Hard Sell vs Soft Sell: Which Should I Use?

Firstly, I’ll try and explain the difference between hard sell vs soft sell. I will then show you how and when it can be used to your advantage in advertising and copywriting.

What is a hard sell in advertising?

A hard sell uses direct language and often creates a sense of urgency to attract attention and quickly generate a lead or sale. The hard sell requires a strong sales pitch that packs a punch designed to motive the reader into action.

For example, a hard sell may use a direct call to action such as “50% off all shoes if you order before midnight tonight” or “BOOK TODAY to receive your FREE upgrade!”

What is a soft sell in advertising?

The soft cell is far more subtle, relying on persuasion to achieve success. A soft sell is often more empathetic, based on you knowing your customer and understanding their needs.

When done well, the soft sell can build a level of trust in the brand that can be difficult to achieve with a hard-sell approach. I like to think of soft sell copy as assertive, confident and friendly, like talking to a trusted friend.

For example, a soft cell may focus on the benefits of a product or service such as “Looking for a family holiday with a difference? Make memories that will last a lifetime with our family-friendly adventure holidays.”

Seems clear, so why the confusion?

The problem with the hard and soft sell definitions is that they are subjective. If you add any call to action to soft cell copy, does that automatically change it to a hard sell or is it all in the use of language and tone of the copy?

There are a few schools of thought on this. Some marketers would say that anything with a direct call to action falls under a hard sell, while others would argue that use of words such as “free” or “special offers” or even “complementary” might constitute a hard sell – even if the language used is relatively low-pressure.

Then, there’s the view that if the language is soft in tone, it would only fall under hard sell if words like “FREE” are in capital letters (which is considered shouting), in bold, or if an exclamation mark was added.

Hard sell can also be viewed as aggressive and could potentially turn off prospective customers, whereas soft sell can be thought of as ineffective as it’s considered too gentle and doesn’t necessarily convert into sales. Both can be true depending on how the copy is crafted.

The trick is finding that elusive middle ground that works for your business.

So how do you know which is right for your business?

Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question, as there is no one size fits all approach. What works for one business may not be a good fit for another.

If you follow ProCopyTips, you will find I say this a lot – a good, clear brief is vital to success.
If you, like many entrepreneurs, are writing for your own business this might be new to you.

A brief is simply a document that sets out what you want to achieve, the areas of focus, the company brand, tone of voice and the key messages you want to deliver. For more information, find out more about how to brief a copywriter.

Writing a brief is a useful exercise even if, as a small business owner, you are effectively briefing yourself, as it will help you define what you want, and subsequently answer many of your questions in the process.

If you are familiar with the briefing process, you will understand why this is essential to help you to deliver great copy that works – saving valuable hours in rewrites, changes or – worse still – the dreaded bad copy.

When you receive the brief, talk through it with the client to clarify how they would like to position the copy in terms of hard or soft sell. Given the varying views on what constitutes hard and soft sell, this can be a valuable exercise to avoid any misinterpretation.

Can I switch between the two?

Firstly, consider the brand. How would the business like to be perceived by their customers, who are their customers, what do they need and how does the business fulfil that need.

For example, if the business is selling discounted goods, where the consumer’s buying motivation is based on getting the best price over other considerations such as trust, sustainability or quality of service etc. in this instance, the tone would probably be a good fit with a hard sell to promote the deals available and move the goods quickly to make way for fresh stock.

Soft sell works well for building trust, often planting a positive seed in the mind of the consumer, so you are their first choice when it comes to them making a decision.

That said, if you generally use a soft-sell approach, you could still consider utilizing harder sell tactics for end of season sales or special offers and vice versa. Think like your customer and adapt the language around your communications to achieve the desired outcome.

Does the medium affect hard or soft sell?

Again, for anyone new to all of this, the term medium in advertising is simply the chosen method of delivery of your message to your target audience. For example, social media, brochure, website, direct mail etc.

If you’re writing brochure copy you’re likely to lean towards a soft cell, as anyone reading it is already interested in your product and service and is now looking for more detailed information. You would still need to include a call to action, so the consumer knows how to progress, but the emphasis on that action could be written as a hard or soft sell.

There is a crafty third option – the non-sell or neutral. You would use this if writing a press release or article, as this copy needs to be newsworthy and not positioned as advertising to be published.

In summary

There is no right or wrong here – it’s about what works for your business and you might need to try different approaches to get a feel for what works for you. Copywriting is not an easy craft and if you’re still unsure, you may wish to consider hiring a copywriter to get you started and give you a steer – even if it’s just for one-off projects or to devise a strategy that you can build on.

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About Gemma Wright

I'm Gemma Wright, co-owner of ProCopyTips and a freelance PR consultant and copywriter. Having worked as a PR Manager for large financial services companies in the UK, I now focus on helping small and growing businesses to thrive through the power of effective communications.

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