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Why Online Marketing is Like Being Attacked by Dogs – and 3 Principles for Sales Victory

My parents have two dogs—both very friendly Labrador/collie mongrels with nary a vicious bone in their sleek lil bodies. My daughter and trusty sidekick, who you may call Dingo, loves to play with them. And they love to play with her.

They’ll even accept her authority if she shouts loudly enough and shakes her finger with enough determination.

But the other day, they were getting a bit too boisterous for her liking, and she suddenly got scared (a couple of labs are pretty big when you’re knee-high to a hobbit).

Naturally, she ran to daddy.

And what do you think those dogs did the second she turned her back and started running?

If you guessed they started chasing her like she was their next meal, you are 100% correct.

It wasn’t that they got bloodlust or anything. They’re just natural predators. When another animal (human or otherwise) shows weakness, they take advantage of it. And when the weakness is real desperation, they can’t help but go for the kill. With predators, it is all about power. (Which is why it’s good I had the power of my boot.)

What does this have to do with marketing or conversion optimization? Exactly this:

Humans are natural predators

Sure, most of us have our overt predatory instincts socialized out of us, just like dogs do. But underneath, human social dynamics are still all about power. There are alphas and betas and omegas. And although we say “might does not make right”, “we should protect the weak”, etc…our instincts disagree.

The more weakness someone shows, the more we instinctively want to make a meal of them…and the less we respect them or want to form a relationship with them.

This is why in any negotiation, the more desperate you are to win, the less likely you are to succeed. And make no mistake: marketing and sales of any kind is negotiation. You win by making a sale.

Unfortunately, a lot of marketing material—including ads, web pages and email copy—is written in a way that subtly works against these “laws” of nature. So here are 3 simple principles you can use to improve your odds of survival in the strange world of online predation:

1. Give prospects permission to say no

Here’s what I mean—and let me use a non-web example to illustrate the point before I bring it back to online marketing. Take a classic “hard” negotiation like cold calling.

If you get an appointment from 1 in 10 calls, most people would think you’re doing pretty well. But that’s because most calls start with something like:

Hey Harry, I’m from Information Highwayman and I’d just like to talk with you about how our new conversion-rate optimization program can help save you money on your website, and generate more leads and sales at the same time. When’s a good time to meet?

I’m not saying I cold call, mind you. I don’t, and I don’t think anyone should. But notice the point I’m trying to make: how Harry is now pressured into a meeting. Pressured into saying yes. I’ve taken away his veto rights—and he doesn’t like it. He’s probably going to do everything he can to get me off the phone as quickly as possible…even if what I’m offering really will help him save money (which we haven’t even established, and why should he believe it?)

By being presumptuous and not giving him permission to say no, I’ve tried to turn a negotiation into a steamroll. But if he doesn’t feel like he needs (or even wants) what I’m offering as badly as I want him to have it, I’ve got no actual steam to keep me rolling!

Compare that to:

Hey Harry, my name is Bnonn, and I don’t rightly know if you need what I’m offering. If you don’t, just tell me and I’ll hang up the phone so I don’t waste your time. I make changes to the design and text on business websites, to increase the number of leads and sales they generate. How well is your own site generating leads at the moment?

See the difference? Not only am I giving Harry the opportunity to say no straight up (and promising to leave him alone if he does), but I’m also not presuming that he even needs my services. I’m showing that I want to find out if I can help him—not assuming that I can and trying to force the outcome I want.

Of course, I also stop looking like I need Harry’s custom—which completely changes the dynamic of the relationship from the get-go. Overall, I triple my chances of success using this method (according to Jim Camp, who should know).

How do you apply this to online marketing and CRO?

Simple: you may only be having a monologue via words on a screen, but you can still frame it the same way. Don’t start writing with an attitude that assumes your prospect wants what you have. Start writing with the attitude that he should be able to check it out and make up his own mind.

For instance,’s old headline was “The best way to manage your money”, which makes the same mistake as the first cold call example above: it assumes really is the best for the person reading. Their new headline is much better: “It’s easy to understand what’s going on with your money”. Similarly, compare these two examples from well-known email service providers:

2. Determine a goal for each marketing piece—a goal you have control over

What I mean by this is, every piece of copy, every page, every ad has some kind of goal. Usually we think it is something like To get a prospect to click the link or To convince a customer to buy another product—etc.

The trouble is, you cannot control whether a prospect will click or a customer will buy. And when you have that kind of goal in mind, your copy ends up feeling needy. Because it is “me-focused”, your prospect senses weakness. And because he doesn’t like that you’re trying to control him, you lose.

The solution is to create a goal you can control. For example, instead of having the goal of convincing a customer to buy another product, you might decide your goal is to help the customer understand and decide that buying another product will solve the exact problem they have right now, at a good price.

