Is there a secret to writing copy that sells?
Some dark-magic formula that breaks through the barriers, barricades, and bulwarks?
A strategy that works across sales pages, content marketing, social-media posts, print or digital marketing campaigns, emails, white papers, blogging, product descriptions, and even search engine optimization (SEO)?
Can it be applied by business owners, freelancers, and regular humans alike?
And I have proof.
But, before we travel back in time one and a half generations …
By definition, copywriting is using words to sell: written text …
While there are plenty of goals to choose from — increasing awareness, generating interest, kindling desire, or driving action (traditionally known as AIDA) — singularity is king.
In truth, all communication is sales. Every time we put fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, or voice to thought … we’re trying to get what’s inside our hearts and minds into someone else’s in a way that makes them say, “Yes.”
Writing copy simply applies that universal reality to a specific business outcome. What then, are the skills necessary to become a great copywriter?
Your eighth grade English teacher was right: every piece of writing has to have a thesis. One all-consuming aim to which all else bows and serves. Until you’ve captured exactly what you want, in a single sentence, your audience doesn’t stand a chance.
To shape your thesis, use this formula:
The one thing I want my audience to (1) think, (2) feel, or (3) do is [blank].
Pick one verb from the three: think (intellectual), feel (emotional), or do (action). And one outcome — the [blank] — to rule them all.
Much will be covered below on developing audiences and personas. For now, the big idea is to define who you’ll be addressing … again, in a single sentence. Here’s the formula:
This copy is for [title] in [industry] who struggle with [problem] and want [solution].
Title and industry don’t have to be professional. For example, they could be “young moms in growing families” or “single fathers in urban areas.” As for the problem …
The problem your goal solves should be stated in one sentence. (Hopefully, you’re picking up on the pattern.)
In the next skill, you’ll blow the problem out in all its nightmarish horror. But with empathy, all you want is “the nod.” The nod is exactly what it sounds like: mental agreement so clear and simple your audience can’t help but bob their heads … and fall like gravity into the rest of your copy.
Think about it like you’re leaning over to someone in a bar with a conversational gambit that starts, “Doesn’t it suck when …”
As long as their response is a verbal or the non-verbal equivalent of “Yep. It sure does.” you’re off to the races.
Of course, the problem can’t stay a problem. It has to become hell.
If religious terminology bothers you, don’t let that trip you up. The metaphor of “hell-unto-heaven” is nothing more than my own adaptation of an old-school formula: problem, agitation, solution (PAS).
Pick whatever metaphor or mental model works for you … as long as it compels you to confront your reader with the profound emotional weight of the problem as it truly exists.
More will follow on how to do that below. Or, you can check out a full exploration of this idea in The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need: How to Unleash Fear.
“For me and most of the other writers I know,” explains Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, “writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
One of my old writing professors used to put it like this, “The first step to great writing is giving yourself permission to suck.”
Cultivating resourcefulness as a copywriter means vomiting everything and everything on to the page. This retch will be your resource to pull from and extract the eventual gold. It doesn’t need to be pretty. Actually, it shouldn’t be. But it does need to be exhaustive.
If your first few drafts are like off-season bodybuilders — huge amorphous blobs whose only goal is mass — then editing is leaning down … ruthlessly.
If it doesn’t serve your goal, cut it. If it gets in the way or causes the slightest stumble, chop it. If it doesn’t hurt — physically hurt — to see your favorite lines deleted and undone, you haven’t killed enough.
Nowhere does this skill apply more than in your headline and your first lines …
Every element of an ad has one job: to get your audience into the next. In that, what many overlook, is the centrality of introductions. Especially the first few lines.
In Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, Joe Sugarman drives this home with five punchy examples:
“Each sentence,” notes Sugarman, “is so short and easy to read that your reader starts to read your copy almost as if being sucked into it.”
This is the gravity of the nod hinted at above. This is what effortlessness is about.
Problems become hells and solutions become heavens when we tie them to the earth. To be real is to add life. Three tools will help you.
First, data. State the facts — the numbers, stats, and figures — in complete sentences or in bullet point form. Second, graphs. Visualize that data in the clearest way possible. Show (don’t just tell) changes, comparisons, and ranks.
Then — bonus tip — go back through your written explanations of the data cutting everything you can. Make the visuals do the work … and let your words drive it home.
