7 ways copywriting can influence people

I draw upon my professional experience to advise the current BA students I’m lecturing, but I decided to switch places recently and become a student for the day myself in order to brush up on writing skills. I attended a refresher course in the art of copywriting for business run by the talented Richard Spencer of A Thousand Monkeys.

For me, the most notable reference I took from the day was Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion. The principles cover the six key ways a person’s behaviour may be influenced through the writing of copy.

Here I run through them and describe how they can be employed to help encourage a reaction—and ideally an action—from a reader.

Principle 1 – Social Proof
The first principle is all about ‘social proof’. We tend to be persuaded to behave in a particular way if we see (or read) that other people are already doing something that we are being asked to consider. Human nature dictates that we are more likely to join in an activity if we see others participating or if their participation is at least implied. Think: “I want to do what they’re doing” or “I want to be considered part of that group”.

A very simple example that was used to illustrate this point was a sign within a Waterstones book store alongside a table of carefully selected books citing: “Clever books for clever people”. Similarly a hotel chain experimented with its bathroom signage to see how it might get more people to reuse their towels. They found the largest impact was achieved when they pointed out that ‘62% of people who stayed in this room reused their towels’. It was a simple but strong use of copywriting that led to one-third more people reusing their towels. In an age of social media and instant (and publicly visible) customer feedback, people are easily able to air and share opinions.

Brands that capitalise on this principle can find it particularly powerful…but, as with much brand communication, it relies heavily on a good quality product or service to begin with.

Principle 2 – Being Liked
You want people on side. It is not a surprise to hear that people are more likely to side with you and take note of what you’re saying if they like you. Being liked can be an important factor in communicating with your audience. Showing humility, being humorous—essentially being human—makes you more approachable and more easily liked.

Consider the example of the error message you get when a web page does not load. Quite often we’re faced with technical jargon that communicates nothing. The web browser Firefox however takes a more human—and therefore potentially more likeable—approach: “Oops…that’s embarrassing”, which may just help you to be patient and stick with them. Companies like Innocent have used this to great effect but as more and more brands adopt this stance, consumers are as likely to be turned off as they are turned on by this approach.

Principle 3 – Reciprocation
Another truth about our behaviour is that if we give something away, we are more likely to get something back in return. It can be worth considering whether as a business or organisation you have anything you are able to rework or repackage in someway to become something you can give away. A common example of this would be ‘An Insider’s Guide to…’.

The provision of helpful advice can promote a two-way relationship between an organisation and the people that use it. This is one principle that can easily generate cynicism in an audience. Marketing-savvy customers are more and more aware of the ‘tricks’ that brands can play so this form of persuasion needs to be honest and genuinely benevolent if its to succeed.

Principle 4 – Authority
People are influenced by experts. This is a prevalent technique in present day marketing and also television programming. Just think about how many products and services—and indeed TV series—are aligned with an expert that the public recognises. Testimonials from specialists can help underline the ‘expert’ nature of a product or service and further provide a sense of authority from a business or organisation. Brands can find they get an equivalent benefit from referring to their founders too, making sure they are seen as an authority in their field.

Principle 5 – Commitment
Getting people to commit to your product, site or service is hard. Copywriting can help to bridge the gap between apathy and action by being positive and encouraging incremental stages of involvement. It is worth staggering messaging and taking customers on a journey. Simply asking people to click ‘continue’ as opposed to ‘subscribe’, for example can make a big difference to the rate of subscription for certain businesses.

Principle 6 – Scarcity
You can influence people to respond by adding in an element of scarcity. Possibly the most common form of scarcity we see brands employing is the idea of a ‘limited offer’ to encourage people to sign up or ‘buy now’. Online companies such as Amazon make sure that users consider the scarcity of an item by making it clear how many are still available to order. You are more likely to go ahead with a purchase if you see that there are 4 left in stock as opposed to 104. Again, this is a principle that needs to be applied in an honest way so that customers do not feel as though they are being duped into buying into a service or purchasing a product whilst under unnecessary pressure.

Principle 7 – Provenance
This is one I thought I could add to the list myself. It is a useful approach to copywriting that revolves around the idea of storytelling and making people aware of the provenance of a brand or a product. Customers nowadays are more likely than ever before to demand to know where a product comes from, how it’s made and exactly who made it. People like to understand that a brand is authentic and appreciate copywriting that introduces them to its history; its conception through to production and delivery of its goods. Brands such as Boden use this to great effect allowing its followers to buy in to the story behind the brand as well the items it sells.

It is easy to see how some of these 7 techniques are more applicable to certain industries and scenarios than others (scarcity is more likely to be appropriate for a customer-facing retail scenario than a corporate business-to-business communication for instance) but it is worth considering at least one of the seven in your next piece of writing. Hell, I’ve just used principle number 3 right here…let’s see if it proves positively persuasive.

If you’re interested in copywriting for business by the way, go to A Thousand Monkeys to find out when their next masterclasses are running and be a student for the day like me.


About the author: Mike Bond


Mike Bond co-founded the brand design consultancy Bond and Coyne in 2001 on the belief that design should be based on strategy-led problem solving so that the results are fit-for-purpose as well as beautiful. As Strategy Director, he leads the strategic elements of the agency’s brand and campaign projects.

As well as speaking at design conferences and events, including at the Apple Store, Universities UK and the Jerwood Gallery, he has contributed to respected periodicals and books including The Designer’s Research Manual published in the US. In his capacity as a senior lecturer in design at Kingston University and faculty member at YearHere, Mike teaches research methods, strategically-led design processes and entrepreneurism.

Bond & CoyneProviding a positive, human and straightforward approach to problem solving.

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