What The Matrix Can Teach You About Evoking Emotion in Your e-Commerce Copy

e-Commerce copywriting

What if I told you…

The entire world was nothing but a lie that had been pulled over your eyes to blind you?

That you were a slave? And that I had the truth?

Do you want to know?

Well, you’d break into a cold sweat, and you’d keep listening…

And once I mentioned that life as you knew it was actually bondage, prison — and that the Matrix was Wonderland, a deep rabbit hole ripe for exploration…

Well, you’d probably decide to take the red pill and stick around.

e-Commerce copy

But if I told you…

“Hey, I’ve got a brand-new, high-quality, reality-based solution to replace your substandard day-to-day experience!”

You’d have no f***ing idea what I was talking about.

And you’d probably grab your windbreaker and hightail it out of my weirdly dark apartment.

The first phrasing works better than the second because “bondage,” “prison,” “rabbit hole,” “blind,” and “slave,” are all specific, highly evocative phrases.

They imbue what I’m selling you (escape from the Matrix) with emotion (in this case, probably a mix of fear, dread, and a teensy bit of curiosity).

Think Neo would have bought into the Matrix if Morpheus had described it as a “high-quality reality-based solution”?

Nah, son.

When they’re considering buying, your prospective customers are highly emotionally engaged.

And the more money you’re asking them to spend, the more they’ll have that weird feeling where their heart is in their throat and they’re kind of sweaty and they finally click through and make the purchase and they’re excited, but also worried, but also excited…

Neo e-commerce copy
Kinda like this.

You can’t bring customers to that heart-pounding, palm-sweating fever pitch by describing your store or your products in generic terms.

No matter what’s being sold, buying is inherently emotional

Getting people to buy without an emotional connection just doesn’t work very often, much like Keanu Reeves these days.

Buying is emotional. People get invested in their purchases, both literally and figuratively.

When we come face-to-face with a decision — whether it’s something as momentous as buying a house or something as small as whether or not to grab that pack of peanut-butter M&Ms at the drugstore checkout — we automatically draw on our feelings, past experiences, and positive or negative associations.

Talia Wolf puts it simply and starkly:

Emotions affect decisions
Decisions affect conversions
Conversions affect revenues.

Making your customer feel good can encourage them to buy

Since emotions affect purchasing decisions, it stands to reason that you might want to make your buyers feel good (AKA confident, or happy, or validated, or fulfilled, or another positive emotion) so they associate that good feeling with you and your product.

And making potential buyers feel good can make them like you, which can make them buy from you.

Yes, come a little closer. Now click “Add to Cart”...
Yes, come a little closer. Now click “Add to Cart”…

Cialdini’s principle of Liking is based on the anecdotally obvious truth that we like doing business with people we like. We look for common ground between us and the people with whom we’re considering spending our money.

Think about it. It’s just common sense.

Not convinced? Here are some examples from the wild:

  • Roger Dooley unpacks PetRelocation.com’s About page and explains how it uses the principle of Liking in several concrete ways.
  • Recently, Kellogg scored big on likeability in their online video ads—which converted at a high rate. According to Nielsen Catalina Solutions,
    “[A]ds deemed “likable” by panelists for copy testing firm Ace Metrix had the strongest sales lift of all – a 172 index where 100 is the average for people exposed to ads in the study.”

So how can you make your customers like you? Brian Ahearn offers three suggestions from Cialdini’s research:

  1. Focus on similarities – What do you and your customer have in common?
  2. Give compliments – It may sound like a cheap trick, but paying a sincere compliment works
  3. Look for cooperative efforts – Where can you work together with your customer toward a common goal?

Negative emotions have a proven place, too

It makes sense to make your buyers feel good, so they’ll buy from you.

But stereotypically bad emotions like anxiety, fear, and guilt can be effective conversion motivators, too.

There’s nothing like watching the clock tick down on an online SaaS product sale or launch (anxiety), worrying you might miss out (fear), and feeling like you haven’t been investing enough time in your business development (guilt). And this product could help…

Proceed with caution when playing on negative emotions, though: Kunle Campbell suggests that to effectively use negative emotions, the buyer’s ultimate emotional outcome should be positive.

So don’t overdo it on the guilt, k? Reassure your buyers that they’re making a smart purchase.

The worst emotion your customer can feel is apathy

It’s all too easy to emotionally check out when you’re writing your e-commerce copy.

