What is Copywriting?

If we said copywriting is presenting written words to best communicate a marketing concept, such as on a website, in an email, in an advertisement or a direct mail letter, or on TV, radio, press releases, catalogs, billboards, brochures, sales letters, and other marketing communications media, that would encapsulate the essence of the term, but there is more to know.

The word “Copy” itself refers to written material on a website or email or in any other form of publishing, such as magazines, advertising, books, etc. In this usage, copy is simply what is used to differentiate the written words from photographs, graphics or other elements of layout and design.

Purpose of Copywriting

The very purpose of copywriting is to persuade the reader to act: whether to buy a product or service; or call for more information; or subscribe to a newsletter; or download a document; or adopt a certain viewpoint; or to oppose a particular viewpoint.

At first blush, one might consider that anyone can write copy. And, in fact, technically that would be true. In the same way that anyone with a voice can sing, or anyone with a phone can make videos or anyone with an arm can throw a baseball. However, the reality is that a small percentage of people who can sing, create films or throw baseballs get paid a large income because they are so darn good at their respective areas of expertise.

Hence, just like professionals in other careers, high-paid copywriters get better results than most others. To put this in perspective, some copywriters get paid tens of thousands of dollars for writing a few pages of promotional materials.

One might wonder how one person’s depiction of a product or service could be so much better than someone else’s? But in the world of commerce, it’s not a matter of mere opinion. By actual comparative results, better copy generates higher sales. Which is, in fact, how better copy is evaluated.

Copywriting Research

What’s not always so obvious is that a top-notch copywriter doesn’t usually just type out a bunch of words based purely on imagination. Although creativity is an inherent skill, research is where the work begins.

  • Research provides a greater understanding re the specific product or service.
  • Research informs details about the target audience.
  • Research informs what’s important to the target audience.
  • Research informs why a product or service is better than the competition.
  • Research informs whether one feature or benefit that the advertiser thinks is meaningful, may be less so than another feature or benefit.
  • Research informs the whole matter of how to begin and end a sales message, as well as everything in between.

Doing thorough research is no substitute for the experience and creativity a highly competent copywriter will bring to the final result. But it will provide a substantially greater opportunity to be a better copywriter than you would be without doing the work.

Copywriting Formulas

There are different formulas that copywriters may employ to craft their copy. Just do an online search and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore a variety of different ways to present your message.

However, just like knowing a formula for writing a successful song, or movie script, or novel won’t make you a great songwriter, scriptwriter or best-selling novelist, reading copywriting formulas won’t make you a top-notch copywriter.

On the other hand, copywriting formulas do provide frameworks that can help tie your research, features, benefits, and sales message together into a cohesive presentation.

The risk, of course, is that if you follow a popular formula too closely, some audiences will be put off by what they may conceive as no more than hackneyed assertions that belie the true value of your offering.

Copywriting Language

One fundamental point of drafting compelling copywriting is using direct and simple words. Communicating in the language of the target audience just makes it easier to connect with a reader.

A successful salesman is good with communication, whether innately gifted or whether learned through the world of experience. He or she is also good at listening.

So too, successful copywriting includes not only the words themselves and their inherent effectiveness at persuasion, but the quantity of words. Just like a salesperson can talk too much and kill a sale, too many written words can tire a fickle reader. Even though you might be capable of writing an entire book about the features and benefits of your product or service, that doesn’t mean a majority of your target audience will read it.

Hence, another perspective would be, what are the fewest words that can drive interest for your product or service?

Nor does that suggest that you need to restrict your message to an arbitrary word count (other than what may be technically required for an ad placement).

To be sure, there are examples when more words will outsell fewer words. It depends upon the cost and complexity of the product or service being presented in conjunction with the type of buyer who would be reading the copy. More expensive, complex services will generally require a more robust presentation than a simple, inexpensive commodity product.

  • Not only that, but what are the most effective words at inspiring interest?
  • What is the headline and first words that will lead readers into the main body of your message?
  • What’s the ideal sequence of words that will spark interest, show how a product or service will solve a problem or serve a customer?
  • What is the best way to inspire a sale right now?

For certain products and services, persuasion, in itself, can be less effective than simply educating the reader or demonstrating results through case studies or testimonials.

Should You Be Your Own Copywriter?

This article is not an attempt to dissuade anyone from trying their hand at copywriting. Indeed, it’s the best way to appreciate the skills involved.

One clear advantage for modern copywriters is the ability to test different messages, especially headlines, in real time with pay-per-click ads to quickly ascertain a message’s effectiveness.

But even after you’ve crafted an optimized, workable sales message yourself, if you are still desiring even greater performance, you may want to reach out to professional copywriters and solicit some paid copy to test-market against your own best messaging.

If you can pay someone to provide copy that generates more sales than what you can generate yourself, then the value proposition is incontrovertible.

Direct Response Copywriting Formula

How many times have you purchased something from TV, or via postal mail, email, a magazine ad, or a website? Any time you’ve made such a purchase – especially via TV – you may have passed through the following copywriting formula.

The whole point of direct response copywriting, whether used via TV or radio commercials, in direct mail solicitations, for website sales videos, email marketing, etc., is to get you to “respond” directly to the message by purchasing from the advertiser right now.

