Direct Response Copywriting: Get Past The Bouncers In Your Customers’ Brains
Your customers’ brains are guarded against “sellers”. Direct response copywriting helps you get past the bouncers in their brains and tap into their emotional triggers.
Today, we’ll be talking about the power of copywriting.
Every sale you make online is driven, at least in part, by direct response copywriting. Either your copy is a trained assassin, sneaking past defenses and cutting to the heart of your customer’s psychological triggers, or it’s a lumbering drunk ready to be rejected at the door.
In this article, we’ll show you what makes bad copy fail and teach you how to write copy that sells.
Would you rather watch a webinar than read an article? Click here to watch the Bouncers In Your Brain Webinar!
But first, a story…
The Power of Compelling Copy
Betabrand started with one product and what most would consider a weak value proposition. They offered a pair of corduroy pants on which the wales were positioned horizontally rather than vertically.
You can see from the picture that the pants are pretty stylish, but is horizontal whales really enough to build a business on?
Instead of just sitting back and hoping customers would say “yes”, Betabrand used copywriting to create a tongue-in-cheek branding campaign to that turned their product into an humorous conversation piece.
Betaband described their “Cordarounds” as follows:
Friction-Free: Unlike vertical courduroy, which produces friction that can heat your crotch to uncomfortable, potentially catastrophic levels, Cordaround’s horizontal vales mesh evenly, lowering the average wearer’s crotch heat index (CHI) reading by up to 22%.
The company even went as far as to create diagrams, demonstrating the “data” behind their crotch heat lowering pants.
And of course, the data on this revolutionary pants technology was presented by the Betabrand Supercomputer, a “sentient machine with aspirations of overthrowing the human race.”
All of this, of course, is complete bullcrap.
And it’s just believable enough to make think, “Wait, is this real?”
As Betabrand’s CEO Chris Lindland said, “If you create something with a hook, you can experience dramatic results.”
In this case, unique branding, driven by irreverant, humurous copywriting, propelled the company to 432% growth over 3 years. They have since expanded to numerous products, each designed to be conversation starters, like the “Bike To Work Pants” or the “Pinstripe Executive Hoodie“.
They’ve created something really successful, and I would argue it’s more because of how they’ve used the copy to brand themselves than the fairly unremarkable products themselves.
On that note, let’s look at how you can utilize compelling copy within your own business.
What Is Direct-Response Copywriting?
Direct-response copywriting is writing designed to elicit an immediate, emotional response from the reader. It’s purpose is to compel a “direct response” – what we would refer to as a conversion.
Unlike informative or educational copy, direct-response copy has only one purpose in mind: optimize the reader’s emotional state and then close the sale.
This usually looks like arousing an emotional response to a problem the reader is facing.
If you are attempting to sell skills assessment software to a business, you might be tempted to focus on how advanced the software is or how many unique features it has versus your competitors. As a business owner, this type of stuff is what you think about the most, and it’s easy to assume your customers will see things the way you see them.
In reality, your customers don’t care about your product. They care about solving their own problems and achieving their own goals. In this example, they care about finding talented people who will accelerate their company’s growth. They are scared of wasting time and money only to make a bad hire and lose more time and money.
When writing the copy, your job is to tap into that frustration, pain, and fear. You want to talk about how much money companies waste on bad hires. You wan’t to discuss how challenging it is to know whether a candidate will perform for you based on past experience. You want to tap into that fear and then offer your product as a solution.
With your assessment software, businesses can ensure they hire the right people. They can assess a candidate’s personality for team compatibility and assess the candidate’s skills for job competence. They can know EXACTLY what they are getting when they make a new hire and skip the nasty surprises that come from unexpected revelations.
Now you aren’t selling a product. You are selling a solution and you’ve painted a picture of life with that solution all of your prospect’s mind.
The Bouncers In Your Brain
So the question has to be asked, why not simply say things to people in a straightforward manner? Why shouldn’t we just lay everything out on the table and trust consumers to make a rational decision based on available data?
