Pushing All the Right Buttons with Psychology and Copywriting

You may not realize it, but every action we take is based on some core need we have.  As coined by Dr. Abraham Maslow in the 1940s, the “Hierarchy of Needs” is a pyramid-shaped representation starting with the most basic of needs and ending with more self-actualization interests.

You may have even heard of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” but never really understood how it applied to anything beyond education.  The truth is it’s a great driving force in copywriting.

To effectively apply the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs concept in your copy you must know what’s the basic motivator of your target audience; is it based on physiological needs, safety needs, the need for love and belonging, esteem needs or the need to achieve self-actualization.

Maslow’s theory states that once you’ve meet a set of needs you will move up to the next, so for example once all your physiological needs are met your safety needs take over and dominate your mind.

The physiological needs, like breathing, food and water, are our survival instincts. If these aren’t met, eventually we, and our species, die.

But once we’ve managed to get our basic needs taken care of we then strive to reach our…

Safety Needs

These are the things that keep us up at night: our health, our family, our work.  Copywriting with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in mind speaks to our most powerful activator – safety.

These people don’t have time to read long sales letters – they need checklists, bullet points and strong, convincing testimonials that show the end result.

There’s an immediate threat to their safety and well being and no amount of fluff or filler is going to convince them.

The Need for Love and Belonging

The next step up the pyramid is love and belonging. Look at any magazine especially geared toward men, women or the home and you can see all kinds of prominent copy drivers.

Images motivate these people to act, the picture of a happy family sitting around the table laughing or the exquisitely decorated home or the comfort of a loving marriage.  Use these images to reinforce your copy if love and belonging are high on your prospects needs list.

Building Self Esteem

Esteem is the next motivator and it’s all about what “could be”.

Achievement figures in here, so images and phrases that tie in with success will do well to speak to this audience.  Fancy cars, gorgeous homes, wealth and tropical destinations are common, as are statements that attest to something so rare and refined, that not everyone can have it.

Achieving Self Actualization

This is the final motivator, and the one we strive for when everything else is met.

All types of self-help related books flourish in this market.  Happiness, creativity, beauty and other self-needs need to be met here. Likewise, beautiful images such as before and after shots, natural beauty, incredible smiles and other motivators are what encourage people to act at this level.

Learning more about psychological needs and understanding the triggers that help get the sale are definitely worthwhile for any copywriting student.  Just be sure that in learning what makes people “tick” that you use it ethically and intelligently.

Please give your opinion on this or share your own copywriting strategies by leaving a comment below.


AlexPushing All the Right Buttons with Psychology and Copywriting

Comments 10

  1. Rudy Espinosa

    Alex, this is excellent information for better marketing results. Thanks again for sharing! You must be already know this stuff since I always click through whenever I get your emails! As usual, thanks again for your awesome SEO tools too! Rudy

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  2. Herschel Lawhorn

    Hi Alex,

    Man that is one more powerful post. I guess I must have missed “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. At least I don’t remember having ever seen it before, but it does make a lot sense.

    I don’t where you find all of this great information, but I like Rudy do appreciate you sharing it with us.

    Keep up the good work.

    Herschel Lawhorn

    PS: I too am still loving and using your great tools.

  3. Claire Smith

    You are one of the few Internet marketers whose posts I read without fail and I am amazed at the thought provoking quality each time. Excellent post Alex. There is a ton of great info and I liked the interpretation on types and style of copy for each tier.

    I imagine the market size is larger at the bottom of the pyramid too.


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  4. Martin Jelsema

    Maslow sets the foundation from which to start. But knowing what your offer affects is just the beginning. To translate that basic info I recommend two additional sources: “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini and “Triggers” by Joe Sugarman. Both books have been really helpful in my career in marketing.

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      Alex Safie

      Hi Martin,

      Thanks for the book recommendations – I’ve already read “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini, and it’s truly a MUST READ for every marketer.

      I have not read the one by Joe Sugarman but I just added it to my list of books to read.

  5. Alexander Umanets

    Interesting information that we can use in online sales but, for some reason, you did not mention the criticism of Maslow’s theory. Here is quote form Wikipedia:

    In their extensive review of research based on Maslow’s theory, Wahba and Brudwell found little evidence for the ranking of needs that Maslow described or for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all.[18]
    The order in which the hierarchy is arranged (with self-actualization described as the highest need) has been criticized as being ethnocentric by Geert Hofstede.[19] Hofstede’s criticism of Maslow’s pyramid may stem from the fact that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs fails to illustrate and expand upon the difference between the social and intellectual needs of those raised in individualistic societies and those raised in collectivist societies. Maslow may have created his hierarchy of needs from an individualistic perspective since he was from a highly individualistic society: the United States. …

    So it is not always the case it will work the way Maslow put it and is more complicated than just a simple pyramid…

    Alexander Umanets

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      Alex Safie

      You’re right Alexander,

      We humans are much (much) more complex – Maslow’s pyramid is just a great tool you can use as a reference guide when working on your marketing

  6. Dr. Kathleen Olsson-Nelson

    Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory was central to my training as a psychologist in the late 70s, and much value was placed upon the “need-press” paradigm outlined therein. Borderless communication via the internet, has changed the dynamic entirely, which allows the Maslow theory to be viewed in a much broader context beyond the geocentric.

    Still, people obey their “herd instinct” drive, and those facts are revealed during immense crisis like a natural disaster like New Jersey; or, most recently, a terrorist act like the Boston Marathon debacle.

    Humanity is both simple and complex in it’s actions and reactions. That’s one reason research on predictive behavior is so fraught with error. Still, tools like Maslow’s can help identify behaviors that are fairly generalized in the population.

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