When I was a little kid, I remember, I was fascinated by the text copy on potato chip bags. Even at that age, I could already tell which brands phrased their messages better than their competitors did, and that difference just made me want those chips more.
Today, I write words for a living (which still amazes me, sometimes). And in the course of working with numerous consultants, business owners, startups and even Fortune 500s, I’ve come to realize something startling: Most of us know what good copy looks like, and what it reads like, but when we put something down, we don’t know how to follow the rules.
What are the rules of good copywriting?
If I were to ask an average group of consumers, “What does good copywriting look like?” they’d probably parrot things they learned in school, like:
- It should show, not tell.
- It should be simple to understand.
- It should tell readers what they need to know, quickly.
These three “rules” have been so hammered into our brains since childhood that I’m amazed adults still write so much jargon on their LinkedIn profiles. But, here’s the problem with these rules: They show you how to say something, but not what you should be saying.
What’s the secret to great copywriting?
Weirdly, I get asked all sorts of specific, technical questions by prospects, such as, “How do I improve my SEO?” and “How do I set up a landing page?” What I never get asked is, “How do I write great copy?”
This is a shame, because copywriting is the one marketing tool that will never change. We have thousands of marketing technology solutions that are “in” one year and “out” the next, and we’re all scrambling to buy and replace them. By comparison, learning how to write compelling copy is not just easy, it’s affordable!
So, take some time out of your day to learn the following rules of great copywriting. Because, if you don’t understand these concepts, chances are your positioning is wrong. You’re not telling your customers what they really want and need to hear, and your failure is out there for all to see — on your website, social media and emails. You need to fix that. Here are those rules:
1. People don’t reject you; they reject your approach.
Whether or not you agree with the tactics dating gurus employ, those people are good at writing compelling copy. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the best advice I ever read about copywriting actually came from a blog post about how to maintain your self-confidence in dating: People don’t reject you; they reject your approach.
This is why A/B testing works, people! It’s why David Ogilvy rigorously tested all of his copy. Sometimes, there’s a huge gap between how we think we’re perceived and how people actually perceive us. Sometimes, “common sense” intuition isn’t enough.
Don’t jump to crazy conclusions if your ad, landing page, website or email isn’t converting as many customers as you’d like. Instead of panicking and randomly changing stuff around, ask yourself, “Why are my readers rejecting my approach?”
2. Perfect your approach by answering prospects’ top two questions.
All you have to do is answer two simple questions that all prospects will have for you within eight seconds of seeing your site. The answers will tell them everything they need to know:
Can I trust this person? (The easiest way for you to get a “yes” is with testimonials. An even better way is with a personal failure story.)
Can I respect this person? (Display your credentials, logos, etc.)
First impressions are everything, confirmed by more than 15 years of research by Harvard psychologists. All the advice we’ve been getting about elevator pitches has been wrong.
Do people care about what you can do? To a degree. But they care much more about whether they like you, and they won’t work with you (or your brand) if they don’t.
3. Show prospects what the task is that they really need to do, by telling a story.
Only after you establish trust and respect with prospects can you actually try to sell them on your product or service. There’s a very specific way to do that.
This is the wrong way to do it:
I do ________ for ________.
This is the right way to do it:
Need ________ done? Here’s what I did for ________.
You have to set up the pain and the gain, but remember: Show, don’t tell. That means guiding prospects toward what you want them to do. For example, in The Wolf of Wall Street, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character asks Jon Bernthal’s, while the two sit in a diner, to sell him a pen, Bernthal answers the challenge by saying, “Do me a favor. I want you to write your name down on that napkin for me.”
To which DiCaprio replies, “I don’t have a pen.”
What this scene illustrated was, don’t just tell your prospects what you do (I can sell you this pen); tell them about the task they need to get done (find something to write with).
Or, as economist Theodore Levitt once put it, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”
4. Write about how you can help do that task, and prove it with free advice.
Next, it’s time to show prospects why you are the right person for the task they need to get done. If you already followed the first three steps, this shouldn’t be too hard. (Remember: By this step, your prospects already trust and respect you.)
So don’t waste any more of their time! Go straight into the meat of the matter by making sure they walk away with this information:
- I do the job you need to get done.
- In fact, I specialize in that job.
- And I do it so damn well that my customers love working with me.
Not only do you have to ask yourself what task your prospects really need to get done, but whether you’ve made it obvious that you specialize in that task.
5. Let prospects know why they should act now.
Finally, close with the call to action (CTA), which can be as simple as a tagline. CTAs vary widely, though the most common ones are promotional offers, referral savings and phrases like “Buy before time runs out.”
There is no “best” CTA — it all depends on what your prospects have seen from you up to that point and what you’re offering them. If I had to pick one to bet my life on, however, it would be something like “Join Free” or “Try it out for 1 month FREE” because free value is priceless.
Simply put, everyone likes free stuff! And everyone wants to work with a generous person.
Done right, your copy could be converting more customers.
These are just a few of the fundamental rules of copywriting that direct response writers have been using for decades to build multi-part content funnels, create compelling landing pages and write long email chains.
The thing about copywriting is that it’s easy to understand conceptually, but difficult to execute. Copywriting can be deceptively difficult.
But even if you’re not going to write your own copy, you’ll be in a much better position to judge the effectiveness of your hired writer (so you’re not wasting your money). Freelance writers are a dime a dozen these days, but truly knowledgeable direct response copywriters are worth every penny.