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How to Uncover What Your Audience Wants to Buy: An Interview with Ryan Levesque
14th April 2015 • Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer • Sonia Simone
00:00:00 00:28:33

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An interview with Ryan Levesque, author of Ask, about what makes people buy — and how to benefit our businesses by giving people more of what they want.

Author Ryan Levesque talks about ideas from his new book, Ask. He looks at how to understand our audiences more deeply, how to scale that understanding, and how to use that knowledge to serve our customers and clients better.

This isn’t a simplistic “formula,” but it is a reproducible strategy that virtually anyone doing business online can implement.

In this 30-minute episode, Ryan Levesque and I discuss:

  • The most shared words in Buzzfeed headlines — and what that means for your marketing
  • The power of “The Sorting Hat”
  • The keys to delivering tailored content that each audience member needs and wants
  • Why you want to be the little pig who builds your business out of bricks
  • The biggest mistake Ryan sees people make with business and marketing
  • Why most surveys don’t work (and the key to making them work)
  • Ryan’s super quick tip for getting great feedback from your email list (this one happens to be a favorite of mine)

Listen to Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer below ...

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I’d love to hear your questions or thoughts on today’s session — or a question for a future Q&A episode of the podcast. Just scroll waaaay down past the transcript and leave your comment!

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How to Uncover What Your Audience Wants to Buy: An Interview with Ryan Levesque

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those of you who don t know me yet, I m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don t lie and you don t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today, I am having lots of fun. I am talking with my friend Ryan Levesque. Ryan, how are you doing today?

Ryan Levesque: Sonia, I’m doing great, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be talking with you.

Sonia Simone: Maybe six, eight months ago, a couple of different people who I think well of were talking about, “Have you heard of this guy, Ryan Levesque? He’s this crazy-smart dude. He studied neuroscience, and he speaks Mandarin, and he’s this brilliant, crazy guy who has this really cool idea about segmentation.”

Among my circle of friends, that’s actually kind of cool. I mean in a geeky way. It’s like, “Ooh, segmentation. Tell me more.”

We circled around, had an intro. We never quite connected, and then lo and behold, Ryan shows up at a business owners’ group that I’m a part of and gives a talk. I’m like, “Holy cow. This is so neat! I have to snag him over and get him to talk to my people about this really cool approach that he has to something that a lot of people would consider kind of dry, data-driven — segmentation.

It s not fun for normal people. It s fun for weird people like you and me.

Ryan, I know you have this bizarre fascination with what makes people buy. Where do you think that comes from? How do you come by that interest?

Ryan Levesque: It’s a really interesting question, Sonia, and it’s funny. My answer might seem a little bit unusual, but I’ll explain the reason why I think this is extremely helpful to understand.

I was interviewed by a copywriter a couple of days ago who is doing a piece for us, and she asked me a question. She said, “I like to get to know the person I’m writing, the voice that I’m writing, and I like to ask a series of questions. Is it okay if I ask you?”

She went through a couple questions, and she said, about the third or fourth question, “When you were in high school, what table did you sit at?”

I said, “It’s really hard for me to answer that ’cause I sat at a different table every single day.

Back in high school, I played saxophone and piano in the band, so some days I’d sit with the band geeks. I was an actor in drama, so sometimes I’d sit with the drama geeks. I was also captain of our high school soccer team, so sometimes I’d sit with the athletes. I was also valedictorian, so I’d sit with the math geeks and the brainiacs and everyone in between. I was kind of a bit of a chameleon I guess.

“I’m sorry that I can’t answer your question directly.”

She said, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

The interest, at the end of the day, if I really think about it, comes down to a fascination around different people and understanding different people’s motivation. I think it stems from the fact that I myself had so many interests growing up that I had a hard time putting myself in a box and was constantly moving or navigating across these different groups. I think when you do that, whether that’s culturally — living in a different country and having to navigate different cultures — or different social groups, it naturally engenders this interest in what motivates these people differently. If I were to go back to the beginning, I think that’s possibly where it comes from.

Sonia Simone: That’s very interesting considering your approach to marketing. I love that answer. That’s a cool question, too. I like your copywriter.

Ryan Levesque: She’s a smart cookie. When I had that question, I’m like, “I’m going to steal that.”

Sonia Simone: Yeah. Very, very bright.

You have this wonderful thing you shared with us about the most-shared words in BuzzFeed headlines, and I would love if you could talk about that insight and what it means.

The Most-Shared Words in BuzzFeed Headlines and What That Means for Your Marketing

Ryan Levesque: This is most powerful when you can actually see this. I don’t know if there’s a way for us to link to it, perhaps on the show and answer something like that.

NOTE: Here s the Buzzfeed infographic, which comes from this article on Reddit.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.

Ryan Levesque: BuzzFeed published an infographic, and basically, the infographic is the three-word phrases that generated the most Facebook shares — and this is for last year. What they did is a linguistic analysis of common three-word phrases that came up over and over again that generated in the most virality, the most sharing.

Head and shoulders over anything else — it’s very interesting — the three words were ‘character are you.’

If you’re thinking, what does that mean? ‘Character are you.’ Well, that’s in reference to all those little quizzes, those time-wasting silly little quizzes that we’ve seen online that revolve around topics like, “What Harry Potter character are you?” “What dwarf character is your dog?”

All those different character-you things apparently were wildly successful with BuzzFeed.

What’s interesting when you see the infographic is there’s another observation. Not only did it result in the highest average number of shares, but the standard deviation — the worst-performing iteration of that and the best-performing — is a very tight, narrowly focused range, which means that there were no epic failures.

It was a pretty slam-dunk strategy. If you just wanted to bet on something, you had a really good shot at succeeding out of the gate if you took that approach.

