How to sell products worth explaining?

There is a lot to say about your product? Whichever specifics make your innovation stand out don’t necessarily match well with shrinking attention spans. Intricate efforts of sustainability doesn’t always translate into an edge in communication. Here's a roadmap on how to make it happen anyway.
Written by
Merlin Eric Bola

Strategy & Content Direction

Imagine a planet called … Earth

The people of this little known planet were counting the year 2023.

Over the last decades, they had exploited the resources and resilience of their habitat. But some pioneers understood what needed to be done: Regenerate the natural treasures of planet Earth and start to cycle materials instead of tossing them into landfills.

Now, instead of settling into a steady rhythm of compounding success as they supported an existential megatrend on their planet, their challenge had only grown over the years. Supply chains got disrupted, markets fell into a recession and earth saw a number of crises that made people look elsewhere than sustainability and regeneration. These pioneer's challenge was to make their innovation work within a system that resisted change.

With odds stacked against them, the survival of a distracted species depended on the success of their mission.

Complexity vs. Attention Spans

Get ready:

That wasn't a fictional story!

Phew, who knew.

So that's the situation. Call it sustainable, circular, or regenerative – the right kind of innovation and system change is expensive and complex. After working your way through the challenge of designing something new, now you have to sell your innovation. Since it stands out by factors not readily visible, there’s a call to explain how it came to be and what it does.

But your attempts at communicating the complexity of it will meet:

  • Peoples shrinking attention spans
  • Peoples addiction to quick dopamine and instant gratification that doesn't connect well to a slowly culminating eco-crisis
  • The existential paradox of our times that ‘sustainable new product introductions achieve lower sales than their conventional counterparts’*
    *according to a 2021 study published by the Journal of Business Research.‍
  • Peoples reluctance to pay any significant upmark on sustainable products if they buy them*, and finally
    *data from Germany in 2020
  • Peoples self-serving buying behaviour in general

Excuse me, but…

What now?

The Problem Hook and the Benefit Pep Talk

There’s a general difficulty to sell sustainable products, discussed at length in this article.

A quick summary: The key to make people pay attention to a new sustainable product is to not overdo the sustainability talk. Instead, your hook people's attention with a personal problem (that you solve). Then, you adress their eternal self-interest with the communication of personal benefits around your solution.

If you do this, you work from the deepest part of the brain upward. You …

  • Tingle the stem brain
  • Satisfy the limbic system
  • And only then hit the neocortex with detailed information

That's level one, now let's enter level two.


Three ’S' to sell when sustainability gets complex

Both sustainable and complex – you're looking for a challenge, aren’t you?

High product complexity adds some Habanero to an already spicy problem. It means that your product might really need some explaining. You can talk sweet to stem brain and limbic system all you want – if your sales message needs to many words to get the point across, you have a problem.

To sell complex innovative products successfully to many people, you should hit these three points:

  1. Sift: Find the bulls eye that attracts buyers attention
  2. Sequence: Work with how we're naturally building trust
  3. Sell: Offer buying as a logical next step

Let's tackle them one by one. You’ll walk home with a simple roadmap that should be hard to forget.

Alright, let’s sift.

1. Sift: Find the bulls eye that attracts buyers attention

First, you need to distill your work into an essence.

Bundle and compress it.

Imagine all the different facets and intricate details of your work laid out in front of you. There are hidden gems in there – but you don't see them yet. Unless, of course, your intuition about this stuff is on savant level and part of you always thinks like a marketer.

Most often, tho, you're too deep into this stuff and need to get a handle on the Curse of Knowledge first.


The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge is the reflex to communicate from what you know and not what other people know and can understand.

It’s your expectation for people to understand the words you use. While you’re summarizing a wealth of concrete data in your head supported by images and graphs and models, to others, you're speaking in hopelessly abstract terms.

This problem isn't easily overcome by just knowing about it. While writing the first draft on this article, it was drenched in my own knowledge bias.

To grasp it better, let's illustrate the problem.


Overestimating how well others understand – badly

It's the year 1990 at Stanford University.

In an experiment in a psychology class, described in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, the assigned roles were 'tappers' and 'listeners'. The tappers were asked to pick a well-known song and tap out the melody, knuckles on table. The listeners job was to guess the song. Now, the tappers thought that their choice was quite obvious and expected the listeners to figure out the song about half of the time.

