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Your Customers' Brains Are Hard-Wired to Decode These 10 Signals

Rhyming schemes and funny memes work because humans respond to recognizable patterns. Help them embrace your brand message by telling stories that feel familiar.
Your Customers' Brains Are Hard-Wired to Decode These 10 Signals
Image credit: Matt Dutile | Getty Images

Why do some websites seem to magically make us want to click “add to cart” and others leave us cold? The answer lies in psychology.

Whether you frame it as an art to perfect or the science of what makes people tick, psychology can motivate people to take action. In fact, persuasive writers have used techniques based in psychology to influence people since at least 1895.

These 10 copywriting techniques can help you harness the power of the unconscious to drive the results you want.

1. Repetition. 

Repetition also is called “illusory truth.” It's the notion that something repeated frequently feels more truthful and accurate to us -- and it's backed by study findings from the Association for Consumer Research.

To apply this idea to your copywriting, create several benefit or fact statements about a product, service or company. Then, consistently weave them throughout the copy you create. This involves repetition both within a single piece and across the entire spectrum of works to reiterate the same points.

2. Rhymes.

Rhymes piggyback on repetition by using sounds that repeat in patterns. Our minds remember patterns more easily than other information, which is probably why you forget a dentist appointment but can recall every lyric from your favorite band's songs.

Rhyming schemes are a memorization tactic, too. Planted subtly within copy, such a rhyme can create the seed of an idea. This is precisely why so many television and radio commercials feature jingles. The best ones have you singing along, even if you don't need the product or service. You can experiment by adding rhyming patterns into advertising copy or inserting short, rhyming phrases in headlines.

Related: Goodbye 'Growth Hacking.' Hello Neuromarketing.

3. Action verbs.

Action verbs imply urgency, motion and positivity. Passive voice slows down the copy and kills any energy within the words. Choose rich, imaginative active verbs whenever possible. A laundry detergent doesn’t simply clean clothes, it freshens and brightens them. A consulting firm doesn’t just offer business advice to help you make money, it develops action plans so you can vault over your competition.

Evocative action verbs form the basis of all good copy and are a writer’s best friends. If you struggle to find such words when you’re in the middle of a project, make lists of possible words and jot down verbs that strike your fancy as you surf the web or read journals. Soon, you’ll have your own personal lexicon of energy-packed super verbs.

4. Justification.

Justification offers a plausible reason behind your call to action. In copywriting, it taps into unconscious mental scripts and shorthands that enable you to rationalize your own actions.

If someone cuts in line in front of you at the ATM and murmurs, “Excuse me, may I go first? My grandmother is waiting at the pharmacy counter and I need to get some cash quick to pay for her medicine,” you probably won’t put up much of a fuss. This particular justification taps into your cultural programming to show empathy toward the elderly and the sick.

It’s a little trickier to code this psychological technique into your copy, but writers will find great success when they do it well. L’Oreal Paris cosmetics used this technique in its “Because I’m worth it” campaign. The commercials and print ads played on women’s feelings of self worth and celebrated the brand's products as a way to act on that justified belief.

Related: The 4 Elements of the Most Persuasive Copy

5. Offbeat word pairs.

Offbeat pairs make your headlines memorable. The technique jars your mental radar out of its complacent preset, making your mind sit up and take notice.

“Poor rich” is one example of a bizarre pairing. Others are more subtle. Headlines can use this tactic, too: "Run Your Company Like a Lemonade Stand " or "The Car That Flies" both defy expectations.

6. Textured Adjectives.

Like strong action verbs, textured adjectives add layered meaning and create a mental image. "Hot" is a concrete term, but “blistering” is much stronger because takes the meaning to a higher degree. The mind attaches emotion to words that carry texture and feeling. Use your adjectives sparingly and choose them wisely to get the fullest effect.

7. Visual numbers.

If your copy is heavy with numbers, percentages or other quantitative data, give your readers a break. Use word pictures, descriptions and metaphors to engage their imaginations and illustrate the meaning behind the numbers.

State the numbers first and then add the picture: “One out of every five children will go to bed hungry tonight. Imagine a typical classroom. See that boy in the blue sweater, seated at the last desk in the front row? His mother lost her job last week and can't afford groceries." 

Related: How the Significant Objects Social Experiment Proved the Economic Impact of Storytelling

8. Freedom to choose.

It sounds counterintuitive, but emphasizing your customer's freedom to choose can be a powerful inducement to select your product of service. A study conducted in 2000 showed how adding the phrase "but you are free" to a direct request for money drastically increased the odds of securing a gift.

Test the phrase in your copy, and you're likely to see it outperform the control. Variations on this theme include "It's your call," 'You can decide" and "It's your choice." The exact wording matters less than acknowledging that the consumer is exercising his or her will by taking action.  

9. Indirect claims. 

Indirect claims are tied to the brain's quest for context. They force the reader or listener to form the meaning behind the claim, whereas direct claims can indicate no meaning other than what's explicitly stated.

“The sweetness of a ripe peach” is a better claim for a natural-based candy than simply saying, “It’s very sweet.” The comparison puts the reader's imagination to work, thinking on the juiciest fruit he or she ever ate.

An article featured in the March 2013 Journal of Advertising explored the psychology behind this tactic. Self-generated inferences -- formed from indirect claims -- proved much more effective than direct claims. 

Related: 3 Easy Ways to Increase Your Brand's Engagement on Instagram

10. Second-person perspective.

Writing in the first person centers on "I," while the third person deals in "she" and "he." But the second person is even more immediate because it in hinges on "you."

One study found "you" statements outperformed neutral statements in terms of making people believe the copy is relevant to them. “You” encourages your readers to consider their own needs and feelings first. It directs the statement to the audience so they can absorb and internalize its meaning.