Advanced Copywriting Strategies: Why Do We Do What We Do?

In this series of blog posts I’m exploring Advanced Copywriting Strategies.

Aaron Hoos, Copywriter

A copywriter has one job: to sell the damn thing… whatever it is they need to sell.

That sale could be: get the prospect to call, click, subscribe, buy, whatever… and the copywriter worth his or her salt is the one who can get the most, best prospects to take action.

And the way to get the most, best prospects to take action is to persuade them to do so by figuring out what it will take to get them to take action.

A simple example (and a commonly cited one in the world of copywriting) is that people don’t want drills… they buy drills because they want holes.

Although that’s a funny little example, it points to the task of the copywriting to discover the underlying why and to bring it to the surface. All else being equal, an advertisement for a drill as a drill versus an advertisement for a drill as a device to make holes should result in more purchased due to the latter.

Of course it’s not just about the holes. There’s an underlying motivation for ANY purchase, and figuring out what that underlying motivation is, is primary work of a copywriter to fulfill their one job of selling the damn thing.

So, if that’s the one job of a copywriter then there is one question that every copywriter should ask themselves… a question they should keep in their heads at all times… a question that must drive their research, their writing, their testing.

That question, generally, should be: “Why do people do what they do?” That’s the foundational question that underpins all of copywriting. If you can figure out what motivates your prospect to act then you can use that as a tool to persuade them.

So, let’s answer that question:

Why do people do what they do? Let’s dig into various attempts at understanding motivation. This is not going to be comprehensive since, well, human motivation has been an object of study since the dawn of time. But we’ll look at some talking points that I think are helpful and influential.

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Need

Abraham Maslow had a lot of good insight to share here, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need persists today as a go-to resource in the area of motivation. In short, he suggested that people have a series of needs: Physiological needs (thirst, hunger, pain, sex); safety needs (protection from the elements); love and belonging needs (the need to be in a relationship); esteem needs; and self-actualization needs. Maslow went on to say that each person needed to address the lower level needs before they could ascend up the ranks to the higher level needs. In other words, if you are dying of thirst in the desert, your thought is of crawling to water, not of how you can feel fulfilled at work.

A depiction of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from Wikipedia

But is Maslow’s hierarchy enough? I know it is used as a tool by some copywriters to help them answer the key question of why do people do what they do. It is helpful and I have used it at times too.

But sometimes it can get pretty esoteric and when you’re writing a sales letter for a product or service, you might end doing what I’ve done and struggled with knowing which of levels your offer might fulfill, or worrying about whether your best prospects are at that level in the hierarchy, or trying to find words that match the level (since you might use different words at the “safety needs” level versus the “self-actualization” level.

Whitman’s Life Force 8

Drew Eric Whitman, a marketing consultant who wrote the excellent (if awkwardly titled) book Ca$hvertising had a great list in his book that I think is insightful.

He departs from Maslows’ hierarchy slightly and instead suggests that we are hardwired with 8 drivers, what he calls the “Life Force 8”. You can see hints of Maslow’s hierarchy in here, but these 8 are useful and accurate as the key reasons why people do just about anything…

1. Survival, enjoyment of life, life extension
2. Enjoyment of food and beverages
3. Freedom from fear, pain, and danger
4. Sexual companionship
5. Comfortable living conditions
6. To be superior, winning, keeping up with the Joneses
7. Social approval

Whitman’s list is good. It’s true, we are hardwired for those things, although I am curious about whether we are hardwired for the enjoyment of food and beverages or rather just hardwired to eat and drink… and the enjoyment is a bonus that we seek after but will happily give up. Ask me next time I’m stranded in the desert and I’ll let you know.

7 Enemies Of Survival

Whitman’s list reminded me of a list from a totally unrelated source but I think it’s instructive here: the 7 enemies of survival. I first heard about this in, of all places, 12th grade geography. I can’t remember why. But the teacher said the list and it stuck with me. Forever. Here I am nearly 3 decades later and I can rattle off the list no problem. (If only I could do that for stuff that was actually on the exam!)

The 7 enemies of survival are: pain, cold, thirst, hunger, fatigue, boredom, loneliness. And I wonder if these are the things we are hardwired to address.

This list doesn’t account for a human sexual drive or for social approval but I think this list can tell us a lot about the need to survive, since many people will go to great lengths in most cases to avoid any of these things.

Tony Robbins’ Pain/Pleasure Values

Tony Robbins (and others, but Robbins is a big proponent of this concept) simplifies the concept further, suggesting that the underlying driver in people’s lives is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. That has merit. I like it. It may not always be true (there are scenarios when we choose the more painful approach), and it’s made more challenging by people’s misconceptions (such as the temporary desire of feeling good by eating junk food versus the long-term reality of the price that someone’s health pays for making that lifestyle a habit).

Still, this pleasure/pain motivation can be a mostly-helpful guide to help us understand human motivation. In most cases, people will take action to help them achieve pleasure and avoid pain.

Here’s My Take…

One concept that I’ve been thinking a lot about, which also simplifies many of the ideas above, is to say that people do anything for one of two reasons: for Preservation or for Position.

That is, they will take action to survive and preserve their life, and, they will take action to achieve a certain social position.

(This concept isn’t necessarily my invention; I think it’s culled and synthesized from many of the concepts I’ve discussed earlier in this post.)

It’s so simple and elegant and true. It fits nearly every scenario I can think of, and addresses the very things that Abraham Maslow, Drew Eric Whitman, and the 7 enemies of survival each address.

On its own, this Preservation/Position concept is good but I wouldn’t call it an Advanced Copywriting Strategy. However, I think we can elevate its usefulness and power, and transform it into a more advanced strategy by bringing together this concept with another one discussed earlier…

The 4 Ps of Motivation

We can actually make this far more useful if we combine Tony Robbins’ pleasure/pain concept with this preservation/position concept. If we put them onto a 2×2 chart, we end up with something very interesting, and way to instantly analyze any person’s motivation…

We all do things (EVERYTHING!) for any mix of the following 4 reasons:

We pursue pleasure in our quest for preservation and position, and we avoid pain in our quest preservation and position.

In fact, we rarely do just one but I would suggest that we do some mix–some percentage– of all four in every action we take in the day and every decision we make in the day.

For example, consider procreation: sex itself is the pursuit of pleasure while the avoidance of pain might be the desire to have babies because of a ticking biological clock; meanwhile, children can add pleasure by watching them grow and they can also help avoid pain in positioning by ensuring that someone will take care of you in your old age.

Nowadays, the care-for-elders isn’t as important of a survival strategy as it once was, so that may diminish as a motivational factor, but the other three factors remain significant (to some degree) for most aspiring parents.

This is a powerful tool for copywriters because it forces you to drill down and get an answer from all relevant angles to the most important question, Why do people do what they do?

When you are copywriting, think about why your prospect would buy, and run it through this simple 2×2 matrix to help you identify exactly what hot buttons you can press to convince your prospect to take action.


Aaron Hoos, writerAaron Hoos is a writer, strategist, and investor who builds and optimizes profitable sales funnels. He’s the author of several books, including The Sales Funnel Bible.