Trigger Words: How to Get Someone to Do Anything
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I’m sure you’ve seen all of these phrases in mailings, on signs and billboards, and in emails or on websites. They’re designed to hook you, to get you to act; to give someone your attention, time, and probably money.
If you’re designing online content with a goal of increasing your business, and thus your profits, trigger words like these are something you need to know about.
But there’s more to creating content that drives business than just tossing together a word salad. If you don’t know why trigger words work and how best to use them, you’re just throwing a dart at the dictionary and hoping for a bullseye.
The key here is using trigger words wisely and ethically. If you want to build your business, you have to build trust with your customers. If you misuse trigger words, you will lose that trust and risk losing business.
There’s nothing wrong with using trigger words to bring attention to your website. There’s a lot wrong with thinking you can use them to get people to do anything.
To put the use of trigger words in the terms of Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.
Why Do Trigger Words Work?
The idea behind trigger words is that there are some things that make us stop, look, and take action. They’re the written equivalent of someone shouting, “Doughnuts in the breakroom!”
If you were going to write that in an email (assuming you wanted all the doughnuts to be gone within five minutes), you’d write: “Free doughnuts for all of you in the breakroom! Get them now while they’re hot and delicious or before the folks on the fifth floor find out and try to steal them.”
(You want doughnuts now, right? Sorry.)
The trigger words in that email are: free, you, now, hot, delicious, before, find out, steal.
Journalists use the five W questions when writing a story: who, what, when, where, and why. These are the things we need to know to get the story. In order to work well, trigger words should answer those same five questions. In this case:
- You (who)
- Something free (what)
- Now and before someone else does (when)
- Breakroom (where)
- Hot, delicious (why)
We live in a world of information overload. Many of us have access to more data, facts, and figures than we can possibly use. Add to that the overwhelming volume of opinions, thought-pieces and analyses available from every corner of the internet, and we have a torrent of words to get through every day.
This onslaught is why we need trigger words to call attention to our communications, but it’s also why we need to use those trigger words strategically. In the face of too much information, people feel overwhelmed and either shut down to wait and see, or jump to make a hasty decision. People need help sorting all that data into something manageable.
Customers don’t want more information; they want useful information.
They need a system to help them manage the data. Help your customers make sense of all the information by giving them easy ways to classify and deal with it.
Giving them useful information is the first step. The next step is to get your customer to act.
Using the right language to move someone into action is about creating emotion. We act when we feel something. It could be fear, love, jealousy, anger, resentment, hope, frustration, or a dozen other emotions. The bottom line is if we don’t care, we don’t act.
When choosing which trigger words to use, think about how those words will make your customer feel, and then what you want them to do with that feeling.
Creating the Right Environment for Trigger Words
How do we create an environment where our customers act on the messages we send? We create a sense of trust and belief.
Why do you trust someone? In person, it could be a handshake or seeing a person’s eyes, but if you’re only communicating virtually, you need to build trust by knowing your audience and giving them what they need.
You do that by making sure your words and your actions line up.
Using trigger words can get people to pay attention to your message, but you want them to also act on it.
The first thing your message should be is authentic. Don’t lie, don’t waffle, don’t “from a certain point of view” things.
If you offer something free with no caveats, but require your customers to sign up for your mailing list before they get their free thing, what you offered isn’t actually free.
If you cherry-pick your data or try to spin percentages to support your claim, what you say might technically be true, but it’s not the whole story. For example, you might say that most customers found this thing to be awesome –– except that “most” was only three people and your sample size was five.
If you’re going to tell your origin story, make it true. Don’t try to create a better-sounding fiction (two guys, one with chocolate and one with peanut butter, rounded corners and ran smack into each other, and that’s how we got peanut butter cups).
You can build trust by creating a sense of community or belonging. Be a real champion for your customer or audience and build connections with them and among them.
Help your audience understand you by revealing something, and tell them a story* that shows why you understand them. Consider which blanket you are more likely to hit the buy button on:
- A blanket made of 100 percent merino wool that’s made in the USA.
- A hand-knitted blanket from a company I created because I missed the blankets my grandmother used to knit for all us grandkids and I couldn’t find anything like it made of high-quality wool made here at home, and don’t we all wish we had a Gram that knitted us blankets?
You have to know the audience you’re reaching out to because different communities are going to react differently to certain trigger words. It’s worth taking the time to engage with your audience, do A/B testing, or get other feedback to see what works with the people you’re trying to move to action.
*Note: ‘Story’ does not indicate a made-up story. Revealing something through telling your story gives your audience a real connection, not a piece of fiction. You don’t build trust by creating a made-up story to sell your customers on something; you build trust by telling them a story revealing something about you that makes them feel like you’re a real person.
