Pamela Wilson

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Why Symptoms (Not Solutions) Are Your Copywriting Secret Weapon

You’re feeling under the weather so you go to your local doctor’s office.

Before you can speak, a prescription is thrust into your hand.

“This is what you need”

You’re directed out of the office towards the pharmacy where you can ‘buy’ your cure.

Are you going to buy the prescribed treatment with confidence? Are you even going to buy at all?

Of course not: the doctor hasn’t proven that she understands your situation and that she’s capable of advising you about the best possible action.

But this is exactly what many businesses do in their marketing copy.

They sell the solution first, when they should really be selling the symptoms.

Selling the solution: a business example

Recently I worked with an analytics firm to improve their website copy. The firm provides large manufacturers such as Nestle and Unilever with analytics insight.

My client’s product lets manufacturers see how products are performing, even in multiple stores and in multiple countries. This means they can push promotions that are working, and ditch those that aren’t.

It’s a great product and their web copy was very focused on the solution:

“Choose this product to align syndicated and point-of sale data in multiple countries and from a variety of data sources and time periods.”

On the face of it, the copy seems pretty positive. It’s got benefits and it’s aimed specifically at the target market.

There’s just one problem with copy that only focuses on the solution…

Your customer may not know what they need

When your customer visits your site or sales page, or picks up your brochure, if you only sell the solution you might find they dismiss it outright because they don’t realize they need it.

And just as we trust a doctor who takes the time to acknowledge our symptoms before prescribing a cure, you can build trust and confidence by doing the same with your customer.

Let’s go back to the above example. My client and I found the copy worked much better when presented as a symptom:

“Are you struggling to reconcile product data across different countries and currencies? If so, click here to see how [product name] can help”

In short, selling symptoms is a way of getting your customer to say: “Yes — that’s what’s been bothering me!”

Remember, in the world of your business, you are the expert doctor to your customer so you need to diagnose first, prescribe later.

How to identify your customer’s symptoms

To unearth effective symptoms, you need to get down to really specific details.

It’s much more than just describing the overall problem. It’s like the difference between knowing you have the flu (illness) and knowing how to identify that you have the flu (aching limbs, headache, fever etc).

There is a copywriting secret that will help you recognize if your content is highlighting a symptom.

If your customer ONLY reads that symptom, (with no supporting content or images), would they know that it is talking specifically about them?

If the answer’s yes, good chance it’s an effective symptom. If you’re not sure, you may need to drill down into a little more detail.

For example, let’s say you’re a business coach and you’re pinning down the symptoms for your customer. Look at the following points we might use in our copy:

General term:

Struggling with clarity and focus

Translated to a specific symptom:

Not knowing what tasks she should be doing first to move her business along. Not knowing how to prioritize her marketing efforts.

General term:

Feeling uninspired

Translated to a specific symptom:

Lacking new ideas for the business, not enjoying it as much as in those early, energetic days.

General term:

Feeling overwhelmed

Translated to a specific symptom:

Never managing to complete her to-do list for the day.

If your customer goes by just the general terms, it’s harder to discern who the service is aimed at and what the problem is. The specific symptoms are much more illustrative.

Always aim to add more details. For example, If you are a copywriter and you hear your prospects objecting to hiring you, you might write down a general term like:

“Copy doesn’t help market their business”

But what else might this mean? What are the underlying symptoms?

  • They don’t feel their web content effectively sells what they do
  • No one shares or comments on their blog posts
  • Their site isn’t ranking in the search engines
  • When they send out a newsletter they get no responses

The symptoms tell a more vivid story of your customer’s problem.

How symptoms win over reluctant customers

Let’s say you have a restaurant owner who is struggling to fill the restaurant consistently, despite getting great reviews and having thousands of happy customers. He ‘thinks’ the solution to getting more people in is by advertising in the local paper.

You know however, that marketing to a business’s current customer base is much more effective.

Now, if you started your sales or web copy with the solution:

Choose this product to find out how to make more sales from current customers

You might lose this customer, because in his mind he doesn’t think he ‘needs’ that solution.

Symptoms stop this from happening. Look how we develop this concept:

Symptoms

Running under-capacity. Customers not returning frequently enough. Great reviews and feedback, but not enough new people visiting.

Problem

Not marketing enough to current customers or encouraging customers to return.

Cure

Reward current customers for spreading the word.

Result

Increased capacity without expensive advertising.

The details here help you sell the solution by starting with the symptoms. It goes like this:

  1. Here’s what you may have recognized (symptoms)
  2. This is what’s causing them (problem)
  3. This is what you need (cure)
  4. This is what is possible with the cure (results)

In that order, you can start to build a compelling argument that gets your customer nodding along with you from the start.

Here’s how this looks when it becomes copy:

As a restaurant owner running under-capacity (1) is a real problem. If you know your customers are happy (because you get great feedback) but they don’t return as often as they like (or tell their friends)(1), it can be tempting to send out on advertisement to try to win new customers. However, there is a more effective way to increase traffic without expensive ads. We can show you how to market effectively (and affordably) to your current customer base to get more people dining at your restaurant (2). Because your customers already love what you do, we use simple incentives to get them coming back more often, and bringing their friends (3). You get a full, bustling restaurant every night while keeping marketing costs down. (4)

Writing copy this way makes it very specific to the customer and the problem, while continuously driving the reader towards your product.

Symptoms not only get your customer’s attention in your copy, they build trust by demonstrating your expertise and understanding of your customer’s situation.

Want more help using symptoms in your copy? Sign up for the free Cookies and Puppies Irresistible Copywriting Course over at Write With Influence.

