“Proof of Heaven”, Propaganda and Feeding Your Audience Exactly the Meal They Asked For

Michael Aagaard wrote that the best way to write a call to action is to complete this phrase:

I want to ____________

The blank becomes your call to action or button copy. Which I think is genius. I’ve borrowed this idea from him a thousand times since, and I’ve used it to test multiple buttons – including a handful in this Copyblogger post, with one in particular bringing in a 24% increase in clicks. I recommend you give it a shot and then tweet Michael your thanks

In a World of What’s In It For Me,
“I want” Is a Powerful Phrase and Sentiment

I’ve been wondering recently if the phrase “I want” – and its variations – is not the secret behind some of the most influential messages ever written. Yes, ever. I’m throwing a little hyperbole into the mix today…

I want…

or

Don’t you want…?

or

If only there was…

Proof of Heaven and writing titles or headlinesThe other night, Lance and I were halfway through our usual 5:30pm glass o’ vino when he mentioned he’d heard about this book with all these incredible reviews. He’d only just said, “It’s called Proof of Heaven”… and I was sold. Turns out 2 million other people were sold, too…

Who doesn’t want proof of Heaven?

It’s an incredible title!

After all, isn’t it the lack of proof that makes the prospect of life after death so difficult for skeptics? Even a firm believer will question the existence of Heaven from time to time. If you asked a skeptic or a believer to complete the phrase “I want ______” insofar as their beliefs are concerned, you can bet that “proof of Heaven” or “proof that Heaven exists” will be repeated among many.

Ask and ye shall receive…

Naming productsWe can assess the title of The 4-Hour Workweek the same way:

I want… a four-hour work week.

Don’t you want… a four-hour work week?

If only there was… a four-hour work week.

The strategy is simply this: ask your audience – including skeptics and fence-sitters – what they want in the realm of a problem your product solves, document what they tell you, and then feed it back to them in your marketing copy and product names. It’s the strategy behind some of the easiest-to-consume messages in recent history.

Only problem?

Skeazoids know about it, too…

Tell Your Audience What They Want to Hear –
It Doesn’t Even Have to Be True

When startups and non-marketers sneer at sales and marketing, it’s not because they don’t like cashing checks. It’s because a lot of intelligent marketers work for The Dark Side and use proven marketing and messaging strategies to manipulate people. If you’re ever looking for an example of evil, unscrupulous marketers at work, look no further than pharmaceutical and oil companies. (Says the left-leaning humanities grad from Vancouver Island.)

Here’s a low-fi recording of an ad by oil behemoth Enbridge, which is planning to build the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline and is trying to convince BC and Alberta, in particular, of its benevolence:

It gets interesting – aka revolting – at 0:27. Here’s the transcript:

The safest pipeline Canada’s ever seen.

One that’s better at protecting what matters most to us:

Our fish, our forests, our waters.

Our Better will not be at the expense of making other things worse.

We’ll respect nature and everything that lives within it.

If we’re open to question, to challenge, to debate, we can get to Better. Together.

That’s what we call exceptionally good messaging, courtesy of an empty spin and a whole lotta completion of the phrases “I want” and “Don’t you want?” You can imagine the interviews that led to this copy:

Enbridge copywriter: “What do you want, o skeptic?”

Skeptic: “I want the safest pipeline Canada’s ever seen.”

Enbridge copywriter: “What would make it safe?”

Skeptic: “It would protect what matters, for starters.”

Enbridge copywriter: “And what would you say matters to you that a pipeline could destroy?”

Skeptic: “Fish. Forests. Oceans.”

Enbridge copywriter: “What if a pipeline brought economic growth? Would that make up for environmental damage?”

Skeptic: “Not at the expense of making other things worse.”

Obviously I made that interview up. But the point is that they’re employing the very strategy discussed above: Ask, Document, Feed. Take what people most want – or, on the flipside, are most worried you won’t provide – and simply say that you will give them it.