Ignoring the fact that your business might not actually be the best choice, let’s assume it is the best choice. Let’s assume that you have the best product on the market.
Why do we need to go out of our way to try to tap into a customer’s psyche?
The answer is that the psyche is already in play, whether you try to tap into it or not! Your customers’ brains already have “bouncers” standing guard at the entrance. If you want to have a chance, you have to first get past these bouncers.
Roy H. Williams, founder of the wizard academy introduced them to me. Let’s meet them.
The first thing we see here is Brocca’s Area. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for taking words, translating them into their meaning via the verbs, and then casting that meaning onto the visual/spacial sketchpad that is in our brain. Brocca’s area allows us to visualize taking some future action, which is a prerequisite for us to actually take that action in reality.
Next we have Wernicke’s Area. This part of the brain has access to our memories, and it’s primary job is take nouns that we hear and connect them to the relevant memories. So for example, if we hear or read the word “car”, Wenicke’s area connects that word to our memories of cars, helping us give meaning to the word.
These two areas are the gatekeepers for our Motor Cortex, the area of the brain that initiates physical action. We don’t want messages we hear to be automatically turned into action, so Brocca’s area and Wernicke’s area serve as bouncers to filter what messages get through to the motor cortex.
Getting Past Brocca’s Area
Brocca’s area evolved to help us prioritize what we process versus what we can ignore. This area keeps a sort of cache of familiar things that no longer need to be processed, like the sound of wind blowing, the computer humming in the background, or the driving route you take from work to home every day. It helps free our brain to focus on things that need to be consciously processed or monitored.
In order to register our message in Brocca’s area, we need to present something that is not familiar – something that is:
- Or just plain wrong
Our goal when it comes to Brocca is to “wake it up” so to speak. When we hit Brocca with something unexpected, it has to focus in and send the message down to Wernicke in order to find out what it means.
As you can see in the example above, the page that breaks away from “business as usual” has as significantly higher conversion rate than the page that looks like what you’d expect to see on every website you’ve ever been to.
In perhaps the most extreme example of this, Ling Valentine sells over £35 million worth of car leases each year through what any good CRO expert would tell you is an absolute disaster of a website.
As you can see in the right-hand image, there is a method to the LingsCars madness. Everything Ling does is designed to grab attention in a market where differentiation is a challenge. Whether it’s the insane website, the outlandish speaking outfit, or the missile launcher with her branding on it, Ling’s marketing is all about waking up Brocca’s area and commanding attention in an industry where you’d rarely look twice.
So how can you apply this to your own business?
One of the best way’s to utilize this strategy is on a page’s headline, since the headline’s sole purpose is to compel people to start reading. Say something unexpected or unbelievable. You can even same something that is objectively wrong – something the reader KNOWS is objectively wrong – and then follow it up with an illustration that turns it into a symbolic point.
The main takeaway here is that we need to present people with something unfamiliar in order to grab their attention.
Infiltrating Wernicke’s Area
So if our goal is to shock Brocca awake, why doesn’t marketing simply consist of doing the most shocking things we can imagine?
The answer is that Brocca is only the brain’s first bouncer. There’s more to the story.
Once we’ve grabbed Brocca’s attention by presenting something unexpected, our message is sent along to Wernicke’s area. Wernicke has an entirely different set of criteria for what’s noteworthy and what is simply novelty.
In order to get past Wernicke, our message needs to incorporate at least one of the following:
Remember that Wernicke’s area is attached to our memories, so in order get past this bouncer in the brain, our copy needs to connect to the reader’s memories in a meaningful way.
One business that offered help for addicts and their families started their copy with an appeal to a better future, calling themselves “A Place of New Beginnings.”
But vague references to a better future aren’t nearly as powerful as speaking directly to painful, existing memories. Those memories are real, they are emotional, and they drive behavior. That’s why changing the copy to “Addiction Torments Addicts and Their Loved Ones” increased conversions by 184%.
When people who feel tormented by their addiction (or who have seen the negative effects of their addiction on loved ones) read this copy, it resonates with them. They can relate. It’s relevant to their lives, and it’s tapping into a place of pain and problems that need to be solved.
