Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to present this guest post from Melissa Williams, a Conversion Marketing Certified copywriter and the founder of Brand Meets Copy. Today, Melissa’s sharing the methods she uses to help her clients create authentic, actionable copy for their sales landing pages and beyond.
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When it comes to writing sales copy, do you freeze up?
Maybe you don’t know what to say (or what not to say) when it comes to selling your stuff. You see a bunch of super salesy messages all around you and you start to worry that your marketing will be too “salesy” as well.
If that describes you, you’re not alone! Many well-meaning business owners end up scaring off some of their best potential customers because once their laptop comes out, so does the snake oil. Or, conversely, they’re so afraid to write the wrong thing that their sales copy fails to make any impression at all.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to sell your stuff without sounding sleazy or using ridiculous amounts of hype—and it doesn’t take a communications degree or 10 billion hours of practice to get it right.
You can create sales copy that resonates with the right people by using storytelling in your marketing. When you add the power of story, that’s when real connections with customers can take place.
Why Do We Default to Bad Sales Copy?
It isn’t your fault if you’ve defaulted to salesy messaging in the past. In fact, the advertising industry is partly to blame. We are bombarded with messages each and every day, and we can’t keep up. A 2014 study from Media Dynamics Inc. estimated that the average U.S. adult is exposed to 362 ads every day—but pays attention to fewer than half of them.
So, what happens when attention spans are the prize we’re all vying for?
Well, we try to one-up each other with sales messages that get the reader to choose us. We resort to tactics we’ve seen others use, assuming they must work. But when everyone’s using the same “copywriting hacks,” the results can get pretty generic.
The reality is, many of us resort to this type of writing because we have no idea what else to do.
Here’s something that happens a lot when I consult with my copywriting clients—entrepreneurs who are genuinely passionate about their products and services.
I always start by asking them to tell me the “why” behind their brand, and most of the time, they respond with a heartfelt story.
They want to help others overcome a particular challenge. Or shed light on a little-known issue. The stories they tell me are all about their clients and the difference they want to make in the world.
Then I ask to see some of their sales copy.
Lo and behold, the client-focused, heartfelt storytelling has disappeared. Instead we’re left with a bunch of persuasion tactics thrown together with lots of shiny “BUY NOW” buttons. They tried to beef up their sales copy and accidentally created the sleazy, salesy message they were afraid they’d write.
They need to bring back storytelling. By that, I don’t mean fairytales and made-up stories. I mean weaving a narrative throughout the entire sales process.
Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication. Part of the reason that it works so well is that storytelling gets us right where our decisions happen: our hearts. Once we experience a story that grabs our attention span, we start to build an emotional connection with the characters in the story. Even though we might know that a story is fiction, if it hooks us in, our brains will respond as though it were a true moment in time.
Neuroscientist Paul J. Zak calls this phenomenon “transportation,” and his research has found that it happens through the release of oxytocin into the brain—which also happens when we fall in love. “When the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate,” Zak noted in a 2014 article. Sound like a good mindset to put your prospects in?
Storytelling is not just relegated to books and movies. Brand storytelling helps to build a connection between you and your target client. It’s not just about getting them to hand over their hard-earned money. It’s about you showing them how life can be better if they choose to work with you. It’s about getting to that place of trust and connecting with them on a deeper level.
Here’s the good news about using stories in your marketing. Not only will you need fewer “copywriting hacks” to sell your stuff, but your customers will help you make the sale! When customers believe in the story of your product or service, they will become brand evangelists for you.
So, How Do You Add Storytelling to Your Sales Copy?
The easiest way to tell the story of your prospect is to follow a three-part arc:
- Start where they are now.
- Detail what happens if they stay there.
- Let them know what’s possible with your solution.
This formula is referred to as PAS, or Problem, Agitate, Solution. This is my personal favorite formula for things like landing pages and sales pages, but you can also use it for social media, ads, blog posts, you name it!
The key to making PAS work for you is to really dig into the storytelling elements in each section.
The problem: This is where you identify the problem that your reader has, and let them know that you understand it. If your audience might not fully understand the problem yet, focus on describing indicators that they might have this problem.
Paint a word picture so that prospects see themselves in the story. When I’m trying to make sure I’m using word pictures and not generalities, I ask myself, “Could I film this?” That is, if this were a scene in a movie, is there enough detail that this problem could be filmed?
Say that I’m writing copy for a business that helps freelancers get more clients, and I start by framing the problem like this:
“You don’t have enough clients.”
Could I film this? Definitely not. But how about…
“You’re scouring the internet, posting profiles on every freelancer site, getting discouraged because it all feels like a race to the bottom. Eventually, you want to just say forget it and go get a job… because it’s now 2 a.m. and you’re still frantically looking online for a gig to help you pay your rent next week.”
Now that’s something I could film. That’s something I can work with.
Or let’s say you help people deal with fatigue. How would you demonstrate their problem if you had to film it like a scene in a movie?
You wouldn’t say something like, “Are you tired all the time?” Instead, you’d have to show what that looked like.
You could say things like, “You hit the snooze button three times before finally dragging your feet out of bed and to your coffeemaker. Chugging two cups of coffee while you get ready gives you just enough energy to get in the car and head to work. Once you’re there you find yourself lifelessly staring at your computer, sometimes even forgetting who you were supposed to be writing an email to or setting an appointment with.”
