Good, effective copywriting is just as much of a science as it is an art. Just because you know grammatical syntax and have a larger vocabulary than most, it doesn’t mean you’ll make a great copywriter.
There are a number of habits you must embrace in order to sell effectively, and here are at least 7 of them.
Let’s talk about copywriting. Let’s talk for a moment about what it means to be a good copywriter — an effective copywriter who can sell goods and services with the words that he or she writes.
Now, before we get started, it will help to clarify a few things. First off, the term “copy” or “copywriting” has a very specific meaning to me.
It means written words that sell.
Not words that inform or entertain.
Why is this important? Well, as we’re going to see here, not all writers are created equally. If you ask a random person what the qualities of a good writer are, they’ll probably list things like good grammar and spelling.
And yes, a good copywriter must embody these traits, but there are also a number of other habits they must embrace in order to sell effectively.
Here are at least 7 of them.
As David Ogilvy famously said,
On average, five times as many people read the headline as the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your advertising dollar.
So, not to overstate the obvious, but the ability to write great headlines (and sub-headlines) is what separates the copywriting wheat from the chaff.
But what qualifies as a great headline? This is not as obvious.
Let’s set the record straight here: when it comes to sales copy, good headlines are persuasive. They don’t have to be informative.
This is where a lot of writers get it wrong. Because a lot of them — probably most of them — don’t have sales backgrounds. Their backgrounds are in creative writing, or journalism, or something else. And what sometimes happens is the headlines read like chapters titles in a book.
Let’s look at a very simple example of this. Say your business is in consumer electronics. You have a sales page for one of your products that uses a lithium ion battery, which is superior to all other types of batteries.
Here’s some copy with a headline that’s strictly informational:
Now let’s try a headline that’s more salesy, more persuasive:
It all comes down to which one is more persuasive, and in order to be persuasive you have to know what people’s pain points are.
They don’t care what the battery is made of. They care about how long it’s going to last, and the headlines of great copy always reflect these concerns, i.e. the pain points, what’s going to actually close the sale.
Writing in the 2nd Person
As effective habit #1 makes clear, great copy will do a good job of identifying with the reader, who they are and what their needs are. And there’s no better way to accomplish this than by writing in the second person — “you,” as opposed to the first person (“I”) or the third person (“he/she/it”).
When you write in the second person, you speak directly to the audience. You don’t speak in the abstract by writing copy like, “Men and women need this product…” You say, “You need this product.”
Think about Uncle Sam, which is the product of one of the most effective propaganda/advertising campaigns in the 20th century: the iconic old man pointing the finger directly at you and saying “I want YOU for U.S. Army.”
Think about the effect that poster would have had if it had instead said, “I want able-bodied men…”
Or if it had said, “I want anybody who’s willing to enlist…”
By speaking in the second person, speaking directly to the audience they wanted to reach, the U.S. government made it personal. They don’t just want anybody. They want you. They want you to enlist and fight for your county, etc.
Looking at the poster, it’s almost like you can hear Uncle Sam talking to you. Like he knows you intimately. He’s an old friend of yours telling you something you need to hear.
And we’re all more likely to buy from an old friend than from some page on the Internet with no voice and no personality.
Speaking of “voice,” here’s one more grammatical habit that effective copywriters tend to have: using the active voice instead of the passive voice.
For those of you who don’t know the distinction between active and passive, let this example illustrate:
- Passive voice: “This landing page has some really effective sales copy written by me.”
- Active voice: “I wrote some really effective sales copy on this landing page.”
See the difference there? See the subtle — yet powerful — difference in the emotions that each statement evokes? Both say the exact same thing, but the difference is in where the emphasis is.
The passive voice first mentions the landing page and the fact that it has really effective copy on it. The issue of who wrote it is almost an afterthought.
But the active voice immediately mentions that I wrote the copy. Me. I wrote really effective sales copy.
Now, why should you care who wrote the copy? Because my massive inferiority complex demands validation for every little achievement?
Nope. Remember what sales copy does: it sells. So the emphasis of the copy should always be on what it’s selling.
If I’m trying to sell you on my copywriting skills, you’re damn right I’m going to make it about myself. And if you’re trying to sell people your products or services, the statements you make should be about those products or services.
Consider the statement, “Your life will be changed by this product,” versus the same statement in the active voice, “This product will change your life.”
There’s no question of what will change your life. It’s the product, whereas in the first statement that’s not so clear.
And why is that?
Well, the passive voice is called the passive voice for a reason: it’s passive. There’s not enough conviction in it. Not enough energy. And no one is going to buy from you if you yourself aren’t confident in and enthusiastic about your own product (vis-a-vis your copy).
A good copywriter never uses three words when two will do. And they will, at all costs, avoid going on tangents in their copy.
Unnecessarily long copy has the effect of boring the reader, whereas good, effective copywriting should be stimulating.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who just wouldn’t stop talking? You eventually drift off and sort of pretend to listen.
Well, that’s what happens when copywriting fails to arrive at the point in a timely manner.
But the bigger point here is that extremely long copy will also have the effect of talking the reader out of a purchase.
Because every word between the fold and the call to action is just something that delays conversion.
