“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”
Your brand needs well-chosen words (copywriting) to explain its promise and why you (or your team) is capable to deliver on it.
Effective copy (1) delivers your message and (2) strokes the imagination.
If you neglect the first, you aren’t converting anybody. No-one reads fat paragraphs vomit-stained with jargon. You need to write in a simple and direct way as if you were having a conversation.
If you fail at the second, nobody reads your stuff. No-one wants to chew through your arid content. Your audience needs the positive emotion that follows warm, funny, honest, fresh or visionary words.
It’s hard to brew up words that both sell and inspire.
That’s why good copywriters earn great money. But anyone who can string together a sentence can learn to be effective. Hence this chapter. I’ll explore:
The basic rules for copywriting.
- How to obtain copy that sells and inspires.
- How to test crucial lines of copy.
- How to design your copy.
Follow the steps and you’ll arrive at copy that – in the words of writer Ann Handley – “explains in human terms how [your brand] adds value to people’s lives, eases troubles, shoulders burdens, and meets needs.”
Rules for copywriting
Everybody can write. However, you need some basic rules to avoid boring your audience to death.
A copywriter is a salesman behind a keyboard.
Writing about your brand is about selling it. Nothing else.
Don’t be clever or literary. Your job is not to garner poetry accolades or impress your sweetheart. That’s a totally different sport. Selling is what matters here.
But if you sell too hard, defenses go up.
People distrust overt sales talk. And for good reason. Everyone has been burned by inaccurate or dishonest copy that overpromised the value of a brand.
The more discreet the sell, the more effective the copy.
So don’t put on the hard sell. Have a friendly conversation with your audience. Never boast, pose or brag, because your audience will think you’re sleazy.
Also, feel free to use emotional language.
Words like grow, love, heart, needs, driven, goals, choose, join, believe, conversation, personal, smarter, forge, experience are useful in presenting your pitch in a more humane way.
Be real, friendly, authentic, honest and personal.
Instead of writing “Our product increases customer loyalty”, write “Built to help you grow customer love.” 15
Instead of writing “This product is really easy to use”, write: “We believe power comes from simplicity.” 16
Instead of writing “We have more useful tools besides chat”, write: “Come for our chat. Stay for our everything else.” 17
The headline is critical
Your audience has aggressive filters for what deserves their attention. When scanning search results, newspapers or an inbox, the following rule applies:
Five times as many people read the headline as they read what’s beneath.
So your headline is the first, and probably only, impression you make on a prospective reader. This makes sense. The headline summarizes why the reader should bother. So if you botch it, nobody will.
This makes writing headlines a critical skill for brand builders.
Whether it’s the header on your website or header of an email – it deserves the most attention. Some copywriting legends recommend spending half your time on the piece’s headline.
Every line of copy has but one purpose – to get the next sentence read.
This goes for the header and the body copy. Get it read. And then the one after that. And so on, all the way to your call to action. The reason why all many headlines start with “How to”, “How”, “Why”, “Which”, “Who else”, “This”, “Because”, “If” or “Advice”. It works. Why?
Great copy immediately focusses on the reader’s benefit.
I know. Your brand is no clickbait. You don’t want your headlines to follow corny formulas. (No judgment if they do. I was amazed by how the cast of that 90’s show looks now!)
Keep it simple and stupid
Albert Einstein once said that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” He grows more right as our attention span withers.
Always write simply and directly.
Intellectual audiences are no exception. Even brainy readers are often so mentally congested that their comprehension drops to the level of a 12-year old.
Make sure your audience ‘gets’ your brand promise immediately.
The most successful headlines use less than 8 words. If you need more, think harder and come up with shorter versions.
If you can replace a multi-syllable word with a mono-syllable one, do so. Yes, your PhD friends will think you a simpleton, but you’re getting your point across just fine.
You can also bend the rules of grammar if it helps to get the message across. Use one-sentence paragraphs, sentence fragments, punctuation, and other magic if it makes your copy easier to digest.
No-one will complain that your copy is too easy. Ever.
Structure your body text
You can’t just leave it at the headline. When writing the body text underneath it you should:
- Keep focussing on the reader’s benefit. Never allow them to wonder why they are reading your copy.
