How to Use Copywriting Anchors for
Smooth-Sailing Sales

Sailing

One thing any swashbuckling sailor needs is a good anchor.

Anchors are tricky things. Sure, they keep you from getting blown off course. But drop them at the wrong time and they can be a real drag.

It’s not just those sailing the seven seas who have trouble with anchors. In fact, knowing when and how to use an anchor effectively is a critical part of good copywriting.

So what’s a copywriting anchor?

When a potential customer comes to your site, they’ve already got an idea of how much they’re willing to pay for your product or service. This is their anchor.

Oh, and by the way, it’s totally irrational.

And just like a pirate ship trying to drag an anchor across an unforgiving sea floor, you’re not going to get any momentum going if the anchor gets dropped in the wrong spot.

My Dad’s T-Shirt Anchor

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my dad was the first person who taught me about anchor pricing.

I’d get back from shopping and without fail he’d bark something like “12 bucks for a t-shirt! You’ve gotta be kidding me.” He had a particular tone of voice that he reserved for situations where prices had grown out of proportion.

What was going on?

When my dad was a kid, the first t-shirt he ever paid for cost $1. That set his “t-shirt anchor” at $1. Now my dad’s not a totally inflexible guy. His t-shirt anchor has gone up since I was a child. It started at just $1, then $2, and over time it’s grown to the current $5 as the right price to pay for a t-shirt.

His t-shirt anchor has changed, but my crack team of economists confirms that it has emphatically not kept up with the pace of inflation. So he’s shocked by prices that most people would call heavily discounted.

How Anchors Get Set

An anchor is the value that we assign the first time we pay for a new product or service. And unless you can creatively re-set it, it’s going to inform all further encounters.

If an anchor is set low (the client looked at Craigslist to figure out the value of your service before coming to your site), then they perceive the product to have less value and aren’t willing to pay much.

If an anchor is set high (the client looked at the Tiffany’s catalog to figure out the value of your product before coming to your site), they perceive the product to be of a much higher value and are willing to pay more.

Anchors aren’t set until the customer considers actually buying the product or service.

What the Research Has to Say

Anchors aren’t an invention created by marketers trying to sell books. Actually, they’re an invention created by researchers trying to sell books.

Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational describes a number of experiments that show how anchors work.

In one experiment, Dan starts by handing out a form listing a number of items being auctioned. Each buyer enters the last 2 digits of their social security number at the top of the form, and again next to each item in the form of a price.

The students then decided how much they would bid for various items on the auction form.

The results?

Students with low (00-19) final digits in their social security numbers bid significantly less than those with high (80-99) numbers: 2.5 – 4 times as much. In other words, when they associated that “anchor price” with an item, even though they knew it was completely arbitrary, it still informed how much they’d be willing to pay.

Predictably Irrational contains about half-a-dozen experiments showing how anchors work, as well as all kinds of other fascinating insights for the smart marketer, and I’d recommend it highly.

Setting New Anchors

You’re probably shaking your head thinking “what’s the point? If I can’t do anything about anchors then how does knowing about them help me?”

I learned another lesson about anchor pricing when I spent six weeks with my guitar as a street performer in Japan.

I watched two competing guitarists busking weekends in Fukuoka. Both were of similar ability. Both took donations, and also sold CDs. (If you ever plan on becoming a street performer yourself, cut a CD first. It really gets attention and enhances your credibility.)

One musician sold his CD for $20. The other sold his for $6.

Here’s the thing—neither one of them sold very many CDs.

But the musician selling CDs for about the going rate was signaling that his music was worth listening to. The performer selling CDs at way below market value was signaling that his music was junk.

The $20 CD performer got lots of attention. He’d consistently draw crowds of 20-40 people at a time, getting a modest donation from nearly every listener.

The $6 CD guy, about as good as the first, usually only got 2 or 3 people at a time and was clearly busking for love and not money.

And there’s another factor. Street performers fall into two categories: those who get change and those who get bills.

You guessed it. The $20 CD guy not only drew a larger crowd, but that crowd felt he was worth some folding money as a tip. The $6 CD guy heard nothing but the clink of spare change.

