Categories
Copywriting

How I Write Copy in Seven Steps

A lot of people ask me how I write copy. I don't mean the actual writing process (such as how I come up with headlines, bullets, offers, etc), but how I tackle the actual task of composing a new sales piece from scratch.

Everyone is different. My writing process is one developed over many years, and many people may adopt or dislike the same techniques. But in the hope that knowing my process may be helpful to some writers, I'd like to share it with you.

Of course, if I were to describe all of the steps, there would be way too much information to squeeze into one article. But for now, I can offer you a basic look at my methodology by giving you a short list of the seven steps I take.

Here they are.

1. Gather Initial Research

For starters, with all projects I ask that my clients take time to answer an initial, 25-point questionnaire. Their answers will provide some background information. I ask several questions from four main categories:

  1. The customer
  2. The product
  3. The business
  4. The offer

The first one, about the customer, is the most important. It's where I ask questions like demographics and psychographics, and try to build a perfect prospect profile or what's often called a “buyer persona.”

The others include things like features and benefits, stories behind the product, testimonials, actual results, the buying process, etc.

(The questionnaire can be an eye-opener for many clients because it forces them to dig for the answers, and to see what's missing with their current copy and where some of the flaws are. Many have said that the questionnaire alone was worth the price of admission.)

I want to know as much as possible about the product, the business, and the offer. This includes competitors, non-competitors, alternatives, and reasons why people choose to buy from my client — as well as why they chose another instead.

Admittedly, this questionnaire is just a start. But their answers, which give me some direction as to where to conduct further research, give me at least a basic understanding of their business, the purpose of the copy's message, and its goals.

Yes, that's “goals” in the plural.

There is the obvious main goal, which may be to generate leads or make sales. But other, secondary goals may include to dispel rumors, answer questions, build credibility, eliminate misconceptions, differentiate from the competition, defend one's reputation, etc.

2. Conduct Exploratory Research

Then, I read and study the answers carefully, and I conduct some exploratory research. That is, I try to gather as much information as I can — especially about the target audience. When I write copy, the bulk of my time is spent on research.

In fact, if I ever get writer's block and run out of ideas, I go back to conducting more research. Because the more research you do, the greater the number of ideas you will have at your disposal. The chances that something will stick out and prompt your writing will be higher, too.

I surf my clients' websites. I research their competitors. I look at some of the trends in that particular product category, market, or industry. I do comparative analyses, including building a list of strengths and weaknesses (if my client doesn't have this already).

I hang out where their readers hang out. I check out some of the websites they visit. I spend some time in forums in which they're active. I try to get a grasp of their language, their challenges, their industry, their fears, their goals, etc.

When I come across an important piece of information, I copy it into a document (often a Google document I can share), where I can easily append extra pieces of information, include any corresponding URLs, make additional notes, and more.

I create a new project in my favorite project management service, where I give access to all the key players, and start populating it with the information I gather.

(Aside from being a repository, the service has many features that come in quite handy, such as to-do lists, message board, whiteboard, chat room, file uploads, milestone tracker, and more.)

The idea at first is to gather as much information as possible, including facts, features, data, results, etc. I add whatever information I find into the repository.

3. Pick, Prod, And Probe Further

Of course, a lot of it is also irrelevant. So I go through the information and pull out the important stuff. I compile, clarify, and expand. I cherrypick and highlight what's relevant, and file or discard the rest.

I might even repeat some of the earlier steps to make sure I've covered all the bases. After spending some time studying the information, I may ask for more clarification and dig deeper.

Digging deeper is a crucial step!

Sometimes, I do it to get a better understanding of the information. Other times, it's to get additional tidbits where I might uncover hidden gems I can use with the copy. You would be surprised by how much information clients keep from you because they feel it's irrelevant when oftentimes it's not.

But most of the time, it's to be able to later put what my clients tell me into words that specifically meet my client's audience at their level.

I tend to look at my job as “connecting the dots.” If the product is good and the demand is there, then my job is not to sell the product but to connect the desires and fears of the reader with the solution my client offers.

(Most of my clients are too “married” to their own products or businesses that they tend to be removed from their clients. So what they may feel is great about their product may not be a shared opinion among their target market.)

