Writing Sales Copy – 8 Ways to Spot Dominant Emotions Your Prospects Already Have


Today, I want to answer the question I get asked most often about dominant emotion copywriting …“How do you KNOW what your prospects are feeling?”

Here are several techniques I use …

1. Walk a mile in your prospect’s shoes

If you have a vivid imagination, you’ll be surprised at how many of your prospects’ resident emotions you can identify simply by thinking.

Close your eyes and put yourself into the prospects’ shoes. Let the people you’re about to speak to speak to you first.

As I sat down to begin writing my first Health & Healing promotion, I did exactly that. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and mentally inserted myself into the shoes of a 50 to 70-year-old man (our target demographic) whose life was plagued by chronic health problems … endless doctor visits … taking fistfuls of costly prescription drugs every day … suffering horrific side-effects from those drugs … and never really getting any better.

I saw myself showing up at the doctor’s office on time, cooling my heels in the waiting room reading dull magazines for an hour, waiting for my name to be called.

I vicariously experienced being ushered into the exam room — and then, made to wait even longer.

Finally, I saw the doctor hurriedly burst through the door, ask me a cursory question or two, scribble a few chicken scratches on a prescription pad and vanish as quickly as he had come.

As I saw myself experiencing what my prospects experience every day, I started feeling the emotions they were feeling: Frustration with health problems that their doctors couldn’t seem to cure … afraid of the consequences of failing health … exhausted by doctor visits that interrupted their lives … worried about the cost and side-effects of conventional medicine … embarrassed by the intrusive poking and prodding … and disgusted with doctors who never seemed to take a personal interest in them.

Wow. Did that exercise ever bring my sales copy to life!

Being the prospect is even easier when writing for the investment and finance markets. You don’t even need an imagination. You can experience precisely what your prospects are feeling every day of the year.

The very first thing I tell every young copywriter who’s eager to break into the investment newsletter promotion field – before we even begin talking about the writing process or the principles of great direct response copy – is this:

“The first thing you do, open a brokerage account. Take all the money you have in the world and put it into that account. No fair using a few hundred bucks you wouldn’t miss if you lost it. You’ve got to have enough at stake so that you’ll be thrilled when your principal grows and crushed when it declines.”

“Then, start investing. Get advice from a broker and follow it with some of your money.

“Subscribe to a couple of investment advisory newsletters, and follow the guru’s advice with another chunk of your money.

“Then, do some research on your own, and invest the rest of your money into stocks and mutual funds that you like.”

That’s it. I don’t have to say another word. Nobody who takes that advice, follows it to the letter, ever has to wonder how investors feel – ever again.

Suddenly, CNBC is the most riveting channel on TV and the thrill you get from reading Forbes makes Playboy seem dull by comparison! The announcement of a quarter-point interest rate hike that once passed virtually unnoticed suddenly sends chills down your spine. A half-point hike gets you quaking in your boots. When someone talks about an investor who struck it rich, you hang every word. And you have an irresistible urge to knock on wood when you hear about someone who was taken to the cleaners.

And suddenly, the rumor of soaring earnings at a sexy young company gets you almost excited as … well, I’ll leave it up to you to fill in your own metaphor …

Then, one day, things really get interesting. You find a monthly brokerage statement lurking in your mailbox. How does that make you feel? Are you eager to open it? Or like hiding it quick before your spouse – who secretly suspects you’re not that bright but loves you anyway –sees it?

Now, you’ve opened and read the thing. How does that feel? Are you thinking that silk-screening it on a tee-shirt and hitting the nearest bar will help you meet chicks? Would plastering Xerox copies all over your bedroom walls get you lucky tonight? Or would burying it along with Rover’s droppings in the back yard be a better idea?

Or, do you just feel disappointed – like you took a huge risk, suffered through intense emotional highs and lows, wasted a whole month of your life and have nothing to show for it?

Now – and this will take some imagination for younger people – imagine that you have all these feelings and you’re just a few short years from retirement. Every month that flies by brings you 30 days closer to having to live on income generated by the paltry balance on that brokerage statement. And now, as you sit there with your results in hand, how do you feel?

How do you feel about your broker? Is he a saint? Or a bum? What do you want to do to those gurus whose advice you followed? Kiss them? Curse them?

Does this experience – whether good or bad – leave you wanting to find other investment newsletters and give them a try? Or is it convincing you that you could do better on your own?

Whatever your answers, chances are, they’re the answers the vast majority of your prospects would give, too. Since they were investing in the same markets you were, at the same time you were, the odds are that many, if not most of them shared similar experiences – and have similar feelings about those experiences.

Now, since I write mostly for the health and investment markets, it only makes sense that I’d draw these examples from what I know. But no matter what you’re selling … no matter who you’re selling it to, the process is the same.

Putting yourself into your prospects shoes can get you a long, long way towards connecting your products strongest benefits with your prospect’s most compelling emotions.

