When you first start your business, it’s easy to assume that people hire you for your service.
You figure your clients are buying your writing, or your design skills, or your coaching abilities.
But at some point, you’ll realize that this just isn’t true.
They aren’t buying your services—they’re buying the results of your services. They’re buying the increased traffic, or the increased income, or the better life.
This new understanding will carry you for a while. You can do a lot of good marketing with this mentality.
But if you’re lucky (and by that I mean, lucky enough to read this article), then at some point, you’ll realize that that still isn’t why people actually hire you.
See, your clients think they want the results. But what they actually want is much deeper.
The real motivation? People buy things to satisfy their internal, psychological needs—not just their external ones. And the sooner you can tie your work to those psychological needs, the easier it will be to sell.
Tell me—When was the last time you made a purely logical purchase decision?
Chances are, it’s been a while.
Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman wrote that 95% of our purchasing decisions take place subconsciously—on an emotional level. It’s only afterward that we use logic to justify the purchase to ourselves. We rationalize it.
That’s why you always leave Target with about 10 more things than you planned on getting when you walked in. “Oh hey, look at this thing. I should get it. After all, this would make my house so much nicer…”
Purchase decisions take place on the subconscious level. And as someone marketing their services to clients, it’s up to you to meet your readers on that level as well.
So today, consider this your guide to the underworld of copywriting psychology.
If you’ve ever taken a Psych 101 class, you’ve likely encountered Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs.
Maslow was born in 1908. He theorized that humans have certain needs that must be met in order for us to progress as individuals. At the base level, we need food, water, and shelter. After that, we need safety. Then, we start working on the needs of belonging and gaining status, until we can finally self-actualize and reach our fullest potential.
It’s an interesting idea. And while the model is one of his most-remembered contributions to psychology, his methods of developing the hierarchy were… not quite scientific. Especially the “self-actualization” aspect. His research for that bit was reading the bios 18 people he thought were self-actualized (mostly super-educated white men), and basing his conclusions on their lives.
So, Maslow’s pyramid is often considered an outdated model with some big flaws. But the underlying ideas continue to inspire new research.
In the ’60s and ’70s, for example, Maslow himself updated the model with Cognitive needs (knowledge, curiosity, things making sense), Aesthetic needs (beauty), and Transcendence needs (motivation by values beyond one’s self, mystical experiences, pursuit of science, etc.).
And in 2010, one study attempted to update Maslow’s hierarchy for the modern era. The new pyramid looked similar to Maslow’s original one, but it replaced Self-actualization with Mate acquisition, Mate retention, and Parenting.
And then, a 2011 study found that the pyramid structure wasn’t even all that accurate. By studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in 123 countries, they found that the needs did appear universal, but they didn’t need to be in that order. Someone could fulfill higher-level tiers without fulfilling the lower ones.
So, what does all this mean for business owners?
We know that our clients (and we ourselves) are motivated by subconscious decision processes—not purely rational ones.
And we know that those decision processes are influenced by our ingrained psychological needs.
So for the purposes of this article, I think it’s safe to say that those core psychological needs fall pretty neatly into these categories:
- Mate-getting and -keeping
- We’ll leave off “self-actualization” because it’s poorly researched and pretty vague
- And we’re likely selling to people who already have their immediate survival covered, so we’ll leave that off physiological needs as well.
Your job as marketer, then, is to show the connection between what you’re selling and the core need(s) it satisfies.
Here are some questions for each need to help you identify what you should be highlighting in your copy.
💡 How does your product or service provide more security, order, or stability for your client?
This is easy to do if you’re selling, say, a burglar alarm. But if you’re selling website design? You’ll have a few more dots to connect for your readers.
It’s not too big of a stretch, though. For example, a professional website design can help win more customers. And more customers means more income, which is security.
(We’ll talk about how to actually use this in your copy at the end.)
💡 How can you remove fear from the purchase decision?
Our clients have a lot of fears. You might be the best in the world at what you do, but they don’t know that. They’ve likely been burned before. Or maybe they haven’t been burned themselves, they’ve heard of others who invested in people like you and wasted their money.
Spend some quality time identifying their fears, then address each of them in your copy (with proof, if possible).
💡 How does your product or service give them a feeling of belonging?
People love to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Community is a huge motivator—whether or not they’re actually interacting with peers.
Can you give your customers common language or insider identifiers to make them feel like they’re part of a group? Does your service have an actual community aspect to it, such as a Facebook group? Can you give your people a name that unites them? (Think John Lee Dumas’s “Fire Nation“)
💡 How can you make them feel appreciated as part of your own in-crowd?
Especially if you don’t have a client community—how can you create a sense of belonging just between you and your client? Appreciative gifts, thank-you notes, and letting them know how much you like working with them all go a long way in building real bonds.
Maslow called this one “esteem,” and gave it two categories: esteem for yourself (the feeling of self-worth, achievement, and mastery), and esteem from others (status, respect, prestige).
💡 How can you position yourself so that buying your services feels like an act of self-love?
If you’ve ever invested in a course that had a higher price tag (whatever that means to you), you know the feeling. There’s likely fear, sure, of making such a big investment. But there’s also that giddiness of knowing you’re doing the right thing for yourself. You’re worth the investment.
(Assuming, of course, that it IS a sound purchase.)
What would it look like to be that kind of purchase for your client?
💡 How does your product or service elevate your client’s status in their community?
Will your amazing blog articles help them sound like a complete pro?
Will your ads put them on the map?
