The #1 Secret to Writing Great Copy Is . . .

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

Using words that work with the people you’re trying to persuade.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Study and draw inspiration from great copy that works.

I’m not talking about copy that you personally think is great. It’s a mistake to judge advertising like regular people do – as entertainment. Madison Avenue has a great gig producing short entertainment pieces called commercials that often don’t sell much of anything.

I’m talking about drawing inspiration from advertising copy that has demonstrated its effectiveness by actually working as intended. Like a direct mail piece that has raked in millions and millions of dollars in sales.

Why Professional Copywriters Use Swipe Files

A copywriting “swipe file” is a collection of winning ads. Sales letters, space ads, headline collections, plus bits and pieces of copy that have been marketplace proven to make big money. A carefully collected swipe file is the essential starting point for most new copywriting campaigns.

It’s a bit like why lawyers begin with a basic form when drafting a new legal document, or why web designers start with a basic code structure. Start with something solid, and customize from there.

The problem with the swipe file approach is context. Many new and inexperienced writers (and often many pros) will miss the mark when trying to adapt past copy to a new situation.

Yep . . . the winning formula becomes a bust when inappropriately applied.

The Art of Listening

Luckily, we’ve got an impressive set of new tools that will let us uncover the context, right down to the very language our prospects are using.

Most marketers make the mistake of thinking social media is a tool for talking. For distributing a message far and wide, and measuring the response that comes back.

And it’s true that the internet is a direct response playground. Marketers haven’t had this clear a picture of their buyers since the days of the bazaar.

But the social web is also the most powerful market research tool you’ll ever use.

Sites like Twitter and FaceBook can tell you the exact words your prospects are using to describe their wishes, hopes, fears, worries, and dissatisfactions. And the words people use when searching for information makes keyword research a goldmine that goes way beyond SEO.

Email marketing and blogs allow your prospects to engage you in a conversation, to tell you what they want and how they want it, and just as important, to demonstrate what they respond to.

The Right Words, in the Right Context

The swipe file still has a place, and smart copywriters still maintain them. (Though they may have more headlines from Google Adwords than from direct mail these days.)

But the most effective copywriters also remember that classic piece of wisdom from Grandma:

You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

The Long and Short of Copywriting

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

They’re some of the most often-asked questions about copywriting.

Long or short copy, which works best? What about headlines?

The correct answer usually drives people crazy, which is…

Whatever works.

Before you start throwing things at me, I’ll elaborate.

Headlines: 8 Words or Less, Except …

The traditional wisdom about headlines is that they should be short. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule (including a big one we’ll discuss below). However, reviewing The 100 Greatest Advertisements by Julian Lewis Watkins shows that 95% of the most effective headlines from the early years of magazine copywriting were less than eight words.

But magazine copywriters had to worry about brevity due to space concerns. Studies done from the direct mail industry show that about 50% to 60% of the most effective headlines are eight words or less, leaving ample indication that longer headlines work, too.

Now, here’s an exception that applies online. Perhaps you’ve seen web sales letters or landing pages that have a headline that looks like a short paragraph. These long headlines can’t possibly be working, right?

Well, according to the eye-tracking study released by user-interface expert Jakob Nielsen, webpage visitors read in a “F” pattern, scrolling intently across the top of the page where the headline should be, then making their way back again across the first subhead, then down the left hand side of the page to see if anything else is of interest.

This study verifies the 80/20 rules of headlines. But it also demonstrates that you might want to include more information in your headline than 8 words can usually get across, in an effort to get the rest of the page read.

All in all though, short headlines are easier to scan, and cannot be missed. My general rule of thumb is to write the shortest headline possible that also convincingly conveys a unique benefit to the reader so they’ll read the body.

It’s not always easy, but it’s extremely important.

Long Copy vs. Short Copy

Does anyone read those long sales letters that go on and on?

Yes they do, and for many products, long copy outsells short copy by a large margin. The basic rule of copy length is the same as headlines – as long as necessary, but no longer.