And you end up with copy that zooms past “concise yet still descriptive” and lands right at “vague, confusing, and boring”.

Emotional Scale
Emotional Scale

Ever been to a movie and come out thinking, “Well, I GUESS there was a plot, but it sure didn’t stick with me?” Guessing you didn’t feel that way about “The Matrix”.

As Morpheus says to Neo, “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

Preferably through some sweet-ass shades.
Preferably through some sweet-ass shades.

The same goes for your e-commerce customers. You can’t just TELL them what your product is. They have to see it in their mind’s eye and feel emotionally connected to it.

Part of the way you help customers connect with your product (along with presenting a solid value proposition, featuring high-def, zoomable product photography, and including buyer reviews) is by writing emotionally evocative copy.

There are lots of copywriting techniques to make your customers feel something

The most copy-popular way to evoke emotion? Tell a story.

Give yourself a hand if you saw that coming, because telling a story in your e-commerce copy isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s been covered ad nauseum.

‘Bout a million times, actually.
‘Bout a million times, actually.

The key, however, is making sure the story stars not your company —

not your product —

but your reader.

Giving your reader a starring role can be as simple and subtle as positioning the product at a time in your prospect’s life, like Target does with this car seat:

Car Seat

e-Commerce item

Start your baby off safely with the Chicco KeyFit 30 Infant Car Seat in Legend. This infant car seat is very easy to install correctly so you have no worries about how to fit it in place. Using a LATCH system, it’s a quick fit; for vehicles without LATCH the base has a built-in belt locking system. The removable newborn insert is designed to gently cradle your precious cargo and give them a comfortable ride with all the support they need. As your child grows, remove the insert and you can continue to use this car seat as it is rated up to 30 pounds and 30”. Meets ASTM Standards, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and is JPMA Certified.

Boom. “Start your baby off safely” → “As your child grows”. Story firmly implanted.

OR, you can get as involved as J. Peterman does with its famous micro-short stories about clothing:

e-Commerce copy clothing

e-commerce copy story

Mind you, telling a story is about more than just using customer-centric language.

This is about building a world where your prospects can immerse themselves: a world where they feel better, happier, prettier, more energetic, smarter, more satisfied, or more productive.

I know. That’s a lot of pressure to lay on a lil’ ol’ online store.

Calm down, Elrond.
Calm down, Elrond.

But the fact is that we can’t help but project ourselves into the stories we watch, read, and hear.

We identify with stories, and when we do, we feel empathy for the people experiencing them.

In fact, research shows that our brains’ mirror neurons may be partly responsible for the reason we cringe when we see someone trip and fall, or why we salivate when we watch Mary Berry delicately spoon tiramisu cake into her mouth. (Just me?)

Want to write Oscar-worthy emotional e-commerce copy?

No matter what you’re selling, you, too, can write e-commerce copy that tugs the heartstrings of your readers, prospects, and prior buyers.

Here’s how to get started in 4 easy steps:

1. Give your reader TIME to feel

You might remember the totally boss scene in “The Matrix” where multiple Agent Smiths are shooting at Neo, and he’s just like, “Hold up, wait a minute, not right now, bullets.”

What a G.
What a G.

Now let’s imagine that you’re Agent Smith, and your customer is Neo. (Sorry for making you Agent Smith, but bear with me.)

You don’t want your customer to feel like you’re shooting him with meaningless words.

You want to give him the ability to slow down time while he’s reading your copy.

You want to get his attention, then let him react — all within a split second.

Step 2 helps you buy time.

2. Use unexpected language

Because our brains are constantly predicting what will happen next, we have a tendency to get stuck on unusual words or pay more attention to them when we’re reading.

Dan Gilbert calls this phenomenon “nexting”. He explains in a passage from his excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness:

“As long as your brain’s guess about the next word turns out to be right, you cruise along happily, left to right, left to right, turning black squiggles into ideas, characters, blissfully unaware that your nexting brain is predicting the future of the sentence at a fantastic rate. It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado.

That is, surprised. See?”

When you use an unusual word, your readers will pay more attention. They’ll pause for a second. They might not believe their eyes.

“Lemme get a better look at that,” says your customer.
“Lemme get a better look at that,” says your customer.

And while you don’t want to distract them from your ultimate goal (conversion!), more time spent on the page correlates with a higher conversion rate, according to Moz. So take it slow, Joe.

3. Make sure you’re being specific

Using specific, descriptive phrases is another idea right out of the Copywriting 101 playbook. We’re not breaking any new ground here.

