Stage 1: Understanding the Mechanics — The untrained copywriter can become exponentially better in a day’s worth of training. It really is that easy. And a copywriter that’s made that minimum effort can get results, right away. That’s why a lot of A-List copywriters will tell you that you don’t have to become a great writer to make money writing copy.
Stage 2: Learning the Psychology of “Salesmanship in Print” — Semi-decent copywriters won’t continue to get better without at least a few month’s or a year’s worth of continued study and practice. That’s because they’re moving from the core mechanics and basic mindset of copywriting, to applying effective sales psychology to their writing.
Stage 3: Becoming a Serious Student of Advertising Artistry — Moving from seasoned, journeyman copywriter to true pro DOES require that you become a better writer. You must become adept at directing the “movie in the mind” of the prospect, and that requires superior wordsmithing along with artistry above and beyond the previous two stages. Naturally this takes longer to learn.
So why should you care?
First, it’s important to know that you can get dramatic improvements and business results from moving through the first two stages. Meaning that it’s worth the limited effort to get better even if you are NOT looking to become a professional copywriter or marketer.
Second, if you ARE looking to become a professional copywriter, you’ll get better faster if you understand what stage of development you’re in and what resources will help you the most for any given stage. That’s not to say the components of each stage don’t overlap, but that they do tend to build one stage on the other, so you shouldn’t spend too much time, say, trying to learn rhetorical flourishes if you haven’t mastered the basics of WIIFM, substantiation and proof, etc.
And with that in mind, here are some solid, mostly free resources to get you to that next level:
Understanding the Mechanics
To me, the basic mechanics of copywriting includes the following:
- Moving from We-We to You-You Copy
- Why We-We talk never gets the
- A quick and dirty calculator to see how much your copy is “we-we-ing” all over itself
- The Carlin Ad-Speak Calculator — how much BS does your copy really contain?
- A Case Study: Speak to the Dog in the Language of the Dog About What Matters to the Dog
- Why We-We talk never gets the
- The Importance of WIIFM and Benefits vs. Features
- Learning AIDAS and/or the Four “P“s of persuasive messaging
- UVPs, Irresistible Offers, and Calls to Action
- Gary Halbert demos the “how to” of creating an irresistible offer as only he can
- Sonia Simone’s 15-minute Guide to Creating a USP
- Charlie Moger on why it should really be the Unique BUYING Proposition
- Brian Clark on why it should be called the Unique STORY Proposition
- The Grok on the importance of Calls to Action
- Writing Calls to Action as Persuasive Links
- Substantiation & Proof Elements
- Do Your Readers Secretly Think You’re a Liar?
- How to Signal Sincerity When Words Alone Won’t Cut It
- The 6 Currencies that Buy Credibility
- Infomercial Proof Elements Guaranteed to Work — Or Your Money Back
- Dave Young’s Video Explains Online Trust and Credibility Builders
- Marketing Experiments Explains Credible vs. Non-Credible Copy
- Anticipating and Answering the (prospect’s) Freaking Question & Objection
- Achieving Clarity and Conversational Tone
So, there’s obviously a bit more to the basic mechanics of good copywriting than JUST these elements, and for you dedicated students, I’ve come up with two entirely FREE resources to cover those:
- Jeffrey and Bryan Eisenberg have graciously agreed to let my readers download a free copy of their highly praised and sought after book, Persuasive Online Copywriting.
- You can download a free, no-email-necessary PDF of Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising right here.
Learning the Psychology of Salesmanship in Print
Sales Psychology is a BIG topic, and I’m sure I’m leaving lots of topics uncovered, but for me, the must-have basics include:
- Understanding The Elements of Influence
- Learning about Temperaments & Decision-Making Styles/Needs
- Understanding the Role of Self-Image in Persuasion
- Understanding the Importance of Persuasive Momentum
- Framing Arguments & Manipulating Context
- Understanding how prospects are Predictably Irrational
Obviously, there is a lifetime’s worth of learning around these topics and any number of “additional reading” books could be recommended. That said, the best FREE resources for this stage are Roy H. Williams first two books in his Wizard of Ads trilogy, The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads, both which you can download as audio and e-books for free at Roy’s Website.
