Form Over Substance Can Win a Client

What an outrageous statement to make. The way you present a matter can be more important than the actual content itself. When individuals can see how a particular offering will directly benefit them, they are more likely to advocate for its adoption within their organization. While facts and information are undoubtedly important, the way they are presented and packaged can make all the difference in capturing the audience's attention and conveying a message effectively. Therefore, form, with its ability to captivate and engage, can often be more influential than substance alone.


Bill Arnold

1/31/20246 min read

Form Over Substance
Form Over Substance

If you are a student of marketing, you always are looking for ways to up your game by learning new trends or ideas from others. Sometimes, the best way to up your game is by taking a refresher course. Today, I attended a conference that was put on by the Cialdini Institute and want to share with my readers some of the key points. The presenter was Bas Wouters (Bas), co-founder and CEO of the Cialdini Institute. The information I am sharing was based on his presentation. I have taken great liberties to add and embellish his conversation with additional studies, personal experience, and my interpretation of what was presented. The substance of the presentation will be supported by other third-party information throughout this article. So, for those who attended, and for Bas himself, my apologies if what I am about to share is not what you have taken away from the presentation.

I am an advocate of using behavioral science to help create and drive marketing and sales success. I was an early convert of the value of Dr. Robert Cialdini's book, The Psychology of Influence, and have recommended his book to almost every client over the years. If you are uncertain if you should purchase the book, consider this. In 2022, some of the top entrepreneurs from around the world, consisting of individuals like Warren Buffett, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Guy Kawasaki, voted on the best business book of all time. They got it wrong!!!! In my opinion, The Psychology of Influence is the best book about and for human interactions of all time.

In Dr. Robert Cialdini's book, it is all about how we present information. It is replete with examples of how a few adjustments in the wording cause us to perceive the value of a product or brand differently.

If you are a marketer and are looking to attract and engage your audience, facts of why you are the best solution to address the pain points and concerns of your targeted personas are important but not necessarily the most important factor. The facts are important, but the narrative is critically more important. To support this thesis, consider the work of Dr. Jennifer Aaker, who found in a previous talk that cited two studies showing the impact of storytelling:

  • A good story is up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone

  • In a separate study, research has shown that only 5% of the audience could recall a statistic but 63% remembered the essence of the story (Millen).

Pennzoil vs. Texaco

Bas further illustrated this point by recounting how a well-prepared narrative made all the difference in a 1985 judgment in a lawsuit between the mega oil giants Pennzoil vs. Texaco. That case was a highly complex detail-driven lawsuit brought by Pennzoil for Texaco’s tortious infringement of a contract for their sale to Getty Oil. The case lasted for one and a half years of highly complex expert testimony from both sides. Yet, the jury came back with a verdict of $11.1 billion dollars after only an hour of deliberation.

The question was how could ANY jury decipher all the facts presented in that case in such a short time? The answer was astounding. One of the main reasons the spokesperson for the jurist gave was that the lawyers for Texaco were so focused on the details they forgot how to create the narrative to present them. In the end, it all boiled down to which party could create a captivating narrative. The way you present information matters.

The phrase, "It is nothing personal, it is only business," is a false narrative. It is all personal. Every business decision is based on two factors: how will this help my company and what will it mean to the individual making the decision? To illustrate a point, would you introduce how artificial intelligence could benefit your company if it meant that your job would be terminated? I am not saying that people are not capable of altruistic actions; it is just not something that I would bet upon or build a marketing campaign around.

Bas's comments supported the narrative that when asked to perform the same activity, the greater good is not as compelling as the personal interest.

Environmental Messaging

Bas recounted a case study based on Dr. Robert Cialdini's 2008 research called, “A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels.”  This research was about two field experiments examining the effectiveness and ways to optimize signs requesting guests to participate in an environmental conservation program.

In essence, the signs were asking the hotel guests to reuse their bath towels and save water by not sending them to the laundry each day. The hotel first tried to appeal to the altruism of individuals based on a basic Save the Environment appeal. With that appeal, about 35.1% of hotel guests, who stayed four or more nights, felt compelled to reuse the towels in their room. So, the greater good was not sufficiently compelling enough to gain adoption.

Dr. Cialdini began to craft a series of narratives that introduced social proof into the messaging. His first attempt was to ask the hotel guests to join other guests in their conservation efforts. Adding this to the appeal raised the compliance to 44.1%.

Quite a significant improvement at almost 30%.  However, marketing is a game of inches, where incremental changes can cause massive performance improvements.

By optimizing the messaging, Dr. Cialdini continued the experimentation to see how much that participation rate could be further improved. He then improved his storytelling, and the use of social proof, and refined the message, sharing that a large percentage of people who stayed in that exact room participated in the conservation program.

The results were even more impressive, with 49.3% of the hotel guests participating in the conservation program. There was a 40% increase in guests who bought into the program. What would a 40% conversion rate increase mean for your business?

Practical Application - In the hotel case study above, the guests, when presented with the greater good for society, failed in large numbers to comply. Instead, they thought of what was best for them in that moment.

Personalize the Benefits - When you are crafting messaging for a particular buyer persona, don’t assume that they will always adopt your product just because it is the best for their company. You need to address the personal persona’s interests as well. In other words, why it is in their best interest as well to present the idea to senior management. Many middle managers would rather stay under the radar and not risk presenting an idea that might make them look foolish in the eyes of their superiors.

Give them an appreciation of how it will benefit them or at least eliminate the risk they might perceive.

If you have a case study that talks about the improved revenue or savings a company enjoyed when they switched to your product, maybe modify it with a little storytelling.

Find a company for the case study where the idea was shared by a middle manager, and they received great accolades because they brought the information to the senior level for consideration. Have quotes from the manager stating that they are so glad that they stepped out of their comfort zone and presented the program. Let them see themselves in that scenario. Make it personal, so that they can see themselves doing the same thing.

Small Changes Can Have Big Effects - The differences that were made in the messaging to help encourage guests to reuse the towels were surprisingly small. Changing a few words causes the targeted audience to view the message entirely differently. When you made it about them, they internalized it and acted accordingly. Take the time to A/B test your message to find the one that will resonate with your personas. Prevail Marketing has taken landing pages, and by just changing the H1 and H2 tags, caused conversion increases that were over 10%.


Making sure that buyer personas understand the personal benefits they will obtain from a product or service is crucial in encouraging them to recommend it to their company. When individuals can see how a particular offering will directly benefit them, they are more likely to advocate for its adoption within their organization. While facts and information are undoubtedly important, the way they are presented and packaged can make all the difference in capturing the audience's attention and conveying a message effectively. Therefore, form, with its ability to captivate and engage, can often be more influential than substance alone.

By highlighting how the product or service can solve their pain points, improve their efficiency, or enhance their overall experience, buyer personas become motivated to share these advantages with their colleagues and decision-makers. Moreover, it is important to recognize that even small changes in messaging can have a significant impact on the perception and reception of the offering. Tailoring the message to resonate with the specific needs and desires of the buyer personas can yield substantial benefits, effectively increasing the chances of successful adoption and recommendation.