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The Most Important Element in Copywriting

“Not products. Not techniques. Not copywriting. Not how to buy space or whatever. The first and the most important thing you must learn is what people want to buy.”

— Gary Halbert

What's the most important part in copywriting? Is it the headline? The bullets? The benefits? The testimonials? The guarantee? The offer?

While all of these are important, none are as important as this single yet powerful element. It trumps all the others by a longshot, and it's the one element all copy must absolutely have to succeed.

Once I tell you what it is, you're going to smack your head and say, “Of course!”

But, it's not what you think — at least, not in the way you think.

First, let me point out that “salesmanship in print” is a popular definition of copywriting, originally coined by Canadian John E. Kennedy in 1905.

Just like a sales professional delivering a good sales presentation, a good copywriter will hit all the emotional hot-buttons, give all the reasons why, and answer all the objections. The result will be leading the customer to the best solution, which is to buy.

But a debate seems to be raging between content creators and copywriters as to how important copy is to a promotion as opposed to content. One side says promotional content is all-important while the other side says it makes no difference, or that educational content is more important.

Copywriters say, “you must sell,” while content writers say, “you must educate.” One says, “Content is too boring,” the other, “copy is too hypey.”

Both are wrong.

My take is simple.

A promotion has many parts. Every part must be firing on all cylinders. Like a puzzle, if you are missing too many pieces it just won't work. Copywriting is a critical part of the marketing puzzle, and can play a major influence in the success of any promotion.

However, there's one thing that copywriting cannot fix — no matter how great the copy is, who wrote it, how enticing the offer may be, how great the price is, how many bonuses it has, how much proof it provides, or how strong the guarantee it promises.

In fact, you could take all the greatest copywriters that ever lived, like Robert Collier, Mel Martin, Claude Hopkins, Gary Halbert, Gary Bencivenga, Dan Kennedy, and John Carlton, and stick them in a locked room and force them to create a masterpiece.

And it still wouldn't matter.

It wouldn't matter if you put a promotion in front of a group of people who could care less about what you are trying to sell them. A group of people who wouldn't buy your product to save their mother-in-law. (Bad example, I know.)

Plain and simple, without a starving market you're dead in the water. A rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth, wallet-in-hand market desperately seeking a solution to their problem is the key to any online project.

And to do that, you need to find out what people want.

This is the foundation not only to writing great copy but also to building any successful online business. Nothing earth-shattering here, right? I mean, how many times have you heard someone say, “You must find a hungry market?” Countless times, I'm sure.

I Googled “find a hungry market” today and it appears 192,000,000 times. There are a lot of people telling you to find a hungry market.

But here's the kicker…

Many don't tell you how to go about finding that hungry market, much less figuring out exactly what do they want — I mean, what do they really, really, really want! (Spice Girls reference notwithstanding.)

I suspect it's because most don't really know how to do it themselves. They just do it. For others, it may be hard to explain. After all, it's second nature to them. For many successful marketers, it's an almost intuitive, psychic-like process.

And that's a shame because it's an important skill, which can be mastered provided you are shown how. Imagine if you could crawl inside the minds of some of the most successful marketers to find out how they zoom in on hot, hungry, eager-to-buy markets.

If you could, then how successful would you be? When launching a new product, how confident would you be of your return on your investment of time, money, and effort? A lot more.

Unfortunately, you can't. Sure, you can get an idea. As I looked around I noticed there were plenty of products on the market teaching keyword research, which is the most common way of finding markets.

At first glance, they looked good on the surface. But upon further examination, I could see they were missing a key understanding.

Some will teach you how to find a market, find out who they are, and find out what do they want. But this is where most of them stop. The problem is, they ignore another, more important element you absolutely need to know before you tackle any new market.

In fact, once you find a hungry market, there are three critical questions you need to ask yourself before creating a product and writing copy. Because the appeal you choose is crucial to making a connection with your market when you know exactly:

  1. Who they are,
  2. What do they want
  3. And why do they want it?

And by knowing why they want it will help you determine how do they want it. They go hand-in-hand. The how (the packaging, the messaging, the offer, etc) should satisfy the why, in other words.

So knowing the answers to all three questions, clearly and correctly, allows you to craft a message that directly appeals to your market, and connects with their dominant fears and desires.

If you don't know the answers, you will end up trying to sell:

  • to the wrong market,
  • to a good market but one that's not hungry, or
  • to a market who's indeed hungry but wants a certain kind of food, for a certain reason, and delivered in a certain way.

It's like trying to sell an Italian cookbook to a market hungry for Chinese takeout.

Many keyword research tools will not answer these critical questions for you. They might tell if there's a market out there (or, if you're researching an established market, what they're hungry for). But they stop at this point. They don't dig deep enough.

From a copywriting perspective, to be successful you need more than just the right market. You also need the right offer, with the right message, delivered in the right way.

Many people will have the first one down pat (i.e., who is your market). Some may get the second one (i.e., what do they want) — but when they do, they only have half the picture or do it bass-ackwards. Yet, the third one (i.e., why do they want it), which is the most important of all, is the one simple keyword research cannot tell you.

People ignore or fail to answer the third adequately. When they see a market with a need, they tend to jump in headfirst without knowing if the market wants what they offer, much less in the way they offer it.

It's about having the right appeal — one that delivers a meaningful message about the product and sells the product in the way they want it, for the reasons they want it and not the ones you think they do.

Having the right appeal is something Dan Kennedy often calls “message-to-market match.” The problem, however, is the fact that people focus on the first two of Kennedy's equation. They may have the right message for the right market. But they don't have the right match.

The golden rule says, “Do unto others as you would want to have done unto you.” But I prefer what sales trainer and behavioral psychologist, Tony Alessandra, coins as the “Platinum Rule.” It's “do unto others as they would want to have done unto them.”

Can you see the difference?

One of the most important lessons in copywriting I've learned is from my good friend David Garfinkel, also known as the world's greatest copywriting teacher.

According to David, to write effective copy you should ask three questions. They are very similar to what I presented earlier, but they are specific to copywriting:

  1. Who is your market?
  2. What is their problem?
  3. And how do they talk about it?

Again, the third question in David's premise above is key — but it's also the one most people tend to ignore, skip over, or fail to answer adequately or correctly.

At the same time, it's the question most keyword research tools fail to uncover. Tools only offer numbers and search volumes, without a proper understanding behind them. They offer mere glimpses and not the whole picture.

Which is why typical keyword research sucks.

Of course, answering the first question can be done with keyword research. The second with market research. But the third can be only answered through something called viability research.

Explaining how to do this — and how to do it right — is not an easy task. I mean, how can you explain something that is, for most successful marketers, considered intuitive?

But to explain it as simply as possible, it's really done in four simple steps. Steps you can use no matter if you already have a product or if you have no idea where to begin.

  1. Find hungry markets with a problem they want solved and you can sell.
  2. Dig deep inside your market to learn about how they think and behave.
  3. Research the competition to get sure-to-sell product ideas and pricing.
  4. See things through your market's eyes to understand their true motives.

Once you find a market with a problem that needs to be solved. Next is learning as much about them to uncover why they want to solve that problem. Why is it important to them? Why solving it means much to them?

Then, you need to validate the problem's profit potential. Is there a solution out there already? Are people buying it? Maybe there is a competing solution but it uses poor marketing, or it's a solution to which yours is a better alternative.

In other words, is your competition paying money to advertise their solution and/or reach that market? A little competition, even if it's indirect (such as an alternative or incomplete solution), is a good thing. It means there's viability.

Learning from your competition also helps to determine price points. You need to learn at what price your market willing to pay for your solution, and you need to ensure your margins are sufficient to make the product viable and profitable.

The fourth and final step is to understand how your market talks about their problem so that, when you present your solution, it speaks their language, meets them at their level (i.e., their level of awareness of the problem), and uncovers their true motives.

One tool I often use to do this is an extension that allows me to search Google in discussion groups and forums around the problem or the topic related to their problem to help me understand how they talk about it.

These four steps is something I call having “Marketing ESP.”

Conducting viability research is one of the most important skills you will ever acquire to help build your business. It's one that will improve your copywriting dramatically, too, because it allows you to dig deep so you can choose the right message to properly connect with your market.

Finding customers perfectly targeted for your product is important. But getting an understanding of their problem, their willingness to buy your solution, and the emotions that support and drive that willingness, will save you from a ton of heartache and wasted cash.

If you're thinking about launching a new product, doing these four steps first will ensure the product you create and sell, and the next marketing effort (such as the next piece of copy you write), are surefire winners.

And how to get maximum value from each one, too.

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