The fear of scarcity permeates our culture. People believe they don’t have enough. They spend time calculating how much they want. And when they see what others have, all they can think about is what they’re missing. In Buddhism, this concept is called “The Hungry Ghost.” Hungry ghosts are beings with tiny mouths the size of a pin and large, empty stomachs. They live in a realm where they’re never satisfied and their craving is ceaseless.
As marketers, we are sometimes guilty of bombarding people with content that plays on this hyperawareness of lack. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’d like to propose that selling products can be symbiotic with sincerity.
Being a marketer who also lives by a Buddhist philosophy may seem like an oxymoron. But words are powerful and we need to be mindful during every step of our writing process. One way I do this is by following a Buddhist doctrine called The Four Elements of Right Speech.
Thich Nhat Hahn touches on this doctrine in his book, The Art of Communicating. He writes:
“Loving, truthful speech can bring a lot of joy and peace to people. But producing loving speech takes practice because we aren’t used to it. When we hear so much speech that causes craving, insecurity, and anger, we get accustomed to speaking that way. Truthful, loving speech is something we need to train ourselves in.”
This way of talking and writing isn’t always natural, so we have to practice. We must be mindful and respect our audience through our words, just like we do when we talk to a dear friend. This may seem like an idealistic, impossible and perhaps even idiotic proposal. But I’m not asking you to be perfect. I’m simply asking you to join me in exploring another approach to your marketing copy.
Let’s dig into how the Four Elements of Right Speech can apply to marketing content:
1. Tell the truth.
Don’t lie or turn the truth upside down. If you twist the truth, there’s a chance your customers won’t trust you. If they buy your product and it doesn’t live up to their expectations, they’ll end up disappointed. Luckily, your product doesn’t have to be the sexiest or most innovative to sell. Maybe it has another utility – like price or convenience. Sometimes copy on the web is deceitful, so stand out by being straightforward and honest. Lean into originality. Here’s an example from REI. I spend a large chunk of my paycheck there because I trust their products to hold up in the often-crappy Pacific Northwest weather.
“With a trail weight of 2 lbs. 12 oz., the updated Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent lets you and a friend enjoy a gossamer-light load and plenty of living space on your 3-season adventures.”
This copy evokes excitement about camping, but it’s still straightforward. It’s doesn’t stretch the truth. It has a light trail weight and is good for 3-season adventures. They don’t claim that it’s “incredibly innovative” or “the tent of your dreams”. And it doesn’t have to be either of those descriptions to make me want to buy it.
2. Don’t exaggerate.
There’s a lot of pressure when selling products. The competition is intense and you need to make your way through the noise. How are you going to set yourself apart from all the other brands? It can be easy to exaggerate (even slightly) in your marketing. But writing great marketing copy doesn’t mean you have to be clever or flowery. In fact, sometimes getting back to basics is the best you can do. Showcase why you’re special with simplicity and honesty. Here’s an example from MailChimp, an online email marketing solution that writes personable copy.
Mindful copywriting is truthful and it solves customer problems while also being respectful. If marketing writers were monks, MailChimp would be well on its way to enlightenment. They use a voice and tone that’s warm, but clear. They persuade the reader by speaking directly to them and their needs without exaggerating what MailChimp can do for them.
In Everybody Writes, Ann Handley says:
“We all have easy access to a publishing platform and a potential audience. We all have great power to influence, educate, entertain, and help – but also to annoy, irritate, and…sometimes…fritter away our opportunity entirely. So the challenge for companies is to respect their audiences and deliver what the audience needs in a way that’s useful, enjoyable, and inspired.”
When we write, we start with a blank screen and the best intentions. But we often get lost in the process. Writing isn’t always easy. It’s hard to say what we mean and sometimes all we can do is stare at the screen. When we’re trying to persuade it’s easy to exaggerate to get our point across. If you’re in doubt of what you’re writing, stick with simplicity. Notice certain words that may come up in your writing, such as:
- More *insert adjective here*
Unless your company actually is the best or most innovative, cut these words from your copy. And always ask yourself if you’re exaggerating, even if it’s just a tiny bit.
3. Be consistent.
This means no double-talk: speaking about something in one way to one person and in an opposite way to another for selfish or manipulative reasons.
Before you can sell your product to new customers, you need to build trust. One of the most effective ways you can do this is through being consistent in your communications. Think of a long-form story vs. a tweet. Sometimes the channel and audience need a modification to tone, but your voice should still be consistent across content types.
In Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach write:
“When you tackle defining your organization’s voice, start by looking at any brand materials you have. The voice might already be defined for you. Consider how it feels, what values live behind it, the different media in which it might manifest.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re eating at a restaurant or browsing web content. People expect and deserve consistency. If you’re not consistent, you risk confusing and frustrating them.
4. Use peaceful language.
Don’t use insulting or violent words, cruel speech, verbal abuse, or condemnation.
It may seem obvious, but this type of language still creeps into our marketing copy. It may not be insulting or violent, but it may be negative. Here’s an example of how you can turn negative copy into positive copy:
Negative: You won’t receive exclusive wardrobe deals until you sign up for our newsletter.
Positive: Sign up for our newsletter to receive exclusive deals on hand-picked items from our personal stylists.
Dropbox does an excellent job of positive copywriting. Let’s look at an example:
“Dropbox works the way you do. Get to all your files from anywhere, on any device, and share them with anyone.”
I love that Dropbox’s copy is so creative and understanding. Many companies would choose to write negative copy, such as the following: Are you constantly losing or unable to share your work with others? At Dropbox, we help ease your file frustrations.
While neither cruel nor condemning, this type of content speaks to The Hungry Ghost in each of us. It plays on our fears of losing our work and tries to provide a solution. So it makes me happy that Dropbox found a friendly and helpful way to write their web content.
As Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee write in Nicely Said:
“Show your thoughtfulness. Make the reader smile. You can even give them a little encouragement. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and check your tone to make sure you’re being polite. If you need the reader to wait for a moment to fill in extra form fields, a simple ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”
Similar to exit overlays, negative copywriting might raise your conversion rates in the short term, but are these techniques causing you to keep the customers you ultimately want to win over? I suspect not. Look at your cohort analysis to prove this to yourself or your CMO, once you’ve tried writing with true sincerity for a while.
There is no perfect formula for writing. But if you inject mindfulness into your writing process and look at every word you write, you’ll get closer to selling with sincerity. As marketers, we should be passionate about our products. And I believe passion – not fear – is what makes a great and lasting impression.