The key is writing copy that is interesting and informative to someone who actually cares. But beyond that, there are some guidelines that can help, so let’s see what the experts say.

Bob Bly says that the length of your copy will depend on three things:

  1. The Product: the more features and benefits a product has, the longer the copy.
  2. The Audience: Certain people want as much information as they can get before making a purchase. This is especially true of people on the Internet, and especially true with information products.
  3. The Purpose: What’s the goal? Generating a lead for a service business requires less detail, but an ad that aims to make a sale must overcome every objection the potential buyer may have.

Joe Sugarman says two factors increase the need for more copy:

  1. Price point: The higher the price, the more copy required to justify or create the need.
  2. Unusual Item: The more unusual the product, the more you need to relate that product to the user by clearly demonstrating the benefits.

Michael Fortin sets forth four categories of products, with each successive category requiring longer copy:

  1. Convenience products: Fills an immediate need, low price, low thought, short copy.
  2. Shopping products: A little higher priced, more thought and opportunity to “shop around,” a little longer copy.
  3. Specialty products: With exotic goods, luxury cars, expensive jewelry, art, etcetera, longer copy is definitely needed.
  4. Unsought products: When people have never realized that their lives were incomplete without your product, get ready to write some lengthy copy.

Read Michael’s blog post here for an elaboration of his ideas about the long copy vs. short copy debate. Great stuff.

Whatever Works

So, we come full circle. The guidelines set forth by these copywriting pros can help, but the answer remains the same:

The length of your headline and your copy will depend on whatever works for whatever you are writing about.

And the only way to know what works is to test different approaches. Test various headlines to see which works best at capturing attention and communicating a benefit. Test the amount of information you provide. Does more or less work better at producing the desired action?

Ultimately, that’s the only answer that matters to you.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

This Article Rocks… I Guarantee It!

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

There you have it. You just can’t go wrong reading this article.

I’ve guaranteed your satisfaction. Those are powerful words, right?

But what does my guarantee really mean? What if you think this article is actually marginal at best? There’s no money to return. And I can’t give you back your valuable time if you feel it was wasted.

Boy… I’d better make this good.

No Power Without Proof

Advertisements that proclaim “satisfaction guaranteed” are fairly common – and that’s the problem. The statement can come across as just another hollow promise, because it often is.

Every promise you make to a prospect should be both fulfilled and guaranteed. When you sell something in exchange for someone’s hard-earned money, the promise is that the product or service will meet, or exceed, expectations. The guarantee means you will give the money back if the buyer feels that’s not actually the case.

The word guarantee is extremely powerful, but only coupled with evidence of substance. The proof behind the guarantee accomplishes two things – it demonstrates confidence in your offering, and relieves the risk to the buyer.

Confidence and Risk

Every contemplated purchase carries risk to the buyer. Before consumer protection laws, the rule was caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), and these days buyers are still cautious, even leery – especially of unknown vendors. Even when already emotionally and logically committed to what you have to offer, buyers don’t want to make a mistake. It’s up to you to help them get over the hump.

The way to get past the buyer’s uncertainty is to first demonstrate confidence in your offering. Not through boasts or sales prattle, but with a good-old-fashioned, no-questions-asked, “money-where-my-mouth-is” cash-back guarantee.

Return periods of 30, 60 or 90 days work great. Some direct marketers go as far as 6 months, a year, or even a lifetime money back guarantee. The longer the better.

Other techniques involve a “return premium.” The seller allows you to keep all or part of the materials delivered even after the refund, or promises to pay you double your money back (or some other multiple).

Now that’s confidence. And it speaks directly to the buyer’s lingering reservations.

You’ve now created a risk-free buying environment. Your conversion of prospects to customers / clients will skyrocket compared to the same offer sans guarantee.

Guaranteed Higher Profits

“Whoa there, Brian,” many of you are saying. “I can’t do that kind of thing. It’s way too risky for me.”

My first response might be to ask you how much faith you have in your offering. If your faith is lacking, improve your product or service. As we’ve seen with Domino’s Pizza and Federal Express, the guarantee was the key that made the offers irresistible.

