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Stop Selling & Start Telling – How Clarity Trumps Persuasion For Getting Sales

YOU KNOW SELLING IS HARD. And icky. Which is a combination sure to demoralize you in a short space of time.

I mean, have you tried cold calling?

The same is true on the web and in email. Although we know we have to convince customers to buy what we’re offering—or we’ll go under—we dread having to write sales copy of any kind.

We loathe getting up in print and schmoozing, conniving, greasing, bamboozling, and doing everything in our power to persuade prospects to click on our call to action buttons. And you know what?

Prospects hate it too

In fact, although there’s nothing they love more than to buy shiny new things, there’s nothing they hate more than to be sold at.

Which is why all those persuasion methods, mental tricks, “hypnotic” techniques, shouting caps, yellow highlighters and other million-dollar secrets you see other marketers using…they don’t really work. Certainly not on savvy prospects looking for high-value products, and with the budgets to buy them.

Exhibit A:

hype sales copy

Here’s a dose of common sense: if you feel icky writing it, your prospects will feel icky reading it. So this kind of approach is out.

Most companies then turn to…

Exhibit B:

corporate jargon copy

Your classic business-to-business corporate garbage. Did you doze off halfway through the second sentence? I did.

This sort of puffy, built-up copy is maybe even worse than hyped-up sales copy. Because at least with sales copy people can understand it. But with corporate B2B copy it’s like the intention is to cow the reader into submission. The less they understand the better. “With all those big words and phrases I can’t even choke down, it must be awesome!”

But actually, readers either get bored and quickly hit the back button…or they really need to find a solution and have to read the copy—in which case they slog doggedly through, trying to understand what it’s saying, growing more and more aggravated with each passing second.

Neither situation is likely to result in a sale, is it?

Getting corporate marketing departments to change this sort of copy is like convincing a goat to stop eating the laundry—but some more progressive companies, and especially startups, are seeing the light. Which leads to…

Exhibit C:

chatty web 2.0 copy

What you might call “Web 2.0” copy. Many more modern companies—particularly those online—want to avoid the mistakes of the past, and understand the importance of speaking human. But although their copy is engaging (if overly chatty), it tends to be very abbreviated.

You’ve just started to get excited, you’re just wanting to know more…when it stops and asks for an action. (In fairness, it’t not usualy as extreme as the above example.)

Although you’re interested, you haven’t made up your mind yet. The call to action is premature.

Notice that in each of these examples the problem is a dearth of information

In highlighter copy, you can’t trust the information. In corporate copy, you can’t understand the information. And in Web 2.0 copy, there just isn’t enough information.

But the truth is, writing is not intrinsically different to speaking.

And in real life, someone who speaks in “corporatese” is generally known as a “pompous ass”. Someone who speaks with such breathless hype you can see the yellow highlighter on their tongue is generally known as a “used car salesman”. And someone who talks normally but doesn’t tell you enough…is just a “bad salesman”!

But imagine if we wrote like we talked…

You know, in plain English, saying as much as we needed to. How might that look? For the first example, perhaps something like this:

sales copy fixed

For the second example, don’t you think this is much easier to read and understand?

corporate sales copy fixed

I’d create a revised version of the Web 2.0 copy as well, but it didn’t give me enough to go on! So instead, here’s an excerpt from BasecampHQ, a site that does Web 2.0 copy really well:

chatty sales copy fixed

So what exactly is the difference between these…and the originals?

One word: clarity.

You see, when people are thinking of buying things, they want to know as much as possible about them. This is doubly so for big purchases—and triply so if it’s a business expense that must be justified with a return on investment.

If you’ve ever spent time considering plonking down a lot of cash for some new widget, you know what I mean.

You probably spent a lot of time researching. Comparing what was available. Looking at features, figuring out benefits, and comparing these to your needs. Reading reviews, examining proofs, and checking guarantees. Making lists of pros and cons so you could weigh up your options objectively.

Believe it or not, you aren’t unusual. Pretty much everyone buys non-commodity items like this.

And here’s the really interesting thing. If you enjoy your work, or if your widget was something you really wanted—a treat or a reward or something you’d been saving for—you actually enjoyed deciding what to buy.

