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Sales Copy: Make Them Laugh? Or Make Them Buy?

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • When you should and shouldn't use humor in sales letters
  • Whether it's better for your sales letters to be smart or funny

A raging debate has been burning up the bits and bytes on a popular copywriting forum: Should humor be included in sales copy?

Some forum members argue that humor can be a disarming and refreshing alternative to the caveman approach to copywriting—i.e., bludgeoning the reader into shock and submission with exclamation points. Drop the hard sell and take a more friendly and convivial approach, they say. Be sociable, be charming, be funny!

Makes sense. In this economy, in this political environment, who doesn't need a good laugh?

Others go further and suggest that sales copy must have personality. And right they are. But methinks they may be confusing personality with humor. Having a personality doesn't automatically equate to being funny.

Advertising greats David Ogilvy, John Caples, and Claude Hopkins each had distinctive personalities and imbued their sales copy with plenty of the same, but I don't think anyone would accuse them or their copy of being funny.


Then comes this refrain from other forum posters: Sales letters all sound the same these days. And they go on to cite letters that open with an over-the-top benefit, an unbelievable offer, or a rags-to-riches, failure-to-hero story.

They make a valid point. The marketer, via the copywriter, must differentiate himself—and his product. But do you do that by making 'em laugh? Here's the problem...

Laughter is serious business

How many times have you gone to a comedy club, or watched a late-night or primetime comedian fall flat on his face after delivering a punch line? Humor is an art form that's extremely difficult to master.

It takes years of developing and practicing timing, rhythm, and phrasing. And even then, when the curtain finally goes up, there's no guarantee you'll make 'em laugh.

So, if you're planning on using humor in your sales copy, at least answer the following question first...

What makes you think you're funny?
 
Maybe in person, at the dinner table, at the bar, or in the locker room... yes, you're funny. And maybe you've penned something—in a blog post, article, or a spec script you've mailed to Columbia Pictures—that struck a few funny bones once, twice, or thrice.

But funny in a sales letter, hmm? Recognize that the first and foremost goal of a sales letter is... to make a sale!

So, using all the necessary elements required for salesmanship in print, you develop a rhythm, a voice, a tone—a slippery slope—that keeps the reader interested and excited, scrolling or flipping through pages. That will ultimately bring your reader to the letter's real punch line: the submit button, or the BRC (the business response card in a direct mail promotion).

Now, what do you think will happen to the momentum you've labored so artfully to create if, all of a sudden, you slip in a joke, a bit of humor, that's totally out of character? The bubble will burst!

Having worked so hard to suspend "critical disbelief," you abruptly downshift into a Conan O'Brien or Larry the Cable Guy riff, leaving your reader in stunned disbelief and confusion, "Where the heck did that come from?"

All right, let's say your delivery is a bit smoother; you're able to manage the transition from Caples to Conan with a bit more aplomb. Answer this question: Is adding humor necessary to close the sale?

As any copywriter worthy of a keystroke knows, a sales letter should contain only what is absolutely essential to make the sale. Or, as more commonly phrased, a sales letter should be only as long as it needs to be to get the reader to say, "Yes, I'll buy!" Write any more or less, and you'll risk killing the sale.

So, whether or not you can effortlessly slip in a bit of humor becomes a question of whether it'll help you or not.

If it's gratuitous humor, and only included to showcase your personality, I say...

It's better to be smart than funny

Weigh the odds.

As it is, only a small (very small) percentage of readers will respond to even the best-written sales letter—even if written by the uncrowned master copywriter himself: Gary Bencivenga.

So, why risk lowering your conversion rate even further by including humor that some might perceive as amateurish, sophomoric, or just unnecessary?

And yet, on the other hand...

What if you really are funny... most of the time?

Well, if your readers know you, love you, and expect you to be funny, or at least come close... then you could well be distracting them from your marketing message if you switch gears and omit humor from your pitches. In other words, if humor is part of your copywriting or marketing persona, don't change it without fair warning and good reason.

But, if you're writing to a cold list, to readers who don't know you, care about you, and find your sales letter an intrusion, robbing them of time and effort... then cracking a joke in your sales letter—when you ask that they send you money—is not something I would recommend.

That's because...

Separating someone from his or her hard-earned money is never a laughing matter

Look no further than your next credit card bill for proof. Or does reading your Visa and MasterCard statement put you in stitches?

No? Well, how about if those credit card companies inserted a bit of humor next to the line that reads "minimum balance due"? Would you be rolling in the aisles and eager to pay your bill then? Didn't think so.


