cognitive biases in sales copywriting

Cognitive Biases: Tools in the hands of a great copywriter. How does yours measure up?

Have you ever needed a solid copywriter? Chances are, if you do anything online in order to make more sales of whatever you’re selling, you searched for copywriters that could answer a simple task. A task that would go something like this:

I need a sales letter or a product page that will describe my product/service in such a way that people will actually want to buy it right now.

There are literally thousands, maybe even millions of self-proclaimed copywriting gurus out there. These folks will promise you the moon and stars and will ask you for a fee that’s well in the 5-figure range. Being copywriters, they will have some skills to present themselves in a good light.

However, from all these self-proclaimed superstars, very few deserve your attention. The real superstar copywriters like Perry Marshall, Perry Belcher, Frank Kern and so on, are worth their weight in gold. I’ve personally worked with guys like Mitch Miller of Opposed Media and Grant Delmege, who are also very solid guys, and their copywriting services are excellent. You will need to think serious cash in order to work with these guys. The rest… well, let’s just say that the sales copywriting profession has a steep learning curve, and they haven’t even gotten to the steep part of the curve.

There are several hacks (that real gurus know, and the rest only do a monkey-see-monkey-do writing) that will get you sold on an idea. But only using the vocabulary without understanding the subconscious processes in the mind of the reader borders scam. Or, better yet, it’s just counting the steps instead of listening to the music and actually do the waltz dance. The results: well, just imagine how waltz enthusiasts look like when they count steps compared to dance professionals who really get the music.

Mind hacks that get people to buy anything regardless if it’s a Big Mac or an iPhone basically play on emotions and perceptions. Here’s a good list of those hacks (also known as cognitive biases by the real gurus). The list is from Business Insider but I’ve written the explanations from a marketer’s perspective.

Enjoy!

Anchoring Bias

Original Price: $1995.00. Discount price: Only $1495.

Looks familiar?

The anchor is set at $1995, so the $500 discount sounds pretty good. Most of the times you won’t even question the number. Sometimes, anchoring is so subversive that it works in a context of say “Mike was born in 1995. He does kitchen countertops. Each countertop costs only $1495.” Your mind is stuck at 1995 as a number, so anything below it counts as a smaller number. Even though the numbers signify completely different things, your mind is anchored at the first number. Naturally price anchoring is best done with prices, so on a menu you’ll have a lost like so:

Large Pizza: $45. Medium Pizza $37. Small Pizza $25. Naturally, your mind will split the sizes and compare the figures, and “deduct” that the best deal is to get a medium pizza.  Would you like some pepperoni with your pizza? It’s only $4. Sure, throw in some pepperoni! That’s a great deal. Oh wait, for only a few bucks extra I can get a large one. Pepperoni is only $3 for the large pizza. Sure… I’ll have the large one with pepperoni. Thanks!

Freedom of choice, right? Yeah… right.

Availability Heuristic

This would look something like “Compared to competitors, you get the best bang for the buck. I’m the best choice for sales copywriting”. You won’t be able to find out what Frank Kern would charge, so your mind assumes that this claim is true. And… since it’s on the internet, it must be true. 🙂

Bandwagon Effect

This is one of my favorite ones. It usually is presented in a list of companies who used the services or products. In reality, you shouldn’t care if WordPress is used by government agencies, or by companies like CNN or MTV. Their choice of WordPress doesn’t mean that you should pick it too, just as their choice of color for their walls shouldn’t affect your judgment to go with lime green walls (not that CNN and MTV would opt for lime walls… still… you never know). But your mind is stuck on the idea that big companies use WordPress… so why not do what they do. Right? I’m not saying that opting for WordPress is somehow a conspiracy. It really is great. But making a choice only because someone else made that choice is not a logical way of making decisions.

Blind-spot Bias

This one is difficult to spot. You can’t know when you’re manipulated into something unless you yourself are a cognitive psychologist or a copywriter or someone who does a textual analysis for a living. And even if you are, with this background you’d be most susceptible to blind-spot bias cause you won’t be looking for one since you don’t really need to look. You’re a pro and will be able to spot one a mile away. “Now stop reading this blog post and hire me to write your killer sales letter! I’m the best!”

Choice-supportive Bias

Ever noticed that iPhone users are very insistent that their phone is the best in the world?  Or when someone orders a new dish in a restaurant, and they will support their order even if deep down they know it tasted like an old shoe? Why is that? People don’t want to admit they’re wrong, so their mind will go way out searching for reasons to justify that purchase.

This is easy to spot in all those testimonials people put on product pages. Of course, John Doe will say the product was great. He will do just about anything to convince himself that he did a good job cashing out all that money for whatever he bought. Granted, not everybody does this, but you’d be surprised at just how many people fall prey to this sort of behavior.