Copywriting Formula for Direct Response Advertisements

  • Get attention. Successful copywriting is designed to boldly grab your attention now. The opening message or headline should ideally pull you from your life right into the message in such a way that you will ignore the conversation you are having, or the magazine you may be browsing, or your desire to run to the kitchen for a snack, or anything else you may be doing or about to do. If your are not instantly engaged, the rest of the copywriting will not likely move you to make a purchase.
  • Pose a problem. Whether it’s your weight, your hair, your breath, how you prepare food, personal finances, debt, health, the performance of your car, or countless other issues, you were presented a problem. Such can even include positioning something you hadn’t previously considered to be irksome as old and problematic. The more generally troublesome something can be presented, the more you are likely to relate to it.
  • Solve the problem. Yay! The product you purchased was demonstrated to save the day. On TV or web video, this is often represented by visually showing benefits and results as effectively, quickly and easily as possible. With written text, the words will be woven to create similarly strong visual impressions.
  • Offer a great deal. This is where you were presented a special price, purchasing instructions, added incentives, bonuses, and anything that increased the value of what you purchased.

You were directed to call a toll-free number by seeing and/or hearing it repeated over and over and over. Whether on TV, radio or in a written advertisement, that number was presented so that you would take advantage of it now!

If the copywriting directed you to a website to complete your purchase, the web address was shown, announced and/or featured prominently enough for you to get some paper and write it down (even if you had to run across the street to borrow paper and pencil from a neighbor).

  • Guaranteed! The guarantee was designed to lower your resistance and assure you that you made a right decision to purchase the product or service because you could get a refund for any reason. A “no risk,” money-back guarantee would have been emphasized to ensure you reach for your wallet and make that phone call.

As a bit of counter-intuitive benefit to advertisers, in many cases, the longer the guarantee period, the less likely a refund will be requested. It doesn’t make sense, but I have conducted tests that have shown longer guarantees to be more effective in generating sales and still result in less refund requests (obviously this would not hold true with an inferior product). Better guarantees should be longer than 30 days, and in some case can go as far as offering “Lifetime guarantees.” (Although the latter is less effective for companies that are not well established and might even raise doubts about the sincerity of the guarantee for a new company).

  • Call to action. This is when you were told to “BUY NOW,” “ORDER NOW,” and/or “CALL NOW.” This was likely accentuated by emphasizing that the product or service is available only for a “limited time” and/or “while supplies last.” The success of many direct response offers, whether by commercials, infomercials, website ads, direct mail ads, email marketing, magazines, newspapers, etc, is a result of impulse decision making, which diminishes rapidly with passing time.

Furthermore, successful direct response campaigns have had each of these elements (and more) tested and tested and tested again to refine the copywriting and the presentation for the purpose of generating the most sales or responses. (For more complex or expensive products, the “response” may not be a sale, but a sales lead or prospect, who has requested information in exchange for their contact details).

Copywriting Guidelines

Effective copywriting equates to your “salespeople in print.”

“Print,” in this case, may be a direct mail letter, an advertisement, an email, or web sales pages.

Does your copywriting reflect experienced sales pros who will close the deal?

With the advent of 21st century marketing technologies, including good old email, some businesses get lost in the means of getting a message out, as opposed to focusing on the necessity of ensuring that their messages convert to leads or sales.

Respecting the dichotomy of marketing speed versus marketing investment and how you’re using your resources, can increase the return of your marketing investments – and good copywriting and testing are central to that theme.

One of the advantages of writing offline direct mail letters is the necessity to make every headline, every paragraph, every offer, every guarantee, indeed, every word pay off. Having spent a number of years paying attention to and testing every detail of direct mail letters has etched that in my marketing psyche for eternity.

“Testing” ever detail by mailing out letters in small batches, with different elements, and meticulously measuring their resulting performance while building larger and larger campaigns is a necessity in generating profit in the offline direct mail world.

Although this requires good organization and detailed metrics, time and time again I’ve seen its importance in making a profitable campaign much more profitable, and/or making a non-profitable test completely turn around to become profitable.

Email is much less expensive and even easier to test than direct mail, and yet, outside of the ranks of true marketing professionals, it is not as frequently utilized.

Copywriting Guidelines

Although not intended to be a complete overview of effective copywriting, the following guidelines should be included in the testing and refinement of your marketing campaigns. (Many of these points can be incorporated into articles and blog posts, as well).

  • Avoid dense copy. Sections with lots of words and very little white space are visually uninviting. Chop dense copy up into smaller sections.
  • The introduction of your message should be a short sentence: One or two lines at most.
  • Keep most of your paragraphs short, including one-, two- and three-line paragraphs.
  • Consider some one-line paragraphs that directly engage the reader’s attention, such as, “Have you ever had that problem?” Or, “What would happen if you tried this?”
  • Your copy should be presented in a way that a reader can scan your email or sales page and still get the message. This is accomplished by subheadings, underlines, boldface type and italics. Of course, effective use of hyperlinks also emphasizes certain text.
  • “Effective use” of hyperlinks needs to be carefully considered, as it can direct readers away from your sales message. On the other hand, adding hyperlinks that all lead to a shopping cart or sales page can result in increased response.
  • Use of bullet points and indenting is another way to break up the presentation of copy, add more white space, and feature important points.
  • Adding a “P.S.” is an effective way to summarize the most important points of a message, since more often than not, a reader who is scanning your copy will read the final “P.S.” (This is also another good place to include a link to your shopping cart or sales page).

Copywriting will make or break an offline marketing campaign as well as an email or online sales presentation or marketing campaign. Ideally, you would hire a professional copywriter to assure the best results.

Regardless of whether you hire a pro, or study further on the subject yourself, analytically testing and refining your copywriting elements will lead to better responses.

Isn’t that why you’re reading this?