By Michel Fortin
One of my students made me realize something important.
In fact, his point was so well made because he drove it home using the very idea he was illustrating. While his comment was general in nature, I realized how beautifully it applied to copy ... Particularly web copy.
But before I explain it to you, let me put the story in context so you can understand. In my Personal Selling class, we were discussing the natural human inclination to illogically and unconsciously assume that there is a parallel between a part and its whole -- even when the two are totally unrelated or irrelevant to each other.
I dub this human propensity as a UPA (or an "unconscious paralleled assumption"). For example, if you visit a website whose design is poor or unprofessional, or one hosted on a cheap or free server, people will naturally assume that the business or products behind it are the same ...
... Poor ... Unprofessional ... Cheap ... And so on.
The psychology behind UPAs is simply this: it's based on the fear of making bad decisions. Why? Because human nature dictates: we have a tendency to seek out the negative in whatever it is we are considering so to ensure that the decisions we are making are good ones.
For instance, when we are contemplating an offer on the web, we'll likely skim the website and the copy entirely (or at least a good portion of them) in order to make sure that the offer is legitimate. Is it telling us the truth? Is it trustworthy? Is it devoid of any "fine print?"
Anything contradictory in the slightest will push us away.
If something appears to be out of place for any reason (even if it's just a little thing like a typo, and goodness knows I'm guilty of making errors, too), we'll tend to leave the site quickly or in the very least feel uneasy.
I call this the "Ketchup Principle." It's the fact that you will remember the ketchup stain on a salesperson's tie more than you will his impeccable sales presentation or appearance. (For more on the "Ketchup Principle," see my article at
But appearances aside, UPAs, and especially poor ones, can also be the result of people not fully understanding the meaning of what is being communicated to them on a website. We can certainly read the text, understand the message and learn about the products.
But the question is, do we truly understand the meaning behind the message? In other words, does the message mean anything to us specifically? Is there a bad "meta-message" (i.e., a subtle nuance or indirect message that contradicts the sales pitch)?
Too many websites describe the products they are selling or use a language that only the sellers understand. More than likely, buyers in these cases do understand the content but they do not fully grasp what these products can do for them specifically.
Why? It's because the mind thinks in relative terms. Specifically, the brain processes information by visualizing what it's being told and comparing the given information to things it can relate to or understand.
Keep in mind, words are not messages. They are symbols.
OK, now that I've cleared that up, let's go back to the student's point mentioned at the beginning. At the end of my lecture, he turns to me, and then pulls out a chair and places it beside a class table. He asks, "Mike, what's the difference between this chair and table?" I said, "One is to sit on and the other is to write on." "No!" he shouted. "Not at all."
I was puzzled. "You're thinking in relative terms," he adds. "You are describing each individual product and its respective function, not the difference. The difference IS their function. Get it?"
Noticing that I was still perplexed, he continues: "What's the difference between a tennis ball and a soccer ball? Not that one is small and the other is big, or that one is yellow and the other is black-and-white, which is what most people will say. The difference is SIZE or COLOR."
I got it, now. And he made an excellent point. In this example, we are not really specifying the difference, we are only relating (or at best implying) the difference by describing or comparing the two.
As he explained so well, the mind thinks in relative terms.
That's why it's important to use picture words, comparisons, metaphors and analogies with your copy so that the mind of your readers can easily interpret and fully appreciate what is being communicated to them.
I call these UPWORDS (which stands for "Universal Picture Words or Relatable, Descriptive Sentences"). With the use of UPWORDS, people will understand and retain more. And of course, UPWORDS will also persuade visitors more effectively. (For more on UPWORDS, see my article at
So, use analogies to which your audience can relate. Say that you're selling a computer backup device. To explain the main benefit of using a computer backup device, you can say this:
"This backup system will save you a lot of frustration and time if your computer ever malfunctions, which may lead to the loss of critical data you worked so hard to create and compile. It's like watching your favorite movie you waited for days to rent at your local video store, when suddenly your VCR dies and destroys the videotape, especially when an important scene in the movie was about to unfold. Now you have to return to the video store and perhaps wait again for the next time the movie becomes available. It's frustrating!"
Above all, think of your visitors, readers or prospects. Does your copy truly communicate in THEIR language? Does it explain the product you offer -- and particularly its benefits -- in relative terms?
If not, then the UPA you will create for your prospects will likely be one that will lead to disinterest, misunderstanding or frustration. They will unconsciously assume that there is a parallel between the quality of your message and the quality of your product let alone customer service!
Remember that the Internet lacks touch and feel. People cannot inspect products. Therefore, your copy has a great responsibility -- to replace the feelings your offer lacks and visitors want.
Ultimately, make sure the UPAs your visitors or prospects make are good ones. If you want them to assume that your business has good customer service and has a great product that's easy to use, then make sure your sales copy indirectly communicates the same.
What's Up With That 'UPA'?
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