But you’ve spotted the essence of the technique – you’re taking the buyer’s risk and shifting it over to yourself. Assuming the faith in your offering is there, here’s why you shouldn’t be concerned:

  1. First of all, you will get some returns, no matter how much value you deliver. The reason is that your guarantee will generate a much higher number of sales. By taking the risk away from the buyer, invariably you’ll sell to someone who the product wasn’t suited for. That’s OK; the numbers are working for you.
  2. Your returns will be lower than you think, even among those who experience buyer’s remorse. We like to remain consistent on a psychological basis, and our brains work hard to validate our earlier decisions. Couple that with the ambivalence people experience when faced with initiating the return process (especially for physical products), and the sale remains in place.
  3. When it comes to information products, some people will rip you off. They’ll happily consume the knowledge you offer, and still demand a refund. If your product is digital, some will share your hard work with other people, and you won’t make a dime. Don’t worry about it. Believe it or not, most people are honest. Don’t lose sleep over those that are not. Your sales (and profits) are up, perhaps dramatically, because of your guarantee. That was the goal, right?

We’ll explore other methods to keep readers happy and minimize returns in future UCAN articles. But the general rule is to always make a strong, substantive guarantee that actually transfers the reader’s risk back over to you.

The headline of this article violates the rule. Hopefully, you don’t feel like I’ve wasted your time.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

“Kids Eat Free” and Other Irresistible Offers

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

The sign says it all – “Kids Eat Free Every Monday and Tuesday.” It’s out in front of a Mexican food restaurant on my way home.

That’s called an offer. It’s not the restaurant’s main offering (which is trading Mexican food for money). As far as that goes, this is probably the third best (out of four) Mexican food joints in my hometown.

But every Monday and Tuesday night, the place is packed. They’ve made an appealing offer that caused people to take action.

“Offer” is a contractual term. It’s an invitation to enter into an economic relationship, or any relationship really. The relationship is based on mutual promises. I’ll do this for you if you give me money or attention or sex or friendship…

If there’s no acceptance of the invitation, there’s no contract and no relationship.

Uber-marketer Mark Joyner devotes an entire book to the subject of offers. He demonstrates that hugely successful businesses are built upon an Irresistible Offer.

Joyner’s work makes great companion reading to Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars, because both books say the same thing in different ways. Formulating an irresistible offer means telling a story that people want to hear, so they naturally respond.

You must then live the story and fulfill the offer.

It’s helpful to think about offers as coming in two varieties – primary and promotional. I’ll highlight a couple of Joyner’s favorite irresistible offers to demonstrate one of each type.

Primary Offers: Federal Express

FedEx is a $27 billion company so essential that corporate commerce might grind to a halt if they and their progeny ceased business. The company originated with an idea expressed in a Yale undergraduate term paper authored by founder Fred Smith, which according to popular lore received a C from his skeptical professor.

The company filled a huge need at the time, because the monopolistic United States Postal Service provided unacceptable results to really important people, mainly on Wall Street. So Fred took Wall Street’s money and became essential by providing an offer that couldn’t be refused – guaranteed overnight delivery.

When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

About the only thing this offer doesn’t communicate is price. If the price wasn’t right, FedEx would not have blasted off; but in the early days, price wasn’t the first question you asked if it really, absolutely, positively had to be there the next morning.

Promotional Offers: Domino’s Pizza

Tom Monaghan entered the world of pizza with a single location he bought in 1960. Pizza is a tough business – it’s the only food item that has its own category in the Yellow Pages, and there’s always several shops to choose from in any reasonably populated area.

While trying to expand the business, Monaghan faced near bankruptcy and franchise disputes that almost buried Domino’s. But one single promotional idea changed everything and put Domino’s in an overwhelmingly dominant position in this ultra-competitive field:

30 minutes or less… or it’s free.

That simple guarantee was explosive. The secret to the offer’s success resides in the nature of your average tired, hungry, time-strapped citizen. What seems like the safer bet – the tastiest pizza in town with unpredictable timing, or the pizza that arrives in a half-an-hour or else ends up a free meal?

