This article has been excerpted from Kick-Ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps by Susan Gunelius, available from Entrepreneur Press .

Whether you're a small-business owner, a medium-size business owner, an eBay seller, or simply trying to break into the copywriting industry, understanding the fundamentals of writing sales-oriented copy and put you on a path to success. At its core, copywriting is another device in a business' marketing toolbox. Well-written copy can make or break an ad or marketing piece. With that in mind, copywriting can equate to either well-spent advertising investments or a waste of advertising dollars.

Many people misinterpret the uniqueness of effective copywriting. I can't count the number of times I've heard freelance writers say they want to shift from article writing to copywriting as if it's simply an extension of their existing abilities. Copywriting does come naturally to some people, but for most, it's a foreign landscape they do not know how to navigate. Copywriting is about more than writing the hard sell sales letter that many short copywriting courses offer. In fact, I cringe when I see those over-the-top sales letters, which do little more than provide an ugly representation of copywriting, sales and marketing.

Well-crafted copywriting doesn't need to beat a person over the head. It doesn't have to drown in bold typeface and capitalization. The message should stand on its own without an overabundance of heavy-handed sales language and design embellishments. I associate many sales letters that are guilty of this technique with a writer who doesn't truly understand the basic purpose of copywriting. However, successful copywriting can be achieved in 10 easy steps.

Consider Your Copy
 

Motivate your customer to buy with these 10 copywriting steps:

1. Exploit your product's benefits

2. Exploit your competition's weaknesses

3. Know your audience

4. Communicate W.I.I.F.M. (What's In It For Me?)

5. Focus on "you," not "we"

6. Understand your medium

7. Avoid T.M.I. (Too Much Information)

8. Include a call to action

9. C.Y.A. (Cover Your Ass)

10. Proofread

1. Exploit your product's benefits.
The first step of the copywriting outline is the foundation for your advertising campaigns. A benefit is the value of your product to a customer. In other words, a benefit is what the product can do for a customer or how the product can help a customer. You need to put into words the reasons your product is the best available and better than your competitors' products based on the added value it provides to your customers. The key to success is for you to fully understand all the benefits of your product. Only then can you ensure that the audience knows them and can relate to them.

2. Exploit your competition's weaknesses.
To write compelling copy, it is essential that you know what differentiates your product from the competition. Once you know your competitors' weaknesses, you must make sure your audience knows them and understands why buying your competitors' products would be a terrible mistake. Get started by thoroughly researching your competition and understanding what they offer in terms of products and services. Next, list the elements of their offerings that are inferior to your own. Feel free to tear the competition apart but be realistic in your comparisons. You want to be able to support your claims if you are challenged.

3. Know your audience.
Every person in the world is not going to see every ad in the world. Each ad has a specific audience that will see it, and it's the marketer's job to find the best placement to ensure the target audience will see it. For example, an ad for skateboards placed in a local senior citizen housing association newsletter is not likely to generate a lot of sales. In fact, it would be a waste of advertising dollars. The target audience for skateboards is teenagers or young adults. The vast majority of senior citizens do not use skateboards, and it is not a product category in which they typically purchase gifts. Before you buy ad space, make sure you're spending your money in the right place to get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of exposure and building awareness of your product or service.

First, take the time to research your customers thoroughly. In most businesses, 20 percent of customers are responsible for 80 percent of sales (this is called the 80/20 rule in case you're curious about the official marketing terminology for this phenomenon). That 20 percent represents your best customer, and your job is to determine who that 20 percent is. Evaluate your customers and put together a demographic profile of your most valuable customer, so you can advertise in the best places to find similar people who are likely prospects. If you're a small business owner, you probably don't have a budget set aside to conduct a thorough research study and analysis of your customer base, so you'll have to improvise by using your own communication skills and visual investigation. Remember, you're trying to develop a basic profile of your target customer, not a CIA profile of each individual who buys your product. Do your best with the information you have.

There are many attributes you can use to develop a demographic profile of your customers. Following is a list of examples of traits to help you start your own demographic profiling initiative:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Family Status
  • Income
  • Occupation
  • Interests

4. Communicate W.I.I.F.M. (What's In It For Me?)
There are a variety of reasons to create an advertisement or marketing piece. Before you write copy for your promotional piece, you need to understand your goals for that piece. What do you want to get in return? The copy you use in each ad or marketing piece will vary based on your goals for that promotion. While this book does not focus on the development of marketing plans and strategies, I will offer some examples of different objectives for ads or marketing pieces that, in turn, will affect the copy you use:

  • Communicate a special offer
  • Share information and raise awareness
  • Generate leads

Your customers need to understand how your product or service is going to help them by making their lives easier, making them feel better, helping them save money, helping them save time, etc. In this step of the copywriting outline, you'll build on the work you've done so far by taking your product's features, benefits, and differentiators and specifically describing how they directly affect your target audience members' lives in positive ways. Remember the first tenet of copywriting--your product or service is far less important than its ability to fulfill your customers' needs.

Answer your target audience's question "What's in it for me?" Remember, you're paying for your ad space and possibly graphic design too. Don't waste your money by placing an ad with ineffective copy that does not clearly tell your customers what they'll get by buying your product or service. Large companies with big advertising and marketing budgets can test snappy, cliché headlines and copy in an attempt to find the best way to catch their target audience's attention, but small and medium-size business owners typically have limited budgets. For smaller businesses that only have one chance to communicate their message, copy must be written so the message, including benefits and differentiators, is heard and understood by the target audience. There is no room in a small business owner's advertising budget to risk not getting that specific message across to the right people every time.

