Ever wondered if changing a single word in your marketing copy could boost its persuasiveness? A new study suggests that it might.
Communication, the unsung hero behind successful marketing campaigns, holds the key. Marketers communicate to consumers through ad campaigns, sales teams deliver compelling pitches to clients, and consumers are constantly sharing experiences with each other.
Marketers and copywriters who recognize this are always looking for an edge. A recent study published in The Journal of Consumer Research might provide just the edge you need.
The study, “How Verb Tense Shapes Persuasion,” explores the persuasive influence of verb tense.
The researchers behind the study are Grant Packard, Jonah Berger, and Reihane Boghrati.
Dr. Grant Packard is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. His research is focused on language in the market – from consumer reviews on social media to the words used by salespeople when talking to customers. His work has been covered by outlets like CBC, The Wall Street Journal, and even National Geographic.
Dr. Jonah Berger is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also an internationally bestselling author of books like Magic Words, Contagious, Invisible Influence, and The Catalyst.
Dr. Berger is a recognized expert in natural language processing, consumer behavior, influence, and the study of why things become popular. His work has been featured in The New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, and he’s even provided consultation for big-name organizations like Apple, Google, and The Gates Foundation.
Dr. Reihane Boghrati is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey Department of Information Systems. Boghrati’s research focuses on the intersection of machine learning, natural language processing, and business. She analyzes user-generated content and conversations and investigates the impact of text in business systems and products, as well as the biases that may be present in these systems.
Together, these three brought their unique expertise to the table to give us some remarkable insights into the persuasive power of verb tense in marketing.
They took a deep dive into over 500,000 online reviews and a series of experiments to determine whether tense affected readers’ perceptions of value, usefulness, and persuasiveness.
The Impact of Verb Tense
How often do you consider the impact verb tense will have on your readers? It’s often overlooked but can hold a special magic when it comes to influencing decisions.
The results of the study show that using the present tense makes messages more persuasive.
Why? The authors of the study believe it’s because it indicates the speaker or writer is more confident in their assessment.
“[T]he present tense should make information more helpful, useful, and persuasive because it suggests the communicator is more certain about what they communicated,” they wrote. “While past tense indicates that something was a particular way, or that a particular person had a particular experience at a particular point in time, present tense suggests greater confidence.”
The authors only considered present and past tense. That’s because in all the communication they explored (spanning over half a million online reviews across four datasets, remember) only a small portion, about 6.5%, contained future tense or future-oriented expressions. The vast majority, a whopping 93.5%, employ present and/or past tense.
“Expressions about the future play a fundamentally different communicative role (i.e., involving
prediction) and thus likely involve a completely different mechanism,” the researchers wrote. “Consequently, they merit their own conceptual and empirical effort.”
The Persuasive Power of Present Tense
The study revealed that the present tense may be a secret weapon in persuasive communication. And its efficacy isn’t limited to a certain sort of product or to products versus services.
Reviews for all sorts of products were analyzed in the study. Reviews for functional products, entertainment products, and services were more persuasive when written in the present tense.
What’s the science behind this persuasive power of the present tense? As mentioned earlier, (perceived) confidence is key. When study participants were asked why the present tense reviews were more impactful, it was because the reviewer seemed more certain.
How to Harness the Power of the Present
These findings aren’t just exciting for linguists or psychologists; they open a new world of opportunities for marketing and consumer behavior. So, how can we as marketers, advertisers, and content creators leverage this newfound knowledge?
It’s simple to put into practice. Most of us learned how to write in the present tense in elementary school.
Imagine you’re writing an ad for a beach resort. Which sounds more persuasive: ‘The beach was beautiful,’ or ‘The beach is beautiful?’ Those phrases were assessed in the study, and – as you can probably guess – the present tense version is more persuasive.
The study’s authors provided some other examples.
“Automobile manufacturers … might benefit from advertising that their car “is” rather than “was voted” Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. Similarly, doctors might encourage medical adherence by telling patients a treatment “has” rather than “had” a 90% success rate.”
It’s easy to see how you can begin using this in your own sales or marketing efforts. Just be aware of what tense you’re speaking or writing in and make the switch to the present tense when it makes sense.
Turn Present Tense into Persuasive Power
“How Verb Tense Shapes Persuasion” shows the untapped potential in our everyday language use, giving us a new lens to view and tweak our communication strategies. To stay on top of the latest marketing insights, subscribe to LeadPost’s marketing newsletter.