By Ashley Walton published March 22, 2016

How to Create Persuasive Content: Lessons from Aristotle


Aristotle, the original master of persuasion, taught how to create the most compelling, powerful arguments. Even though Aristotle lived centuries ago, his foundation in persuasion tactics remains the gold standard. The same principles that apply to writing an opinion piece apply to writing compelling marketing content, starting with Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals: Ethos, pathos, and logos.

Ethos – an appeal to credibility

When using an ethical appeal, you’re proving your credibility as an author, a speaker, or an organization. If your audience doesn’t trust you, then anything you say is suspect, and subsequent appeals in pathos and logos may be worthless. Thanks to the Internet, consumers now don’t have to take a company at its word – they can research before buying, and 81% of shoppers do just that. If you’re going to make a claim, you’d better be able to back it up and keep your credibility intact.

If your audience doesn’t trust you, then anything you say is suspect says @AshleyGeekGirl, via @cmicontent Click To Tweet

How to develop: You can strengthen your content’s credibility by quoting experts in a field, citing sources, using testimonials from clients, and sharing case studies. Developing ethos means avoiding hyperbolic language and promises that you can’t keep. This is one reason that people are becoming numb to clickbait titles. When every article headline promises to “blow your mind” but fails to deliver, the author and site lose credibility. Be honest with your audience, back up your facts, deliver on your promises, and you’ll build long-term value and trust with your audience.

In action: One company that effectively uses ethical appeals in its online content is mattress manufacturer Tuft & Needle. Take a look at the company’s home page:

Tuft & Needle-Ethical-appeals

Tuft & Needle uses words such as “quality,” “honest,” and “fair.” This language implies that other companies may not give you high-quality products, fair prices, or honesty, but Tuft & Needle believes in those values.

In the lower right corner a small box says, “Google Trusted Store.” When expanded, the designation is explained – Google has verified its credibility and offers up to $1,000 of free protection when you buy from Tuft & Needle. This promise may give skeptical customers peace of mind. Lower on the home page, Tuft & Needle boasts that it’s been mentioned by Fortune, Entrepreneur, and Re/code, building trust through big-name news sources.

On the site’s Mattress page, the headline reads, “Highest rated mattress in the world,” so you’re not just taking Tuft & Needle’s word for it – you’re listening to other consumers who are happy with the product. Through its ethical appeals, Tuft & Needle addresses the concerns that consumers may have trusting a company to send them a “quality” mattress before they’re able to see the product in real life.

Pathos – an appeal to emotion

Often pathos gets a bad rap. That’s because when done poorly, emotional appeals make people feel like they’re being manipulated. Even though many people may not admit it – or perhaps even realize it – we’re all persuaded by emotional appeals. What we often refer to as “branding” is nothing more than an emotional appeal – the feeling a brand evokes.

Appealing to emotion can also compel an audience to take action, giving content a sense of urgency. Many nonprofits, such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The Humane Society, primarily use emotional appeals, and that approach doesn’t make their arguments any less valid. In fact, it makes their content more compelling and pressing.

How to use: Wield the power of pathos carefully, but don’t be afraid to use it. Even though the vast majority of consumers do their research, a whopping 50% of purchases are driven by emotion. Creating a sense of urgency, a fear of missing out, or a sense of belonging can be effective emotional appeals. What’s more, emotional and ethical appeals are intertwined, meaning the look and feel of a website, ad, or article influence the credibility of an author or brand. Without pathos, we all would simply be stating facts, which would be pretty boring. Any sense of human connection would be lost.

The vast majority of consumers do their research, however, 50% of purchases are driven by emotion. Click To Tweet

In action: Although using photos of cute puppies might seem like easy marketing, Best Friends Animal Society uses pathos in some of the best ways possible.


Front and center on the Best Friends home page, a doe-eyed dog looks straight at the reader, trying to make an emotional connection to the audience with its demure stare. The main headline, “Save Them All,” suggests that if you adopt a pet, you’re saving one of the “9,000 healthy and treatable dogs and cats [that] are killed in America’s shelters” every day.

Notice the site does not say “put down” or “euthanize,” but it purposely uses the emotionally charged word “kill,” which has a much more violent connotation than the alternatives. At the heart of Best Friends’ message is an emotional appeal to its audience’s sense of heroic justice – you can save an innocent life from being lost by helping a cute animal in need.

