Which Sales Message Works Best: Stats or Stories?

Which approach sells better, from the heart or from the head? Don’t answer so fast. The real answer may surprise you.

To prove my point, I’d like to share an article from direct response writer John Forde. Take it away, John…

………………………………………….

Carnegie Mellon did a study inviting two groups of participants to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.”

But different groups got different letters.

The first group received a letter dripping with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second group’s letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right. On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.

But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

HOW LESS REALLY CAN MEAN A LOT MORE

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again. Only this time, instead of giving the participants either the stats OR the story with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water. The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43. Isn’t that amazing? I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group. This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter.  But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge: The interviewer would say a word (such as “baby” or “war”), and ask the participants to write down their feelings about that word.

What happened?

Incredibly, the participants who were “primed” with the emotional exercise gave $2.34… but the analytically “primed” participants AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

Somehow, just putting on an analytical thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get people to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs.

Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.

……………………………………………….

Thanks, John. Your article proves a point I’ve been sharing for years: Don’t let the facts get in the way of telling a good story. Features and benefits are fine, but they aren’t the crux of your sales message. The emotional tie between you and your customer is all that really matters. The rest is either secondary support, or just plain noise.

This article was reprinted with the kind permission of its author, John Forde, of The Copywriter’s Roundtable. Join his newsletter (I have) and receive $78 worth of free gifts.

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29 Comments for this entry

  • john F.

    October 6th, 2010 on 6:02 am

    Hi Andy…

    Thanks for the re-post! I just want to add, only because it happened to be in the lead-up to the article above, that this case study comes from something I read in an excellent book, “Made to Stick.”

    I wouldn’t want anyone to miss giving credit to the source. What’s more, I’d want to make sure that anybody who hasn’t read the book already goes out to get a copy. I highly recommend it.

    Thanks,
    John F.

  • Andy Bartling

    October 6th, 2010 on 9:19 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s the latest comment from Linked In’s group: Copywriting & Copyediting:

    “I believe it. Numbers numb my interest really fast.”

  • Sunny

    October 6th, 2010 on 3:09 pm

    Great coverage. Focus groups can be amazing when executed correctly – as this story proved. I still believe IDEO is the leader in executing “mental” exercises to produce legitimate results, but its refreshing to see other successful “entities” produce thought-provoking activities during focus group sessions!

  • Kelly Winston

    October 6th, 2010 on 4:01 pm

    Stats vs stories is commonly not the problem.

    more like Copywriting

  • Andy Bartling

    October 6th, 2010 on 4:19 pm

    Kelly,

    Couldn’t agree more. Strategically, we build messaging. Tactically, we write copy, which is what our audience ultimately sees. But, to create great copy, we first need a strong message. And this research suggests that logic can get in the way of creating that message.

  • Andy Bartling

    October 6th, 2010 on 4:38 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from the Linked in Copywriter group:

    “In my humble opinion, stories which educate and inform from a personal experience are usually a lot more powerful and effective than just stats since it involves thoughts, feelings and emotions – things we can all relate to. Sometimes stats can be a powerful motivator and certainly help to substantiate any claims you make, However, they can seem clinical and difficult to relate to, especially if the prospect is not able to relate this to themselves. People buy on emotion and justify with logic later, and because stories have the human factor in them, they are more likely to connect with readers and tug at their heart strings.”

  • Chris Haughey

    October 6th, 2010 on 9:07 pm

    So, what you are telling us is that statistics should be considered “Weapons of Math Destruction.” I have always been of the opinion that numbers are somewhere in the background to support one’s claims, not in the foreground. I hate to be Captain Obvious, but if numbers could create an emotional response in and of themselves, the geeks would be the popular ones. Foreplay would be changed to 4-play, a game in which each participant names a rational number that is divisible by the number “4.”
    The results are quite interesting, though. It points toward staying close to the benefit statements to demonstrate value and tap into what is driving the customer’s decision.

  • Lisa

    October 7th, 2010 on 9:23 am

    Customer testimonials on a Web site is a great way to sell by inciting emotion. I’d love to hear other ways. Thanks!

  • Andy Bartling

    October 7th, 2010 on 10:41 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s the latest comment from Linked In’s eMarketing Association Network group:

    “Hi Andy,
    The right message at the right time will surely enhance the business. But knowing whether its the right time or not depends upon the type of customer, type of products or services one is dealing with. One should be very careful while communicating the messages, the communicated messages should be proper and the customer should feel that message is purely for him/her.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 7th, 2010 on 3:22 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s group, Medical Marketing Network:

    “Not sure if you have research to the contrary – but my experience is benefit to the reader outweighs facts or statistics. I would lead with story, but have the ability for the viewer to reach stats via due diligence if they desired. Great question.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 7th, 2010 on 10:37 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from the Financial Services and Social Media group on Linked In:

    “It is good to see a study based approach which shows people take action based on feeling rather than logic. Logic is great to justify the feeling, but without feeling, no real outcome can be achieved.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 8th, 2010 on 11:30 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s Medical Marketing Network group:

