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Fall 2002 Words That Sell

They’re everywhere. Easy to put to work, and easy to dismiss if they don’t get the job done. They work 24/7—and you don’t even have to pay them. Perfect employees? They just might be. They’re words, and you can employ them to work wonders for your bottom line—if you’re able to select the right ones and put them in the right place to get the job done.

Many of the roughly 600,000 words in the English language appear repeatedly in retail contexts such as signs, ads, labels, product literature, catalogs. Why? Because they’re effective. Look around—the mall, newspapers and magazines, TV and radio, the Net, and even on the road—and you’ll find words like sale, free, buy, new and clearance everywhere. You’ll also see improved, guaranteed, introducing, huge, final, now… the list goes on. But as a specialty retailer, how can you know if the words you use are working?

Take a look at your own signs. “Never underestimate those signs. They’re one of the most cost-effective marketing tools you can use, because they market you to people who are already at your front door and in a mood to buy,” says John Kuraoka, an advertising copywriter and the owner of (San Diego, CA). But before you get to the words, look at the “picture” your sign presents, he says, and whether it’s clearly visible and stands out from the competition (e.g., other retailers’ signs) nearby. Obviously, a sign has to be seen in order to attract shoppers’ attention and motivate them to act. Once a sign is spotted, the shopper will scan it in a split second. “People scan before they [actually] read. If they like what they see, then they engage the brain to read.” And the words they read will either motivate them to buy, or not.

Words into action

Now that you’ve decided the visibility question, determine whether the words on your signs are working. The critical question: Could they work better and, if so, how? Which words would you have to change—and to what—to make your messages attract and motivate customers to buy from you? First consider what Kuraoka calls the two “key points” of creating your message: “Talk directly to your target audience as individuals, and make them a relevant offer.” Here’s a look at each of those points: the direct message, and the offer.

Kuraoka advises looking at the offer even before you consider the specific words for the message. Dr. Jeffrey Lant agrees. The author of Cash Copy: How to Offer Your Products and Services So Your Prospects Buy Them… Now, Lant says it’s the offer, the deal, that people really want and are attracted to. “Make the offer attractive enough to give them [the] desire to visit your store and buy what you have,” he says. And every offer should be “value-added,” such as “Buy two/get one free.” “Take an additional xx percent off” is also a very powerful offer, Kuraoka says.

Brainstorm possible offers you might make, then look at the ones you like best from the customers’ perspective. Start from the assumption that what you’re offering will make a consumer want to spend money and buy from you. Then once you decide on the offer, you can start to create your message.

“Words are the levers that motivate action,” says Lant. “Your words have to be an inducement to move product.” You want words that make consumers want to act—to come to your cart or store, and to buy from you once they get there. “Just because you have a [retail business] doesn’t mean people will come… You have to entice them,” he says. “Some businesses are trying to live off their brand name, and you can’t do that,” especially with today’s competitive marketplace, uncertain economy and debt-burdened consumer. And that’s where specific word choices comes in. “It may sound simple,” he says, but it’s imperative that the words you use motivate consumer action. Some words are foolproof. They’re a kind of shorthand that automatically communicate “come here” and “buy” messages quickly. Sale and discount are two of the most familiar examples. However, just because they’re so common doesn’t mean they’re magic words. So which ones are? How can you know which are the best? Fortunately, you have the benefit of years of market research to show which words sell better than others.

Magic words

The three most persuasive words in the English language, says Jonathan Gabay, author of Teach Yourself Copywriting, are free, you, and guarantee. Lant contends that free is the strongest motivator today. But wait, there’s more: In Confessions of an Advertising Man, legendary adman David Ogilvy lists what he considers to be the most persuasive: suddenly, now, announcing, introducing, improvement, amazing, sensational, remarkable, revolutionary, startling, miracle, magic, offer, quick, wanted, challenge, compare, bargain and hurry. William Wells, writing for the Journal of Advertising Research, mentions free, hurry, new, revolutionary, easy, the truth about, now, miracle, last chance, announcing, magic, challenge, it’s here, introducing, compare, just arrived, sensational, amazing, improvement and bargain. And research conducted at Yale University revealed these as very strong motivators: easy, results, save, discover, safety, health, love, money, need and proven.

While there’s some overlap, what may be most surprising is that neither Ogilvy nor the Yale study include free, the word that Gabay, Lant and conventional wisdom consider the number-one grabber. Brett Moneta, a Dallas-based copywriter, says free isn’t the powerhouse it’s believed to be. He says free may have lost its credibility and effectiveness because it’s overused, and it’s overused because so many marketers and retailers believe in its power. As a result, he says, consumers “are wary of [free]. They see it and immediately want to know what the catch is.” However, he feels free can work well enough if the advertiser is specific about exactly what is free. “But by itself, it’s not that good.”

Moneta prefers words that invite conversation or a forum. “Something like ‘Voice your opinion’ or ‘Tell us what you think’ are good because everyone has an opinion and they often like to share it,” he says. “It gets people in a mood to act, to do something.” And remember, what you as a retailer want them to do is buy from you. Another way to prompt action is to invite or challenge, he says—a message like “Try this now” or “See if these aren’t the best you’ve ever tried” can get people to engage with you, and once they do, they’re likely to buy. That approach is at the heart of demonstration products, but it isn’t necessarily limited to them.

And finally, Kuraoka says the most persuasive words are the two that make up your name. “If you were walking through a mall and you saw a sign that said ‘John Smith, here’s something just for you!’ you’d pause. [And] if the retailer delivers on the promise, you’d buy,” he says. “Since targeting that precisely is seldom an option with signage, the more common word is you.”

Point of view

And that’s a straight line to what experts say is key to crafting an effectively worded message: pinpoint and understand your “audience”—your target customers—and speak to them from their point of view. Determine what’s important to them, and focus on that, not on what you think they should know. Then choose the best words to convey that message. For example, if your target customer is looking for a deal, sale and save will speak to them. On the other hand, if they need to see that your product is good for them, sale and save miss the mark: but use proven and guaranteed, and you’re speaking right to their need, thereby reassuring them and moving them closer to buying.

Gabay says a common mistake is that the messages on signs are too long. “Keep them short.” And keep them readable up close and at a distance. If they’re too fancy, too busy or otherwise hard to read, customers won’t shift gears from “scan” to “read,” and will just walk on by.

Another big mistake: being passive (a nice way of saying “bored” or “clueless”). Lant offers a perfect example: He was in London’s Heathrow airport, sitting on a bench outside a shop that made no attempt to sell what it had. “Thousands of people were walking by and no one was stopping. There was no good reason for them to stop because the shop had no signs up to entice people to come in.” Almost as bad as not having a sign is not having a goal for “how many people you want to stop at your cart,” he says. If you’re not happy with the number of people who are stopping, you have to change something—and assessing your signage is an excellent beginning.

But no matter which words get high marks and which ones you use, it’s also important to pay attention to what’s working for you by tracking your results: x number of dollars with this sign and this offer and x number with that one. Marketers often fail to keep notes on their results, Lant says. “Write down what happens.” That way, you can repeat the successes, tweak the near-successes, and eliminate the duds.

Put the right words to work. By taking advantage of their selling power, you can attract more shoppers, motivate them to buy, and increase sales. After all, words are free—a guaranteed bargain for you! Use proven words in new ways for sensational results!

Act now!

Doug McPherson

Doug McPherson is a freelance writer in Centennial, CO. He can be reached at 303.770.7744 or .

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