Disarmament: Content Marketing’s Hidden Key to Persuasion, Trust, and Sales Success

by Marcus Sheridan

As more and more businesses embrace content marketing, the majority are failing to understand one of the most important principles of communication and persuasion that has been around since the beginning of time.

But before I talk about this essential key of great communication—be it in a blog, video, sales presentation, etc.—I want to talk about the Catch 22 so many businesses now find themselves in.

In order to be great at content marketing, assuming you’re a business, you have to be willing to address two areas that every consumer wants to know:

  1. Your own products and services
  2. Your competition’s products and services

Unfortunately, when most companies address #1, they end up either sounding like a used car salesman or at best a very biased “pitch machine.”

Regarding #2, talking about the competition, most companies are either afraid to do it at all (not aggressive enough) or end up attacking the competition and come across as very unprofessional (too aggressive).

Like everything else in life, if you’re going to persuade consumers and customers to buy your products and services through content marketing, you absolutely must find a balance. This balance, when done right, comes down to the Law of Disarmament.

The Law of Disarmament

The Law of Disarmament, a phrase that I came up with to describe much of the content marketing tips I’ve been teaching these past couple of years, is incredibly simple and works like this:

If you’re answering a question about your products and services, always start with the “negative.”

If you’re answering a question about your competition, always start with the “positive.”

Let me give you a few examples of what I’m trying to explain here so that the phrases “negative” and “positive” are not misconstrued.

As most of you reading this know, I own a swimming pool company that sells inground fiberglass pools. Because of this, our potential customers are always asking us questions like:

  • What is the difference between concrete and fiberglass pools?
  • Which is better, vinyl liner or fiberglass pools?
  • How does your brand of pools compare to your competitor’s brand?

We literally get hundreds of these types of questions a year, and because we follow the golden rule of content marketing (They Ask, You Answer), we’ve addressed every single one on our blog.

unbiased content marketing

An article that has been read over 100k times on our swimming pool site, this article by my business partner Jason Hughes is a textbook example of how to write copy that is professional, unbiased, and leads to sales success.

For example, let’s say we are explaining the difference between vinyl and fiberglass pools. By starting with the negative, the article would go something like this:

  1. Every pool shopper has different needs (empathy)
  2. In some cases, vinyl pools may be a better fit than fiberglass, and here is why… (negative)
  3. In some cases, fiberglass pools may be the better fit than vinyl, and here is why… (positive)

Keep in mind, the amount of negative or positive points you make is up to you, but the right order is critical here. By doing it in this manner, as soon as you’ve mentioned that your product might not be a good fit for the customer; they immediately trust you more and are more willing to let their guard down. This, in essence, is how the Law of Disarmament works.

Yale Appliance

A master of openly discussing products and the competition, Yale Appliance gets well over 100k visitors to their site and blog a month by using the Law of Disarmament.

The process of disarmament is the same in any form of communication, be it text or face to face conversation.

For example, I’ve had the following conversation many, many times:

Question: Marcus, do you think HubSpot would be a good fit for my business?

My Answer: Well that depends. I can tell you that HubSpot is not a good fit for everyone. In fact, let me tell you who it’s not for and then I’ll tell you who it is for…

Do you see how the order of operations is the same? Start with the “negative,” finish with the positive.

Oh, and by the way, whenever you tell someone, in a very open and upfront manner, that your product (or service) may not be a good fit for them they are naturally more inclined to want to make it a fit. (I call this the Law of Inclusion. In other words, we all want to be included.)

One final example about how to handle discussing your competitors: As I mentioned above, the order changes when we talk about the competition. Generally speaking, you want to start with the positive and move to the negative. Keep in mind when I say “negative” I’m not at all referring to bashing your competition, but rather showing their factual drawbacks. Here is an example:

Consumer Question: Marcus, I hear concrete pools are better than fiberglass, is that true?

Answer: In some cases, depending on what the customer is looking for, yes, that might be true. Concrete pools have certain benefits that some pool shoppers find very appealing, such as (benefits listed here)….At the same time, concrete pools have certain drawbacks and thus aren’t a good fit for everyone. (drawbacks listed here)

Hopefully you’re seeing how this properly unfolds in all applications. If you do this right, you’ll be viewed as a trusted source and advisor to your customers and readers. If you do it wrong, as many companies currently are, you’ll appear to them to be no better than a used car salesman with extremely biased motives.

