Ten Recipes for Persuasive Content

By Colleen Jones

Published: December 1, 2008

“Your content needs to sound like a human being crafted it, not like a system regurgitated it.”

In many of my columns, I have touted the importance of persuasive, or influential, content and shared relevant theories and arguments, sprinkling in some practical tips and examples along the way. This column brings together a collection of practical tips, or recipes, for persuasive content. My goal for these recipes is to help anyone who touches content to bake in some influential goodness. Because of my background and experience, these recipes have an English-speaking American flavor, but I think they are a useful starting point for international content, as well.

1. Talk like a person.

Your content needs to sound like a human being crafted it, not like a system regurgitated it. Letting Go of the Words, by Ginny Redish, offers some great tips along these lines—such as using first person. [1] Additionally, I’d like to point out two things you can do to make your content appealing to readers:

  • Be polite. Being polite does not usually mean adding a dash of please and thank you to all of your content. Rather, it means ensuring your content communicates respectfully. For instance, if your customers are older or tend to communicate formally, you may want to add the occasional please. If your customers are younger or more casual, they may enjoy sassy or friendly sayings that serve the same purpose. [2] Figure 1 shows an example from Bliss that employs both traditional courtesies and clever sayings.
  • Be genuine. Most people find someone who seems genuine more persuasive than someone who seems like a hypocrite. I believe we can imbue content with a genuine quality by maintaining a consistent tone, sticking to a consistent message or focus, and ensuring our content is consistently accurate.

Figure 1—A polite signin and registration page on Bliss

Polite signin

2. Establish credibility.

People tend to find a trustworthy person more influential than an untrustworthy one. B.J. Fogg has done some interesting work on credibility. [3] The following points draw on that work, as well as my own experience:

  • Provide specific contact information. Showing a company’s phone number, email address, and physical address reassures customers that your business is legitimate and accountable.
  • Show credible affiliations and certifications. If you’ve got them, flaunt them—especially if yours is a new brand or business. Figure 2 shows the scanR home page, which incorporates positive product reviews from well-known brands.
  • Make related policies or guarantees easily available. While people often discuss doing this as a way of offering answers to customers’ questions about policies or guarantees, in my opinion, what’s just as important is customers’ seeing you have policies or guarantees. Making them available is a sign of your company’s credibility. Following this tip with the right timing is especially powerful. For example, show your guarantee at a point where a customer is deciding whether to purchase. (More about timing in Recipe 4.)

Figure 2—A home page emphasizes positive reviews from credible brands

Positive reviews

Figure 3—A landing page includes a guarantee

Guarantee

3. Use the right tone for the brand or situation.

Tone is critical to communicating your brand effectively—as well as in handling emotional situations.

  • Reflect brand attributes or personality. I don’t know of a better way to add a tangy brand essence to your content than through tone. Bliss, shown in Figure 4, is one of my personal favorites.
  • Show sensitivity to the situation. If your customers are likely to be emotional—whether because they’re upset about a diagnosis, worried about a loved one, or frustrated with a bill that’s in error—the tone of your content needs to be more neutral and sympathetic. When you’re not feeling completely well, you usually want chicken soup, not jambalaya. In the insurance claim example shown in Figure 5, the exclamation point that expresses excitement about how easy it is to make a claim is inappropriate. When a customer is making a claim, usually whatever situation has triggered the need to make the claim is nothing to get excited about—at least not in a good way.

Figure 4—A distinctive tone from Bliss

Distinctive tone

Figure 5—An exclamation point that sets an inappropriate tone

Inappropriate tone

4. Be courteous in your timing and placement of content.

“In persuasion theory, kairos refers to using the opportune moment to influence. When applying this idea to interactive user experience design, I see the opportune moment as the right timing and placement.”

In persuasion theory, kairos refers to using the opportune moment to influence. When applying this idea to interactive user experience design, I see the opportune moment as the right timing and placement. Redish has discussed “marketing moments.” [1] These moments are opportunities—once you have satisfied a customer’s appetite for one item—to market another item to that customer. Here are two related tips I’ve discussed further in my column “Marketing Isn’t a Dirty Word.”

  • Don’t interrupt. If your message would interrupt a customer’s task, reconsider its placement. For instance, most good ecommerce experiences limit promotions that might disrupt the checkout process. During checkout, a customer has finished shopping and decided to start the purchasing transaction. Think about it like this: Once a diner has ordered an entree, the waiter does not keep suggesting other entrees.
  • Remember relevancy. I am completely open to promoting something while rather than after satisfying a customer’s need, so long as what you’re promoting is relevant. Forrester defines persuasive content as relevant content. While I think persuasive content involves much more than just that, I do agree relevance is critical. During a dining experience, a waiter appropriately offers dessert toward the end of the meal. During a checkout experience, a company might appropriately offer a credit card promotion or a special shipping offer, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6—A relevant offer during the checkout experience

Relevant offer

5. Remind customers of differentiators and benefits.

Keeping Recipe 4 in mind, your content can effectively remind customers about how your brand outshines other brands or the advantages of your product or service.