The successful busker didn’t accept the existing anchor for street performers, which is a couple of coins.

Instead, he created a new anchor with his $20 CD. That CD created a new context and a new marketing message, and that let him drop a new anchor that was more favorable to him.

Make Anchors Work with You, Not Against You

Copyblogger readers aren’t the sort to let an existing anchor drag them down.

Obviously, when you’re resetting an anchor, you always want to go up. Anchoring your e-book to your fat speaking fee is going to let you charge more for that e-book and make more sales. Anchoring your $1600 coaching program to your $15 e-book isn’t. Make sure your highest-price item can be seen by your customer, so she can set her anchor appropriately.

It’s easier for specialists to set new anchors than it is for generalists. When your offer is specialized, you have the opportunity to decide what the new anchor should be for that specialty.

Often you can re-set an anchor by appealing to strong feelings. The faith of thousands of Apple fans shows how dramatically anchors can be re-set with the addition of a little fanatic loyalty.

Let me know in the comments where you’re currently anchored, and how you’ll tweak your anchor to find new riches.

About the Author:Damon Gudaitis writes, tests, and analyzes web content. You can also find him on Twitter practicing his sailing skills.

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Comments

  1. Fantastic advice, Damon. I really liked the tone of this piece and your use of multiple examples; it wasn’t preachy, and as I’m a new blogger, it didn’t make me feel like throwing in the towel as many posts do on other blogs. Although I currently blog to support others, my niche bridges two areas where pricing is affected by perceived value: homelife coaching and writing. I’ll remember this piece – thank you!

  2. Wow this is a great post! Now I understand why marketers like to compare the price of their thousand dollar courses with their price for private coaching. It’s all about anchoring. Thanks for the amazing insight!

  3. Nice post! Many new marketers under price their ebooks and sell themselves short. But theirs also marketers who make the mistake of over pricing services like coaching programs mentioned above. I have nothing against coaching programs, but don’t expect me to pay that price-find another fool!

  4. Domo Arigato Gudaitis San.

    I’ve noticed anchoring in Twitter too. People tend to anchor less value to those with small followings. Considering your smaller twitter following, you’ve attached your anchor to quite a big ship with this post, and I suspect you’ll see a lot more people anchoring to your twitter handle (me included).

    Well done sir.

  5. @janice: I’m still learning tons, so it would be pretty arrogant for a fellow student to preach.

    @Charles: Good example.

    @Robert: I should have made that point. Selling yourself short, whether it’s your ebook, your writing, or whatever you sell, is going to make everything you do look cheap and shoddy.

  6. I have a similar example. A friend of mine, who works as a consultant, used to charge 15$ an hour his clients for consultancy. The point is, his clients used to answer the phone when ringing, looked outside the window, didn’t pay enough attention to what he was trying to explain.
    So now, he charges 100$ per hour and his clients pay all the attention. Because now, they know that they pay big money for consultancy, so they can’t afford to waste the money on phone calls or thinking about the immortality of their souls.
    That’s just a hell of a good strategy to get your customers attention and be recommended afterward.

  7. This is a great post, but I think I still may need a bit more help. My question is this should I anchor my products to my coaching services and not the other way around? I’m new at this whole marketing stuff and I’m actually trying to figure out how much should I charge for my product vs, my coaching.

  8. I recently received a blog post from Copyblogger touting the importance of brevity in blog posts. However, these are never short! I do like them, but can you make them shorter, please?

  9. Another insightful and extremely well-written post. Damon’s advice is also something we can share with clients who are tempted to cut prices to drive sales. Early in my career, someone advised me that any business you get on the basis of price you’ll eventually lose on the basis of price. Then as now, the way to go is to have a superior product that meets real needs, and to not be afraid to charge a premium price for it.

  10. We’re on the beginning of our sailing voyage. Your article has made me pause… and I’ll be spending some time with this idea. Our main business is in antique and personal property appraisals – real ones – not the freebie kind people are looking for on the internet. We get a lot of our business via referral from professionals (estate and divorce lawyers, insurance companies…), but many people have that “Free” anchor. Further, one of the ways we get ourselves “out there” is to participate in charitable fundraising “Roadshow” type events – where each item is appraised for $10. While I would not stop this type of promotion (because other Roadshow experts also appear at these events, and we market it that way), I will certainly be using this price anchor concept when redesigning our lead capture strategy.