This is exactly why understanding the Law of Disarmament is critical to a culture of content marketing success for any organization moving forward in the information age.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear how you’re using disarmament with your company’s content marketing. How have you helped employees to shift from “pitching and bragging” to “teaching and informing?”

What other strategies are you finding success with when it comes to discussing the competition?

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Click January 14, 2013 at

Marcus – You’re absolutely right on here. I think striking this balance is increasingly difficult – people either promote too much or don’t do it at all. I’ve written a lot about how to promote your business in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a used car salesman.

I’ve worked with one client who is new to blogging and we published a “versus” post. We did much of what you talk about – some of it subtle, such as talking about the competing product first. And, so far, it’s their most popular post. It’s proof that companies that are willing to be bold and talking about competitors and the differences in an unbiased way will definitely be a trusted resource.

The one thing I would be careful about is citing your own negatives. I don’t think what you’re talking about is actual negatives about your product or service, but instead caveats or fit. You’re really pointing out what might be a better fit or solution first. Not necessarily what’s BAD about your company or offerings. I just think that needs to be clear so people don’t run screaming from this approach!

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

Thrilled to hear you wrote a versus post Laura. You did your client a huge favor helping them have enough faith to do that and hopefully they’ll be listening to you a lot more :-)

But yes, we needn’t over-do the negatives about ourselves. In fact, it’s more a sense of “this is who this service/product is NOT for….”

Thanks again my friend,

Marcus

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Rebecca Livermore January 14, 2013 at

I have definitely found this to be true, Marcus. One thing I always keep in mind is that I’m not a great fit for everyone, and I don’t want to have clients that are not a good fit for me. This perspective makes it super easy for me to be up front about the pros and cons of working with me, and I think it puts people at ease when I share openly about those things, whether that be on my blog, in phone conversations, etc.

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John Verba January 14, 2013 at

Rebecca. You seem to be recognizing and adapting to the reality of niche marketing really well. Your comment made me think, simply, “Rebecca knows a Kia buyer is not a Mercedes buyer, and she knows where she fits (in terms of service/quality/price…style/personality, etc.), and what her best prospects are looking for, and why… which are such foundational concepts in successful entrepreneurship.”

And then I realized that the people who DON’T get that, if they happen to be selling Kia’s and have a great Mercedes prospect walk in, will only think, “Oh… a person with a heartbeat; what a great prospect!” And they won’t listen and hear that the prospect’s in the wrong place, and help guide them off in the right direction. They’ll just show them their clever musical YouTube videos, “Ten Reasons Non-Kia Buyers are Laughably Stupid (and Deserving of Derision)” and “If You Don’t Know You Need a Kia, You’re a Moron.” ;)

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

Do you by chance own a Kia Mr. Verba?? ;-)

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John Verba January 17, 2013 at

No, Mr. Sheridan, I actually own a ’96 custom GMC van that my kids and I used to run all over VA/DC/MD in very weekend for chess tournaments. And then, later, for their occasional band gigs. :) It’s always nice to have a car you can walk around in.

When I was thinking along the lines of, “If I’m selling Kias, then YOU need a Kia, and nothing but a Kia would be smart, and could possibly work for you,” I realized, “Oh…hah, I’m ‘Hubspottin’ it…’” … meaning tearing down every other option in a mocking, derisive way. Like in this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-lGe5MnBlY

I have to admit that Hubspot has sounded more secure about its own niche and advantages as time has gone on, and that’s been kind of disarming. ;)

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Marcus Sheridan January 18, 2013 at

Yeah, good point John. HS has come a long way though. Speaking of which, I’ve got a series of post coming out on HS competitors and marketing automation, which should be fun. :)

Thanks again,

Marcus

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Tom Treanor January 14, 2013 at

Marcus,

I really like this idea of Law of Disarmament. I may have inadvertently used it before, but I’ve never thought about it this explicitly. I’m going to have to try using it soon! Thanks for finding new and interesting angles to explore – not just the same old, same old…

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

I’d be curious to hear how it goes for you Tom. I can tell you my friend, it works, and it works very, very well.

