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Targeted Copywriting for Inbound Marketing & Branding

How I Write Copy That Sells

In future days, copy will be written for algorithms. And other algorithms will write it.

But I don’t know anything about that. For many years, humans like me have been writing copy for other humans. Some of the readers were business people buying goods and services for their businesses. Others were consumers seeking products and services they needed or at least wanted.

Algorithmic writing will probably be about facts. Human writing is supported by facts but based on feelings. So that’s where copywriting has to start–with the feelings. 

There are books and articles that talk about this approach, but the discussion is usually abstract and general, requiring writers to figure out how to to apply it in a particular case.

So to remedy that, I’m going to discuss three practical copy solutions that show how I used this approach and why each was fantastically successful.

Two are from advertising copywriting, and one is from strategic public relations. There are many examples from my long career in copywriting, but these three example make the feelings approach most clear.

Even though there is so much evidence for the power of the feelings based approach to copywriting, much of the time the copywriter gets resistance from the clients.

They are proud of their cool product or service and want that to be the star of the ad. Understandable.

These products and services may be loaded with unique features that competitors lack. Sell the features.

Once again, very understandable. And once in a while, this features-based approach actually works. Think of the iPhone.

But most of the time, just talking about the product you’re selling doesn’t cut it. And with parity products and services, you don’t have a chance. Most of the time when we write ads, it’s not for the new iPhone.

People don’t care much about your cool or even unique features. They care about themselves–their needs, wants, and feelings. So stop talking about you and your products and talk about the things that interest your customers.

I. How to Get 10 Times the Response for a Health & Fitness Retreat

I was creating a new ad campaign for a health and fitness retreat in a small town outside Chicago. 

The Heartland Health & Fitness Retreat was open for only a few years and brought a breakthrough approach to the already tired category of health spas. It was upscale in look and offered services and amenities not available in the midwest.

We ran a small ad each week in the Chicago Tribune travel section. The ads were good; I wrote them myself.

They would generate about 25 responses each week, and most of them converted. The clients were pleased. The ads were features-based and exactly what the clients were looking for, even though I frequently advocated for emotional persuasion.

It’s hard to blame them. When you offer features your competitors don’t, it’s understandable to want to talk about them. But I thought we could do better. And you won’t be surprised that I would push once again for a feelings based approach.

So I designed an add that was all about the feelings of a potential visitor to The Heartland. I didn’t directly mention even a single feature about the place. 

Some of the clients were not pleased.

Where did the particular idea for the ad come from? When copywriters create ad campaigns, we usually generate ideas that for one reason or another can’t be used in the campaign we are currently working on.

But sometimes we know that the discarded idea is really good. And we itch to use it when we can, when the time and product are right. Sometimes it’s the following week. Sometimes it’s a few years later.

In this case, I saw an ad for a French fashion client in AdWeek. It was black-and-white at a time when most ads were in color. It showed a woman introspectively looking at the camera.

The idea I got was for a stream-of-consciousness radio spot with the voice of a woman. And this was at a time when there were few female voices on radio.

I created the idea for a client in a totally different industry, and it never got produced. Still it remained inside me, waiting for the right time to come out.

When I started working on the new look for The Heartland ads, this came back to me. Only instead of radio I created a print ad with the same mood.

I was super fussy with every word of the copy. I painstakingly chose the model and photographer. I art-directed the shoot down to the smallest detail. I agonized over the layout and typography.

When you’re creating a mood, when that’s the backbone of the ad, even a small wrong detail can sabotage all your efforts.

The ad came out. The phones started to ring.

Only instead of getting 25 calls a week from the inexpensive media buy, now it pulled 250. The response was 10 times greater than it had been. And each week the ad drew the same strong response. For the same small media buy.

The ad was a well planned and executed, but I attribute its success to talking about the feelings of the reader and not the many awesome features of The Heartland. 

It was about a vibrant, middle-aged person feeling the arrival of full maturity and deciding to resist. It was about starting to do something to reverse the slide. It was about fears and feelings most of us experience.

II. When Your Dealers Refuse to Sell Your New Product

The year was 1985 and a client, Thugbug, needed an ad to introduce a new automotive security system. The product was a major breakthrough in burglar alarms for cars, but sales for the new model were not as strong as expected.

This was not the only client I serviced in the automotive aftermarket industry. So with the many years of experience I had with automotive security, I was able to quickly diagnose the problem.

It wasn’t that people didn’t want to buy a remote controlled alarm, a rarity in 1985, it’s that dealers didn’t want to sell them.

Most alarm retailers/installers work in buildings that had been small gas stations. They usually have two installation bays. 

They couldn’t afford the long installation times that remote-control alarms were notorious for. Why tie up one of your install bays for hours to make a little more money, when you can install many more of the non-remote alarms during the same time period, like during a busy Saturday?

You probably already know what I’m going to suggest. I said copywriters frequently get push back on a feelings approach to consumers advertising. That goes double for business to business advertising. 

Many people wrongly believe that business people are only interested in facts.  That’s not true. Business people are people and motivations are usually the same in both B2C and B2B marketing.

I could talk about this cool new product and how dealers were wrong to fear installing this particular model. Instead I showed solidarity with their problem and acknowledged the long installs usually needed with remote alarms.

In the ad there was a comic photo showing a car with an alarm being installed. The car looked like it had been in the shop for weeks. The copy showed that this was the exact problem that the new model addressed.