But without clarity, that enjoyment turns to frustration

Did you get really frustrated when you couldn’t find the information you wanted? When for some reason the company selling your widget saw fit to offer only a brief description, or some corporatese fluff, or if there was so much hype you couldn’t tell fantasy from reality? You wanted facts, figures and features—and not being able to find (or trust) them kinda pissed you off.

Similarly, if your widget was a physical product, I’ll bet you got really annoyed when there was only a thumbnail-sized image of it. You wanted the highest-resolution photo possible. If you’re anything like me, you actually went to Google Image Search to see if a better quality photo existed.

And if you’re anything like me, you used Google for finding lots of other information as well. Information that wasn’t—for some reason—available on the seller’s website. Lists of features. What the product was like to use. What possible problems you might run into with it.

And if you couldn’t find the information you wanted…lemme guess, you didn’t buy that particular widget, did you?

In other words, the deciding factor in your purchase was not how persuasive the copy was, but how much information you could find.

As my personal hero Dr. Flint McGlaughlin of Marketing Experiments likes to say…

“Clarity trumps persuasion”

Or, in direct response lingo, “the more you tell, the more you sell.”

No one ever failed to buy a product that was right for them because they knew too much—but many people haven’t bought products because they didn’t have enough information to make a good choice, or they couldn’t wade through verbose copy, or they were turned off by pushy prose.

Plus, many products have been returned by people who bought blind for lack of information.

And you can bet your proverbial that if your own copy doesn’t tell people what they want to know, a lot of them aren’t going to have the time or savvy to troll through search engine results, doing your work for you. Which means they either don’t buy, or they buy sight unseen, and then ask for a refund.

Clarity, not persuasive techniques or marketing jargon, is the key to making sales

Remember, writing is not fundamentally different from speaking. The point in both cases is to establish a personal connection and convey useful information.

So engage your prospects in “conversation” about the thing they’re thinking of buying…and keep the conversation going until they buy.

Virtually no one does this. Why do video camera manufacturers, for example, write a two-paragraph brochure-style blurb in a faux academic voice—which customers know is just ponce and puffery—for a high-end camera worth $4000? Why do they place this paragraph beneath a 200×200 pixel thumbnail that you can’t click on for a larger image or multiple angles?

Why don’t they write as one videographer to another about what the camera is like to use? About professionals who have recommended it? About amateur movies that have been shot on it? About what conditions it is best suited to, and why?

Why don’t they allow customer reviews directly on the sales page—not hard, since that’s basically just a blog format? Why don’t they show high-resolution photos—or even better, actual footage shot with the camera? And allow customers to link to their own on YouTube?

Why don’t they talk about possible problems with the camera, or conditions where it won’t work well—thus immediately gaining prospects’ trust, since no one believes a camera is perfect for everyone? And so on.

Examples can be found for any kind of product or service.

The answer is that marketing writers copy what they see others doing. It is the blind leading the the blind into a pit of darkness, where sales are hard and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

If only they knew the Four Keys to selling without having to sell

There are four principal elements you need to master to pull off “selling by telling”. They are very simple—and once you’ve mastered them selling becomes easy, even enjoyable.

You don’t feel like a phony, forcing yourself to use all kinds of persuasion techniques to manipulate your prospect into buying, or writing grandiose descriptions you know damn well are embellished, to say the least.

Instead, you feel like a normal person, telling another person about something you both find interesting.

It would be unfair to tell you about these four keys here. I have already demanded enough of your attention. So look out for my second article next week, when I’ll reveal these four keys to you.

In the meantime, I welcome hearing your thoughts in the comments below.

Update: Here’s the second article: The 4 Keys to Writing Persuasive Copy Without Hype, BS, or Other Icky Gimmicks

About the Author: Bnonn is the author of a free video course on the secrets of creating websites that capture readers and turn them into customers. Known in the boroughs as the Information Highwayman, he helps small businesses sell more online by improving their marketing copy, design, and strategies. When he’s not knee-deep in the guts of someone’s homepage, he is teaching his kids about steampunk, Nathan Fillion, and how to grapple a zombie without getting bit. (Also you can follow him on Twitter.)

  1. This just inspired me to re-write every shred of text on my sites. I was in the process of doing that, but this just made it easier to see.