Thanks for all your support,

Marcus

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John Verba January 14, 2013 at

This seems like a good place to post my thoughts on your B2B Camp keynote from Saturday. It was great seeing you, and I’m offering them with an actionable item at the end that might be worth testing. So here goes…

I just read this quote from a head of sales strategy at Google, in a promotion for the Integrated Marketing Communications master’s program at the Medill School at Northwestern…

“With IMC, we always come back to the question of what customer need is being met, and often, what data we can use to measure our success in reaching that segment.”

And I thought: When I saw Marcus speak Saturday, I saw someone who is a master of tracking and interpreting the needs of a market based on their online activities. He knows the online tools and how to use them. That’s an awesome capability that many companies could benefit greatly from mastering. I would have loved to have heard more details about all that.

However, what I mostly heard was more like, “Based on what my data showed me that my audience wanted, I will now tell you what your audience wants.” And perhaps you say that because you’ve learned that most small business and beginning blogger folks want to be offered an easy, generic, one-size-fits all solution, and so you, sensibly, want to package your offerings to fit those expectations/hopes of theirs? (That’s my assumption; it might be off-base.)

But what would happen if you really were suddenly put in charge of Burger King or Wendy’s or Ford’s or GM’s online marketing and tasked with increasing sales or profits? Wouldn’t you first want to dig deep into all the traffic data you could get, and see if you could also begin to have them utilize some analytics tools they didn’t have yet? And wouldn’t you expect to find out all sorts of crucial details about audience expectations and behavior that you previously had no way of knowing? Wouldn’t you expect, in fact, to be SURPRISED? Repeatedly? I mean, isn’t that the whole point… that testing and tracking can tell you what pool buyers respond to… and what burger buyers respond to… and what luxury, mid-market and economy car buyers respond to… so we don’t have to guess or assume what they’ll all respond to, all the time? Isn’t the Google exec saying that you’ll never again have to tell people what you THINK would work with these people here “because it worked with those other people over there”… because you can now test and track and analyze and KNOW… and learn and adapt and improve all the time?

I mean, do you really mean to be telling people, “You need to hear what worked, for me, in selling pools to pool buyers, and you all need to do those things, too, so here they are and write them down”…

… or do you really mean to be saying, “You need to be listening to YOUR OWN CUSTOMERS and learning what THEY respond to, what resonates, what compels action, and now you can learn that better than ever before, and I’m going to tell you the tools and tactics that will let you do that. But first… how many people here are solo practitioners, meaning: On your own? So you put in, what, 60 hour weeks? So you can spend, say, 20 on generating new business? No? Ten? OK… so… who has big companies, with marketing and sales staffs? OK…so how many hours a week have you guys allocated to online marketing, company-wide? 40? 80? OK…200? Great… so let’s start with how you solo guys can start learning about your very unique client base and what they want to hear from you if you only have 10 hours a week to work with, and show how that can lead to growth, and doing more, then, with more hours, until we’ve covered the right scale of possible solutions for everyone in the room. Ready?”

The Actionable Item: I’d love, purely as a 27-year marketer/sales guy, to hear what happens if you develop the presentation above and try it out a few times. The targeted response would be that people would come up afterward to say, “Wow, you gave me five things I can do THIS WEEK that will help me to start hearing more direct feedback from my audience about what they want from me. I’m going to do them, AND download your book and see what else I should be doing, and then in 30 days, like you asked, I will email you to tell you what new things I’ve learned about MY AUDIENCE, and tell you what new things I’m doing to respond to the discovered need(s)… and I’ll keep in touch, beyond that, to let you know the results of the changes.

“Truly Marcus, I once was lost, and now am found! Etc.” : )

I mean, as with everything we ever do when its success rests on the responses of others, all we can ever do is: Test. Test. Test. ; )

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

Your comment made me smile John, and it was great finally meeting you at the B2B camp.

Regarding my style, the principles that I used effectively at River are literally no different than what I’ve used with clients in diverse fields.

