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A Hard Sell

How can you convince your tradition-bound prospects to make the switch to e-commerce?

As this leviathan called internet commerce evolves, there's no telling what we'll eventually be comfortable doing electronically. One day, maybe we'll let a cyber-optometrist give us an onscreen eye exam or pay a virtual baby-sitter to watch the kids.

But for now, there are still lots of people for whom making purchasing decisions in certain areas means dealing with a warm body. One of those areas is insurance. And although we often do buy coverage from the voice of a warm body on the phone, the thought of making such decisions online may still be too 21st century for some.

So the brain trust at, which offers a plethora of insurance info on its Web site, decided to take this bull by the horns. Running a full-page ad that announces, "A challenge to parents who would never dream of buying insurance online," the company is addressing the issue head-on.

The ad and the company get an A+ for hoisting a perceived negative up the flagpole and dramatizing it ("to parents who would never dream of . . .") to face even the most intractable of traditionalists. Following a provocative subhead, the long-copy ad starts: "Let's face it. We know dozens of friends who would never consider buying insurance online." Then it explains why has made it OK, even an advantage, to buy coverage this way. However, just to hedge its bets a little, the ad also offers a toll-free number to chat with "salaried insurance counselors," as opposed to commissioned salespeople. In addition, promises it will "never sell or rent your name to anybody." The company is attempting to neutralize all potential negatives, even going so far as to offer a $500 reward to anyone who uncovers a rate-quote error on the site.

Perhaps you, too, are working to get your target market over the commerce-by-computer hump. If so, the message implicit in this ad is this: Don't pussyfoot around the negatives. Address them squarely in advertising, and dispel them one by one. Now you don't even have to work particularly hard to come up with an appropriate headline. There are a dozen potent variations of the headline that would work to draw the attention of your audience.

We're not a long way from accepting all forms of e-commerce. But if you're anxious to speed up the process, you've now got at least one advertising model to work from.

Jerry Fisher is a freelance advertising copywriter and the author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising.

This story appears in the August 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »