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The Only Copywriting Formula You'll Ever Need: How to Unleash the Most Primal Human Motivator

Aaron Orendorff

Let's start with a warning.

This post is about the only copywriting formula you'll ever need: fear.

Like any psychologically informed method of persuasion, fear is ripe for abuse and manipulation.I’m going to assume one thing: you will use this copywriting formula for good ... not evil.

That means the problem your business solves is a real problem and your solution is equally real. In other words, this post isn’t just about using fear effectively. It’s about using it ethically.

Every piece of content you create has to do two things: (1) rescue its audience from their own personal hell and (2) deliver them unto their own personal heaven. Great copywriting is about salvation ... not sales.

If you're not in the business of actually helping people, stop here.Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it ...

The Power Behind the Only Copywriting Formula You'll Ever Need

Fear is a primal motivator.In fact, according to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, it’s the most primal:

Fear, in evolution, has a special prominence: perhaps more than any other emotion it is crucial for survival (502).

Why?Because up until the last few centuries of human experience -- barring a hardwired “neurology of fear” -- that rustling in the bush behind you was the last thing you ever heard.A split second delay was all it took and “rustle, snarl, gulp.” No more you. No more offspring. And no more subpar genetic code.To get an idea of just how extensive this our neurology of fear is, here how Dr. Goleman describes it:

“When [the amygdala] sounds an alarm of, say, fear, it sends urgent messages to every major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s fight-or-flight hormones, mobilizes the centers for movement, and activates the cardiovascular system, the muscles, and the gut.

“Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of emergency dollops of the hormone norepinephrine to heighten the reactivity of key brain areas, including those that make the senses more alert, in effect setting the brain on edge.

“Others rivet attention on the source of the fear, and prepare the muscles to react accordingly. Simultaneously, cortical memory systems are shuffled to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the emergency at hand, taking precedence over other strands of thought” (40-41).

Of course, whether or not you really grasp the science isn’t the point.

The point is fear motivates … more powerfully, more persuasively, and more physiologically than any other emotion.

So what does fear have to do with copywriting?

Psychologists refer to the dominant role fear plays in day-to-day decisions as “loss aversion.”

The basic principle is simple: people want to avoid loss more than they want to acquire gain. We are more motivated by the threat of losing than we are by the prospect of winning. And, of course, aversion and avoid are just synonyms for fear.

But more directly, fear trumps hope. Every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

The copywriting, content, and marketing implications of this insight are enormous. And smart marketers have been taking advantage of fear for years.

The Structure of the Only Copywriting Formula You'll Ever Need

Enough about psychology. What is the only copywriting formula you'll ever need? It's called the “Problem-Agitation-Solution” Formula.In The Ultimate Sales Letter, copywriting legend Dan Kennedy explains:

When you understand that people are more likely to act to avoid pain than to get gain, you'll understand how incredibly powerful this first formula is.

I have used this basic formula to structure super-effective sales presentations for live salespeople in every imaginable business, from security systems to skin-care products. I’ve used it for over 136 different industries, and not only for sales letters, but also for salespeople.It may be the most reliable sales formula ever invented.

Here’s the structure:

1. Problem

Define the problem in the simplest way possible, often in a single sentence. All you want is your reader to nod in agreement and then slip effortlessly into the next lines.

Set forth the problem in clear, straightforward terms. You need to say here only enough to elicit agreement.

2. Agitation

While they may agree, the problem is a problem, it's full-orbed horror isn't real. This is where it has to come alive ... hellishly.

Once the problem is established, clearly and factually, it’s time to inject emotion. … Tap their anger, resentment, guilt, embarrassment, fear—any and every applicable negative emotion.You should have readers mentally wringing their hands, pacing the room, saying, “This has got to stop! I’ve got to do something about this! What can I do about this? If only there were an answer!”

3. Solution

Only after hell, comes heaven.

The third step is to unveil the solution, the answer—your product or services and the accompanying benefits.

The problem (pun intended) is most marketing skips step two: agitation.