When I said every industry has consumers that want to know about prices, problems, comparisons, best of, and reviews– I wasn’t kidding.

I use River Pools because it allows me to paint a picture and tell a story, but my hope is always that the principle of truly listening to the questions consumers ask and then being paranoid about answering them is the key to content marketing success.

Thanks again,

Marcus

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John Verba January 17, 2013 at

I’m sure that in the last sentence, you meant “NOT being paranoid.” And yes, I agree wholeheartedly; transparency is key.

What’s really interesting is that, right now, I’m building a firm that specializes in servicing the more common types of small businesses. The system I’ve developed will walk them through a systematized process of getting to know themselves through their prospects’ eyes, and so it will employ an approach that’s a bit template driven, as yours does.

In the past, though, my forte has been walking into and quickly getting to know the needs of, for instance, a top tennis racquet manufacturer, top national investment houses, Kiplinger’s, a large regional home builder, a publisher of OSHA compliance info; a Fortune 500 feed and veterinary supply manufacturer, the Consumer Electronics Show, a quarterhorse breeding farm, the largest publisher of peer-reviewed chemical research, Discovery, the country’s largest bank card manufacturer; Black & Decker; the largest publisher to the Deaf community; a $50MM government contractor specializing in securities and investigations, Terps basketball and football, the Bullets (now Wizards), a NASCAR team, Christendom College, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times, Williams Mobile Offices, etc., etc.

Since I’ve ended up soliciting research submissions from PhDs in Bioconjugate Chemistry, sponsorships from manufacturers for CES, and office space leases in midtown DC, I’ve learned to walk into meetings thinking that I know nothing about what the client needs, to help me stay out of my own way. ; )

So that would be why I think your template approach to understanding what a business can achieve through online (and offline) communications is great for a narrow range of businesses and a narrow (but crucial) selection of their needs… which is still a very large market greatly in need of communications (content) that achieves real traction with their audiences.

But you wouldn’t want to tell a market leader that it and its customers are pretty typical, because they’d look at you and wonder why you’re not seeing that they are not a commodity provider and already have a lot more going for them than what a comprehensive website will add. It’s kind of like… would Ford want to compare a Mustang with a Camaro on it website if a whole lot of its buyers would adamantly insist there’s no comparison? Or would they be better off doing something differently because they are a different company with a different story and different customers?

Well, anyway, my clients list and types of jobs I’ve gotten have always been about nuance and leadership and establishing or maintaining a dominant competitive advantage. So we often may be talking apples and oranges when it comes to our appreciation (or lack of appreciation) of generic, one-size-fits-all solutions. But we’re very different service providers serving very different markets, too.

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Ruth Zive January 14, 2013 at

Haven’t done this yet on our blog. Obviously, we undertake this strategy as part of our face-to-face sales pitch, but you’ve given me some great ideas for blog posts! Thanks Marcus.

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

Well I know if I’m inspiring Ruth Zive with content ideas then I’m doing some things right!! :-)

Appreciate ya lady!

Marcus

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Tony Lam January 14, 2013 at

Hi Marcus,
This is a good article. I used Law of Disarmament to answer questions before without knowing it. How about handling customer complaints ? Does the Law of Disarmament apply ?

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

Absolutely it does Tony. First step is empathy. Second step is explaining or repeating their problem so they know you understand. And the 3rd might be presenting the other side of things.

When all is said and done, marketing is simply a study on great teaching and communication anyway ;-)

Thanks,

Marcus

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Tony Lam January 17, 2013 at

Hi Marcus,
Thanks for your info. I received the most serious complaint last year. I am sure if I did too much in this complaint. Please check my post here and give me some comment. http://www.sellertools.org/lessons-learned-from-customer-complaints-related-to-manufacturer/
Thanks,
Tony

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Darnell Jackson January 14, 2013 at

Good point Marcus,

People want to see that you are willing to discuss the pros and cons equally without coming off like you’re pushing them in one direction or another.

This is why I have found the best businesses specialize in selling the materials and information. Then let the customers choose what they want and then make a referral from a service affiliate.

