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Why Symptoms (Not Solutions) Are Your Copywriting Secret Weapon

A picture of a child listening to an empty tin can

Before we talk about my copywriting secret, a story …

You’re feeling under the weather so you go to your local doctor’s office.

Before you can speak, a prescription is thrust into your hand.

“This is what you need”

You’re directed out of the office towards the pharmacy where you can ‘buy’ your cure.

Are you going to buy the prescribed treatment with confidence? Are you even going to buy at all?

Of course not: the doctor hasn’t proven that she understands your situation and that she’s capable of advising you about the best possible action.

But this is exactly what many businesses do in their marketing copy.

They sell the solution first, when they should really be selling the symptoms.

Selling the solution: a business example

I used this copywriting secret when I worked with an analytics firm to improve their website copy. The firm provides large manufacturers such as Nestle and Unilever with analytics insight.

My client’s product lets manufacturers see how products are performing, even in multiple stores and in multiple countries. This means they can push promotions that are working, and ditch those that aren’t.

It’s a great product and their web copy was very focused on the solution:

“Choose this product to align syndicated and point-of sale data in multiple countries and from a variety of data sources and time periods.”

On the face of it, the copy seems pretty positive. It’s got benefits and it’s aimed specifically at the target market.

There’s just one problem with copy that only focuses on the solution…

Your customer may not know what they need

When your customer visits your site or sales page, or picks up your brochure, if you only sell the solution you might find they dismiss it outright because they don’t realize they need it.

And just as we trust a doctor who takes the time to acknowledge our symptoms before prescribing a cure, you can build trust and confidence by doing the same with your customer.

Let’s go back to the above example. My client and I found the copy worked much better when presented as a symptom:

“Are you struggling to reconcile product data across different countries and currencies? If so, click here to see how [product name] can help”

In short, selling symptoms is a way of getting your customer to say: “Yes — that’s what’s been bothering me!”

Remember, in the world of your business, you are the expert doctor to your customer so you need to diagnose first, prescribe later.

How to identify your customer’s symptoms

To unearth effective symptoms, you need to get down to really specific details.

It’s much more than just describing the overall problem. It’s like the difference between knowing you have the flu (illness) and knowing how to identify that you have the flu (aching limbs, headache, fever etc).

There is a copywriting secret that will help you recognize if your content is highlighting a symptom.

If your customer ONLY reads that symptom, (with no supporting content or images), would they know that it is talking specifically about them?

If the answer’s yes, good chance it’s an effective symptom. If you’re not sure, you may need to drill down into a little more detail.

Here’s this copywriting secret in action

For example, let’s say you’re a business coach and you’re pinning down the symptoms for your customer. Look at the following points we might use in our copy:

General term:

Struggling with clarity and focus

Translated to a specific symptom:

Not knowing what tasks she should be doing first to move her business along. Not knowing how to prioritize her marketing efforts.

General term:

Feeling uninspired

Translated to a specific symptom:

Lacking new ideas for the business, not enjoying it as much as in those early, energetic days.

General term:

Feeling overwhelmed

Translated to a specific symptom:

Never managing to complete her to-do list for the day.

If your customer goes by just the general terms, it’s harder to discern who the service is aimed at and what the problem is. The specific symptoms are much more illustrative.

Always aim to add more details. For example, If you are a copywriter and you hear your prospects objecting to hiring you, you might write down a general term like:

“Copy doesn’t help market their business”

But what else might this mean? What are the underlying symptoms?

  • They don’t feel their web content effectively sells what they do
  • No one shares or comments on their blog posts
  • Their site isn’t ranking in the search engines
  • When they send out a newsletter they get no responses

The symptoms tell a more vivid story of your customer’s problem.

How symptoms win over reluctant customers

Let’s say you have a restaurant owner who is struggling to fill the restaurant consistently, despite getting great reviews and having thousands of happy customers. He ‘thinks’ the solution to getting more people in is by advertising in the local paper.

You know however, that marketing to a business’s current customer base is much more effective.

Now, if you started your sales or web copy with the solution:

Choose this product to find out how to make more sales from current customers

You might lose this customer, because in his mind he doesn’t think he ‘needs’ that solution.

Symptoms stop this from happening. Look how we use our copywriting secret to develop this concept:


Running under-capacity. Customers not returning frequently enough. Great reviews and feedback, but not enough new people visiting.


Not marketing enough to current customers or encouraging customers to return.


Reward current customers for spreading the word.


Increased capacity without expensive advertising.

The details here help you sell the solution by starting with the symptoms. It goes like this:

  1. Here’s what you may have recognized (symptoms)
  2. This is what’s causing them (problem)
  3. This is what you need (cure)
  4. This is what is possible with the cure (results)

In that order, you can start to build a compelling argument that gets your customer nodding along with you from the start.

Here’s how we use the copywriting secret to write the copy:

As a restaurant owner running under-capacity (1) is a real problem. If you know your customers are happy (because you get great feedback) but they don’t return as often as they like (or tell their friends)(1), it can be tempting to send out on advertisement to try to win new customers.

However, there is a more effective way to increase traffic without expensive ads. We can show you how to market effectively (and affordably) to your current customer base to get more people dining at your restaurant (2). Because your customers already love what you do, we use simple incentives to get them coming back more often, and bringing their friends (3). You get a full, bustling restaurant every night while keeping marketing costs down. (4)

Writing copy using this copywriting secret makes it very specific to the customer and the problem, while continuously driving the reader towards your product.

Symptoms not only get your customer’s attention in your copy, they build trust by demonstrating your expertise and understanding of your customer’s situation.

Want more help using symptoms in your copy? Sign up for the free Cookies and Puppies Irresistible Copywriting Course over at Write With Influence.

Amy Harrison

Amy Harrison is a copywriter based in Brighton in the UK. She trained as a screenwriter and then took those skills into business storytelling and marketing. At, she offers copywriting, consultancy and training.
Pamela Wilson coaches people in midlife to build profitable online businesses
I’m Pamela Wilson

In 2010, at the age of 45, I started this site and grew it into a business that offers freedom, flexibility — and consistent revenue.


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