We identify the problem and go right into the solution without ever stopping to drive the home how truly hellish the problem is.

What happens?

Our copywriting falls flat. It doesn’t connect. It doesn’t impact. It doesn’t move. And it doesn’t sell.

In step one, focus on simplicity and agreement. Show your audience that you understand their fear and (if needed) prove that the problem really is a problem by providing facts. Get in. Get out. Move on.

In step two, focus on emotion and volatility.Having established the problem now it has to get real. Realer than real. This means pressing hard on ...

The Secret of the Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need

I like to call the secret the “It Get’s Worse … Much, Much Worse” Principle.

What really blew the doors off of the incredible power of fear was a recent I Love Marketing interview with Jon Benson, developer of the $10-billion-revenue-producing Video Sales Letter (sometimes called the “Ugly” Video Sales Letter).Not surprisingly, Benson defines Kennedy’s second step as “The Big Problem.”

Again, most of us do a fairly good job defining the problem writ small.What we don’t do is tell our audience that the problem is bigger—much bigger—than they ever realized.As Benson explains:

This is the part that I see fail. . . . You’re so close to the forest you think that they already know that [blank] is a problem.They don’t know that. They have a vague idea that it’s a problem. But they have no idea how big it is.

So your job is to tell them everything that could go wrong when this problem remains in your life.

To illustrate, Benson uses weight loss. First, he identifies the problem: you’re overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy.

But (of course) it gets worse … much, much worse.How much worse? Benson presents two fear-inducing stats.

One, he outlines how obesity costs you more money than you ever realized. Statistically speaking, obese people perform 40% less in the workforce. This is probably due to prejudice, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s still the reality.

Two, he explains how obesity is also costing you more time than you ever realized. Over a twenty-year period, obese people will spend nine months more than their healthy counterparts walking to and from their cars in grocery store parking lots.

This isn’t a dig on how often overweight people go to the store. Not at all. It’s simply about speed.

Applied to our copywriting formula ...

Step one: here’s the problem.

Step two: but, oh, it gets worse, much, much worse.

To drill down and drive home your audience’s deepest fears, here are ...

The Questions to Fuel the Only Copywriting Formula You'll Ever Need

First, your audience’s fears about themselves (1-9) and, second, their fears about you (10-13):

  1. What does your audience hate … about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?
  2. What problems does your business solve? Is your audience aware of these problems?
  3. What are the two to three biggest headaches these problems create?
  4. What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?
  5. What are your audience’s two to three biggest daily frustrations? What do they wake up groaning about? What makes them angry?
  6. Even more to the point, what “disease” does your business—i.e., your product, your service or you—“cure”? What are its symptoms?
  7. What is your audience afraid of? What do they go to bed dreading or stay up all night churning over?
  8. What is your audience embarrassed or insecure about? What are they hiding? What do they hope “no one notices?”
  9. What are two things your audience would “wish away” if they could?
  10. What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?
  11. What about your type of business does your audience trust least? What are they suspicious of or have a really hard time swallowing?
  12. What’re the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?
  13. Lastly, what nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?

The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need?

Absolutely.

Naturally, there are plenty of other formulas out there. Buffer's Kevan Lee lists 27. And Copyhacker's Joanna Wiebe lays out damn near all of them in her 11k-plus words masterpiece The Ultimate Guide to No-Pain Copywriting.

But the truth is this copywriting formula is the basis of all the others.

Why?

Because fear really is the most primal human motivator. So please, use that power for good ... or you just might end up with something brand new to fear for yourself.

However, this means the real question isn’t “What?” or “How?” but “Where?”

Where does “mass desire” come from?

The answer might surprise you.

It doesn’t come from your product, your benefits, your USP, your value proposition, your copy, or even from you.

It comes from your market itself. Schwartz explained:

The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy.

Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product.

This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it (3).

Naturally, this assumes that you have a market — a narrow and clearly targeted group of people whose lives your product would be legitimately improved. But I realize, that’s kind of a big assumption.

Who is your target market?