Or even consider: What can you do to make people excited to share that they got their work done by you?
When you position your services as a luxury purchase, and you have the social clout to back it up, you make your work highly desirable. Sure, they could hire another provider for a quarter of the price. But if they can tell their friends that So-and-so designed their site? It means they’re rolling with the big boys now.
And by the way, this is why impeccable branding is worth the investment. You can putz around at the low levels for ages. But if you want to work with the best, you can’t just do great work—you need to show up as great yourself.
💡 How does your product or service increase your client’s skill or knowledge?
This is ideal for info products that help your client gain mastery over a subject. Will you teach them to be a stock trader expert? Will they learn how to be the best high school art teacher with your guidance? Appeal to those who don’t just want to have the information, but actually want to be the expert.
💡 How can you appeal to their curiosity in your copy?
Like any good relationship, it’s important to maintain a bit of healthy mystery with your clients during the sales process.
I like to think of curiosity as an element you add in the small-scale, not the large-scale. So tell them the big things. If you’re running a course, tell them the topic of each module. But when you list out what’s in a given module, describe the results without explaining the process of how to get the results. (That’s what you’re selling, after all.)
- Learn Etsy’s guidelines—and the unspoken rules—of creating a successful online shop
- Discover my 5-step method for attracting buyers that took my business to six-figures!
💡 How can you show the ROI (return on investment) for your clients?
In order to close a sale, the purchase needs to make cognitive sense to the client. To do that, you need to demonstrate not only that your solution is right for their problem, but that their return will be equal or greater to what they paid.
Remember, though, that return doesn’t have to be purely financial. It just has to be a good deal in their eyes.
💡 How can you make your product beautiful?
If you’re selling an e-book or other digital product: Does it have a well-designed cover? If you’re selling a physical product: Is the packaging on-brand and attractive?
💡 How can you make your sales page/branding/emails beautiful?
I’ll be the first to say that copy is more important than design in the sales process—that is, you can sell something with good copy and bad design, but not as easily the other way around.
However, that doesn’t mean design is pointless. In fact, quite the opposite! Great design enhances your copy, making it both easier to understand and more pleasing to look at (which means readers are more likely to keep reading).
Mate-getting and -keeping
There’s a sexual element here, of course. And if your service is, say, relationship counseling, this one is straight-forward. But for the rest of us, it’s helpful to take a broader view. Regardless of relationship status, we all want to be seen as attractive.
💡 How does your product or service make your client look amazing to the world?
Maybe you help budding speakers feel more comfortable on stage. Then you want to show how you help them show their confidence.
Maybe you’re a photographer. You don’t have to do boudoirs to make your clients look just plain beautiful.
💡 How does your product or service make your client more attractive to their partner?
Money’s often a big one here. Take, for example, the movement of women who are building businesses with the goal of retiring their husbands. Regardless of gender, being the breadwinner is a huge ego boost.
This last one is more niche than the others, simply because not everyone is a parent (or desires to be one).
But if your audience does include a large number of parents, it can be helpful to consider:
💡 How does your product or service help your clients be better parents?
Do you take something off their plate so they can spend more time with their kids?
Do you help them make money to provide a better life for them?
Do you coach them through their life goals, so they can be a great role model?
If you help clients reach heightened spiritual, sexual, cognitive, or aesthetic experiences, you’re appealing to their need for transcendence. This fits in well with artists, spiritual guides, and nature guides, for example.
For the rest of us, a great question to ask is:
💡 How can you tie your product or service to a greater cause?
Transcendence is about values outside of oneself. How does your product or service help your clients serve others? This might be through building their skills, or you might consider donating a portion of sales to a charity.
💡 What are your values, and how can you show them?
I’ve talked before about defining your business values, and will likely be talking about them ’til the end of time, because they’re so damn important. In short: Know what you believe in. Know what you believe about yourself and your industry. Then, make sure it’s clear to your customers, too. This will attract the right people—and naturally turn away the clients who won’t be a good fit.
How to use your customers’ subconscious needs in your copy
We’ve covered a lot. But two things you should know:
First: You don’t need to use every psychological need.
That would make your copy pretty busy. Instead, use these questions as a process for exploring the most important needs that your specific product or service needs to appeal to.
Second: In your copy, you don’t need to spell it out.
When communicating these needs, go for subtlety.
To use the first Safety example, you’d sound awfully silly telling customers “Hey, a better website can attract more customers, right? Which means more money for you—which means you’ll feel safe!”
That’d just be weird.
Instead, use this knowledge to gently add deeper meaning to the results you’re already describing:
“We believe in creating websites that convert readers into leads without extra sales calls, so you can wake up each Monday morning to a full sales pipeline.”
A full pipeline? That’s the ultimate business security. That’s a huge appeal to their desire for Safety.
Or if you’re a wellness coach who wants to make your clients see the sense of Belonging they could feel as one of your clients:
“As a client, you get instant access to the private [insert cool name here] Facebook group, where you’ll get to meet over 30 other women who are on the same health journey with you.”
So, what will you do with this power?
So, here we’ve talked about the core psychological needs and how to tap into them for the benefit of your business.
It’s easy to take this guidance and just start implementing it willy-nilly. But I encourage you to take a moment and realize that we’re literally talking about influencing our clients’ subconscious minds to give us money.
Now, this doesn’t have to be icky. But it does require a level of responsibility. You can use sales psychology to build a better world, or tear it down. And unfortunately, a lot of advertising today falls in the latter category.
Good luck out there,