Isn’t this Home Depot’s model? Thanks for sharing dude.

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Marcus Sheridan January 14, 2013 at

Honestly, I’m not familiar with the Home Depot model Darnell, but if it comes down to presenting all sides, then what they’re doing is good stuff :-)

Appreciate you stopping by man,

Marcus

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Bella January 15, 2013 at

“Not a good fit for everyone” has just been added to my permanent vocabulary. Also, just emailed you the brainstorm I just had at 4am. THANK YOU! :)

Side note, I spoke at Arizona State University yesterday and I mentioned you during my talk and told the class they had to check you out. Turns out the professor was already a FAN and FOLLOWER of yours! :)

Be blessed!

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Marcus Sheridan January 17, 2013 at

Awesome Bella. Do me a favor and let me know how it works for you in sales situations.

And that’s awesome about the professor! :-)

Marcus

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Adam January 15, 2013 at

Marcus, I really enjoyed this post.

What you mentioned earlier on in this post about disarmament and the mentioning of your own products/services and competitors is really powerful.

I noticed this work on me a few times, the problem for consumers is that most market places are filled with too many products so making a decision is quite difficult.

There are a few services that I’ve bought because they made it really easy and showed a comparison of their product a long side their competitors.

I’ve noticed the effect these sorts of sales pages have on me and I actually felt disarmed, and it really does build trust because .. well if they’d compare their product to their competitors then it really must be good!

Cheers.

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Marcus Sheridan January 17, 2013 at

Good points Adam. It’s actually pretty shocking how so many companies stay away from side by side comparisons, despite the fact that they’re so important to consumers like you and me…

thanks so much for stopping by,

Marcus

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Kathleen Booth January 15, 2013 at

Very helpful. We done a ton of blogs on our site, but the one thing we haven’t addressed is the competition. We’re in a small market and I’ve been holding off on doing it out of a fear that I might offend them. I like your approach and I’m also thinking that I can – and should – address this without naming names. Stay tuned for a post on this on our site (http://info.quintainmarketing.com.blog) very soon!

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Marcus Sheridan January 17, 2013 at

Awesome Kathleen, glad it helped in some way. If you wouldn’t mind, please let me know how it went and what the results were.

Continued success :-)

Marcus

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adrian clegg January 16, 2013 at

At this stage of my life I’m just reading and learning, and reading and learning, and then, when that’s done, reading and learning some more.
Thanks.

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Marcus Sheridan January 17, 2013 at

Happy to help Adrian :)

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Sarah Kohl February 15, 2013 at

Marcus
Excellent post, it seems that using disarmament is a great way to build trust. I am always seeking ways to stand out by being the trusted authority.

I am a bit confused, however, by the recommended order of comments: positive then negative when talking about others but negative then positive when talking about ourselves. In Daniel Pink’s new book, To Sell is Human, he recommends the opposite (in his section on Clarity-the blemished frame) He recommends positive then negative when talking about ourselves/products.

Help me understand the discrepancy in recommendations.

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Andrew May 4, 2013 at

Marcus,

I’ve been using this tactic successfully for years, but I’ve never heard it stated so profoundly. In fact, I’ve found this type of minutia often gets completely ignored or is not understood by a large amount of sales professionals. Thanks for adding a new “law” to my vocabulary.

If I had anything else to offer on the subject, it’s that these same principles can be used very effectively at the negotiation phase of the sale. In other words, if you can lead the negotiation early on by finding a way to ELIMINATE a service or feature the prospect doesn’t need (effectively saving them money), you can disarm them in the same manner you spoke of. Thus, they are less likely to question or overly haggle on any additional pricing you lay out. Note, I’m not suggesting an immediate discount (as this would accomplish the exact opposite). Sometimes going for smaller amounts (even ever so slightly), can result in more closed deals and much larger revenue in the long run.

Great post.

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Marcus Sheridan May 6, 2013 at

Andrew, really excellent addition in how this principle can be used. Love it man.

Continued success and thanks so much for stopping by,

Marcus

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Jeanette January 18, 2014 at

Your posts are always very helpful, thank you!
Here is my effort at disarmament:
http://brewsterscreenprinting.com/blog/

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