Simple selling psychology

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 The best sales people have a toolkit of tactics that are proven by psychologists to work, even if they have no idea why. When writing copy, these tactics should always be kept in mind.


You may not be selling dishcloths door-to-door, but you’re trying to get people to spend their time and read more. Time is expensive, as is the effort it takes to investigate your claims and benefits. Here’s a brief explanation of what sales people already know – and you should remember.


Give and take

Often referred to as a sense of obligation, and seen perhaps most clearly in the ‘free’ gifts given away by mail order and charity mail shots: the most desperate I’ve seen was a cancer charity who posted a pair of slippers to my house, backed up by a quote from a cancer patient on the envelope that read “Help me mummy, I’m freezing cold”. While one good turn deserves another, subtlety is the key to make sure you’re not alienating the reader.


Be likeable

People want to help people they like. They want to know more about them, spend more time with them and be surrounded by the things that make good people tick. Celebrity culture makes this most obvious, and in itself such a phenomenon is just a form of sales. Manipulation of self-image is risky because people turn against their former heroes just as fast.  An honest tone and message gets you liked for longer.


Social validation

We all want to be like other people. We’re social animals who value our place in the order. Being told that doing X will maintain that place, because lots of other people have found it’s so, is a perfect message that contains a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be aware that this is generally workable only in a positive message: telling people not to do something because lots of people aren’t doing it can backfire tremendously – anti-drugs and underage sex campaigners can testify.



When someone tells you it’s the last, the final, unique, only, exclusive and one-off, they’re hooking into a psychological truth. We don’t want to miss a thing, especially if it’s likely to make us better people, more popular and a valued member of our crowd. Secret and clandestine concepts tap into the same idea – even if it’s illicit or condemned by our peers, it’s desperately attractive.


Foot in the door

It’s a rather confrontational phrase – I’d rather use ‘Start small’. The basic premise is that getting someone to agree to a small request makes them more likely to agree to a larger one later on. People want to be consistent – but there needs to be a healthy gap between requests for this to work without making people feel exploited.


Door in the face

It’s the reverse of having your foot in the door, but it appears to work in some situations. It’s also a preferred tactic for many professional negotiators: quite simply, start big. Very big. Unrealistically big. While you know you’ll be refused, the idea is that your smaller follow-up offer will look reasonable in comparison. It’s a crazy idea when you look at it, but in the words of psychologist Richard Gross “However it works, it works.”