Sign up for our daily recaps of the ever-changing search marketing landscape.
Influencing with ad copy: how to truly drive action
Is your ad copy ineffective? Columnist Purna Virji discusses how you can tap into your customers' decision-making brains to drive clicks and conversions.
Persuasion. Influence. Psychology.
The conversion rate optimization (CRO) crowd is adept at tapping into these to drive the actions of their audiences.
When it comes to ad copy, there may not appear to be a lot we can do to actively influence our search audience. Short of a screaming headline (not allowed), all we have is a limited set of characters.
We can make every one of those characters truly work by channeling our inner CRO expert.
Before we jump into the words that work, let’s take a few minutes to understand the psychology of decision-making. What causes us to choose X instead of Y? What’s behind our decision to opt for free shipping rather than 10 percent off our order?
Fact is, we can influence our audience with smart, effective ad copy. Here’s how.
We think like lizards
Okay, okay. I know the whole reptilian brain thing was huge back in 2012. But it’s still a really smart tactic at its core and can do magical things for ad copy.
If you missed it back then, here’s a quick overview. We all essentially have three brains driving us:
- the human brain, which is responsible for logic, learning and conscious thought;
- the mammalian brain, which deals with moods, memory and hormones; and
- the reptilian brain, which rules basic survival functions like hunger and fight-or-flight.
Is anyone else appalled to learn that our decision-making is most often seated in our reptilian brain?!
We may think we’re being logical and process-oriented, but that’s just a story we tell ourselves — because our true instincts come from a gut-sense we aren’t even aware of. When it comes to decision-making, we are more lizard than human.
Our reptilian brain is driven by five areas of awareness: Pain, emotion, fear, ego and contrast.
These five areas of awareness hold the key to influencing your audience with ad copy that sparks action, so let’s explore how.
1. The pain is real
So much of our drive to purchase comes from pain points, whether large or small.
We might want a new car because it pains us to continue to pay for repairs on the old one. We pick a quiet restaurant over a noisy one because of the agony of not being able to have a conversation over the din.
Pain is a primary driver. Our ad copy can draw attention to it and offer a resolution with our product or service.
For example, most of us have had to clean up a trash-related mess in our homes at some point — usually when we’re the most tired or running late or wearing the nicest clothes. It’s never fun and never at a good time.
If you sell trash bags, reminding people of this painful time can be an effective tactic:
Here, avoiding messy trash disasters is a huge selling point and certainly offers a solution to garbage bag pain.
How to use the pain
Think about the pain points of your customers. Now, consider how your product or service solves those paint points. Work this copy into your headline or description (and certainly on your landing page).
2. Get all emotional
Touching your customer’s emotional strings creates a connection; it breaks down resistance and lets your customer open his or her mind to your product.
Who can get through a Dove soap commercial without getting misty-eyed? Or the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials during the Super Bowl?
It’s important to note that we remember the brand names behind these highly emotional ads. Hallmark cards, anyone? I’m teary just thinking about them.
This doesn’t always have to be done at such a grand scale. Simply planting an emotional thought or speaking to the aspirations of the searcher can often be enough.
For example, when we look to invest in higher-end cookware, we’re often doing so because we want to cook even better meals for our loved ones. Here’s a great example of using callout extensions to subtly create the “warm fuzzies”:
Williams-Sonoma evokes a wonderful sense of emotion with ad copy about cooking for friends and sharing a meal. This copy brings up your own memories of doing this, and suddenly those warm fuzzy feelings are part of your experience with Williams-Sonoma.
How to use the emotion
What moves your customer? What is it about your product that creates a connection with others? Note that the emotion doesn’t have to be teary drama — it can be a range of emotions, including anger and humor.
Once you land on an emotion you want to trigger, make sure ad copy, description and landing page are all in sync for a complete and authentic experience.
3. Fan the fear flame
Fear can actually sell as much as sex or desire, since it will trigger people to take action. Think about it. News broadcasts have peddled fear-based marketing for years. An insider rallying cry of the media has always been, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Famous brands use fear all the time in their taglines. Nike’s “Just Do It” takes aim at consumers missing out (channeling FOMO if you will), and L’Oréal’s tagline, “Because I’m Worth It,” confronts a woman’s fear of her own lack of value.
Ad copy can get to the fear in the customer in the same way.
If you felt your eyes had been feeling a little dry lately and did a quick search for “dry eyes” expecting to see an easy cure or find symptoms, you’d probably pay attention to an ad like this:
Just the thought of something minor like dry eyes affecting my vision would be enough for me to click to learn more or pick up the phone to set up an appointment with my ophthalmologist.
Fear is primal and acute, and if your ad copy can mine that vein in a way that’s not exploitative, you can drive sales.