Does what you say have to be true? Not if you’re careful! After all, we’re not just talking about marketing messages; we’re talking about propaganda – biased info that promotes a particular cause.

As Dr. Arthur Siegel of York University wrote, the second level of propaganda – just after Hitler-esque Big Lies, follows this rule: What you say doesn’t have to be the truth, so long as it’s plausible. 

It’s plausible that the Northern Gateway is Canada’s safest-ever pipeline. It’s plausible that Dr. Alexander saw Heaven. It’s plausible that you can work just four hours a week. And, by the way, don’t you want all those things? A safer pipeline, a guaranteed afterlife, a tenth of your time spent at the office…?

The Scarily Powerful Phrase Isn’t Even “I want”…
It’s Actually This Implied Question: “Don’t you want…?”

Maybe this kinduv manipulative messaging only happens in skeezy industries, though… right? Nope! It’s alive and well in startup land…

Not to pick on these guys or their many users, but the problematic premise behind Bounce Exchange-style opt-out copy is that marketers should win more customers by making them feel like deviants if they opt out.

Propaganda messaging in marketing today

You’re taking something that people are ‘supposed’ to want – something that might not even be directly associated with the user’s action at that moment – and saying, “Whoa, don’t you want the thing that all smart/sexy/motivated people want? The rest of us do!” It’s a playground tactic. And it works just as well outside the sandbox.

Small messaging tricks like this may seem benign enough… but are they? I’ve been in messaging for a long time – including studying it at the undergraduate and graduate level – and such tactics are uber-similar to the tactics employed by governments in propaganda…

Don’t you want to…:

Propaganda messaging strategies

Don’t you want to…:

Propaganda and marketing

I’m not saying that people who employ tactics similar to old-school propaganda are as evil as they were.

What I’m saying is that the tactics are similar… and you can draw your own conclusions. I happen to believe we have a responsibility to our visitors, that we ought to respect them, and that if a tactic has been employed in wartimes to justify harming people, we should think twice before using it as marketers. I mean, obviously, right?

How to Use Your Messaging Power for Good, Not Evil

We’re really talking about a) how to find your messages and b) how to position them.

You can and should find your messages in your voice-of-customer data. I’ve been teaching startups this for years – and writing about it here and here, with more here and here – and I’ve been using it in my copywriting for over a decade. I’ll be the first to say you should find out exactly what your audience is craving, make sure you have it, and feed their words to them.

For example, Crazy Egg customers told me they chose Crazy Egg because they:

  • want “visualizations”
  • to help “understand our users”
  • “because GA doesn’t answer all our questions”

I took that and fed it right back to them, using their words to craft the very copy that’s meant to persuade them:

Marketing messages

Things only get ugly with this strategy when you’re not acting in the best interests of your customers and prospects.

So put their interests above yours, and you’re likely to convert people without coming off like an asshole…

Moral of the story: You can create powerful messages using the words your prospects use to complete these phrases:

I want ________

I wish someone could ________

If only there was ________

And be careful when you veer into “Don’t you want…?” territory.

Messaging is a sort of superpower. Know the tricks and tactics… and use them for good, not for evil. :)

~joanna

Do your biz a favor: buy these ebooks, master copy fast, sell more

  • http://www.robinhallett.com/ Robin Hallett

    I’m a little late to the party (and this is my first time here!) just had to say, wow bang zoom! Loved this, and thank you for the examples. I have a hard time with copy writing for my sessions I offer, I am in the healing profession and I just feel soooo concerned about exploiting people’s pain points. I don’t ever ever want to seem skeezy. Readers are waaaay more intuitive than we realize and I think they pick up on the vibes behind the copy. Still, there is this dilemma because I know what I offer helps people, and I know it’s something people want. Thanks so much, I’m looking forward to reading more :-)

  • Guest

    Great post, Joanna. One of the biggest sales lessons I learned in the past was benefit selling and the importance of asking the “What’s In It For Me?” question. I had never seen the Aagaard trick before and it makes a ton of sense. There was just so much ‘fluff’ in the Enbridge ad you’ve got there. But what else are they going to do – show up some dirty pipelines? It’s just not sexy enough for the general public!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Of course if you actually believe the Enbridge ad was just fluff, then it’s done what it was meant to do: neutralize you. If only it was so innocuous as fluff.

