The Ethics of Psychodynamic Marketing

Harry Browne’s definition of profit is selling happiness. in his book Secret of Selling Anything, he explores how the art of persuasion need not be a “dark art”

In my work as a marketer, I have a straightforward definition of profitable: you get more money out of it than you put into it. That’s my promise to you, client. I’m your reliable vending machine: stick a quarter in me and I promise you’ll get two quarters back. At least that’s how I feel when I run PPC campaigns. Well, I actually can’t promise anything.

But it’s a key part of what I propose:  you profit financially by replacing your money with my marketing.

But Harry Browne has a much better definition of profit.

Profit is the increase in happiness by replacing one situation with another. This identifies the nature of profit – the giving up of one thing for something that provides greater happiness.

An individual may discover a new way of doing something that gives him more happiness than he received from the old way. So he gives up the old way and adopts the new way because he values the new way more. He profits.

– Harry Browne, The Secret of Selling Anything

Now you’d think the author of one of the most revered and irreverent sales books of all time (The Secret of Selling Anything) would offer a definition more in the vein of “Dan Kennedy” (talented author of the “No BS Guide to _____” series of books). You’d think he’d talk dollars and cents. But according to Harry, happiness is the most important currency by which profit is measured. He also points out that at least two people profit from any exchange. I can’t argue with that.

As a matter of fact, Harry doesn’t offer this definition of philosophical advice. He offers it as sales advice.

Selling Happiness not (Just) Financial Gain

If you’ve ever worked in nonprofit fundraising, this concept will be instantly familiar to you. A donation is an act of replacing money with feelings in order to create happiness. A donation might also yield a meaningful acknowledgment from the solicitor and steward of that donation; perhaps an email, perhaps a postcard. And that acknowledgment nurtures and reinforces the profit derived by the donor.

A cynic will call this self-serving altruism. I’d call it a mutually profitable exchange, though. And so would (most) fundraisers, who is a nothing more than a specialized type of salesperson.

But if you’re thinking donor fundraising is an edge case, you’d be mistaken. Harry Browne’s definition of the buyer motive always applies.

The extent of your own profit depends upon your ability to satisfy the needs and desires of others.

– Harry Browne

Mind you, we are both emotional and rational animals, and so logic must also be catered to. You might have read the expression, “People buy on emotion and justify with logic”, which spurs about 5.7 blog posts per day, 365 days a year.

And if you want to sell your product or service, dear reader, you shouldn’t argue with that either. And that is true even if you sell your services and products not to individuals but to “businesses”. Because the last time I checked, business owners and the decision-makers who work for them are human beings. When they sit at a desk during the day and consider your offer to their business, they are just as human as later that day when considering which bottle of wine to buy.

There are 30 million registered businesses in the United States and at least as many business owners. They’re all people (with the possible exception of President Donald Drumpf?).

A fundraiser knows this when she reaches out to a large corporation about her nonprofit’s corporate giving program. A chiropractor knows this when he reaches out to office park manager about a group-rate discount program for offices. And so on. That’s why the primary difference between B2B marketing and B2C marketing is not the audience but the complexity of the sales process.

Such a good deal, by comparison

Maybe you’re nodding your head in agreement because I’ve sold you on Harry Browne’s definition of profit. Or just as likely, because you already held a compatible definition before reading this article. But now the question is: how do you use this insight to your advantage? How do you sell on emotion and justify with logic?

Behavioral economics deals with this question and it gets dicey. Psychological manipulation – are you sure you want to learn this dark art?

For example, behavioral economist  Robert Cialdini talks about the Contrast Principle – of all of the psychological selling techniques identified by Cialdini, perhaps none is quite so effective as this one, which means we need to do two things:

  • Learn how not to be influenced by it (and other psychological susceptibilities).
  • Learn how to use it in an ethical way that creates value for our customers (which Blair Enns called “Hacking Heuristics” on a recent episode of the 2bobs podcast, with David C Baker.)