But here's my greatest tip…

Some of the best answers I get are in fact obtained while interviewing people. That's right: actually talking to people, whether it's the business owner or existing clients. In other words, picking up the phone and asking questions.

(Of course, I record everything and transcribe the interviews. I do this with the help of a conference call service and an online transcription service.)

This allows me to not only catch verbal cues and innuendos, but also to prod and probe further. I repeat what they say and sometimes end in a dangling preposition (grammarians be like “Oh, the horror!”) or conjunction followed by a pause, where the silence compels them to continue.

(For example, once my client answers a question, I'll say, “And?” “Or?” “But?” “So that…” “That's for…” “That means…” “Or else?” “In other words?” After that, I shut up. You'd be amazed by the kinds of answers they would give!)

I also try to speak with actual success stories. I interview satisfied clients, not just for the sake of gathering testimonials, and not just to ask a lot of open-ended questions to probe deeper as well, but also, and if I can, to actually get them to sell me on the product themselves.

These recorded interviews are worth a mint!

If I managed to get my interviewee excited and passionate about the product, in many cases they practically write the copy for me.

4. Create The Structure

Next, I try to find a storyline, a unique benefit, a certain angle, or a key piece of information. Some call it a “plot.” Others call it a “hook” or “the big idea.” It's essentially the one element on which the entire copy hinges.

This is the concept I often talk about called “storyselling.”

It may be a certain fear, a piece of news, a hot-button issue, a success story, a fascinating factoid, a sensational claim, a major benefit (even an unsought one), a sense of urgency, a “lie dispelled,” a secret, a myth, a hot trend, a controversial topic, an unexpected result, etc. You get the picture.

Once I've found it, I then create an outline. Often, I apply my QUEST formula, which is to “qualify” the reader, “understand” their problem, “educate” them on the solution, “stimulate” them on the value, and “transition” them into a buyer.

I don't write the copy just yet. I simply use the formula to create an outline that will guide me as to where specific pieces of information will be added.

The copy doesn't necessarily have to follow the exact formula, either. But it does give me some guidance as to what exactly I must cover, and where I must cover it.

Sometimes, I'll use it to create headers throughout the copy as the outline. These headers are not written in stone. They only give me some initial direction as to what, specifically, I need to cover at certain points in the copy.

Look at these headers as “guideposts,” if you will.

I also try to look at the copy from the perspective of a reader. For example, I'll ask myself, “What do I want and need to know at this point in the copy?” “What can potentially confuse me?” “What questions or objections might likely come up at that moment?” “What's going through my mind when I read this?” And so on.

At this time in the process, I write some notes on the copy, to myself, on what needs to be covered, what key pieces of information I must include, what ideas I want to expand on, etc. And often, I write these notes in point form.

5. Write The Copy

Next comes the creative part.

From the storyline and the guideposts I've set out above, I start writing the copy. I often begin with the headline or the bullet points, whichever is easiest. (It really depends on what comes to mind the fastest.)

Sometimes, a headline idea jumps out at me, particularly after doing the research and coming up with the “hook.” If so, I will start with the headline first.

The headline is not final, either. I sometimes come back and rewrite the headline once I finish the copy, even several times, because new and better ideas emerge later on as I write the body copy.

Both the headline and the storyline will give me a good indication of what I can write about, how to say it, as well as what options I have when I write it.

Sometimes, I just start writing and let it flow, and my writing takes a life of its own. When this happens, I allow myself the flexibility to just let go, but I will go back to it afterwards when I'm editing and rearranging the flow.

Remember, they are guides, not goals.

In terms of actual copy, I start writing and expanding.

  • I structure a skeletal offer (with premiums);
  • I create the opening or introductory paragraph;
  • I tell the story (based on the chosen storyline);
  • I list the features, advantages and benefits;
  • I expand on key items for the main body;
  • I incorporate or expand on story blocks;
  • I add Johnson boxes, remarks or sidenotes;
  • I reinforce key benefits and “reasons why;”
  • I build up the value and expand on the offer;
  • I form a logical and believable sense of urgency;
  • I inject credibility by adding proof elements;
  • I infuse testimonials in appropriate locations;
  • I write the guarantee (or guarantees);
  • I close with a call-to-action statement;
  • And I plug some “PS's” at the end.