But too often, e-commerce marketers worry that specificity will alienate their target (possibly because they’re thinking of their target customer no more specifically than as “everyone and their mom”). So they err on the side of inoffensively vague copy.

For example, here’s a mouthful of copy mush I came across recently:

Oh, good, I’m so glad they engineered those cutouts.
Oh, good, I’m so glad they engineered those cutouts.

Why doesn’t this copy make me feel anything??

Because phrases like “decidedly forward” and “high-quality” are too vague. Their direct benefits to the reader aren’t immediately apparent or applicable. They’re nothing-words.

More specific phrasing here could actually evoke what it feels like to wear the Wanderer Long Sleeve top. Maybe something like, “Enjoy the breeze on your skin through this soft, snug top’s airy cutouts, even if you’re clearly a Cylon.”

If you look closely, this kind of bland, unevocative language is all over e-commerce:

In case you can’t read the screenshot, these Columbia hiking boots are described like this on Amazon:

Rich, all-over leather gives a premium outdoor feel to this supportive, waterproof hiking boot. The newton ridge™ plus waterproof seals out wet weather while also breathing and features a shank under the arch, delivering stability and support where you need it and flexibility where you don’t. The Omni grip® rubber outsole features rugged, grippy traction specifically designed to evacuate mud ← what happened to the end?

At first glance, it seems all right. The leather is rich, the boot is waterproof…

But if I dig a little deeper, parts of the copy start to erode my trust.

What’s a “premium outdoor feel”? And what exactly is “rugged, grippy traction” when you really think about it? And what horrific fate befell this description writer before he could finish his sentence?

The truth is that you don’t have to worry about alienating people through specificity.

Using specific language, especially when it comes right from your customer research (you’re doing research, right?), sends out a “dog whistle” to the exact right kind of buyer.

As Alex Birkett notes on CXL, “Everyone is not your customer.” And you don’t want everyone. You want the right customer.

Brooklyn boutique Catbird definitely kept its audience in mind when it wrote this lush, nostalgic copy for its Kitten Solid Perfume:

Speaking of perfume, another excellent way to evoke emotion is to…

4. Appeal to the senses

Think about your favorite family dish from childhood. For me, that’s my dad’s chicken cacciatore: smothered in tangy tomato sauce, with thick, tender slices of green bell pepper and onions.

How does thinking about that dish make you feel? Mouth watering a little bit?

Sensory words work on restaurant menus, and they also work in e-commerce copy — whether or not you’re selling food.

The brain processes “tangible” words that evoke sensory or perceptual experiences, like “creamy” or “bumpy,” faster than it processes other words. So using sensory words might just fast-track your message into your prospect’s brain.

And if you ARE selling food, well, sensory language is your best friend.

See’s Candy has it figured out:

I would like to be folded in the sweet, crunchy embrace of this can of Toffee-ettes.
I would like to be folded in the sweet, crunchy embrace of this can of Toffee-ettes.

Don’t forget: emotional copy works everywhere, not just in product descriptions

All right, I have just one last piece of advice for you:

If you’re saving up all your emotional appeal just for your product descriptions, STOP DOING THAT RIGHT NOW.

I SAID STOP, GREG.
I SAID STOP, GREG.

Ultra-specific, sensory language works everywhere. Not just in product copy.

Think website copy, social media posts, emails, PPC ads, and even meta descriptions. Don’t believe me? Here’s Everlane making the most of its meta descriptions:

I can see this comfy dress in my mind. I can feel it in my fingers. And now I want it. (I’m a size medium btw)
I can see this comfy dress in my mind. I can feel it in my fingers. And now I want it. (I’m a size medium btw)

Will you take the red pill, or the blue pill?

Hopefully by now I’ve done my job as Morpheus, and convinced you to take the red pill.

Go forth and stop time. Be specific. Be unexpected. Use tangible, sensory language. Make your reader FEEL something.

If Keanu of all people can evoke emotion, you can too.
If Keanu of all people can evoke emotion, you can too.

PS. If you run a copy test, make sure you’re not changing anything else on the page. You can read more about testing best practices here, or hire Objeqt to run your next test.

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Lianna Patch is a conversion copywriter and comedian whose greatest dream is to make your customers pause, smile, and click (in that order). Conquer campaigns with her at Punchline Conversion Copywriting, or get quick copy jobs done at SNAP Copy.