Well, since the taps couldn’t translate the higher and lower notes of the song that would make the melody recognizable, only 2.5% of the time people got the song right. Not one in two – one in fourty. With the melody playing in their head, they heavily overestimated the transparency of their taps.

With expert knowledge, it works the same way.‍

How to overcome it?


The power of story

One example of how to overcome it you have seen in the last few paragraphs: Story.

Since the internet bursts with a newfound love for storytelling, I'll make it quick: We grew up with stories. It's how we warned each other about the bear in the canyon and shared tradition around the campfire. They create grounded metaphors for abstract topics, radically reduce complexity and melt barriers to understanding a message.

The mastery of life is and was transmitted by story, and a transgenerational intuition about the value of storytelling still sits nested in our very bones. They connect to our frantic 21st century minds like a missing piece to the puzzle and help make sense of escalating complexity.

If you use stories to translate your vast scientific jargon into, you can't go wrong.


The draw of benefits

The other quick-solve to jargon-filled sales messages is to turn everything into a benefit.

Here's the deal: You will not find tangible benefits to many aspects of your work, and this will be the guidance you look for. You will certainly land at environmental benefits that you should treat as features – but keep them, they have their place and you'll need them later. Still, true benefits are personal benefits. It's those that answer the question of »What's in it for me?«.

What you’re doing here is going narrow on your communication.

Distill complexity into essence

Make it easy, make it obvious.

Use easy language and make it quick. By turning the more complex aspects of your work into stories and benefits, you are forced to narrow your communication.

Going narrow on your message is getting a foot in the door. It’s made to stop people in their tracks as they are scrolling half asleep in a haze of quick-dopamin on their phone. Snap them out of it with something easily processed and compelling.

Now, let’s go broad again in the next step.



2. Sequence: Work with how we're naturally building trust

Imagine yourself in a tribal life between hills, huts and hunting.

We encountered the members of our tribe every single day. Over time, we learned to read and trust them. It was harder to deceive others, because we were just too close to keep secrets.

But if you met someone new, from another tribe, you had no idea what their life was like. Do they play fair? Do they hurt people? Maybe they're even quick to snap and kill? These questions didn't come up with the people close to you, because you had some insight into what their life was like. You had an idea of what behaviour their character allowed for. What's more: You were as reliant on them for your survival as they were on you.

All of this shaped who we are today, and we still build trust with repeated encounters.


The tragedy of an anonymous society

With the rise of big cities, a global society and the internet, we ran into trouble.

We share a memory of tribal bonding with our friends, families and maybe even our co-workers. But beyond that, most people today have an abundance of daily encounters with people they have never met before, and no ‘data’ on them. Since the digital revolution, this creeping anonymity went online and got potentiated. Even less data on people and not even body language to draw insight from.

On top, we have heard all kinds of stories about liars, scammers, fraudsters and crooked marketing stunts, all of which were only possible because we lost our ancient integrity mechanisms. All the corruption that we see stands on the shoulders of anonymity and alienation from our homely tribal setting.

For good reason, we have developed quite some caution around trusting people.


Your sales message and our tribal past

The way to make your sales message stand out is to awaken a splinter of our tribal past.

A single encounter neither builds trust nor does it hold the space to get your message across – but it can be the foot in the door that invited people to join your sequence – like a funnel or Email course. The way to win trust is to create multiple touchpoints with your brand. By doing so and giving context to your offer, and by connecting your face and reputation to it, you're stirring a memory. 

You're reducing scepticism and invoke trust because people have an opportunity to gather some data on you.

One of the effects of a sequence is that it can charge your offer with compounding context and emotion.

Over time, the sequence builds a gut feeling about you and your reputation – also called branding. That’s what increases the perceived value of your product, increases conversion rates and ultimately allows you to raise higher prices to offset your costs of innovation.

The right kind of sequence gets a lot of information across and creates a unique space for your product in your customers mind – while going easy on peoples attention span, because it comes in digestible pieces.


Curiosity and freedom are the key

We like to be free and curious, to follow our instict and interest. 