The irony is, back before Domino’s had to discontinue the offer in 1993 due to an auto injury lawsuit, the pizza sucked. Some think it still does.

Each day, more than 1 million people in more than 50 countries eat Domino’s.

Make an Offer

It’s troubling to see so many companies and solos trying to gain business online, yet without ever making a compelling offer. There’s no apparent reason why someone should select you from the overcrowded field, because often you’ve made no express offer at all.

So many websites assume that a visitor will get the obvious value that the owner knows he provides. Value is communicated through offers, however, and those offers must be communicated quickly and explicitly. Consider your own surfing habits for a second, and ask yourself – why would my target audience be any different?

In the lingo of direct-response copywriting, an offer is a call to action. For bloggers, desired actions include having a reader subscribe, bookmark you, make comments, respond to surveys, and utilize your information resources that double as sales tools.

Start making offers if you want some action.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

Now Featuring Benefits!

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

One of the most repeated rules of compelling copy is to stress benefits, not features. In other words, identify the underlying benefit that each feature of a product or service provides to the prospect, because that’s what will prompt the purchase.

This is one rule that always applies, except when it doesn’t. We’ll look at the exceptions in a bit.

Fake Benefits

The idea of highlighting benefits over features seems simple. But it’s often tough to do in practice.

Writers often end up with fake benefits instead.

Top copywriter Clayton Makepeace asserts that fake benefits will kill sales copy, so you have to be on the lookout for them in your writing. He uses this headline as an example:

Balance Blood Sugar Levels Naturally!

That sounds pretty beneficial, doesn’t it? In reality, there’s not a single real benefit in the headline.

True Benefits

Makepeace advises to apply his patented “forehead slap” test to see if your copy truly contains a benefit to the reader. In other words, have you ever woken up from a deep sleep, slapped yourself in the forehead, and exclaimed “Man… I need to balance my blood sugar levels naturally!”

I think not. So getting someone to pull out their wallet to buy that so-called “benefit” will be difficult at best.

Here’s how Makepeace identifies the real benefit hidden in that headline:

Nobody really wants to balance their blood sugar levels. But anyone in his or her right mind DOES want to avoid the misery of blindness … cold, numb, painful limbs … amputation … and premature death that go along with diabetes.

A high risk person will want to avoid the terrible effects of diabetes. That is the true benefit that the example product offers.

How to Extract True Benefits

So, how do you successfully extract true benefits from features? Here’s a four-step process that works:

  1. Make a list of every feature of your product or service.
  2. Ask yourself why each feature is included in the first place.
  3. Take the “why” and ask “how” does this connect with the prospect’s desires?
  4. Get to the absolute root of what’s in it for the prospect at an emotional level.

Let’s look at a product feature for a fictional RSS Feed Reader:

Feature:

“Contains an artificial intelligence algorithm.”

Why it’s there:

“Adds greater utility by adapting and customizing the user’s information experience.”

What’s in it for them:

“Keeps the things you read the most at the forefront when you’re in a hurry.”

Emotional Root:

“Stay up to date on the things that add value to your life and career, without getting stressed out from information overload.”

Getting to the emotional root is crucial for effective consumer sales. But what about business prospects?

When Features Work

When selling to business or highly technical people, features alone can sometimes do the trick. Pandering to emotions will only annoy them. Besides, unlike consumers (who mostly “want” things rather than “need” them), business and tech buyers often truly need a solution to a problem or a tool to complete a task. When a feature is fairly well known and expected from your audience, you don’t need to sell it.

However, with innovative features, you still need to move the prospect down the four-step path. While the phrase “contains an artificial intelligence algorithm” may be enough to get the Slashdot reader salivating, he’ll still want to know how it works and what it does for him. The What’s in it for me? aspect remains crucial.

For business buyers, you’re stressing “bottom line” benefits from innovative features. If you can demonstrate that the prospect will be a hero because your CRM product will save her company $120,000 a year compared to the current choice, you’ve got a good shot.