  • http://www.bitcheswork.com/ Kat @ BitchesWork.com

    Awesome article! I never thought in terms of prompting the customer to ask “don’t I want ____?”

  • danielgonzalez

    Hey Lance & Joanna,

    Have y’all ever tested this and measured it’s impact on long term metrics? Month over month new to return visitor ratio, page/site exit rate, other stuff?

    It’s interesting to hear both sides of the story. I’m inclined not to be an asshole too, but I’m also super curious what the results of this test will be: https://twitter.com/peeplaja/status/438021339920621569

    Last I checked, I saw a bounce exchange variation w/ the negative opt-out language running on ConversionXL

    • http://www.toppingtwo.com/ Lance Jones

      Hey Daniel. I’m not really open to testing that stuff.

      We know enough about these “techniques” to trick people all day long, but how do you think people feel on the other side of that persuasion technique? The quantitative data (e.g., test results) can only tell part of the story, wouldn’t you agree?

      Also, I would ask… “Is that the best you’ve got?”

      Is there no other way you can persuade people to take your desired action than to make them feel badly, feel guilty, feel shame, etc.? Seems like a cheap trick to me. It shows a lack of concern for the people reading our messages.

      Bottom line for me is that I lose respect for people who use these techniques (they might not care, either, which is also fine with me).

  • http://raymondduke.com/ Raymond Edward Duke

    Ah, the fine line that lies in the center of using persuasion for positive or for negative outcomes.

    You mention of “Don’t you want _______” makes me think of proactively brainstorming objections. If you raise the questions prior to them asking, you could answer them in an FAQ.

    e.g.,…

    Q: Won’t this harm the fish or the environment?
    A: No! This will actually help fish and the environment because the toxic waste will create new life forms. Don’t you think fish are tired of seeing other fish with just two eyes? It’s time to shake things up

    • Joanna Wiebe

      hahaha! You should go write for the oil companies, Raymond. ;)

  • http://vsellis.com Scott Ellis

    Fantastic post Joanna. I love actionable ideas with good explanation wrapped around them. Putting this to use on my wife’s site now.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Cool!

  • http://www.twitter.com/bennesvig Ben Nesvig

    Amazingly helpful post.

    I hate those shame-inducing pop-ups that make you feel bad when close out of them. Reminds me of the peer pressure used in bad after school special videos.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      I know. Nobody’s really saying it, but it’s totally a peer pressure thing.

      I read a lot of people complaining about Upworthy’s catchy headlines not being accurate reflections of the content they’re introducing (to which I say Upworthy can teach us all about writing headlines), but far fewer people are retaliating against being pressured into clicking a button.

      I mean, honestly, we can’t do any better than pressuring our visitors? Is the only metric that matters list growth?–how long will a person stay on a list or in a SaaS trial if they didn’t even want to be there in the first place? …And my rant continues… :)

  • http://copygrad.com/ Will Hoekenga

    So glad you brought up sites using the “Don’t you want…?” strategy. I’ve seen this a lot lately and it gives me the heebie jeebies (I don’t think I’ve ever typed or said that before, but it seems appropriate).

    Ironically, I noticed that Crazy Egg actually uses a Bounce Exchange popup on that page y’all optimized. (“No thanks, I treat all click behavior the same.”)

    Doesn’t make me feel quite as uncomfortable as the example you listed, but it’s in the ballpark. I’m guessing that wasn’t your doing?