Your copy should do the same thing.
Let’s learn how.
How To Write Persuasive Copy
Writing persuasive, direct-response copy is more science than art. Here at Conversion Sciences, we follow a step-by-step process:
- Understand Your Audience
- Solve Their Problems
- Show The Damned Offer
- Keep Your Promises
- Get Geographical
Each of these steps enhances our ability to evade the brain’s bouncers and provoke a response.
1. Understand Your Audience
Who are you speaking to?
This is the first and probably the most important step. If we don’t understand who we are speaking to, we can’t talk about what is important to them. We can’t be relevant. Alternatively, if we have a thorough understanding of our audience, we can bumble our way through the rest of the steps, and we’ll probably still manage to get through to a few of them.
A consumer can typically be classified in one of four ways.
You will likely have consumers in all four of these categories visiting your site, however, you might be able to determine that most of the traffic coming from a given marketing channel is in one quadrant and optimize accordingly.
Here at Conversion Sciences, we like to primarily focus on another, simpler classification system: Transactional vs. Relational
Transactional buyers #1 fear in life is spending a dollar more than they have to. These are the coupon hunters and deal finders. They aren’t necessarily looking for the cheapest option, but they are absolutely looking for the best deal. They are going to visit 10 websites and 4 physical stores before making the purchase.
They get a big dopamine rush from saving money on purchases, and they will actually convert at a higher rate if you give them obstacles like coupon codes. They see themselves as the experts and shopping is part of the fun.
You can appeal to these buyers in your copy by focusing on the savings.
Relational buyers #1 fear is choosing the wrong thing. They are not looking for the best price, and they are happy to pay a premium if it ensures they get what they’re looking for. These buyers want an expert to help them make the right decision, and they see shopping as the part of the expense.
You can appeal to these buyers in your copy by focusing more on the quality:
Once you have identified and learned everything you can about your audience, it’s time to solve their problems.
2. Solve Their Problems
In many cases, it’s easy to identify the problems your customers face because your product was designed explicitly to solve them. But what happens when your product isn’t really a solution? What happens when your product is a pair of pants, like in our original Betabrand example?
There are two strategies we can take here:
- Dig deeper and find the need
- Create the need
Continuing with our Betabrand example, when we are talking about $100+ pants, we aren’t talking about an audience with legitimate problems or a product designed to solve legitimate problems.
They’re just pants.
But why do people pick a particularly pair of pants to purchase? When you are able and willing to spend $100 on a pair of pants, what are the deeper needs that influence your decision making?
Once we start digging, there’s a lot we can find:
- Some people will pay a premium on fashion to emulate others and be accepted
- Some people will pay a premium on fashion to differentiate themselves from others
- Some people will pay a premium to get higher quality materials that are more comfortable
- Some people will pay a premium simply because they think something looks cool and they can afford it
Solving the problem is as simple as speaking to this core purpose driving the reader’s behavior.
Alternatively, what some people do (and what Betabrand is doing for their cordarounds) is go out and create a need. In other words, they convince the customer that he or she is experiencing a problem that needs to be solved.
The most humorous examples of this come from the infomercial industry, where the characters are fundamentally incapable of performing the most basic activities:
Does anyone really struggle THAT much with cracking eggs? Probably not, but the visualization of failed crack attempts can resonate with the most extreme memeories a person has and make them feel like, “Meh, it might be worth it to shell out a few bucks for this product.”
Betabrand uses a more subtle example in it’s own marketing:
Do normal corduroys really make a dude’s gonads feel like “the fiery eyes of Satan”? Obviously not. BUT if a guy reading this has noticed feeling hot in his corduroy pants in the past, this “fake” need will jump out at him and potentially influence his decision making.
3. Show The Damned Offer
On the more straightforward end of things, it’s important to actually show your audience your offer. It should be VERY clear what is being sold and every benefit should be clearly demonstrated, via the copy and page images.
Are you selling roofing paint that reflects sunlight and maintains a cool temperature. Show it in action!
