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…


Don’t you want…?


If only there was…

Proof of Heaven and writing titles or headlinesThe other night, and friend and I were halfway through a 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. 🙂