Checklist for great copy based on hierarchy of needs

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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.

The lovely, light-filled setting where people think I get my work done.

The lovely, light-filled setting where people think I get my work done.


The not-so-sexy place where I actually get my work done. (And yes, that is a container of dog food next to the computer.)

The not-so-sexy place where I actually get my work done. (And yes, that is a container of dog food next to the computer.)

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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 11.05.28 PM

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

copy hierarchy of needs

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 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.

  1. 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:

2016-01-22 at 11.36 AM

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!


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Will Hoekenga
Will Hoekenga
Will Hoekenga is a copywriting consultant and creator of frameworks that help businesses write better copy, like the Home Page Copy Generator. He writes at
Showing 37 comments
  • Reply

    Hi Will,

    Great piece of work, something for me to share with clients!

    I’d maybe move “Action” to the bottom. Without action, copy is just writing – just IMHO.

    Good examples too, I love Mailchimp’s humour.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Stephen! My hope was to create something copywriters could share with clients, so I’m glad you plan on doing that.

      And I agree — definitely a valid argument for action to be at the bottom. In my mind, I was thinking that in order to have action, there must be words. Therefore, words must exist, they must be readable, and then they must convey action. But I totally see what you’re saying.

  • Reply

    Wow dang good article, thanks for taking the time to put it together.

    Many do cross that line of using fear to shame instead of motivate.

    The real key is the connection. You can establish that if you’re not using your psychology prowess to manipulate and trick.

    Sometimes a simple story is of where you were and the journey you made is powerful enough to establish that connection. That means as marketers and copywriters we need to be authentic and put a little piece of us into out copy.

    And that can be scary!

    Again thanks for the great article.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Dottie! Great point: stories offer a great method for tapping into fear without shaming. Authenticity is key. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply

    Awesome Will, this is a master class in writing copy!

  • Art

    I’m thinking that’s the best short piece on writing copy I’ve read. I wanna read more of your copy now.

  • Reply

    Excellent! Great eye opener. Will use the info.
    Z.A.Mehar from Nairobi Kenya the land of 8th Wonder

  • Reply

    Where did you find the ‘designers needs pyramid’ for this great article? It so happens I enjoy both design and copy.

    • Reply

      Hey Andrew, great question! I’m not sure who originally created the design pyramid, but I found it in a book called Universal Principles of Design, which I highly recommend. It’s absolutely fascinating. It breaks down 125 different design principles, devoting two pages to each. The first page gives a comprehensive overview of the concept, and the second page provides illustrated examples. It’s awesome.

  • Reply

    Tremendous stuff, Will.

    Hilarious AND useful – the whoopee cushion of copywriting articles ; )

    I’ll be referring to this again and again, and recommending it to anyone looking to understand the role of copy better.

    • Reply

      “The whoopee cushion of copywriting articles” might be my favorite compliment ever. 🙂 Thanks, Peter!

      • Paul Hoekenga

        Can there be higher praise??

  • Reply

    Brilliant, Will! Kevin Rogers guaranteed me that I would bookmark this article and refer back to it often. I love Kevin, and trust his ideas, but with so many great articles available I wasn’t convinced.

    But, again he is correct. Not only bookmarking, but converting to a PDF and dropping a copy into my tablet for re-reading in coffee shops and waiting rooms as I realize that I cannot effectively write in those environments either.

    For what it is worth, a brilliant scholar/teacher friend shared the “next level” above self actualization, and presented an excellent argument for it’s existence. That next level is “Contribution.” This outstanding article of yours tends to prove his theory … Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Bruce! Glad to hear I’m not the only one who can’t write effectively in coffee shops. 🙂

      Very interesting about contribution—I’d love to hear more about your friend’s argument for it and what all it entails.