Copywriters often obsess about what they should write: product features versus product benefits; using the right keywords; nailing the headline, subheadings, images, and first line of copy; banging out a rough draft, and then editing, editing, editing.

Wrong.

Your real obsession shouldn’t be what, but who.

Copy without a target market is worse than worthless. It’s costly.

Without a clearly defined target market — real people with real problems looking for real solutions — you inevitably end up writing for the one person you shouldn’t be: yourself. Self-centeredness is a plague, especially when writing copy.

Begin with the demographics of your ideal customer. Richard Lazazzera’s How To Build Buyer Personas For Better Marketing dives into the sea of personal characteristics and eventually this example of “Alex” for a fictitious company, Bold Socks, surfaces:

Demographics, however, aren’t enough. Not if what you’re really after are words that sell. You’ve got to go deeper than age, ethnicity, income, location, and familial status.

How?

Through personas. On this front, three brilliant (and, thankfully, free) resources stand out.

First is Jen Havice’s How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real Life Data over at ConversionXL. As Havice explains:

Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success. [P]ersonas are fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.

Havice them shows how to shape personas through qualitative research.

The breakthrough insight — especially for anyone without a budget for focus groups — comes from her review mining work, which she’s consolidated into a recent book: Finding the Right Message. By all means, buy it. In the meantime, work through the above article as well as How to Boost Conversions with Voice of Customer Research [Case Study] that includes this free template:

Writing Copy Through Review Mining
Writing copy through review mining

Review mining to craft copy is one of my own copywriting hallmarks, especially when it comes to landing pages. You can see how I created this simplified copywriting cheat sheet directly from “feedback and comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, Reddit, app stores, and blogs,” along with what the landing page itself ultimately looked like over at KlientBoost.

Writing Copy from User-Generated Content
Writing copy directly from user-generated content

Second, Demian Farnworth’s Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (via Copyblogger). Empathy consists of two parts:

1. The intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. The vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.

After a brilliant overview of empathy in marketing — old school and new — Farnworth drops the gold (which you can download as a PDF simply by clicking the image).

Empathy Map
The Empathy Map Lets You Dissect Your Target Market into Four Quadrants on a Person-by-Person Basis

Third, my own The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need.

That’s a post all about fear: hands-down the “most primal” human motivator. At the end are thirteen questions to help you haunt your target market (in the best sense possible).

Here’s a quick sampling:

  • What does your audience hate… about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?
  • What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?
  • What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?
  • What are the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?
  • What nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?

In all those resources, the point is to define your target market as concretely and viscerally as possible.

What are your target market’s mass desires?

Once that group is fixed, the next step is to make a list of all the possible emotions — the raw emotions — that might inspire someone in that specific market to act.

On the negative side, it might be:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Uncertainty
  • Embarrassment
  • Envy
  • Resentment

On the positive side, it might be:

  • Joy
  • Happiness
  • Accomplishment
  • Satisfaction
  • Elation
  • Desire
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Comfort

After you’ve selected two or three dominant, raw emotions, get specific.

For example, the most dominant human emotion is fear. But nobody (despite FDR’s sound advice) fears fear. What we fear are people, places, things, and events. We fear the future. Or we fear situations that may arise in the future. We fear loss. We fear uncertainty. We fear failure.

On top of that, every market — just like every person — has its own unique list.

Take the real estate market for instance. What do new homebuyers fear most?

Some of the obvious boogiemen are …

  • The fear of being overwhelmed by the process.
  • The fear of being turned down for a loan.
  • The fear of picking the wrong neighborhood.
  • The fear of not having enough money for a down payment.
  • The fear of something better coming along and missing out.

Whatever it is, by selecting one of those fears and placing it front and center in your copy, you “enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind” (Robert Collier).

Actually, what you enter is the conversation already taking place in the customer’s heart.

Either way, the keyword is “customer’s.” Their mind. Their heart.