While that may seem like a no-brainer purchase to you, you’ll still need to strongly support the promised benefit with a detailed explanation of how the features actually deliver. Remember, change scares the business buyer, because it’s their job or small business on the line if the product disappoints.

Sell With Benefits, Support With Features

We’re not as logical as we’d like to think we are. Most of our decisions are based on deep-rooted emotional motivations, which we then justify with logical processes. So, first help the right brain create desire, then satisfy the left brain with features and hard data so that the wallet actually emerges.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

The Structure of Persuasive Copy

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

We’ve seen that the purpose of each element of copy is designed to get the first sentence read, and from there keep the reader engaged step by step to the conclusion.

We know to keep things clear, concise and simple so that our writing communicates with ease.

And we definitely understand the make-or-break importance of an attention-grabbing headline.

So… how do we then structure our content to be persuasive?

Good content structure is never written in stone, but persuasive copy will do certain things and contain certain elements time and time again. Whether you’re writing a sales page, long blog post or promotional ebook, the flow will determine effectiveness.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. First of all, focus on the reader – make an important promise early on (with your headline and opening paragraphs) that tells the reader what’s in it for her. Never allow readers to question why they are bothering to pay attention.
  2. Each separate part of your narrative should have a main idea (something compelling) and a main purpose (to rile up the reader, to counter an opposing view, etc) that supports your bigger point and promise. Don’t digress, and don’t ramble. Stay laser focused.
  3. Be ultra-specific in your assertions, and always make sure to give “reasons why.” General statements that are unsupported by specific facts cause a reader’s BS detector to go on high alert.
  4. Demonstrate large amounts of credibility, using statistics, expert references and testimonials as appropriate. You must be authoritative – if you’re not an existing expert on a subject, you had better have done your research.
  5. After building your credibility and authority, make sure you get back to the most important person around – the reader. What’s STILL in it for him? Restate the hook and the promise that got readers engaged in the first place.
  6. Make an offer. Whether you’re selling a product or selling an idea, you’ve got to explicitly present it for acceptance by the reader. Be bold and firm when you present your offer, and relieve the reader’s risk of acceptance by standing behind what you say.
  7. Sum everything up, returning full circle to your original promise and demonstrate how you’ve fulfilled it.

These are some of the key elements of persuasive copy. Use them to provide a “roadmap” to your writing, and you’ll achieve better results.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

Writing Headlines That Get Results

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

It’s no surprise to discover that one of the most popular posts I’ve written was How to Write Headlines That Work. Every copywriter and every journalist knows the importance of a powerful headline, and that awareness has spilled into the political and news blogosphere, where everyone is a bit of a copywriter and a bit of a journalist.

Despite that, many still underestimate just how important headlines are. So here are some anecdotes, facts, and guidelines that can help you write even better headlines (and also let you know how much you should focus on them).

The 50/50 Rule of Headlines

According to some of the best copywriters of all time, you should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline. So if you have a blog post that is really important to you or your organization, one that you really want people to read, you should downright obsess over your post title.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy knew the power of headlines, and how the headline literally determined whether the advertisement would get read. He rewrote this famous headline for an automobile advertisement 104 times:

“At 60 miles an hour, the only thing you hear in the new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the dashboard clock …”

Master copywriter Gene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words of a sales piece — the headline and the opening paragraph. Those 50 words are the most important part of any persuasive writing, and writing them well takes time.

Even for the masters.

The 80/20 Rule of Headlines

Here are some interesting statistics.

On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of the headline, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece.

The better the headline, the better your odds of beating the averages and getting what you’ve written read by a larger percentage of people.

Writing a great headline doesn’t guarantee the success of your writing. The benefit conveyed in the headline still needs to be properly satisfied in the body copy, either with your content or your offer.

But great body content with a bad or even marginal headline is doomed to go largely unread.

How to Write a Great Headline

Last time, we looked at the different categories of headlines that work. This time, we’ll look at analytical techniques for producing great headlines.