- Each part of the body copy should support the brand promise by presenting a clear idea or benefit. Don’t digress with random stories.
- Cut out the fat.
- Offer large amounts of credibility whenever you can. Use media references, experts, customer testimonials, case studies and statistics to bolster your claims.
- In your conclusion, restate the original reason for your prospect to read your stuff. Summarize your story, showing them that you fulfilled the promise made in the header.
- Finally, conclude with an offer or a call to action. Give them guarantees if you can. Pressing that button or filling that form is no small thing.
How to source your copy
There are two ways to get your copy. You can do it yourself, or pay a copywriter.
Doing it yourself has the obvious benefit of being free. But it also saves you from extensively briefing a copywriter – which is necessary if she is to produce anything of value.
Even if you’ve never written copy before, quality relies more on authenticity and a love for your brand than experience.
What you lack in literary sophistication you can compensate with honesty and labor.
There is no need to know all the words. Besides, there’s a thesaurus for that. And if you follow these steps, you are bound to end up with something highly palatable to your audience.
Step 1: List the keywords used by your audience
Keywords are the exact words that your audience uses when searching.
This is invaluable because you can use these words in your headlines. If the customer sees their own words reflected back to them, you catch their attention.
By using the language of your audience, you prove that your brand is relevant to them.
Using keywords online also boosts your brand in search engine rankings. These machines care that the content displayed is relevant, so keyword use weighs heavily in their decision to bump you up in the results.
Of course, never use keywords for the sake of keywords.
Don’t jam them into your copy. Sometimes they just don’t jive. But keep a list of them handy when composing. If you can include them, all the better.
Step 2: Get inspired
There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Take a look at the most admired brands in your space, and see how they approach their headlines and body copy. Multinationals spend thousands of hours composing and testing their copy.
A. Get inspired by the style and rhythm of other
You can also search for swipe files, which are collections of headlines that worked. The history of advertising copy yielded thousands of do’s and don’t’s, free for you to access.
B. Google “great headline collection” and school
It’s never illegal to get inspired. Stealing is though. So don’t just copy other people’s work.
And whatever lessons you take away from the greats, know that there’s a sequence of words out there for you that captures your message just right.
Step 4: Test crucial copywriting
The major headlines on your website and flagship brochure should be field-tested. You’ll want to know what works and what doesn’t.
All crucial headlines should be tested.
Testing is cheaper and easier than ever before. Don’t skip it, believing that your prose should be exempt from commoner feedback. Also, don’t be lazy. Sub-optimal copy can seriously hurt your brand. Make sure it’s perfect and on point.
An easy way to test is Google Ads. You deploy multiple ads, each displaying a different version of your headline. The algorithm will rotate them. The one with the highest click-through-rate wins.
Step 5: Design your copywriting
People judge a book by its cover because they have no time to read every book. And that’s fair.
- Remember the introduction about cows and sh*tstains? Same goes for your copy. Hose it down and make it presentable:
- Design your text for scanning. Use short paragraphs and many headlines.
- Use an (online) spellchecker and let someone proofread your work.
- Use a font that’s easy on the eyes and big enough to read. See the chapter on fonts.
- Use short and/or indented paragraphs.
- Add relevant images and graphics.
- Mix it up using bold, italicized, underlined or highlighted words.
- Add quotes from famous people and or customers.
- Use visual cues like dividers and arrows, or playful elements like a handwritten signature.
- Use bullets or numbers to make clear lists. Every sentence with multiple commas is a candidate. (See? Walking the talk.)
Text that looks like a madman’s scribble on a truck stop toilet door will be ignored. And so it should.
So don’t drop the design ball. The package is as important as the content.
Summary and steps toward great copy
Effective copy (1) concisely delivers your message and (2) strokes the imagination. Your words should both sell and inspire.
You can write perfectly good copy by observing the rules. Make sure to use a conversational style and to focus on the headline.
Step 1: List the keywords used by your audience.
Step 2: Get inspired:
- Observe the style and rhythm of other brands.
- Google “great headline collection” and school yourself.
Step 3: Write and weigh every word.
Step 4: Test crucial copywriting.
Step 5: Design every piece of copy.
Save your work in a folder called “/brandname/copy/”.