WHEN IT COMES TO SELLING, WORDS MATTER. HERE ARE THE ONES TO USE.
Pop quiz: What percentage of buying decisions are made subconsciously? Twenty percent? Thirty? Fifty? Guess again. Recent research puts the figure at a staggering 90 percent. Nancy Harhut, co-founder and chief creative officer of HBT Marketing, has built an impressive business tapping into that subconscious by writing marketing copy influenced by neuroscience. After she knocked our socks off at the 2020 Content Marketing Conference, we asked her to share her techniques with us here. Luckily for us, she said yes!
Connecticut Innovations: Thanks for lending us your expertise, Nancy. Let’s dive right in: The fact that nearly all buying decisions are made subconsciously is remarkable. Is this what got you interested in studying neuroscience and how it impacts marketing?
Nancy Harhut: It is an impressively high number! I first saw this stat in Gerald Zaltman’s book How Customers Think. In fact, he puts that number at up to 95 percent. Not long after that, I read Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Between those two books, I was hooked. I began applying what I’d read to some of the real-world marketing challenges my clients faced, and when the results were good, I just kept on going.
CI: What are some words we can use to our advantage?
NH: There’s a lot of research (in-market, heat mapping, eye tracking) that proves some words are more important to marketers than others. These words have the power to leap off the page or screen and attract the human eye like a magnet. That’s why I refer to them as “eye-magnet words.”
As people are skimming and scanning, which is often what they do before they commit to fully reading something, these words attract their attention and make it more likely they will engage with the content. So, I recommend using them in “high-read” pieces of marketing real estate, such as email subject lines, content titles, ad headlines, direct mail teaser copy and the like. Some of these words include you, free, new, now, discover, alert and the target’s name.
CI: Can you give some examples of how certain phrasing influences how people respond?
NH: Social scientists have found that the words we use to describe something influence our perception of and reaction to that thing. Think of someone describing a glass as “half empty” or “half full.” That colors how you see the glass.
Researcher Elizabeth Loftus conducted an experiment in which she showed people a video of a car accident. After watching the video, some people were asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they “crashed.” Others were asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they “contacted.” The first group estimated 40.8 mph, while the second group estimated 31.8 mph—a difference of over 28 percent. Remember, everyone saw the same video. The only difference was the verb used when people were asked about it.
The Journal of Consumer Research reports that framing a shipping fee as a “small $5 fee” resulted in a 20 percent lift in sales versus calling it a “$5 fee,” even though people know how much five dollars is. And an Unbounce study found that referring to a special deal as a “giveaway” instead of a “promotion” increased the conversion rate by 50 percent.
I worked on a campaign where I positioned the CTA to increase the target’s insurance coverage as a way to avoid being below the midrange amount the insurance company offered. That resulted in a triple-digit lift in sales over the control.
CI: What is the information gap theory, and how can marketers use it to their advantage?
NH: Behavioral economist George Lowenstein found that if there is a gap between what you know and what you want to know, you will take action to close that gap. Marketers, of course, want people to take action, so using information gap theory can be very helpful. For example, writing headlines or subject lines that begin with Who, What, Where, When, Why or How is a good way to tee up an information gap. Similarly, offering to provide the answer to “the best…” or “the worst…” or “the most…” can also work. People are curious, and they want to find out the answer so they can close the gap in their information. Finally, numbered lists can also be used to prompt people to take action to find an answer. And numbers are especially good, because the human brain craves ease and order, and numbers naturally promise that.
CI: We’ve heard you say that people are twice as motivated to avoid pain as they are to achieve pleasure. Makes sense, but does negative messaging bring down the mood? Or brand perception?
NH: Good question! Touting the benefits or advantages of a product is a proven marketing approach, and I’m not suggesting we walk away from that. However, social scientists have found that people are more motivated to avoid the pain of loss than to achieve the pleasure of gain. So, a little well-placed loss aversion can be a powerful marketing tool, while still enhancing brand perception and leaving the target feeling good.
For instance, instead of focusing on all the wonderful things that will happen if you buy my product or service, how about pointing out the terrible things it will help you avoid instead? Or consider saying, “Don’t miss” instead of “Take advantage of.” Both can position your company as helpful, which leaves a good impression.