Mass Desire in Action

To put a little more flesh on this idea, here are some classic examples of wildly successful headlines from Schwartz’s era that tapped into their market’s mass desires:

  • “Hair Coloring So Natural Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure”
  • “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in a Rolls Royce is the electric clock.”
  • “The Skin YOU Love to Touch”
  • “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • “Stops Maddening Itch”
  • “Do YOU make these mistakes in English?”
  • “How a bald-headed barber helped save my hair.”

Today, with advertising exposure rising exponentially, you may think that such straightforward appeals no longer work.

Just to prove they do, here is a handful of my favorite mass desire headlines from the web:

Unbounce: Speed

Sweat Block: Embarrassment

Basecamp: Stress

Mint: Relief

Memit: Simplicity

eHarmony: Winning (and, of course, love)

Blue Apron: Authenticity

Weight Watchers: Release

Designed to Move: Justice

Shopify Plus: Easy

Dapulse: Vanity

Apple Watch: Flexibility

MacBook Pro: Creativity

AirPods: Intrigue

What each of these headlines (classic and contemporary) does beautifully is identify and channel one desire: love, greed, entertainment, the fear of inability, or the fear of difficulty. They use emotive language to capture their audience’s hearts and minds. Emotive language that already exists in the market they’re trying to reach.

To breakthrough, your ads must do the same.

One more law about the word “one”

Having generated a powerhouse list of market-inspired mass desires, your greatest temptation will be to employ them all, like a sort of emotional machine gun.

Don’t.

You only get one.

(Well, you may get to split-test more than one. But each ad only gets one!)

Why?

Because in Schwartz’s words:

Every product appeals to two, three or four of these mass desires.

But only one can predominate; only one can reach out through your headline to your customer. Only one is the key that unlocks the maximum economic power at the particular time your advertisement is published.

Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad.

If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.

So remember: Just. One.

2. The Second Law of Writing Copy: State of Awareness

We all know how vital headlines are.

As Brian Clark puts it, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.” That means your headline isn’t just your audience’s first impression … it’s more than likely their only impression.

So here’s the question:

Where do “breakthrough” headlines come from?

You know what I’m talking about. The kind of headlines that pop up, stop your market in their tracks, and compel them to read every word after it.

Now sure, there’re a ton of great cheat sheets out there to get the creative ball rolling. Jon Morrow’s “52 Headline Hacks” is among the best.

The problem is most of us start out wrong because we start with us: our idea, our product, our service, our copy.

But …

What if there was a way to systematically craft breakthrough headlines based entirely on your market?

What if there was a proven formula to pull your prospects into your copy because it actually started with your prospects themselves?

On this front, three brilliant (and, thankfully, free) resources stand out.

First is Jen Havice’s How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real Life Data over at ConversionXL. As Havice explains:

Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success. [P]ersonas are fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.

Havice them shows how to shape personas through qualitative research.

The breakthrough insight — especially for anyone without a budget for focus groups — comes from her review mining work, which she’s consolidated into a recent book: Finding the Right Message. By all means, buy it. In the meantime, work through the above article as well as How to Boost Conversions with Voice of Customer Research [Case Study] that includes this free template:

Message Mining by Jen Havice via CXL

Review mining to craft copy is one of my own copywriting hallmarks, especially when it comes to landing pages.

You can see how I created this simplified copywriting cheat sheet directly from “feedback and comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, Reddit, app stores, and blogs,” along with what the landing page itself ultimately looked like over at KlientBoost.

Writing Copy from User-Generated Content
Writing copy directly from user-generated content

Second, Demian Farnworth’s Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (via Copyblogger). Empathy consists of two parts:

1. The intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. The vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.

After a brilliant overview of empathy in marketing — old school and new — Farnworth drops the gold (which you can download as a PDF simply by clicking the image).

Empathy Map
The Empathy Map Lets You Dissect Your Target Market into Four Quadrants on a Person-by-Person Basis

Third, my own The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need.

That’s a post all about fear: hands-down the “most primal” human motivator. At the end are thirteen questions to help you haunt your target market (in the best sense possible).

Here’s a quick sampling:

  • What does your audience hate… about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?
  • What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?
  • What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?
  • What are the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?
  • What nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?

In all those resources, the point is to define your target market as concretely and viscerally as possible.

