The Hidden Motivators That Make People Buy Stuff

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If you’re writing an ad to sell a new floor mop, the very first question you should ask yourself is “Why would someone want to buy a new floor mop?”

It seems like an easy question with an obvious answer: to get the floor clean. Right? Well, maybe. But it’s usually not that simple.

Sure, maybe I have a dirty floor. But why do I care if my floor is clean? Why is my old mop not good enough? Could it be that my neighbor’s floor looks nicer than mine and what I really want is to fit in? Keep up with my neighbor? Avoid embarrassment?

There are two levels in every buying decision. The first level is logical: I need a new mop because my old one isn’t doing the job as well. The second level is emotional: I’m embarrassed by the stubborn spots on my floor (or whatever my individual reason might be).

This second level is where you find the “hidden motivators” that control the buying decision. People assume they make rational buying decisions, but really their decisions are almost exclusively driven by emotions. After people make an emotional decision, they rationalize it with logic.

You must understand the hidden motivators that trigger a buying decision if you want to write effective copy for a new mop or any other product or service.

Here are a few of these hidden motivators. This isn’t a complete taxonomy, just a sampling to get you thinking about the underlying emotions behind every purchase.

People want what they don’t have and more of what they do have.

In America especially, people are trained to expect more and more from their personal lives. People seek to gain:

  • Time — for themselves, their family, their interests
  • Comfort — ease, luxury, self-indulgence, and convenience
  • Money — to save, to spend, to give to others
  • Popularity — to be liked by friends, family, and significant others
  • Praise — for intelligence, knowledge, appearance, and other superior qualities
  • Pride of accomplishment — doing things well, overcoming obstacles and competition
  • Self-confidence — to feel worthy, at-ease, physically or mentally superior * Security — in the home, in old age, financial independence, provisions for age or adversity
  • Leisure — for travel, hobbies, rest, play, self-development
  • Fun — feeling like a kid again, doing something for no good reason, goofing off
  • Prestige — feeling of importance, a member of a select group, having power
  • Enjoyment — food, drink, entertainment, other physical contacts
  • Health — strength, vigor, endurance, longer life
  • Better appearance — beauty, style, physical build, cleanliness
  • Exclusivity — being in on something special
  • Envy — having something others desire
  • Ego Gratification — to support or enhance self-image
  • Business advancement — feeling successful, getting a better job, being one’s own boss
  • Social advancement — keeping up with neighbors, moving in desirable social circles

People want to avoid loss.

Just as people seek to gain what they don’t have, they also seek to avoid losing something once they have it. The potential loss of any item on the previous list is a strong motivator.

People want to avoid unpleasantness.

While people are driven to seek out pleasant things, there is an even stronger drive to avoid unpleasant things. This is not to say that negative appeals are always best, just that they work on a more basic level. When a negative appeal is appropriate, it can be potent. People want to avoid:

  • Embarrassment
  • Offense to others
  • Domination by others
  • Loss of reputation
  • Pain
  • Criticism
  • Risk
  • Work
  • Effort
  • Discomfort
  • Worry
  • Doubt
  • Guilt


People want to be seen in a favorable way. People like to think of themselves in a favorable light. Plus, they are sensitive about what others think of them. People want to be seen as:

  • Smart or savvy
  • First or best at something
  • Unique, one-of-a-kind
  • Creative, either generally or in a special area
  • Good parents
  • Efficient
  • Recognized authorities
  • Up-to-date, well-educated, or “with it”
  • Gregarious and sociable
  • Influential, able to get things done
  • Independent and individual
  • Popular, well-liked
  • Part of a group, “one of the boys”

There is no way to know exactly what emotion will trigger a buying decision for a particular person. In most cases, there are several hidden motivators working at once. But with a little thought and common sense, and maybe some customer research, you can probably identify a handful of hidden motivators at play for any given situation.

The important thing to remember is that people almost never buy a mop just to get dirt off the floor.

Dean Rieck

Dean has been writing copy professionally for 25 years as a TV producer, fundraising development director, agency creative, textbook writer, and freelancer. He’s president of Direct Creative, a full-service direct marketing creative firm based in beautiful Westerville, Ohio. His clients include a virtual who’s who of corporate America, including American Express, Bank One, Bayer, BellSouth, Fortune Magazine, Jeopardy/Wheel of Fortune, QuickBooks, The New York Times, TurboTax, Prentice Hall, Public Broadcasting System, Sprint, USA TODAY, and more than 200 others. Dean is former Vice President on the Board of Directors for the Mid-Ohio Direct Marketing Association, and a past member of direct marketing organizations in Cincinnati, Dayton, Minneapolis, and Detroit. His name has appeared in Who’s Who in Direct Marketing Creative Services, Outstanding Writers of the 20th Century, Outstanding Intellectuals of the 20th Century, Who’s Who in the Media and Communications, Strathmore’s Who’s Who, Who’s Who in the Midwest, Who’s Who in America, and Who’s Who in the World. American Writers & Artists even named Dean their “Copywriting Genius” in August 2007. (Are you impressed yet?) Dean has written for a variety of blogs, websites, newsletters, and print publications, including Copyblogger, Write to Done, Men with Pens, The Wealthy Freelancer, Melissa Data, Marketing Profs, Direct Marketing Magazine, DM News, Target Marketing, Inside Direct Mail, The Not-For-Profit CEO Monthly Letter, Smart Money, Potentials in Marketing, Business First, Columbus CEO, Strictly Business, Small Business News, Response, Mercadeo Directo, and Self-Employed Professional. Dean has also written, edited, and contributed to 22 textbooks, including Professional Selling and Marketing in a Global Economy. He’s been a featured speaker at The Direct Marketing Academy, the Fisher College of Business and the Creative Activities Program at The Ohio State University, The Columbus Writer’s Conference, CompuServe’s PR & Marketing Forum, the McDonough Business Leadership Symposium at Ohio Valley College, and the Fawcette Center for Tomorrow. When he’s not writing copy for clients or slaving over this blog or his other blog, he’s changing the course of Ohio politics, terrorizing city traffic on his Bianchi bicycle, coming painfully close to winning pistol tournaments, cursing at his obstinate garden, watching classic sci-fi movies, or composing self-congratulatory “about” pages in the third person.

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