Do I follow these steps every single time? No. Some people say copywriting is formulaic, and I agree to a large extent. But don't become so rigid that you write with blinders on and fail to allow yourself the opportunity to be different, to be interesting, and to connect better with your audience.

Look at a lot of salesletters these days. They often don't look like your typical “salesletter”. Salesletters have evolved to include multimedia, parallax (fly-in, dynamic copy), action-triggered content, mobile-friendly layouts, etc.

6. Rearrange The Flow

Then, I rearrange the content for flow. I don't edit the copy. I simply scan the copy to make sure it all flows nicely, and that the organization of ideas makes the reading pleasant, compelling, and easily understandable.

More important, I make sure the flow makes sense to the sale. Every new idea introduced must flow into one another and advance the sale.

I make sure to integrate headers at every two or three paragraphs to help break the monotony and compel scanners to start reading. If needed, I also copy, paste, and move blocks of text in locations I feel they are more appropriate.

(For example, sometimes it's better to credentialize the copy early on. Or some testimonials are best used as a way to handle objections and located where specific objections may come up. In fact, I use them where the reader might have a specific question that the testimonial answers.)

To help me, I work with multiple, tiled windows (i.e., side by side), all opened at once and each showing a different part of a same document. This is particularly helpful when I'm working with longer copy.

That way, I can easily scroll through each window to rearrange the content from one window to another (i.e., from one section of the copy to another).

From this cursory look at the copy, I can immediately sense if I need to also add certain elements, whether cosmetic (such as adding a grabber, a picture, or a graphic) or tactical (such as adding a sidenote, a proof element, or a Johnson box).

I also make sure that the copy follows the AIDA formula (i.e., attention, interest, desire and action). While it may seem redundant because of my earlier formula, I never forget the basics.

7. Edit And Expand

Once re-arranged, I then edit the copy. I read it to myself, slowly and sometimes out loud, to make sure it's easy to read and flows properly. If I stumble at any point or verbally struggle, I know that I need to rewrite that section.

(Whenever I can, I even record myself. It's amazing how many errors I've discovered from listening to myself reading the copy than from simply reading it.)

I then expand, cut out, tighten up, and add more. I emphasize where needed, rewrite certain sections, and cut out as much of the extra fat as possible.

In fact, the latter is the most crucial step.

Why? Because when I write, I usually write with abandon. I let it all flow. I write like I speak. I repeat myself often, especially when I try to make a point or drive home a critical point. I try not to stop myself, or else it will impede my train of thought.

(When I stop writing, it start thinking critically. I begin to edit myself too early, which blocks the creative flow. I eventually lose focus because I spend too much energy on making sure I've said things right rather than saying the right things.)

That's why I wait until after I'm done, and only when I'm done, to go back and excise all the extraneous filler. I try to cut out as much of the unneeded copy as I can. Or, if what I say is indeed important, I try to find ways to say the same thing but in less words.

(Editing is probably one the most important strategies in writing copy, but it's also the most overlooked because it's the hardest thing to do for most copywriters. That's why it's best to wait until the end.)

Remember this: write first, edit later.

Finally, I focus on the cosmetics, since certain visual “triggers” help to increase both readership and response. So I touch up the formatting, typestyles, tables, colors, graphics, pictures, layouts, fonts, and so on.

After that, I'm essentially done.

Bonus Step: Revise!

Before I deliver the copy to my client, I still get my staff to proofread it for me. But I don't limit them to the grammar or style. I also ask them to signal any part of the copy where they feel confused, lost, or disinterested in the story.

(I also ask them questions about the copy to see if they truly grasped some of its key elements. If their answers are not good enough, I know I need to edit it more.)

This is important, since I often make the same mistakes I made while writing it when reading it back to myself. Also, knowing what the copy is all about can cause me to take what I say (or fail to say) for granted, and accidentally skip over what may be confusing to others.

(Don't discount having a fresh pair of eyes look at your copy for you. Before handing off the copy to the client, try to get someone else to read it for you.)

After it's all done, I then upload it to my client's project interface for my client to read and offer feedback. I revise the copy according to my client's feedback. (In fact, I allow my clients a free revision.)