Third, stories. Enflesh the data in a true event rooted in a specific time, specific place, and specific people. (Additional bonus tip — testimonials or reviews should carry the weight of this responsibility. Your customers’ words are far more powerful than your own.)
No one reaches the shores of persuasion without first crossing the sea of clarity.
The most tactical way to do this is to enlist the help of someone completely ignorant of your project, have them read it out loud in front of you, and stop them — one screen-scroll at a time — with the question:
What is this trying to sell you?
If they don’t know or answer wrong … write it again. (Ultimately, conversion rate will be the arbiter.)
Your other allies in obviousness are formatting and repetition.
Then, when you hit the CTAs, just tell them what to do.
With this final skill, we’re right back to the first: your goal. Only this time, instead of what you want … it’s all about what you audience wants.
Genuine copywriting — the kind that drives results — never sets out to change someone’s mind. Even less, to change their heart.
Instead, it attaches itself to existing desires and channels them onto a new object.
Heaven ought to be a visceral encapsulation of these existing desires. Your call to action (the thing you’re selling) is merely an easier, better, faster, more reliable, or cheaper vehicle to take them there.
The year was 1976 and Martin Edelston, founder of the now more than $50-million annually producing and direct-marketing powerhouse Boardroom Inc., was broke.
Well, not quite broke broke. More like down to the nubs.
42 years old and working out of his basement, Edelston had burned through half his start-up capital with nothing to show for it save an empty desk … furnace adjacent.
Enter Eugene Schwartz: the hero of our story and a man who knew what words were worth.
“He came to me,” Schwartz recalled, “with $3,500 in his pocket, and I told him I’d have to charge him $2,500 as a copy fee.”
$2,500 might not sound outlandish, but today that’d be a $10,497 price tag for a single piece of sales copy. Even more amazing is what that number represented for Edelson himself. Imagine it:
Yes, Marty, I will write you an ad … just one. And all it’ll cost is 70% of everything you have.
Such is the stuff of marketing legend.
Thankfully, Edelston agreed. The two met. And that night Schwartz wrote it … all of it.
Of course, when you finagle someone out of 70% of their operating capital, you can’t just deliver 24 hours later. “I put it away for two weeks,” recalled Schwartz. “And in two weeks, I sent it to him and he ran it.”
With one ad Schwartz rescued Edelston from the brink of small-business bankruptcy and set Boardroom Inc. on a path to becoming a multinational marketing empire.
Not surprisingly, Schwartz’s success with Boardroom Inc. was anything but a fluke. Over his career, Schwartz’s direct mail, sales letters, catalogue copy, and ads were responsible for …
Most legendary, Schwartz’s produced a single television campaign that resulted in purchases from 1 out of every 14 TV owners in America.
When I first sat down with Schwartz’s 228-page classic Breakthrough Advertising, sixty pages in I came across three lines that stopped me in my tracks:
Naturally, Schwartz didn’t mean that good copy should never exceed 10 words. What he meant was that the core of your ad and, in particular, its headline will always come down one driving force that hinges on brevity.
Below, we’ll walk through exactly how to unearth and unleash the right “5 to 10 words” in your copy through three unbreakable laws.
We’ll also discover why — as Schwartz put it — “nothing” else you write matters without them.
Drawing from Schwartz, let’s start with a simple definition.
Another word for “mass desire” is emotion: “the public spread of a private want.”
An ad’s ability to sell begins and ends with identifying a “private want” and channeling that want into “public” words. Only when an audience and an ad share the same dominant emotion does that ad stand any chance of compelling, converting, and closing.
Put more simply, writing copy that sells lives or dies by the right “mass desire.”
A friend of mine calls this the “Puppy Principle.” If you’re trying to sell leashes or organic Alpo, forget about all the logistics of dog ownership.
Just show ‘em the puppy!
Because unless how you’re presenting your product makes your audience want to hold it, love it, and give it money … you’re not selling it right. And — chances are — you aren’t selling it at all.
Mass desire means majoring on dreams, fears, desires, needs, pains, and pleasures. And than means …
However, this means the real question isn’t “What?” or “How?” but “Where?”
The answer might surprise you.
It doesn’t come from your product, your benefits, your USP, your value proposition, your copy, or even from you.
It comes from your market itself. Schwartz explained:
The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy.
Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product.
This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire — but to channel and direct it.
Naturally, this assumes that you have a market — a narrow and clearly targeted group of people whose lives your product would be legitimately improved. But I realize, that’s kind of a big assumption.