The average person can read 200 words per minute and retain about 60% of the information. So, when a landing page is made up of 2000 words, that’s about 10 minutes before they absorb the minimum amount of information they need to make an informed purchase. And every second before the clock strikes 10 is another second for them to feel doubt or uncertainty, another opportunity to leave the sales funnel and never come back.
Broadly speaking, effective sales copy will always follow a formula that more or less follows as such:
- Grab the reader’s attention
- Identify a problem
- Provide the solution
- Present your credentials
- Demonstrate the benefits
- Offer social proof
- Make your offer
Now, I’m the kind of guy who’s always willing to color outside the lines when the situation calls for it. But, I also know and appreciate that the lines are there for a reason.
Because no one’s going to care who you are or what credentials you have (#4) unless you’ve already provided a solution (#3) to a concrete problem they have (#2).
And no one’s going to take your offer (#7) seriously unless they’ve already heard what other people have to say (#6) and they’ve been convinced of the benefits (#5).
All the time, I see sloppy copywriting that doesn’t follow much of any organization, much less the format described above. And the reason why is pretty obvious. They’re writers grinding to meet some deadline. So they just sat down and wrote.
They didn’t take the time to create an outline of their copy, and because of that, it reads with the same coherence as a toddler telling Mommy about his first day at pre-school.
Simple, Vernacular Language
Now, I actually think the average consumer is a lot more intelligent than most marketers and advertisers give them credit for. So I’m not one to condescend or talk down to an audience.
However, the fact remains that not everyone has such a fantastic vocabulary. And good copywriters know this, so they shy away from “big words.”
But big words don’t necessarily have to be big or even have more than one syllable. By big words, we mean anything that might obscures the message of the copy.
So, for example, good copy will not say “concept,” but rather “idea.” It will say “book” rather than “novel,” or “movies” rather than “cinema,” etc. You get the idea.
It’s important to realize than probably no one has a dictionary handy when they’re reading your sales copy. They’re not going to take the time to look up a word if they don’t know what it means.
But what’s even more important is the fact that “big words” sound pretentious. They sound academic, whereas good sales copy should sound informal.
So good copy makes rich use of the vernacular (which, yes, is a “big word,” but I’m here to inform, not to sell… “vernacular,” by the way, means “everyday language”).
In fact, the grammar of good copy probably won’t be all too pristine. It may include fragments, run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, and other faux-pas that would keep any English major up at night.
Because, again, it all comes down to who the audience is. Sales copy written for the everyman, “Joe-Six-Pack.” And guess what? Joe-Six-Pack makes these kinds of grammatical errors all the time.
And you know what else? Joe doesn’t care if you scored an 800 on the writing section of your SATs. Only your ego does… but your ego isn’t going to make a purchase on your sales page.
Now, making your language simple doesn’t mean it has to be dull. Far from it. In fact, prudent use of metaphors and rhetoric can help you sell better — and here’s why.
More often than not, it is the job of the copywriter to reveal a problem to the reader that the reader didn’t even know they had in the first place.
It can be hard for anyone to identify why they need your product/service. Recently, we launched a product with our client David Wygant called The Love Blueprint, which is essentially a manual for discovering and embracing one’s ideal love life (from the sex they want to how they prefer to communicate in relationships, and everything in between).
The opening email for the launch went like this (and we’re paraphrasing here):
When you go to a restaurant, you order your food exactly the way you want it. If you want medium-rare stake with mashed potatoes, you order that, not a well-done chicken with yams. You order it EXACTLY the way you want it done… so why would you “order” people in your love life who aren’t EXACTLY what you want?
The use of metaphor here is significant because we’re talking about love, which is an extremely vague topic. If we had simply led with “why do you have relationships with people you’re not into?” almost nobody would identify with it.
But by leading with a metaphor that compared something almost anybody could identify with (ordering in a restaurant) to what we were selling to, we hooked them. They could say, “You know what, I’ve never thought about it like that. You’re right. I do ‘order’ people in my love life who I don’t want.”
This is, of course, just one example. But there are plenty of others in marketing history. Think about Apple’s landmark 1984 advertisement. It’s basically a minute-long allegory in which the heroine (Apple) frees society from the oppression of Apple’s competitor (IBM).
Or take a moment to think about Red Bull’s famous tagline “It gives you wings.” What are they communicating with that message? They’re saying, “Anything with caffeine can give you energy. But Red Bull gives you superpowers.”
So what have we learned today? Well, not every writer is a good copywriter. Good, effective copywriting is just as much of a science as it is an art.
Sure, it involves creativity, and in fact, the greatest copywriters will indeed have that in spades.
But, there are also rules. There are structures, proven formulas that sell. And while rules can be bent or broken, only a fool would dismiss them out of hand.
Good copy should be organized. The headlines should speak to the audience’s pain points. The language should be simple, yet lively, the grammar active and informal.
And there are plenty of others that could have been listed here. I haven’t even touched on formatting and knowing which words to bold, italicize, underline, and highlight. Maybe we’ll save that for a separate article.
But to bring it all home, what you should know about copywriting is this. Not all writing is copywriting, and not all copywriting is good copywriting that can effectively sell whatever you’re trying to sell.
If the world were any different, Stephen King would be scripting Coke commercials. We never would have had Salem’s Lot, and companies like TM34 Marketing wouldn’t exist.