Learn How to Write Compelling Copy from the Masters of Copywriting

Content Marketing Masterclass: Part Six

So the content creation part of this Masterclass has made you hungry for more copywriting tips and tricks, huh? Good call – learning how to write compelling copy is one of the most powerful things you can do for your marketing and your business.

While I have certainly written my fair share of converting sales pages, email sequences and blog posts, when I’m teaching copywriting I always go back to the wisdom of the original masters of the (direct response) copywriting art.

While we do live in a different world than they did – they weren’t exactly concerned with bounce rate or SEO – they were absolute experts at influencing something that has hardly changed since the early days of advertising: the human psyche.

So come along for copywriting 101 and swipe some ideas from the folks Don Draper’s character was based on. ‘Cause there’s no school like the old school.

This post is Part Six in a brand spanking new Masterclass Series on Content Marketing. We believe it’s an incredibly important topic – and according to a little survey we did, you do too. Trouble is: there is so much content on content marketing out there (talk about meta) and a lot of the intel is conflicting.

We bring this Masterclass to you in partnership with Anouck Meier, Chief Storytelling Officer at Ampersand. Anouck is a conversion copywriter and a content marketing strategist who has worked with numerous brands, big and small, to help them achieve their business goals through strategic content. Let’s get the story on content straight once and for all in a comprehensive guide. Ready to dive in?

– Jeroen Corthout, Co-Founder Salesflare, an easy-to-use sales CRM for small B2B companies

Copy vs. Content

Before we get started, I just want to touch on the difference between copy and content. This is a Content Marketing Masterclass after all – why are we bothering writing a whopping 2300+ words on copy?

  • Copy, traditionally, are the words we use to make the sale. To use John E. Kennedy’s definition, it’s salesmanship in print (or pixels, as the case may be). Its very aim is to persuade. The result of effective copywriting is your reader taking a specific action.
  • Content, on the other hand, means creating and sharing valuable content to attract and engage an audience, to demonstrate your ability to solve their problems and to create the type of trust that could eventually lead to a purchase.

Copy has been around quite a while.
Content is the new kid on the block.

However, if you’re a smart cookie, you know to steal an idea or two from the old techniques of direct response copywriting. Believe me, the classic elements of persuasion will make everything in your content work better.

Take a cue from the characters Mad Men was based on: the original direct response copywriters – Picture: Lionsgate and AMC

If your blog showcases seriously good content without the readers to go along with it, a dash of classic copywriting may be all you need.

Maybe your headlines are too cute and clever – without showing any reader benefits. Maybe you haven’t focused on those reader benefits enough throughout your content. Or could it be that your calls to action aren’t specific enough?

Work some copywriting techniques into your blog and you’ll get your audience to subscribe, opt in and share your content with their peers. That, my friend, is how you build a large, loyal audience.

Without further ado – here are 7 strategies you’ll want to swipe from the rich tradition of direct response copywriting.

1. Write with your ears

If you can’t turn yourself into your customer, you probably shouldn’t be in the ad writing business at all.
– Leo Burnett

One of the most common misconceptions about copywriting is that it’s some form of creative wordsmithing.

I cannot tell you how many emails I get from aspiring copywriters, telling me they want to make a living writing copy because they have a way with words. Because they’re creative writers and their friends love their witty wordplay and puns. Or – heaven forbid – their poetry.

It doesn’t matter how creative your 3rd grade teacher thought you were.
It doesn’t matter that you wrote a haiku a day all through college.
Even your rich vocabulary and eloquence will not do much for you as a copywriter.

The secret to great copywriting is not being clever or sexy with words.

It’s good old research. 

The Leo Burnett quote reminds us that copy converts better when you let your customers do the talking. When you, as a copywriter, listen to your customers.

It sounds simple enough, but how do you let your customers do the talking?

It all boils down to customer research (which is really a nice term for eavesdropping on your readers). Find out how they talk about their problems, their hopes and dreams.

Then you’re going to use those exact same words your audience would use to sell your product. It’s putting the words together on a page. Pretty different from coming up with clever lines for your latest sonnet, right?

You’ll find plenty of tips and tricks for customer research in the post about content strategy as well as the one on generating ideas for your content. Use your research to inspire your sales copy as well as your blog posts.

Great listeners make excellent copywriters – Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

2. Write irresistible headlines

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
– David Ogilvy

There is one reason and one reason only your reader will read a single word of the blog post you’ve written: your headline.

If your headline is weak or vague, your content won’t get read – even if it’s the best piece of content the world has ever seen. This is true even if you have a loyal, decent-sized audience. You need to persuade them to give you their attention, every single time you publish a piece of content.

Great headlines definitely help with that. Spending some time crafting a compelling headline is a great investment of your time as it can make or break your article.

When writing your headline, start with the 4 U’s:

  • Useful: answer the “what’s in it for me” immediately
  • Urgent: tell them why they should read your post now
  • Unique: make clear your article isn’t just a rework or recycle of all the other pieces on the subject
  • Ultra-specific: tell them exactly what they can expect

Now if your blog post sucks, your headline obviously won’t save the piece. But it will do a lot to increase engagement from quality leads. And you’ll get more shares, likes and links.

3. Put the Most Important Information First

The web is not a murder mystery. Tell them who did it in the first sentence.
– Gerry McGovern

It’s easily one of the trickiest habits I had to ditch when I said goodbye to the nice folks at Sidley Austin’s Brussels office to become a copywriter.

