Why is everyone panic-buying toilet roll?

Well, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

The world seems to have gone completely mad in the last few weeks.

People are fighting in supermarkets. The elderly are confined to their homes.

Stressed parents are home schooling their kids.

Americans are queuing round the block to stock up on guns and ammo.

And everyone else seems obsessed with toilet roll.


What is it about loo roll that gets people so anxious to get their hands on some?


A few have suggested that they need a good supply to blow their noses, once the dreaded virus hits town.

Others have mused that it’s to do with control: if you feel out of control in a situation, you focus on the small things you can actually manage confidently.

Apparently wiping your bum is high up on the list.

But, having just finished a course in behavioural economics, I find myself recognising some patterns of behaviour that psychologists have been talking about for a long time…


So, here’s my take on what’s happening in the brains of people, all over the world:


Robert Cialdini is the Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and author of the book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’.

To many, he’s the Godfather of psychology and human behaviour.

Cialdini’s research into the factors that motivate us to take action – whether it’s to book theatre tickets, buy a new lawnmower or pay twice the price for a particular brand of jeans – led him to create the six ‘Principles of Persuasion’.


One of these principles is ‘scarcity’.


If something is (or appears to be) rare, people are instantly drawn to it.

Simply telling customers that stock is limited can boost sales. Restrict people to ‘5 items per person’ and they will spend more money in your store than if you didn’t impose a limit at all.

It seems irrational, but it works.

So, with loo roll being in apparent short supply, people are becoming fixated with it.

And fighting over it.

Of course, social and mainstream media are intensifying the situation, showing row upon row of empty shelves. Causing people to grab as much as they can, whenever they see it.

But really, it’s not their fault. It’s human nature.

Luckily, I have my toilet roll delivered by Who Gives A Crap, (who, incidentally, sent me a fantastic email, reassuring me that my next delivery was in good hands, and that in the meantime, I should think about being neighbourly and offer one of my spare rolls to someone in need. Bravo, WGAC!)

Anyway, back to business.


The second cognitive bias at play in the loo roll game, is to do with social norms.


If you see lots of people (particularly in your peer group) acting in a certain way – whether it’s good or bad behavior – it quickly becomes normalised.

Have you ever seen a group of people running down the road?

If enough people run past you, the chances are that you’ll start running, too.

You have no idea whether you’re running away from danger, or towards something exciting. Nevertheless, your instinct tells you to join the crowd or face the consequences.

Of course, all this happens in our subconscious mind.

We don’t stand there weighing up the pros and cons of our actions, but there is always a tipping point at which we feel compelled to take action.


And this is what’s happening in supermarkets all over Europe.


People see trolleys piled high with toilet roll, pasta and flour, and they (subconsciously) think “there has to be some important reason why everyone’s doing this, I better get some too, before it runs out.”

In short, us humans are much easier to manipulate than we would ever like to admit.

Obviously, some of the stockpiling is a direct result of fear.

We’re in an unprecedented situation.

Nobody knows what will happen next, so we’re doing the best we can to prepare for an uncertain future.

I just hope that if the worst does happen, we’ll all be there for the most vulnerable people in society, offering a spare toilet roll, a bag of pasta or an elbow bump when it’s needed.

Stay safe out there, people.

10 things I learned at CopyCon 2019

The Professional Copywriters Network (ProCopywriters) holds a conference every year for copywriters old and new. It’s always lovely to meet fellow writers, talk about new ideas and – as our host, David McGuire put it – be in a room full of people who don’t think you’re an expert in copyright law. Hurrah!

The day was packed with excellent speakers and breakout sessions. Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory, gave us a fascinating talk about behavioural science and how unconscious biases influence our decision-making. The highlight for me was this video, showing how we really can’t resist the force of peer pressure.



Anyway, here’s my top 10 takeaways from the CopyCon 2019:

1. Use review sites to research your customers

In an ideal world, we’d conduct interviews with customers before writing a single word of copy. We’d find out what their pain points are with our products, or what they love about our services. But in reality, that’s not always possible. Clients have limited budgets, limited time and often limited resources.

