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 John Carlton calls it.
But when I know what to write once 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. I may start with an idea for a headline that will drive the story, but it may not be the one I end up with. With existing copy, it’s the other way around: I start with a better headline — after reading the copy, and if the idea or story is good enough — and then rewrite the rest.
Sometimes, my client’s copy is pretty good, and the main idea and offer are solid. 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.
The 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 the rest — regardless of how good the copy, the story, the product, and the offer are.
So I tend to try to find a good hook for the headline.
After a little bit of research, usually by going through the answers my client provided me in my intake questionnaire, a good idea for a hook 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 or capture the most attention.
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.
Then, I start applying my formula.
I call it going on a “QUEST.”
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.
It’s like traversing a mountain, so to speak, when you start climbing 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. Once you’ve reached the peak, it’s downhill (i.e., easier as you’ve connected with the reader) from there. Almost all my salesletters take on this quality.
Here’s what “QUEST” means:
Q = Qualify
You qualify the reader and weed out the non-buyers and tire-kickers. The moment they hit your copy, it must instantly qualify them. That’s why it’s good to ask questions at the beginning or set the stage by giving a scenario they can immediately relate to, almost instantly, such as by talking about how terrible things are with “X” problem, or how nice it would be to solve it.
You also try to denominate who usually has this problem, who this solution is for, and who it is not for. You can do this outright with a headline or in the deck copy (i.e., the subheadline or synopsis, if you will), but I often incorporate this into the introduction or weave it into the form of 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…
U = Understand
After qualifying the reader, you express how much you understand her. You connect and empathize with them. You expand on the problem and, by doing so,m you 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 share in their pain, as if you were saying “I understand how it feels.” 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 or that one might exist, and you insert specific benefits other solutions don’t have but without fully disclosing “your” specific 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 the reasons why they should keep reading but also a great way 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 together. 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…
E = Educate
You educate the reader on the fact that a solution exists. This is where you introduce your product or service — but not the price (not the officer, in other words). 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 in the middle of the copy. It’s where the reader has reached “the summit of the mountain,” if you will, on their quest your copy (or story) has taken them on in order to traverse it. It’s also a great place to build on and emphasize the credibility you introduced in the previous “U” portion of the formula.
This includes credentializing the author and giving reasons as to why one should 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, such as social proof, case studies, testimonials, reviews, etc. In fact, I tend not to add any testimonials until this point or further because, if too early, they tend to be off-putting. (But if they are vigorously aware and they’re hurting already, testimonials a little early won’t hurt.)
Once they’re educated, the next step is to…
S = Stimulate
You stimulate the reader and get them excited with the offer. 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 is where the offer is introduced, and where the value buildup really starts.
You list the benefits and expand on them. (In “E,” I start to talk about features and describe the product. But here, I talk about 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 or not taking action — 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 the features and benefits described in “E.”
After that, you then…
T = Transition
Finally, 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 at the bottom, the response device, or the order form on a separate page, 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 or an extra nudge to spur the reader into taking action, such as adding an as-of-yet undisclosed benefit or bonus — or “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. It’s flexible and meant to give me guideposts throughout the letter to ensure the reader is kept on the “quest” they’re taking.
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 so as not to 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 first when they hit a salesletter for the first time. Especially if it seems long.
The third one above is the one I use the most.
My favourite is when a header introduces a portion of a sentence or cliffhanger, sometimes followed by an ellipse or an incomplete idea. Or when it hints at a bigger payoff in the copy, like something intriguing or a 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 a headline is used as “bait and switch,” where the headline makes a bold claim or promise, but the copy fails the deliver on that promise. You don’t need to lie or exaggerate. Just be intriguing. Drive their curiosity.
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 they keep them reading and clinging throughout the copy until they reach the other side, if you will).
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.