Becoming a Serious Student of Advertising Artistry
Once you understand the mechanics and the psychology, you enter the realm of advanced techniques, subtlety of execution, and general artistry. This is where the ad writer has the most in common with the novelist, playwright, movie director, entertainer, and even the stage musician. Here are
- Frameline Magnetism & Closure (aka, Knowing What to Leave Out)
- Short-Form Drama and Storytelling
- Nested Storytelling
- Mental Imagery & Image-based Ad Writing
- Magical Thinking
- Set-ups and Payoffs
- Hooking the Reader /Listener
Most business owners don’t want to draw that sharp line of distinction, and it’s why their marketing efforts blend into the clutter.
Discernible edges and silhouettes allow us to visually identify an object, separating its figure from the background “noise.” Eliminate those discernible edges and break up the silhouette, and you’ll effectively camouflage yourself.
In the top-left picture, you’ll notice how the person’s legs, backpack, and hat all present a solid silhouette, with clearly defined edges. They stand out from the background and are easily identified. But the man’s upper body, clothed by the camouflage pattern jacket, blends smoothly into the landscape. The pattern breaks up his silhouette and blurs his edges into the background of mountainside, snow, and brush. As a result, your eyes end up visually identifying the man by his packback and hat first, and then squint in to find where his shoulder, body, and arms “should” be.
This works the same way for advertising. Like our eyes, our minds also depend on edges and silhouettes. We define by giving parameters, mentally grasping a concept by its boundaries. Without the “edges” of contrasting reference points, a concept or term remains ambiguous at best. To know what a donut is, you have to know the difference between a donut and a danish — to know what isn’t a donut.
This is why grabbing after an “infinite” market and seeking to be all things to all people ends up camouflaging one’s brand and messaging; without contrast it all just blurs into the background.
And that’s a good thing because it makes it easy to stand out — if you’ve got the guts. Want to stand out? Sharply define the edges between you and your competitors. It’s that simple.
The better you do this, the more strongly you’ll turn-off some customers. But wouldn’t you rather powerfully persuade some of your market than be overlooked by all of it?
A Bold Example of Reverse Camouflage In Action
“You don’t want me to be your family doctor.”
Pretty ballsy headline for a doctor, huh? Wouldn’t you feel compelled to read more about this doctor with the courage to so brazenly declare what he wasn’t?
Having gained the reader’s attention, the body copy further explains: “Neurosurgery is one of the few medical specialties for which I am well-suited. I am not warm and fuzzy. I could never be successful as a pediatrician or in a family practice — no one would come back a second time. But I am very good at what I do.”
Dr. Goodman then substantiates his claimed expertise with a list of very impressive professional qualifications and accomplishments, rounded off with some examples of his extreme commitment to surgical excellence and his patients’ well-being.
While his professional qualifications are truly outstanding, most readers would never have read them without Dr. Goodman’s use of reverse camouflage in his headline. Saying what he wasn’t allowed Dr. Goodman to stand out amidst the clutter.
3 sure-fire ways to reverse-camouflage your messaging:
1. Get yourself an enemy and/or reject a reasonable alternative position
Nothing fires the blood quite so much as declaring what — or better yet who — you stand against. But you get no points for tearing down straw men; rejecting a reasonable alternative position puts teeth into your message.
2. Present a tightly focused perspective
Once you’ve narrowed the group of customers that you’re most interested in attracting, focus your messaging to speak most directly to their deeply felt needs, desires, and frustrations. People who don’t share those experiences will feel excluded, but your core audience will feel an instant connection. Both will instantly recognize you. Tim Miles offers a brilliant example of this on his “About Us” page.
3. Explain what costs you’re willing to bare and admit the downside to your offer/product.
What you’re willing to put up with in order to satisfy a passion can be as much of a marker of identity as the passion itself. Stick shifts aren’t as pleasant to drive in thick traffic, but a lot of driving purists wouldn’t have it any other way. Top end kitchen knives require extra care in terms of cutting surfaces and using the right knife for the job, but those are points of pride for Foodies and Chefs. So admitting these downsides is not only the right and honest thing to do, it’s also the persuasive thing to do. And for two reasons: 1) as just discussed, it helps enthusiasts further identify with your brand; 2) admitting the downside boosts credibility — and credibility acts as its own form of reverse camouflage amidst a background of hype and BS.
P.S. If you’d like to learn more about Camouflage, I highly recommend this brilliant piece in the New York Times.
A successful small business that’s survived and even thrived for 5 or 15 years already HAS an identity, history, reputation, etc. So while that business probably won’t have a ready-at-hand Unique Selling Proposition or Purple Cow to provide to the ad writer, it also won’t represent a blank slate either.
