Copywriting 101: A Guide to Writing Good Copy

Copywriting, mostly associated with marketing, is a part of writing for businesses, but its particular purpose is to generate a response, making it very different in practice. 

Copywriting is often tested and based on statistics rather than personal preference, though overall styles may be defined. 

This means that the actual wording of writing for marketing purposes may be decided by how people respond to it, not by the principles of what is considered to be good writing.

You should know that your content can contribute to a company’s marketing strategy by increasing conversions and the number of customers and potential customers you have.

Would you like to learn more about copywriting and how it can help your brand succeed? If so, then this is the guide for you!

What is Copywriting?

Copywriting includes all the written communications used to sell, market, and promote products and services to prospects and customers. As a category, it’s bigger than “advertising writing” because it also includes things such as brochures or Web sites. 

But it’s smaller than “business writing” because it doesn’t include nonmarketing communications such as interoffice memos. That said, let me introduce two important ideas about copywriting: going beyond information and inspiring action.

Transcending information 

Many copywriting projects begin with the reasonable desire to inform prospects and customers about your business and/or one of its products and services. But if all you want to do is tell your prospects about something, you’re aiming too low — and you’re not getting full value from your writing. 

Telling is for journalists, teachers, and stool pigeons. Copywriting is about conducting business, not distributing information. Your job isn’t to tell, but to sell — to spike your communications with messages that persuade, motivate, and build desire. 

  • A ruthless fixation on benefits: These are the things your product does for the customer. By appealing to your prospects’ self interests, benefits provide motivation — a reason to buy, act, or respond. 
  • A desire to make offers: Selling is all about let’s-make-a-deal. The deal you present — do this to get that — is called an offer. 
  • A commitment to the customer’s point of view: Swallow your ego: If you want to create genuine rapport with your customers, you have to embrace and communicate from their point of view. 

​​Generating action 

Information is often like a guest who overstays his welcome: just lying around, doing nothing, occupying space. You want more from your copy, however. Effective business requires action — from you, for starters, and then (you hope) from your customers. 

Here’s a way of doing business that immediately places you light-years ahead of your competition: Think of every piece of copy you write, whether it’s a letter or an ad, not as a static project but as an agent of action. Instead of generating information, commit your resources — your time, money, and talent — to writing that does things: makes sales, builds leads, stimulates interest, draws customers, and so on. 

When you approach a new writing project, always ask yourself two questions: 

  • What does this do for my business? Not all copy can (or should) close a sale, but all of it should serve a clear purpose that moves your business one step closer to your goals. If you can’t define the purpose, that’s an excellent warning sign that the potential project either is misconceived (the wrong match of project to purpose) or may be a waste of money. 
  • What do I want the prospect to do after reading this? Often, the answer is as simple as “Buy my product.” But in many cases, the pathway to the sale is more complex and may involve numerous steps and way stations before the deal is done. In any event, be sure that your copy facilitates that next step by including all the information a customer needs to make that step and by being as persuasive as possible to encourage movement in your direction.

How To Write A Good Copy?

Whether you’re writing print ads or Web pages, brochures or e-mails, letters or postcards, you work with three basic elements: a headline that sets the bait, body copy that hooks ’em, and a call to action that reels ’em in.

1. Headlines

In newspapers and magazines, the headline tells readers what the subsequent article is about, providing just enough information so that they can decide whether they want to read on. Marketing headlines provide information, too, but they also go an important step further: They make a promise, overt or implied, that appeals to your prospects’ self-interests. 

Avoid the temptation to write cute or clever headlines for their own sakes, under the mistaken belief that they attract readers’ attention. Chances are, your message will suffer the same fate as the class clown who does anything to draw attention to himself: It’ll be ignored. 

Cute and clever may be acceptable, but only if your headline appeals to the one thing readers care about — their self interest. Every good copywriter needs to be familiar with the three time-tested, market-proven, cash-register-ringing ways to appeal to reader interests: Promise a benefit, make an offer, and deliver relevant news.

Promising a benefit 

If you’ve ever interviewed for a sales or marketing job, you may have been hit with one of the classic stupid-interview-trick challenges: “Sell me this pencil.” You may have been tempted to do something rather violent and obscene with that pencil, but to get the job, you had to demonstrate your understanding of features and benefits of salesmanship.

Features are qualities or things that an item or service has, such as anti-lock disc brakes or a water-repelling exterior shell. Features are static characteristics, and they’re almost always nouns or adjectives. 

Benefits are what the product or service does for the owner or user. They are, therefore, much more important than features because they include a what’s-in-it-for-me motivation. They’re active qualities and are almost always verbs, adverbs, or verbal phrases. They save people time and money, protect them from foul weather, alert them to danger, make them look younger and sexier, and so on. 