    “Andy,
    That’s an interesting question, because I’m putting together a seminar on the business value of social media and I actually sprinkle both aspects in. Stats can be revealing, but too many can be overwhelming. I have to say that in the end, stories do work better. I had the opportunity to watch the CEO of a company that I’m working with and he did a masterful job by intermingling stories into his presentation, which was about compliance, a fairly dry subject. His stories were delivered with passion and the audience was engaged, because the stories painted a picture, for why people needed to pay attention to his pitch.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 8th, 2010 on 11:33 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s the latest comment from Linked In’s Medical Marketing Network group:

    “People relate to and remember stories. Stats are forgettable.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 8th, 2010 on 11:39 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from the Linked In group: Keyword Competitor User Group:

    “Totally agree with you Andy! It’s a good source for all people involved in sales to think how they can improve their strategy appealing to customers.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 8th, 2010 on 11:41 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from the Healthcare & Social Media group on Linked In:

    “I find that stories generally work better because they are easier to remember, assuming the story is not overly complex and delivers a point that is relevant to the situation.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 11th, 2010 on 11:02 am

    Here’s the latest comment from Linked In’s Medical Marketing Group:

    “Simple: Stats TELL and Stories SELL. The motto of any GOOD copywriter.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 11th, 2010 on 11:03 am

    Another comment from Linked In’s Medical Marketing Group:

    “Definitely a story – stories work becuae they are about real people and your referral sources can relate to that, but always weave your stats in your story.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 11th, 2010 on 11:09 am

    From the Claude C. Hopkins Copywriter group on Linked In:

    “Good stuff, Andy (and Mr. Forde)!

    Thanks for sharing. This is a great reminder for me. I frequently find myself fighting against the part of me that wants to give prominence to cerebral content over stories.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 11th, 2010 on 11:11 am

    From Linked In’s Medical Marketing Group:

    “The story makes the stats relevant and memorable. The stats provide valuable ROI data, but the story makes the data compelling and entices the buyer to action.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 11th, 2010 on 11:14 am

    From Linked In’s 4Ps Marketing Group:

    “We make decisons based on emotion and then use logic to justify it. I agree, both are necessary.”

  • John Forde

    October 11th, 2010 on 2:03 pm

    Andy… great, active group you’ve got here. Lots of good feedback in the posts.

    On the last few, I just want to re-emphasize what I mentioned in the article. I’m also the kind of copywriter that backs up an emotional pitch with lots of proof. And I’ve always assumed the combination was essential, too.

    But that’s the thing: This research is suggesting otherwise. The combination of a powerful emotional lead — a story — followed by hardcore proof actually did worse than the copy that was story-driven alone.

    I find that very surprising.

    And of course, like all things in copy, at least worth testing. It’s the only way to know for sure if the “both are necessary” assumption is right or wrong.

  • Andy Bartling

    October 11th, 2010 on 3:08 pm

    I share your surprise. In the old direct mail days, I would have bypassed the problem by putting the stats in a buckslip and letting the reader self select which message resonated more. Not so easy in an online world. To your point, test, test, test and let the results be our guide.

  • Andy Bartling

    October 12th, 2010 on 8:40 am

    From the Medical Marketing Network group on Linked In:

    “{People buy on emotion and use reason/data/statistics to justify what they want. Chip and Dan Heath wrote a great book called ‘Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard’. They use the analogy of emotion as an elephant (large and powerful) and reason is the rider on the elephant (small, and with the illusion of being in control).”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 12th, 2010 on 8:42 am

    From the Claude C. Hopkins Copywriter group on Linked In:

    “Don’t get me wrong, Andy. I LOVE stories. I love telling them.

    For some reason my left brain keeps trying to take over. I want to blame it on my physics and calculus teachers (so many years ago), but the fact is that both of them were wonderful storytellers.”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 12th, 2010 on 8:11 pm

    From the Claude C. Hopkins Copywriter group on Linked In:

    “From my experience I would have said “story” beats stats each and every time (just like benefits always beat features). But the experiment’s results surprised even me. Thanks for the story— complete with $$$ stats !! ;-)”

  • Andy Bartling

    October 13th, 2010 on 9:20 am

    From the Claude C. Hopkins Copywriter group on Linked In:

    “I have been aware of the Carnegie Mellon Experiments for some time – we used the key insight from this in a number of fund raising campaigns.

    We even put messages onto the outer envelope (e.g. “Before you open this letter think about a child you know or someone else you love.”)

    Unfortunately we never had controls to check if this made a difference but it still feels like a good idea.”

  • Ken Hoffman

    October 14th, 2010 on 9:24 pm

    John Forde says, “But that’s the thing: This research is suggesting otherwise. The combination of a powerful emotional lead — a story — followed by hardcore proof actually did worse than the copy that was story-driven alone.

    I disagree. There’s no way to know what was really responsible for the change in response without seeing the specific copy in question.

    The key I believe is in HOW the proof is articulated, NOT whether proof is used or not. Common sense dictates that people respond better when you prove your claims. I tend to question things that go against common sense…unless there is (ironically) very specific proof otherwise.

  • Andy Bartling

    October 18th, 2010 on 12:40 pm

    From the Social Media & SEO group on Linked In:

    “Incredibly fascinating article, thanks so much for posting. As a professional writer, I know it’s important to draw out my audience’s emotions in order to elicit action. But it’s interesting to see that pairing that with stats and facts is actually counterproductive. Thanks!”

  • Beverly Bergman

    October 24th, 2010 on 6:48 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s good to be aware of the numbers behind the research.