The evidence suggests that the ever-accelerating pace and informational crush of modern life will make this particular form of unthinking compliance more and more prevalent in the future. It will be increasingly important for the society, therefore, to understand the how and why of automatic influence.

Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

A Semi-believable example of psychological selling through perceptual comparison

Do you want to attract so many fans of your work or that of your organization, that you never have to worry about “selling” again? Lifetime customers, major donors, die-hard enthusiasts that recommend you whenever they get the chance? Fans who sell for you, for free?

Let’s just say you want that. To never worry about selling again, asking for money from strangers; instead, they’ll come to you.

And let’s say that you need remarkable content to make that happen – content that proves your worth.

Well then, reader, I’m asking you to let me help you achieve that goal (never worrying about asking strangers for money again). In this post, I’ve just given you basically everything I know about the psychology of content marketing (Why? Because I like you, you are my reader!).

In exchange for that free gift, I would love it if you’d consider doing business with me if you need content.

Here’s another reason – because I can deliver you that remarkable piece of content based on a unique ability to research and know your customer – and your competitors –using techniques I’ve developed over the past 18 years. For only $15,000, in fact, I can provide you with a product that will yield a lifetime of returns: an expertly-researched, 12,000-word technical guide that will establish you and your organization as an international authority on the most important subjects to your organization. Over time, it may yield 100,000’s of thousands of dollars worth of value.

If I’m reading your mind correctly, however, you might like the high-ROI outcome described but not the sticker-shock price. Perhaps that price makes you choke, shiver, gag, shake your head, snort, or cringe? Perhaps you are experiencing that hot awkward feeling where your whole spine tightens up and you can barely disguise your discomfort.

Stay with me, then, because this will make you feel better: there’s another fantastic option and it doesn’t cost $15,000 – not even close.

In fact, for only $1,500, you get an engaging and carefully SEO-optimized guide to the subject that is most important to your customers. It will establish you as the authority because it will be written in your voice. And like the $15,000 dollar option, it’ll be well researched and in-depth: 3,000+ words (the length recommended by the world’s “leading digital marketer”, Neil Patel, who is the founder and CEO of Crazy Egg, and has even been endorsed by President Obama). As such, it will serve as one of the cornerstones of your content strategy for years to come. 

By the way, most customers choose this $1,500 option. At that price, they could afford 10 expert pieces of content over the course of a year, turbocharging their content marketing strategy and easily setting themselves apart from their competition. (But they won’t be able to for long, because after July 2015, I am permanently retiring my “Authority SEO” content writing practice.)

By the way, if you can’t afford to invest $1,500, my team can produce an article by tomorrow for $500. It will be at least 500 words long, which visually looks like a blog post length piece of content. And completely spell-checked. It might be really boring and forgettable and zero people will actually read it (a few might skim it). But you’ll have content to put on your website and make it look like you have a blog.

To recap your options:

$15,000 for an inbound marketing tour-de-force, in the form of an ebook-length guide to your business that will establish you as the world’s leading authority on your important subject.
$1,500 for an engaging, expertly-researched, SEO-optimized cornerstone article that will establish your business as an authority and anchor your content strategy.
$500 for a decently-sized piece of content about any subject, with few grammatical errors, delivered by tomorrow.

What just happened? A breakdown.

OK, let’s stop this charade. These are all hypothetical prices and services, delivered as a mock sales letter, meant to illustrate Cialdini’s Comparison Principle, which is also called “Anchoring”.

And there are all kinds of other copywriting (definition: “sales in print”) methods woven into these descriptions which are designed to make the middle option the most attractive one, including Extremeness Aversion, the well-documented tendency to avoid choosing options at the extreme of a range of choices

Extremeness Aversion, by the way, is why I advise my services-clients to emulate my software-as-a-service ones: present three options, with the low and high options framing the desired middle option. The same principle applies to e-commerce and digital fundraising.

