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Words to the Wise

Has your marketing copy lost its punch? Kick it up a notch with these words that work.

Ever wonder why detergent marketers are forever touting their products as "new and improved"? It's because certain words have historically produced higher results and better return on investment for marketing dollars spent. Trouble is, we may have burned out many of these words and phrases through overuse. That's the contention of marketing copy guru Herschell Gordon Lewis, the author of On the Art of Writing Copy (Amacom). That means we have to find more ways to establish rapport with audiences.

Copy That Sells
From print and broadcast ads to direct mail, e-mail and even billboards, it's the language you use that motivates response and produces results. Try these tips for fine-tuning your marketing copy:

  • Use informal language. Building rapport is the key to getting a response-one way to establish rapport is through informal language. In e-mail and direct-mail communication, for example, Lewis recommends trading in formal words, such as "however" and "thank you," for informal ones like "but" and "thanks."
  • Use contractions. Contractions, once considered too informal for use in marketing materials, are now accepted. For instance, replace "you will" with "you'll," except where you want to create emphasis. When you separate words that are normally used as a contraction, you make a stronger point. For example, "This is not sold in stores" is much more powerful than "This isn't sold in stores."
  • Open with a question. Why? Because questions hook you-they involve you, and they have an emotional overtone. According to Lewis, "An emotion-based appeal will out pull an intellect-based appeal." Using a question also allows you to direct the answer. By posing a question in an ad or e-mail-such as "Would you like to save 30 percent on your next order?"-you can prompt the reader to respond affirmatively.
  • Emphasize the "what." Some words have lost their impact because they must be followed with an explanation. Successful copy is about the "what" not the "why," says Lewis, who hates to use the words "quality," "value" and "service" because they have to be hooked to an explanation of why. "Any advertising claim that spurs the question 'In what way?' is automatically defective," he says.
  • Be careful how you use numbers. "What if McDonald's Quarter-Pounder were called the 4-Ouncer?" asks Lewis. Using numbers can make an amount seem bigger or smaller, or a time interval feel shorter or longer. "If 60 Minutes were called One Hour, its ratings would drop, because viewers might not want to commit that much time," he says.
  • Avoid passive, patronizing words. Active, direct language builds rapport and never condescends or patronizes. Replace "utilize" with "use," "endeavor" with "try," and "requested" with "asked for." One word Lewis cites as having power today is "even," because it adds uniqueness to your offer. Consider how much weaker "We'll refund the cost of shipping" is compared to "We'll even refund the cost of shipping."
  • Be asterisk-free. Have nothing to hide? Then why follow an important copy point with an asterisk? It makes an already skeptical reader more wary and gives greater emphasis to the fine print. Instead, Lewis suggests replacing an asterisk with copy in parentheses.

In the marketing world, words are the foundation of the craft. And while implementing these tips individually may not make or break your next campaign, taken together they can add up to a higher response rate.

Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.

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This article was originally published in the October 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Words to the Wise.

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