Images like these are a thousand times more beneficial than stock images or other generic page elements. Stock photos can actually sabotage your conversion rate in a hurry.
Make sure you are clearly showing your offer to readers.
4. Keep Your Promises
Your sales process isn’t a single moment of decision. It’s a funnel.
Your visitors clicked on something to arrive at your landing page and when they click on your Call to Action (CTA) they will see a followup page of some sort. It’s VERY important that you deliver on your promises and meet customer expectations at each stage of this journey.
Don’t be like Zumba and follow-up an advertisement with a completely unrelated webpage.
Make sure that the landing page for every click meets the expectation of the person who clicked through to it.
5. Get Geographical
Our final step might not apply to every business, but if it’s relevant for your business, you can see major results.
Geographic segmentation and personalization offers a massive opportunity for increased conversions. The business pictured below was able to increase conversions by 27% simply by allowing users to select which region they were in.
This is just one of many, many examples of businesses using geographic segmentation to optimize their conversion rates.
When a reader sees their local area mentioned in the pitch, it scores major relevance points in Wernicke’s area.
How To Get Great Copywriting For Your Website
If you have read this far, it means you probably aren’t a copywriter by profession. You are looking to utilize the power of direct response copywriting, either by writing it yourself or hiring a copywriter.
If you aren’t bringing in a CRO agency to improve your site’s conversions, we typically recommend you do the following:
- Hire a great copywriter
- Measure their work
The reality is that copywriting is a very specific skillset, and while you can certainly improve your site’s copy just by following the principles in this article, you are going to get much better results when you hire a freelance copywriter with a proven portfolio.
That said, you should never simply be paying someone to write something for you and then calling it a day.
Working with a copywriter is a great opportunity for AB testing. Instead of simply throwing up something new and hoping it works… test, test, test!
Create several different variations of your landing pages and run a statistically sound series of split tests to identify actual winners and improve your overall conversion rate.
Webinar And Followup Q&A
After my webinar on this topic, there were some questions asked.
We just didn’t have time (e.g. Brian went on and on and on).
With the help of our host, SiteTuners, I’ve been able to collect these questions and have provided thoughtful answers to them for you.
If you didn’t get to attend the Webinar — and I assume there was a very good reason you missed it – you can watch it via the form below. It’s absolutely worth an hour of your time!
Watch the Recorded Webinar >>
Oops! We could not locate your form.
Let’s take a look at those questions!
Is there a place for Profanity in Copy?
Andres asked if there was any “data on the use of profanity in the conversion copy? See last example: heat reflection paint ‘kicks ass’. Is this an attractor or offender?”
Profanity can be a part of your voice. Gary Vaynerchuck famously uses profanity in his videos and presentations. It’s part of his “no BS” approach. I used some profanity in my presentation, including the caption that with “kicks ass,” another with “get laid” and my term “Business Porn.” However, I’m not typically profane in my writing.
When I use it, it can have impact. But I don’t have to be profane to have impact.
Roy H. Williams says,
“If you’re not pissing someone off, then you’re not communicating.”
Good copywriters take chances, but they know if those chances are contributing to the bottom line. Good copywriters are measurable.
In fact, I think I’ll toss in a little profanity right now.
What if my company has a stick up its butt about professionalism?
Lainie asked, “Any recommendations for a nonprofit that demands professionalism and no hint of humor?”
Kyle wanted to know if I had any “suggestions for encouraging an employer to take chances with their copy.”
If “professionalism” means “business speak” then there is little hope for them, at least online. Many a copywriter suffers from PESD (Post Editorial Stress Disorder). They create a body of copy that has Broca-busters, metaphors, similes and double entendre. Then the executives review the copy, editing out all color and controversy.
The result is what I call Styrofoam copy. Lifeless. Tasteless. Brittle.
No wonder it’s so hard to find good copywriters. They’ve all been broken down by PESD.
Data may be your only hope. We didn’t hand the headline “Are you tired of lying?” to our addiction center client. We proposed it as part of a test. Once they saw the upside, they had to make a decision: stay safe or take the extra business.