Clustering Illusion

This mind-trick works well in weight loss or money making offers. Just because someone out there shaved off 20lbs doesn’t mean you’ll do the same. But… your mind is sold to the idea, and you’re ready to swipe the plastic and move on. You can even notice this in political debates when people star throwing out numbers of how Program X was a resounding success across the country… as if the success of that county guarantees success for your area. But the point is that clustering does work, and a smart copywriter will use it often to make a strong selling point.

Confirmation Bias

When your mind is set to believe that what the sales letter says is true… there’s very little mental effort to draw a critical, balanced decision. If the text says you will earn a million dollars in a year, and you want that so bad, your mind is in a state of mental blockade. It will simply not want to hear otherwise. It doesn’t matter if the pitch is a MLM scheme and you kind of know it. What matters is that carrot on the stick… and YOU WANT IT! IT WILL WORK THIS TIME!

Conservatism Bias

Usually, folks say that the first book you read on a subject will cement your opinion on a matter. I see this all the time in brand-related debates. MAC rules. Coke is best. Samsung makes the best phones. Religion is false. Etc. All these ideas can be traced back to a moment in time where the target audience heard an idea, accepted it as genuine and built their lives on it. Changing preconceptions is very difficult. People actually fear change. That’s why some still doubt that we are causing irreparable damage to our environment. This is also why it’s critical that you show yourself in the best possible manner the first time you meet a person, in person or online. First impressions count a lot more than we’re willing to admit.

Information Bias

“I’ve done extensive research”. So… what now? Spending time online reading up on an issue doesn’t really make you an unbiased expert in just about anything. And I have proof:

I noticed this when I was researching for a camera a few years ago. I compared Canon 60D and Nikon D7000 or alike. I spent months researching. In the end, I went for the Canon. Not because of all the research, but because of an idea I heard long ago that Canon makes better portraits. My mind was literally looking for reasons to just stick with that dinosaur-of-a-decision that Canon is better than Nikon… Period! Then when I bought the camera, I immediately had buyers remorse cause the Canon 70D had better auto-focus. It didn’t even dawn on me to consider a Nikon… because “Nikon aren’t as good”… whatever that means. I was biased all the way with my $2000 purchase.

Ostrich Effect

This mind hack also plays against you when reviewing products or services. A marketing mantra says that you should include some negative reviews so that your product/offer looks more realistic. You can’t be great for everybody. Someone has to have at least something to nag about. So smart marketers will put this in the copy. This usually goes with testimonials of people who weren’t pleased with the product… but these negative comments get placed way down in the copy, so that your mind is already programmed to want the product so much that it is blind to negative comments/reviews.

A few weeks ago I was shopping for a new phone and was researching comments from people. I had several models I liked. One was very interesting, and even though it had some seriously unhappy customers, I kept it as an option for way too long. Good thing I didn’t pick it, but it now is interesting to look back and see just how long that phone remained an option despite all the negative reviews. My mind loved the specs so much that it was blind to comments like “This seller is a fraud. He didn’t send me the phone I ordered.” The mind is a weird organ and sometimes, many times, you shouldn’t take it so seriously. Luckily, I restrained my mind this time and went for a phone that only had good reviews… or I fell victim of the Clustering Illusion. Sigh.

Outcome Bias

“Get this guide and land a date in 24 hours!” For a single 20-something, BOOM, you’re hooked. You’re so focused on the desperately desired outcome that your mind is set and ready to buy… even if nothing else in the sales copy says you really will get a date, somehow you think that you’re not like the rest of them. You are way better, and this $995 course will actually work for you and you’ll find the man/woman of your dreams by the end of the week. Guaranteed! Mind games really are something, aren’t they? If you know how to use them you can literally own the world. 😉

Overconfidence

If you’re a private dance instructor or a real estate agent, and you have seniority, your mind will block your logic circuitry and you’ll fall victim of ideas like “supercharge your lead acquisition technique in 7 easy steps program”. Your mind tells you that you can really spot that this ebook will really help you. And that’s it. You’re the pro. You know how things go. You know you can do better. This $197 ebook will get you where you deserve to be. Out goes your 197 bucks. But you know that you made the right choice. If any doubt, revisit the previous point.

Placebo Effect

“This book will boost your self-confidence, and you will land that job.” Here’s a good placebo. You get sold on the idea, you get the coaching program, and the only way to move forward is to act upon the info you get. Regardless if the information is really useful, your purchase of the coaching program will push you to step out there and get more interviews so that you feel better about spending all that cash.

