Without Narrative Control Amazing Offers Suffer

First, a definition. Narrative Control: Making positive something that is or will be perceived as negative.

If you have an unexpectedly good offer (for example, your product does something most products can’t, or you’re giving a discount that’s way better than most) then you need Narrative Control.

To illustrate I’ll show an example where Narrative Control isn’t used.

On CNN.com I saw this giant top of homepage banner (translation: it’s super expensive):

On click I was taken to this landing page:

77% off is an incredible deal (see headline). 30% of the people on this page will see this ad and say:

“Hey, that’s amazing. I’m so happy I clicked the ad”.

70% would say:

“I don’t buy it”

If the page also included a message to explain a little about how they achieve this 77% saving it would have an incredible impact on the skeptical shoppers:

Don’t Let Amazon Eat Your Lunch

We can’t force shoppers but we can certainly gently nudge them.

If a visitor to your site leaves for your Amazon page you are basically paying an affiliate tax that was yours to keep.

Can this be prevented? Let’s look at a product page on Headsets.com:

They have an impossible to miss Buy from Amazon.com button. On click, you are taken to their Amazon page. Goodbye margins.

Here is what we would have done if headsets.com was a client. When a shopper clicks Buy from Amazon.com we’ll show this popup:

#1 Way to Turn Interested Browsers into Buyers

I was listening to a really interesting story about Charity: Water. Turns out, a big reason people don’t donate is that they don’t trust how their donations will be used. Charity: Water grew because they convincingly addressed this concern.

Addressing these types of resistances is one of the 16 tactics in our toolbox. We call it Narrative Control and use it to convert interested browsers into buyers.

Our definition of Narrative Control: Making positive something that is or will be perceived as negative.

Think about your product’s sales pitch. You are likely listing a whole bunch of benefits targeted to a whole set of buyer types. Here is one example (see red box):

This line was added to appeal to people concerned about crashes. Simply stating “crash-resistant design” might work on a few people concerned about crashes. It will not work on the rest of the group. When the larger group sees “crash-resistant design,” they’re thinking, “yeah, but what makes it not crash?? I don’t buy it.”

If we don’t address this larger group we’re missing out on sales.

And this is just one claim.

Your site probably makes dozens of claims. Ranging from promises about quality, special discounts, popularity, etc. Each of these could benefit from some Narrative Control treatment. It’s a little bit of work but it makes the sales pitch watertight and converts people who are definitely interested but just not 100% convinced yet.

Screw Automation

96% of marketing emails are obviously templates (or is it 100%?).

I know why companies don’t send personalized messages; it’s too damn expensive.

If you think sending personalized emails is too expensive you’re asking the wrong question. The right question is:

How can we communicate with our mailing list of X thousand in a profitable way?

Just because no retailer is doing this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Most companies are basing their marketing on what others are doing. The blind are following the blind.

I’m not saying this is easy. It’s definitely not, which is why no one is doing it.

But, if a retailer can find a creative way to have a profitable pen pal relationship with their customers it could would transform their business.

This isn’t for all types of businesses.

If you’re a business like LifeSource Water (lifesourcewater.com) where people buy just once this idea might not be for you. Though I’d argue lifesourcewater.com could still develop a strategy around my idea. But if you are a site like missouriquiltco.com this idea is a slam dunk.

How does one operationalize such a strategy?

— First, let’s identify a pen pal size. I think 2 hours a day sending 10 personalized emails is doable. I’d recommend the business owner take the lead on this experiment. Once we calculate ROI you can have a junior employee do it.

— The next step is identifying conversation topics. Here are some templates:

>> You can create a welcome email to new buyers.

>> You can recommend item Y to a customer who previously bought X.

>> You can contact a customer who last purchased a year ago. To this person, you can talk about all the things that happened with the site in the last year.

>> You can contact a customer who just posted a review.

… you get the idea. Just identify a communication strategy that fits your brand.

— Do this for a month. The goal is to send out 200 emails. Make note of replies. Are people happy to receive your emails? Are people wanting to continue with the conversation?

— Wait 6 months and compare the productivity of these 200 contacts against your larger list. Don’t look at the cost of sending out the emails at this point. The reason we’re ignoring the input cost is that over time it will go down 70%. You’ll get more efficient. At this point, we’re only interested in seeing if personalized communications drive profitable action.

Update: After writing this post I received this amazing comment from Chris:

This has made a big impact on me. This is precisely how I send emails to my mailing list. I believe the results speak for themselves. My average open rate is right at 50% (quite a bit better than the 10-11% industry average.) The click rate varies depending on the subject and just how much emphasis I put on it but I have seen click rates of over 40%. And if I send a strong recommendation for something to the list I’d BETTER put a bunch of it in stock because they are going to buy.

In the body of my emails I ask questions of my readers and encourage them to reply. When they do reply they will get a personal reply from me. I certainly don’t spend quite as much time as your suggestion implies but the time I do spend is richly rewarded.

Buying Time

Have a look at your site data. You’ll find a majority of visitors spend comically low time on the site. Typically under 3 minutes.

Think about your own behavior. How much time do you typically spend on new sites? Are you going to read this whole article?

When I visit a site, even if my intention is to stay, I end up exiting too soon. And we know time on site is one of the biggest indicators of future conversion rates.

Could this be happening on your site too? You can bet your last dollar.

As marketers, our #1 goal needs to be to drive up quality time on site. Keyword being quality.

So how does one know what’s a good time target?

A good place to start is to create a segment of paid search traffic (non retargeted). From the group exclude site users who spend less than 20 seconds and visit less than 2 pages. Calculate the average time on site for this segment. That’s your starting target.

Let’s say this number is 5 minutes and 18 seconds.

Ask yourself: how can we get shoppers to spend more time on the site?

Priming is a good tactic.

My company sells conversion optimization services. Businesses consider conversion optimization a damn important business goal. Naturally, they will want to invest time to study my credentials. This would be what their rational brain would say. Yet, the typical time on my site for a new visitor is under 1.5 minutes. Are my customers superhumans capable of completing due diligence in 90-seconds? I’m skeptical. So I could use priming on the site. Here is how it would work. When someone visits Frictionless Commerce they’ll see a banner with 4 button options (red banner below):


We know what people actually do (spend an average of 1.5 minutes on my site) but guess which option they’ll pick? That’s right, they’ll click the [As long as it takes] button.

But that isn’t the fun part. The fun part is what happens after they make this selection. Because now when the visitor’s  irrational brain wants to bail at the 90-second mark the rational side will chime in:


Most will feel so conflicted they’ll end up spending 80% more time on the site.

Learn more about Frictionless Commerce.