There is no way to predict how well my copy will do. For most clients, my work increases their response rates — often, like gangbusters, too. But for some, my copy turns out to be a downright dud.

Maybe it's because the storyline is wrong. Perhaps the headline is the bottleneck. Maybe the offer is poor. I don't know. If it's anything specific with the copy, the only way to know is to test.

But in my experience, when my copy failed, it was largely because the audience wasn't targeted or the offer wasn't appropriate for them. And in either case, the copy would have never sold well, no matter how good the copy was.

Failure does happen. It happens to the best of us. But failure is also an awesome opportunity — an opportunity to learn, improve, and grow. That's why I appreciate it when my clients keep me posted on their results.

If you were to hire a copywriter, remember that I would trust a copywriter who failed and succeeded more than I do one who claimed to have never failed at all.

Some clients who are fanatical testers prefer to keep me on a retainer after the initial project so they can have me rewrite parts of the copy, or offer any suggestions on how to improve it without contaminating the initial control.

Nevertheless, these are the steps I follow.

I don't necessarily follow them to the letter all of the time. But hopefully, they have given you some fodder on your quest for better response.

Categories
Copywriting

The Seven Deadly Sins of Website Copy

Throughout my research, I'm always surprised when I stumble onto websites that are professionally designed and seem to offer great products and services, but lack or fail in certain important elements.

Elements that, with just a few short changes, can help multiply the results almost instantaneously.

Generally, I have found that there are seven common mistakes. I call them the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Is your website committing any one of these?

1) They Fail to Connect

Traffic has been long touted to be the key to online success, but that's not true. If your site is not pulling sales, inquiries or results, then why would it need more traffic?

The key is to turn curious browsers into serious buyers. Aside from the quality of the copy, the number one reason why a website doesn't convert is that the copy is targeting the wrong audience or fails to connect with them.

First, create a “perfect prospect profile.” List all the attributes, characteristics and qualities of your most profitable and accessible market.

Don't just stick with things like demographics and psychographics. Try to get to know them.

Who are they, really? What are their most pressing problems? What keeps them up at night? How do they talk about their problems? Where do they hang out?

Then, target your market by centering on a major theme, benefit or outcome so that, when you generate pre-qualified traffic, your hit ratio and your sales will increase dramatically.

Finally, ensure that your copy connects with them. Intimately. It speaks their language, talks about their problems, and tells stories they can easily appreciate and relate to.

Since this is the most common error that marketers and copywriters commit, and to help you, follow the following formulas.

The OATH formula helps you to understand the stage of awareness your market is at. (How aware of the problem are they, really?)

The QUEST formula guides you in qualifying and empathizing with them. And the UPWORDS formula teaches you how to choose the appropriate language your market can easily understand, appreciate and respond to.

2) They Lack a Compelling Offer

“Making an offer you can't refuse” seems like an old cliché, but don't discount its relevance and power. Especially in this day and age where most offers are so anemic, lifeless, and like every other offer out there.

Too many business believe that simply offering a product or service, and mentioning the price, are good enough. But what they fail to realize is that people need to intimately understand the full value (the real value and, more importantly, the perceived value) behind the offer.

Sometimes, all you need is to offer some premiums, incentives and bonuses to make the offer more palatable and hard to ignore. (Very often, people buy products and services for the premiums alone.)

Other times, you need to create what is called a “value buildup.”

(In fact, premiums are not mandatory in all cases, particularly when the offer itself is solid enough. But building value almost always is.)

Essentially, you compare the price of your offer not with the price of some other competing offer or alternative, but with the ultimate cost of not buying — and enjoying — your product or service.

This may include the price of an alternative. But “ultimate cost” goes far beyond price. Dan Kennedy calls this “apples to oranges” comparisons.

For example, let's say you sell an ebook on how to grow better tomatoes. That might sound simple, and your initial inclination might be to compare it to other “tomatoe-growing” ebooks or viable alternatives.

But also look at the the time it took for you to learn the best ways to grow tomatoes. Look at the amount of money you invested in trying all the different fertilizers, seeds and techniques to finally determine which ones are the best.

Don't forget the time, money and energy (including emotional energy) people save from not having to learn these by themselves. Add the cost of doing it wrong and buying solutions that are either more expensive or inappropriate.