Copywriters often obsess about what they should write: product features versus product benefits; using the right keywords; nailing the headline, subheadings, images, and first line of copy; banging out a rough draft, and then editing, editing, editing.
Your real obsession shouldn’t be what, but who.
Copy without a target market is worse than worthless. It’s costly.
Lacking real people with real problems looking for real solutions, you inevitably end up writing for the two people you shouldn’t: yourself or (worse) your client. Self-centeredness is a plague, especially when writing copy.
Begin with the demographics of your ideal customer. Richard Lazazzera’s How To Build Buyer Personas For Better Marketing dives into the sea of personal characteristics:
Ironically, demographics like that are simultaneously overwhelming and not enough. Not if what you’re really after are words that sell. You’ve got to go deeper than age, ethnicity, income, location, and familial status. While at the same time not drowning in the details.
On this front, three brilliant (and, thankfully, free) resources stand out.
First is Jen Havice’s How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real Life Data over at ConversionXL. As Havice explains:
Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success. [P]ersonas are fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.
Havice them shows how to shape personas through qualitative research.
The breakthrough insight — especially for anyone without a budget for focus groups — comes from her review mining work, which she’s consolidated into a recent book: Finding the Right Message. By all means, buy it. In the meantime, work through the above article as well as How to Boost Conversions with Voice of Customer Research [Case Study] that includes this free template:
Review mining to craft copy is one of my own copywriting hallmarks, especially when it comes to landing pages.
You can see how I created this simplified copywriting cheat sheet directly from “feedback and comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, Reddit, app stores, and blogs,” along with what the landing page itself ultimately looked like over at KlientBoost.
Second, Demian Farnworth’s Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (via Copyblogger). Empathy consists of two parts. First, the intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Second, the vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.
After a brilliant overview of empathy in marketing — old school and new — Farnworth drops the gold (which you can download as a PDF within the article).
With empathy, you’ll need to beyond review mining and mix it up with real people. Patti Haus’ guide to customer interviews is fantastic on this front and includes a host of ready-made questions; just swap out “program” with your own product or service in this sampling:
Third, my own The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need. That’s a post all about fear: hands-down the “most primal” human motivator. At the end are thirteen questions to help you haunt your target market (in the best sense possible).
Here’s a quick sampling:
In all those resources, the point is to define your target market as concretely and viscerally as possible.
Once that group is fixed, the next step is to make a list of all the possible emotions — the raw emotions — that might inspire someone in that specific market to act.
On the negative side, it could be:
On the positive side:
After you’ve selected two or three dominant, raw emotions, get specific.
For example, the most dominant human emotion is fear. But nobody (despite FDR’s sound advice) fears fear. What we fear are people, places, things, and events. We fear the future. Or we fear situations that may arise in the future. We fear loss. We fear uncertainty. We fear failure.
On top of that, every market — just like every person — has its own unique list.
Take the real estate market for instance. What do new homebuyers fear most?
Some of the obvious boogiemen are …
Whatever it is, by selecting one of those fears and placing it front and center in your copy, you “enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind” (Robert Collier).
Actually, what you enter is the conversation already taking place in the customer’s heart.
Either way, the keyword is “customer’s.” Their mind. Their heart.
To put a little more flesh on this idea, here are some classic examples of wildly successful headlines from Schwartz’s era that tapped into their market’s mass desires:
Today, with advertising exposure rising exponentially, you may think that such straightforward appeals no longer work.
Just to prove they do, here is a handful of my favorite mass desire headlines from the web:
What each of these headlines (classic and contemporary) does beautifully is identify and channel one desire: love, greed, entertainment, the fear of inability, or the fear of difficulty. They use emotive language to capture their audience’s hearts and minds. Emotive language that already exists in the market they’re trying to reach.
To breakthrough, your ads must do the same.
Having generated a powerhouse list of market-inspired mass desires, your greatest temptation will be to employ them all, like a sort of emotional machine gun.
You only get one.
(Well, you may get to split-test more than one. But each ad only gets one!)
Because in Schwartz’s words:
Every product appeals to two, three or four of these mass desires.
But only one can predominate; only one can reach out through your headline to your customer. Only one is the key that unlocks the maximum economic power at the particular time your advertisement is published.
Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad.
If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.
So remember: Just. One.
We all know how vital headlines are.
As Brian Clark puts it, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.” That means your headline isn’t just your audience’s first impression … it’s more than likely their only impression.
