Checklist for great copy based on hierarchy of needs
After nearly a decade of trying, I finally need to admit my complete and utter failure at something that is basic for the vast majority of people…
I cannot, for the life of me, get a single ounce of quality work done in a coffee shop.
I know, I know—it’s totally not cool and seems uninspiring. But that ordinary setting does something for me no coffee shop ever will…
It fulfills one of my most basic needs as a writer—silence.
Without silence, I can’t write well. It is one of my foundational needs, which is why I’ve used this example to begin with.
We all have basic needs that must be fulfilled before we can make progress toward the more important ones. That was the general premise a dude by the name of Abraham Maslow offered in 1943 when he proposed his “theory of human motivation.”
It’s now better known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Although Maslow never presented his hierarchy as a pyramid, that’s how you’ve probably seen it. Because, well, pyramids are fun.
According to Maslow’s theory, we humans must fulfill the bottom-most needs before we can begin to worry about fulfilling the ones above. Before you can be motivated to seek out love and belonging, your needs for basic health (physiological) and safety must be met.
Just like I applied this concept to my writing habit earlier, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been applied to tons of different disciplines.
I even learned that designers have their own hierarchy of needs for good design! It looks like this:
After a good amount of searching, I was sad to learn that copywriters don’t have a similar hierarchy to reference when creating a landing page, sales letter, email, or any other piece of copy—a checklist of sorts to ensure your copy is meeting every need its readers will have, from low-level to high-level.
So I was left with no other choice. I had to make the damn thing myself.
Introducing the Copy Hierarchy of Needs
- Readability Needs
These needs are the most basic and obvious, so we won’t spend much time here, but they still need to be met before your copy can start fulfilling the juicier ones.
Readability needs are straightforward—your copy needs to be made up of words that are understandable to the target audience. That means it must be:
- Written in the language the audience speaks.
- Mistake-free to a degree that is not distracting.
Do you have to have perfect grammar? No. Will one misspelled word completely crater your conversion rate? Probably not (unless you’re selling spellchecking software).
But if youre copy looks leik thsi, its going to be hrad to meat the rest of thees kneads.
Copy that fulfills only readability needs is basically worthless, but all great copy fulfills readability needs. It’s mandatory.
- Formatting Needs
Here’s where things start to get a little fun and copy begins to look more like, well, copy.
Think of formatting as the next degree of readability. This paragraph you’re reading right now, for example, meets the readability needs we already discussed. It’s written in English. There are no spelling errors or egregious grammatical mistakes. But it’s a little blah. As you can see by now, it’s also the largest paragraph in this entire blog post. Just a big ol’ block of text that probably caused your eyes to start quivering as soon as they saw it was next. Who wants to read something so intimidating and sterile? And that’s without mentioning the unfortunate decision to make the text color gray on a white background. Or the godawful font I chose for this sentence. All in all, this paragraph has offered a pretty terrible reading experience that meets none of your formatting needs. But thanks for sticking with it so I could illustrate a point!
To meet the formatting needs of prospects, your copy needs to be pleasant to the eyes. That means:
- Headlines should be big, bold, and obvious.
- To borrow a phrase from Stephen King, body copy should be “as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones.”
That means short paragraphs and lots of white space.
Forget any rule you learned that said paragraphs had to be 4-5 sentences.
Ignore default formatting settings like bullet points with no line breaks between them (which is exactly what I did when making this list).
- Your copy should have as much textual variation as possible.
Italics and bold are your friends.
Instead of writing out numbers, make use of numerals, like I did in the previous bullet point.
Most rules say numbers under 10, like 4 and 5, should be written out as four and five. However, when you use the numerals instead, you suddenly have difference in a sea of sameness. They draw your eyes in like anchors.
One caveat: don’t use things like italics and bold to the point where they lose their effectiveness. If you make something bold in every line, none of it will stand out.
- Your copy needs to display well in every format in which it will be viewed.
This is where things can get difficult for copywriters, because the way your copy is displayed is often beyond your control. Regardless though, it’s still important and it will still affect your copy, whether you control it or not.