After you identify benefits, the next step is working them into your headlines. Try this simple formula: A verb plus a desirable quality or thing that a customer might want equals a benefit headline. The stronger the desirability of that “thing,” the stronger the benefit. Take a look at this example: Turn your kitchen trash into garden-enriching super-fertilizer. 

Here, the leading verbal construction, “Turn . . . into” leads the headline into the promise of an attractive new thing: “garden-enriching super-fertilizer.” You can improve on this strategy by adding a reinforcing feature to the principal benefit: 

Enjoy younger, smoother skin in just 30 days. 

The word “enjoy” is the active verb that sets the headline into motion, while “younger, smoother skin” is the desirable thing; “in just 30 days” is an additional feature that implies speed, another important benefit.

Making offers 

An offer is the promise of an exchange. In return for responding to your message, sending a check, filling out a form, or visiting your store this week only, your readers get a subscription, a discount coupon, a two-for-one deal, or whatever offer you wish to make.

A discount, special sale, or special price can be a particularly strong offer. When you have a great offer, consider leading with it in the headline, especially when your product is otherwise similar to other products or has a familiar benefit that no longer attracts attention. 

The offer headline is the simplest kind of headline to write: You simply state the offer, or you present the offer and add the name of your store or the location where the offer can be obtained. The offer is the star, so you don’t want to dim its shine by adding lots of verbal clutter: 

Save 25% on all women’s shoes at Toe Town. 

You can add a deadline or time limit to create greater urgency. Human beings tend to be expert procrastinators; by creating urgency, you encourage action (before your message is otherwise entirely forgotten): Order one collectible coin kit by May 31, and get the second set for half the price.

One of the most powerful marketing appeals is exclusivity, the sense (or illusion) that an offer is being made only to a select, special, or elite few, which just happens to include you! “You,” in fact, is a great word to use in an exclusive appeal, because it speaks to the most important people in your readers’ universe: them. Words such as “only,” “special,” and even “exclusive” may prove handy as well.

Providing news 

People value new information about issues and things that interest them. You can turn this curiosity to your advantage by constructing your headline from a tidbit of provocative information. 

Your goal is to break through reader apathy with new information and then link that new information to something readers value — something that makes them richer, healthier, safer, stronger, sexier, and so on. For example: 

Latest NASA solar panels now available for energy-conscious homeowners. 

In this instance, the “news” about the solar panels is reinforced with the credibility of NASA and linked directly to a specific audience — “energy-conscious homeowners.”

To write an effective “question” headline, be sure to promise a reward of meaningful news by hinting at the importance of your information and by implying that readers will find answers in subsequent copy — if they read on. For example: 

Are you prepared for the 3 most important changes in this year’s tax regulations? 

This question suggests that if you don’t know what the changes are, you’re unprepared. In the copy that follows, you’d not only deliver (briefly) the news about the three changes, but you’d also link that information back to your service — in this example, a tax-preparation firm.

2. The body

After you capture your readers’ attention with the headline, the body, or the bulk of the copy that follows, pursues the sale by fulfilling the promise stated or implied in the headline. (You build the body with copy points , facts, evidence, and/or ideas that support the case or story you’ve already introduced.) You don’t need to scratch your head wondering what to do next. Just follow your headline’s lead. 

If you led with a benefit, your body copy must articulate the value of the benefit to the customer by clearly explaining what it does for the reader. For example: 

Headline: Chlorolux renews the green in your grass! 

Beginning of the body copy: You weed, you fertilize, you adjust your pH — and your reward? A field of brown. It’s time for Chlorolux, the lab-tested non-toxic lawn treatment that turns blah brown lawns into luscious fields of green. 

If you lead with an offer, explain the value or worth of your offer — what makes it desirable and special: 

Headline: Save 25% on all women’s shoes at Toe Town. 

Beginning of the body copy: Now through June 30, all women’s shoes are 25% off at every Toe Town! Mino Blahchicks . . . Emilio Pedicrushers . . . La Stubbas . . . all the most famous and desirable women’s shoes from Italy, France, Spain, and more . . . on sale now. 

If you lead with news, explain what the news means to customers by demonstrating the potential impact of your information on their lives: 

Headline: Are you prepared for the 3 most important changes in this year’s tax regulations? 

Beginning of the body copy: This year’s tax regulations are more complicated than ever. But if you know the three most important changes, you may save yourself one big headache — and a lot of money. The first big change? Married couples can now file with exceptions for. . . . 