    • Joanna Wiebe

      I worked with Crazy Egg on their home page in 2013, so naturally there are many things that I’ve had no part of. :) That said, I think Crazy Egg has done a pretty good job of scaling back on the aggression we commonly see in those big ol’ pop-ups.

      And I honestly don’t mean to focus on Bounce Exchange. They’re just a convenient example illustrating my concern that smart marketers can easily swing from using what we know about our audience to help them… to using what we know about our audience to manipulate them.

      Others will defend that style of copywriting, and they’ll have data to support their side. After all, the numbers show increases in opt-ins with such messaging, and surely Enbridge will neutralize tension among fence-sitters with their messages. I just can’t help thinking… I mean, I grew up in a house with “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” written over the front door, and that line keeps popping into my head when I see skeezier tactics — except it goes, “As for me and team Copy Hackers, we will avoid icky tactics.” :)

      • http://www.toppingtwo.com/ Lance Jones

        Manipulating people through skuzball copy has always been (and will continue to be) an option for short-term financial gain. It’s a terrible long-term strategy for building a *real* business. I hope that the people who are confused right now about their business-building strategy come around and stop with the oh-so-obviously-low-brow approach to messaging.

      • http://copygrad.com/ Will Hoekenga

        Great point, Lance.

        And I certainly didn’t mean that I think Crazy Egg’s exit popup falls in the skuz category. Like Joanna said it’s important to be careful when veering into “Don’t you want…?” territory. But that doesn’t mean it’s 100% always a sleazy thing to do.

      • http://copygrad.com/ Will Hoekenga

        Ha! My mom used to play a song that had that line as the chorus over and over when I was a kid.

        Gonna be stuck in my head allllll day now.

  • http://www.iconiContent.com Aaron Orendorff

    Very philosophical post.

    Love the fill-in-the-blanks. That’s one of the things that’s SO helpful about your ebooks.

    Also, that slight change from “I want” to “Don’t you want?” is CRAZY clever.

    If I straight up tell you I’m stealing that line, do I still get to be one of the “good” guys? Don’t you want to just say, “Yes”? ;)

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Aaron. It’s not our usual ‘tactical’ post that explains what we’ve done and tells you what to try next. Frankly, when I finished the post, I wasn’t sure it was done. :) I mean, now what, right? But sometimes there’s not a ‘now what’, I guess. I had a topic I wanted to explore, and that’s it.

      That you got “Don’t you want?” out of the post is great. Natch, the compelling phrasing of your request to steal makes it impossible for me to deny you. ;)

  • Peter Axtell

    wonderful Joanna. So intelligent, so well written and useful. Thanks

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Peter!

  • http://webcopyservices.com/ Zafifi

    Super duper stuff. So from the perspective of taking actions like a CTA button, we write just for one messaging only (like download the free ebook), am I right?

    What about more than 1 choices? like an ecommerce site selling clothes and they have for men and women. Should the CTA button on the homepage are ‘Shop Women’ and ‘Shop Men’? I know it should be tested, but I just want to get the idea of creating CTA copy.

    Thanks.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Zafifi, did you mean to comment on a different post? LOL! I’m not sure about the button question re: this post, but I’m happy to help. :) You should generally aim for one goal for your page — although this is rarely possible on home pages, except for simple products or single SKUs — and that goal should be associated with your primary call to action.

      If you’re using buttons like “Shop Women” and “Shop Men”, I can only imagine you’re working on a home or category page where you’re trying to divide visitors off to the appropriate spaces or landing pages. You should definitely test that button copy — Michael’s technique at the top of the post will help with that — and keep in mind that it may fall into the sort of button group that requires more directive copy (i.e., do this to get that) than value-focused copy (i.e., get this).

      This is a great example, though, of a case for using personalization tools, like Evergage (or find more here: http://www.smartinsights.com/conversion-optimisation/product-page-optimisation/web-personalization-software/). Once you learn that, say, X Visitor clicks “shop women”, you could then prioritize the display of products and content for women above those for men for X Visitor.