Logos – an appeal to logic

Using logos sounds deceptively simple. It’s an appeal to reason, which seems easy enough, but it can be complicated. In rhetoric, logical appeals usually involve syllogisms, which are composed of two premises and a conclusion.

To use an example from the Purdue Online Writing Lab, a syllogism reads like this: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In the context of marketing, a syllogism may look something like this: “I want my home to be safe. Homes with security systems are safer. Therefore, I need a security system.” In a persuasive argument, premise one plus premise two should end in a logical conclusion.

How to use: When you build a logical argument, your audience needs to agree with both premises to accept your conclusion. In the above security system example, if your audience doesn’t think they need a safe home, they aren’t going to agree with your jump in logic. You need studies and statistics to back up the fact that homes with security systems are safer. Even when you prove the merits of security systems, your audience may still not reach your conclusion. Therefore, counter arguments must be addressed. When making a logical appeal, it’s all about staying on the same page as your audience and respecting their intelligence.

In action: Consider this prime example from health drink manufacturer Tahitian Noni. The company’s product page looks like this:


The copy mentions the juice is “packed full of iridoids that will make you healthier, give you more energy, and help strengthen and balance the whole body.” It further states that the juice is “validated by more than a dozen human clinical studies.” Tahitian Noni attempts to logically explain why this product works, dropping in relevant studies and scientific-sounding words like “iridoids” that the reader may trust based on name alone. For this logical appeal to succeed, the audience would have to agree with two premises: (1) Iridoids are good for the body and (2) Tahitian Noni juice contains iridoids. Therefore, Tahitian Noni juice will help improve overall health (conclusion). To fully convince the audience, the company needs to build its ethos throughout its website for the audience to trust the mentioned scientific studies. As with all content, the success of this logical appeal depends on the audience and the context.


The trick to effective persuasion is to use the best combination of all three rhetorical appeals – ethos, pathos, and logos. Rhetoric is, as Aristotle explained, “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” It’s a marketer’s job to see all the tools, all the potential ways of approaching a piece or a problem, and to make well-informed, purposeful decisions to best educate, help, and influence the audience.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ashley Walton

Ashley Walton is director of content at Clearlink, a full-funnel customer acquisition firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving her Master’s in English, Ashley taught university courses on Writing and Rhetoric—and the principles she taught in the classroom are the same ones she preaches to her content marketing peers. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyGeekGirl.

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  • Michael Cannon

    Great post Ashley. Thanks for sharing. One way to make these
    three pillars stronger is to make sure they are contextual to the primary
    decision(s) in buyers journey such as a) change from status quo b) select your
    offering over competitive alternatives. The examples you sight are contextual
    to option b I think.

    • Ashley Walton

      Absolutely. This post just begins to scratch the surface of ethos, pathos, and logos in content marketing, but it’s all very contextual. We could dive much deeper into how these rhetorical appeals align with various types of content and the various parts of the customer journey. Great thinking!

  • Philippe Ingels

    Great article, Ashley. Something I’m curious about is the fact that I almost never take note of who the author of an article is. I’ve asked around and it seems that I am not the only one for whom it does not matter. One possible reason why authors, and even brands, do not always matter is that with such easy access to information most articles seem to be a simple reformatting of widely available content. Articles have become so undifferentiated in style and presentation that even those that are informative are still unremarkable enough for the author not to really matter. Do you think this is true and how do you break through that?

    • Ashley Walton

      That is an interesting point and question. I think ethos can be developed in different ways. Sometimes, people may not take note of the actual writer, especially because (as you mentioned) there seems to be a lot of content that simply rehashes what’s been said before. It could be written by anyone. But as we all know, good content doesn’t simply rehash—it somehow adds new information or value to a conversation or topic.

      One way to break through the white noise is to find a real expert in a field, but you can also develop ethos by digging into novel research, presenting data and its implications in new ways, etc. I think it depends on the piece and context.

      But regardless of whether readers take note of an author’s name, they definitely take note of the site or brand that’s publishing it and what the author or the site stands to gain by publishing the content—and I think that positioning and context is closely tied to the author’s persona and ethos.

      Good content has to add value to a conversation and it also has to come from a credible enough source—however that credibility is conveyed.

  • Nils van der Knaap

    Very nice post, it got me thinking :)

    • Ashley Walton

      Thank you! I appreciate the kind words.

  • Holdcom

    Great minds think alike! We posted a similar blog about Message On Hold. It’s all about the message!

  • Olga

    What an interesting angle on content creation! Thanks, Ashley, for sharing this!