1. The principle of consistency

Researchers asked a group if they supported safe driving. Predictably, many said yes. The researchers then asked those people if they’d put a billboard on their front lawn advertising their support.

83% backed off, saying the billboard would block their view, ruin their lawn, and really, what would the neighbors think?

But a small subset said, “Sure.” What was different about them?

Three weeks earlier the researchers had gone to that subset and asked them to display a 3-inch by 3-inch sign advertising their support of safe driving. Because the group had already said yes, they were more likely to agree to a bigger ask.

Said Harhut:

Once we make a decision, we like to remain consistent in that subject matter when subsequent decisions come up. It’s particularly true if the first time we’re asked to make a decision, what we’re being asked to do is a relatively small ask and it’s somewhat public.

One example of this comes from Middlesex Savings Bank, which began an email campaign with copy that read, “Because you’re already a valued customer…” It affirmed to the consumer that she had already gone through the trouble of vetting the company and that it aligned it with her values. 

It was one of the bank’s most successful email campaigns.

2. Loss aversion

Americans are especially inclined to optimism, which may be why so much marketing copy emphasizes benefits, e.g., “take advantage of.” But, according to Harhut, chief creative officer at the Wilde Agency,

We’re more motivated by the avoidance of pain that the achievement of pleasure. Losses are twice as psychologically powerful than gains.”

So, when writing copy, instead of listing all the best attributes of your company or product, you might think about pointing out what your prospect will miss out on if they don’t become your client or customer.

3. Cognitive fluency

For a concept that touts simplicity, “cognitive fluency” is a poor name for the finding that humans prefer things that are easier to think about and to understand, itself the kind of truism that a ten-year-old could’ve told you.

But scientists have discovered that we also feel materials presented simply are more true and more accurate, especially when they rhyme. For instance, “woes unite foes” and “woes unite enemies” say the same thing, but when presented to a study group, the former was perceived to be more true.

This finding may explain the success of taglines from Nationwide (“Nationwide is on your side”) and Timex (“Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’”).

Cognitive fluency isn’t limited to copy alone, but also to how it looks. In 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, authors Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin, and Robert Cialdini discovered that messages in an easy-to-read font are more persuasive than those in illegible text. (This may explain why so many parents railed against psychedelic and heavy metal music; then again, it might have been the drug culture and bad fashion.)

If you need further convincing of the bottom-line impact of cognitive fluency, consider the Princeton researchers who found that stocks with names that are easier to pronounce outperform stocks from companies with names that are hard to pronounce. (Go on, say it with me: Goo-gul, Burk-shur Hath-ah-way.)

4. The reason why

Incredibly, explaining why you need someone to do something goes a long way toward getting them to say “yes.” We’re so used to what comes after the word “because” as providing good, legitimate reasons that “we’re like little bobbleheads,” said Harhut. “We start to nod, ‘yes, okay, oh sure.’”

Think of Weight Watchers’ claim: “Weight Watchers…because it works!” Far easier to believe the company’s proposal than to recall how difficult diets are or how few succeed long term.

5. Eye-magnet words

We don’t read the way that we write, said Harhut.

We skim and we scan, and if something happens to pull our eye, we go back and we read the whole thing.”

Heatmaps and eye-tracking studies support this finding, and just like in Scrabble, some words are worth more than others.

She only listed a handful, but direct marketers can probably guess at the first: “free.” Others include those related to what’s novel (“new,” “introducing”), while ‘easy’, ‘quick’, and ‘improved’ have been shown to increase sales.

6. Social proof

The runaway success of Yelp and McDonald’s “billions and billions served” exemplifies the finding that, when people are unsure, they imitate what others do, which explains Facebook’s relentless reminders of what your friends like. 

Testimonials provide especially helpful social proof, particularly when they follow two guidelines:

  • Make them as close to your prospect as possible. Marketing to Californians? Get a Californian to review your product.
  • Start where your prospect is. For instance, I had a beloved cat that, as she aged had, um, bathroom issues. My friend swore up and down to the miracle that is Anti Icky Poo Odor Remover, and although I very much like and trust my friend, I am far less enamored of products that have both “icky” and “poo” in their title.

    Also, the product based its cleaning prowess on enzymes, which is akin to telling me that fairy farts power your car. 

What won me over? Testimonials on Amazon from people who felt as I did.

Also, if you include a customer testimonial in a transactional email, reports Harhut, you can get a double-digit lift in response.

7. Scarcity

As anyone who has ever been in a relationship or, you know, breathed, we want what we can’t have. Scarcity is a powerful motivator, and you should play to its two sides, said Harhut: availability and urgency.

“Limited time offer” is copy that addresses urgency, for example, but how about a visual reminder, like a timer or clock on your site ticking down to the final seconds of the sale?

Regarding her point about availability, Harhut shared that subject lines including the word “secret” have a 17% higher open rate.