2. Chat up your friends and family

Everyone you know is a consumer. Chances are, some of them are even prospects for the product you’re writing for now. Who knows? Their names could even be on the mailing list your copy is going to be mailed to! They’re close by, dying to hear from you anyway, and their input costs you nothing.

Ask about their experiences and feelings relative to the things your product does; the benefits it offers. Which benefits have the greatest value to them – and why? What would prevent them from buying it from you – right now? How do they feel about other products like yours?

As you talk, be especially sensitive to the intensity with which they respond to your questions. It will give you clues to which of these thoughts and feeling are most dominant and which are not.

3. Talk to strangers

I know your mom told you not to – but really: It’s OK. This is research!

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I simply say something like, “Right now, I’m writing about _________ .” And fill in the blank with whatever it is I am writing about.

Sometimes, it almost feels like my conversation partner has just been hit by an adrenalin dart. Everything he or she knows, thinks, has experienced and feels relative to the subject comes pouring out in torrents.

Sometimes, they even write my headlines for me!

4. Immerse yourself in the popular culture

When I’m beginning work on a new package, I often start by taking the day off. I don’t mean “off-off” — just out of the office.

I clamber up into my trusty pick-up and tool on over to the Barnes & Nobel … make a beeline for the magazine section … and start scooping up everything that I think my prospects might be reading.

If I’m writing a package on a health product, I start with all the magazines relating to health. An investment product? All the money mags. And so on. That’s my psychographic pile.

Next, I look at all the magazines designed for the demographic I’m going to be addressing. Women … men … senior citizens … whatever.

Finally, I browse the book sections for titles that connect with the subject at hand. And finally, I go through the rack that features The New York Times non-fiction best-sellers. I pick up anything I even remotely suspect that my prospects may be reading. And no, I don’t cheap out and browse them in the store. I pay up and take them home. What the heck – it’s a write-off. Uncle Sam’s paying for nearly half of them anyway.

As I detest shopping, I try to get all of this done in a couple of hours. “Find it, kill it, drag it back to the cave,” I always say. Then, I settle down in front of the TV and flip over to a cable network that’s targeted at my audience. CNBC, Lifetime, Discovery/Health, whatever.

I grab my highlighter, an x-acto knife, a pen, a note pad and go to work on my pile of research …

• I look for topics that are covered more than once or twice. It’s a great clue that this is a major issue that my market is consumed with. If it’s a situation that’s likely to continue for some time, it may be a great theme or sidebar for my sales copy.

• I note the tone of the articles on these topics. Is the tone of the articles excited? Sarcastic? Angry? This too, is a great clue to how my prospects may be feeling about the topic at hand – emotions I can stroke to better grab their attention and keep them reading.

• I look for phrases that capture the essence and energy of what I’m going to be saying powerfully and quickly. The best ones may become subheads or even a headline!

• I look for ads that appear several times in the magazines I bought. Studying these ads gives me tons of ideas for the types of emotional appeals, sales arguments and benefits my prospects are already responding best to.

• Finally, I devour my stack of books, doing much the same thing. Scanning the table of contents for phrases that capture the emotion I’m trying to connect with … looking for tone elements that are appropriate for my message … and if the book directly addresses the things I’ll be writing about, picking up some great pieces of data to add credibility to my sales copy.

How helpful is all of this — really? I’ll give you an example: When I launched Christiane Northrup’s Health Wisdom for Women several years back, a single book entitled, as I recall, Misdiagnosis – The Treatment of Womanhood as a Disease – told me pretty much everything I needed to know to get in touch with my prospects feelings relating to her medical care.

The launch package was another grand-slam, generating a 4% response. How were the royalties? Humongous, thank you very much!

Why is this simple, one-day process worth its weight in gold? Simple: Every one of the super-giant publishing companies behind these magazines spend millions on customer research. Looking at what they publish is like getting to listen in on their focus groups with my prospects – free!

Furthermore, each of these magazines aggressively tests the fascinations on their covers to determine which ones sell the most magazines. When you’re reading these covers, you’re not only looking at millions of dollars of research, you’re looking at years of results.

Plus, of course, each of the repeat advertisers in these magazines have spent years and probably millions to determine what kinds of headlines, leads and copy tone produce the greatest response from my prospects. Again – pure gold.

Ditto for the books. Book publishing is one of the most cut-throat, competitive businesses going. The best book covers and liner notes reflect the very best marketing intelligence the publishers have at their command.

… Which equals? … Anyone? … Anyone? Right! More free research for me!

5. Ask customers

O.K. So focus groups suck. We’ve all tried them and we all pretty much agree that they’re a total waste of time and money for direct response marketers.

Customers in focus groups try too hard to give you the “right” answer – the answer they think you want to hear … or that makes them sound smart or insightful.