You see, a legal memo usually goes like this. First, explain what you’re going to discuss. Then, present a detailed overview of the case law and literature. Next, discuss and draw your conclusion. The most important point – the conclusion – always goes right at the very end.

If this structure seems familiar – and you’re not a lawyer – it’s because it’s how we’re taught to write essays as well.

Structuring your information like this on the web, however, is a no-no.

In fact, you have to do the exact opposite. Journalists refer to this way of writing as the inverted pyramid.

The inverted pyramid model puts the most important information first. Source: Wikipedia

Just open up a newspaper and you’ll recognize it straight away: the most newsworthy information comes first, details and background information come second. Even if you only read the headline and the introductory paragraph, you’ll get the main takeaways from the article.

It’s the same on your website or blog: your readers want to know the big picture first. If they’re really interested, they’ll read on to get the juicy details.

4. Make it scannable

“What I am doing here is taking the reader by the hand and leading him exactly where I want him to go. It seems like a small point and, maybe it is, but is the little touches like this that keeps the letter flowing and the reader moving along.”
– Gary Halbert

As I’m writing this blog post, I’m already thinking about the people reading it. Will people actually read it? In this digital day and age, the reality is: only few people will.

Research suggests that only 16% of people read web pages word-for-word. Instead, most people scan.

They glance at each new page they stumble upon. They’ll scan some of the text, and click on the first thing that catches their attention or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for.

Here’s a checklist for using copywriting techniques in your content to meet scanners’ needs:

  • Communicate in your headline what you’re going to talk about
  • Use your image captions to support your main message
  • Put your key points in subtitles
  • Use easy-to-scan bullet points
  • Use bold to highlight important words

Your web visitor is on an information hunt. Ensure (s)he can understand your most important information by just glancing at the page.

5. Don’t go off on any tangents

Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slide.
– Joseph Sugarman

Uncle Joe sure knows what he’s talking about. Each sentence you write should make your reader want to read the next one.

This means sticking to your point, focusing and most importantly: de-cluttering your text. Treat your text the way Marie Kondo would: get rid of excess clutter, reduce noise and add whitespace.

Not only will it make your text easier to read, it will also increase your perceived trust. And spark joy, of course.

Consider the visual appeal of your copy too – it impacts the readability of your text and whether or not your reader can find what he’s looking for quickly or not.

Declutter your text Marie Kondo-style and spark joy with your readers. – Picture: Seth Wenig/AP; Carlos Ciudad Photography/Getty; Yutong Yuan/Business Insider

6. Make it Crystal Clear

One must be able to express himself briefly, clearly & convincingly.
-Claude Hopkins

If you can’t reduce your argument to a few crisp words and phrases, there’s something wrong with your argument.
– Maurice Saatchi

If I’m quoting not one but two godfathers of advertising, it’s because I’m really trying to make a point here.

Hopkins refers to the trifecta of copywriting: clarity, brevity and utility. 

  • We’ve talked about making your content relevant and useful for your reader extensively in part 3 of this Masterclass on content ideas. If it’s not relevant for your ideal customer, don’t even bother writing it. But even if you pick a useful topic to write about, no-one will actually read it unless you can make your points clearly and succinctly.
  • Brevity is not necessarily about writing short copy – it’s about trimming the fat and using as little words as possible without rendering your message ineffective. Delete the words that are just window dressing (see, this is where your experience with haiku’s may come in handy after all).
  • Clarity is about writing words your ideal reader can actually understand. Whenever I work with clients in the legal or professional services industry, they always give me this “you gotta be kidding me” look when I tell them to get rid of jargon and gobbledygook. What is hidden behind this look is the fear that they’ll share too much of their knowledge and that clients will no longer need their advice (why yes, I see right through you, guys and gals).

This is absolute nonsense, of course. I think the opposite is true. I believe it’s Einstein who said: ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. The guy was no marketing expert by any measure, but not exactly an idiot either…

Don’t leave your reader puzzled or confused: make your point clear without overly complex explanations or jargon. – Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash

7. Make it Actionable

Writing direct response copy always serves a specific purpose. If you’re doing it right, your content should also serve a strategic goal and stimulate a specific behavior: subscribing to your email newsletter, reading the next blogpost in a series, downloading a white paper, getting in touch,…

To get action, you’ve got to ask for it. 

(It only seems appropriate in the post-#metoo-era, right?).

Or as good old Gary Halbert would say:

“Relieve (the reader) of the burden of trying to figure out what he is supposed to do when he finishes reading a particular page.”

Get rid of any friction and make the next step easy. Clicking a button. Sharing a link. Typing an email address (but not necessarily full account information—even that amount of effort can scare people away).

The easier the action, the more likely your audience will feel motivated enough to take it.

And that’s it! Seven solid copywriting strategies to inject your content with and get better ROI.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and I am as guilty as anyone. And putting the wisdom of these old gents (the original Mad Men) in practice can be a daunting task – but it’s worth the extra effort.

Trusty old Gary (Halbert) knew what he was saying when he said that “the written word is the strongest source of power in the entire universe.” Use it wisely.

Are you using copywriting techniques in your blog posts?  Any particular copywriting challenges you’re wrestling with? Let us know in the comments!

And don’t forget to check back next week for Part Seven of our Content Marketing Masterclass about distributing your content!

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Anouck Meier