Writing copy usually involves two major things: figuring out what to say and then how to say it. The second part is usually the easiest, because figuring out what to say is often a whole lot harder than how to say it.
It requires a lot of research, creativity, time, and, of course, “sales detective work.,” as my friend and top copywriter John Carlton calls it.
But when I know what to write, when I figured out what I’m going to say, the question I’m often asked is, “Do you start with the headline, or do you work the headline last?”
Let me share with you a formula I use.
First, when I write a new piece of copy, I tend to start with the body copy, then create the headline and add headers/subheads throughout. With existing copy, it’s the other way around: I start with a better headline — after reading the copy, and it’s good — and then rewrite the rest.
Sometimes (in fact, a lot of times), my client’s copy is already pretty good. The culprit behind a poor response, and this is true almost nine times out of 10 in my estimation, is a poor headline. And it’s often the one element I test the most, too.
Reason is, the headline is the pivotal element in copy upon which the success of your copy will hinge. If people are not interested enough in reading the copy further after reading the headline, they will leave without reading any more — regardless of how good the copy, the product, and the offer are.
So I tend to try to find a good hook for the headline.
After a little bit of detective work, usually by going through some of the answers my client gives me after filling out my intake questionnaire, this usually comes to me after tinkering with the headline a bit, sometimes after writing several of them until I come up with the one I think will pull best.
Headers are usually parts of the copy — spread throughout where they make sense, create curiosity, and force the reader to stop scanning and start reading.
With new copy, I usually start with an outline, but I really don’t write the actual headers. I often start with the concept or idea I want to introduce in specific sections of the letter, but then write copy and use headers at that point, all based on the flow of ideas.
Most of my salesletters focus on five core components.
What I usually do when I write copy is follow a “5-step guide,” if you will. It’s sort of my take on (or a complement to) the AIDA formula: you grab their Attention, arouse their Interest, build their Desire, and then ask for some kind of Action.
My formula is this: I call it going on a “QUEST.”
It’s like traversing a mountain, so to speak, when you start climbing the mountain on one side, reach the summit, and start climbing back down on the other side. And just like climbing a mountain, the incline is where much of the hard work is done. Almost all my salesletters take on this quality.
Here’s what “QUEST” means:
You qualify the reader and weed out the non-buyers and tire-kickers. It’s good to ask questions at the beginning or set the stage by giving a scenario they can immediately relate to, such as by talking about how terrible things are with “X” problem, or how nice it would be to solve “Y” problem.
You also try to denominate who usually has this problem, who this solution is for, and/or who it is not for. You can do this outright, but I often incorporate this into a story. The aim is to create awareness, qualify the reader, and more importantly, reinforce how qualified the reader truly is, in their mind, for the offer.
This is especially true where there’s a bit of an education involved — where the prospect doesn’t really know or is not fully aware there is a problem in the first place. Or they know about the problem and it may be in the back of their minds, but my job is to bring it to the top.
In fact, this is why the next part is crucial and flows from the first.
Because, the next step is to…
After qualifying the reader, you express how much you understand her. You connect and empathize with them. You expand on the problem and agitate their pain. You “add salt on the wounds,” so to speak or, at the very least, bring the problem to the top of their minds.
You not only get the reader to identify themselves with you, but also magnify the problem in their minds. You share their pain or in their pain, and you tell them how much more painful it is either because there is no solution out there, or because other solutions are insufficient for whatever reason.
You can also use this section to tickle their curiosity about a potential solution and insert specific benefits other solutions don’t have but without fully disclosing “your” solution yet. Mention a unique selling point, a nice-to-have benefit, that will be linked with your solution.
I would include a story behind the product based on that fact because it’s not only a great place to build credibility and give the reader reasons why they should keep reading, but a great way for readers to identify themselves with the author and build a certain affinity with her.
When you introduce the solution later on, you can tie it to all of these. It’s like telling the reader: “Wouldn’t it be great, if…” And later, your solution comes along and answers that very question.