The reason why I think this is so interesting for our conversation is, “Well that’s great,” but unless you are in the business of one of these types of sites, like BuzzFeed, the question I naturally ask myself is, “Well how can I use this in my marketing?” If I’m a small business owner and I sell information products or I’m a small consultant or a service provider, how might I use that same concept in my marketing?

What’s interesting is there’s a way to do that very effectively. In fact, as you know, Sonia, it’s what we do in my company and what I do all day, every day. That has me really excited.

The Power of ‘The Sorting Hat’

Sonia Simone: Yeah, and I’m looking at it very closely right now for our business, and I’m thinking of it as the sorting hat from Harry Potter, where they put the hat on your head and they tell you what house you’re going to be in. That idea is powerful — “What house are you in?” –that idea of type. It’s just so powerful, and it’s so complex.

Ryan has written a book about this idea called Ask, and I’ll read the short description of it:

The counter-intuitive online formula to discover exactly what your customers want to buy, create a mass of raving fans, and take any business to the next level.

Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the book. If I summarize what you’re about, I’m not going to do it justice. Can you talk about the methodology and the ideas in the book? I think this is something that could really revolutionize a lot of different people’s way that they approach their marketing.

Ryan Levesque: The best way to describe the book is to break it down down into two main parts.

The first part is the story of how I personally stumbled on this formula in its rough form and spent the last decade of my life fine-tuning it and optimizing it to the tune of generating over $100 million in online sales across 23 different markets using this exact formula. The markets are as diverse as golf instruction, tennis instruction, dog training, satellite television, business funding, fitness education, high-end alkaline water systems, water ionization systems, weight-loss supplements, and the list goes on and on.

The second half of the book is the how-to. That s where the formula is laid out, and it’s just put on the line in the pages of the book.

When I say that the formula is revealed, this isn’t one of those books that is like a thinly veiled sales letter, where it’s “Here’s what to do, and buy our big fancy expensive course to do it.”

You learn about this in the story, that about two and a half years ago, I had a near-death experience where I became very sick. It was right after my first son was born. I lost about 30 pounds, applied for life insurance, and was rejected. We went to go see the doctor to see if the lab results that the life insurance company had pulled up were accurate.

It turns out that they were. I was rushed to the emergency room. The doctors basically said, “You should be in a coma right now.” My organs were shutting down. My liver was shutting down. My kidneys were shutting down. My pancreas stopped working. My pancreas doesn’t work effectively today.

I spent about 10 days in the ICU. I was between a dialysis patient and a terminally ill cancer patient. It gave me a lot of time to reflect on — I always get emotional when I talk about it — what my legacy was going to be.

I made a decision. I said, “This is too valuable to hold close to the vest and only have a small handful of private clients that we’ve effectively implemented this for and which I’ve made a lot of money for, and I’ve made a lot of money for myself.” This is something that the world needs to see because I agree with you, Sonia. I think this is a formula. This is a methodology that can truly revolutionize the way business is conducted online.

The Keys to Delivering Tailored Content That Each Audience Member Needs and Wants

Ryan Levesque: When you go back to the description that you brought up, I think the three most important things is when people hear a book title like ‘Ask,’ they think, “Well, it must be really as simple as just asking what people want and giving it to them.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The reason for that is, as you know, people don’t know what they want. In fact, there’ve been so many famous quotes about this. You’ve probably heard the Henry Ford quote — it’s attributed to Henry Ford, whether or not he actually said it:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘faster horses.’

Or more contemporarily, we have Steve Jobs, who said — paraphrasing — “Focus groups are worthless. People don’t know what they want until they’ve seen it.”

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” — Steve Jobs in BusinessWeek, May 25 1998

The counter-intuitive aspect of it is asking specific questions, the right questions at the right time to the right people, to find out what it is that people actually want without actually asking that question.

The raving fans part is important because one of the things that I think holds a lot of people back in business, especially in marketing, is there’s a feeling that marketing is about manipulation. When you feel like you’re manipulating someone, you can’t invest 100 percent of yourself into it because it feels sleazy.

The reason why I bring up the raving fans aspect of it is that this is one of these things that simultaneously benefits you as a business owner, and it benefits consumers. The reason for that is because you’re using the sorting hat, in your language, which I love, to put people in touch with the best-matched solution for them. They win, and you win.

The next-level part is important because we’ve used this methodology to scale businesses from six to seven figures, from seven to eight figures, and we even have businesses who are doing nine figures. We have businesses that do upwards of 20,000 leads per day by funneling people through this Ask formula methodology, this sorting hat.

We’re asking a series of questions to find out a little bit about their situation, find out a little bit about what they’re struggling with. And then we re using that information, putting them in different sales paths — whether it’s different sales letters, different email auto-responders sequences, different video sales letters — based on the results of the questions that they answer and then customizing their experience.

Sonia Simone: There s something I like a lot about your approach. I think people see the word ‘formula’ and they think, “You know, this is going to be somebody who’s going to tell me how to make a billion dollars sitting around the house playing Minecraft, and sadly, no. Maybe if you’re taking client calls when you’re playing Minecraft, I don’t know.

It really is a methodology. I mean, it’s work. I want people to know that it’s work. It’s not some kind of paint-by-numbers thing, but it’s a very systematic approach to understanding your audience and then crafting what they really need and want from you. We’ve always been all about that at Copyblogger. I just love that you have taken it and made it very systematic and logical. It’s not paint-by-numbers, but it’s a very solid framework.

Ryan Levesque: The thing that led me down this path was that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, this was necessary for me. When I first got started online almost ten years ago now, I failed out of the gate. I was taking the same approach that I had studied, I had taught, which effectively was this one-size-fits-all approach.

Out of desperation, I, in the first market that we went into, asked people who were on our...