  • Remind them boldly. If a brand, product, or service is new—or a customer is new to it—bold reminders and explanations are important. As shown in Figure 7, they can also work well for luxury brands, where the brand experience is the key differentiator.
  • Remind them subtly. For ongoing relationships with customers, I find subtle reminders both useful and clever. For instance, I received an email message from the service Shoeboxed, which scans and organizes receipts, that closed with the following: “We hope you are well and staying organized.” This reminds me of the key benefit of Shoeboxed: getting rid of the organizational nightmare that is my stacks of receipts. I also appreciate a subtle approach in task or transaction contexts. As shown in Figure 8, AutoTrader points out its abundance of car listings on an interstitial page that appears while they gather search results.

Figure 7—A bold reminder on the W Hotels Web site

Bold reminder

Figure 8—A subtle reminder on an interstitial search page

Subtle reminder

6. Appeal to both the left and the right brain—the rational and the emotional.

Ever since Aristotle. we’ve known the importance of appealing to both our minds and our hearts. This dual approach is especially important on key conversion pages such as product and landing pages.

  • Try rational appeals and evidence. Some examples of rational evidence include feature or price comparisons, specifications, performance data, demonstrations, and the kinds of information that build credibility, which I described in Recipe 2. In Figure 9, notice that Gotvmail emphasizes credibility through awards and partner logos.
  • Try emotional appeals and evidence. Some examples of emotional evidence include testimonials, quotations, images—especially when the appeal of a product is its appearance or style—and descriptive language. Gotvmail uses a combination of these techniques, as Figure 9 demonstrates.
  • Shift your emphasis on the rational or the emotional according to the context. For situations where customers might have a special taste for emotional appeals, emphasize them more than the rational ones and vice versa. 

Figure 9—A landing page with a mix of rational and emotional appeals

Rational and emotional appeals

7. Tell stories.

“Stories are a useful way of combining rational and emotional appeals into an easy-to-digest message.”

Stories are a useful way of combining rational and emotional appeals into an easy-to-digest message. Stories have been around since humans began to walk the earth. From cave paintings of a thrilling hunt to Homer’s immortal “Odyssey” to today’s Harry Potter sensation, stories have shaped who we are, what we know, and what we do. Two important stories to tell are the history of your brand and the success or satisfaction of your customers. [4]

8. Consider using metaphors.

Metaphors can add meaty substance to influential content. A metaphor suggests a likeness between objects and ideas, so it is a powerful way to articulate the new or the conceptual, as well as to tap into our customers’ universal needs. In my recent column “The Magic of Metaphor,” I offered some advice on how to use metaphors, including these tips:

  • Take a metaphor far enough—but not too far. Take a metaphor just to the point that the comparison between objects or ideas is clear. Remember, every metaphor breaks at the point where the objects or ideas contrast. In your content, focus on the comparison, not the breaking point. For instance, cloud architecture refers to the Internet metaphorically as a cloud. The comparison lies in the user perception that the complex architecture seems hidden. Articulating the contrast—for example, the fact that the architecture does not produce rain—would be both confusing and not compelling.
  • Think about a metaphor’s connotations. Connotations are the associations people make with the words or objects you choose for your metaphor. You do not want unintended connotations to distract your customers. For example, if you are describing the efficiency of a product, you probably do not want to compare it to a toilet’s efficiency.

9. Avoid cheap tricks.

“If you have to try to program a person to buy your product or service, you are trying to control the person to the point of manipulation.”

Web Copy That Sells offers several cheap tricks I love to hate. The book is not all bad, but I do not care for its advocacy of using psychological devices. One trick that leaves a bad taste in my mouth is “neurolinguistic programming,” or embedded commands. For example, “I wonder how quickly you will write a glowing comment about this column.” Does that make you want to write a glowing comment? I detest cheap tricks because

  • they’re usually lazy—While implementing them does take some effort, it usually does not take as much effort as offering quality products and services and explaining those products and services in a clear, influential way.
  • they’re often used in a manipulative situation—If you have to try to program a person to buy your product or service, you are trying to control the person to the point of manipulation. (For more about the distinction between manipulation and persuasion, see my column, “Winning Content Persuades, Not Manipulates.”)
  • they don’t work in the long term—Once customers experience such tricks, they doubt your credibility and just plain don’t like you. While you may have obtained what you wanted now, you will not get customers’ repeat business, positive word of mouth, and the other benefits of building long-term customer relationships.

