and beliefs.
You've proven your ability to be the champion that they're seeking. Able to create change in their life, so they don't have to change.
And you've provided the proof, the evidence, and the compact stories, that your customers can take back to their boss/spouse/parent and justify their decision to purchase your solution.
All that's left is to edit and polish the answers you've written down into a flowing conversation, suitable for whatever medium you're going to use. That's beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few pointers.
As you polish your copy ask yourself...
Does this flow like a human conversation?
Have we dealt with any likely objections?
Have we edited for emotion?
How sophisticated is our customer and does our copy match?
Have we created compelling headlines?
Do our introductions sell the page?
Have we asked for the sale?
Are we showing as well as telling?
Finally, remember that marketing is a process. Not a one off event. We make assumptions, then we test. Quickly and often. And with each test we learn something new. And over time we come to understand our customer and their deepest drives and motivations. The more we understand them, the more we can tailor our solutions to fit their problems like a glove.
I really hope this post has been useful to you. If it has, please share it with your colleagues. If you have any suggestions for improving it, I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a note paul AT paulmontreal .com And if you'd like a fresh set of eyes to give your project a boost, consider the paid support option.