13 Things You Should Know about Raising the Stakes in Your Copy


The web writing formula is simple: clear, concise and compelling.

Last week I showed you what it looked like to make copy compelling by raising the stakes with cancer and death.

This week we are going to expand on that, but ultimately boils down to this: show your reader something she wants–and then threaten it.

Let’s go.

1. Threaten Their Lifestyle

Threaten their home with the pool and five acres, their freedom to roam and crash anywhere (think of the new nomad), the parties they get to have with all the cool kids.

Show them how if they don’t do X then life as they know it will come to an end. Amp it up: fail to do X and then you could be shunned, you could become an outsider. No more parties with the cool kids for you.

2. Threaten Their Security or Privacy.

On the one hand, think door locks, car alarms or self-defense classes. On the other hand, tell them someone is prying into their lives–their secrets–and that threatens to blow their cover.

Microsoft used this strategy with their “Are You Scroogled?” ad, suggesting that Google is looking at your emails to generate relevant text ads–text ads that might get you in hot water.

3. Torment Their Vanity

Take a shot at their manhood like Tough Mudder. Take a shot at their intellectual prowess like Mensa.

Or suggest that someone else might take their glory if they don’t do X. Threaten their job–a promotion, the corner office that they feel they deserve–with outsourcing or some punk upstart who did Y before them.

4. Put Public Safety At Risk

Think toxins in the drinking water, rising sea levels, extinction of animals. This could be about terrorism. A meth problem spiralling out of control. Out of control government debt that could lead to bankrupt police forces and roving bands of ruthless thugs who want your daughters.

5. Drum Up Impending Doom

Not like the end-of-the-world type doom–although some marketers will want you to feel that way about a coming catastrophe. This is a ticking time bomb, the thought that we can’t go on like this. If we don’t prepare for X–which will come because my research proves it–then bad things will happen.

This could be as subtle as the encouragement of getting a flu shot or other vaccines (if you don’t then we might experience another flu epidemic like 1917). Or it could be as dramatic as a religious overthrow or the collapse of an entire generation because of educational failure.

6. Spook Them with a Deadline

This sweet deal closes at midnight. I need to hear back from you by the end of the business day or I’m giving this project to Billy. Her train leaves Friday afternoon.

7. Entice With an Impossible Journey, Huge Pay-off

You see this tactic at work in shows like The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, American Idol, or Survivor. Only one person can be crowned–only one person will survive the unfathomable quest–but the rewards are massive. This doesn’t always have to be physical. It can be mental, emotional.

8. Do X Now–Or ELSE

If you don’t quit that job in time–you’ll remain a miserable cubicle cog for ever. If you don’t lose that weight you’ll get diabetes, be shunned at the beach and die in a casket big enough for a John Deere tractor.

9. Introduce the Higher Stakes First

The law of the web demands you get to the point fast. You grab their attention–and you do that by presenting an undeniable and irresistible situation. That’s done when you introduce the higher stakes. The higher gets them in the door. The lower solidifies the threat.

10. Leak in Lower Stakes to Agitate

Once you’ve got the reader hooked, now you can agitate the problem and raise the stakes to a more personal level. You focus on their demographic, age, and income. You show them how their marriage is at risk. Their job. Their lifestyle. Just see points 1-9.

11. Threaten the Life of Someone Innocent

This is the arena of social justice. Of providing fresh water to rural villages in India. Homes for orphans and former child soldiers. You are not personally threatened. Your family isn’t threatened. But your conscience is. Can you sleep at night knowing that woman are forced into sexual slavery–right here in the United States?

12. Present an Opportunity to Fix a Past Wrong

Guilt over our past can grind away at us. Show your reader how she can apologize to a boyfriend she has betrayed and win him back. Or complete that degree that life seems to keep at bay. Or that depression that dogs them.

13. Resolve the Stakes

If you get them excited, you have to satisfy them. In the business world this means rolling out the solution–your product. Make sure, however, that your product will solve their problems. Make sure your product is actually the answer to eliminating that looming threat. And make sure it does it one hundred percent. No short cuts for short-term gains. Tone down and stick to the believable.

Bottom Line

The stakes must be meaningful. They must be personal. And they must hit close to home. You might catch a little hell, but that’s how you raise the stakes in your copy.

Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

If you love what you just read, then subscribe to CopyBot. And follow me on Twitter or Google+.


  1. Forrest Beck says

    Hi Demian,

    I have learned these tactics and have written copy utilizing these techniques, but can’t bring myself to actually publish it. I am not arguing about whether it works or not because I know it does. I guess I am just curious to hear whether or not there is a growing number of people in your mind that are simply tuning this out?

    I’m not sure what the alternative is however.

    Thanks for all your insightful posts Demian.

    • says

      I would say no, people are not tuning them out. Of course the problem is not these tactics per se but using them in away that they become clichés. That is what people tune out. In Tested Advertising Methods John Caples gives about ten examples of boring products with overdone messages that were given new life because they were presented in a new, dramatic way. Same emotions, same issues–but just in a sudden, lively and surprising manner. Do you get the sense that these don’t work?