Offer to test more daring copy. But don’t test anything that won’t be accepted, no matter how many donations it generates.
Copy is more than Words
Jerome ask, “Is there a time/place for elegant banners with no copy?”
On a page that is meant to make an impression these banners are appropriate. This is a branding and image approach. On a site designed to entice action, the elegant banners must extend the value proposition or they are taking up valuable space.
The question to ask is, “Am I designing for me or for my visitors?”
Sites that use parallax techniques are often designing for themselves. They win awards, but they don’t make it easy to find what I’m looking for.
Do Broca and Wernicke Get Old and Cranky
Lori asked an interesting question about the aging brain. “Does the aging brain perceive copy differently than the younger brain. In other words, does the brain change its perceptions?”
I wish I could answer this with the results of studies. The answer is, “Yes.” Older visitors respond differently than a younger crowd. But each audience is different.
Older visitors come with poorer eyesight. So, your copy design should take this into account.
Balancing SEO-targeted and Human-targeted Copy
Tabatha asked, “How do you balance SEO and these copywriting techniques?”
Landing pages are rarely targets of SEO. Landing pages more frequently serve ads, emails and affiliate links. There are exceptions.
On an ecommerce product page, however, the two intersect. Product pages are often landing pages and need good SEO copywriter.
Good SEO copywriting is also good human copywriting.
If there is a conflict because your SEO copywriter wants to stuff keywords into every headline and subhead, you should probably find a better search optimizer.
How is the Web Different?
Katy asked, “Does the same methodology about engaging copy needing to get past Broca apply to direct mail pieces also?”
Much of what I’ve learned about copy has been taken from direct response mail copywriters. But, the writing for the web is different. Web visitors are seekers and searchers. They have a specific agenda and need to know they are on the right path toward solving a problem.
If you want to learn how to apply direct response tactics to web headlines, I recommend the book Great Leads by Michael Masterson and John Forde.
Images of the Invisible
Cynthia is involved in continuing education and asked, “What kind of images do you use for services that all have the same value proposition but doesn’t just show happy business people?”
I recommend real people in place of stock photography. Your teachers. Your students. The human eye can tell the difference between a stock photo and a real photo.
Jan wondered if we “use client logos with permission.”
We do ask permission to use client logos. It’s in our master services agreement. You might ask your lawyer to add a paragraph to your agreements like this one:
CONVERSION SCIENCES may retain copies of all work products and retains the right to use the work products for CONVERSION SCIENCES’ promotional purposes, including, but not limited to, showing Projects to prospective Clients, using the work products in company “demos.” By entering into this Agreement, Client hereby consents to CONVERSION SCIENCES’ use of the Client logo and testimonials for promotional purposes, unless other arrangements have been outlined in the Statement(s) of Work.
Are You a Tease?
Jeffrey asked if I had any “thoughts about lightly teasing the reader?”
A tease is a bona fide Broca-buster. Tease away.
This is especially effective when you tell a story, but withhold the ending while you build your value proposition. Brains hate to be teased because it makes them pay attention.
Creating Book Alikes
Deanne asked about the tool I used for creating eBooks renderings in 3D.
The tool that allowed me to create all of these wonderful 3D images from nothing was BoxShot4.
And a question from the Brainiacs
Dawn piqued my interest by asking, “Where does cognitive dissonance play out in this?”
In all truth, I had to look “cognitive dissonance” up.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. – Wikipedia
When I am promised one thing in an ad, and then sent to a home page, I will experience cognitive dissonance.
If the one specification that I believe is important cannot be found on a product page, I will experience cognitive dissonance.
If I don’t like to read, but the only images on a page are business porn, I will experience cognitive dissonance.
Good copywriters know how to create a moment of cognitive dissonance and then unite the expected with the unexpected like the punch line to a joke. This creates cognitive sonance, I guess.
Tim Gets Some Extra Credit
One final note. In the Webinar, I failed to credit Tim Ash as the originator of the term “Big Fat Bouncers in your Brain” during an interview several years ago.
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