What are your target market’s mass desires?

Once that group is fixed, the next step is to make a list of all the possible emotions — the raw emotions — that might inspire someone in that specific market to act.

On the negative side, it might be:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Uncertainty
  • Embarrassment
  • Envy
  • Resentment

On the positive side, it might be:

  • Joy
  • Happiness
  • Accomplishment
  • Satisfaction
  • Elation
  • Desire
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Comfort

After you’ve selected two or three dominant, raw emotions, get specific.

For example, the most dominant human emotion is fear. But nobody (despite FDR’s sound advice) fears fear. What we fear are people, places, things, and events. We fear the future. Or we fear situations that may arise in the future. We fear loss. We fear uncertainty. We fear failure.

On top of that, every market — just like every person — has its own unique list.

Take the real estate market for instance. What do new homebuyers fear most?

Some of the obvious boogiemen are …

  • The fear of being overwhelmed by the process.
  • The fear of being turned down for a loan.
  • The fear of picking the wrong neighborhood.
  • The fear of not having enough money for a down payment.
  • The fear of something better coming along and missing out.

Whatever it is, by selecting one of those fears and placing it front and center in your copy, you “enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind” (Robert Collier).

Actually, what you enter is the conversation already taking place in the customer’s heart.

Either way, the keyword is “customer’s.” Their mind. Their heart.

Mass Desire in Action

To put a little more flesh on this idea, here are some classic examples of wildly successful headlines from Schwartz’s era that tapped into their market’s mass desires:

  • “Hair Coloring So Natural Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure”
  • “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in a Rolls Royce is the electric clock.”
  • “The Skin YOU Love to Touch”
  • “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • “Stops Maddening Itch”
  • “Do YOU make these mistakes in English?”
  • “How a bald-headed barber helped save my hair.”

Today, with advertising exposure rising exponentially, you may think that such straightforward appeals no longer work.

Just to prove they do, here is a handful of my favorite mass desire headlines from the web:

Unbounce: Speed

Sweat Block: Embarrassment

Basecamp: Stress

Mint: Relief

Memit: Simplicity

eHarmony: Winning (and, of course, love)

Blue Apron: Authenticity

Weight Watchers: Release

Designed to Move: Justice

Shopify Plus: Easy

Dapulse: Vanity

Apple Watch: Flexibility

MacBook Pro: Creativity

AirPods: Intrigue

What each of these headlines (classic and contemporary) does beautifully is identify and channel one desire: love, greed, entertainment, the fear of inability, or the fear of difficulty. They use emotive language to capture their audience’s hearts and minds. Emotive language that already exists in the market they’re trying to reach.

To breakthrough, your ads must do the same.

One more law about the word “one”

Having generated a powerhouse list of market-inspired mass desires, your greatest temptation will be to employ them all, like a sort of emotional machine gun.

Don’t.

You only get one.

(Well, you may get to split-test more than one. But each ad only gets one!)

Why?

Because in Schwartz’s words:

Every product appeals to two, three or four of these mass desires.

But only one can predominate; only one can reach out through your headline to your customer. Only one is the key that unlocks the maximum economic power at the particular time your advertisement is published.

Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad.

If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.

So remember: Just. One.

2. The Second Law of Writing Copy: State of Awareness

We all know how vital headlines are.

As Brian Clark puts it, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.” That means your headline isn’t just your audience’s first impression … it’s more than likely their only impression.

So here’s the question:

Where do “breakthrough” headlines come from?

You know what I’m talking about. The kind of headlines that pop up, stop your market in their tracks, and compel them to read every word after it.

Now sure, there’re a ton of great cheat sheets out there to get the creative ball rolling. Jon Morrow’s “52 Headline Hacks” is among the best.

The problem is most of us start out wrong because we start with us: our idea, our product, our service, our copy.

But …

What if there was a way to systematically craft breakthrough headlines based entirely on your market?

What if there was a proven formula to pull your prospects into your copy because it actually started with your prospects themselves?

Let’s save the world from bad content