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Problem-Agitate-Solve: The Best Formula for Writing Persuasive Copy

There’s a really practical way you can …

  • write faster;
  • feel confident about your work; and
  • get better results.

This isn’t a course, book, or Snake Oil I’m peddling either.

It’s a simple copywriting formula you can learn today, and it’s called “problem-agitate-solve” (PAS).

I’m telling you—this isn’t complicated.

Here’s how simple it is to understand:

  • Problem: Identify your reader’s pain point
  • Agitate: Stir it up so it hurts to the point of discomfort
  • Solve: Deliver a solution

There are many copywriting formulas you can use. But mastering this one technique will set you well on your way to writing clear, concise, and compelling copy.

In this post, I’m going to break down these individual points in detail. Afterward, I’ll share some examples and show you why this formula is so powerful.

Let’s get started!

 #1. Know the problem

As a copywriter, it’s essential to place yourself in the shoes of your target audience.

You want to …

  • know the questions they’ll ask;
  • be aware of the problems they want to solve;
  • support them in accomplishing their goals; and
  • feel the fear, frustration, or pain that’s holding them back.

This isn’t some sort of pop-psychology tactic you can use to pull a fleece over the eyes of your readers. Empathizing with your prospect’s problem is essential to writing succinct and compelling copy.

To really understand the problem your target audience faces in relation to your product or service, do these three things:

  1. Know your product
  2. Identify your prospective customer’s problem
  3. Relate to their problem in their own words

Let’s take a look at these in turn.

a. Know your product

The first thing you need to do is to know your product.

Without this baseline knowledge, there’s no way you’ll be able to compel anyone to action. You’ll simply lead people to fumble over your words.

Regardless of what product or service you’re writing about, you must do your homework first. Get it. Use it. Study it. Learn everything you can about it. I know this sounds like a lot of work, and if you’re like most people, you probably have a ton of writing projects to complete. But you can’t skip this step.

In the words of David Ogilvy,

“You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start by doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious, but there’s no substitute for it” (Ogilvy on Advertising).

After you become a master of the product you’re promoting, it’s time to turn your attention to your prospect.

b. Identify your prospective customer’s problem

During your research, identify your prospect’s problem.

It’s the force you’ll leverage to compel them to action.

To harness this power, you’ll need to know:

  • What problem your product or service solves
  • Why someone would need your product or service
  • If your target audience uses a competitor’s product or service
  • How it makes them feel
  • What they hate about it
  • What is their primary concern with purchasing your product or service

As you ponder your prospect’s problem, you’ll identify several emotions and desires related to their problem. When this happens, you’ll be tempted to knead all of these insights into your work. But don’t succumb to this temptation. Instead, focus on the one desire that’ll best resonate with your prospect.

As Eugene Schwartz, the author of Breakthrough Advertising, says:

“Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad. If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.”

For whatever you’re writing (e.g., Facebook ad, blog post, email newsletter), choose the desire that will best resonate with your prospect today.

There’s one thing I need to point out about this:

The problem you choose needs to be a profitable market. Remember, the problem you’re solving is the problem your product or service solves for your prospect. Sell it!

c. Relate to their problem in their own words

Do you know the best way to relate to your prospects’ problem?

Use their words to talk about their problem.

Think as they think.

Feel what they feel.

Talk like they talk.

To ensure the readability of your copy, you’ll want to …

  • use simple words;
  • write short sentences;
  • begin sentences with subjects;
  • write to be scanned;
  • use a conversational tone; and
  • banish jargon.

After you’ve worked through this list, it’s still a good idea to test your copy. Apart from having a volunteer or paying someone to review your work, you can test the readability of your content by using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. There are several online tools you can use to measure your Flesch-Kincaid score, and the results will help you see how easy it is to read your copy.

Your turn: What’s the one problem you’ll highlight in the words of your prospect? Take the time now to brainstorm a variety of options, and then choose the one emotion or desire you’ll leverage as the problem you want to solve. 

#2. Agitate the problem

After identifying your prospect’s problem, it’s time to turn up the heat.

To do this, share the additional pain your target market will experience if they don’t solve their problem.

Here are a few techniques you can use:

  • show how their problem will get worse;
  • dramatize their problem with a story or anecdote;
  • provide a real-world example; or
  • make the pain of their problem more emotional.

As you agitate the problem, your prospect will feel a sense of urgency to resolve their situation. What is more, you’ll establish credibility since you’ve done such a good job empathizing with your prospect. They will see you as someone they can trust.

With this in mind, don’t spend too much time agitating your prospect’s problem. Your goal is to eventually resolve their problem, and you can’t do this if your prospect is left in a fetal position in the corner of a room unable to respond because you made them feel so terrible.

Your turn: Choose one of the four techniques above and practice agitating your prospect’s problem. If you run into a creative wall, try practicing with the different techniques listed above. 

#3. Provide a solution

It’s now time to save your prospect from their problem.

You’ve placed yourself in their shoes.

You’ve empathized with their problem.

You’ve led them to feel the urgency in resolving their situation.

Your prospects are open to hearing what you have to say.

So now it’s time to offer your solution.

To help your prospect avoid the pain of their problem, you can …

  • provide a compelling call to action (CTA);
  • show them how your product or service solves their problem;
  • talk about the benefits of your solution; and
  • build credibility by sharing testimonies, reviews, and/or logos of satisfied (business) customers.

The option you choose really depends on the context.

For example, if you’re writing copy for a Facebook ad, and your goal is to lead people to give you their email address by signing up for a lead magnet, then you have the flexibility to write a short, punchy call to action (CTA). Now, let’s say you’re writing long-form copy for a landing page, then you can take your time to further build your credibility.

Regardless of how you choose to solve your prospect’s problem, be sure you make the action you want them to take clear. According to an older study, 70% of small business B2B websites lack a call to action. You don’t want to make this same mistake.

Your turn: Select one of the suggestions above and write a clear call to action that solves your customer’s problem.

Examples of problem-agitate-solution (PAS)

Here’s how the PAS method looks in practice:

Insecure? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. However, stay that way and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance. Fortunately, best-selling authors wrote  Insecure No More that will teach you how to be confident and courageous in just 30 days. Buy it now.

The initial question immediately identifies your target customer: shy, timid people. They’ll answer “yes” to the question. Then they’ll get punched in the gut when they discover the consequence of ignoring their problem.

Bam!

But don’t let them stay slumped over in misery for long.

Provide them relief.

In this case, a book with a secret to conquering insecurity in less than a month.

Here’s another example I borrowed from Copyhackers:

Why is problem-agitate-solution so powerful?

This copywriting formula has stood the test of time, and there’s no slowing it down.

There’s one simple reason why this is the case:

Everyone (including you and me) wants to avoid pain.

Think about it.

We try to prevent discomfort at all costs.

We take pain-relief medicine when we have a slight headache.

We sidestep potentially difficult conversations.

We bury our heads in the sand when things feel overwhelming.

(I’ll admit, this is somewhat autobiographical.)

This isn’t eccentric behavior.

This is rooted in human nature, and it’s a fundamental part of who we are as people.

In 1979, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky captured this innate desire in a theory they called “Prospect Theory.” Sharing their research, Donald Miller, author of Building a StoryBrand, says:

“Prospect Theory … espoused that people are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss than they are satisfied with a gain … in certain situations, people are two to three times more motivated to make a change to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain.”

Did you catch that?

The people you want to influence are primarily motivated to avoid pain when making a decision.

When you use the PAS copywriting formula, you help your prospect avoid the pain of their problem with the solution you offer. Taking this approach in your copy will make whatever you have to say that much more compelling.