A copywriter’s guide to consumer psychology

January 11, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Psychology 

consumer psychologyCopywriting is less about writing than it is about psychology.

You can be a great writer, but if you know little about how people think, you won’t succeed as a copywriter. On the other hand, you can be only a fair writer, and if you have a deep understanding of the human mind, you could do very well as a copywriter.

People can be pretty hard to figure out sometimes. Even though I’m a lifelong student of human behavior, I still can’t figure out why the young bagger at the grocery puts two dozen cans in a single bag but just one bunch of celery in another.

So providing guidance on something as complicated as consumer psychology is a little tricky. But there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that shape the way I write copy when my job is to motivate, persuade, and sell.

Here are 8 of them:

People make decisions emotionally. They decide quickly, based on a feeling, need, or emotion. Usually, therefore, intangible benefits are the key to persuasion. Even for offer-driven promotions and business-to-business marketing, there is an emotional core to every decision. Always ask yourself, “What is the emotional hot button here?”

People justify decisions with reason. Example: A woman sees a dress in a catalog and instantly wants it. But she hesitates because it’s so expensive. However, the copy provides details on the quality of the fabric, the close stitching, and how buying the dress is an investment. This justification allows her to act on her emotional impulse.

The lesson? Give people reasons to help them justify a purchase.

Another example: I know a guy who bought a huge backhoe because he needed to dig one hole in his back yard. He went on for an hour reciting his reasons for owning this mammoth machine instead of just renting it. Pure justification.

People put off making decisions. Psychology and sales experience reveal two interesting facts: 1) The longer a decision is postponed, the more likely a decision will never be made. 2) The sooner you can provoke a decision, the more likely it is to be in your favor.

This is why you should simplify the decision-making process in every promotion and force a quick response whenever possible. Specific deadlines are particularly powerful.

People are egocentric. Not “egotistic,” but “egocentric.” That means centered on the ego or self. Anytime you ask someone to do something, you must answer that person’s unstated question, “What’s in it for me?”

On a deeper level, the question might be, “How does this give me feelings of personal worth?” We all see the world and everything in it in terms of how it relates to us personally. That’s why features must be translated into benefits.

People are unpredictable. Even those of us who ponder consumer psychology can never predict with any certainty how people will act in a real-world situation. The equation is just too complex. You can formulate hypotheses about why people do what they do. You can ask people what they think and like. But in the end, you never know how people will respond to your copy until they read it.

As a copywriter, you must be willing to put preconceived notions aside and trust the results of testing. You might think you know the right answer, but customers will always tell you what works and what doesn’t through their actions. Listen to them.

People seek fulfillment. Love. Wealth. Glory. Comfort. Safety. People are naturally dissatisfied and spend their lives searching for intangibles. At its simplest, copywriting is a matter of showing people how a particular product or service fulfills one or more of their needs.

But remember that motivations always have deeper motivations. You seek wealth for security. You seek security because you fear change. You fear change because … well, you get the idea.

People usually follow the crowd. We look to others for guidance, especially when we are uncertain about something. We tacitly ask, “What do others think about this? What do others feel? What do others do?” Then we act accordingly.

A related concept is what is called the “Bandwagon Effect.” When lots of people do something, that thing becomes more than acceptable and, in fact, becomes desirable. This is one reason why testimonials and case histories are so influential.

People fear loss. In general, the fear of loss is more powerful than the hope of gain. And this fear includes (1) losing something you have and (2) losing the chance to have something you want. By properly manipulating the instinct to avoid loss, you can trigger a favorable response to your offer. But don’t turn every appeal into fear. Fear is powerful, but tricky. A positive approach is usually easier to pull off.

There’s a lot more to consumer psychology than this. But these 8 ideas can take you a long way.

If you want to truly master copywriting, there is no better field of study than human psychology.

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