Advertising says to people, ‘Here’s what we’ve got. Here’s what it will do for you. Here’s how to get it.’
Leo Burnett (1891-1971)
Being a freelance writer allows you to cover a number of disciplines. We’ve just discussed opportunities for writing PR, now let’s look at PR’s rich cousin, advertising.
Advertising, PR and direct mail (which we’ll look at after this chapter) fall under the one umbrella of marketing. And yet agencies representing these three disciplines actively compete to capture common ground.
Fortunately, as a freelance writer, it won’t matter which agency wins the project. You can handle the work. For the purposes of this book, let’s stick with the traditional boundaries, as we’ve done in the previous chapters.
Even within this confined space, advertising – also known as ‘above the line’ marketing – takes in a broad spectrum of communications worth more than US$400 billion a year in America alone. Here are just a handful that require your skills:
+ Print advertisements
+ Point of sale signage
+ TV commercials
+ Radi+ commercials
+ Data sheets
Whatever the medium, your job is to promote, persuade, inform, influence and sell people on a company and its products and services. If you’re a literary purist who has never written advertising copy, you’re in for a rude shock. To begin with, you can put aside your copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. The traditional rules of writing don’t really apply to advertising. But, having said that, it pays to know the rules before you begin breaking them. Then at least you’ll know what you’re breaking and what effect you’re creating by doing so.
In essence, copywriting places a great emphasis on the choice of words rather than adherence to good grammar. Also, good copywriting means simple copywriting. You don’t win any prizes for exercising your vocabulary, only for connecting with the reader, your potential customer. So, simplicity sells.
As you know, copywriting is just one component in developing an advertising message. Other professionals, including a graphic designer, photographer, art director and creative director, also play a part in the product.
THE FORMULA THAT WORKS
No matter what your intention or the advertising medium you’re using, to communicate successfully, your copy must follow a proven formula. There’s no room for fat in any writing, and this is especially so in advertising messages. So get off to a good start with an emotion-charged statement. This could be a controversial or thought-provoking headline or opening sentence that grabs attention and compels the reader to read on.
Once you have the reader’s interest, you need to build on it. You can do this by following your opening statement with supporting information or you can cut straight to the point by making the reader a promise. And that promise is to make their life better by delivering some kind of benefit they need.
Depending on the length of the piece, you can add supplemental information in the form of brief customer testimonials, more facts and benefits. By now, you not only have the reader’s interest, you also have their unconscious consent to take them to the final stage. So now’s the time to take action.
Your ‘call to action’ can take various forms, from inviting the reader to call, fax or email their order to filling out a coupon for more information. To be effective, your call to action has to be powerful, compelling and easy for the reader to initiate.
The weaker your offer, the less chance you have of making the sale. The more complex the call to action, the less chance you have of making the sale. Remember, your call to action will be the last thing on the reader’s mind, so it has to be a powerful statement to succeed.
COPYWRITING RULES TO LIVE BY
Cutting through the advertising clutter is a constant challenge for copywriters. It’s no wonder, considering the fact that every day the average person is exposed to more than 3500 messages. Granted, they’re not all advertising messages, but it still means your copy has to work hard to impact on the consumer defense mechanisms, known as the ‘sheltered ear’ and the ‘filtered eye’.
Your words will have a greater chance of survival, if they follow these principles:
READ WHAT WORKS
To write great copy, you should read great copy. Examine ads that win you over. Pull them apart and analyze why the headline drew you in. Discover the magic words in the copy, the compelling statements that led you to the conclusion, ‘I’ve got to have this’.
READ BOOKS BY THE ALL-TIME ADVERTISING GREATS
Claude Hopkins, Albert Lasker, Maxwell Sackheim, and my hero, David Ogilvy. Take note of today’s top guns like Joe Vitale and Robert Bly. They’re at the coalface and their words of wisdom are gold.
REMEMBER THE BASICS
The best approach is a simple, credible and conversational approach. Before you write a word, you must identify the target audience. Knowing who will be reading your copy, will dictate the writing style you use. Remember, you’re not here to win awards, you’re not here to impress the Reader. Your entire mission is to connect with them and influence them.