Where do “breakthrough” headlines come from? The kind of headlines that stop your market in their tracks, compel them to read every word after it, and drives them into your call to action.
Now sure, there’re a ton of great cheat sheets out there to get the creative ball rolling. Jon Morrow’s “52 Headline Hacks” is among the best.
The problem is most of us start out wrong because we start with us: our idea, our product, our service, our copy.
What if there was a way to systematically craft breakthrough headlines based entirely on your market? What if there was a proven formula to pull your prospects into your copy because it actually started with your prospects themselves?
Harnessing “mass desires” in effective copy — especially web copy tasked to live on landing pages, product pages, and paid media — requires not only understanding what drives your market … but understanding its “state of awareness.”
That’s what today’s post is all about: crafting headlines from inside your market’s mind.
A market’s state of awareness is its consciousness — its emotional and intellectual grasp — of two things: (1) its desire and (2) your product.
Every market falls into 1 of 5 states.
Here’s a quick overview of each, compliments of CopyBlogger’s “The 5 Types of Prospects You Meet Online, and How to Sell to Each of Them”:
You can think about these states as your market’s “time of day” (and I’m not talking about when you post, publish, or click “Send”).
For example, the first state — “Most Aware” — is noon. In this state, there are no mysteries and nothing’s hidden. Everything’s out in the open: broad daylight. In the first state, your market is fully aware of both their desire and your product.
Each of the states falls into its own unique “time of day,” and determining your market’s exact time is the key to systematically crafting breakthrough headlines.
This is the most straightforward of all the states:
The customer knows of your product — knows what it does — and knows he wants it. At this point, he just hasn’t gotten around to buying it yet (16).
If your market falls into State 1, then the content of your headline ought to be screamingly simple. In Schwartz’s words:
Your headline — in fact, your entire ad — need state little more except the name of your product and a bargain price.
In other words, forget being clever: an aware audience is a captive audience. They already want you; they just haven’t gotten around to buying you yet. So don’t obscure things by trying to be cute or creative.
Get to the point … and stick to it.
To sell to prospects in State 1, you need do little more than remind them that you exist.
Next to crafting a straightforward headline, the most effective online tactic to accomplish this is what the geniuses over at I Love Marketing call the “Magic 9-Word Email.” Here’s the basic format:
Subject Line: Hi [Name]
Are you still interested in [Niche Product]?
I ran this simple campaign for a curriculum developer and the response was amazing. The open rate was in the high 60% range.
Even better … people actually wrote back. A ton of people. Within hours of the emails going out, I got a follow up from the client who said, “This is crazy! There’s no way I can keep up with this. What are we gonna do?”
Talk about a good problem.
Stick to the basics: Present the product. Present the price. Close.
Going back to our time of day metaphor, you can think about State 2 as early evening:
The customer knows of the product, but doesn’t yet want it.
In State 2, your prospect is fully aware of the desire or need behind your product, but they’re only slightly aware of your product itself; most notably, how well it meets their desire.
So what’s the basic strategy? Here’s Schwartz:
You display the name of the product — either in the headline or in an equally large logo — and use the remainder of the headline to point out its superiority.
The big idea here is “superiority.”
An easy way to demonstrate superiority is to use one of the traditional 5 Ws:
1. Why is your product superior?
Focus on benefits, what the product does, gives, or provides for its user.
2. How is your product superior?
Focus on the actual use of the product, the product in action.
3. What makes your product superior?
Here, your headline should major on one feature (especially the newest or most novel feature).
4. Where is your product superior?
In what settings, contexts, or environments does your product perform? At work? At home? In the car? At the gym? In the rain? At the beach? (As always, be specific.)
5. When is your product superior?
Is there a specific time of life, time of year, or time of day in which your product outshines the competition?
So remember, start with the product, select one area of superiority (in subjection to your “mass desire”), and then use one of the 5 Ws to bring its superiority to life.
This is the state all new products find themselves: nightfall. Dusk has passed and darkness has arrived:
The prospect either knows, or recognizes immediately, that he wants what the product does; but he doesn’t yet know’ that there is a product — your product — that will do it for him (19).
There are three steps to crafting a breakthrough State 3 ad:
1. In the headline … identify and present the mass desire. In other words, do not mention the product.
2. In the subheadline … intensify and/or “prove” that this mass desire can be satisfied.
3. In the body … focus on the specific feature or “mechanism” in your product that satisfies that mass desire. This is where features can be a powerful tool for selling.