  • Reply

    So many gems, all in a fun format…

    Silence is golden. I too write in silence. Probably because I turn written words into sounds inside my skul;l, so it’s already noisy within. Stirring of teaspoons in cups must rate alongside nails down a chalkboard…

    You never answered why you have dog food on your desk…

    • Reply

      Haaaaa! I’m so glad you noticed the dog food, Wendy. Was hoping someone would. 🙂

      The room where we feed our dog has gotten really drafty this winter, so we moved her food and water bowls into the office. Now she can stay nice and warm while she eats (which takes her about 5 seconds).

  • Reply

    OK, the ass pillow ad had me rolling. Oh man, I’ve gotta show that to my mobile responsive designer buddy.

    Will, you’re a phenomenal writer. It’s not often that I read every word in a long post, but you kept me hooked right up until the end. Fantastic advice in here.

  • Reply

    Thanks so much, Angie! Really appreciate the kind words, and glad you found the post valuable. Oh, and also very glad you found the ass pillows as funny as I did. 🙂

  • Reply

    Stunningly great stuff, Will.
    Love the overall concept.
    I initially thought…. “hmmm, shouldn’t action come after emotion?” — as I figured you had to get people emotional first before prompting them to take action. But the way you’ve constructed your pyramid is spot on.
    It’s amazing how the most basic of copywriting fundamentals are often overlooked, as folks go and chase all sorts of shiny new “copy hax”.
    If folks only focused on hitting what you’ve outlined here, people would sell an awful lot more stuff!
    Also really liked the show and don’t tell elements. Kept me very engaged 🙂
    I’d love to see a series where you assess different pieces of copy using this framework.

    • Reply

      PS – Ass Pillows – lol

    • Reply

      Thanks, Ross! Totally get the thought about action coming after emotion. The way I see it is, most people remember they need some sort of “Buy” or “Contact” button on the page, but totally forget to make any emotional connection. This will still get them a minimal amount of sales or leads (because some people will likely find their way there through word of mouth, referrals, etc. and be going straight for the action), but because it doesn’t meet the next need, it has a very low ceiling.

      Assessing different copy based on this framework is definitely interesting! I’ll keep that in mind.

  • Reply

    Will this is completely brilliant

    One of the most original pieces of work I’ve seen in the copywriting space for a long time.

    This would make a great podcast – would you like to be my guest to talk about it?

    Many thanks!


  • Jen

    Awesome post as usual, Will! You really should read Story Wars by Jonah Sachs. He talks a lot about this and that Listerine ad. He calls for us to do “empathetic marketing” not “inadequacy marketing.” I must agree.

  • Reply

    Saw Loz’s recommendation for this post and I have to agree its awesome

    Great thought piece and actually a pretty damn fine way to teach copywriting. Each level is almost an edit

    I’m convinced those who make great copywriters have 2 things:

    1) They understand their audience, the product and what drives people
    2) They go ahead and keep editing until they make the reader look up and realise they missed their bus

    Great post and I look forward to the podcast

    Daniel Daines-Hutt

    • Reply

      Thanks, Daniel! Agree 100% with your two qualifications for great copywriters.

  • Reply

    As always excellent article Will! Love your breaking it down to a framework, blah blah blah awesome…

    But my real question.

    I’ve seen hello bars on the top of websites… But this one is on the bottom, is it a goodbye bar?

    • Reply

      Thanks, Nate!

      Hahaha — you’ll have to ask Kevin that one. But yes, I vote for goodbye bar. 🙂

  • Reply

    Has definitely helped write a better sales letter.
    Will post the results

  • Louella

    You hit Maslow’s belonging stage for me when you showed the photo of your not-so-sexy work space (coffee shop is for my “me” time, not work!). Thanks for making this very useful and fun to read! I am new to copywriting and am really glad I found this article through a related post by Lorraine Thompson. Just like Bruce, I bookmarked AND saved this as a PDF for re-reading during idle time. Thank you so much, Will!

    • Reply

      Glad to hear this was helpful, Louella. Thanks for the kind words! Welcome to the copywriting world. 🙂

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