SALESPERSON FIRST, COPYWRITER SECOND
Whether you like it or not, advertising is selling. To be a good copywriter, you need to be both a good writer and a good salesperson. You need to exude enthusiasm about the product. See it from the customer’s viewpoint. Consider all of the advantages. And then you can write about all the benefits it offers the customer.
And don’t be timid. Ask for the order. Guide the reader to the action you want – to call you with their order.
ADVERTORIALS READ LIKE NEWS
Studies show that advertorial-style ads can gain up to 80 per cent more attention that other ad layouts. The reason is simple. We buy newspapers and magazines to read the news, not the ads. With so many messages bombarding our senses, we have become experts at blocking out unwanted ‘noise’. But when an ad is presented in a news style, equipped with headline, photo, caption and maybe also quoting a spokesperson – the average reader can’t help but be drawn to it.
In addition to catching the eye, this style of advertisement can often have a stronger pull than conventional approaches for the same reason. They are presenting more information in what appears to be a more objective manner than regular display ads.
Not all products, services or even messages can be conveyed in this manner. Advertorials are best suited to testimonials and products that require a lot of copy to convince the reader. This approach is closer to PR or DM than standard advertising copywriting.
INTERACT WITH YOUR PROSPECT
None of us like to be talked down to or spoken at. We want to speak with someone. We prefer to have a meaningful dialogue rather than endure a monologue. The same applies in writing. If you want to gain your prospect’s trust, think and write as if you are having a two-way conversation with them. Taking this approach will ensure that your presentation is warmer, and that your message addresses the reader’s problems and also answers their questions – preferably before they ask them.
Put simply, you must focus on delivering benefits that are relevant to the prospect. After you have spelled them out, you need to build credibility in your company (e.g. years of industry experience, success in the marketplace). Then follow this with proof of the success of your product (i.e. customer testimonials). And finally, give them a real reason to buy it (e.g. time-limited offer, strong money-back guarantee).
To succeed with interactive writing, you need to stay one step ahead of the reader. Re-read your copy. Look for holes and fill them with more compelling benefits, stronger statements, and an enticing offer.
GRAB ATTENTION WITH A STIMULATING, RELEVANT HEADLINE
Whether it’s news or ads, we are drawn first to the headline. Readers put their toe in the water with the headline. If they like what they read, they’ll wade deeper.
Headlines not only sell the copy, they also go a long way to selling the customer. It’s well known in the industry that a good headline can pull up to 19 times more response than a poor one.
BE THE CUSTOMER – REMEMBER WIIFM
Benefits rule over features. When writing, always have the customer in the front of your mind.
Continue asking yourself “why would the customers care?.. what’s in it for them?”. Asking yourself these questions will keep your work grounded, relevant and appealing to the reader.
THE MORE YOU TELL, THE MORE YOU SELL
Advertising experts agree that long copy sells better than short copy, but only if it interests the reader. The optimal approach is to present as much detail and information that is required to convince the reader.
But also allow for those readers who are ready to buy after the first paragraph. Show them a clear path to a coupon, toll-free number or some other device that makes the buying process quick and simple.
When you’ve got facts, state them. When you’ve got statements, attribute them. Replace “they say” with “Jack Frost said”.
Turn wishy-washy copy into bold statements that attract and convince the reader.
ANSWER EVERY OBJECTION
Veteran copywriter Joe Vitale lists the five biggest copy killers which you need to demolish in order to win over your reader. They are:
+ I don’t have enough time.
+ I don’t have enough money.
+ It won’t work for me.
+ I don’t believe you.
+ I don’t need it.
Think of these common objections as you write. Answer these and you’re well on the way to converting a reader into an enthusiastic customer.
MAINTAIN INTEREST THROUGHOUT THE MESSAGE
It’s easy for any of us to get distracted, so keep your readers interested with attention-getting devices, such as benefit-laden subheads (preferably every few paragraphs), pull-out quotes, bullet points and other copy tactics. This will keep both the stayers and the skimmers on the same page.
