These phrases litter the huge variety of email newsletter boxes you’ll come across online, and they generally serve the same purpose: Click here to give us your email address. They serve the same purpose, but do they say the same thing?
Can one word change the way you feel about a button?
In my experience, yes. I subscribe to the copywriting school of thought where every single word is absolutely worth stewing over and A/B testing because one single word can change everything. The difference between “joining” and “signing up” is the difference between fellowship and enlisting. A word changes the meaning, the mood, and the motivation.
To connect the dots then, you’re probably wondering: If a single word makes that much difference, then what words should I be using? Which words and phrases convert?
The science of copywriting, the psychology of headlines, and the art of CTAs has revealed quite a number of go-to moves for marketers looking to gain a linguistic edge in their words and pitches. I’ve enjoyed saving several lists of these so-called power words and pulling them out to use in a pinch. I’m happy to share my lists with you. Do you have any power words that work magic for you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Research reveals how a single word makes all the difference
You likely know inherently that specific words matter. You click on a headline because a single word strikes you. You click a signup button because a word creates an emotion.
The research behind this power of words is incredibly deep. Researchers have found that the word you use to describe a car accident (“contacted” vs. “smashed”) paints the way eyewitnesses view the event. Another study found that simple stock names that are easier to pronounce lead to quicker gains post-IPO.
Perhaps my favorite study is one shared by Brian Clark of Copyblogger. Social psychologist Ellen Langer tested the power of a single word in an experiment where she asked to cut in line at a copy machine. She tried three different ways of asking:
“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” – 60% said OK
“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” – 94% said OK
“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” – 93% said OK
I don’t know about you, but I thought Langer’s third request was rather elementary. Yet it didn’t matter. The trigger word “because” was all she needed. The takeaway: When you want people to take action, always give a reason.
Neurologically, we have an instinctual reaction to words and language. Researchers have found that we are hardwired to associate sounds with images, even in words we do not comprehend. Here’s a test for you, pulled from a study by Wolfgang Köhler. Which of the two shapes below is a maluma and which is a takete?
The vast majority of respondents label the smooth, rounded image a maluma and the hard, jagged image a takete.
To go one step further into the power of words, you can look at Patrick Renvoise and Christopher Morin’s book about neuromarketing (see Peep Laja’s article at ConversionXL for a great analysis of the book). Renvoise and Morin highlight the three different brains we have: the new brain, the middle brain, and the old brain.
The old brain is the part that controls decisions, and it also happens to be the most primitive. In this way, the words you use to market to the old brain will often be the most direct, simple, arresting, visual words you have.
You’ll likely see a lot of these “old brain” words in the lists below.
The ultimate list of words and phrases that convert
A quick Google search can reveal pages of results for persuasive and powerful words. There’s no trouble finding them; there’s sometimes trouble applying them. The words you see below are split into a number of categories, along with some ideas on how I’ve used them in the past (and how you can use them, too).
The 5 most persuasive words in the English language
You’ve seen these words countless times before—and for good reason. The research behind these words has shown over and over that they work. Gregory Ciotti wrote about these five in a post for Copyblogger, showing exactly how each is vital for persuasive speech and copy. For instance, immediate words like “instantly” trigger mid-brain activity and feed our zest for quick gratification.
Where to try these words: Calls-to-action, headlines, email subject lines, headings, opening sentences and paragraphs
The 20 most influential words, via David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy is to advertising as Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar. His list of influential words you see above was first published in 1963, and many remain in vogue today.
Where to try these: Headlines, bullet points, subject lines
(Sidenote: For a fun blast from the past, courtesy of Ben Locker, here are a couple advertisements for power words that date back to 1961. A New York Times ad is on the left, a Washington Post ad is on the right. Ogilvy’s 20 influential words came out two years after these.)
3 words to encourage community
- Become a member
- Come along
These community phrases provide a sense of togetherness to the user; they feel like they’re taking part in something larger than themselves. (You’ll notice that we use the word “join” in our email newsletter form.)
Where to try these words: Email signups, trial offers, in-app messaging
10 cause-and-effect words and phrases
- As a result
- Caused by
- Due to
- For this reason
Author Darlene Price, the originator of this cause-and-effect list, has great insight into what makes these cause-and-effect phrases so useful: “Cause-and-effect words make your claims sound objective and rational rather than biased and subjective.”
Where to try these: Closing paragraphs, transitions
12 phrases that imply exclusivity
- Members only
- Login required
- Class full
- Membership now closed
- Ask for an invitation
- Apply to be one of our beta testers
- Exclusive offers
- Become an insider
- Be one of the few
- Get it before everybody else
- Be the first to hear about it
- Only available to subscribers
Garrett Moon of CoSchedule explains exclusivity as being like a club with membership restrictions. You want in because others are in. There’s a bit of social pressure with exclusivity wording, and it helps drive decisions and actions for the user.
Where to try these: Signup forms, links, calls-to-action, subheads
9 phrases that imply scarcity
- Limited offer
- Supplies running out
- Get them while they last
- Sale ends soon
- Today only
- Only 10 available
- Only 3 left
- Only available here
- Double the offer in the next hour only
The fear of missing out (often abbreviated as FOMO) is a common driver of action for marketers and advertisers. FOMO is essentially scarcity. By showing that an item or product is in limited supply, you hope to ratchet up demand.
Where to try these: Headings, promo copy
28 words and phrases that make you feel safe
- Cancel Anytime
- No Obligation
- No Questions Asked
- No Risk
- No Strings Attached
- Try before You Buy
Boost Blog Traffic’s Jon Morrow collected a huge list of power words (his full list of 317 is well worth the read) and sorted the list by category. The above section is Morrow’s grouping of words that engender feelings of safety. It’s my favorite group from Morrow’s list because these safety words have an amazing effect on the person reading: They create trust.
Where to try these: Payment forms, signup forms, testimonials
48 ubiquitous power words
- Hot Special
- How to
Each employee on the circulation and email marketing teams at Interweave Press has these words printed and posted on their wall. The list, which was originally compiled Linda Ruth and Curtis Circulation Company, came from studying best-selling magazine covers, and Interweave’s Bob Kaslik found that the words work equally well on magazines as they do in promo copy and in email subject lines.
Where to try these: Email subject lines, headlines, calls-to-action
9 word for shareable content
- Tell us
Neil Patel put together the infographic you see below, based on research on each of the four major social networks: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. His list represents the words that can get your content shared on social media. I’ve found success grouping some of these words with other power words as well.
Where to try these: Social media updates
Create and share your own list
If you’re looking for inspiration (and a few unique power words to keep in your toolbox), try keeping track of the words that get you to convert. Take note of the words and phrases that grab your attention. Keep in mind why a headline stands out more than another. Notice which words grab you in a bullet list of benefits.
As you find new words, you can build a list in Evernote or another note-taking app; then be sure to reference them when you’re in a pinch and looking for a powerful addition to your headline, copy, or post.
Do you have any favorite power words that have worked for you? Which ones from the list here might you be interested to try? I’d love to hear your thoughts.