How to use the fear
Get inside your customer’s head and figure out what they’re afraid of, and how your product can remove the fear. For example, “Never shiver again” for a winter coat.
Often, the connection isn’t obvious. Plastic bowls, for example, answer the fear of breaking china. A new camera answers the fear of forgetting important moments.
4. Inflate that ego
We are essentially all ego-driven. “What’s in it for me?” isn’t just a marketing pillar, it’s a truth about you and me in every waking hour. So it only makes sense that ad copy that drives right to the heart of the ego is going to have some success.
This Bobbi Brown ad really hits hard with “Perfect Your Eye Look!” and “Get a Lit-From-Within Glow” and “Be The First to Shop It.” This is all about me, and as a result it resonates extremely well.
How to use the ego
The easiest way to zing your audience’s ego is to ask yourself, “How would I want to be talked to?” If you’re being honest, then compliments, praise and encouragement will top the list of ego-happy ad copy tactics.
5. Contrast this with that
There’s a reason weight-loss businesses’ entire advertising strategy can be summed up in the phrase, “before and after pictures.” We love to see contrast. It’s the most apparent way to recognize difference.
There are a number of ways to use the contrast technique: between yourself and a competitor, between yourself and the absence of your product, or between yourself and the current solution (which may not be a product). For example, Belt A is made of finer leather than Belt B, or using Belt A is better than hitching your pants up all the time or Belt A is more fashionable than suspenders.
Alternatively, you can also look at known pain points of your competition and highlight how you’re different and/or better. For example, to become a member of a warehouse club, you’ll need to pay an annual fee. For some, this may be a pain point.
Sometimes what you DON’T have is a more favorable appeal, in a contrast situation. No fees! No batteries! No sticky residue! In a specific situation, all of these contrast points would be a stronger selling point.
How to use contrast
First, take a look at your closest competitors. What are you doing or offering that’s better? Then look at your product in contrast with alternatives that people may use or buy. What’s better about your product in that context?
Finally, look at your product in contrast with no product — this can be an effective contrast, as it creates needs. I had no idea I needed non-slip sticky inserts for my heels until an ad told me I didn’t have to have aching feet.
Within the ordinary lurks the extraordinary
Sometimes word selection or how we phrase a choice can drastically impact an ad’s performance. In our constant seeking of the big idea, it’s easy to overlook the simpler things which matter the most. (I think there’s a life lesson in here somewhere, too.)
Here are two great ways to do this.
1. Use impactful verbs
One word — a single verb — can make all the difference in the world. A fascinating study illustrates this.
Participants in the study saw a film of a traffic accident and then answered questions about what they’d seen, including the question, “How fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?”
Other participants got different words instead of “contacted,” like “hit,” “bumped,” “collided” and “smashed.”
Even though they all saw the same film, the phrasing in the question influenced how fast they thought the cars were going:
The livelier verbs like smashed and collided were the ones that lead to perceptions of higher speeds.
Another interesting effect. Participants were asked one week later whether they had seen broken glass at the accident site. The correct answer was “No,” but 32 percent of the participants who were given the “smashed” verb said there was broken glass. Even our memories can be influenced by word choice!
How to choose the right verb
Instead of going with typical word choices such as “Buy these boots” or a purely descriptive ad title such as “Black boots at Storename,” test some lively verbs that inspire action.
How do you think “Rock these black boots at Storename” or “Walk all over in these black boots at Storename” or “Strut your stuff” would perform in comparison?
Go with something that conjures up a more vivid mental picture to help you leave a lasting impression.
2. Test the framing effect
The framing effect is a cognitive bias; people react differently to a choice depending on how it’s presented or framed.
For example, the media can choose to portray an event in terms of lives lost vs. lives saved to leave a different impression of the same event. Or a grocery store can choose to label their ground beef as either 99 percent fat-free or 1 percent fat, and it’s likely the store will see more sales for the former.
The facts remain the same, just the degree of appeal or perception can change based on how it’s presented.
This can apply to ad copy as well. Some ideas to test:
- “10% off” or “Free shipping?”
- “Lifetime warranty” or “Free service for life?”
- “Save big” or “Big savings?”
The differences may seem miniscule, but the impact usually isn’t.
The description isn’t the only place to test the framing effect, either — test it out in the headline, the call to action and the display URL, too.
Give it a whirl
Influencing with ad copy is one of our strongest tools in the paid search game. It’s also the most fun, because you get to open up your creative brain and your lizard brain and really bring some joy and satisfaction to what is normally a very technical job.
Remember to look for the big impact within the smallest places.
Set up some tests using ad copy from each of these points and see how it goes. I’d love to hear about your results, too, so drop me a note at @purnavirji.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.