Online Marketing Lesson 54: Copywriting Basics

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Once you’ve grasped the basic copywriting principles, you should be able to write quality copy consistently. Of course, challenging the pros will take practice and patience, but this lesson will, in a relatively short time, give you all the tools you need to produce solid copy that works.

If you’re an entrepreneur or freelancer, you can save yourself several hundred dollars by crafting your own persuasive copy. Plus, nobody knows your products and services better than you do.

After that keep studying, keep practicing, but most importantly, immerse yourself in both good and bad copy. Don’t just read it, analyze it: if the copy is persuasive, pinpoint why it works and what you like about it. If the copy turns you off, identify the elements that you dislike. This kind of analysis is an essential lesson in the techniques you should use — or avoid — in your own copywriting.

Here are the tools you need to get started: the ten key principles of writing good copy.

1. Know what you’re selling

If you’re intending to write copy for your own products or services, this should be easy. You already know what you’re selling, and you know it better than anyone else. But this doesn’t mean that successfully presenting your product is a given.

Imagine you were selling an eBook you’d written on how to make a living trading part-time on the stock market. You’d know every chapter, every idea, and every key phrase. Before you can write about the product, though, you have to decide how you will communicate that to a prospective buyer through the copy. This is not as straight-forward as it seems.

Remember that the prospect is building an image of your product through the information you give him. You might position the eBook as a way for the prospect to make a living working only 20 hours a week and spending the rest of his time on sandy beaches that glow in the sun. Or, you might position it as a way to get rich super-fast. Or, perhaps it’s a way for the prospect to strengthen their full-time income during times of economic hardship. This scenario shows that the same product can be presented to the reader in very different ways. Your best strategy is to have a clear idea of who you’re selling to, so you can determine what, exactly, you’re selling them.

The phrase “Know what you’re selling” should also be interpreted literally when preparing to write copy. Every fact and figure relating to a product has the potential to be used as a sales tool. The more features you’re familiar with, the more tools you have at your disposal. Knowing the product well should also protect you from inaccuracies slipping into your copy.

2. Know who’s buying

Every word of your copy needs to take into account the interests and needs of the person it’s written for.

Imagine you were writing a sales page for a personal trainer who visits clients at their homes. It would be easy to identify your prospects as “People who want to get fit” or even more obviously “People who want to hire a personal trainer,” but this won’t help you much with the task of writing good copy.

Instead, think about what might attract a prospect to this particular service. There are local gyms in most areas, and personal trainers available for hire through them, so why choose the home-visiting personal trainer? The key reason would be of course a busy lifestyle. Being visited at home means you don’t have to travel. Also, this would be more private than sessions in a gym.

Since time-saving and privacy are the key benefits that would lead a prospect to seek out the service you’re offering, it’s important to focus on these things in the copy because they will resonate with the reader. For some added kick, you could contrast the comfort, privacy and ease of being visited at home with the inconvenience and discomfort of the public gym environment.

In this example scenario, you can see that the focus is on determining the needs of those who’re likely to be interested in what you’re selling. A prospect browsing the sales page of a DVD set teaching men how to dance in clubs probably desires more than just learning how to dance. They’d most likely be looking for the copy to assure them that their newly acquired groove will bring them more success with women, too!

3. Create an immediate need

If you’re selling a solution to a problem — i.e. a course on getting out of debt, or a product to whiten yellowed teeth — you need to convince the prospect that the problem must be fixed immediately and that your product or service is the thing to do it.

If the prospect reads your copy and decides to postpone their decision on whether to buy or not until later, in most cases you will have lost that sale. You must create a sense of urgency.

There are two ways to do this. First you can emphasize the severity of the problem the prospect is facing. For example, if you were selling a teeth whitening treatment, you could warn them that surveys have shown that 70% of Americans would not date someone with yellowed teeth. This adds a new dimension to the problem: it’s no longer just about white being a more pleasing color for teeth than yellow. Most importantly, this adds urgency. Single readers might have worried that the color of their teeth could have an impact on their romantic life. The (completely made-up) warning statistic confirms it and makes the problem seem much more serious than before. Of course, I wouldn’t encourage you to use made-up statistics in any copy you write!

The second method to build immediate need is to show that what you’re selling will provide considerable short-term benefits. For example: “The strategies in this guide will have you hitting a longer and more accurate golf stroke within 24 hours.” People are more likely to let go of something (in this case, money) if they know they will very soon gain something of equal or greater value in return.

One useful strategy is to list benefits that are inverse to the problem. You’ll notice that most good copy does this, because if the prospect believes one state is a problem, they’re likely to see the inverse state as a strong positive. These examples show the common pattern to this powerful yet simple formula:

  • Instead of being poor, you’ll be rich.
  • Instead of having no time to do the things you like, you’ll have an abundance of free time.
  • Instead of being stressed and tired, you’ll feel relaxed and rejuvenated.
  • Instead of being pudgy and unfit, your body will be taut and strong.

4. Don’t tell them how to think

Prospects know the person wrote the copy they’re reading is biased. Avoid making subjective statements that bring this to the fore (i.e. “This product is an excellent value for money”). Instead, focus on facts and logical benefits. Tell the reader why the product is excellent value for his money, then let him come to the conclusion himself. Or, use testimonials instead, as we explain below.