Most importantly, because they’re not backing up their phony-baloney answers with a check, any opinions about your mail pieces are pretty much worthless. Judging from response to your promotions and test cells – tests in which prospects put their money where their mouths are — are a far better way to divine how your prospects are feeling.

But for identifying resident and dominant emotions, customer polls – whether conducted through the mail, over the phone or on the internet – can be extremely helpful.

I believe in making the questions are open-ended. Multiple choice questions force customers into a box. You’ll be better able to read the nuances of emotion if you encourage the customer to ramble as much as possible.

Frankly, I’m surprised at how few direct response marketers do this on a regular, scheduled, disciplined, quarterly basis. I mean – what’s with you guys, anyway? You own these names. They originally came from lists you’re about to mail again. What they’re thinking and feeling are GREAT clues to what your prospects are thinking and feeling – and could be the key to breaking the bank with a hot new control.

So why do so many otherwise savvy, sophisticated, even ingenious direct response marketers lack the discipline to institute regular customer polling? Why does the laundry always lose only one of each pair of socks – and where do they go? Universal mysteries that will probably never be explained. Maybe quantum physics has something to do with it.

New customer surveys can be particularly informative. Ask the newbies what made them decide to join you. Ask them what they expect you to do for them. Ask them how they feel about the current environment. Ask them how you’re doing so far.

And for Pete’s sake, when you get the answers, do more than just scan them or even worse, issue a memo with a table showing how many answers fell into which broad category! The answers you’re looking for are as much in the tone of the responses as in the words on the page. So read them carefully. Read between the lines. Let them wash over you. Sleep on them. And then mine the heck out of them to discover the emotions that drove your tenderfoots to you.

Finally, pick a handful of the most intriguing responses and follow up with a phone call. Get the customer talking. Listen to the emotion behind his/her words. Dig until you’re sure you’ve nailed the most dominant emotions they have about the problem your product or service solves or the need it fulfills.

6. Ask ANGRY customers

When customers are complaining, they tend to let their guard down – and tell you what they really think about you, your product and your whole !@#$ industry(!).

Do NOT dodge these calls. Accept them cheerfully. Encourage the customer to vent. And be sure to take copious notes. They’ll give you clues to the reasons why at best only a tiny fraction of the names you rent from others wind up ordering from you.

Why? Because your competitors – the folks you hope to rent a ton of names from – are getting the exact same kinds of calls from the people you’re planning to sell your product to! It may just be that you’ll be exposed to some of the raw emotions your prospects and customers are feeling, but haven’t expressed to you. And subtly addressing those feelings can mean real profit opportunities!

Ask yourself: Is there a way to eliminate these negative emotions in my sales copy without actually mentioning the complaint?

7. Divine the answer

This is a no-brainer and we all do it, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. But watching your competitors’ copy can give you clues to the things they think are driving customers to them.

And while analyzing your competitors’ controls line-by-line is “Marketing 101,” knowing what they’re testing can often be even more informative. It gives you valuable clues as to what their market research is telling them as to the types of headlines and emotional appeals that might work even better than their controls.

Oh – and while you’re at it, why not pick up the phone and ask your competitor if he’d mind terribly if you sent a poll to a representative sample of his best customers.

You’re laughing. Well, I suggested that Weiss Research do just that. And you know what happened? The competitor said, “Sure!”

And why not? He wants to rent you his names. ALL of his names. As often as is humanly possible. And for that to happen, your promotions have to work well when mailed to those names. So why not go Dutch on a survey sent to both of your files — and share the results?

And don’t forget to also pay attention to what non-competitors in similar fields and even businesses in completely unrelated industries are doing.

Whenever you’re looking at a successful ad, direct mail package, or any other marketing communication, have your feelers out. Which resident emotions are the companies behind them appealing to?

8. Check the polls

The internet may not be all it’s cracked up to be — but it is a great source of free research into your prospects’ state of mind and emotions.

My friend Carline Anglade-Cole, a crackerjack copywriter in her own right, absolutely loves doing internet research. “I Google EVERYTHING,” she says.

And when Carline says, “Everything,” she means everything about her prospect, the products that are competing with the product she’s selling, every topic covered in her sales copy, EVERYTHING!”

So go ahead: Ask Jeeves. Google to your heart’s content. Yahoo! your brains out. It’s free. You might learn something. So why not?

And while you’re on-line, don’t forget to check out the great consumer sentiment research sites. They’ve been asking your prospects many of the same questions you have – about their fears, desires, and more

Yale University keeps a list of major poling organizations at:


Do any of the above, and you’ll get great clues to how the emotions that are driving your prospects’ now. Do all of them – regularly – and you’ll become a master of your market.

You’ll also be the first to know when the dominant emotions in your marketplace begins to change. And, you’ll be one of the first to identify and profit from the new trend – whatever it turns out to be.

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