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 11.23.07 PM
Box tells you which option is the “Most Popular”. On what pretext? But their pricing doesn’t favor the middle enough.
Selling Happiness Through Pricing
Siteground web hosting tells you which is the most popular using visual language and a compelling pricing strategy

So let me ask you this, if you were playing along: when you considered the $1,500 offer, did you compare it to the $15,000 one?

Consciously, you may not have, but subconsciously, you almost certainly did. Our brains make decisions by automatically comparing an option presented to us with whatever other options are present in our awareness.

No matter what. That’s how we survived as a species.

By the way, had I supplied no other prominent comparison item, you would have supplied your own, based on previous experiences or even an on-the-fly calculation based on something similar: the time you hired someone to write a college paper, perhaps. By prominently presenting a high-price comparison, however, I made those other comparison points remote and uninfluential.

Because of this automatic neurological behavior, a price ($1,500) that might otherwise seem high to you seemed more than reasonable to your subconscious mind.

And that’s after I warned you that I was about to subject you to a psychological experiment: every day copywriters subjects you and me to these methods and they never warn us.

But wait, there’s more

Cialdini’s Comparison Principle is just one of his many observations on human psychology that are used to influence prospective buyers. Here are a few others – I threw each into the example sales copy above:

  • Social Proof, which exploits our tendency to believe that a decision is correct if others have made it. (“Most customers choose the $1,500 option.”)
  • The Scarcity Principle, also known as Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, to true marketing geeks. (“But they won’t for long because after July 2015, I am permanently retiring …”)
  • Liking, the principle that affection engenders buying transactions (“Why? Because I like you, you are my reader!”)
  • Reciprocity, which is self-explanatory. (“Actually, in exchange for what I’ve given you, I’d love it if you’d consider doing business with me!”)

  • Authority, which exploits our trust in fame, titles, and other signifiers (“Neil Patel, who is the founder and CEO of Crazy Egg, and has been endorsed by President Obama).
    Note: have you ever heard of Neil Patel or Crazy Egg? Doesn’t matter, because: founder, CEO, President Obama.

And of course, there are a few other tricks woven into the example, such as the peculiar effect of using quotation marks to establish credibility (‘leading digital marketer’), a technique which Real Donald Trump uses with disturbing effectiveness. My personal view is that quotation marks evoke the credibility of a testimonial even if none is actually offered.

And the old standby: you. The selling example uses the word you or yours 48 times.

The most powerful psychological motivation: still happiness

But this article isn’t about semantic selling tricks or neurological ticks; it’s about Harry Browne’s observation that happiness, not money, is the true profit motive. And that because of that reality, it’s frighteningly easy to exploit psychological triggers.

In fact, what most of Cialdini’s observations have in common is that they exploit the happiness profit motive in one way or another. Reciprocity makes us happy. Liking and being liked makes us happy. The comfort of authority makes us happy, as does the possession of a scarce resource that everybody wants.

All this leaves us with a big responsibility.

For one thing, it means that when we make a sale (or a barter – any kind of exchange), we’re responsible, to some limited extent, for someone else’s resulting happiness, their profitability. 

The better we get at digital marketing, the more closely we have to watch ourselves.

  • Do you really have to contact me now (Scarcity) to get a long-form authority content piece? No.
  • Do I like you because you read my what I have to say (Liking)? Well, yes actually! But don’t let that influence too much as you seek profit.
  • Do you owe me anything because I wrote this article (Reciprocity)? Of course not. If anything, I owe you for your attention and for reading this sermon on happiness and selling all the way to the end.

Seth sort of flips these ideas around on their head by having you focus on whom you’re serving.

What ethical marketers do is create change on behalf of the people they seek to serve.
– Seth Godin

That’s one way to sell and market responsibly: make sure you’re doing it with the kind of people you already know you’re capable of serving. But that’s for another article 🙂