    Many Thanks,
    Beth.

  11. @Felicia It depends on what is more expensive/valuable and on your competition.

    First, look at your competition and see what they’re charging. Chances are, anyone looking for whatever it is you’re offering will visit other, similar sites before visiting your site. The visitors’ anchor will already be set.

    Now, if you have a high-priced coaching service, make sure visitors can see the more expensive coaching service on your products page. So now, when someone comes to your products pages after seeing other competing sites, they’ll see the expensive coaching service and value your lower-end products a little more.

  12. Many people can produce great content that they may think warrants high prices, but very few can offer a unique selling proposition that sets them totally apart from their competition. This is where the money lies. If someone can’t get what you are offering anywhere else because of your USP, they’ll pay what they need to pay.

    Ebook writers sell themselves short all the time because print books are so cheap. When you write an ebook you have to realize it is not an electronic version of a print book; it is a totally unique product offering something your client can’t get at a bookstore.

    I absolutely believe in the anchor concept because I’ve seen it so many times. Through my own mentor I’ve learned this concept and it makes a lot of sense. We can’t sell ourselves short–we’re not Walmart.

  13. @Damon, Thank you so much! I get it now. I guess I gotta do some research. No more pulling numbers out of the sky. Also, I may have to up my coaching prices.

  14. @Felicia Also don’t lose sight of the fact that anchors are just one aspect of pricing. I’m sure you can find complete books (that may not even mention anchors) on the subject of pricing.

    @MJ Doyle A few paragraphs about USP got cut, the article is quite long as it is. I think if you have something that is truly unique (and not dirty-word UNIQUE!!!) then you set the anchor and don’t really have to worry about prior anchoring.

  15. Great article. I think you’re right that showing someone your highest prices first means they end up getting a bargain later.

  16. Cool post. I must admit, I hadn’t thought of this concept before now, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for the insight.

  17. Immensely insightful post. I learned something new today…thanks!

  18. Your street-level insights are so honest and go right to the gut. Love it.

  19. Great post, you cover anything and detail. I will setting new anchor to one of my site.

  20. I agree with what others have said, a very different concept and makes sense when you think about it :)

  21. ok for known stuff but what happens if you have a product that is both: unknown and innovative?

    What happens when you are yet invisible and you have something to show and people realizes the need when they see the thing?

  22. Manfred Ekblad :

    Good concept, you can use it to “guide” any decision.

    http://changingminds.org/principles/contrast.htm

    “Sales people will often use the contrast effect by showing you a poor quality product alongside the one that they want you to buy.
    They might also show you a wonderful product that is way beyond your reach. When you compare your ideal purchase with this, you are then likely to re-evaluate it upwards. Then when you look at a range of products, you will chose higher up the scale than you might otherwise have done.
    They will also sell you add-ons. For example when you buy an expensive car, the optional extras seem very cheap in comparison.” (from changingminds.org)

  23. I agree wholeheartedly with MJ. If you do a good job establishing a USP, that will reset customers’ anchors. What the competition charges is irrelevant because you offer something more/different.

  24. @sebastian If you’ve got something that is truly unique, then you don’t have to worry about your customers having an anchor.

    There are no doubt other considerations when deciding what to charge, but you don’t have to worry about anchors dragging you down.

    @Elizabeth Your situation sounds like a perfect example of how anchors can cause your business pain. I hope the article has helped.

  25. Refreshing view of an ongoing issue. And I am with you 100 percent. I recently had my anchor chain rattled by an off-shore copywriting resource. Someone locally price shopping for e-article copywriting services opted to go with the $3.50 version of a 400-word piece he could get overseas instead of my anchor price. I wished him well and moved on. However, I guess you might call this new outsourced price pressure “anchors away.”

  26. Thank you for a very useful article on pricing. It is a strategy I will use for my upcoming product which has a great USP, and a high potential ROI for the buyer.

