18 Powerful Psychological Principles that Drive Direct Marketing
by Dean Rieck
Too many direct marketing gurus profess simplistic ideas about psychology. They insist that people perhaps the most complex biological creatures on Earth can be understood with a checklist of motivators or pyramid of needs. I even once had a consultant stand up during one of my lectures and claim that the only fact anyone needs to understand is that people act out of "fear." Period.
What nonsense! I can't even figure out why the bagger at the grocery checkout puts three hundred cat food cans in one bag and a single stick of celery in another so that I'm forced to lurch to my car leaning to one side. How can I possibly encapsulate the whole human experience in a five-point checklist?
Such simple solutions are attractive, but ultimately limiting. When it comes to people, you have to learn what you can, but always keep an open mind. Because just when you think you have everything figured out, someone does something you never expected.
That's why I so strongly advocate endless testing, insist on thinking carefully about every marketing challenge, and remain a dedicated student of that fascinating, bewildering, and wonderful creature, Homo sapiens.
So in no particular order, here are some of the tidbits I've learned about our credit-card-wielding species.
- People make decisions emotionally. People seldom make rational, logical decisions. They decide based on a feeling, need, or emotion. Usually, therefore, intangible benefits are the key to persuasion. Even for offer-driven promotions and business-to-business marketing, there is an emotional core to every decision. For any given promotion, you should ask yourself, "What is the emotional hot button here?"
- People like to think they are logical. While people make emotional decisions, they justify those decisions with logic and supporting facts. Example: a woman sees a picture of an expensive dress in a catalog and instantly wants it because of her emotional reaction. If it were just a picture and a price, she may not buy it if she's at all practical. But the copy goes on at length detailing the quality of the fabric, the close stitching, and how buying such a dress is really an investment. This gives her the justification she needs to act on her emotional impulse. (And make no mistake, men react the same way. I know a guy who bought a huge back-hoe because he needed to dig one hole in his back yard. He went on for an hour reciting his logical reasons for owning it instead of renting it.) You should always give people the appropriate justification for a purchase.
- People are egocentric. Notice that the key word here is not "egotistic," but "egocentric." That means centered around the ego or self. We all see the world in terms of how it relates to us personally. So any time you ask someone to do something, you must answer his or her unspoken question, "What's in it for me?" On a deeper level, the question might be "How does this give me feelings of personal worth?"
- People instinctively evaluate the value of whatever you offer. Value is not a fixed number. It is more than just price. Value is relative to what you're selling, what others charge, what the prospect is used to paying, how badly the prospect wants it, and how the prospect perceives the difference between your offer and others. The idea is that you must show a value that seems to be equal to or greater than the asking price. The greater the value relative to the price, the more likely people will respond to your offer.
- People think in terms of people. The human brain is not a computer, calculator, or information processor. Scientists have shown that its primary function is to help people deal with social interactions. Remember back in high school how some mathematical questions were stated as real-life situations? They were always easier to understand and solve than abstract problems. Most people don't think in terms of abstract ideas, but in terms of people. Your marketing messages, therefore, should feature people rather than concepts: names, personal pronouns, quotes, testimonials, stories, photos of people, etc.
- People want to avoid risk. People pursue gain, but the urge to avoid loss is more powerful because it works on a more basic level. This DOES NOT mean that every appeal should be based on fear. It means that you must keep in mind this undercurrent of fear in every transaction. Remember, in direct marketing, people usually can't see you or the thing you're promoting before they part with their money. There is a level of distrust and suspicion you must overcome. You must lower feelings of risk by answering silent questions: "Does this really work? What if it doesn't? Can I return it if I want to? Will a salesman call and pressure me into a purchase? Do others trust you? Why should I deal with you rather than someone else?"
- People don't understand your business. How your business works or how direct marketing works is a bit of a mystery to people. They don't understand lists, or psychographics, or price testing, or any of the other details you and I deal with on a daily basis. And they don't really want to know, either. However, you should help them visualize the transaction process. Walk them through it clearly and directly. "Here's what you do. Here's what we'll do. Here's what will happen step-by-step."
- You can't predict behavior; you must test it. Even those of us who study the psychology of persuasion and selling can never predict with any certainty how people will act in a real-world transaction. It's too complex. You can formulate hypotheses about why people do what they do. You can ask people what they think and like. But in the end, the results of your tests are the only data you can rely on. Testing is everything.
