Hard sell vs soft sell: What’s the difference?

September 13, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Ask Dean 

hard sell or soft sellThere are a lot of things about copywriting that can be confusing.

For example, when a client says she wants more “oomph” in the copy, I kinda know what she means. But I’m not sure I could define it.

It’s the same with hard sell vs soft sell. I have a gut feeling for what those terms mean, but I’ll be darned if I can give you a clear definition.

It’s a question that comes up all the time. What’s the difference between hard sell and soft sell?

Here’s some copy that I would call hard sell:

NOW you can lose 10 pounds in 10 days GUARANTEED! Just drink one Quik Slim in the morning and one at noon to start melting those pounds away.

Here’s the same copy but rewritten for soft sell:

If you’re wanting to lose weight, consider replacing breakfast and lunch with Quik Slim. Some dieters have reported losing as much as 10 pounds in 10 days.

What’s the difference? The hard sell version uses more direct language. It makes a bold promise and includes a specific guarantee.

The soft sell version is more reserved and less direct. There is no promise or guarantee, only a suggestion of possible results.

But is this a clear definition of these terms?

Consider these snippets of copy:

Get your FREE hearing test this Friday at ABC Pharmacy!

Get your free hearing test this Friday at ABC Pharmacy.

Get a complimentary hearing test this Friday at ABC Pharmacy.

Some people would call all of these hard sell because they’re a direct call to action. Others would say the first and second are hard sell because they use the word “free,” while the third is soft sell because it uses the word “complimentary.” Still others would say only the first is hard sell because “FREE” is capitalized and there’s an exclamation point at the end.

I’ve been writing copy of one kind or another since 1985 and I still can’t provides a clear definition of hard sell vs soft sell. Everyone has a different idea about what these terms mean.

Frankly, I think they’re nothing more than relative and highly subjective terms. A soft sell for you may be a hard sell for someone else.

So how do you deal with these terms when you’re writing copy? Here are a few suggestions.

Ask for a definition. It doesn’t matter that they can’t give you a universal definition. All that matters is that you understand what your boss, colleague, or client is thinking.

Ask for examples. This way you can get an accurate reading on what they think is hard sell or soft sell.

Consider the context. Every product and promotion is a little different, so you need to gauge the typical tone of the copy to understand what would be considered hard or soft sell. If you’re selling a get-rich-quick scheme, the tone is probably more hard sell than other products. So “hard sell” would have to be to the right of the typical tone. Soft sell in this context would probably still be pretty hard, but softer than usual.

Consider the medium. If you’re writing a direct response radio ad, you’ll need to be more hard sell to make the ad work. But if you’re writing a branding magazine ad, you’ll probably need to be more soft sell or maybe even non sell.

Trust your instincts. I’ve had clients tell me in one breath that their ads don’t sell but in the next breath question the tone of my copy. “Oh, that’s a little hard sell isn’t it?” I just explain that it’s subjective and that they need to trust me. Copywriting is a craft, so even with all the facts and figures you may have at hand, you have to write from your gut and not over-think it.

Truthfully, I think the whole hard sell vs soft sell thing is an issue that only concerns advertisers. While we professionals too often respond professionally to marketing messages, real folk respond personally. Their only concern is “What’s in it for me?”

What do you think? Can you define hard sell vs soft sell? Is this ever an issue for you?

No related posts.

>>> Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail

Smart Comments

4 Comments on Hard sell vs soft sell: What’s the difference?

  1. Gabrielle on Sep 13th, 2010 6:56 pm
  2. I’m glad I signed up for your blog posts. This is the first time I’ve seen a definition between these two types of selling communications. I haven’t studied copywriting before, but used it inadvertently in article writing. Thanks for your tips. You make it easy to understand too.

  3. Laurie on Sep 13th, 2010 10:48 pm
  4. Thanks for the info! I tend to think of hard sell as more aggressive and traditional in approach, and soft sell as not necessarily indirect, but assertive rather than aggressive, if that makes sense. Actually I think of “hard sell” as synonymous with “obnoxious,” so I guess it is pretty subjective!

  5. Bradlee TheDawg on Sep 17th, 2010 11:49 pm
  6. The thing every pro ad agency does is float a trial balloon/offer to a test group with both soft-sell and hard-sell messages with customized landing pages or return offers… and track the performance of each. Do whichever gets you the best results.

    [...] Continue reading “Hard sell vs. Soft sell: What’s the difference?” via ProCopyTips. [...]