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You've heard it many times: If you want your marketing materials to do their job, you have to stress benefits, not features. Ultimately, your target readers don't care about what your product does. They care about what your product does for them.

Yes, for good reason, "benefits, benefits, benefits" has become a rallying cry. And, diligent marketer that you are, you make sure your copy communicates them.

But guess what: This still doesn't mean your readers will take the action you want them to.

With all the focus on "benefits," it's easy to forget that benefits don't work in a vacuum. Whenever you write copy, there's more you must always keep in mind:

1. Effective copy establishes context

Does your copy immediately dive into the benefits of your specific product or offer? In many cases, that could be the proverbial kiss of death.

Why? Because maybe your reader isn't aware she has a need for your product. Or even that there is a need.

The likely result? She glances at your copy... and moves on to something else.

So, before it gets too deep into your product, your copy needs to establish context. It needs to address the big picture of your reader's daily life. The big picture of her industry. The big picture of her profession. The big picture of her world. Whatever it is, it's the big picture that has (surprise!) created a need for your product.

Once you've articulated that, the product you're selling and its attendant benefits naturally follow. You've sucked your reader in.

You should be able to establish context within a few short paragraphs, or even a few sentences. It all depends on your medium and audience. For example, with a brochure you have room to say more (and maybe you need to). But with an ad or a promotional email, you don't.

And this goes hand in hand with...

2. Effective copy establishes credibility

Think of your reader as the most skeptical person in the world. He's constantly bombarded with sales pitches. He's seen and heard everything—more than a few times. The same hype, the same generalities, the same jargon.

So he wants to know: What makes you worth listening to?

Sure, a few good customers, a few nods from the press, an industry award or two, and the like help make you credible. Things you may or may not have. Yet.

But most importantly, you achieve credibility in your copy by showing your reader that you "get it." That you understand exactly what he goes through.

In other words, you're (sound familiar?) establishing context. And establishing context helps establish credibility.

Here's another way to think about all this: If you're a fan of the TV show "Seinfeld," you might remember the episode about "the close talker." Whenever speaking to someone, this character would stick his face within inches of the other person's. And that person would then, predictably, flinch. Who is this guy and why is he in my face? Hasn't he heard of a little thing called social protocol?

Well, when your copy jumps into a sales pitch without establishing context, makes claims that could be interpreted as "stretching it" (even if it's not), or simply beats its chest with a few too many superlatives, to your reader it could be the equivalent of a close talker. So make sure it isn't.

3. Effective copy is clear and specific

Imagine you're meeting with your prospect in person.

Why is she giving you her time? What does she expect from you? She expects you to explain, in plain English, exactly how your product is going to make her life better. No surprise there.

Can't do it? There's the door.

Your marketing copy is a salesperson for your company, just as you are (yes, you may technically be a "marketer," but you know what I mean). So why should it communicate any differently than if you were selling face to face? Why should it use words and phrases you'd never use when speaking (like, "our solution is robust")? Shouldn't you hold it to the same standard?

To illustrate, imagine this: Your copy states that "streamlined project management" is one of the benefits your product offers. But from your reader's point of view, what exactly does that mean? Why should he get excited about it?

Now, replace or supplement that with "No more chasing people down every time you need to know who's done what and how much" (or something along those lines).

Big difference, right? Your reader not only would understand precisely what you're talking about. Going back to the credibility issue, he'd also conclude that you "get" him. Because you're clearly speaking to one of his specific problems.

Being clear and specific also applies to emotional benefits (versus the "rational" benefit just illustrated). Contrast "You'll be happier at work" with "You'll take your lunch break away from your desk for a change."

4. Effective copy has focus

Like you, your reader doesn't have much time. He has a lot of other things to do, and a lot of other things to look at.

Which means when you try to sell or communicate too much at once, you could lose him. It's like putting a fire hose in his mouth. (And in some cases it might also feel like the aforementioned "close talker.")

So when you write copy, try to focus on one product, one offer, one concept, one idea.

"Focus" also means that your copy guides the reader along a smooth path. No unnecessary words. No unnecessary statements. Every sentence and paragraph progresses logically into the next. Varying sentence length creates an engaging rhythm.

And, short paragraphs make it all easy on the eye, and easier to absorb. Preventing your reader from getting off track. More importantly, preventing your reader from wanting to get off track!

To sum up

Establish context. Establish credibility. Speak clearly and simply. Be specific. Focus.

And, yes, that benefits thing.

You already put a lot of thought into your copy, and all this will make you put in a lot more. But the rewards you reap could be the greatest benefit of all.

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Mike O'Sullivan is an independent marketing writer. His Web site is