That's what makes an offer valuable. One people can't refuse.

3) They Lack “Reasons Why”

While some websites are well-designed and provide great content, and they might even have great copy, they fail because they don't offer enough reasons for people to buy — or at least read the copy in the first place.

Visitors are often left clueless. In other words, why should they buy? Why should they buy that particular product? Why should they buy that product from that particular site? And more important, why should they buy now?

What makes your product so unique, different and special? What's in it for your customers that they can't get anywhere else? Not answering those questions will deter clients and impede sales.

John E. Kennedy, a Canadian fireman and copywriter at the turn of the last century, talked a lot about the power of adding “reasons why.” His wisdom still rings true to this day, and we know this from experience.

Once, my wife had a client whose website offered natural supplements.

It offered a free bottle (i.e., 30-day supply). But response was abysmal. Aside from being in a highly competitive industry, the copy failed to allay the prospect's fears. They thought it might be a scam or that there's a catch.

So all she did was tell her client to add the following paragraph:

“Why are we offering this free bottle? Because we want you to try it. We're so confident that you will see visible results within 30 days that you will come back and order more.”

Response more than tripled.

Similarly, add “reasons why” to your copy. To help you, make sure that it covers all the bases by answering the following “5 why's:”

  • Why me? (Why should they listen to you?)
  • Why you? (Who is perfect for this offer?)
  • Why this? (Why is this product perfect for them?)
  • Why this price? (Why is this offer so valuable?)
  • Why now? (Why must they not wait?)

4) They Lack Scarcity

Speaking of “why now,” this is probably the most important reason of all.

A quote from Jim Rohn says it all, and I force myself to think about it each time I craft an offer. He said, “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.”

People fear making bad decisions. With spams, scams and snake oils being rampant on the Internet, people tend to procrastinate, and they do so even when the copy is good, the offer is perfect and they're qualified for it.

Most websites I review fail to effectively communicate a sense of urgency. If people are given the chance to wait or think it over, they will. Look at it this way: if you don't add a sense of urgency, you're inviting them to procrastinate.

Use takeaway selling in order to stop people from procrastinating and get them to take action now. In other words, shape your offer — and not just your product or service — so that it is time-sensitive or quantity-bound.

More important, give a reasonable, logical explanation to justify your urgency or else your sales tactic will be instantly discredited. Back it up with reasons as to why the need to take advantage of the offer is pressing.

Plus, a sense of urgency doesn't need to be an actual limit or a deadline. It can be just a good, plausible and compelling explanation that emphasizes the importance of acting now — as well as the consequences of not doing so.

For example, what would they lose out on if they wait? Don't limit yourself to the offer. Think of all the negative side-effects of not going ahead right now.

5) They Lack Proof

Speaking of the fear of making bad decisions, today's consumers are increasingly leery when contemplating offers on the Internet.

While many websites look professional, have an ethical sales approach, and offer proven products or services, the lack of any kind of tangible proof will still cause most visitors to at least question your offer.

The usual suspects, of course, are testimonials and guarantees. Guarantees and testimonials help to reduce the skepticism around the purchase of your product or service, and give it almost instant credibility.

(I often refuse to critique any copy that doesn't have any testimonials. It's not just to save myself time and energy. I would be wasting my client's money if the only recommendation they got from me was to add testimonials.)

Elements of proof is not just limited to guarantees and testimonials, either.

They can include the story behind your product, your credentials, actual case studies, results of tests and trials, samples and tours, statistics and factoids, photos and multimedia, “seals of approval,” and, of course, reasons why.

Even the words you choose can make a difference. Because, in addition to a sense of urgency, your copy also needs a sense of credibility.

Today, people are understandably cynical and suspicious. If your offer is suspect and your copy, at any point, gives any hint that it can be fake, misleading, untrue, too good to be true, or too exaggerated to be true…

… Then like it or not your response rate will take a nose dive.

So, help remove the risk from the buyer's mind and you will thus increase sales — and, paradoxically, reduce returns as well. Plus, don't just stick with the truth. You also need to give your copy the ring of truth.

To help you, follow my FORCEPS formula.