CUSTOMERS SELL PROSPECTS
Even in this enlightened advertising age, nothing sells better than word of mouth. We are more prone to take the word of a friend or a fellow customer than a copywriter.
Include compelling testimonials that support your copy. The more the better, the shorter the better. Sprinkle these throughout your message, so that they validate your claims.
REVERSE THE RISK
When you guarantee your product, you put the reader at ease. Many businesses are frightened to offer a guarantee for fear that they will be inundated with returns. But, in actual fact, the rate of return is generally two per cent or less.
Why not try a longer guarantee? Instead of offering 30 days, offer one year or maybe even a lifetime guarantee. That will impress your reader. Research shows that longer guarantees not only get a better response rate but they also have a lower return rate.
That’s because inertia kicks in. Instead of having a month to evaluate the product, the customer now has all year or more, so there’s no rush.
SIZE IS IMPORTANT
The KISS principle should be amended for copywriters to ‘Keep It Short and Simple’. As we’ve said, you’ve got countless messages clamoring for your reader’s attention, so you had better make your point well, and make it now.
Research indicates that longer sentences are less read than shorter ones. The same applies to paragraphs. Readers get lost in a sea of gray text. Keep your communications punchy by writing short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
WHAT MAKES YOU SPECIAL?
One of the questions I used to ask prospective employees was: “Why should I hire you?” Needless to say, it’s the most feared question you could ask most people at a job interview. But it’s also a question you should think about when writing an ad – and answer it before your reader does.
There’s a lot of alternative products out there that customers can choose. What’s so special about yours? What distinguishes it from the competition? If it’s faster – how much faster? If it’s better – how and why? If it’s cheaper, how much compared with others and why? Qualify your claims as much as possible, in terms of percentages of speed, dollars saved or some other measure of comparison.
BUILD RAPPORT WITH YOUR READER
You can’t write a successful ad, or any other communication, unless you have developed rapport with your reader.
One effective technique, as explained by Robert Bly, is to tell the reader something they already know. This proves that you, the advertiser, know the reader’s industry and their applications, and that you understand their problems. So it stands to reason that you would be the best person to offer them the right advice and the right product.
ASK FOR THE ORDER
Remember, your copy is a silent salesperson. And what do sales people do, but sell? And the best way to sell is to ask for the order. It sounds simple, but a significant proportion of ad copy fails to follow this simple rule.
Your copy must not only outline the benefits of buying, it must also ask the person to buy. Include a coupon, a toll-free phone or fax number, an email address, a Web URL – and most importantly, ask people to place their order now.
You can entice them further by offering a free gift or a special price if they order within a specified period.
I WANT IT NOW
When you want something, how long are you prepared to wait for it? I can’t remember the last time I put something on lay-away – but that’s me. Most of us want instant gratification. When we have been sold something, we want to buy it now.
Make the order process as simple and as quick as possible.
GOOD COPY COMES FROM REWRITING
You know as well as me, it’s rare to get the words right with the first draft. Even more so in the frenetic world of advertising, where so many parameters play a vital role in the success of the copy.
Research your audience’s needs and your product’s benefits. Write it, rewrite it, and remove jargon and difficult-sounding words until the copy sings.
Then comes the best part – test it. Test your headline and your copy. Rework it until you get a better response rate and so on. Changing a headline or changing some choice words can – and does – make the difference between success and failure.
THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE
It’s easy to get over-excited when you’re copywriting. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for writing good copy. But don’t let your words get ahead of the truth. Never over-hype, mislead or abuse the trust your reader places in you. If you do, you may win the sale but you’ll lose the customer for life. Always tell the truth, and always tell the story in the most interesting, exciting and beneficial manner possible.
SELL DREAMS NOT PRODUCTS
We’ve discussed the value of benefits many times, but I feel I need to make the point once more.