5. Collect good testimonials

Testimonials are powerful tools because they can say the things that you can’t. While your copy can’t say the product is ‘Awesome!’ without setting off alarms in the mind of the reader, Margaret P. from Ohio certainly can.

The two most common types of testimonials are from customers and experts. Customer testimonials are quotes from happy customers. They work because a good testimonial is seen as an unbiased recommendation from someone the prospect can identify with. The more the prospect can identify, the more the effective the testimonial.

Expert testimonials are less common. They tend to be used to sell books and eBooks offering advice. Products that rely on the expertise of their creators often benefit from the endorsement of other experts.

A great selection of effective testimonials can be seen at MaddenTips.com, a site that sells eBook strategy guides for how to win at Madden, a complicated American Football video game. One testimonial at the site discusses the humiliation of being repeatedly beaten in multiplayer matches before the customer finally read an eBook from Madden tips. After reading the eBook, he immediately started to win most matches he played. Anyone looking for tips on how to be better at a multiplayer video game is certain to be a competitive player. We can imagine this is an ideal scenario for most prospective customers as well. Most importantly, the testimonials seem real. They’re not overly enthusiastic (quick tip: exclamation marks scream ‘fake testimonial’) and each one is written in a different voice.

Testimonials that seem fake, however, make prospects suspicious. Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to make a sale to someone who lacks belief what they read. Though you can guide what people say in your testimonials, never fake them, and link to the testimonial giver’s website if possible to prove that they’re authentic.

6. Small decision, small copy. Big decision, big copy

You would not expect to spend two hours debating whether to buy one magazine or another. You would also not expect to spend five minutes in a car dealership and leave with the keys to a car you’d never looked at before. For that reason, the amount of copy you devote to the product should reflect its price.

A prospect looking at your $300/month SEO course will not send you their first payment after reading only five hundred words of copy. You simply can’t do enough persuading in that small a space. In fact, you would most likely want to write three or four times that amount to effectively sell the product.

Likewise, there’s no need to write two thousand words of persuasive copy to sell a $5 eBook. Writing too much before you give the reader the option to buy will bore them if the decision is a relatively small one.

7. Speak directly to prospects

For your copy to work the reader must be made to think about themselves in relation to the product being sold. If they’re just reading about the product and not putting themselves into the picture, you’ll have a hard time making a sale.

Pro copywriters often say that “You” is the most powerful word in their arsenal. When we read the word “You” we immediately begin to think of ourselves in relation to what we are reading.

8. Engage the senses

Have you ever tried to read a forum post, blog post or typed letter with so few paragraphs in it that the writing looked like an impenetrable wall? While this is an extreme case, it shows that the physical layout of your copy is important, especially when selling higher value products and services where the copy become lengthy.

It’s not difficult for your reader’s eyes to become bored when reading long chunks of text. Worse yet, copy that is dense and chunky and intimidating in appearance can discourage a prospect from reading anything at all.

To keep the reader’s senses engaged, use appropriate headings and subheadings to organize the information. Make key sentences bold and some words italic. Use pictures where appropriate. Consider putting your testimonials in box-outs that attract the eye and break up the shape of the main text. You can even use a little color but stay away from the gaudy yellows and reds that some copywriters are so fond of. Brightly colored text on a white background is not much fun for the eyes!

9. Remove distractions

For a prospect to be persuaded by your copy, they need to be concentrating on it. You’ll notice that many online sales pages are just text and nothing else, with the only link being to purchase the product. This is because making distractions available to your prospect can kill a potential sale.

In modern times it’s increasingly common for people to have a sales page on their blog. It’s impossible to have no distractions in this setting, but they can be minimized. Try to remove things like lists of Popular posts, Blogrolls, and comments from your sales page. If possible, the only navigational links on your sales page should be to places where the prospect can find out more about the product, or purchase it.

10. Go for perfect timing with price

When you state the price of what you’re selling, you’ll inevitably affect the prospect’s mindset. Instead of reading about the benefits of a product, they’re now thinking about the loss of their money and weighing this loss against the benefits of having the product. This is why it’s essential that you don’t reveal the price of what you’re selling until you feel you can clinch the sale. You’ll notice that a common strategy copywriters use is to introduce price about three-quarters of the way through the copy.

The exception to this rule is when the price of the product is a key benefit. If your product is nearly identical to what the competition is offering but cheaper, you want to introduce price as soon as possible. In this scenario it is your main—and possibly only—benefit.

The first time you explicitly ask the prospect to make a purchase you can help tip the balance in your favor by introducing a key benefit just before this point. Some common examples are:

  • Discounted price.
  • Money-back guarantee.
  • Limited number of units.
  • Bonus gifts.

A little research will show that most effective sales pages use this technique before asking for a sale.

Action Points

  1. Study the principles listed in this lesson and apply them whenever you are writing copy to sell your products and services.
  2. Remember to study copy from around the web as well, and this will help you understand what works and what doesn’t, in different niches and situations.

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