    My current product, a printable foraging guide, alas, has a low anchor that would be very difficult to increase, as it is set in the book shops. But anchoring the guide against very expensive courses (any one’s) or the cost of store bought greens could mean the difference between a sale and no sale, and that apart from the USP. Yes, comparing apples and oranges – or dandelions and lettuce. Thus a very cheap item can make up for it by increasing the number of sales by showing the ridiculously low investment, which is next to nil. It is a method often seen in ads which say “cheaper than a ticket for the cinema…” or such like – especially effective when comparing against consumables.

    And I will pass on the CD idea to my busking friend :-)

  27. Thanks for the great information, now I have an insight into why sometimes we struggle when trying to give a good deal. The preceived value is lost.

  28. Excellent article.
    We are a consultancy specializing in data security for large organizations in Europe. This is as far away from a consumer product as you can get but the analog of the $6 and $20 CD is totally valid.

    Even with a unique product there is a price anchor and it is very much a function of local culture and economics – in Israel the price anchor for one of our solutions is about $20,000 and in Europe about EU60,000. We can reduce prices but we will not sell more – just like the street performer example.

    The reason is that at some point – the buyer does a cost-benefit analysis (even in his head for a CD or bottle of wine, we all have choices we make) and sometimes EU 150,000 seems like a fantastic deal while at other times $5,000 is a lot

    Danny Lieberman

  29. This is basic economics and sales all rolled into one. The higher we perceive our quality the higher the consumer of it views it. It’s almost magical.

    Scott R. Sheaffer

  30. Damon,
    I notice that no one so far has quoted anchor prices as you requested – I was curious to see what people were already doing! I’m about to launch several products, and your article clarified this in a way nothing I’ve read so far has done. Thank you. For my anchor re-setting, I will probably display my higher consulting fee and then offer my products in a couple of different packages, going from most expensive to least.
    cheers!
    Suzanna

  31. Wow – excellent post, and very timely for me. May I ask your opinion on a job I am currently working on that deals directly with this principle?

    I am helping a client set up a website – he supplies and installs ceiling insulation. Here in Australia the government will pay for the insulation (directly to the installer) to the value of $1600. The problem he often has (and I see now how this is an anchor) is that people are reluctant to pay the difference between the rebate and the cost of the job (having a $200-$300 difference is common). This results in people not committing to the sale and seeking quotes elsewhere, because their price anchor is set at $1600 (or because of the rebate effectively $0).

    Should he start by clearly stating that it will cost, say, $1900 for many homes? Any suggestions?

  32. @Scott Scheaffer (and others)

    You’re right in-so-far-as the tactics you use to counteract anchors are basic marketing and economics. I love that everyone is focusing on a solution, but I also want to be sure we all understand that anchors seem to be a part of how we are wired.

    @Suzanna Stinnett

    Thanks for answering my question.

    Also think about advertising your more expensive packages on your less expensive pages.

    @Stephen Hamilton

    Whatever you do don’t start by clearly stating that it will cost $1900. If you give people a reason to say no, then they will use it.

    The single most important thing you can do for your client is to clearly communicate why visitors should say yes; communicate why your client’s services are worth more than just $1600. Once visitors agree with you, broach the subject of the extra cash.

    You can still do this on one page, but make absolutely certain visitors will know why they should say yes before giving them a reason to say no.

    If you want to re-set the anchors, maybe see if your client can’t create a deluxe installation that costs a good bit more (and is better). Perhaps something like higher R-value insulation possibly combined with higher-level service would work.

    Your client might get a few sales of the deluxe package and the $200-$300 for the basic package will seem a lot cheaper.

    You’ll still need to give visitors a reason to spend the extra $200-$300, but a few hundred dollars shouldn’t seem as big as before.

  33. Damon – Thanks for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it, and I’m sure your feedback will be very useful in this situation.

  34. Hey,

    thanks for the article.

    Dan Kennedy says the same when writing a copy.
    Compare your ebook to a live seminar seat instead
    of other ebook, that way you can charge more
    and still make it look less

    Igor