Following the lead is just the beginning. Whether you choose to lead with a benefit, offer, or news, you want to develop your copy within a logical shape — beginning, middle, and end — and be sure to include important subordinate information that builds credibility.

Shaping a story

The body of a piece of copywriting is a story with discrete sections that serve different purposes as the body progresses. The three major sections are 

  • The beginning: You start by stating a problem or challenge to be solved, or an opportunity or desirable thing to be obtained. By doing so, you kick-start your story (your body copy) with a purpose. Your job? To identify the pain to be overcome or the pleasure to be embraced.
  • The middle: In the middle, you introduce the “hero” — the product or service you offer that overcomes the challenge or obtains the benefit. This is the longest part of the body copy, and it shoulders the heaviest burdens. 
  • The end: The last step is to introduce the customer into the story. By taking the action you request — going to the store, dialing a number, visiting a Web site, returning a response device, and so on — the customer concludes the story and enjoys the happy ending: an escape from pain or an acquisition of pleasure.

Building credibility with evidence

If the first golden rule of copywriting is to emphasize benefits (what’s in it for the customers), then the second most important rule is to build your case with evidence, specific factual material that can include the following: 

  • Particular features of your product or service: These include what your product or service does, how it’s built, how it works, what it’s made of, and so on. Perhaps you want to emphasize the genuine 24K gold of a fitting, the rack-and-pinion steering of a car, the Egyptian cotton in a fabric, or the portobello mushrooms in a sauce. 
  • Sensual characteristics: For items that are valued for what they are (such as food, jewelry, music, and clothes) rather than what they do, sensual characteristics appeal to the senses that whet our appetites for the product. Sensual characteristics can be the scent of a cherry blossom; the succulence of tender, young lamb; the whisper-soft touch of cashmere; the brilliant colors in a painting; and so on. 
  • Quality of designers, engineers, artisans, or makers: The special experience and expertise of the people behind a product or service add enormous credibility. You want bread prepared by bakers trained in France, cars designed by engineers with championship racing experience, marble floors crafted by Italian masons, investment advice from experts with 15-year track records of favorable performance, and so on. 
  • Research results and statistical evidence: Prospects love hard numbers that demonstrate superiority, preferably those measured by independent third-party sources. Your pitch is much more convincing when your bond returns are 23 percent higher than your competitors’ returns, your kitchen food processor has a 30 percent greater food capacity, your microprocessor is 64 percent faster, your storm parka is 42 percent warmer, and so on. 
  • Customer endorsements: Your customer’s opinions are always more credible than your own. When you can, use them. 

3. The close 

Your final job as a copywriter is the most important yet the least complex of your tasks: to tell people what to do and how to do it. In a call to action, you want to provide all the necessary nuts-and-bolts information, plus add a few points to overcome the last remaining objections the prospect may have to responding (ordering or buying, for example). 

Telling people what to do 

Okay, you’ve made a promise and backed it with evidence. Now tell the customer how to fulfill your offer or how to buy or order what you’re selling. Keep the following points in mind:

  • Restate the offer: In a short ad, this may be unnecessary. But in longer copy, restating the offer is important. Be sure to briefly include what you’re selling and any special terms — a discount, additional features, a time limit — that may accompany it. 
  • Give the location: Where can customers buy your product? If it’s through general category stores, such as supermarkets or hardware stores, you may want to tell them what aisle they can find it in, if it’s not immediately obvious.
  • Present the ordering options: If your offer is obtained by ordering it instead of through a store, be sure to provide accurate, explicit information for each option. Typical options include ordering via a toll-free phone number, completing a form on a Web site, or returning a postage-paid card or form that must be completed and returned in a postage-paid envelope.

Overcoming customer inertia 

Getting people to listen to you is hard; getting them to take action is even harder. Just as in physics, it takes a great deal of energy to overcome inertia in marketing. In other words, motivating a prospect to take action or to make a purchasing decision contrary to what he’s accustomed to is never easy. 

Strong offers and compelling benefits are your best levers for moving customers. But you can increase your strength and gain a better chance of inspiring action by creating urgency and a sense of safety.

  • Urgency: It’s one thing when I tell my kids to get ready for school; it’s another when the bus is at the door. An imposed limitation, such as a deadline or limited offer, can be a great spur to action for many people. In your marketing materials, use limitations to defeat people’s natural inclination to procrastinate. Instead of just making an offer, create a deadline, specific date, or other restriction, that sets a defined limit on your offer and demands action now.
  • Safety: The last hurdle before the sale (or other desired response) is the most emotionally loaded: fear. People are often afraid that your product won’t work as promised, that they’ll lose money, or that they’ll look foolish if they buy from you. You overcome fear by removing risk. This is why offering a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee is so effective. 

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