Persuasion in Copywriting: The Long and Short of it

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

We humans, we’re odd. We like to think we’re rational beings and that we can justify our behaviour… but really it’s our unconscious – our instincts – that influence and control how we act. 

And what do we call the process of influencing behaviour? That’s right, you guessed it. Persuasion.

If you learn the unconscious levers that influence behaviour, you can learn to persuade. And to a degree, it really is that simple. You don’t need a PhD in persuasion to learn how to change behaviour in your favour. But you do need practice – because as much as it sounds like a science, there is an art to it too.

Persuasion Fundamentals

First, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page here. When I talk about persuasion, I’m referring to getting action, usually in the form of buying a product, signing up for a newsletter, or something else commercially focused.

Whilst the principles are the same for any type of persuasion, I’m honing in on a specific area here. Just keep that in mind.

Okay, so, for the persuasion to be successful, the “desire to act” has to be greater than your reader’s inertia. Often this means talking in terms of their self-interest, i.e. how they can benefit. 

Now, of course, “features” have their place in persuasion (they can help prove a benefit), but more often than not, you’re going to have to speak in terms of benefits. That’s just a fundamental law of human nature. You’re trying to answer the infamous “what’s in it for me?”. 

If we lean on Robert Cialdini, we find there are six key principles of persuasion. They are:

  • Reciprocity – generally, people feel obligated to return favours (even if they’re only offered). E.g. buying a product for someone means they’re likely to do the same back.
  • Commitment/Consistency – once someone has committed to something (an idea or goal), they are likely to honour that commitment even if the original incentive or motivation is removed. E.g. Some CTA button copy saying “I want more sales” encourages your reader to make a public commitment (by clicking the button) to wanting more sales. They’ll then continue to behave in line with that commitment. (That’s why your button copy is so important.)
  • Social Proof – People will do things they see others doing. The assumption is that if others are doing it, it must be OK (and from an evolutionary POV, safe too). E.g. “Join 4000+ marketers…”.
  • Authority – People rarely question authority figures. They tend to accept what the authority says and do what they tell them. E.g. We’ll trust “what doctors do to avoid colds” more than “what mechanics do to avoid colds”. Doctors are authoritative “health” figures.
  • Likeability – People are more likely to be influenced by people they like. E.g. You’re more likely to support your favourite local coffee shop vs a coffee shop you’ve never heard of.
  • Scarcity – We want what we can’t have. Things become more attractive/desirable when their availability is (perceived as) limited. E.g. “Last 4 in stock…”

Deploy these principles, and you’ll be well on your way to getting the action you want. But it’s not just a matter of spraying and praying. You need to be intentional with the principles you use.

So, which ones should you use? Well, let’s lean on another Robert to answer – Robert Collier (one of the copywriting greats). He says to “always enter the conversation already occurring in the customer’s mind”.

And to do so, you need to understand them. At a deep, deep level. The more you surround yourself with your customers, the easier you’ll find it to identify which principles will resonate best. 

Swim with the tide, not against it.

Just a quick caveat… naturally, there will be different types of decision-makers within your audience. Some will be very logical, some more emotional (and impulsive), some methodical – and even some are more humanistic and want to see personal stories about your product. But in all cases, the top-level principles still apply. It’s how you apply those principles that should change. 

Remember, you’re casting a net, and inevitably some will pass through. Focus your persuasion on your best customers. 

(You also need to factor in your market’s stage of awareness… but that’s a conversation for another day).

Applying the Persuasion Principles: Some Considerations

As I said earlier, persuasion is both a science and an art. For the copywriters out there that swear persuasion is all science, make sure you take note of the red flags surrounding them.

Persuasion in copywriting is not purely science. If it were, anyone could do it. And they can’t… much to the dismay of the TikTokers that say you can. Copywriting is a skill. An art form. With a generous sprinkle of science.

Yes, the principles will help. But executing them in an elegant manner is something that takes practice. A lot of it. Especially if you want the persuasion to seem effortless.

So whilst I can’t shortcut the practice required, I can give you some things to keep in mind if you are writing your own persuasive copy. (If you can afford a copywriter, get one. If you’re not sure who… I know a fella.)

Consideration 1: Don’t make it obvious
Persuasion is like seduction. You can’t be overt and obvious about what you’re trying to do. You need to make it feel like they’re making the decision themselves – you’re just “guiding” them there. If your reader already likes you, you can be a bit more direct… but still it needs to be subtle. Don’t reveal your intentions.

Consideration 2: Turn up the charm
So because you can’t be obvious about what you’re doing, you need to charm your reader. Put on your best shoes and clean your teeth. Charm them – make yourself likeable. Because behind the charm is the power to disarm. You ease down the barriers, and help them become more receptive to your message. Coax them to the action. Don’t force them.