6) They Lack a Clear Call to Action

Answer this million-dollar, skill-testing question: “What exactly do you want your visitors to do?” Simple, isn't it? But it doesn't seem that way with the many sites I've visited.

The KISS principle (to me, it means “keep it simple and straightforward”) is immensely important on the Internet. An effective website starts with a clear objective that will lead to a specific action or outcome.

If your site is not meant to, say, sell a product, gain a customer or obtain an inquiry for more information, then what exactly must it do? Work around the answer as specifically as possible.

Focus on the “power of one.” That is:

  • One message
  • One audience
  • One outcome

If your copy tells too many irrelevant stories (irrelevant to the audience and to the advancement of the sale), you will lose your prospects' attention and interest.

If it tries to be everything to everyone (and is therefore either too generic or too complex), you will lose your prospects completely.

And if you ask your prospects to do too many things (other than “buy now” or whatever action you want them to take), you will lose sales.

Use one major theme. Make just one offer. (Sure, you can offer options, such as ordering options or different packages to choose from. But nonetheless, it's still just one offer.)

Most important, provide clear instructions on where and how to order.

Aside from the lack of a clear call to action, asking them to do too many things can be just as counterproductive. The mind hates confusion. If you try to get your visitors to do too many things, they will do nothing.

Stated differently, if you give people too many choices, they won't make one. So keep your message focused or else you will overwhelm the reader.

7) They Lack Good Copy

It may seem like this should be the number one mistake.

While it's still one of the top seven mistakes, it's last because the ones above take precedence. If you're guilty of making any of the previous six mistakes, in the end your sales will falter no matter how good your copy is.

Nevertheless, lackluster copy that fails to invoke emotions, tell compelling stories, create vivid mental imagery, and excite your prospects about your product or service is indeed one of the most common reasons websites fail.

Top sales trainer Zig Ziglar once said, “Selling is the transference of enthusiasm you have for your product into the minds of your prospects.”

Copy is selling in print. Therefore, its job is no different. In fact, since there's no human interaction that you normally get in a face-to-face sales encounter, your copy's job, therefore, has an even greater responsibility.

It must communicate that same enthusiasm that energizes your prospects, excites them about your offering and empowers them to buy.

Aside from infusing emotion into your copy, give your prospects something they can understand, believe in and act upon. Like a trial lawyer, it must tell a persuasive story, make an airtight case and remove any reasonable doubt.

Above all, it must serve your prospect.

Many sites fail to answer a person's most important question: “What's in it for me?” They get so engrossed in describing companies, products, features or advantages over competitors that they fail to appeal to the visitor specifically.

Tell the visitor what they are getting out of responding to your offer. To help you, first write down a series of bullets. Bullets are captivating, pleasing to the eye, clustered for greater impact and deliver important benefits.

(They usually follow the words “you get,” such as “With this product, you get.”)

But don't just resort to apparent or obvious benefits. Dig deeper. Think of the end-results your readers get from enjoying your product or service.

Do what my friend and copywriter Peter Stone calls the “so that” technique. Each time you state a benefit, add “so that” (or “which means”) at the end, and then complete the sentence to expand further.

Let's say your copy sells Ginko Biloba, a natural supplement that increases memory function. (I'm not a Ginko expert, so I'm guessing, here. Also, I'm being repetious for the sake of illustration.) Here's what you might get:

Ginko supports healthy brain and memory functions… so that you can be clear, sharp and focused… so that you can stay on top of everything and not miss a beat… so that you can be a lot more productive at work… so that you can advance in your career a lot faster… so that you can make more money, enjoy more freedom, and have more job security… so that (and so on).

That could have turned another way depending on the answer you give it, which is why it's good to repeat this exercise. Here's another example:

Ginko supports healthy brain and memory functions… so that you can decrease the risks of senility, Alzheimer's disease, and other degenerative diseases of the brain… so that you won't be placed in a nursing home… so that you won't place the burden of your care on your loved ones… so that you can grow old with peace of mind… so that you can enjoy a higher quality of life, especially during those later years… so that (and so on).

Remember, these are just examples pulled off the top of my head. But if you want more help with your own copy, my FAB formula is a useful guide.

Bottom line, check your copy to see if you're committing any of these seven deadly sins. If you are, your prospects won't forgive you. By not buying, that is.