Naturally, when you’re dealing with a market “unaware” of your product, the temptation is to present the product.
At least, not in the headline.
Only after you’ve clearly illustrated the mass desire your product meets and then proven through your product’s concrete features that it can actually meet this desire should you present the product itself.
One last note: New products demand simple copy.
The goal of the headline is to “crystalize” the market’s mass desire.
The goal of the subheadline is to prove this mass desire can be satisfied.
The goal of the body is to demonstrate the specific features of your product that make that satisfaction not only possible, but guaranteed.
Midnight has arrived. In State 4 …
The prospect has — not a desire — but a need. He recognizes the need immediately. But he doesn’t yet realize the connection between the fulfillment of that need and your product (21).
Alright, so first, what’s the difference between a “desire” and a “need”?
A “desire” is a clearly felt emotion centered upon a clearly defined goal that already exists in your market. That goal may be to avert something (as in the case of pain) or to acquire something (as in the case of pleasure). Either way, the market knows the goal exists and it has a strong desire to achieve it or avoid it.
A “need” on the other hand is simply a problem.
In State 4, your market is experiencing pain. That’s all.
And even this pain is fairly ambiguous.
You might say all they’ve got is a suspicion. They think something’s wrong, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. All they know is: “This doesn’t feel good.”
As a result, State 4 is ripe for what’s known as the “fear-agitation-solution” formula.
1. In the headline … state the fear.
Keep it short and to the point. To state the fear, you only need to say enough to show that (1) the fear is real and (2) you understand it.
2. In the subheadline and body … enlarge the fear.
This is the step at which most marketers fail.
In “agitation,” the fear from your headline has to get real … realer than real. It’s gotta get huge, hairy, and hellish. The basic message is: “You thought that fear was bad? That’s nothing. You have no idea how bad it really is. The reality is worse — so much worse — than you ever imagined.”
Shocking statistics and horrifying personal narratives are outstanding at agitation.
3. In the conclusion … present the solution (i.e., your product).
If agitation has done it’s job, than by the time you finally get around to the solution, the heavy lifting’s over. Just like the initial fear, present your product in as clear and simple terms as possible.
In other words, prove that your product solves the problem. Make an offer. Close.
In State 5, ignorance reigns.
Don’t just think midnight. Think 3am, startled awake, disoriented … and alone.
As Schwartz’s described it:
The prospect is either not aware of his desire or his need — or he won’t honestly admit it to himself without being lead into it by your ad — or the need is so general and amorphous that it resists being summed up in a single headline — or it’s a secret that just can’t be verbalized (25).
This total lack of awareness creates a “psychological wall” that bars all previous strategies.
Let’s be clear: For State 5 markets, you cannot focus on the…
Because your market simply has no attachment to these elements. They mean nothing to them. And (because of that) they generate nothing.
So what’s left?
A State 5 headline is all about “identification.” In Schwartz’s words:
What you are doing … is calling your market together in the headline of your ad.
You are selling nothing, promising nothing, satisfying nothing.
You are telling them what they are. You are defining them for themselves (25-26).
This means your headline should function as a sort of roll call: a personal invitation gathering together only those narrowly targeted individuals who will make up your as-yet-unassembled market.
You are (for lack of a better word) creating a club, an exclusive club … and only those most qualified need apply.
Never be afraid to “limit” your audience.
Because the job of your headline in State 5 is to single out your audience and say (as directly as possible), “You, yeah you, this right here is for you. Everybody else, keep moving. Nothing to see here.”
So how do you do this?
Here are a few examples …
Notice a pattern? The formula’s pretty simple …
For [target customers] who are [mass desire] to/with/by/of [current conditions].
Just remember, for State 5 markets …
Your prospect must identify with your headline before they can buy from it.
It must be his headline, his problem, his state of mind at that particular moment.
It must pick out the product’s logical prospects — and reject as many people as it attracts (26).
So, what’s the key to crafting breakthrough headlines?
Simply put: your market.
Start today by asking yourself — or even better, by asking your actual audience — two questions:
1. Is my market aware of their desire — the driving emotional force behind my product?
2. Is my market aware of my product?
Once you’ve got a clear answer to those two questions, go back to the state that matches and systematically apply its insights directly to your headline.
In fact, apply them to your entire ad.