Consideration 3: Involve your reader in the message
The more your reader participates in the message, the more they internalise it. And the more they internalise it, the deeper the seeds of persuasion embed. Leave some details intentionally a little vague. Let your reader colour in the meaning of your message themselves. This helps make the convincing more natural – and as though they’re doing it themselves.

Types of Persuasion

Wait, there’s more than one? Sorry, yeah. But differentiating between them is pretty easy (they’re opposites). Simply whether you’re looking for action now, or for the future.

Here’s some info on applying them both.

Short-Term Persuasion

Most copywriting resources tend to focus on direct response. And the principles we’ve already discussed sit pretty comfy here simply because your reader is in the market for what you’re offering now, and you need to get them to buy it. You’re looking to get action right away.

Sometimes it’s known as “performance marketing” or even “sales activation”. It’s all fundamentally the same thing – at least in terms of persuasion, anyway. Its aim is to nudge people who are nearer the purchasing moment – to action. These people will likely be more familiar with your brand… or at least they should be if you’ve sown your brand-building seeds.

Now, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some considerations that I’ve found helpful with my clients. Keep these in mind when you’re writing your copy.

Consideration 1: Paint a clear mental picture
Get your reader to envision life with your product in as much detail as possible. Appeal to as many senses as you can. Deepen the experience. You can also encourage them to imagine life without your product. That way, you’ve got a push and a pull acting in unison.

Consideration 2: Get the reader saying “yes”
This is also a part of Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, specifically his “How to win people to your way of thinking” chapter. Get your recipient to say “yes, yes” immediately. Create “yes momentum” – a habit of agreement – so when it comes to asking for action, the outcome is inevitable. And to start, make it easy. Give them a loaded question or a basic (but interesting) fact and then build on it with increasingly larger claims. Keep in mind, a “no” will disrupt and fragment the momentum.

Consideration 3: Create the impression of popularity
Make your reader feel like they’re missing out. Give the impression (or fact) that others are already using your product. Don’t lie. Be honest. But be dramatic. Nobody likes to be left out. The only caution here is that if you have an audience of “rebels”, following the norms can actually be a deterrent. In which case, dramatise the opposite.

Consideration 4: Repetition
To keep your reader reading, you need to be interesting. Simply stating the same point, in the same way, multiple times won’t be very effective. But if you can share the same point from multiple POVs, you all of a sudden become more believable – and convincing. For example, you could state the point directly, share a testimonial or review, a personal story, an example… and many, many more. 

Long-Term Persuasion

On the flip side, you might need action in the future, when your reader is in the market for your product. The aim here is to increase mental availability – to make you come to mind before anyone else when your reader wants to buy. You’re sowing seeds for the future.

Think, you’re probably not in the market for ice cream now (it’s winter – and cold), but when the warm weather hits, you’ll probably want one. The advertising you see now can impact your decision-making. 

Ultimately, this is brand-building advertising.

And it’s very important, despite its decline in recent years. Remember, businesses grow by acquiring new customers, not by trying to improve the loyalty of existing ones. Sure, existing customers play a role. But to grow, you need more customers. 

This means you need to talk to people who may not have ever heard of you before – or someone who may not have even considered your category yet.

Remember, if you jump to mind before your competitor, your chance of being picked is much higher. 

Here are some considerations:

Consideration 1: Encourage an “a-ha” moment
Similar to an earlier point, we’re trying to involve the reader in the ad. We want them to close the loop. To involve them. To deepen the neural pathways. Naturally, there’s scepticism in any decision, but when a reader “completes an ad”, you reduce it. It also makes them feel good.

Consideration 2: Focus on the positives
People don’t remember the words you say, but rather how you make them feel. Focus on leaving positive feelings. Make them laugh. Entertain them. Be likeable.

Consideration 3: Entertain
At this stage in the “customer journey”, you don’t need to show the product. Overtly salesy communications will push your reader away because they’re not in the market yet. They’ve got enough sales messages for products they are in the market for already. So, to help your message get through, you need to entertain them – like a tv programme. Entertainment usually brings a lot of emotion too. That’s vital if you want to stick in mind.

Consideration 4: Actually do it (lol, sorry)
Brand building makes your “performance” advertising more effective. It helps you reap what you’ve sown. It makes it easier to grow your customer base because you’ll find it easier to convince your biggest sceptics.

And that’s your lot. I hope it’s helped. If you want persuasion for your business, you know where I am. Or, if you’d like to find out how some of the greatest ads persuade their buyers, I share a fortnightly newsletter breaking down some of the best ads in history. Subscribers get subscriber-only insights. 

Sign up here >> I want to see persuasion in action.

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