Some pushy marketers sell by creating artificial scarcity, making up fake countdowns and always havving two products left in stock. The problem here is that you're not building any trust, brand or goodwill. Instead, tell an intriguing story, promise a compelling benefit and offer an opportunity to make a good choice. This way, you evoke peoples freedom and allow them to stay in control.

Build trust, loyalty and future potential on a curiosity-driven joy to explore, instead of creating a scarcity-driven grab-and-run situation that is laced with resentment.

If you are confident in the value of your offer, go easy on the selling itself and be rewarded.


Seven, a special number

The Rule of Seven is one of the oldest principles in marketing.

It says that people need at least seven enencounters with your message to consider acting on it. While I was assembling this article, I even ran into another rule of seven. I saw two marketing experts independently talk about how people should be able to spend seven hours with your free online content. Allow people to move from article to article – or video, or podcast – and dig deep into what you're about.

Through either organic sequences such as free-roaming content or engineered funnels, put some meat on the bones on your business.

What we’re doing with all of this is to go broad again.

Sequencing your communication across multiple touchpoints builds trust and gets information across in a digestible way


The habit of the click

A well designed sequence opens up opportunities you would not have without.

You can integrate more information into your message while keeping it digestible. Another element that you can sprinkle along the way are calls to action. Those can go to to whitepapers, worksheets, videos and other informative resources, preferably around your general work and not only the product you sell.

If you do it right and design it well, you achieve multiple things:

  • Position yourself as the expert
    Give a glimpse of your knowledge and uniqueness
  • Share your care around details
    Share the intricacies of your work, including its environmental perks
  • Get the foot in the door with initial offers
    Place low-risk calls to action that familiarize users with the affirmative click on buttons provided by you

The habit of the click then creates less friction around the last click you actually want to get at:

Your thoughtful innovation that needs to get out there.



3. Sell: Buying from you as a logical next step

The sequencing served as guidance toward (and qualification for) the product you want to sell.

All of this ensured that it doesn’t feel like being sold to, but as an opportunity to buy from an open and informed place. You took your time to give before you take, evoking reciprocity in the process. Not only did you take your time for diligent product development, but also for sharing a lot of knowledge around your product. In these times? In this economy? Are you crazy?

No, you're not. You did good work and made sure it can actually get out there, even if that meant to walk the extra mile.

Now it’s time to go narrow again, toward the one sale your have to make.

With the sale, you narrow down again toward the one action you centered the sequence around


Conversion Magic

Narrow, broad, narrow – couldn't we have stayed narrow and have an easier life?

No, because the going-broad sequencing part is making all the difference. Remember the Rule of Seven, the tribal way of building trust and the power of repositioning. If you did it right, the decision to hit 'buy' on your product feels like a logical next step – instead of a big risk taken after confusing detail talk that never brought up a personal benefit between all the environmental perks.

The trust built within the sequence now translates into psychological tailwind for the final click.


Remove the last barrier – tell what happens next

People generally hestitate to click on links.

Even if you have gotten people familiar with your calls to action, it’s still the internet. There’s a deep, never-ending opaqueness to any link before you click.

Where does it lead me? Is there a risk? That’s why it’s helpful to explain what happens as soon as you click on the link. You reduce insecurity and relax the problem radar, because you took the time to map the journey instead of just pep-talking the click.

This is what it could look like:

This is how Sean D'Souza does it, one of our role models in 'marketing with skill and integrity'



Conclusion

With shrinking attention spans in a fast dopamine environment, there's a lack of opportunity for true contributors to actually work with human psychology.

With 10 Amazon tabs open, in price-hunting mode and with little patience to inquire about product quality, the meager few seconds that most people bring are just not enough. If you have more to say than fits into a TikTok video or Twitter post, you'll run into difficulties trying to get it across.

A sequence changes that. As you go narrow, broad, and narrow again, you reduce complexity, draw essences, tell stories, offer benefits and build trust. The overwhelming nature of your product becomes accessible.

Always have a next step for people to take without feeling pressured, tugged along and sold to. As we retain our freedom of choice, a well-made funnel is really attractive to follow along. That’s how it’s gets broad again, as in enabling your future innovation history with commercial success now.

The roadmap that was promised: Your sales message DNA for high product complexity


That’s how the field of possibilities opens again.

All you need to bring is a good product, and a roadmap to the human psyche applied with integrity.

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