And that leads to the next step, which is to…
You educate the reader on the fact that a solution exists. This is where you introduce your product or service — but not the price. This will come later. At this point, you expand on the fact that a solution exists, is perfect for their situation, and is unlike and better than all the others.
This is usually it’s in the middle of the copy. It’s where the reader has reached “the summit of the sales mountain,” if you will, on their quest to traverse it. It’s also a great place to build on and emphasize credibility introduced in the previous “U” portion of the formula.
This includes credentializing the author and why should one listen to her. It’s also a great location to talk about the features of your product or service, dispel any myths, and respond to any objections regarding the product or service.
It’s also the location where I add proof elements, case studies, testimonials, etc. In fact, I tend not to add any testimonials until this point or further because they tend to be off-putting. (If they are vigorously aware of their problem and they’re hurting already, testimonials a little early won’t hurt.)
Once they’re educated, the next step is to…
You stimulate the reader on the offer. I guess you can also say that “S” stands for “sell,” too, as this is the location where the bulk of the selling really takes place. This where the offer is made and the value buildup really starts.
You list and expand on the benefits. (In “E,” I start to talk about features and describe the product. But here, I talk benefits and link them to the features described in “E.” Also, it’s a great location to add value to the offer, such as offering premiums, guarantees, value boosters, a sense of urgency, etc.
It’s a great place to add comparisons, too, such as with competitive alternatives, as well as with the risks and costs of not buying — including missing out on the potential benefits, pecuniary losses, ultimate costs of not using the product, etc.
Use this section to link the offer to the rest of the formula. That is, you restate some of the problems mentioned in “Q,” how the solution answers the greater problems talked about in “U,” and how it links to all to the features and benefits described in “E.”
After that, you then…
You transition the reader from prospect to buyer. It’s the “call to action” section or the close, in other words. This includes the order area or order form, and it’s where you talk about the offer, the price, and the options if any. Above all, it’s where you make the reader feel as if they already own the product.
It’s a great place to summarize the offer, talk about the guarantee, and perhaps introduce new points not discussed to this point to spur action, such as adding an as-of-yet undisclosed benefit or bonus — also called “pot sweeteners.”
Now, I don’t follow this formula precisely as I just explained.
QUEST is a guide, not a goal or a rule.
I usually start with QUEST as an outline first and use it to create a skeleton salesletter. I then refer back to it to guide me as I write. Once the outline is made, I expand on each point and “go with the flow” of what I think is best for the offer throughout the salesletter.
I also write header or subhead ideas in that outline, too. But when I expand the copy, if needed, I’ll move ideas around for better flow or rewrite the headers as I see how they fit in the QUEST formula, all keeping the following in mind:
- The header introduces a new piece of information. It’s specific and descriptive. It has an element of intrigue or curiosity. Best of all, it has an inherent benefit — whether it’s of the offer or one in reading what follows. (Usually, it’s the latter.)
- It helps to introduce the following section. It should make sense and read as if the person never read the preceding copy. It somewhat explains it as to not confuse and push people away. (But it doesn’t explain it entirely, as the next point reveals.)
- Above all, it also piques their curiosity in order to force them to stop scanning and go back to the beginning of the copy — as people usually scan and read the headers when they hit a salesletter for the first time.
The third one is the one I use the most.
My favorite is when the header introduces a portion of an idea, sometimes followed by an ellipse. Or when it hints at a bigger payoff in the copy, like some kind of newsworthy topic — think of a newspaper’s front-page headlines that force the reader to buy the paper.
Incidentally, some people may call this “clickbait.” Clickbait doesn’t deserve the bad rap it has been given. The reason for the stigma is when it’s used as a “bait and switch,” where the header promises but the rest fails the deliver. You don’t need to lie or exaggerate. Just be intriguing.)
To continue my mountain-climbing analogy, headers are like “knots” or “hooks” in the rope, so to speak. They force people to stop and pull readers back into the copy (or keeps them reading and clinging throughout the copy).
Finally, don’t follow the QUEST formula “to the letter.” Use it as a guide.
Just like there are different mountains of different shapes and sizes, there are different markets with different levels of awareness. Each climb should also be different. And the view is different at every vantage point along the way.