One of my favorite examples of using this technique was for a conference that was making a time-sensitive offer. Their email subject line said, “Don’t pay an extra $300” for the event, instead of “Save $300” on the event.
CI: You talk about overcoming objections before you can persuade. How do you go about figuring out what those objections are if you have a new product or service?
NH: First you need to put yourself into the mindset of your customer. Think about why they may be hesitant to do what you want them to do. Maybe they aren’t familiar with your company. Maybe they think your price is too high. Maybe they worry the product or service won’t be as good as you claim it is.
If you’re able to, conduct some research to inform these hypotheses. Ask your first customers why they did business with you. Ask them what almost held them back. Ask your salespeople and customer service reps what they hear from prospects in the market. If you’re able, have a researcher speak with prospects you didn’t convert, as well as “suspects” (people you believe should be in the market but haven’t yet had contact with you). You can even type your product category into Google and see what people say about it.
Once you’ve developed an idea of what the biggest objection is for your target (and it may vary by segment), you can brainstorm which behavioral science principles to test to overcome it.
CI: Our readers may be surprised to learn that people make decisions for emotional reasons and then justify them with rational ones. Why is this, and how do you address both in your copy?
NH: It can be surprising to hear, and even more so if you’re in a B2B setting, where you may think all decisions are carefully thought out. And while it’s true that some decisions do prompt a lot of consideration, many others happen reflexively, driven by emotion. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who’d sustained damage to the parts of their brains that control emotion, and he found that they were virtually incapable of making a decision—even one as simple as what they’d like to eat for lunch that day. He showed that humans need to draw upon the part of the brain that controls emotion when making decisions.
Keep in mind, though, that people will often tell you that they made a decision for a specific reason. This is the rationalization that comes later, because people themselves don’t always know why they do what they do.
As a result, marketers need to provide both the emotional hook that prompts purchase and the rational, supporting reasons that justify it in their communications. For example, you may buy that new BMW because of the way you’ll feel driving it into work, but you’ll tell your coworkers about how well engineered it is. So, your copy would need to get the target to imagine how she’ll feel driving the car, and then include some solid proof points that speak to why it’s a smart purchase.
CI: What is the Von Restorff effect, and how does it apply to marketing?
NH: Social scientists have found that humans are hardwired to notice and remember things that are different. Researchers believe this may go back to our caveman days, when something new introduced into the environment could pose a very real life-or-death threat. All these years later, people are still hardwired to notice something that stands out from its surrounding environment.
Marketers can use this in a variety of ways. Email subject lines that have the first word or two enclosed in brackets have shown a double-digit lift in opening rates (Worldata) because most subject lines do not contain brackets. Direct mail envelopes made of paper that feels soft or that have an unusual shape are other examples. So, too, are digital ads that involve motion, which serves to draw your attention away from the static content on the site where they appear and direct it to the ad.
CI: How about the Zeigarnik effect?
NH: Social scientists have found that people have a desire for completeness. We don’t like to leave things incomplete. We like to finish what we started. It’s why cliffhangers work so well in the media. We want to find out what happens, how the show ends.
Marketers can employ the Zeigarnik effect by opening with a story. They can also use progress bars to indicate something’s been started and isn’t yet completed. Sending an email reminding someone that they left something in their e-commerce shopping cart, or that they started to personalize or customize a product but haven’t yet finished it, is a good example of the Zeigarnik effect being used in marketing.
Research even shows that giving someone a frequent shopper punch card that has the first square stamped results in that person being more likely to make the subsequent purchases to fill the card than giving the shopper a blank punch card, even when the actual number of purchases involved in both cases is the same (e.g., 10 squares with the first square pre-stamped versus nine blank squares).
CI: How can our readers keep up with neuromarketing trends?
NH: There is some good information out there. I listen to podcasts by Roger Dooley, Kenneth Kinney, Adam Grant and Shankar Vedantam. I read the blogs that Robert Cialdini and Dan Ariely publish. Tim Ash has a new book about neuromarketing out.
And if they’re interested, people can also find some timely interviews and posts in the news section of my agency’s website: HBTmktg.com.