Write Brained: How Generalizing Destroys your Copy

Posted by on Jun 22, 2012 in Audience Profiling, Blog, Copywriting, Write Brained | 2 comments

Write Brained: How Generalizing Destroys your Copy

The other day, I was reading through some various online sources about copywriting. Much of what I read is insanely useful (check out CopyBlogger, by the way. It’s awesome). Some of it, however, really astounds me with how absolutely inaccurate it is. I mean, sure, we’re all entitled to our opinions, but shouldn’t we at least make sure our opinions are a little realistic before we publicly display them online? Apparently not.

Though there are many things written and published that I violently disagree with, the tidbit I ran across last week really took the cake for absolute mind-blowing inaccuracy. For the sake of the author, I won’t link to the page. Ultimately, I did agree with most of what else he had to say, but it was this one blundering misstep that really sent me reeling.

He wrote;
“Underlying the promise of gain and the fear of loss are seven “universal motivations” to which everyone responds. Whatever product or service you are selling, you need to position it so that its benefits provide one or more of these universal motivations.”

What’s wrong with this picture? What is he saying in this statement that isn’t, can’t possibly be, true? Where did he go wrong?

Not only has our author made the generalized assumption that everyone responds to a certain motivation, he made the generalized assumption that everyone responds to eight different motivations.

How can one person possibly know that everyone will respond to one thing, let alone eight? Additionally, how arrogant is it to assume that everyone is ultimately driven by the same motivations? In fact, I would go so far as to argue there is only one true thing everyone is driven by: their emotions, and those emotions are what determines their specific motivations–motivations that are unique to who they are and what they feel.

But I digress.

This ties into our previous conversation about audience profiling. Much of my job revolves around understanding the specific audience I am trying to reach. Sometimes, that audience is an affluent group that my research shows is typically motivated by reputation, financial freedom, and exclusivity. Other times, I am targeting middle-aged women who are (once again, demonstrated by my research) primarily motivated by their children. The middle-aged women have very different drives than the affluents. Usually. There are, as always, exceptions.

After all, the world is not made up of generalizations. At least, God giving, it shouldn’t be.

Copywriters, be aware of this very dangerous yet very easy trap to fall into. It is easier to sit and believe that all you need is a list of eight “universal motivations,” twelve “universal fears,” or one-hundred and seventy-six “universal tactics” that work on everyone. It’s easier to believe in a magical audience cheat-sheet that groups everyone into generalizations. It may be easier, but it’s also wrong.

As I said in a previous post, audience profiling is hard, but it’s absolutely necessary to understand who you are actually talking to. Generalizing your audience’s specific wants, needs, desires, motivations, fears, contradictions, and ambitions will do nothing but lose you valuable time and energy.

And don’t get me wrong. It is entirely possible to pick out your target audience and pinpoint what their specific motivations may be. In fact, I did this last night. For one of our target audiences here at Greener Grass, I came up with a motivations list that our target audience is most likely to be driven by. This list consisted of six major motivational categories with twenty-nine individual motivations. Twenty-nine motivations for a select target audience versus eight for the rest of the world.

Now, you tell me: who is more likely to actually connect with what their audience actually wants?


  1. Your articles are excellent. But the gray background paper and light print are VERY hard to read. My suggestion? Find a lighter background or darker text, as a service to your readers. It will help your readability. Your themes should let you do this; your writing deserves to be as readable as possible, since you’re refreshingly honest and clear.

    • Thank you! That’s been addressed, so hopefully things read a bit more clearly now. 🙂

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