The copywriting trainers at American Writers & Artists teach The Four U’s approach to writing headlines:

Headlines, subheads and bullets should:

  1. Be USEFUL to the reader,
  2. Provide him with a sense of URGENCY,
  3. Convey the idea that the main benefit is somehow UNIQUE; and
  4. Do all of the above in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way.

In a recent issue of the Early to Rise ezine, copywriter Clayton Makepeace says to ask yourself six questions before you start to write your headline:

  1. Does your headline offer the reader a reward for reading?
  2. What specifics could you add to make your headline more intriguing and believable?
  3. Does your headline trigger a strong, actionable emotion the reader already has about the subject at hand?
  4. Does your headline present a proposition that will instantly get your prospect nodding his or her head?
  5. Could your headline benefit from the inclusion of a proposed transaction?
  6. Could you add an element of intrigue to drive the prospect into your opening copy?

Makepeace’s six questions combined with the basic structure of The Four U’s provide an excellent framework for writing spectacular headlines. And you’ll note that just about any headline that satisfies the framework will fall into one of the eight categories you learned last time.

It takes work and focus, but the effort will make you a more popular blogger and a more profitable businessperson.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

For more on writing great headlines, check out the Magnetic Headlines series on Copyblogger.

Posted at Writing Tips

How to Write Headlines That Work

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader. Without a headline or post title that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your words may as well not even exist.

But a headline can do more than simply grab attention. A great headline can also communicate a full message to its intended audience, and it absolutely must lure the reader into your body text.

At its essence, a compelling headline must promise some kind of benefit or reward for the reader, in trade for the valuable time it takes to read more.

In The Copywriter’s Handbook, copywriter Bob Bly sets forth eight time-tested headline categories that compel action and rake in sales:

  1. Direct Headlines go straight to the heart of the matter, without any attempt at cleverness. Bly gives the example of Pure Silk Blouses – 30 Percent Off as a headline that states the selling proposition directly. A direct blog post title might read Free SEO E-book.
  2. An Indirect Headline takes a more subtle approach. It uses curiosity to raise a question in the reader’s mind, which the body copy answers. Often a double meaning is utilized, which is useful online. An article might have the headline Fresh Bait Works Best and yet have nothing to do with fishing, because it’s actually about writing timely content that acts as link bait.
  3. A News Headline is pretty self-explanatory, as long as the news itself is actually, well… news. A product announcement, an improved version, or even a content scoop can be the basis of a compelling news headline. Think Introducing Flickr 2.0 or My Exclusive Interview With Steve Jobs.
  4. The How to Headline is everywhere, online and off, for one reason only – it works like a charm. Bly says that “Many advertising writers claim if you begin with the words how to, you can’t write a bad headline.” An example would be, umm… oh yes… the title of this post.
  5. A Question Headline must do more than simply ask a question, it must be a question that, according to Bly, the reader can empathize with or would like to see answered. He gives this example from Psychology Today: Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home? Another example used way too much in Internet marketing guru-ville is Who Else Wants to Get Rich Online?
  6. The Command Headline boldly tells the prospect what he needs to do, such as Exxon’s old Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign. Bly indicates that the first word should be a strong verb demanding action, such as Subscribe to UCAN Today!
  7. Another effective technique is called the Reason Why Headline. Your body text consists of a numbered list of product features or tips, which you then incorporate into the headline, such as Two Hundred Reasons Why Open Source Software Beats Microsoft. It’s not even necessary to include the words “reasons why.” This technique is actually the underlying strategy behind the ubiquitous blogger “list” posts, such as 8 Ways to Build Blog Traffic.
  8. Finally, we have the Testimonial Headline, which is highly effective because it presents outside proof that you offer great value. This entails taking what someone else has said about you, your product or service, and using their actual words in your headline. Quotation marks let the reader know that they are reading a testimonial, which will continue in the body copy. An example might be “I Read ucanblog.org First Thing Each Morning,” admits Angelina Jolie.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

For more on writing great headlines, check out the Magnetic Headlines series on UCAN.