The ad was about fixing a customer pain point, namely, long installation times that reduced profits. And that was enough to earn massive sales of a previously unwanted model.

If I remember correctly that far back, the client’s goal was to get one third of his dealers cross country to try one of the new models. This way they could see for themselves how fast it could be installed. And if they were unsatisfied, they could return it for a full refund.

The ad persuaded nearly all Thugbug’s dealers to try the new alarm. And it attracted an enormous response from other dealers, who had not been customers yet.

In addition to the major increase in market share for Thugbug as a result of a single ad in Installation News, our agency won awards for creative excellence and new clients.

III. Using Feelings in Public Relations

The effectiveness of emotional appeals is based on who we are and how we are motivated. As a result, there’s no reason to exclude them from any part of the persuasive mix.

In public relations writing, the campaign strategy can also rely on the feelings people have and not just the features of the product you are selling. And though these feelings usually address customer pain points, or fears of losing something, other feelings can also be tapped.

I once put together a PR campaign that cost very little but yielded outstanding results quickly and over time. The name of the campaign was “Former car thieves share secrets.”

It was a B2C campaign on behalf of a chain of auto burglar alarm stores. I got the idea from several stories in local media, run over a period of years, about how homeowners could protect their homes from burglary by following tips from former burglars.

Former burglars would share tips on how to immunize your home from burglary.  The appeals were effective, because everyone wants to eliminate loss and also because people are curious to know how insiders in a secret society live and work.

I thought that if this approach worked for home security, it should also work for my cleint with automotive security.

The client, who owned the retail chain, was my best friend. I knew that he contributed to a charity called the Safer Foundation in Chicago. This organization engaged in rehabilitating criminals once they got out of prison.

So I asked my friend to go to Safer and get the names of some former car thieves. Interview these men and pay them to tell you their methods.

Then you can protect your customers with counter measures. For example, one of the offenders said that the first thing he would do to steal a car was to cut the battery cable.  This disabled any alarm on the car and allowed him to do his work without detection.  

After finding this out, my client had his installers add a backup battery, maybe under the backseat to keep the alarm operational. He also employed other counter measures based on what he had discovered from the thieves.

The media we sent the press releases to were enthusiastic about running them.  Newspapers large and small carried the story.

The leading metro ran a half-page article. There were many requests from local radio and television stations to interview someone from the company. 

There was a major bump in alarm sales.

One thing I found personally satisfying happened one day several months later while I was visiting one of the stores in the chain.

When the salesman asked the customer how he heard about the company, the man opened his wallet.

He pulled out a page of very yellow, very crumbly newsprint with the former car thieves story on the page. Would that have happened if the story talked instead of some new model or a discounted price?

The power of emotional appeal in persuasive communication should never be underestimated.

Creativity – It’s not what you think!

Jay Chiat, one of the most creative men in advertising, used to say that creativity is more like ditch digging than nuclear physics.

Having studied theoretical physics in my youth, let me add that even nuclear physics is more like ditch digging than people think. And what do people think? That it’s a flash of inspiration that comes to those rare gifted individuals we call creative. Even they can’t control it. They just have to wait for it to happen.

Balderdash!  Creativity is the result of hard work and preparation. There’s a sensitivity that some people have developed that makes them more attuned to the right insights, but mostly it’s the result of hard work.

And lots of knowledge. Product knowledge, the result of intensive research. Knowledge of the target audience. Knowledge of sales and persuasion techniques. Knowledge of the competition.

You use this knowledge to craft the right appeal that gets people to act. Then you come up with the copy and art that close the deal and make the sale. That’s creative.

Strategy – Who needs it?

Sometimes people don’t seem to care where they’re going. Strategy is for those times when you do care where you’re going and what you want to achieve along the way.

Sometimes when you start talking about writing an ad or sales letter, the person you’re talking to, maybe even you yourself, will come up with an idea for a headline or visual. That’s non-strategic thinking.

Doing an ad without first considering the audience it’s directed to, the response you want that audience to take, and the best thing to say and show to get that response is guesswork at best. Your results would depend on blind luck.

But if you get the strategy right, even if the actual ad is not as good as it could be, your prospects for excellent outcomes are almost guaranteed. Every ad writer has seen good strategies work even when the ads themselves were lacking. We’ve also seen great ads fail because they were based on mistaken strategies.

Suppose you’re addressing the ad to the wrong audience.  How is it going to work? Suppose you craft a very clever ad using an appeal that no one cares about. Who will be moved to act?

Before we write a single word, we do our homework on the audience, our client’s objective, the product or service she’s selling, and the competition.  We write up a short strategy statement based on this research and judge our work against it. Then we do the marketing-based writing that brings in the results.

Substance in Copywriting – Where’s the Beef?

Some copywriters think all you need is puff and fluff. And some of their clients seem to like it that way. It’s easy to do. No research. No thought. Just sit down and write.

You’ve seen it many times. Copy that’s lean on facts but rich in puffery. We’re the best, the fastest, the biggest, the oldest, the leader in our field. We’re committed to excellence, etc. But sales aren’t made by reciting a litany of unsubstantiated claims. Only a total idiot would fall for this. And your customer isn’t an idiot. She’s your wife.

Why is your product better than the competition? Why is your customer service better the others, what are the specific reasons? Make a claim and then prove it factually, proving it emotionally would be even better. Good copywriters are nosy. They’re always sorting through the facts about the product and its users to find just the right hook to attract new customers.

When the case you make is lean and meaty, you’re on the way to making new customers.

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