10. Don’t forget to use images, video, speech, and audio.

Images and video are increasingly important types of content. Customers can view or listen to them on the Web—either on their desktop or notebook computers or their mobile devices—more easily than ever. We need to think about how to best incorporate these content types. Many of the preceding recipes and tips apply to such media, but I want to point out two considerations in particular:

  • Keep the visual tone and verbal tone consistent. Usually, it’s best to reinforce tone throughout all the different types of content you’re including. For instance, as Figure 10 shows, HowStuffWorks offers a package of text, images, and video for many of its topics. In all of these content types, the tone is consistently impartial.
  • Use media to tell stories and demonstrate processes. Videos especially lend themselves to telling a story or explaining how to use a product. For example, Apple uses video for both customer testimonials and demonstrations of the iPhone, as you can see in Figure 11. You might think of the demonstration as user assistance, but for new products, demonstrations play an important and influential role, helping to prove a product is easy to use. In the case of the iPhone, proving that the touchscreen worked well was critical.

Figure 10—Text, images, and video on HowStuffWorks.com

Text, images, and video

Figure 11—An influential video demonstration of the iPhone

Video demo

Conclusion

“Just as a chef can draw on experience and training to invent culinary delights you would never imagine, a content expert can concoct fresh approaches to communication that will delight your customers.”

These recipes offer some effective ways of adding influential zest to your content. However, just as a cookbook is no replacement for a chef, this column cannot replace your need for a content expert. Like a chef who adjusts recipes to use seasonal ingredients, satisfy diners’ tastes, and suit the occasion, a content expert can tailor content to your context. And, just as a chef can draw on experience and training to invent culinary delights you would never imagine, a content expert can concoct fresh approaches to communication that will delight your customers. Likewise, a chef knows how to put together a menu for a meal that creates a superb culinary experience, just as a content expert knows what combination of persuasion techniques have the best impact.

References

[1] Redish, Janice (Ginny). Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works. St. Louis, MO: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

[2] Hall, Erica. “Copy As Interface.” Web 2.0 Expo, April 23, 2008. Retrieved November 20, 2008.

[3] Fogg, B.J. Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. St. Louis, MO: Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.

[4] Jones, Colleen. “Become an Interactive Storyteller.” iMedia Connection, January 18, 2008. Retrieved November 23, 2008.

12 Comments

A lot of very interesting ideas.

I think you could have added an 11th point on the list—using words and examples that are concrete is also very effective. You’re doing this wonderfully well all throughout this article.

One of the best posts I’ve read in a long time.

The only criticism I have is that the excerpt shown in my reader gave little indication of such fantastic content. In fact, it gave little indication that there was more to the post than the opening paragraph. How lucky I clicked through in case. Fantastic post.

Regards, Richard

Etienne—Glad you found these ideas useful. And excellent point about concrete words and examples. Without them, many of these tips will not work.

Richard—Thanks for the kudos! Great point about the excerpt. The introductory paragraph is more of a disclaimer than an enticer and, therefore, perhaps not the most persuasive for a feed reader.

Thanks for a wonderfully written and informative post. The examples really bring the concepts to life.

One of the really nice things about this post is its broad applicability—you can apply many of the concepts regardless of the type of site.

Agreed on all points. And yes, the recipe—process of how and when to use which ingredient—is most important—and too often ignored. Might say, these are more guidelines or best practices than cookbook recipes, but no matter. All well taken and useful to all.

Thanks for the excellent summary. Using content that appeals to both the right and left brain was an especially good point that isn’t addressed much. I’m a writer—content and editorial strategist for the Web—and will be sure to follow your blog and hunt you down on Twitter, too. :)

Excellent content. Thanks for the ideas. Marketing is a tricky balance, but where would be without it?

I also detest cheap tricks, and it is hard to believe anyone would seriously consider the one you mention.

Your article made an impact on me. FYI, I just put my picture up on my own site in an effort to be more real. Good point. Next, I’m going to work on some of those stories.

Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing!

Very nice article. I particularly like the use of language in “Talk Like a Person”. When this is done well, it really differentiates a Web site from the competition.

Thanks for the tips. Very well presented and simple. It also reminded me of the importance of getting involved with the public you are aiming at—life style, usual activities, and so on.

Thanks for this. I will certainly use it for checkpoints to help my clients create better, more engaging content!

Steve—Great point about applicability. I’ve worked in the public sector for CDC and the private sector for many industries. While there are important differences to consider—as I’m sure you’re aware!—many techniques adapt well to the differences. For instance, considering tone is always important, though the actual tone you create might be different for CDC than for Holiday Inn.

uxdesign.com—Glad you found this useful! Very true that these are more guidelines than specific formulas. Thanks for rolling with the recipes analogy anyway. ;-)

Carolyn—Really appreciate the kudos from such a talented person and glad you found me!

Brad—Having an impact might be the highest compliment this writing could receive. Thank you! I agree incorporating marketing is a tricky balance and hope we continue toward striking the right one.

Mokokoma—Welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

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