  2. Great argument! I can’t tell you how many “writing for the web” courses I’ve seen selling online — some of those courses targeting startups — that convince people Exhibit A is the only way to sell. The truth is that those aggressive sales letters, like Exhibit A, work primarily for ‘miracle cure’ industries (e.g., diet, exercise, pharmaceuticals, real estate, courses/ebooks/information) but much less for tech, web services and, well, the majority of real products out there. I mean, if long-form sold everything, wouldn’t Wal-Mart be using it?

    Here’s hoping more people get on board with writing informative, clear copy that addresses benefits and features well… and puts the good stuff up front, like 37signals does in your example above.

  3. There is one thing I want to point out: At one point this post talks about focusing on features. And that will work in the right place. Especially in the case where you are selling tangible commerce products like video cameras and computer stuff. But for certain areas, you might want to focus more on benefits over features. I think it’s more powerful to explain how something helps the customer over a spec, dimension etc.

  4. Joanna, that’s a really good point. Hype copy works well in niches where people are conditioned to look for miracle cures, and really want to believe they exist.

    It BLOWS for your average business website.

    I’ll expand some in my next article on what Sean said above re features/benefits. But as a general rule, it’s best to focus on benefits first (because people are interested in what they get), and then describe the features that achieve them (because people tend to disbelieve benefits without explanations).

    For shorter copy, you can actually combine this process using bullets. Eg, for a video camera: “Capture memories in a format that won’t fade or degrade, thanks to the 12 megapixel technobabble PureColor(TM) 80 zillion zottahertz IntelliCapture processor.” ;)

  5. Awesome Post.
    just loved and I honestly believe in telling than selling. What else will work than explaining your product and services in simple words that a non-technical normal customer can understand?

    Wonderful read and got to learn some real good tips. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Love this advice! I was just trying to dream up some sales copy. Those long-form sales letters are everywhere, so I was trying to shoehorn my product description into that format. But my heart wasn’t into it, because I knew that I would never buy a product from a site that looked like that.

    Now I’m free to put my mind into the customer’s shoes and write copy that would really convince someone that a product is worth the investment.

    Thanks to Bnonn and Joanna for clarifying when the long letter works–and where it doesn’t.

  7. I really enjoyed the “after” versions of the “get rich with data entry” and “HTG” vs. Basecamp’s page for B2B.

    Everyone moans about bad copy but few people are able to give concrete examples how they would fix it. Or their suggestions to fix are horrible. This is great stuff.

  8. I agree for the most part. There’s a lot of bad copywriting out there. And I also really hate the type in your Example A. I have ofen wondered if it makes money for the people who use it, or are the only people making money on it the ones teaching the technique. As for persuasion, ultimately, it’s all about persuasion, whether that’s in the short or long term. What you’re suggesting is that you persuade by educating and informing first, and in the long run, getting them to take an action. It’s all part of the purchase cycle. And the technique you use is very dependent on the audience and the product/service you’re selling. Oh, and the medium you’re using as well — i.e., the web can provide more room to tell your story vs. a tiny ad banner.

  9. Agreed 100%. Keep it simple and talk like a human. People appreciate messages whose tone treats them like they’re intelligent beings.

  10. Thank you.
    Sometimes it is important to spell out the obvious – and you do that very well.

  11. Kudos. Best article I’ve read on ‘persuasion’ and conversion for quite some time. I guess this is why long copy works in many cases; because buyers need plenty of clear information to make an informed decision.

    Looking forward to the next article.

  12. Thank you so much. This article speaks the truth. I hate sales copy, it’s just spam.

  13. Great article. I belong to the scanning people but here I read (almost) everything. There is just sooo much stuff out there and so little time… :)

  14. Vinicius Assef Oct 19, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    I’m trying a new IT course business and your articles couldn’t come in a better occasion.

    Congratulations for your advices.

  15. Great Article! Very Inspiring! Trying to get completely out of that darkness where there is plenty of weeping and gnashing, haha…genius..

  16. I completely agree that clarity is of utmost importance. However, I don’t think that means that there need be a large quantity of content. Your entry suggests that clarity = quantity; that, all users want to know everything or at least have access to everything. Perhaps the two overlap, but I don’t think they’re one item.

    I’m a firm believer in clarity via brevity. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible. Information overload can be just as bad for a sale as content that proves too little, too gimmicky, or too corporate.


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