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Barry A. Densa is a freelance marketing and sales copywriter at Writing With Personality. For more, visit his blog Marketing Wit & Wisdom.

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  • by Janet Tue Nov 22, 2011 via web

    I think there's a difference in using humor throughout as opposed to *bada-bing*, *rimshot* -- tossing a joke in. A joke popping up out of the blue would be annoying, IMHO. On the other hand, a social coupon group locally and Woot (to name two that come up top of mind) use humor as an integral part of the sell, and it seems to work quite well for them.

    Also, you have to know your audience, and consider WHAT you're selling. Humor shouldn't be written off -- as with any other sales approach, it's a matter of using it judiciously.

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Tue Nov 22, 2011 via web

    Thanks for the post! I absolutely agree that funny is not the same as having fun. You have to make a human connection to make a sale. Humor can be part of that; however, some humorous copy I have seen gets caught up in the humor without focusing on the "why should my customer buy?" part. I know from my work that funny copy CAN work if it also really addresses a critical human need that the prospect has. The good news here as you allude to is that you don't need to be funny per se to have an impact. People want personality and they want a human connection. Whether it's fun or funny, the most important thing is to create that emotional connection and answer the "why." Funny or fun without touching on a deeper prospect need won't get the results you're looking for. Great reminder post! www.keepingithuman.com.

  • by Meredith Blevins Tue Nov 22, 2011 via web

    Writing funny is one of the most difficult things that a writer can accomplish. (And accomplish is the word.) There are a few rare people who are naturally funny, and can translate that onto paper.

    Everyone has something that is a strong personality point they can bring to their writing--the ability to seduce, to make setting real, to create pathos. This strength is called voice.

    What I see that people/clients/customers want is a real person. They do not want meat-grinder, robotic messages. Be yourself and represent your business. Don't write the same way you speak--it's a different medium. Use a voice that reflects your business. And, of course the obvious, a funeral home is not going to have the same voice as an ice cream parlor. (Unless you're a genius and can make them both work with the same voice.)

    Get outside the box, and be real. That's what buyers want.

  • by Derek Dujardin Tue Nov 22, 2011 via web

    I think this article is good but dances around the main point in whether or not to use humor: Relevance. Remember the old phrase, "It's funny because it's true?" That's the sweet spot. A joke that is relevant to the underlying truth or consequence of not buying something (or buying the wrong thing) can do punch more power into two sentences than three paragraphs of copy.

    Case in point:

    Here are three examples of jewelry ads I wrote that won some awards. These actually stirred up some controversy on radio talk show that end up resulting in more sales for my client. While not long copy in sales letter, any of these could have been paragraph starters or clinchers.

    Divorce lawyers charge $400 an hour.
    (And you thought jewelry was expensive.)

    And,

    "Never mind honey. My next husband will buy it for me."

    And,

    Jewelry is lavish, extravagant and frivolous.
    (That's the point, dummy.)

    Are they funny? Are they true? Are they both? It depends on your audience. I think most men (and women) can relate to above headlines and get the truth and funny behind them, even if they don't believe them.

    Finally, humor needs to be fast in long copy. No long set ups or stories. It needs to be Benny Youngman. Set up. Punchline. Then make your point, using the joke as jumping off point for benefits.

    To learn more about funny copy that sells, visit
    www.copycowboy.com

  • by Meredith Blevins Tue Nov 22, 2011 via web

    I don't think there's any dancing around the real point at all.

    You're a funny guy and you can get it on paper. Which is a terrific thing!

    But, not everyone is Henny Youngman, so don't go there if you're not. That being said, the e-mails we send out with the highest click rates have a punch. Correction: Have a punch and key words. Another sweet spot!

  • by Meredith Blevins Tue Nov 22, 2011 via web

    PS: Love the schtick about jewelry -- it's great.

  • by Barry Densa Wed Nov 23, 2011 via web

    Ha! Even here the debate continues.

    Derek, in short copy (i.e., small space ads) humor can be extremely powerful and effective (if of course the writer is a master at wielding that double-edged sword) -- because the 'punchline' is basically the whole ad, so it immediately grabs attention, and doesn't require thoughtful consideration.

    And that's the whole point. The humor doesn't sell -- it grabs attention and may even increase interest.

    But in my article I was addressing the use of humor in long form copy.

    So, yes,you are correct, humor in long and short copy are basically two different animals -- and therefore need to be handled differently, and, most of all, carefully.

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