If you’re writing for the web, your copy is going to be consumed across tons of different devices, applications, and screen sizes. What looks great and perfectly formatted on a laptop, might be rendered useless on an iPhone.
Take this unfortunate headline and sub-headline combo on mobile, for example.
On my desktop, it was readable and formatted in a way that’s at least acceptable (ignore any other flaws you see in it for now). I thought, Oh, that’s kind of cool—a boarding pass pillow.
On mobile all I could think was, Wow, so they specialize in ass pillows? Weird!
It’s easy to remember that your web pages should be mobile responsive, but people often forget to check on how that responsiveness affects the copy.
Check, and adjust accordingly. Don’t sell ass pillows.
- Action Needs
Your copy must contain the elements people need in order to take action.
While that contains obvious things, like a buy button, it also contains elements that are different for each project and easy to overlook.
The best way to ensure you meet a prospect’s action needs is to ask this question:
What information does my customer need to make an action decision?
That action decision will vary depending on what you’re writing copy for.
If it’s an email, that decision is likely just a click through.
If it’s a sales page, that decision is probably a purchase.
If it’s an opt-in page for a free ebook, that decision is submitting their email address.
If it’s a home page for enterprise software, that decision is probably requesting a demo.
Since the action decision will vary, the needs your prospect will have in order to take that action are going to vary.
- For sales pages: price, return policy, money-back guarantee, list of relevant features, easy-to-find buy button, secure payment information, relevant dates
- For opt-in pages: knowledge that the offer is free, clear description of the offer, easy-to-find opt-in button/form, relevant dates, secure opt-in information
- For email: easy-to-find link, clear explanation of what is on the other side of the link (unless the audience is very familiar with you—then you can afford to leave a little to their curiosity)
Again, while many of these things sound obvious, it’s easy for one of them to slip through the cracks when you’re trying to put an entire campaign together.
I once wrote a “Coming Soon” opt-in page for a live event and forgot to include the date anywhere on the page before showing it to the client. Needless to say, that oversight did not go over well.
Nail down the most important action your prospects need to take, and then give them every piece of information (or element) they need in order to make the decision to take it.
- Emotional Needs
Up until this point, the needs we’ve discussed have all pretty much been base needs.
If you cover these needs, your copy will be understandable, readable, and give prospects the basic elements they need to have the ability to take action, but a major key will still be missing.
In a sense, you’ll have built a house that looks like this:
It looks like a house. It’s built out of house stuff. It’s capable of performing the basic functions of a house.
But… it’s not ready to be a home yet.
Meeting emotional needs is what separates people who can just put words on a page from people who get paid top dollar to write copy.
Since a list of every emotional need your prospects might have would be way too long to list here, I’ll provide a list of basic emotional principles to remember as you write your copy.
- “People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.”
This oft-quoted line from Samuel Hulick of UserOnboard.com is my favorite way of succinctly explaining features vs. benefits. It’s usually accompanied by this amazing graphic he made:
To connect emotionally, make sure your copy is either focused on little Mario on the left (who is experiencing all kinds of problems, shortcomings, and frustrations), or awesome, giant, fireball-hurling Mario on the right (who generally lives an awesome life that defies basic scientific laws).
Yes, features will be important to mention somewhere in most cases (like we covered in the Action Needs section of the hierarchy), but fulfilling emotional needs is much more powerful.
- People will generally pay more money to avoid pain, fear, and discomfort than they will pay for pleasure.
We also place higher value on avoiding loss than realizing gain (this is known as loss aversion).
Unfortunately, these principles of psychology are often abused in some of the sleaziest copy you’ll ever find. There’s a fine line between touching on fear to motivate someone in a positive way, and using it in a negative way with damaging consequences.
You don’t want to end up like this 1932 Listerine ad, which basically tells women they’ll die cold, alone, and childless if they don’t fix their bad breath:
Use fear to help people make positive decisions, but not at the expense of their self-esteem.
- If you want to understand the emotions that will motivate your prospects, go to the source.
While you can’t always rely on customers to tell you what they want, you can rely on them to tell you how they feel.