More compelling, right?
Agitate: In this part of your story, you let prospects know what will happen if they don’t use your solution. Except you don’t just let them know—you paint another word picture (or just extend the one you already created into a possible future). In my freelancer example, I could agitate the problem by talking about freelancers who have given up their freelance dreams and unhappily returned to the 9-to-5 world.
Solution: Here’s where you swoop in and save the day—sort of. This is where things can go off the rails a bit for storytelling copywriters. The hero of the story is not actually your brand. Your customer is the hero, and the story is mostly about them. You a little. Them a lot.
If your brand story were placed in the framework of Lord of The Rings, your client would be Frodo. You would be Gandalf or Sam. You are there to help your readers achieve their dreams, not the other way around. Show what a successful ending to the story looks like from their perspective.
Of course, your readers do want to know who you are and why you’re the best choice for the job—eventually. But they want to do it through the “what’s in it for me?” lens.
When it is time to share who you are, you can use storytelling again to show that you’re relatable and trustworthy.
In the same way you use film-worthy details to tell your client’s story, be sure to engage your readers with compelling info that will help them understand why you are the right choice. Sure, a list of credentials, certifications, and degrees might seem impressive, but why do they matter? Dig deep.
One way to think about this is to focus on your “why.” Why do you do what you do? Why do you serve who you serve? What business are you really in? What basic human needs do you meet? (To explore that particular question, I recommend this article by Tony Robbins.) What motivates you?
If you’ve never spent time really digging into these topics, reflect on them before writing any sales copy. You’ll come away with a clear understanding of the reasons behind your business and avoid those overly salesy messages that feel icky to you and your target clients.
Gone will be the days of desperately manufacturing a message to get sales at any cost. Instead, you’ll have an ongoing narrative that will reach the right people.
Storytelling in Action: A Couple of Examples
Here’s a sales page I worked on recently with Alethea Tuitahi, owner and communications designer at Cloud Executive Services:
Before we built this page, Alethea was getting responses from her website—but many of the people who reached out weren’t a good fit for her services. We wanted to use storytelling to get her ideal prospects to recognize themselves in a situation her services could address.
One of Alethea’s most popular services is designing graphics for social media, so it would have been easy to reach for a headline like “Having trouble designing social media graphics?”
But that doesn’t pass the “can I film it?” test. So instead we said:
“I see you right now, sitting at your computer working away on Canva to get those social media graphics designed, while hours burn by and you’re getting more frustrated by the minute. Because seriously, you have no idea whether you should choose two fonts or five for that Instagram post… (two please) or whether you should add a photo to your FB image template (skip the cheesy corporate stock image, ok?) Everywhere you turn you’re seeing gorgeous graphics, but yours look like your five-year-old niece whipped them up in a kindergarten class.”
The word pictures help to tell the story and show the scene unfolding before you.
We then bridged the gap between where readers are now and where they can be if they work with her. Instead of just telling people to purchase her services at the top of the page, we let them know that she understands where they are at and that she is the right person to help.
Since we launched this version of her sales page, Alethea’s inquiries have tripled. She regularly gets feedback from potential clients like this:
“I just had to contact you. I read your website and you were describing me! I knew you could help me.”
She now gets two to three ideal new leads each week—a big change from before.
It’s not uncommon to see results like these from storytelling. Plus, these principles work across all forms of communication. When another client started using storytelling in her social media posts, we saw engagement triple in just two months by using compelling stories that encouraged the audience to interact.
Another example comes from Amber Beam, a positive psychology career coach for women. I worked with Amber on an about page that (surprise) was also functioning as a sales page. Here’s (part of) the final result:
In Amber’s about page, we told a story about where her ideal client is at when she first starts looking for career coaching. We discovered that many of the women she works with don’t even realize they can have a career that makes them happy, so we led with this:
“What if work wasn’t a four letter word but a tool for fulfillment and happiness?
“Maybe right now you’re working a day job that doesn’t fuel your passion. You know there’s more to life than this, but whenever you try to brainstorm a way forward you come up blank.
“Or maybe you’re searching for your ‘thing.’ Problem is, you aren’t even sure what that thing might be. You’ve tried a million online tests, and read tons of self-help books, but you’re getting tired of feeling stuck figuring it out on your own when you should be taking steps toward your future.”
Notice the specific details we’ve added to make the story vivid: reading self-help books, taking online tests. If visitors see themselves in this picture, they’re in the exact place they need to be in order to get great results from working with Amber—and they’ll get on the phone with her to tell her so. The story that we tell on her about page not only narrows down the right people for Amber, but also lets them know right away whether she is the perfect coach for their needs.
Ready to Add Storytelling to Your Sales Copy?
If you’ve been taught that copy is something like 90% science and practically no creativity, this approach may feel strange at first. But in truth, you can approach your storytelling as a science and as a creative venture at the same time.
Sure, use the psychological hooks you’ve learned, and of course, if you have data to make your point, that’s a great place to start.
But don’t forget that the person on the other end of your sales message is, well, a person. Selling through storytelling is not just a fun way to write, it’s also smart for your business. It taps into an emotional connection that facts and figures just can’t provide.
Are you ready to start adding storytelling elements into your marketing messages? Here’s my challenge to you: take a moment to think about your ideal client and the main problem they’re facing. Then, write a couple of sentences telling a “filmable” story about that problem and drop it in the comments!