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6 Copy Writing Secrets from the Masters

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6 Copy Writing Secrets from the Masters

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With the democratization of the internet, anyone who has an opinion doesn’t shrink from broadcasting it. With this has come true freedom of expression, renewed connections across the seven seas, pseudo-nostalgic lists about childhood toys, movies or TV shows that you haven’t bothered with in over a couple of decades, interminable rants that nobody really cares about and so on.

While it is true that most of the words that we see flying around the internet are as memorable as last month’s grocery list, it’s truer that words have the power to disgrace Presidents. And bring about revolutions. And make poor suckers shell out thousands of dollars on a piece of highly pressurized charcoal set in a metal ring. (Hello Nixon, Arab Spring and DeBeers!)

If there’s one field that has mastered the art of melding words together to make people dance to your tunes it is advertising. From detergent to diamonds, a glib line and a smart turn of phrase have contributed to building brands that have withstood the test of time and economic cycles.


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So what’s the magic these wordsmiths use that make the world sit up and take notice while the words of millions of others falls on deaf ears? Let’s find out.

1.  Understand the Importance of Research

Know your audience. That’s the first rule of marketing.

As marketing guru Peter Drucker himself says,

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him or her and sells itself.

Do your research well before you set out to write anything. Whom are you writing for – Is it an existing user or a potential one? Find out more about their behavior, demographics, likes and dislikes.

Where will your piece be published – Is it for the digital medium, print, TV, outdoors?

What is the context of the conversation – Is it a first time communication? Is the product known to the user?

Thoroughly research and understand the topic you’re writing about. Ignoring research is like shooting blind at your target audience and depending on plain old luck that something hits the mark. Don’t resort to that. Do your homework and let your writing reflect it in ample measure. If you find it hard to keep track of all your data, use tools such as WorkZone (if you’re managing a schedule in an organization) or Trello (if you’re collaborating with other independent content creators) to keep all your sources, facts and quotes in one place.

David Ogilvy, the Father of Advertising got spot-on when he said,

Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.

2.  Write for your Audience

I’m sometimes astonished to see the number of pieces of writing out there that seem to have no clue whom they’re talking to. Worse, some writers seem to deliberately disregard their audience and are on a trip of their own. While this might be considered ‘charming’ in academic circles, but if you write marketing copy like a Russian tragedy, your sales results are probably not going to be very different from it either.

As the erudite American politician and Governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson II once said,

Words calculated to catch everyone may catch no one.

Don’t be afraid to be very specific in whom you’re addressing, e.g. copy for a cosmetics brand ought to speak to women and not the world at large. Use the active voice instead of the more stylized passive voice. Speak to your readers in first person, have a conversation WITH them instead of simply throwing ideas AT them.

3.  Come up with a Great Headline Every Time

I quote David Ogilvy again (the man truly WAS a marketing genius):

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Think of a movie poster. Or the front page of a tabloid. Or even the last great marketing email you got in your inbox. What’s the first thing that jumped out at you? The headline, of course!

In the online world, as in offline marketing, a great headline catches the eye, stirs interest in the reader and pushes them on to read more. A headline must be informative but not enough that the reader doesn’t bother reading further. It must arouse curiosity and the promise of something of value to the reader. Headlines that contain terms relevant to your business can even help your page improve its search rankings on Google.

4.  Story-selling

“Marketing is Storytelling,” says Seth Godin (though you might be hard-pressed to find stories on Godin’s own blog that’s famous for its brevity). But that’s the name of his breakthrough bestseller that tells marketers the importance of weaving a story to convince a user to take the action you want them to.

And that’s pretty much what our moms did to teach us good behavior and sound morals. Remember all those stories that we listened to as kids? ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ taught us the importance of honesty, ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ taught us to be prepared for tough times and ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ told us to never underestimate the importance of anyone.

People inherently are pulled to an interesting story. Weave your product pitch into a story and you’ll have your users’ interest and eventually their trust. This is something that we find proven over and over again today through content marketing. A blatant ad puts off most people, but a well-crafted story or an anecdote from a real user and you have their ears and their share of wallet. Here’s a great article on how to write great marketing copy using stories.

David Ogilvy was much ahead of his time when he said,

It has been found that the less an advertisement looks like an advertisement, and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look and read. Therefore study the graphics used by editors and imitate them. Study the graphics used in advertisements and avoid them.

5.  Write Happy Copy, But Don’t Overdo It

Keep the tone of your copy upbeat and positive. The friendlier your tone, the more welcome a reader will feel to continue reading it. After all, no one likes to hear of someone else’s miseries.

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But writing ‘happy’ copy does not mean you need to sound over excited. We’ve all seen those tacky ads with an exclamation point or two in every sentence.

Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”.

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

As Fitzgerald puts it, overdoing your exclamation points and enthusiasm makes you look like a caricature of yourself, someone readers won’t take very seriously. So keep your writing positive, not positively delirious.

6.  Test Your Copy

“The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST. Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

~ David Ogilvy

You probably would never dream of rolling out a new software without testing it inside out. You’d definitely not buy a brand new car without test driving dozens of cars. Then why would you subject your audience to untested copy that has the potential to fall flat and waste your precious marketing budgets?

Before you take your copy live, carry out simple A/B tests with key elements of your content – your headline, product descriptions, call to action and more. Once you arrive on the version that works best for each element, put them all together, fine tune them so they make one coherent whole and THEN take it live.

In Conclusion

While writing a novel may be all art, writing copy is an equal mix of art and science. Acknowledge that and then proceed.

Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.

No, I didn’t say that. Leo Burnett did. Listen to the man.

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