  2. says

    Chuck is a 30+ yr radio exec and strategic marketing consultant with a very high IQ. He’s written a book, does seminars on marketing and customer acquisition stuff. He’s very much about the science and craft of marketing. A real student of the game.

    We talk about once a week. He’s always exercising ideas, connections, and trying to articulate the things that motivate buyers and such. All good stuff.

    Something we talk a lot about is what he calls the latent benefit. People buy a thingamajig because of the latent benefit more so then the thing itself. Exceptions are usually commodities. So for example, people don’t just buy a watch. They buy THE watch that matches the latent benefit. A Seiko’s latent benefit could include frugality, utility, and durability where as a Rolex might represent exclusivity, wealth, and social class. Resulting in an unconscious decision process like this: I want a watch that keeps time, but not just a time keeping device, but also THE watch that elevates my status. It’s the latent benefit of elevating status that matters most, not the watch itself, but when the buyer is looking to buy, that’s how the look. Where as when they are not specifically looking to buy, the emphasis on latent benefit is the appeal that creates an unexpected connection to the thing – persuasion and marketing in action.

    Your articulating the writers version of the marketers latent benefit.

    This agitation of an internal connection creates affinity for the thing being addressed.

    Without your 13 points, we are simply describing the thing and its features – no benefit. And without your 13 points, we are only describing the obvious benefit, rather than the more powerful latent benefit – as you expressed the emotional connection. This is especially important when you are trying to create desire and connection that does not naturally exist in the readers mind.

    Sorry for the long post Demian, but I needed to capture this little gem before it ran cold. It takes this sort of writing to clearly connect and draw out the latent benefit that ultimately provokes response.

    Excellent Post D.

    • says

      Great comment, Justin. Reminds me of why people buy a drill: for the hole. It’s why people invest in the stock market: to build wealth. It’s why people buy study preps: to ace the GMAT, get in the best school, so they impress their friends.

  3. says

    This is terrifying. Honestly, I am almost afraid to comment.

    Maybe I can just say that those of us who were born before there was TV, and who have watched the proliferation of the 13 points you described succinctly absolutely feel violated. I don’t own a TV set and don’t watch movies. I write. That’s a choice because I don’t want the subtle programming, which goes on beyond your points in many ways. Manipulation is truly the way of the world, and you are correct in your conclusions.

    But I would say that Justin’s point about feeling smart (looking smart/cool/weathly/sexy/etc) is ‘way up there on the list too. It’s not #14; it deserves a smaller number. We will identify and buy stuff and flaunt stuff by tweeting and posting it in order to look smart. It’s pitiful in a way, but it’s true. None of us is immune. Knowing that list requires a hard look at oneself, and a decision. You are brave to publish this list, Demian.

    • says

      Your comment even reminds of the humble brag: “Ugh, I have to go to Venice. Again.” We are awash with manipulation–politicians, businesses, schools, churches. I do think if we do something or sell something that can benefit people–and we can deliver that best drill hole, that best stock investment, that best water well–then we need to communicate…we need to inform and persuade…that is if we believe what is right. Otherwise what’s the point? If I was trying to convince a nephew to enter drug rehab, I’d roll out all the emotional, latent benefits: you’d get your life on track, stop hurting your mother, live longer, etc. True, we can abuse these things…so we need to be careful. And be careful about people who use them. That’s why Influence by Cialdini is such a great book.

      • says

        Humble brag? I don’t get that, Demian. I was saying that that growing up before the digital age and knowing how it feels to be increasingly manipulated (yes it’s as old as the human race, but I’m talking about the power of media and now digital publishing) is a big responsibility both ways. I feel a responsibility to avoid being manipulated and to avoid manipulating, that’s all. And convincing a relative to change behavior is definitely familiar to me. I see your point on that. I”m reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception right now. Will get Cialdini’s book, too. Thanks!

  4. says

    This is insanely beautiful and this can be packaged to a membership product on sales copy writing. Demian is just the best and you’ev proved this.

    I’m so scared if copy writers refused to read this, they might not get the best from their copy.

    This should be the main basis of any great copy to be written this century!

    I’m scared my copy writer would have much more troubles to keep up with as i won’t show him this but use this as a criteria to guage his writing.

  5. says

    This is another gem I’m keeping in my reference file! I find these triggers to be relatively easy to use in pure sales copy. But my next challenge in order to become a better writer is to use them as well in more informational posts. How would you use such trigger in, let’s say, a how-to post?

    Tricky, right? But I know that’s the recipe for posts that go viral….

  6. says

    Hey Antoine, great question, and I think it really is the same thing. For instance, you can use the pain-agitate-solve formula in a how-to…the pain is in the headline in which you use one of the tactics above–threaten their privacy, for instance. You could write: “How to Prevent Hackers from Stealing Your Identity Through Your Child’s Lego.com Account.” Then you explain the problem further, agitate it if they don’t do something, and then tell them how to fix it.

    I saw the deadline trick used on a headline when Google updated their privacy policy. It went something like this: How to Delete Your Data Before July X, 2011–When Google Updates Their Privacy Policy.”

    Does that make sense?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *