I have an irreverent streak.
Just ask my Dad.
He’ll tell you I’ve always done my own thing.
For instance, rather than study something useful like Medicine or Maths, I left home when I was 17 to study Chinese.
And then, unhappy with what my lecturers told me, I took a break to travel through China, even before I graduated.
So, don’t try to tell me what to do.
But even I have to admit …
I’ve learned a lot from the original copywriters—the famous direct response writers, most of whom passed away a long time ago.
Of course, the world has changed since they started testing direct response ads.
Instead of watching TV, we’re Netflixing tonight. Instead of writing How funny!, we use 😂. We tweet and Whatsapp and Facetime or Zoom rather than send letters and postcards.
Technology may have changed, and the words we use may have changed, but our basic human instincts have remained the same. We’re still looking for belonging, comfort, love, security, freedom from fear and pain.
That’s why the most essential copywriting advice still applies. Whether writing a sales email or direct response letter, a landing page or an ad, the basic copywriting rules have remained the same.
So, what are the most useful, most important lessons we can learn from the most famous copywriters?
Famous copywriter#1: Eugene Schwartz
I write with my ears.
~ Eugene Schwartz
According to Schwartz, he didn’t write his ads. He simply listened to people. First, he listened to a product owner to learn as much as possible about a product—what it does, what proof exists that it works, why it’s better than the competition, and who likes it and who doesn’t. Next, he’d listen to customers to check out the owner’s story, and lastly, he’d try to find out more about competitors.
After all the listening, the copy almost wrote itself. Schwartz picked the best snippets from the interviews and arranged them in a logical order for his ads.
That process still works today.
Good copy starts with listening and with creating an inventory of arguments why people would buy.
Famous copywriter #2: Joe Sugarman
Joe Sugarman (born 1938) is the author of my favorite guide on copywriting: The Adweek Copywriting Handbook. He’s also the guy who sold a $240,000 airplane in a single mail order ad. (Amazing, eh?)
I’ve probably learned more from Sugarman’s book than from any other copywriting hero, and here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:
When people perceive general statements as puffery or typical advertising babble, those statements are at best discounted or accepted with some doubt. By contrast, statements with specific facts can generate strong credibility.
~ Joe Sugarman
My hunch is that since Sugarman wrote those words, people have become more wary of puffery and babble, so more than ever it’s important to include facts in your writing.
For instance, suggesting your service is excellent is puffery. It’s an empty statement. No one claims that their service is less than excellent.
To be more factual, tell us exactly why your service is excellent. Are customers saying that you’re better than the competition? What is it that they like about your service?
Famous copywriter #3: John Caples
John Caples (1900-1990) wrote what’s probably the world’s most famous headline: They Laughed When I Sat at the Piano, But When I Started to Play!
In his book Tested Advertising Methods (1932), Caples shares a lot of advice on writing headlines, but here, I’d like to share a more important quote about a fundamental mistake that many still make today:
The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).
~ John Caples
As sellers, it’s easy to get enthusiastic about our product or service. After all, we’ve worked hard to up our skills so we can deliver a better service. We’ve slaved away late at night to develop a new app or a new course. So, we’d like to share our enthusiasm about how good it is.
But people don’t want to know how hard we’ve worked. They aren’t interested in our companies. They aren’t even interested in our products. They want to know what’s in it for them.
To let people understand why a product matters to them, ask yourself So what?
- My new copywriting course includes 32 short videos—each video is under 11 minutes. So what? You can dip into the course even if have only 15 minutes. So what? Even if you’re crazy busy, you can still learn how to write better copy and learn how to sell more.
- The course also includes 31 activities to test your newly acquired knowledge and help you fine-tune your copy X-ray skills. So what? You learn how to evaluate and improve any copy (including your own). So what? You become a more confident and better copywriter. So what? You can sell more.
People buy on emotions, and justify their purchasing decisions with facts. So, good copy balances features with benefits. The features explain specific facts about your product, and the benefits point out how you make your customer’s life a little better—that’s how you connect emotionally.
Famous copywriter #4: Victor O. Schwab
Victor Schwab (1898 – 1980) was a pioneer in split-testing advertising using coupons, and he was called “the greatest mail-order copywriter of all time” by Advertising Age.
His book How to Write a Good Advertisement (1942) still appears on most copywriters’ bookshelves, and here’s one tip that’s still useful today:
Now, to get action, you’ve got to ask for it.
~ Victor O. Schwab
It feels kind of obvious, doesn’t it?
Still, many web pages and emails peter out because there’s no clear call to action at the end.
If you want people to click a link in an email to read your latest blog post, have a clear and concise call to action.
And if you want people to click your Buy button, make it stand out and don’t bury it among various other calls to action. If you clearly tell people what to do next, it’s more likely they’ll follow your advice.
Famous copywriter #5: David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy (1911 – 1990) is often quoted as the father of British advertising. He started his career selling cooking stoves, and in 1938, he wrote an instruction manual for selling stoves for his colleagues.
That instruction manual is still a useful guide on the principles of selling, but it’s utterly sexist. If one thing has changed since the heyday of the copywriters mentioned in this blog post, then it’s that we don’t assume anymore that a copywriter is a man and that women are at home cooking.
So, I’d like to rewrite one of Ogilvy’s most famous quotes. The original is:
The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.
~ David Ogilvy
I agree that the consumer isn’t a moron. But the consumer needn’t be your wife. The consumer can be your husband, your partner, or your best friend.
What’s important is to write for one person, for a person you respect. Too often copy fails because it’s written for a crowd and it sounds robotic, or, even worse, the copy sounds condescending—as if your reader is a moron because they haven’t purchased your course yet.
Please treat your readers with respect
Show them you understand their wishes, dreams, and worries.
Tell them how you can help them improve their lives.
Be honest, and give readers the right information to make up their minds, and nudge them to press the Buy button.
Your honesty will be rewarded.