8 Laws for Writing Copy That Sells

8 Laws for Writing Copy That Sells
Image credit: Ezra Bailey
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The following excerpt is from Craig Simpson and Brian Kurtz’s book The Advertising Solution. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

Claude Hopkins was a whiz at writing effective advertising copy in the early part of the 20th century, but what really made him stand out was that he tested everything before he presented it to the public. As a result of the dedicated testing he did with his own copy, Hopkins knew for a fact what elements of copy worked and what didn’t, and was able to apply his findings to all his new campaigns so that he kept achieving better and better results.

Related: 18 Things Testing Your Ads Can Teach You About Effective Advertising

In his classic book, My Life in Advertising, Hopkins included a chapter on “Scientific Advertising,” in which he laid out some of the basic laws of writing copy that sells, based on years of testing different ways of presenting his sales pitch and analyzing the resulting response rates. Here are just some of these laws that worked back then -- and still work today:

1. Brilliant writing has no place in advertising.

The novice copy­writer writes to impress and makes the mistake of putting readers’ attention on the copy, instead of on how the readers’ lives will improve by using the product in question.

What good is it for people to comment on how beautifully the copy is written if it doesn’t impel them to take action? Even today we see clever ads that people remember clearly, but they have no idea what product the ad was selling!

Hopkins believed that the less noticeable the copy, the bet­ter it will be at doing its job. All you need to do is present the facts and benefits and let them do the selling for you. It helps to be a little subtle. If the copy appears to be trying to persuade, the reader will reject it out of what Hopkins called “fear of over influence.” Your copy should appear to inform readers so they think the decision to take action was all their own idea. Don’t let the writing be conspicuous. As Hopkins put it:

"In fishing for buyers, as in fishing for bass, one should not reveal the hook."

2. Language should be natural and simple.

Remember your audi­ence and write so they can understand you and feel that you understand them. Use the same language your audience uses. We see this idea expressed again and again by our legends.

Above all, you must be clear. If people have to struggle to get the message, they may miss it altogether; then you won’t get any response at all. Lay it all out in logical steps, using language your audience is comfortable with.

3. From start to finish, offer service.

Your prospects want to know what you’ll do for them. Anything that smacks of being self-serving or trying to manipulate their behavior will make them suspicious. Hopkins said he had seen many ads ruined by inserting phrases like “Insist on [this brand]” or “Avoid imitations.” He believed these phrases hinted at a motive on the seller’s part that was of no interest to the pros­pect. Tell prospects how they’ll benefit by buying from you or visiting your site or hiring you -- what you can do to make their lives better -- rather than warning them against buying from someone else.

Related: 6 Lessons From the Legends of Advertising

4. Forget yourself entirely.

In putting together your sales copy, leave yourself out of the equation. Prospects don’t care about you; they care about themselves. And that’s why your focus should be on them. Imagine your prospect is standing before you, a specific individual, and think about what you would say to that person to convince them that getting their hands on your product would be a great thing for them personally. Picture what a good salesman, talking to the prospect around the kitchen table, would say. That’s what you should say in your copy.

It’s true that many companies will make a brand out of an individual and use that person as the basis of promotional materials, but they don’t so much talk about the person and their accomplishments as they give the impression that readers can accomplish all that person achieved by using the product.

5. Don’t boast.

You may be tempted to say things like “Our operation is the largest in the country,” but that’s really of no interest to the prospect. It’s just a boast, and as Hopkins reminds us, “Boasting is repulsive.” Plus, what difference does it make if you’re the biggest or the first? That doesn’t tell people anything about how their lives will be better if they use your product.

Tell them how great they’ll be once they get their hands on your product, and how much effort you’ll put in to make sure they’re satisfied. That’s really all they want to know. If they think you’re too full of yourself, they may believe their satisfaction won’t be all that important to you.

6. Aim to get action.

You have to put something in your ad that will inspire people to take action. One method is to include some kind of coupon that signals people they should place an order. This is especially useful in print ads, allowing them to clip out the coupon and keep it as a handy reminder.

This can also work well in direct mail ads. Even if your ad encourages people to call to place orders or visit a website, just seeing the coupon is a powerful cue to take action. If you’re working online, you might use a picture of a coupon as a visu­al cue, but the real cue to take action is a link that prospects can click.

One of the benefits of working online is that you have great flexibility to place the link at different points in your email or web page. A link near the beginning can serve prospects who are convinced after the first few paragraphs. Other links can be placed throughout the piece, giving prospects an opportu­nity to act whenever they’re ready.

7. Build urgency.

Speaking of encouraging action, limited-time offers are very effective. If people are afraid an offer will soon go away, it will give them a reason to act quickly. If they feel time isn’t an issue, they’ll defer action until later, and more than likely, they’ll forget about it. Adding a sense of urgency increases response rates, and this should be carefully built into all your sales and promotional pieces.

8. Ads should tell the full story.

Never assume your reader knows anything about you or has read another ad in a series. Each ad should be able to stand on its own. If you’re sending out a sales piece followed by additional letters or emails, make sure you put all the important information in each piece, including your major arguments and bullet points. Perhaps later pieces can be pared down in size, but don’t assume your reader will remember points they may have seen in earlier pieces.

Related: How to Overcome Writer's Block and Create Great Ad Copy

Also realize if you put several different appeals in a single sales piece, some will work better with some prospects, while others will work better with different prospects. Make sure all the appeals are presented in every piece, or you could be losing prospects who might otherwise buy.