Posted at Writing Tips

To Be or Not to Be?

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

Now that’s a question.

The first six words of Hamlet’s Act III, Scene 1 soliloquy are without doubt the most famous line William Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s also one of the most recognizable quotes in the English-speaking world.

And not a single word over three letters long.

The lesson? Keep it simple. Good copy is written in clear, concise, simple words that get your point across. It’s conversational.

You can fracture the occasional rule of grammar too, if it helps to make your writing more digestible. Sentence fragments, one-sentence paragraphs, beginning with conjunctions and ending in prepositions are all fine, even desirable.

And don’t forget to use plenty of bullets and numbered lists.

Think your audience is too sophisticated for this? Don’t be so sure.

A recent study shows that more than 50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges in the United States could not:

  1. interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure;
  2. understand the arguments of newspaper editorials; or
  3. compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees.

The bad news is that these kids are more literate than the average US adult, which is not that surprising considering that the vast majority of US adults have less education.

So… keep it simple and clear. No one will ever complain that your writing is too easy to understand.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

Don’t Read This or the Kitty Gets It!

Posted on February 6, 2011 | Comment (0)

Copywriting 101

Poor Fluffy. I asked you not to do this, and you’ve gone and broken the rules.

Things don’t look good for this cute little kitten I’ve taken hostage in case my demands were not met. She is awfully sweet, though.

We’ll just have to wait until later on in the article to decide the fate of Fluffy. But first, we really do need to discuss the ultimate goal of good copywriting.

Stick with me and I’ll go easy on the cat, deal?

Let’s get started. What is the primary purpose of any piece of writing that you put out online — whether a blog post, a networking email, a sales letter or a tutorial?

For starters, to get what you’ve written read, right?

Makes sense.

So, what’s the primary purpose of your headline, your graphics, your fonts, and every other part of the content?

The simple, surprising answer is…

To get the first sentence read.

This may seem somewhat simplistic to you. Or maybe even confusing.

For me, I came across this way of looking at copywriting later in my studies. I had spent plenty of time trying to master the art of writing a perfect headline, or properly conveying product benefits, or learning how to craft a compelling call to action.

But it all came together for me when legendary copywriter and direct marketer Joe Sugarman shared his secret for becoming a great copywriter:

Every element of copy has just one purpose — to get the first sentence read.

In his seminars, Sugarman would quiz his students on the purpose of various copy elements: the headline, the graphics, the sub-headlines, etc. Why are they important?

“What is the purpose of a headline?” Sugarman would ask.

Every time the student started with some complicated, jargon-filled explanation, he would cut them off.

“The purpose is to get the first sentence read,” he would counter.

“And the purpose of the first sentence is to get the second sentence read,” he continued.

And so on, down a slippery slide that leads to your offer and the sale.

This is an extremely valuable way to go about structuring any writing, and it’s crucial to writing intended to persuade or sell. Many times we find ourselves so eager to arrive at our conclusion that we forget that the essence of making a persuasive point (or causing any action) is how we get there.

Step by step.

Now… how do we get there?

With this simple framework in mind, the stage is set for drilling down deeper into the nitty gritty of the “step by step.” We’re now in a better position to more fully appreciate the specific techniques that apply to all of the various elements of strong copy.

For example, we can now see:

  1. why a strong, compelling headline is critical;
  2. why immediately focusing on the benefit to the reader is so crucial;
  3. why you must make a promise to the reader that you later fulfill; and
  4. why you must back up everything you’ve said with very specific proof.

If no one reads, all is lost.

And the key to getting someone to read is one sentence at a time, so compelled by that sentence that they want to read the next. In other words, how you say it is how you get there.

This is the first of the 10-part “Copywriting 101 series” From here we’ll examine the core principles and elements that take a reader from the first sentence to the sale, subscription, download or other action.

And while I did get you to read this entire article, I wouldn’t exactly recommend the strategy employed here. It worked, but pulling cheap stunts like this won’t help you in the long run.

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

Posted at Writing Tips

 

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