Selling benefits rather than features is probably the single most important thing you can remember when copywriting. It’s also one of the most overlooked elements by many copywriters. Sad but definitely true.
So, before you write a word in your next ad, think about this:
Your customer is not buying a product or service from you. They are buying a benefit from you.
That’s so important, you need to hear it again:
Your customer is not buying a product or service from you. They are buying a benefit from you.
You are not selling a software program, you are selling an improvement in productivity. You are not selling a sports car, you are selling excitement. You are not selling vitamins, you are selling good health. You are not selling shoes, you are selling comfortable feet. You are not selling film, you are selling happy memories.
Differentiate between needs and wants. A prospect may ‘want’ a Mercedes 500 SL, but their ‘need’ is transportation. Realize that people buy wants which have been appropriately packaged with words that project attractive imagery. Your products and services are nothing more than a catalyst. They are the go-between that your customer needs to obtain their desire.
Think about the end results your product can achieve, and tell the reader how much better they will feel, look, work or enjoy life. Show them how they will benefit, and your copy will benefit your client with improved sales.
HAVE I GOT A DEAL FOR YOU!
Every ad should feature a strong offer.
This achieves two things: It motivates the reader to take the next step (to buy or to contact the company). It also elicits an immediate response. And both are essential to the success of your ad. Without a good offer, you’ll soon be without a hot prospect.
Whatever the offer, especially if it’s a free one, give it a high perceived value. “Call now and we’ll send you this FREE booklet on ‘How to Write Right’ valued at $19.95.”
Remember, an offer gives your ad a sense of urgency. ‘Buy now’ or ‘Call us today’ is only part of the call to action equation. Including a strong offer is the kicker.
CHOOSING A CALL TO ACTION
We’ve used this term a lot lately, but what kinds of calls to action are there?
Here’s a list of the most tactics popular you can use, either singularly or combine two for added impact:
+ Offer a free gift
+ Offer a free sample
+ A time-limited offer
+ A pending price rise
+ A special trial or introductory period
+ Offer a ‘buy now, pay later’ deal
+ Offer an ‘unadvertised special’
+ Offer an upgrade
+ Offer a ‘no risk’ trial
JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU’D FINISHED…
OK, you’ve finally finished your ad, and you’re happy with the way it looks and reads. Now it’s time to check that the following elements work properly:
+ Does the headline grab the reader’s attention? + Do the subheads cover all the major selling points for the skimmers? + Does the copy include all the major customer benefits? + Are the benefits presented in the most convincing manner? + Does the closing statement bring the message to a logical conclusion? + Does the call to action compel the reader to take positive action?
If you hear a ‘no’, you know what to do.
Are you cut out for advertising? Consider your background. If you’re new to ad copywriting, you may need to make an attitudinal adjustment to get into the new groove. But, once you’re in, you can expect this to become an exciting and lucrative avenue of writing.
I have handled a range of advertising projects for agencies and companies – everything from print ads, coupons and handouts to sales presentations, packaging and radio commercials. A few years back, I wrote a series of short radio scripts for Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications provider. The scripts were essentially discussions between a radio announcer and a famous footballer at the time. Each script introduced a new service that the company was bringing to market.
The scripts were written for 60-second slots. Apart from some initial research and a brief from the Product Manager, I managed to write half a dozen radio commercials in a lazy Sunday afternoon. To this day, it’s the most money I’ve earned for an afternoon’s work.
It’s no wonder. Advertising is, and always has been, the big brother of marketing. It has commanded the lion’s share of revenue because it pulls better than any other medium. There’s a lot of competition in ad copywriting, but if you can crack this market, you can write your own ticket.
Michael Meanwell has been writing professionally for more than 20 years. His experience includes freelance, staff journalist and columnist for various newspapers and national magazines. In more recent years, Michael has specialized as a commercial writer for Kodak, Honda, Ford, World Vision, Cross Writing Instruments, VDO and Royal Selangor Pewter. THIS EXCERPT is from The Enterprising Writer: How To Earn $111,245 A Year, Writing What You Like, When You Like by Michael Meanwell.