The Red Pen Rule for Marketing Copy

Not getting the sales you expect? Maybe you're saying too much.

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There are more benefits to keeping your marketing copy short and sweet than saving ad space. Clear and concise messages stand a better chance of being read or heard in their entirety vs. long-winded messages weighed down with filler words and extraneous information consumers don't care about.

Fortunately, there is a tool you can use to make sure your marketing copy is succinct, and consumers actually receive your most important messages--the messages that will lead them to action. I call it the "red pen rule."

The Red Pen Rule
Once you have written final marketing copy that you feel is tight and compelling for your ad, brochure, website or any marketing initiative, take out a red pen (like the ones your teachers used to use to grade your essays), and delete at least 30 percent of it. Your copy will be better off without those extra words.

Once you apply the red pen rule to your copy, your most important messages will jump off the page. Consumers will be more intrigued, and more of them will actually make it through your marketing piece and reach your call to action. That 30 percent you deleted would have slowed your audience down. Consumers are used to immediate gratification, and they're not willing to wait an extra second to process information that isn't instantly useful or interesting to them.

If the idea of cutting that much information scares you, think of it this way. There's a reason movie directors film more footage than ultimately ends up on the big screen. Listen to any director speak, and you'll hear about great scenes that had to be cut because they slowed down the story. Just like movies need to keep moving to hold an audience's attention, so must your marketing copy. Don't give them a chance to tune your message out.

Keep in mind, the Red Pen Rule is not an edict--30 percent is more of a suggested guideline than a rule. The key is to delete more than a couple of words here and there. The red pen rule is only effective if you're heavy-handed and delete a significant amount of copy.

Test It and See for Yourself
You can test the results of the red pen rule by choosing a marketing piece to use as a test subject and creating two versions of it--one before and one after the rule has been applied. Show both versions to friends, family, current customers and colleagues to get their reactions. You can also run live tests where you place both versions of your copy into the market (e.g., send two different e-mails, one to the bulk of your list and the other to a smaller, randomly selected test group) and compare the response rates to both versions.

Take a look at the examples below to see the red pen rule in action.

  • Online Banner Ad
    Before: You can grow your business and increase sales with a risk-free trial of our award-winning e-mail marketing program.

    After: Increase sales with a FREE e-mail marketing trial.

    The after copy says the same thing as the before copy, but it's more concise, gets the message across faster and more clearly and it leaves out the extraneous detail about the program being "award-winning."
  • E-mail Marketing Subject Line
    Before: Get 5%, 10% or 20% off Your Purchase When You Come to Scent of Heaven to Preview our New Line of Fragrances

    After: Get up to 20% off at the Scent of Heaven New Fragrance Preview

    In this example, I simply cut filler words and extraneous details that don't add to the effectiveness of the copy. The new copy is easier to read in an e-mail subject line, and it's more compelling.

Bottom line, you don't ever want consumers to read or listen to your ad or marketing piece and think, "Hurry up and get to the point." Instead, keep your messages short, sweet and succinct, and your results will prove that the red pen rule works.

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