This removes you from the trap of trying to force an outcome you simply don’t have the ability to achieve. It makes writing much easier, because you’re guided by a clear and specific objective you can take clear and specific steps to achieve. This also makes writing feel much less icky and salesy and manipulative. Which ultimately means it actually is less icky and salesy and manipulative—and so much more effective!

3. Facts don’t win customers

I know—how many times have we heard that people buy for emotional reasons, not rational ones? And yet any time we start writing copy, our first impulse is to break out the facts and figures; to show our opponent the airtight logic of our case.


There are all kinds of factors that contribute to a conversion, but as with any real-life negotiation the emotional factors always come before the rational ones. The better you can work at your opponent’s emotions, the better you will do.

There are two aspects to this—and you’ll see that neither are in the slightest way insidious. Using emotion is actually the only really honest way to sell, as you’ll see.

Firstly, there is your prospect’s vision

This is the first and most important way that emotion affects the negotiation. What is the reason your prospect is reading your material at all? What’s the problem he hopes to solve—what is his vision for a successful outcome?

You must work to build up this vision in his mind, to emphasize it, in order to move toward the decision you want. As Jim Camp says, “No vision, no decision.”

This is not the same as emotion-based decision-making. You aren’t trying to get your prospect to make a decision based on how he feels in the moment. You aren’t trying to emotionally blackmail him or tug on his heartstrings. Rather, you are looking for the emotional reason behind his being there in the first place.

Take the example of MailChimp’s headline on the landing page example above: “Easy Email Newsletters”.

Behind that headline is a good understanding of their ideal prospect’s vision. Of the desired emotional outcome. We can infer quite safely that their prospects are people with limited time on their hands, who have possibly become frustrated with the complexities of email marketing. They don’t want an email marketing platform (who does?) Rather, they want to be able to send emails to customers and prospects quickly and easily—so they can make some money while getting on with everything else they have to do.

You probably know that no one goes to a hardware store wanting a drill. They go there wanting to make a hole in their wall. And they want that to hang a picture. And they want that so the people they care about will perceive them a certain way. Or so their home will make them feel a certain way. And so on.

This is the vision you must discover, help your prospect build up, and then relate back to what you are offering—because this is what he ultimately wants. He doesn’t want email marketing platforms or drills. He wants a specific emotional outcome.

Secondly, there’s your prospect’s feelings toward you

This is the second part of the “facts don’t win customers” equation, and not to be underestimated. How your opponent feels towards you can vastly change the overall success of your marketing efforts.

One of the huge mistakes many people make in real-life negotiations is trying to be the top dog. They try to impress their opponent with how much they know, how smart they are, how snappily they can dress, and so on. They wear “power suits” and have “power meetings”, and generally try to make sure everyone knows who has the power.

This is only natural—after all, we are predators, and power is what we understand.

The trouble is, nice guys don’t actually finish last; because the more you try to project power, the more other people feel threatened. If I think someone has more power than me, I get defensive. I get turned into a beta personality, with all that implies. I start looking for ways to undermine the alpha, to assert my own dominance, and I instinctively avoid opening up or giving away anything that could be used against me.

Trying to be the alpha in any kind of negotiation is outstandingly destructive. It’s true in real life, and it’s true on the web as well. Indeed, Ryan Engley’s tongue-in-cheek graphic couldn’t capture this more succinctly, nor with more perfection:

The solution is the “Columbo Effect”

Columbo was a slightly doolally TV detective who, while appearing very scatterbrained and generally incompetent, was actually the sharpest tool in the entire shed. His secret weapon—the thing that let him solve so many cases—was exactly his bumbling demeanor. People would take him for a fool, and let their guard down. They would feel like they had all the power when they talked to him, and thus inadvertently reveal things they’d never have mentioned in the presence of a cop like, say, Dirty Harry.

You must be a little like Columbo. Not that you should put on a sham—rather, you should simply be comfortable not having to be the person in power, the person who never makes mistakes. This is very counterintuitive, but equally powerful.

On the web, it is also very easy. So few people are willing to “show themselves” online, hiding instead behind their boring “professional” writing styles, that simply being willing to reveal a little of yourself is very disarming. And of course, it works particularly well in email marketing—writing all your email copy from a specific person with clear personality traits and a strong voice is extremely effective.

By being willing to make yourself vulnerable, you actually project strength without projecting dominance. A perfect situation, because that is just what prospects are looking for.

You can do this with idioms, with quirky turns of phrase, with the occasional rant, with talking about hobbies, or even being off-color. Ultimately, I think, humor is the best way to “be Columbo” online, regardless of the specific approach you take. So to wrap up, let me give you an example of a site which employs humor extremely effectively—along with all the other principles I’ve discussed: Saddleback Leather.

About the Author: D Bnonn Tennant is the author of the free email micro-course, “5 Sales-Spiking Website Tweaks Gurus & Designers Don’t Know”. You have his permission to say no to it—but since it’ll help you make more money online, with very little effort, why not check it out?