So copywriters either have to FIND something remarkable and relevant to write about, or they have to consign themselves to gawd-awful horror of ad-speak: “in business since… with fast friendly service… for all your ____ needs.”
Bottom Line: ad consultants (and owners without advertising help) have to play Iron Chef — they have to whip up that gourmet dish, not from scratch, and not by following a predetermined recipe, but by making use of whatever ingredients are already on hand.
So let me share two practical techniques you can use to make that happen. They might not sound practical, because I’ve given them weird sounding tags like “Philosophize the Action” and “Do the Philosophy,” but they do work, and to quote Murphy’s Laws of Combat: “If it’s stupid but it works, it ain’t stupid.” At any rate, here are the promised steps:
1) Philosophize the Action
Frist, ignore whatever the business owner tells you about what she or the business stands for. Ignore the mission statement. Instead, ask the owner what tangible, viewable, verifiable thing or action she insists on regardless of whether they can charge extra for it, or can promote it as value-added to the client. Something they do just because they simply refuse not to do it, or to do it any other way.
Put another way, actions speak louder than words, so focus on the actions. But make sure it’s actions motivated by some inner value rather than profit, convenience, etc.
You’d think this sort of thing would be rare — business men being in business to make money and all, you’d think they’d be loath to put effort into a non-profit making effort or add on — but rather than rare, it’s almost universal; I’ve never not seen it in a privately owned business.
Why is this and why does it matter?
Businesses are owned by people, and people can’t help but express their values. I’ve seen this done by various owners insisting on:
- Providing extra training for their techs,
- Answering phones within 7 rings,
- Paying well above market pricing for higher quality materials or parts
- Putting in extra bracing, padding, key ingredients, etc
- Using only this mechanism and not the more popular, economical one
- And so on.
The thing is to dig until you FIND that sort of thing. THEN figure out what values that commitment communicates, which brings us to…
2) Act on the Philosophy
Now that you have seen an action that’s insisted on even when it costs the business owner to insist, you can take that the value that the action expresses and use it to flavor other aspects of his business.
So if answering the phone within 7 rings is the action you dug up, then perhaps the values at play are responsiveness and human warmth. So see if you can’t bake in better responsiveness and warmth — or expressions of the same — into other interactions and touchpoints with the company. For example, a contractor might make a commitment to get quotes out in 24-hours and to provide customers with the names and e-mail addresses of the techs handling their accounts. That sort of thing.
This is different than a from-scratch ingredient because it was already on-hand, even if it was hidden at first — and also because the values are already deeply held by the owner, meaning that the suggestions are more likely to be implemented with vigor than suggestions dreamt up “from scratch.” Meaning that the ads can promise these points of difference with confidence.
Once you’ve gone through step 2, you can now attempt to build some sort of messaging, USP, or campaign around the uncovered value and new points of differentiation.
And since this is Practical Tactical Tuesday, you know I’ll make sure to give you an example. So here’s a case study from the Great Tim Miles that perfectly illustrates this technique. Go read it — you’ll be glad you did.
P.S. If you’ve never seen Iron Chef, you should check out this short clip of the opening credits. It’ll explain a lot : )
“The longer it takes to explain an idea, the smaller it seems” — Lee Clow
Great ads can deliver an idea like “Winning the Battle of the Short List” in less than 30 seconds. Or in the example below, in 9 short lines and less than 64 words. Better yet, great ads make you feel the truth of the idea in your gut.
How do they do that?
Usually with drama. Take this magazine ad I ran into over at the Sell! Sell! Blog:
Totally different experience than reading my blog post on the same subject, right?
And they created that experience through short-form drama. They sucked you into a story — smack in the middle of a mini drama — before you even realized it. And while you were mentally playing out that drama, they sucker punched you with the emotional truth of the idea. Here’s how:
1) The image of the ad has a high degree of story appeal. The guy is looking at you and he doesn’t look happy. So what’s that all about, right? Apparently there’s trouble in River City, and where there’s trouble, there’s a story. So curiosity obliges you to read the copy to figure it out and get the scoop.
2) The copy speaks directly to you, the reader. You are indeed being addressed by this man, and — boom! — at that instant you’re now inside the drama.
3) The copy makes it immediately and painfully obvious that you’re walking into a tough sell. A very tough sell that get’s tougher with each line of copy from the prospects mouth.
