The 5 Steps of the Motivating Sequence

“Amateurs may talk about creativity, but professionals insist on structure,” copywriter Martin Chorich said to me recently.

In direct marketing, structure is key: If your copy does not follow the formula for persuasion, it won’t work … no matter how creative you get.

There have been numerous formulas for writing persuasive copy through the years. The most famous is probably AIDA, which stands for attention, interest, desire and action. In copywriting seminars I’ve taught a variation on AIDA known as the “motivating sequence.” The five steps of the motivating sequence are:

1. Get attention. Before your promotion can do anything else, it has to get your prospect’s attention. It must get the prospect to stop, open the envelope and start reading the materials inside instead of tossing your mailing in the trash.

You already know many methods of getting attention and see dozens of examples of them every day. In TV and magazine advertising, sex often is used to gain attention for products ranging from soft drinks and cars to diets and exercise programs.

Or, you can make a bold statement … cite a startling statistic … ask a curiosity-arousing question … put a bulky object in the envelope … or use a pop-up graphic. You get the idea.

2. Identify the problem or need.Most products fill a need or solve a problem that a group of prospects face. But what are the chances that the prospect is thinking about this problem when she gets your promotion? Probably not great.

So the first thing you have to do is to focus the prospect’s attention on the need or problem your product addresses. Only then can you talk to her about a solution. For instance, if you sell an economical office telephone system, instead of starting by talking about your system you might say, “Are you sick and tired of skyrocketing long-distance phone bills?”

3. Position your product as the solution to the problem. Once you get the prospect to focus on the problem, the next step is to position your product or service as the solution. This can be a quick transition.

Here’s an example from a fundraising letter from the Red Cross:

Dear Mr. Bly:

Some day, you may need the Red Cross.

But right now, the Red Cross needs you.

4. Proof. As Mark Joyner points out in his book “The Irresistible Offer” (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), one question at the tip of your prospect’s tongue upon receiving your promotion is, “Why should I believe you?”

You answer that question by offering proof. That proof is of two sorts.

The first type goes to credibility. It convinces the prospect that you, the seller, are a reputable firm or individual, and therefore someone to be trusted. A diploma from a prestigious medical school displayed prominently on a doctor’s office wall is an example of proof of credibility.

The second type of proof involves the product, and it convinces the buyer that your product can do what you say it can do. Testimonials, case histories, reviews, performance graphs and test results are examples here.

5. Action. The final step is to ask for action. Your goal is usually to generate either an inquiry or an order. To ask for action in direct marketing, we make an “offer.” I define the offer as “what the reader gets when she responds to your promotion, combined with what she has to do to get it.”

In a lead-generating direct mail package, the offer might be as simple as “mail back the enclosed reply card for our free catalog.”

In a mail-order online promotion, the offer might be “click here, enter your credit card information and purchase our product on a 30-day money-back trial basis for $49.95 plus $4.95 shipping and handling.”

I am willing to wager that every successful piece of copy you have ever mailed or e-mailed follows, to some extent, the steps in the motivating sequence, even if you’ve never heard of it before. That’s because you have an instinct for how to sell, and that instinct leads you to organize your selling arguments according to the motivating sequence.

So, if you can sell instinctively, then what use is knowing AIDA, the motivating sequence, or other persuasion formulas? The answer: When you have the steps written out in front of you, you can more consciously ensure that you’ve handled all five steps fully and in correct sequence … and ensure no step is shortchanged or left out … increasing your odds of writing a winner.

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