Pamela Wilson

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25 thoughts on “Why Symptoms (Not Solutions) Are Your Copywriting Secret Weapon”

  1. Hello Amy
    I rarely manage to get to the end of an article without ‘zoning out’ or just plain leaving due to boredom. Yours though had me reading to the end.
    I’m still struggling with how to write on my site but your idea of ‘symptom’, ‘problem’, ‘cure’, ‘result’ makes perfect sense to me.
    Thank you so much for this article. I shall be back for more:)
    Take care
    Jackie

    • Thanks for reading Jackie, and for sticking it out until the end! 🙂

      Writing the copy on your own site is always a challenge because you’re so close to the subject matter. It’s one of the reasons I like to break the process down into simple steps. It’s often easier to jot down specific notes and put them together again, rather than trying to beat that blank page in one go. Good luck and thanks so much for your feedback.

  2. On a web site, include those symptoms in the “About Us” section. Too many times, that section is just a dump for what the company does, with no information about why they do it. The “why” originates from the symptoms of dissatisfied customers — customers who were later delighted by the company’s solution.

    • Totally agree Suzanne.

      I think the most misleading part of the “About Us” page is the title, it’s still really all about your customer. When people visit that page what they really want to know is: “do you help people who like me?” Symptoms are a great way to build that connection. Thanks!

  3. Thank you Amy and Pamela. I love the doctor and prescription analogy. That makes the concept clearer regarding a way to write content…doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to know what to write. Though is a great road map on the journey to connect symptoms with the solutions aka services i offer.

    • Hey Leslie!

      Glad you enjoyed the analogy, it is a similar process because you’re saying to your customer: “I understand what you’re going through, here’s why and here’s what I can do for you.”

      I’ll agree that writing copy can take some practice but hopefully this outline will give you a starting point! 🙂

  4. Those 4 steps are going on a post it to hang where I can see it as I work on the product descriptions for my skincare products. That’s exactly the approach I need to take! Thanks so much for boiling it down so succinctly.

    Now, I’m not quite sure how to apply this to every item in my other business, which sells handcrafted furniture, but it could work in the About Us section. Maybe talk about how their furniture crapped out sooner than they expected, because the construction/materials weren’t as good as they thought they were, therefore they need to invest in high quality furniture, and as a result will have furniture they love that will last for generations.

    Hey, your system works!!

    • Hey Carole!

      I love how you just walked through the system in the comments with your hand-crafted furniture, really great customer-focused points. 🙂

      Another symptom might be that they’ve been unable to find furniture that suits their personality, because most furniture you find is mass-produced, by getting a piece that’s handcrafted and individually made, this lets them find something as unique as they are that attracts those “ooh, where did you get that from?!” comments when people visit.

      Thanks so much for joining in the conversation!

      • Thanks for your comment Jeff!

        The starting point is to definitely focus on the customer, and then build a bridge to what you offer (and what you know they need). So glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  5. Great article! Thanks for the heads up. I do like and follow Big Brand System but missed this one. Also appreciated the notice that your Write With Influence now has the doors open, will be joining soon. Love your sense of humour.

    • Thanks for your comment Carol!

      It would be great to have you on board as a member. 🙂 Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help!

  6. Love this Amy! I have a similar thing with my clients, only I didn’t know it had a name! I work with coaches and clarity is their favourite word, which I could understand if they sold diamonds, but not as a coach.

    I did a keyword search to prove to a client that only 5 people a month were looking for clarity and a heck of a lot more were looking for ways to systemise their business, increase profits and manage their life better. No mention of clarity at all ;), explain the symptom, show them the cure, and make it a designer brand 🙂

    • I know the ‘clarity’ bug very well Sarah! I hear that a lot from clients and I understand what they mean, but clarity is more of an umbrella term. You need to take a peek below that term and get into the language of the customer. Nothing like some hard and fast research to show what you know. Love that example!

  7. Some fantastic advice again, Amy. Breaking down the process Symptom > Problem > Cure > Result is a really great help.

  8. Thanks, Amy, that’s a really great read and makes a lot of sense. It’s given me a lot to think about as I start to think about how to become more proactive in finding clients. I’m also going to recommend it to a friend who’s struggling to define the disparate things she does as a consultant – I won’t say she’s looking for “clarity” (ha!) but her various projects do need to be more easy to grasp in some sort of unified theme…

    • Hey Michi! Great to see you here. I didn’t know you did illustration as well as music. 🙂

      Looking for the common symptoms you cure for your customers (and for your friend as well) is a great starting point for really selling the value of what you do. It can also help to build confidence in your own offering when you see the positive transformation you create in your customers’ lives. Keep us posted with how you get on!

  9. Hi Amy, I enjoyed every bit of your article on the doctor & patient vs symptom & cure. I put it that way so I could understand best the known and the unknown (between the doctor and the patient) and the conflicting aspect (solution or cure).
    I’m starting up my site and I am grateful I got it (Symptom > Problem > Cure > Result)just in time to clarify on how to establish a market niche.
    I loved your typeface too. Had easy time reading.

    • Thanks for your comment Biko! Looking for the conflict and contrast is a valuable perspective in copywriting. You want to know what your customer is struggling with now, and how their life can look a lot different with your product or service in it.

      Best of luck with your new site!

  10. Yep, you did it again. (Was there ever any doubt?) Thanks for setting things in an order that feels so clear, Amy.
    Each detail is distinct yet part of the whole. Now for my burning question of the day…when I hop into your free course, do I get milk with my free cookies? d:)

    • Hey Dawn! Lovely to see you over here and more importantly to know it’s been helpful to you.

      As yet, it’s a ‘bring your own milk’ to the course, although you’ve now got me thinking about using actual cookies to encourage people to join! 🙂

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