Message & Media: 12 Copy Improvements
I just got back from a stint of doing some on-site copy coaching and leading a direct response creative workshop. One of the most frequently asked questions from writers and approving managers alike was, "How can we improve our copy to make it more engaging and generate more response?"
Here are 12 simple fixes for taking your copy and content to the next level of effectiveness.
1. Be specific. Generalities don't sell, specifics do. Using words such as "many" and "few" are not as enticing as using specific numbers such as "537" or "less than 9." Adjectives also add specificity. What's the difference in your own mind between describing a car as "red" vs. "fire engine red"? Or your quote service as "being prompt" vs. "we provide on-the-spot quotes"? Specificity is compelling.
2. Get to the point. Too often writers take too long to get to the point. This includes me. We create too much mood music. Look for your most powerful headline, subject line or letter opener buried in your second or third paragraph where a scanner will never see it. Then move it to the forefront and get to the point of your message.
3. Tell me what to do. And make it easy to do it. Direct copy and content are all about getting your customer to take action, whether that's a click, call or visit to your store. Make your call to action crystal clear by providing a link, button, phone number in boldface type, variable data locator map, or mail-in card. Make your call to action a fast find by putting it in hot spots where it's seen first. Then repeat it. How well you communicate your call to action is one of the most important distinctions between effective and ho-hum direct response copywriting.
4. Anticipate objections. Don't ignore them. Dealing with buying objections is particularly critical when your job is to get an on-the-spot sale. Think like a salesperson and counter potential objections before they surface.
For example, if you're selling whole life insurance with a hefty annual premium, quote lower monthly or quarterly premiums right up front. Know the top three reasons your reader won't respond and artfully address them before they become major stumbling blocks.
5. What's your answer to "What's in it for me?" The answer is your offer. Your offer is the driver of direct response copy. Start by understanding all the elements of your offer. It's more than just product, price and a premium. It includes customer service, payment and terms, even the response options available. Make sure your copy fully describes everything you are willing to give in exchange for your reader's response—including no phone menus, free gift wrap service, or a no-obligation comparative analysis.
6. Connect with your audience. That means knowing more than just your reader's age, sex and job title. You need to understand the person you are trying to influence inside and out.
Think of your copy as a dialogue between two individuals, rather than a shout-out to an anonymous crowd. How can you get to know the individual to whom you're writing? Read customer mail. Interview prospects. Review research and focus group findings. Talk to customer service reps and sales people who have personal contact with the person reading your copy. Effective direct response messages are one-to-one communications.
7. Focus on benefits, not features. Features describe; benefits sell. And they sell by establishing value. Here's an exercise to help understand and remember the difference: Make a list of your product's features, everything from how much it costs to how long it takes to install. Then add a corresponding benefit for each that appeals to your targeted audience. Prioritize these benefits based on their importance to your reader. This becomes your roadmap for what you are about to write. Make sure to include the top three to five benefits whether you're writing a letter, email, postcard, space ad or product Web pages.
8. Make your copy look inviting to read. This isn't a design issue; it's about stringing words together so they get read. Studies show that shorter words, sentences and paragraphs increase readability. While study recommendations vary, here's what I've adopted as my own set of guidelines for readability: 75 percent to 80 percent of words should be five characters or less—which means that most are one syllable. Sentences should rarely be longer than 1.5 lines long. Scanners look for end punctuation as rest stops for the eye. Paragraphs should be six lines or less. And, yes, I am a writer who uses sentence fragments and one-sentence paragraphs to start and stop reader momentum. Don't tell my high school English teacher.
9. Stop scanners in their tracks. Place your most important benefit or your call to action in a hot spot. Hot spots are where the scanner's eye goes first, so don't waste them. They provide a golden opportunity to transform a scanner into a reader who then becomes a responder. Hot spots include the subject line in an email, the first sentence of a letter, a headline, a subhead, a photo caption and a P.S. in a letter.
10. Make "YOU" your hero. Writers new to direct response often focus on we-the-company rather than you-the-customer. Here's a simple test. Tally how many times you use the word "you" vs. "I" or "we" in whatever you've just written. In customer-centric copy you'll find the word "you" about twice as often as "I" or "we." It's a simple fix to reorient a sentence such as, "We are the industry leader in office automation" to "Now you can recover 2-3 hours a day using proven office automation practices from an industry leader."
11. Engage with action verbs. Start teasers, subject lines, headlines, first paragraphs, bullets and other hot spots with appropriate verbs such as "save," "call," "trim," "choose," "receive," "jumpstart" and "strengthen." Verbs jumpstart your readers' momentum that ultimately leads to response.
12. Say the same thing in at least three different ways. Use marketing copy, testimonials, charts, graphs, images, customer reviews, examples and illustrations to make the same major sales point in different ways. You never know which will attract your reader's eye first.