So, what do you do when you need feedback about a brand or product? You go online! Head to Amazon and read customer reviews. They’re packed with opinions that people might not tell you to your face, and you’ll quickly start to see common phrases that you can use. It’s genius, and just one of many great tips given to us by Joanna Weibe from Copyhackers.

This copy saw a 49% increase in paid conversions.

2. Get your interviews transcribed

Another great hack from Joanna… Rather than interview your clients while frantically scribbling notes, hold your meeting on Zoom video. Ask them all kinds of things about why they started the business, etc. Then (and this is my takeaway!), rather than spend hours listening to audio, hitting pause and typing everything up, word for word – go somewhere like rev.com and get the whole conversation transcribed.

That way, you’ll end up with a whole document that you can mine for gold. You’re looking for key phrases and ideas that you can use in your writing. And, when people talk freely about the business they’re passionate about, that’s when the magic happens.


3. Listen to sales calls

If you’re trying to pull together a customer journey, or a series of marketing messages, it can be tricky to know where to start (and, usually, the flow of information is controlled by what the business wants to sell first).

But, if you listen to calls, you can identify key areas that the customer considers important. Record the topics that people want to talk about, in the order that they come up. Stick everything in an excel spreadsheet, and once you’ve plotted all the calls, you might find that deciding which message to send customers first becomes much clearer. 

Remember, it’s our job to give customers the information they need to buy our products or services. If you’re getting a lot of enquiries about a particular sticking point, it’s probably best to address it head on.


4. Turn weaknesses into strengths

OK, so we’ve all heard this one before, usually just before you go for a job interview. But, bear with me. The Pratfall Effect is the idea that imperfections make you (or your brand) more likeable. Believe it or not, if you spill your coffee at the end of an outstanding interview, it’s more likely to boost your chances. Unless you run off swearing, presumably.

There’s been a lot of research conducted into this theory, but how can we use it effectively in our marketing without damaging the brand? Richard Shotton gave us some great examples which, if you’re trying to sell something that people have reservations about, can be really effective.

VW have a long history of turning their weaknesses into strengths.

So, someone thought the slope was too hard, did they? Excellent, that’ll make it a great challenge for the more adventurous among us!

Hans Brinker Budget Hotel have created a whole brand out of bad reviews. It must work, because I looked them up on Trivago and they’re the 6th most popular hostel in Amsterdam.

The golden rule is, don’t hide your flaws (people will soon discover them, anyway). Work out what your core strengths are, and turn weaknesses on their heads to reinforce the strength.


5. The importance of ease

We’re all busy. We all have good intentions to reply to an email, sign up for a service or renew a subscription. But life gets in the way sometimes. The easier you make it for customers to buy your products/sign up to your service, the better.

If you can take out sections of your journey to simplify the process, then go ahead. The experiment below by Bergman & Rogers shows just how much more effective a sign up is, when you remove the steps – version 1 is the standard sign up, version 2 asks people to reply to a text message with the word ‘start’ and the last version (with 97% take up) automatically signed customers up. They just had to text ‘stop’ if they didn’t want it.



The only reservation I have with this idea, is to make sure your audience is fully aware that your service will automatically renew before it happens. Nobody wants a repeat of when U2 sent their new album to everyone on iTunes and we couldn’t delete it!


6. Confirmation bias

If we hold a particular opinion, we more readily accept information that backs up what we think. We dismiss, or form counter-arguments, for things that we disagree with. But, what if we’re distracted at the time?

It turns out, we can be manipulated when we’re not paying attention. Listening to a convincing argument while watching a silent movie will make us MORE inclined to believe what’s being said, because our brains are too busy looking at the screen to generate a counter argument.

So, by playing classical music over your ad, or dressing up your message with stunning graphics, you can distract people enough to not question your authority. Which is a bit disconcerting, but useful to know if you’re in the business of changing opinions.