- You can't force people to do anything. When people buy, inquire, or donate, it's not because you wield some magical power over them. You can urge. You can push. You can entice. But ultimately, people do what they want to do. This means your job is to show how what you're offering meets your prospect's needs.
- People love to buy. It's a common myth that people don't like to be "sold." That's not true. People love to be sold. They love to discover wonderful new products and experiences. In America, and increasingly around the world, people see commerce as a natural and appealing activity. What people don't love is to be cheated or tricked. Therefore, it can be helpful to change your analogy of the marketing process. Instead of "selling" people, try to "help" them. Sell good products, make appealing offers, and treat people fairly. That's a surefire formula for success.
- People are naturally suspicious. It's true that there's a sucker born every minute, but most people are moderately skeptical of any offer. You can never predict the level of suspicion any particular person has, so it's usually best to back up all claims with evidence that is meaningful to your prospect, such as testimonials, survey results, authoritative endorsements, test results, scientific data, etc.
- People don't read in a predictable, orderly way. Advertising is not literature. People seldom read in a linear fashion, beginning to end. They skip around, try to find meaning quickly, and usually don't read closely unless they are interested and even then they may jump around. You have to write and design for this random reading, assuming that it may begin or end at any number of points.
- People are looking for something. Love. Wealth. Glory. Comfort. Safety. People are naturally dissatisfied and spend their lives searching for intangibles. At its simplest, creating selling messages is simply a matter of showing people how a particular product, service, or cause fulfills one or more of their needs. (I have a theory that what many people are really looking for is "control." People are happiest when they can easily get what they want and feel protected against losing those things in other words, when they have complete control in their life.)
- People shop by mail because of convenience and exclusivity. One survey revealed the reasons people shop by mail. In order, they are: Convenience, Exclusivity of the Product, Variety, Fun, Price, Quality, Service. Convenience and exclusivity were the leading reasons by a large margin. The humbling lesson? If your customers could easily find the things you offer at a nearby store, that's probably where many would buy them. So if they are not buying from you through the mail for sheer convenience, they're doing it because they can't find the item elsewhere (or just don't know where to look). It's wise to emphasize the convenience and exclusivity of your wares.
- Many people like to see it and feel it before they buy it. Some people never shop by mail (or by phone, TV, or Internet) because they can't examine the merchandise before making a commitment. Some items, such as books and magazines, are tangible and familiar enough to sell easily through the mail. There is little doubt about the physical quality. Other items, such as clothing or food, may be a harder sell at least until people have a satisfactory buying experience because quality may be variable. You can't easily judge the stitching of a blouse or the smell of a steak from a photograph. Think about how people buy things in stores and ask yourself if there is some element of that experience that is missing from your sales message.
- People are bound by "reciprocation." There is an overwhelming urge to repay debts, to do something in return when something is done for us. This deep-seated urge is so strong, noted paleontologist Richard Leaky has said that it is the very essence of what it means to be human. And sociologist Alvin Gouldner points out that no society on Earth escapes the reciprocity principle. A classic example of this principle used in direct mail is how the Disabled American Veterans increased response to their appeals by giving away personalized address labels. The standard appeal was pulling an 18% response. When the address labels were given away, the response rose to 35%. The lesson? Be generous. Give people something.
- People are creatures of consistency. We are driven to remain consistent in our attitudes, words, and actions. So when we are led to make a commitment of some kind to go on record, take a stand, or make a decision there is an urge to remain consistent with that original commitment later on. The key is to get the commitment, which can appear small, reasonable, and innocent. This commitment can lead not only to compliance via the principle of consistency, but also to further compliance for larger requests. Fundraisers use this idea when they enclose a questionnaire in an appeal. More than an action device, the questionnaire leads people to make a statement or commitment of their beliefs. It is then more difficult to say no to an appeal that is based on those beliefs. Look for ways to get prospects to express their beliefs or take some kind of action.
- Most people follow the crowd. Most of us are imitators in most of what we do. We look to others for guidance, especially when we are uncertain about something. We ask, "What do others think about this? What do others feel? What do others do?" Then we act accordingly. This is why testimonials and case histories are so influential.
Of course, this barely scratches the surface. Psychology is a deep and eternally revealing line of study. And while I don't believe in making things more complicated than they have to be, I think there is great benefit in knowing not only what people do, but also why they do it. It's the only way to become a master of the techniques you rely on.
Copyright © 1998 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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