Don’t read any more until you’ve watched the video!
Hey, quit peeking down here; watch the video first
OK, having watched the video you know now that the “ad guy” changes the old man’s sign from:
“Have compassion, I am blind”
“Today is a beautiful day, and I can not see it.”
So let’s talk about the ad guy’s copy transformation. In my mind he did 3 things perfectly:
1. He surprised readers with an unexpected intro
It was indeed a beautiful day, but it was also an unexpected observation to read on a panhandlers sign. One normally expects a request or offer like, “Will work for food” or “Please help a disabled vet” or some such. “Today is a beautiful” day is surprising, capturing the reader’s attention.
2) He used a reality hook to create an advantageous emotional response.
Whether they wanted to or not, passers-by took at least half a second to confirm the truth of that statement – to mentally assent that, yes, today was indeed beautiful. Think about how different that thought is from 99% of the pedestrian concerns most of us walk down the street with; how liberating – even for a half-second – to stop worrying about the next meeting or deadline and look up to see what a beautiful day it really is.
This is a crucial step, too, because, as discussed in the book Made to Stick, shifting people into an empathic or emotional state of mind is crucial to the success of charitable requests. Psychological research shows that if you prime people to think analytically, they’ll give far less than if you primed them to think emotionally. The “Today is a beautiful day” opening primed people to think emotionally.
3) He forced reader participation by requiring them to connect the dots.
Nowhere did the new sign actually say, “I’m blind.” Readers had to draw that conclusion for themselves by reading “and I can’t see it” while connecting that with the context clues offered by the old man and his pan-handling. This bit of reader engagement means that readers “see” the reality of the man’s blindness for themselves, without the typical internal push-back or cynicism generated when a marketing claim is shoved at a person. This fill-in-the-gaps interactivity is an incredibly powerful writing technique.
Also note that the new sign avoided a hard sell by implying the request. The ad man let the collection plate, combined with the reader’s realization of the man’s blindness, act as the call to action.
Now, applying this to the web, I’d say there are 2 more, extremely important points to make:
4) Eliminating conversion flaws and increasing usability can only take you so far.
The ad guy didn’t try to make the collection plate bigger or more prominent. Nor did he set up a card-swiping machine so people could donate via debit card. Usability wasn’t the issue; persuasion was. If your website optimization strategy only addresses usability flaws or general best-practice issues, you’re never going to achieve breakthrough performance for your website. You have to address persuasive gaps as well.
5) It’s worth the money to pay a good copywriter what he’s worth
The dramatic improvement in conversion caused by the film’s ad guy may have been fictional, but it’s a recurrent reality on the web – at least for those companies who understand the value of persuasive copy.
Unfortunately, too many companies are willing to spend thousands to tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a website redesign while balking at paying decent money for a top-notch copywriter. Don’t be one of those companies.
And if you’re advertising via mass media, such as radio, think about how foolish it is to pay thousands for air space only to fill it with mediocre, station-supplied copy for your ads. Do you really want to be that company?