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How to Motivate People to Buy

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At least last time I checked.

And if you’re sick of hearing that people buy because of emotion, well then … that would be a strong emotional response to a logical assertion, no?

But I hear you. Over and over you’re told that people buy according to emotion, and it seems not to make sense when it comes down to selling your products and services.

Maybe that’s because you’re thinking about emotion in the context of feelings rather than motivation.

And that would definitely be confusing, because it’s not feelings you’re after. In fact, provoking feelings can kill the sale instead of prompting it.

Nothing more than feelings … (fail)

Feelings are magnified, messy, and often misunderstood forms of emotion, and that makes playing with them potentially dangerous.

What we’re trying to do is motivate people to do something very specific (buy) … not get them to weep, fly into a rage, or jump for joy.

This may be why so many people doubt that we make purchase decisions via emotion. We don’t always detect a strong feeling when we reach for our wallets, so we must be acting from a purely logical standpoint, right?

Not likely.

You simply justify your existing desire to purchase with logic. You’ve already decided you want it. It’s still possible to talk yourself out of it, but the motivation to buy was put in place while your logical brain was making other plans.

In fact, any time we are motivated to do anything, emotion is pulling the strings. It’s just usually an emotional response lower than what we think of as a feeling, so we experience our motivations as mostly rational.

But it’s emotion that moves us to act. In fact, the Latin root for the word emotion means “to move,” because emotions motivate what we do. Psychologists will tell you that motivations are fairly simple and straightforward, while feelings can be quite complicated (we even lie to ourselves about them).

When it comes to effective sales techniques, you definitely want to invoke emotion — and when you understand emotional response in terms of motivation rather than feelings, you’ll have a better idea of how to craft your copy.

More than a feeling: motivation

So, again … the goal is not to get someone to necessarily feel. Your goal is to get someone to want, and to act on that want.

If that seems like a subtle difference (since desire can often be a very tangible emotion), well at least now you accept that emotion is driving the train.

In terms of motivation, psychologists know that emotions result in one of three basic categories of responsive motivation:


When approach motivation kicks in, you want to experience or discover more of something. Approach motivation involves positive desire, and the perceived value of what you move toward always increases.

Approach motivation makes selling high-quality, desirable products easy, whether it be an iPhone or black granite kitchen countertops.

But it can also be used to sell desirable outcomes, including “get rich quick” and “get skinny now” products of dubious effectiveness.


You want to play upon avoid motivation when your prospect wants to get away from something of low value. Avoid motivation deems something unworthy of attention, and an inconvenience or annoyance that should be ignored or eliminated.

People want to avoid paying too much on their electric bill more than any desire for features of the juice coming through the wires, unless you’re using alternative energy sources, in which case many will do business with you to avoid adverse environmental impact.

Most charities play on avoidance emotions to lessen the impact of poverty, disease, and natural disasters. Rather than taking a beauty approach, Clearasil plays on motivations to avoid the stigma of acne.


With attack motivation, people want to devalue, insult, criticize, or destroy something. When someone is emotionally motivated to eliminate something (rather than simply avoid it), attack motivation is the way to go.

Think about ad campaigns for weed killer and bug spray (Raid kills bugs dead!). Likewise, we’ve seen more than our share of large-scale campaigns designed to eradicate various complicated problems by waging war against them — the war on crime, drugs, terror, etc.

What’s my motivation?

By using the three basic categories of emotional motivation, you should be able to craft the right kind of story to get people to take action.

The problem comes when you’re not clear which motivations you’re actually playing to.

For example, it’s rare that an attack against your competitor will work on the basis of attack motivation, but comparative advertising (Pepsi challenge, Mac Guy and PC guy) can work if you invoke enough approach motivation due to the expressed benefits and differentiation.

On the other hand, negative political ads work on independents not by triggering attack motivation, but instead by prompting avoidance … the undecided voter doesn’t want to make the wrong choice.

Thinking in terms of motivation makes selling with emotion a little less mysterious. And spending the time to truly know who your prospects are makes motivation crystal clear.

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