Why Don’t They Always Work?
So, I can drop these words into any kind of text and people will just do what I want them to do? Excellent…
It doesn’t work like that. Brains don’t work like that. Yes, we’re conditioned to respond to certain words and phrases, but most of us also have a functioning bullshit meter.
Context is critical. The word “free” may be enough to get us to take a look at something, but without the right supporting information, it’s more likely to get us to roll our eyes and never again look at something from that company.
Using trigger words doesn’t get you an automatic win. You have to use the correct words for the audience you’re trying to reach and for the action you want them to take. Simply choosing seven of the top 10 power words and dropping them into an ad or email won’t work.
Knowing your audience is key here. What inspires them or scares them? What moves them to action? What are their pain points? What makes them feel safe or happy? What makes them laugh or cry?
This idea goes back to building trust and community with your audience. If you don’t know them, and if they don’t trust you, no amount of trigger words are going to work.
You have to know specifically what you want your customer to do. To borrow a political example, when canvassers call potential voters, they don’t just pitch their candidate. They ask: do you plan to vote on Tuesday at your polling place, and do you plan to vote at a particular time?
Voting is nebulous. Sure, you’re going to vote. Probably. But if you’re asked about a date, time, and whether you need a ride, those specifics help you make a plan (that system to organize information), and you’re more likely to act.
Use trigger words to tell your customer who, what, when, where, and why. Then keep the rest of the information simple. Trigger words work because they are clear, so don’t clutter up the rest of your content with extraneous information.
There are some loose classifications for trigger words, though you’ll see that many of these words belong in more than one group. There are some particular words that fit almost anywhere: you, an individual’s name, special, new, free, or save.
Using “you,” or even better using your customer’s name, is a powerful trigger. You’re speaking directly to one person, and they feel special, like this is just for them.
“Special” and “new” are used so much because they work. Even though not everything that’s new is necessarily all that great, we still want to know what it is. And special is, well, special. It’s one of those words that allows the reader to define it in the terms of whatever feeling means most to them: exclusive, part of a group, getting a better deal, making life better.
“Free” and “save” are also self-explanatory. We like saving, and often we like free stuff even more than we like just saving.
An important thing to remember about the words below: you can mix and match, but don’t toss a word salad. You need context for these words to work, but most importantly the words need to be true.
People act because of something they feel, and they feel something because they trust and believe you. If you say something is free, but it comes with lots of small-print costs and really isn’t free, you will lose the trust of your customer and they won’t believe you in the future.
These are the word versions of panda cams, soldier returning home to his kid’s birthday party, and an against-all-odds sports team winning the championship. If you want people to feel good, use these words:
Things that make our lives easier/better
I wish I had something that made my life more difficult, caused me to waste time, and made my hair frizzy—said no one ever. We all want things that make us happier and healthier, with more free time and fewer annoying tasks. These words give your readers a sense that you can make things better for them:
Frustration / Need for change / Fear
You only have to look at the last year to see heavy use of this family of words, although they’ve been used in the political arena pretty much since politics were invented way back when. But we look for change in more than just politics, so use these words when you want to empathize with your audience’s desire to change things and move them to act on it.
Safety and security
Remember when identity theft was a novelty? Now we expect it. The more we live our lives online, the more we want to know we’re not taking bad risks. These words work offline, too, as regardless of the technology, we are more likely to take risks when we feel like they’re not all that risky.
- Money back
- Try before you buy
- No questions asked
- No obligation
- No risk
- Best selling
There’s a bit of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in these words, though we’ve been conditioned to react to a sense of urgency for much longer than FOMO’s been a thing. Brick-and-mortar businesses have used the “going out of business” practice to drive sales for decades. We’re worried that if we don’t act now, we’re going to lose something good.
- One time
- Limited offer
- Ending soon
- Supplies running out
- Only three days left
- Today only
We all want to think we’re special, that we’re being treated better than others, or that we’re getting a better deal. Use these words when you want to make your audience feel like you’re giving them something unique.
- Be the first
- Behind the scenes
- Be one of only
- Members only
At first, this might almost seem contradictory to the idea of exclusivity. But the two ideas often work together: we want to feel like we’re part of an important group, with other people that think and act like we do, even if sometimes we want that group to be small and picky about who it lets in.
- Just like you
- Become a member
- Be a part of
Using trigger words can help you bring attention to your content and drive your business. But knowing why they work and how to use them wisely is the key to using them correctly.
Photo credit: violetkaipa