Welcome back to what’s turning out to be a magnum opus about not so great copywriting (!) I’ve decided to break it down to two reasons at a time so as not to overload you with TMI. It’s also a good idea to just focus on a couple of copywriting skills at a time so that you remember and practise them in your everyday writing. So without further ado, let’s look at craft #6 and #7 of properly practiced copywriting.
What happens to most of the junk mail you get every day through direct mail? You look at it for a quick second, then as soon as you identify it as a piece of commercial mail you throw it in the recycling bin.
We’ll do the same thing with a website — it’s called “banner blindness”. We almost literally don’t see the ad because in our mind we’ve said, “Okay, that’s an ad. I’m not interested in ads right now so I’m going to filter it out of my field of vision and focus on the thing that I’m interested in.” What we are all interested in is meaningful content, valuable information, useful tips and sensible advice that’s going to make our life better, entertain us, make us feel good or be clearer about something.
In short, the main reason why your copy turns us off is that it reads too much like an ad. You want to make sure it’s content that benefits, not just sells. In other words, the more your content looks like content (and not a cold call) the more more likely we’re going to engage in it.
This point often leads to the question about whether to write long copy or short copy. The long and short of it is that your copy needs to be as long as it needs to be. Your job is not to number crunch but to write copy that’s meaningful, interesting and useful to someone who actually cares (your target audience). Having said that, here are the factors that influence copy length:
When you do write long form copy, know that we need to be able to skim through it and find the points we care about. That’s where sign-posting is essential — sub-heads, italics, pull-outs, images, captions, paragraphing and so on. This is where a good Art Director’s eye will make sure the reader’s eye sees what it needs to see, and in a certain logical order.
To sum up, I quote The Socrates of San Francisco, Howard Gossage, who said, “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.”¹
Every story (from long form to tweet form copy) has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is the narrative through-line of 99.9% of professional writing (creative writing, being more art than communication, can afford to explore and play around with this form in non-linear ways).
Copywriters are problem solvers, and the job usually begins right at the beginning of the copy — enticing us with the promise of solving a problem we’re willing to pay to solve.
There are many strategies for enticing us in at the beginning stage of your story, but perhaps the most popular in copywriting lists and tips is the Problem – Agitate – Solve formula. It is especially useful for social media writing because you can do it in a very few words. Here’s how it goes:
In the beginning, you identify a problem (e.g.: Our business is doing okay but not great.)
In the middle, you agitate the problem by stirring it up a bit, like adding a tiny bit of salt to the wound (e.g.: We’re overwhelmed with all the dos and don’ts of online comms and the tech schmeck that goes with it.)
At the end, you Solve the problem (e.g.: Your online strategy service enables us to find the tactics to maximise return from our online activity.)
Sometimes, it is not a problem we want to think about, like life insurance. And so it is not a problem we want to solve. There’s a saying in the life insurance business that we don’t think about life insurance until the hearse is parked outside our house.
In other words, the problem is not top of mind until it becomes something worth thinking about. This is how we bought the iPad. The ads showed us a slim, sleek, gorgeous, sexy little computer and our desire became more and more to have this object. They didn’t talk about RAM. They didn’t even talk about how lightweight it is or how great the screen is or what an excellent keyboard it has. But they made us want it.
So you can do the desire-based version of Problem-Agitate-Solve, which could be renamed Desire-Agitate-Want (DAW).
You can also do the desire-based and problem-based variation. For example: “My skin looks bad (problem). I feel very insecure about it (agitate). I need to solve it now (desire), When I use X product, I will look good and feel good (solve).”
Of all three variations, the problem-based formula is what works 9 times out of 10 and requires the least mastery of copywriting. The other two variations require some creative ingenuity (like the iPad ad). If you’re a copywriting genius, then you’re worth that extra zero on your invoice. If you are not, just think about what’s keeping your customer up at night — what is the problem, anxiety, worry, fear? Then enter in the middle of that conversation and say, “You have this worry. You have this fear. You have this anxiety. This is making you feel bad about yourself. I have some things that can help you with that.” Then you too become an extremely valuable copywriter, without being pushy or salesy.
Addressing a problem/issue/desire is the push side of the coin. Instigating a desired response is the pull side of the same coin. This typically happens at the ending of your story which, in retail-speak, is known as the Call to Action (CTA). More specifically, you tell them what to do and when to do it, like “Subscribe now and get the free e-book” or “Click here and get it while stocks last”. That’s the retail expression of the Pull Strategy.
Now if your customer doesn’t have an urgent problem to solve, build in a legitimate scarcity factor — personal access to something with a limit like coaching, consulting, training where there is a time and booking limit.
But it is critical that the CTA tone be appropriate to the subject matter. Not all target audiences will respond to this pushy type of pull. Here’s an example: you’re writing to a panel of seed-funding decision makers comprised of climate justice lawyers, low-carbon economists, politicians and venture capitalists. You’re not going to end your proposal for a Wave Energy Conversion project with words like, “Fund this project now and save the world before it’s too late!” You need to be far more nuanced than that, right? You need to write something more along the lines of, “Now that’s the kind of ingenuity we need to give our planet an even break”. This is much more likely to trigger the desired response of, “Yes, we should make this project happen ASAP!”
There’s more to a call to action than the Call to Action. In fact, there are eight strategies toward a strong conclusion², here is a brief summary of each (there is a link down the bottom to a more detailed post on the topic):
You propose a course of action, a solution to an issue, or a question for further consideration. This redirects our thought processes and helps us apply your information and ideas to our own life.
This is your stock standard academic finish, where you sum up the 3 or 4 (no more) points made.
You synthesize the summary. Instead of a brief summary of your main points, you show us how these points fit together.
With this conclusion strategy, you point us to a broader implication. To something greater than the story told.
You return to the theme/idea by referring back to the headline or introductory paragraph, using key words or parallel concepts and images. This strategy brings us full circle. It also reinforces the point of the story.
After you’ve written a conclusion you’re not happy with, ask yourself, ‘So What?’ Then rewrite the conclusion. The question “So What?” forces you into reiterating the whole story into a kind of 10-second elevator pitch.
You end on a provocative insight, a compelling fact, an interesting question or a quotation from your research.
You write your ending using a rhetorical device. Like a melodic riff, it leaves a rhythmic resonance in our mind as we exit your story. The most common of these is the Rhythm of Three, Rhythm of Four, Parallel Phrase and Contrasting Pair.
You can also use combinations of these strategies. They each have a particular effect that inspires, initiates, urges or instigates the kind of response that leads to an intended action. It’s not always a case of you telling us what to do upfront, but making us see how your story is relevant to solving our problem, or fulfilling our desire, or both.
In conclusion, the last impression (your end-line) is just as critical as the first impression (your first line). How we enter your story (push) will determine whether we connect, engage and trust you. How we exit your story (pull) will determine whether we think or feel this is the right solution for us to invest in.
To be continued next week. Or you can book into my copywriting course at the Copywriting In Action Online School and instead of reading all about it, you can write, write and write until it’s great copywriting.