In his book, Mysterious Stranger, magician David Blaine reveals the most important secret behind Harry Houdini's extraordinary death-defying escapes: obsessive advance preparation. While his audiences never saw the months of practice and planning, they would have found no magic to applaud if Houdini hadn't invested so much effort in his non-magical preliminaries.
Likewise, the secret to successful copy is in the all the thought, work and research you do before you write a single word. In the following 10 tips, I lift the curtain to reveal the backstage mechanics you can leverage for more effective copywriting.
1. Gather your proof points. These are all the tangible pieces of physical evidence, such as research statistics, units sold, customers satisfied and performance figures that reinforce your promises. Without this proof, broad claims for "innovation," "commitment," "quality" and "excellence" ring hollow and shallow. Innovators must be prepared to describe new products or features; those committed to quality should be able to measure their performance and show the results.
This tip comes first, not necessarily because it's more important than the other nine, but for the amount of time it may require to assemble the proof points you need within your organization. Start making inquiries now, then mull over the following nine points as you collect responses.
2. Answer, "What do you want readers to do next?" There's no point in communicating, whether through a Web page or a direct mail piece, if you don't have a clear idea of what you want prospects to do as a consequence of reading your work. Do you want them to buy something, register for an event, attend a workshop, remember a brand, shop somewhere, order an item, request more information... or something else?
The answer's important, because it will dictate both the form of your writing and its content. Even a marketing tactic as oblique as a bylined article has an intent: You want the reader to regard the author as an expert worthy of future consideration as a partner or vendor. Be sure your purpose is crystal clear.
3. Make an offer. Tell customers to do "x" to get "y": That's an offer. Yeah, yeah, I know—offers are germane to direct response marketing and not necessarily anything else. But good old-fashioned direct response methods are gaining ground even as its hipper cousin, brand advertising, is finding it ever harder to attract customer attention.
Learn from direct: Don't get so lost in the weeds of "creativity" that you fail to blaze a path to the sale. In mail, ads, Web pages, email or what have you, make your offer explicit—"Save $25 when you renew today"—and be sure you tell customers exactly what they have to do to get it.
4. Listen to your customer's voice. Pretend you're eavesdropping on different conversations among investment bankers, whole-grain bakers and Harley-Davidson bikers. I think it's fair to say that you'll hear different vocabularies, different tones, different ways people articulate themselves. When you write for a specific audience, you're joining their conversation; imagine their voices when you're ready to work, then write the way they speak.
5. Look for testimonials and endorsements. You can take the previous tip and take it to its literal extreme by directly quoting customers themselves. After all, their opinions carry far more credibility than yours or your company's. In many cases, organizations are sitting on testimonials or endorsements they forgot they have collected. Ask for them—you might just find a few precious nuggets you can weave into letters, collateral, Web pages and more.
6. Maintain brand identity. Just as graphic designers have to constrain their efforts within the color templates and design schemes that are part of an organization's visual brand identity, writers have to stick to the brand's fundamental marketing messages and positions. Otherwise, conflicting messages will dilute the brand—and your boss (or client) will throw you out on your ear. If the company's brand identity is built on "authority" and "years of experience," don't waste time with cheeky copy or irreverent humor.
7. Focus on one thing. I recently worked with an engineering company that has many talents. They do design. They supervise construction. They serve as expert witnesses in litigation. In fact, they do so many things so well that it was hard to craft a coherent message that wouldn't confuse potential clients. In the end, we agreed on a common theme: They solve problems that stump other engineering firms. In doing so, we had to elevate some elements of the message, such as "problem-solving," while subordinating others, like "design."
This winnowing process may be painful—we all prefer to say as many good things about ourselves as we can—but it's absolutely necessary. Messages that are too broad disintegrate like powdery snowballs and never reach their targets. But a focused message is like a rifle shot—powerful because it is precise.
8. Anticipate objections. Put yourself in your prospects' shoes and consider the obstacles between them and the sale (or your message). If your company is unfamiliar to them, they may proceed with distrust. If they've been burned before, they'll be hesitant to act again. If they can't understand the topic at hand, they'll turn away from you in frustration. And if the message is confusing, they'll simply stop reading.
Your job is to anticipate these and other potential objections—then create countermeasures to correct them. When your product is unfamiliar, perhaps you can use testimonials to reinforce your credibility. Where there's a whiff of risk, emphasize your money-back guarantee. Is the topic complex? Simplify it. For every possible hurdle, apply the rhetoric and marketing tactics you need to get customers over the humps.
9. Understand your limitations. Marketing is the art of the possible, of doing the best you can within predetermined budgets and timeframes. Your idea of a pop-up, gold-leaf beagle that leaps out of a box to the strains of Elvis' "Hound Dog" might be just the thing to sell a "Gold Level" veterinary health plan—but, chances are, there's no money for it. Be sure you work with the necessary people, such as designers, marketing directors, account executives and so on, to develop ideas that can actually be executed.
10. Set your benchmarks. What are you aiming for? Responses? Sales? More Web visitors? Requests for more information? You have to know your targets before you aim your copy. Otherwise, it's impossible for you to measure the success of your efforts. And to make the adjustments needed to improve your work.
In sum: Ready, set... stop. Before you write a single word, make the advanced preparations that make marketing magic possible.