7. Keep a beginner’s mind

UX copywriter Laura Parker reminded us not to forget what it’s like to be a new user. All too often, we tend to slip into ‘work speak’. We talk to colleagues about new functionality or adding new products to our range. We talk about them so much that words and phrases feel clear and familiar.

It’s important to remember that our users have a different understanding of our products. They have different expectations of our apps. Try to keep information clear and relevant to them and don’t expect them to make a mental leap to where you are.

Don’t bombard users with all the information at once. Offer help that’s relevant to the part of the journey they’re in at the moment and guide them through the process. Use simple language and avoid jargon.

And, while we’re at it, don’t mess about with user’s expectations, either. We expect menus in the top right-hand corner, we expect calls to action at the bottom, usually in the form of a button. If you defer too far from that, you’ll confuse the user and may lose them.


8. Accessibility is key

Many of us suffer from some kind of user anxiety from time to time. We download an app, struggle to understand it and then delete it, sometimes within minutes of opening it.

But living with anxiety, autism or visual impairment can dramatically affect the way you process information. These ads from the Home Office are a handy reminder of a few of the things we should keep in mind when designing.



We should consider how we speak to users, too. It’s common to say ‘simply download this…’ when, to some people, it might not be so simple. Likewise, saying ‘just £9.99’ isn’t always appropriate. £9.99 may be quite a lot for someone to spend on your product.

The bottom line is, keep your user at the front of your mind, consider the challenges that they may have and help them to get the most from your app.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) are more than happy to check your website’s accessibility for you.



9. Take a walk on the wild side

Harry Kapur from Velocity Partners told us all about having ‘skin in the game’. If you’re trying to persuade your clients to take risks with their marketing, it’s a lot more effective if you can actually walk the walk.

Successful content marketers should do the same for their own businesses as they recommend to others. Live and breathe products and systems until you know them inside out, and it’ll give you the edge.

Obviously, it’s not always practical to open a hair salon or a publish a magazine just to understand the struggles that your clients are going through, but the more you can immerse yourself in their world, the more powerful your copy will be.

Make it feel real and acknowledge that no product is perfect. Research for opinions and emotions, not just facts. And remember:


“The only way to make something interesting
is to be genuinely interested in it.”


10. What’s the future for voice search?

Kelvin Newman from Brighton SEO ran a great, practical session on search engine optimisation. There are lots of useful tools out there to help us with keyword research (or ‘search queries’, as they should be called. They’re real people’s questions, after all).

But the thing that really stood out to me was, OK we can optimise our websites to appear higher up in Google results pages, but when it comes to voice activated searches (on our smart speakers at home), there’s only ever one answer. So, if we’re not number one, then where does that leave us…? 

I asked Alexa, but she just said, ‘sorry, I don’t know that one’.

But there we have it, my highlights from a fantastic day at the Barbican. I hope to see many of you again next year! But in the meantime, I’ll leave you with something Harry Kapur said that resonated with me. When someone says ‘customers are just people’, tell them:

“No. They’re angry mums. They’re stressed CEOs. They’re people struggling with anxiety.”

Keep your customers at the forefront of your mind and you can’t go far wrong.


Direct marketers are all-round heroes

I worked in various direct marketing roles for just over eleven years. Starting off as a marketing assistant (specialising in copywriting, of course), I gradually acquired the necessary skills and grew in confidence until I emerged a fully-fledged direct marketing manager, complete with my own executive (or Daniel-san, as I referred to her).

What always struck me (and still does), is that more than any other industry I know of, marketers are expected to be experts in every conceivable skill set:

They need to be proficient number crunchers – adept at recognising patterns in data,  calculating budgets and squeezing every last drop of funding out of a campaign. They need to be great communicators– building relationships with suppliers and being shrewd enough to cut a good deal with them.

Additionally, of course, they need to be able to critique print design and understand customer journeys and user experience (UX) website design. On top of all this, they will also be tasked with writing copy – persuading customers to take action and bring in more revenue for the business – and then there’s results analysis!

