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, Mint.com’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 Mint.com 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?