Friday, June 08, 2007
When I joined my first London ad agency 40-something years ago, the copywriting department was presided over by a lapsed genius who beat into me a number of immutable copy principles. These precepts, which are as valid now as they were then and which have helped me shift truckloads of product worldwide, apply to all types of promotional writing. They apply even more so to selling on the Internet, where do-it-yourself copy is the norm rather than the exception. In the old days, very few serious advertisers wrote their own material. Today, they do so as a matter of course simply because the technology allows it.
Anyway, this little article is aimed at those who write their own web pages and also at those who hire a writer and may wish to check that he or she is working on the right lines. Below you’ll find just a few principles of good promotional writing. If the editor wants more, I’ll gladly provide them.
Keep it very simple
All copywriting should speak to its audience in everyday, uncomplicated language. People don’t like to be talked down to. And they grow tired of clichés and buzzwords. Also, keep your sentences short and punchy, with the minimum of clauses. Long and involved sentence structure is death to readership. (The six sentences above are examples of what I’m talking about. They are easy to scan and understand.)
All web pages should carry a headline
But this must be a pertinent headline. A selling headline. This headline will be, or should be, powerful enough or intriguing enough to draw your target into the compass of the body copy. If it can do that, you are on a winner.
It may go without saying that the entire thrust of your webpage should revolve around an offer or a promise. This offer or promise will be unique to you – it’s your unique sales proposition. It’s the one thing that sets you apart from your competitors; and it can be price, performance or service related. Given this, the headline should be a snapshot of the sales message – a précis of your offer or promise. In other words, a headline that says: Buy this product and get this benefit. I’m sure you already know that people don’t buy products, they buy the benefits of owning those products.
And when I say that every page of your site should carry a headline, I mean every page. Experience shows that a person will read a headline before looking at any accompanying pic or body copy. They do so preparatory to scooting off to someone else’s site. But if your on-going headlines tell them things of interest, they will almost certainly hang around to explore the site more fully.
Keep headlines relevant
Around 30% of all headlines on the Net are both useless and irrelevant. The worst of them are so convoluted, so desperate to say everything all at once, that they are unintelligible. The offending lines also employ tired buzzwords. The word ‘leverage, for instance’, in completely ungrammatical context; and words like ‘solutions’ and ‘focus’ are thrown around like generous confetti. The moral is this. State your sales proposition cleverly, wittily, stridently or emotively, but never, ever employ a cliché device simply because it’s the easy thing to do. If you can’t be original, at least be positive. And if you honestly don’t have very much to say, there are some really clever ways of saying nothing that will endear you to your audience.
Emphasise the benefit
Copy should be more than just a description of your product. All body copy should make some kind of selling proposition. If it doesn’t, it isn’t advertising – it’s an announcement. So many writers these days fail to understand that copy is nothing more than salesmanship in print. They describe every conceivable facet of their product, what it does, how it does it and why it does it, without once producing a decent argument for buying the damned thing! They lose sight of the fact that they should be trying to sell something.
Thus, copy must use the psychology of the salesman; and it must say, right up front: Here’s what’s in it for you. Nobody ever went broke promoting the benefits of owning their product.
All copywriting should be geared to fulfilling one very important task. And this is to raise the value of your product or service in the potential customer’s mind. This has nothing to do with a policy of low pricing or, indeed, cut-price offers. But it has everything to do with making a sales pitch that immediately demonstrates the outstanding value of your goods and services – no matter how much you are charging for them.
Look at it this way, a gallon of petrol costs around £5, but if your car runs out of gas on a lonely, rain-swept moor in the middle of the night, with the prospect of a 30-mile walk to the nearest filling station, how much would you pay for a gallon of petrol from a passing stranger? £10? £20? £50? It all depends on how badly you need it and how the circumstances have raised its value to you.
Raising value isn’t difficult to do when people are in the market for your product. They come to you with certain preconceived notions, they are excited about owning whatever it is you make, they can already picture themselves using it, they want it now. All you have to do is exploit their desire. Bear in mind that advertising doesn’t create desire, desire creates advertising.
Say it, then say it again
It has been scientifically proven that most of us take in only around 40% of what we actually see. Our brains edit out the other 60% of visual information as unimportant. On these grounds, if you have a serious proposition to make in your website it would be wise to repeat it. And not just once, but several times.
Just because you are deeply immersed in your offer or promise, it doesn’t follow that your market will be likewise informed after only one reading. Websites are the most negligently read materials on the planet. Aside from you, nobody has any real or abiding interest in them. Always remember that you are preaching to the indifferent.
Resist the urge to talk about yourself
A lot of website writers seem compelled to talk about themselves. They talk about their business, when it was founded, why it was founded and by whom. Not content with this, they tell us all about their employees one by one; about the size and location of their offices or plant; and about the lengths they go to in order to satisfy their customers.
A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, but a lot of it goes right over people’s heads. And they lose more customers than they gain with such naval-gazing.
The simple truth is that nobody gives a damn about other people’s achievements. All most of us are interested in are our own achievements. Good enough reason, then, when writing your next website is to talk more about your potential customers and what you can do for them, than about yourself. Six-to-four, you’ll get a bigger response.
If this has been helpful, maybe you’ll let me know.