Phew, not much then!

Obviously, not all organisations expect so much from each member of their marketing team. some businesses recognise the importance of splitting departments and placing various people in the right, specialised role. But not all companies have that luxury.

It’s all too common to see stressed-out marketing professionals scratching their heads as they try to write new website content whilst simultaneously negotiating a printer contract and drilling down into data to understand customer behaviour.

If I ruled the world, things would be different. Companies would play to people’s strengths so that individuals are given the opportunity to develop in whichever direction they are most proficient at. Of course, I’m biased. That’s exactly what I did. After a decade of plate spinning, I took a deep breath and specialised in copywriting. And I haven’t looked back since.

I have full respect for all the marketers who continue to try to do everything, and I know that for many this is exactly the reason they chose marketing as a profession. To these people I doff my cap in absolute admiration. But if you’re one of the frazzled workers, desperate to see the light at the end of the tunnel, my advice would be this:

Choose whichever aspect of marketing you love the most and become an expert in it. Whether it’s design, data, planning, controlling budgets, negotiating contracts, writing copy or strategising – there’s plenty to choose from!

Once you’ve specialised, you’ll be able to drill down to the granular detail you’ve always strived for (but haven’t found enough hours in the day for). You’ll hone your skills and deepen your knowledge, discovering a clarity other marketers will envy. You’ll earn the new-found respect of your peers and bring something truly valuable and unique to the boardroom table.

Gone will be the days of delivering yet another presentation with bleary-eyed exhaustion. From now on, you’ll enjoy the self-assurance which comes from perfectly mastering an aspect of the marketing mix.



Anyone can write marketing copy, right?

This is one of the most common misconceptions associated with copywriting, especially within companies using in-house marketers to handle everything from budgeting, strategy, managing suppliers, reporting and creative execution.

How many marketing managers have you heard groaning at the thought of writing a whole direct mail pack, when they have more important things to do such as the end of year financial report?

Let’s look at things realistically!

The truth is, very few people have the ability (or the time, or even the desire) to switch hats from being a financial wizard to a creative genius, so why do we continually think that they can?

These days, everyone knows that if you want a beautifully designed leaflet, you need to ask a designer to help you out. You could of course test out your skills on a Mac and produce something half decent, but it would probably leave most art directors cold and without the magic polish that a designer adds, your leaflet will lack that professional touch, and response may suffer.

Likewise, you might know your piston from your crank shaft when it comes to car engines, but how many stories have you heard about a friend-of-a-friend who had a tinker under the bonnet and ended up making matters a whole lot worse?

The same applies to copywriting: Yes, you know the main selling points of your product or service, and who better to inspire passion in a brand than you? But when it comes to weaving a subtle marketing message within a limited space, or teasing out responses from cold prospects, do you feel confident you could choose the right words?

It pains me to hear the overused mantra that creative sits at the bottom of the list when it comes to key performers within marketing campaigns. Whilst it is true that you have to target the right audience at the right time with the right offer, it’s a scandal to target them with only half of a convincing argument, surely?

With response across many industries dipping in recent years as companies scrap over customers, you could find yourself asking whether more people would have taken up your offer if you’d put forward a better case.

So yes, copywriting is an important aspect of marketing.

But the difference between ordinary copy and great copy is immense. For starters, you need to be able to grab the attention of a potential customer often when he or she isn’t in the mood to be sold to. You need to be able to write concise, snappy sentences which sum up an idea in just a few words.

You need the subtlety and cunning of a magician. You need to make people stop in their tracks and take notice. Then you need them to read on. And then you need them to take action.

Of course, it’s not rocket science, and many businesses will survive just fine without a wordsmith, thank you very much. But as the world keeps turning, competition gets fiercer and businesses are pressured to hit impossible sales targets, why not see what a carefully crafted message could really do to boost your business? I think you might be pleasantly surprised.