So once you finish reading and finally pop out of the mini-drama, the emotional truth of the message hits home. There’s just no denying the truth of that final “Moral.”
The Beauty of Short-Form Drama
So what’s the moral of THIS story?
Moral: Great ad writers do use short form storytelling and short form drama to cause people to realize the truth of your message on an emotional, gut-feel level. Most advertising fails because most ads aren’t written by ad writers capable of persuading through short-form drama.
What kind of persuasion is your ad writer baking into your ads?
OK, before you do anything else, watch this all the way through:
Now, regardless of which side of this issue you are on, put that aside for now. If you don’t you’ll never see the persuasive art at work in the film.
So what techniques ARE at work in the film?
Well, the grand strategy is to get you emotionally involved in the story of the featured man’s relationship — presumably with a woman who’s “first person shooter” perspective you’re watching in the video.
In fact, the creators of this video want you to not only be drawn into the narrative arc of their story, but to be “rooting” for the couple. So how do they do that?
1) Use of First Person Shooter Perspective & Narrative Misdirection
Whenever fiction writers need to write a suspense novel or mystery, they usually write from a Third Person Limited perspective, meaning the reader sees the world through the eyes of the main character and is privy to that one character’s thoughts, but every other character is only ever presented externally, as seen through the eyes of the main character.
This perspective allows close identification between the reader and the main character. It also allows the author to lead the reader in one direction, and then yank the carpet out from under their feet for a “big reveal.” We see Harry Potter’s world through the eyes of Harry Potter, and are surprised to find Quirrell, and not Snape, as the bad guy at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone.
Sounds kind of like the video, doesn’t it?
Of course it does. In the video, you see everything from the perspective of the “girl” being flirted with, dated by, and romanced by “Paul.” And you frequently experience you and Paul’s co-participating in activities with other hetero couples. Leading you to believe that Paul is also involved in a hetero couple.
This sets the stage. This technique allows the video to get you to think about the couple absent any other preconceptions you might have. They have to get you to like and root for the couple BEFORE the big reveal.
So step 1 is First Person Shooter Perspective combined with Narrative Misdirection.
2) Use of “Character Rooting Techniques”
Screenwriting gurus will tell you that you can’t assume the audience will like and root for your main character — you have to bake in scenes designed to GET the audience to like and root for your character. The late Blake Snyder called this “saving the cat” and thought it was important enough to name his first screenwriting book, Save the Cat.
And the corollary to saving the cat? Squashing the cat. You either have the hero perform some kind or heroic act, or you have the character suffer some kind of undeserved misfortune. Disney redeems the thieving Aladin in the eyes of the audience by having him give his stolen food to street urchins. He saves the cat. Cinderella loses her mom, and gets abused by her stepmom. She suffers undeserved misfortune.
So what does this film do?
- It starts out with playful, “meet cute” flirting. Every adult has had this experience and most people reflect back on the fear and emotional charge of such a moment, meaning that you almost can’t help but want success (however you define it) for the people involved.
- Lot’s more “Like me” moments. Playing on the beach, meeting parents, arguing over directions, and lots of other similar scenes that most viewers can instantly identify with.
- Playfulness. Most of the scenes show “Paul” acting playful and fun. This is very human and makes the couple instantly likeable.
- Undeserved misfortune. Paul’s mom is introduced earlier in one of those “like me moments” that define the narrative arc of the relationship. So when Paul’s mom dies, we can’t help but ache for him. And to appreciate the relationship that helps him get through that death.
So we get lots of Character Rooting Interest moments packed into this 2 minute video. All setting up maximum emotional punch for the big reveal.
What the Heck Does this Have to Do with Advertising?
If these fiction writing techniques can get you to like and root for a couple in spite of a highly-charged politically divisive issue, do you think they could work to get you to identify with and like a brand?
Sure they could. Similar techniques worked for Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, Bartles & Jaymes, and “I’m a Mac.” And they can be put to work for you, too, even if you’re not a huge multinational. Here’s an example created by my partner, Roy Williams, for a local HVAC client:
And here’s another one:
So, do you think that after watching a series of these ads, you might start liking and rooting for Mr. Jenkins and Bobby?
Well, whether you do or not, the ads are increasing sales. So somebody’s rooting for Mr. Jenkins. Actually, a whole lot of somebodies.
What are you doing to get people to root for YOUR business?
It does require a certain repetition of high-impact messaging for key influencers and decision makers. But that can be achieved through the use of targeted mailings, rather than, say, radio spots.