By a simple rule of statistics, you’ve increased your chances of employment simply by being forced to justify your hard-earned cash. That, however, doesn’t mean that the coaching made you a fearless adrenaline junkie. It just pushed you to bite the bullet and go after that job, promotion, raise… whatever. Getting the results doesn’t mean that the program worked. Correlation does not mean causation.

Pro-Innovation Bias

“Using this software will solve all your marketing problems” Just get the app at $349/mo and you can fire your designer, your analyst, your copywriter, your social media manager. The app will do it all for you. Sure it will.

The reality is that you don’t need the latest and greatest gadget, software, WordPress theme, plugin or whatever. There’s no one magic bullet to solve all your problems. But… the mind just loves an all-in-one solution. That’s why you have fruit blenders that also make meat loafs and whatnots. (I don’t know if such a thing exists actually… but you get the point).

“Done for you marketing” baby. Sign Up Here!

Recency

Tesla Motors (props to Elon Musk all the way) had several hiccups with launching their models, but people simply forget the previous things and only focus on the latest PR stunt. Politicians also rely heavily on this. For years, they do what they want, and then, a month before the election, they get all nice and active, willing to hear the voice of the people. Yeah, right.

You see this also in arranging testimonials and features where the best info is kept last… like the cherry on the cake. Your mind captures that last big claim before the Buy Now button and you’ve just been taken hostage by your own mind.

Salience

“Get this gizmo if you want to be respected by your peers” plays on this mind hack that pushes you not to focus on the gizmo itself but on how your life would be if you didn’t have it. In the early 2000s, if you wanted to be cool you’d have to have an iPod with those trademark white headphones. So you either had an iPod and were cool, or you didn’t have one, and you were a dork. Or a loser. Nobody wants to be a loser, so the price for coolness of $299 is way more acceptable than the punishment of being uncool. This is how you make an ordinary item such as an electronic device and turn it into a part of your identity. Mind-hacking at its best.

Selective Perception

“The grass is greener on the other side” gets people longing for things at an arm’s length. So they’ll reach out and grab stuff, whether it’s the new Nike sneakers, or the latest Apple watch, or the new and updated 2.0 of whatever. Apple uses this quite a bit with their new models of phones. Not that the newest model isn’t better than the previous, but buck-for-buck, it would be difficult to make a selling point to convince you to logically decide to part with $800 for a phone that isn’t 800 times better than the current iPhone you have in your pocket, together with your car keys and a pack of gum. But… your mind selectively listens to all those specs, it gets into an overdrive building up the feeling of awesomeness of holding that new iPhone and showing off… and out goes critical thinking, followed by $800… or however much Apple decides to price its latest greatest phone.

Stereotyping

Ever saw a pic of a smiling group of people looking for a Buy Now button? The smiling face, the light background of the image, making you feel all happy and enthusiastic about life? The lady’s eyes that lead your eyesight onto the Buy Now button sell you on an idea that if you click that button you too will be happy and whatever else the accompanying copy sells you too. If the people on that stock image look successful, that doesn’t mean you too will be a killer salesman if you sign up for that $4999 boot camp. But hey, your mind is already making decisions instead of you. They smile, so you must be smiling too at the end of the training. Period.

Survivorship Bias

“Everybody who went through this program lost 50 lbs.” But what about the 95% who decided that drinking water and eating a slice of bread for 60 days is crazy? Sales copywriting often  uses statistics, and your mind takes the numbers for granted, not realizing that number-picking is just that, picking numbers. Most of the times, it shows just one side of the story… the side they want you to see so you’d pay up.

Zero-risk Bias

“60-day money back guarantee.. Use this product for 60 days and if you don’t make $XXX, we’ll give you your money back.” Only… 95% of the people won’t even remember what they bought 60 days ago, and even more don’t bother to read the fine print that usually says “You will need to show/prove that you’ve followed the exact procedure for 60 days”. Who will bother keeping a strict diary of anything? These guarantees are only there to put your mind at ease, to make you think that there is no risk involved… and your mind loves certainty. The money-back guarantee is then interpreted as 100% certainty, so heck, let’s buy this course too… nothing to lose, right?

Summary

Sales copywriting is a profession. It takes a lot of learning and an interdisciplinary mind. Different target groups react differently on texts, so a solid copywriter will have to know who your audience is, and craft a message that pushes the right buttons for your audience. Understanding how people read texts, how they process information and what makes them want to buy is what sets brilliant copywriters apart from hit-and-miss opportunists.

I hope that this text will help you make a more grounded decision of who is a solid copywriter and who is not. These are some basic concepts of copywriting and if your copywriter does not know them or does not use them… it’s time to look for a better copywriter.

 

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