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How to Shame Businesses Into Buying

If you’re ever selling B2B, there’s one emotion you should strike above all others:


Corporate decision-makers are always desperately insecure. They hate to think of their competitors secretly doing something they’re not.

While studying The Gary Halbert Letters, I stumbled upon a sales letter which did this to devastating effect.

I don’t know how I hadn’t seen this letter before. It is inconspicuous, yet completely ingenious. To give you some context, the letter aims to get discounted advertising space from newspapers. Here it is, reproduced below:

Dear Advertising Director,

Over the past several years, our client, the XYZ company, has repeatedly expressed an interest in having his advertisements published in your newspaper.

However, our agency has compared your open rate with that of newspapers where the advertisement has already been published and we have found it necessary to advise the client against including your newspaper in his advertising schedules. This decision was based mainly on the fact that the client’s advertisement has been profitable only in those newspapers where a stand-by or remnant rate has been offered.

As you know, stand-by simply means that a newspaper agrees to publish an advertisement whenever or wherever space becomes available and offers to reduce the open line rate to the advertiser for “standing by.” Space may become available due to last minute cancellations of scheduled advertisements or because of production difficulties. Whatever the reason, the newspaper will generally insert a house ad or a public service ad to fill the hole in the newspaper. Therefore, more often than not, the newspaper receives no revenue for this use of space.

Thus, stand-by advertising has become advantageous for both the newspaper and the advertiser. The newspaper has the opportunity to make money on space it might otherwise give away. The advertiser is able to use a publication it could not use at the open rate.

More and more newspapers are becoming involved in stand-by advertising. Enclosed is a current list of newspapers offering a stand-by program and the discounts they allow. We are aware that your newspaper has not offered a stand-by rate in the past but we would like very much for you to consider this possibility now. We are enclosing an insertion order for a full page, a mechanical and a check for the new amount of the order. The net amount has been computed at the open rate discounted by 50% for stand-by, normal for the industry, and 15% for the standard agency discount.

If you accept our offer, simply hold the material until space becomes available. If and when the opportunity presents itself, run the ad, cash the check, and send us a tear sheet. If you do not with to participate at this time, simply return the check to the agency and destroy the mechanical.

This offer expires in 15 days. Please feel free to call if you have any questions about the offer or our client.


Nancy Jones

In his excellent book Influence, Robert Cialdini mentions social proof as one of the key drivers in persuasion. If you want to get someone to do something, it helps if:

  1. Taking action helps them join a favoured crowd.
  2. Not taking action makes them an outcast of the better-informed.

In a single page, this letter example stokes both of these buying triggers. It practically shames the prospect into the sale. It’s subtle, of course. You can’t insult your reader. You have to be delicate, laying down the implied consequences of doing nothing.

Here’s a quick summary of how each paragraph works. Notice how beautifully they link together:

  • Immediately tell the reader why you’re writing. Leave an implied benefit.
  • Take the carrot away. Highlight a problem the reader has.
  • Explain the problem in more depth, and pile on the pain. “The newspaper receives no revenue for this space.”
  • Explain the solution and how it benefits the reader.
  • Get to the social proof. “More and more newspapers are becoming involved…” The ingenious part of this paragraph is the “enclosed list of rates.” This does 2 things. First, it’s easy for the prospect to judge what they should charge. Second, it implies, “They’re doing this. Why aren’t you?”
  • Make the reader’s action effortless. In this case, the check is already sent. All the reader has to do is run the ad and cash it. If you can eliminate any steps to your order process, do it.
  • Put the reader on a time-limit. Having to act within “15 days” means the reader cannot put this off for too long. If they want the money, they’ll have to start taking action now.

In business, action carries risk.

It’s easier to do nothing than to do something, and potentially make a mistake.

That’s why social proof and playing to the reader’s insecurity is so important for leading your reader to the sale.

You’re highlighting the risk of doing nothing.

You’re telling them, “Hey. Do you really want to be on the outside?”