Pavlovian Principles for Copywriting

When asked how to distinguish persuasive web copy, I have a two-word answer: Behavior modification.

Pavlov's dogBehavior modification is what powerful and persuasive words do. They modify behavior. In fact, that’s how I define good marketing.

The person who taught me the importance of behavior modification in marketing is the late Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who made behavior modification history in the late 1890’s.

In his revolutionary experiment, Pavlov put a slab of meat in front of dogs. As the dogs started salivating, he rang a bell. Over time, the dogs became conditioned to salivate whenever they heard the bell – whether or not meat was present. Their nervous systems had associated the bell with red meat.

What does red meat have to do with writing copy? Simply put… everything.

There is nothing in a word that should elicit emotion by itself. But there are emotions attached to words. I can whisper three simple words – “I love you” – into my wife’s ear after we have just had an argument. All of a sudden, she has a different emotional reaction.

There are words in the English language that have conditioned the population. Hero, torture, painful, love… these are simple examples of words that produce a reaction in your nervous system. Use words that have meaning, particularly verbs, and you can elicit emotion in your readers.

I learned 3 important copywriting principles from Pavlov. Use these ideas to boost the power of your copywriting.

  1. The first copywriting principle for more persuasive web copy is consistency. Pavlov didn’t change the stimulus. He didn’t switch between a bell and a horn. He used only a bell. As a copywriter, you have to be consistent with one copywriting style. Develop a voice so that your prospects and customers begin to recognize you and develop a positive emotional response to your messages.
  2. The second copywriting principle is frequency. Pavlov frequently conditioned the dog with a bell. Frequency allowed the dog to make the connection between the stimulus and the red meat. As a copywriting strategy, this means frequently providing calls to action – “Order now” – to break down any barriers to the sale.
  3. The third copywriting principle is anchoring or creating an association to an emotion or response. Pavlov’s experiment associated the bell’s sound with the red meat. The dog’s feelings reacted, producing a response of salivation. If you have consistency and frequency, the anchoring happens. You can pull away the behavior or the experience, and all you need is the bell. In terms of copywriting, then, all you need are the words to prompt the desired response.

If you use copy that is too familiar because it has been consistently and frequently anchored as a certain type of feeling and you haven’t earned that feeling or that level of intimacy, your copy won’t work. Prospects won’t get upset with you, but they will ignore your promotions.

As a marketer, wouldn’t it be great to have your customers respond like Pavlov’s dog when they see or hear your copy? Which principle will you apply first? Please share your thoughts below. ~ Alex

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