Take the IT example from last week’s Theory Thursday column: if you knew that the short list for IT vendors was composed lower-down on the food chain than the CIO, for example, you could do exploratory work getting the contact info for those IT managers, and create a monthly mailing to them for your particular brand and service promises.
A mailing a month with relevant messaging and creative execution would certainly gain you top of mind awareness with those managers when they ended up in the market for what you sell.
Of course, the key to all this is the “relevant messaging” and “creative execution” parts. If you aren’t relevant and interesting they will ignore you. So let’s get down to the practical part of this!
So when mass media isn’t feasbile, and you’re not selling a product with widespread, mass appeal, here’s how to create “monthly mailings” that’ll win you the battle for the short list:
Make routine mailings more relevant by focusing in on Precipitating Events
If your IT company offers hosted exchange hosting, realize that people don’t switch from in-house to hosted exchange services on a whim, or on the proposed hope of saving some marginal amount of the IT budget.
IT managers typically switch to hosted exchange because they’re worried about:
- e-mail service going down
- e-mail service getting botched
- e-mail service getting messed up with some new upgrade,
- or they have a bad feeling,
- or all of the above.
And the reason these managers put off switching is because of the pain and distruption generally involved in the switch.
So what if your routine mailings stopped promising exquisite service and low turnover, yada, yada, yada, and instead starting focusing in on guaranteed less than 12-hour migration time tables. Ability to migrate even downed systems. Guaranteed no loss of data, and so on. Make the messaging relevant to the pain points of the manager experiencing the precipitant event.
Make Routine Mailings Relevant by Giving Key Information to the Inside Decision Makers
A colleague of mine, Tom Wanek, works with a Physical Therapist who was having lousy luck getting doctors to recommed his work, even though they personally thought he was a top notch therapist in the area.
Turns out, the doctors simply didn’t like being on the hook for a perceived “endorsement” and would rather prescribe the therapy and let patients make their own decisions about who to use.
So my colleague advised the therapist to focus in on the practice managers and nurses at the front desk by sending routine mailers out to them.
And what was on those mailers?
A list of the types of therapy provided and specialized in, types of insurance covered, and so on. They even occassionally put that on a magnet, to make it easier to use as a ready reference.
Now, when the patient walked out with paperwork for this type of therapy, and an insurance card from that provider, the nurses can look at the reference card, and recommend my colleagues client as at least one of the providers the patient could go to.
In other words, that sort of Key Information mailer helped win The Battle of the Short List.
Make Routine Mailings Fun
The problem with a lot of mailers is that they look like junk mail. Hey, from a certain perspective — that of a guy sorting mail over a trash can — they ARE junk mail. Injecting some fun and creativity into the mailer gets your stuff looked at and appreciated.
There are tons of creative techniques but I might recommend Bill Glazer’s Outrageous Advertising. Lots of good examples that are easy to swipe and deploy for your own business.
You can also look at the products available from 3dmailresults.com and you should get a few ideas on 3-dimensional mailing gimicks that could be used to get your mailer opened and looked at. And, no, you don’t need to use 3-dimensional mailings, a little creativity can allow you to create mailings around current events, such as this Groundhog Day mailing my partner Tim Miles made.
Finally, in keeping with the “Practical Tactical” theme, here’s a nice way to outsource your requent mailers: sendoutcards.com
So Here Are Your 4 Practical Take Aways
1. Make a list of the “real” decision makers in an organization
Who might make the decision other than the person who bottom-lines the check? Managers, Executive Assistants, End Users of the Product, Sales Staff, and so on.
2. Make a list of precipitant events for your industry, product or service
Figure out what happens to the prospect to kick off her moment of need. If you’re not sure of what those events are, ask your sales team; they’ll know. And if your sales team doesn’t know, you might want to look into getting some better sales talent as long term solution to that. Short term, do some digging on appropriate internet forums, bulletin boards, twitter, social media platforms, and so on.
3. Figure out key information your short-list decision makers will need
Don’t assume it’s necessarily pricing. It could center around compatibility, speed, service after the sale, financing, service level agreements, or sales. Whatever it is, figure it out. Again, your sales team should know this stuff, if you don’t. And if neither you or your sales staff know it, consider interviewing or surveying some or all of your past customers. This stuff is important — no, crucial!
4. Ideate some creative mailers and start sending them out
Need some help getting creative? You could find some useful stuff here