When you’re writing a piece of copy, always start by reading as much material as you can find that features customers/prospects talking about their problems and/or how the product has helped them. You can find these gems in places like:
- Blog comments
- Survey data (always ask clients if they have any of this)
- Reviews for the product, or competing products (Amazon reviews often provide great insights)
- Customer support conversations
- Testimonials (be careful with these—prospects often unintentionally obscure the truth when they know their response is being featured in some type of official capacity)
These three principles are just the tip of the emotional needs iceberg, but checking for them regularly in your copy will help you unlock the ability to drill down deeper into the endless techniques for selling with emotion.
When you begin to satisfy the emotional needs of customers, your copy will be considered infinitely more valuable than copy that merely meets the first three base-level needs.
- Belonging Needs
The fifth and final need is the holy grail for copywriters.
If you can fulfill this need, your copy will continue to make repeat sales with the same customers long after they first come in contact with it.
It’s the need to belong, and when you fulfill it you’ll reap two main benefits:
- Loyalty: Customers will continue to purchase again and again
- Evangelism: Customers will become walking advertisements for the product or company
This is hard to do with copy alone. Obviously, after the copy convinces someone to convert, the product has to live up to (and exceed) expectations to fulfill their need to belong.
Now, you may be looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and scratching your head at this one.
If Maslow thought esteem and self-actualization should be placed above belonging, shouldn’t self-actualization be the greatest need your copy can fulfill?
Here’s why I say no:
Maslow believed that, in order to meet the need of self-actualization, people must not only meet every other need, but master them first.
If that’s the case, then it’s only a very small percentage of people who actually have a shot at meeting those top two needs. Most of us are still just trying to figure out how to find love and a sense of belonging.
Don’t believe me? Just take a quick trip through your Facebook news feed.
The question is though, how do you actually go about inspiring a sense of belonging in your copy?
First things first—it goes beyond simple tactics like this:
While the “Join X amount of people who also get this” is not a bad technique at all to use, that’s not what I’m talking about when I say belonging.
I’m talking about creating a bond so strong between the customers, the product, and the company that you can sell 100,000 boxes of “mystery bullshit” in six hours, like Cards Against Humanity did.
How do you do that? You write copy that delights. That means:
- Acknowledge the full range of your customers’ emotions.
Never pretend like your product will solve every last problem the customer will ever experience. Believe it or not, customers are smart and they possess highly in-tune B.S. detectors.
Your product does not magically make everything better, and you’ll need copy that continues to sell and push customers along even after they’ve experienced value from using it.
MailChimp has one of my favorite examples of this. Right before you’re about to send an email campaign—which is one of the most unpleasant, nerve-wracking, hurl-inducing tasks you can subject yourself to (Did I select the right list? Do the links work? Does the copy suck? Did I forget to fix that mistake in the subject line?), they present you with this graphic and copy:
This simple graphic and couple of lines of copy told me three things:
You’re not alone.
What you’re feeling right now is normal.
This is your moment of glory.
Not everything is sunshine and roses. Empathize with your customers, and you will delight them.
- Write to customers like they’re regular people.
Whether you’re typing up instructions for a bag of organic coffee beans or writing a walkthrough for an online course, you can talk to your customers like they’re actual people. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a crime. Shocking, right?
A little personality can bring small moments of joy to even the most mundane tasks, like generating an API key so you can integrate another service with your MailChimp account:
Is the audience you’re writing for not so keen on humor? No need to panic.. You can still create a more engaging experience for your customers by simply being conversational, straightforward, and informative. Check out MailChimp’s activity dashboard for an example:
Giving customers and prospects moments of joy in your copy breeds belonging. It brings both the company and the customer closer together, and gives customers positive experiences to share.
It’s the most difficult need to fulfill, but it’s also the most rewarding.
What Else Does Copy Need to Do?
This attempt at a hierarchy of needs for copy is a start, but—like I acknowledged throughout the post—there are so many needs to fulfill that the list could go on and on in each section.
What do you think? What are some important needs that we should consider including?
Leave a comment below and let us know!