From Even a Penny Qualifiers to the Power of “Free”: 4 Copywriting Techniques Inspired by Consumer Psychology

by | Aug 10, 2021 | B2B Copywriting

Ever wondered why some marketing teams hire psychologists to work with them full-time on a project?

Investigations into the role of psychology in consumer behavior started in the early ’90s when Walter Dill Scott published his book—The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice.

By the mid ’90s, consumer behavior and psychology started to emerge as a distinct sub-discipline of marketing.

Since then, we haven’t looked back. And today, we now know that the principles of psychology, persuasion and copywriting often work hand in hand.

We’ve compiled a list of four powerful copywriting tactics based on studies in psychology to help you take your copy from good to great.

A quick summary of what we’ll cover:

  • Thrill your readers with power words
  • Use “even a penny” qualifiers to downplay your CTAs
  • Agitate your readers (in a good way) with PAS
  • Go viral with a little help from the VAD scale

1.  Macaque monkeys teach us to thrill our readers with power words

In 1992, a group of scientists led by Giacomo Rizolatti discovered a special kind of cell in macaque monkeys now known as “mirror neurons”.

A mirror neuron literally does what its name says: it ‘mirrors’ the actions of others.

Research on the subject has shown that these neurons are fired when a human performs an action and/or observes an action being performed by someone else. Mirror neurons are also believed to have the ability to transfer powerful feelings taking place in the event you’re observing back over to you as the observer.

Although a majority of the studies on mirror neurons focus on literal observation, as writers, we know that words can also convey strong feelings. (And of course, we all know emotions play a huge role in the human decision-making process.)

That’s why it’s always a good idea to spice up your copy with power words that can provoke your readers to take action. If you sound excited, they’ll feel excited.

Here are three quick examples of (both obvious and not-so-obvious) power words:

Free — The power of this single word cannot be overstated. And if you don’t believe us, look no further than this quick chocolate experiment. 

In his book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely revealed a study where 38% more people chose Hershey’s kisses over Lindt truffles when the kisses were labeled free. Earlier in the experiment, most people had chosen the truffles when the kisses were just a penny!

Reveal — Words like ‘reveal’ imply uncharted territory and novelty. But more noteworthy is that they trigger curiosity.

In fact, a 2008 paper by Min Jeong Kang from Caltech detailing an experiment on curiosity found that we are more curious when we know a little about a subject but not too much. So go ahead and let your readers know you’re going to ‘uncover’, ‘demystify’ or ‘shed light on’ a topic they care about.

Because — In an experiment known as the Xerox line experiment, researchers got more people to grant their request (in this case, to skip the queue to make copies) by including the word ‘because’ in their request even when they didn’t have a valid reason. 

In fact the phrase: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?” yielded just 60% compliance, while the phrase: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” yielded a whopping 93% compliance.

Looking for more power word inspo? This list of 801+ Power Words That Pack a Punch and Convert Like Crazy by the folks over at SmartBlogger has a word for every occasion. 

2. Sweat the small stuff with “even a penny” qualifiers

In this article by Investopedia, analysis paralysis is defined “as a situation in which an individual or group is unable to move forward with a decision as a result of overanalyzing data or overthinking a problem.”

When we’re faced with major decisions, we tend to either shrink away or go straight into overthinking. And in either case, we’re usually left feeling completely unable to decide what to do.

In a door-to-door donation request experiment, researchers observed how a simple change in the second wording of the request led to an almost 2X increase in donations.

The two variants used were:

  • Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?
  • Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.

The subtle but significant inclusion of “every penny will help” clarified the impact a participant’s donation will have. And this prompted a higher percentage of people to be more likely to donate.

Moral of the story for copywriters? Sweat the small stuff. 

If a few additional words could make such a huge difference, make sure you’re using the right ones in your copy.

Focus your phrasing on downplaying the commitment and making it super easy for your prospects to act.

3. Use fear for good with the PAS copywriting formula

This probably sounds creepy and unethical to some but we’re hoping that if you’re here, it’s because you’re using copywriting for good and that product or service you sell solves a real problem.

If that sounds right, you should have no problem using fear for good.

Fear has been said to be not just a deeply rooted primal instinct, but arguably the most powerful motivator in humans.

A copywriting formula known as ‘PAS’ is structured to use fear to drive people to act. Legendary copywriter, Dan Kennedy invented the PAS formula and in his book, The Ultimate Sales Letter, said: “It may be the most reliable sales formula ever invented”.

The acronym PAS stands for:

  • P — Problem
  • A — Agitation
  • S — Solution

VP of marketing at Common Thread Collective, Aaron Orendorff says:

The problem (pun intended) is most marketing skips step two: agitation.

We identify the problem and go right into the solution without ever stopping to drive home how truly hellish the problem is.”

‘Agitation’ is where the use of fear comes in your copy. You help your reader visualize how bad things could get if they don’t do something about the problem at that very moment.

After doing this, you can get to the really fun part — presenting your solution.

4. Go viral with a little help from the VAD scale

Jacopo Staino of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise carried out a study in 2015 to measure the roles of valence, arousal and dominance in viral content.

They surveyed 65,000 articles on two news sites where readers had assigned emotional scores to the articles.

Their study showed that individual emotions might not matter so much in virality compared to where the emotions fall within the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model.

The VAD scale is used in psychology to categorize emotions like joy and fear in terms of:

  • Valence – Positive and negative emotions
  • Arousal – High-arousal and low-arousal emotions
  • Dominance – High-dominance (feeling in control) and low-dominance emotions

Further research by marketers at Fractl found that positive content that made readers feel in control are more likely to be shared.

They also found that articles with a large number of comments usually evoked high-arousal emotions such as anger, paired with a low-dominance emotion like fear.

If your goal is to create viral content, studies like this show that virality doesn’t depend on creating cat memes or featuring celebrities alone. It’s about crafting the perfect kind of message with the right emotional combinations to connect with your readers on a deeper level and then prompt them to act.

Ready for another rabbit hole? Check out this amazing list of resources on consumer psychology. 😉

How to make these persuasion principles work for you

Ready to roll up your sleeves and put these persuasion techniques to work? Here’s a quick recap to get you started.

  • Include power words where appropriate (but especially in your main headline and subheadlines).
  • Make your CTAs as easy as possible to say yes to with “even a penny” qualifiers.
  • Start painting a picture of life with vs. without your product or service with the little help of the ‘A’ in PAS.
  • Make sure the words in your copy are hitting the right emotional buttons on the VAD scale.

And whatever you do, make sure you use these tactics for good. Because no matter how deeply rooted in psychology these principles are, the best way to get and keep a customer is to simply show up consistently and authentically.

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