5. Focus on "you," not "we."
It is essential that you are aware of how you're addressing your customers in your copy. To do this, you need to understand pronoun usage. Think back to your school days. Remember your English teacher explaining first person, second person, and third person? As a refresher, first person (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours) is the person speaking and second person (you, your, yours) is the person to whom one is speaking. It's essential that you write copy that speaks to your target audience and not at them--and not about you. Therefore, the majority of your copy in any ad or marketing piece should be written in the second person. For example, do you prefer copy that says, "Through our first-rate sales department, we can deliver cars within 24 hours" or "You can drive your new car tomorrow"? While the first copy example focuses on the business, the second example focuses on customers and speaks directly to them. It's more personal, and thus, more effective.

Remember, writing in the second person helps your audience quickly connect the points in your copy to their own lives and allows them to personalize the advertisement or marketing piece. This is how the ad is connected to an individual customer's own life. By writing your copy so it focuses on the customer rather than yourself, the customer can personalize the ad and product you're selling and act accordingly.

6. Understand your medium.
As you write your copy, be aware that each different medium where an ad is placed requires a different tone or style. Depending on where you're placing your ad, the copy you use changes based on the audience who will see the ad. Are you placing your ad in a local newspaper or on a billboard? Are you placing your ad in a woman's magazine or in a news magazine? Different media require different copy to most effectively persuade a particular audience to act. Furthermore, different types of marketing pieces require different types of copy. Remember, there are many ways to use copy to promote your business other than traditional advertisements. Use every possible and appropriate opportunity to communicate your marketing messages to your customers.

7. Avoid T.M.I. (Too Much Information)
Never risk losing the attention of your audience by providing too much detail in your copy. Effective copywriting tells your audience what they need to know to act and make a purchase or how to contact you for more information. Extraneous details clutter the minds of your audience, which increases the possibility of them forgetting the most important aspects of your advertisement or marketing program. Unless you're advertising a prescription drug, highly technical equipment, or an exceedingly regulated or complicated product, the best rule to follow is K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). You're spending a substantial amount of your advertising budget on placing each ad. With each ad, you only receive a small amount of space to get your message across to your audience. Wisely use that pricey real estate to ensure you get the highest return on your investment.

8. Include a call to action.
The goal of any ad or marketing piece is to elicit some kind of response from the audience who sees it. A call to action is the element of copy that tells an audience how you want them to respond to your advertisement or marketing piece. Typically, the call to action creates a sense of urgency around a message and provides instructions on what to do next. For example, a call to action might tell the audience to call the advertiser or visit their store or website.

Including a call to action is by far the most important aspect of effective copywriting. It is essential that you make it easy for your audience to act on your ad or marketing message. You already persuaded them to want your product by following Step 1 through Step 7 of the copywriting outline and by writing influential copy. Now you must make sure your audience can respond easily to your ad and buy your product by compelling them to act.

To start, make sure the sentence structure of your copywriting is in an active rather than passive voice. The reason for this is simple. Copy that you write in the active voice is by definition action-oriented, while copy that you write in the passive voice talks about the action in a remote manner. To further explain, when you write a sentence in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb in the sentence. On the other hand, if you write a sentence in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action from the verb of the sentence.

The second step in creating an effective call to action in your copy is developing a sense of urgency. Your goal in advertising is to create awareness of your product or service and, ultimately, boost sales. When do you want to do that? Do you want your customers to act tomorrow, next month, or next year? If you're spending money on advertising now, you most likely want your customers to act now. If that's the case, your copy needs to tell them to get off the couch and get into your store now. There are many words and phrases you can add to your copy to create a sense of urgency.

9. C.Y.A. (Cover Your Ass)
While large companies have legal departments that review copy to ensure it does not expose the company to potential problems, smaller companies don't usually have the budget to seek the opinion of an attorney for each ad they run or marketing piece they print. However, that doesn't mean small business owners have any less responsibility for producing ads and marketing pieces that are honest and not considered deceptive. Most small business owners are sole proprietors meaning if they lose a lawsuit, not only can their business assets be used to satisfy a plaintiff's claim, but their personal assets can be targeted as well. When you're writing copy, consider if claims that you can't prove in your copy (or can't provide appropriate disclaimers for) are worth it once you weigh the risk vs. the potential reward.

Aside from opening yourself up to possible litigation, exaggerating or falsifying claims about your product or your competition is unethical and a bad business practice. If you're caught in a lie (no matter how small), word will spread quickly, and your reputation could be irreparably damaged. Again, weigh the risk vs. the potential reward before you advertise using claims you can't prove.

Be careful of using words superlatives such as the examples in the following list:

  • Free
  • Guaranteed
  • Best, lowest, fastest, etc.
  • Or your money back
  • Risk-free
  • No risk
  • No purchase necessary
  • No cost
  • No obligation
  • No investment
  • 100 percent
  • Promise
  • No questions asked

10. Proofread.
It is critical that you accurately proofread your copy. One of the quickest ways to lose credibility in advertising is to allow grammatical or spelling errors to appear in your advertisement or marketing pieces. Customers translate carelessness in ads into carelessness in products and service. They ask themselves, "If this company doesn't care enough to produce an ad without errors, how likely are they to care about taking care of me?" Professional businesses produce professional quality ads and ad copy, and that means their copy has been proofread again and again and is error free.

It Really Is That Simple

Copywriting is truly easy. If you do your research and prep work, your copy will shine. Don't be afraid to take calculated risks and learn from your mistakes, but don't waste your limited advertising budget. By doing the legwork first and thoroughly completing your copywriting outline, you'll have a working document you can use as a tool to produce all your copywriting projects now and in the future. Spend some time up-front to develop a first rate copywriting outline, and you'll reap the rewards later with a boost in sales and profits and a higher return in your advertising investments. Now kick some ass.