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Copywriting Tip: Choose Pain over Pleasure for Best Conversion Rates

When writing copy, it’s often easier to make the sale when you emphasize avoiding pain rather than gaining pleasure.

In one of the copywriting groups where I hang out, a fellow copywriter asked about conflicting ideas regarding the concepts of positive/negative and pain/pleasure when writing copy. He said it seemed to him that people will do more to avoid pain than gain pleasure in general, yet in the copywriting bible Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins, the advertising genius advises,

“Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, and not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about the wrinkles.” [emphasis mine]

The copywriter is correct…and so is Claude Hopkins. Hopkins is simply arguing that it’s more effective to emphasize the “after” state than the “before” state when creating an advertisement.

The role of pain in improving conversion rates

Humans have evolved to avoid intense pain as a survival mechanism. Intense pain is Nature’s Way of telling you that you’re about to die. Unless you run away and save yourself—NOW!—you’ll never again have the chance to get jiggy with a fellow Neanderthal to ensure your genes stay in circulation.

The noted psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his Hierarchy of Needs in acknowledgment of this biological reality. At its foundation are the basic human biological requirements to maintain life, such as air, water, food, sleep, sex, and protection from the elements.

After you’ve got those handled, your next concern will likely be for physical safety, so you can protect yourself.

After you’ve managed to keep your body alive and intact, Maslow theorized that you’d start working to fulfill your emotional needs for trusting, intimate interpersonal relationships and a sense of acceptance and belonging to a group. (Tribalism is still an extremely powerful motivator…just ask anyone in Buckeye Nation.)

Next up in Maslow’s Hierarchy is self-esteem and the desire for prestige and recognition.

Once you’re healthy, safe, loved, and admired, and have all your basic needs handled, you have the physical and emotional bandwidth for non-survival-related, aspirational pursuits that will lead to your self-actualization, says Maslow.

How to determine sales motivation when writing copy

Here’s how this all ties in to copywriting.

First, you need to really, really know your target audience. Where is she on Maslow’s pyramid? How does your solution get her from one level on Maslow’s Hierarchy to the next?

Once you know where your prospective customer lives on the pyramid, you’ll know which of the four levels of sales motivation may be most effective when it comes to coaxing a purchase decision from her.

In general—naturally there are exceptions—the person most motivated to make a change (and buy your solution) is someone who’s in pain right now—either physical or emotional pain. I call this person “the low-hanging fruit.” If she has (or can get) money; feels like she knows, likes and trusts you; and believes your solution to be plausible, she’ll buy from you.

This is the prospective client who takes the least effort to convert, which is why most of my copywriting is pain-oriented rather than self-actualization oriented.

Here’s an example of someone extremely motivated to make a change.

The next-most-motivated is the person who fears physical and/or emotional pain in the future and wants to prevent or avoid it.

The next most motivated buyer (relatively speaking) is the person who is not experiencing pleasure right now, but wants to experience it in the future.

The least motivated buyer is the person who is enjoying pleasure right now and wants it to continue. This person lives at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, in Nirvana.

Once you understand whether your prospect is avoiding pain or seeking gain, you’ll understand how to speak to them in your copy.


Struggling with response rates? Need to improve conversions? Not sure how to motivate your ideal client to buy? Copywriting coach Kathleen Hanover can coach you through your copywriting conundrum. Grab your copy coaching appointment today, and get $100 off when you use promo code “blog100” during booking.

Kathleen Hanover
Certified Go-Giver Speaker and Copywriting Trainer
Kathleen Hanover helps entrepreneurs tell their story, attract their ideal audiences, and persuasively communicate their value. As a highly-regarded marketing copywriting trainer, she teaches persuasion psychology and the magic words that build rapport and sales. And as Ohio's first Certified Go-Giver Speaker, Kathleen shares the Five Laws of Stratospheric Success from the international best-seller, "The Go-Giver," by Bob Burg and John David Mann, with business and community audiences alike.
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