  1. D Bnonn Tennant.

    Thanks I really enjoyed your post. I am agree with most of your point. But I didn’t understand what have you show in Benchmark and Mailchamp. As I can clearly see Benchmark made that mistakes where Mailchamp didn’t. But do you think Mailchamp is making more profit for this and Benchmark isn’t.


    • I know nothing about Benchmark and MailChimp’s profits. I’m just suggesting that MailChimp’s headline in this case is doing a better job of starting a negotiation than Benchmark’s is.

      • Oh I see. I can clearly see there’s something wrong with benchmark sales copy. But I am not sure. What he feels about it.


  2. B.J. Mendelson Jul 29, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I have a couple of problems with this post.

    1. “I’m not saying I cold call, mind you. I don’t, and I don’t think anyone should. ” This is really bad advice. Although it’s always better to pursue a warm lead over a cold one, sometimes there’s simply no other way in besides a cold call.

    2. Facts / Figures / Graphs help influence people to believe that something is true: So, facts DO win customers.

    • Good points B.J.
      I have the luxury of not having to do cold calls, thank goodness. I do like the second “cold call” option put forth by Bnonn however. This is because it is presented with a more relaxed stance.

      I totally agree that facts and figures can lend themselves to support and validate a point. I do think that they belong to the area of supporting text however.

      I feel that in the case of a landing page that is meant to convert, charts and figures belong on a secondary web page, not front and center.

      Address the emotional appeal on the landing page and provide rational support on a secondary page for people who want to learn more and to solidify their initial impression. If someone needs to be sold further by clicking through to the facts and figures, you can always place a call-to-action integrated into that supporting content.

    • Hey BJ. I won’t argue too much over cold calling; I just feel like there is always a better way, and I know I’m not alone in that. If you’re running your own business, and you’re looking for the 20% of marketing/sales approaches that get 80% of the results, cold calling isn’t in that list — all things considered.

      Re facts and figures, I certainly don’t mean to imply they aren’t important. I’m just coming at marketing from a very specific angle here, and that meant I didn’t focus on rational reasons. In terms of marketing as negotiation, the emotional outcome guides the process from the start. Of course, that process still includes presenting facts and figures to prove that the emotional outcome will happen. The fact we’re driven by emotion doesn’t mean we don’t need reasons to steer us in the right direction :)

  3. Well put. Helping your clients find solutions to their problems is the key. They may not buy a product this time but you will achieve a basis of trust that will create the relationship that will encourage a purchase at some point. Genuine empathy is hard to live up to, but always has its rewards. Cheers Jim

  4. Sometime it all takes you to tell the truth. Good for you, but I love being a mad man. Trying to figure out what in the world these guys are doing.

  5. I really liked that phrase of yours “They don’t want an email marketing platform (who does?)” because I keep telling my clients and staff that nobody wants to buy a software. Glad to find someone who resonates with that!!

    In fact, I go to the extent of not revealing “my product” till my prospects ask! For example, we talk to doctors about enhancing their patient compliance and talk about the core problem being patients not turning up for reviews as scheduled. And because we are talking about their problem, they listen to us and then ask how we hope to solve their current issues and that is when we introduce our solution and even then we do not tell them it is a software because some have a instant aversion to technology!! I wouldn’t blame them given the high pressure pitches by tech sales people.

    I shudder when i listen to pitches where the person talks about himself, his company and his product and reveals he is clueless about how they would help me.

    Nice to read a sensible post although I have my own reservations about your ‘disdain’ for ‘cold calls’!!

  6. I personally do not like to make cold calls to any new clients

  7. Annemieke van Herk Jul 31, 2013 at 8:44 am

    The title of this article is so great, I thought the article itself would have to disappoint after that…. But it did not!! Great article, you make a very convincing argument for ‘underdog marketing’. Thanks!

  8. Deborah Anderson Jul 31, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    So, no matter how nice we are, we humans are still predators? lol

  9. I dont understand why “They don’t want an email marketing platform”? I think most of start ups are still relying in email marketing, can some one please explain what is bad about this?

    • There’s nothing bad about email marketing at all. Quite the contrary :) But my point was that people don’t want access to an email marketing platform in and of itself. They want it as a means to an end. They don’t get any kind of emotional satisfaction from being able to log into MailChimp, for instance. They probably do from seeing their bank balance has increased overnight because of an email campaign they wrote.

  10. SEO in Waterlooville Aug 04, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Brilliantly written post, great headlines! thanks guys

  11. Dog Beds for Sale Oct 13, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    We run a dog beds store online and came across this post (great one by the way), after looking for great advice on all aspects of internet marketing. Loved reading some of the posts, well done people and there dogs!

  12. Just entering the world wide web of internet marketing with the hope of making a change and really helping business online, so hopefully we won’t get attacked by dogs.

  13. wow! such a great article. this is very informative post. thank you so much for your excellent writing


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