The Biggest Secret To Successful Copywriting There Is

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Tue, 2007-04-03 12:17.
Posted in:

Business and Business Management Advice

In the 33-plus years since I created my first little piece of direct response sales copy, I've written considerably more than a thousand direct response ads, television spots and mail pieces.

Because nearly all of them were direct response promotions, each produced an easily measurable and almost immediate result. And over the years, as I studied those results, my approach to strategizing and creating sales promotions began to evolve.

Today, my work process is very different than it was in those early years. My first thought is no longer about the product benefits or even the product's USP. Nor do I begin each project by thinking about all the rational "reasons why" my prospect should buy.

Please don't get me wrong: It's not that I've discarded any of these techniques. They still have prominent places in every promotion I create. But something else has risen to the top of my "to-do" list when creating a promotion — and that change has produced the closest thing to sales miracles I have ever witnessed.

Dinosaurs still roamed the earth when I started my writing career. Back in the early 1970s, there were no computerized mailing lists, no toll-free order hotlines, no affordable fax machines, no FedEx or other overnight delivery services — and no personal mentors or coaches for aspiring copywriters.

Thankfully, I had The Giants to instruct me. I read, re-read and re-re-read the wonderful guides left for me by those who had come before — particularly, Claude Hopkins' Scientific Advertising, Rosser Reeves' Reality in Advertising and John Caples' Tested Advertising Methods.

Thanks to these Giants, I "knew" every ad was supposed to begin by identifying the benefits my product offered to prospects — the ways in which it made their lives easier, richer, and more rewarding.

I knew I should use the most powerful of these benefits to craft a compelling Unique Selling Proposition ... establish it right up front ... and turn it into a mantra throughout my copy.

And I understood the importance of fully developing every "Reason Why" my prospects should buy.

But there was a problem: My only assignments were from fund-raising organizations — groups that had no product to sell and offered little if any direct benefit to the donor!

Giving them money wouldn't relieve your rheumatism, banish bad breath, give you whiter teeth or make you attractive to the opposite sex. Nor would it help you avoid a disaster in the health or wealth departments, or even save you time in the laundry room.

In fact the only tangible, personal result of forking over a ten-buck contribution was that you'd wind up $10 poorer!

Sure — there were vague benefits in the selfless act of giving away money to a worthy cause — like feeling good about the good you were doing. But even at that early age, I suspected that writing an appeal letter or TV spot saying, "Give me money — it'll make you feel good" — wouldn't exactly set the world on fire.

Here again, fate stepped in for me ...

What could possibly be BETTER
than leading with a tangible benefit?

From the age of 16, I had held down a part-time job in a printing plant as a folding machine operator. But this wasn't just any printing plant: Its forte' was printing and mailing appeal letters for a national fund-raising organization.

And since I worked alone on the night shift, I had plenty of time to read every one of those 8-page appeal letters.

They amazed me. At the time, I had no way of knowing the letters were being written by Richard Viguerie, Steve Winchell and Jerry Huntsinger — the "Powers, Kennedy and Reeves" of the direct mail fundraising industry. But I did know that they worked: They convinced people to donate tens of millions of dollars each year to my employer.

Poring over those appeal letters while my folding machine thunked away all night long was a real eye-opener. Whether by instinct or trial and error, these geniuses had figured out that to get a donor to write a check for a good cause, they needed to go beyond the intellect — beyond rational, "reason-why" copy and beyond a snappy USP.

In short, they needed to stimulate powerful emotions about the subject at hand — emotions that their prospects already had gurgling around inside them.

And to do that, they had to begin at a different place: Not with the product, as my reading of the Giants' books had led me to do, but with a clear understanding of the prospect's state of mind and how he already felt about the subject at hand!

Armed with this understanding, Viguerie, Winchell and Huntsinger began every appeal ("sales") letter with a headline and opening that instantly activated their prospect's emotions and made it impossible for him to look away: A shot to the gut ... a kick to the groin or a right hook to the Adam's apple.

And once the copywriters had the prospect's resident emotions working for them, all they had to do was to keep those emotions on their side until the prospect had become as passionate about the cause as the writer was — and the check had been written and mailed.

And as I studied their letters, I realized something else: Viguerie, Winchell and Huntsinger were not stupid men. They were brilliant. They could have chosen the "easy" way — to get rich selling widgets that gave them dozens of tangible benefits to offer their prospects.

But these geniuses had intentionally chosen to specialize in the fund-raising field instead! Why?

Could it be that they knew something I didn't?

Could it be that they understood that the "curse" of having no benefits to sell, no "reason-why" copy to create and no USP to shout from the rooftops ... could really be a blessing in disguise?

Could it be that they believed starting with the prospect instead of the product — setting out to first identify and then activate the strongest emotions the prospect already has — might be a better way to go?

And if so, I asked myself, "What if you could do both at the same time?"

Instead of beginning with the product and merely trusting the prospect to respond positively to its benefits ...

What if I began by thinking about the prospect and how he must feel about the subject at hand — and then carefully crafted every part of my sales message to get those resident emotions working for me?

What if I began by selecting themes that connected most powerfully with those emotions? What if I added a kind of "emotional overlay" to every headline, every opening, every credibility device, every product benefit, every offer and every call to action?

Wouldn't the response be substantially better?

"Hmmmm ...!"

These angels on my shoulders
put millions in my pocket

A decade after I left that printing plant, the 30-something version of myself sat down at a typewriter in a musty basement bedroom in Minneapolis ...

My mission: To write a promotion that would sell rare Morgan silver dollars to subscribers of The Money Advocate investment newsletter.

The Money Advocate was published by a coin company; Security Coin & Bullion. And until I came along, they were doing just fine, using rational, left-brain, reason-why, benefit-oriented copy and a pretty good USP to sell about $360,000-worth of rare coins per month.

So there I sat, staring at a blank page, wondering how to begin. As was their custom by this time, the ghosts of Kennedy, Hopkins and the rest of the classic advertising choir were perched on my left shoulder — as close as they could get to the left side of my brain — chanting, "benefit ... Benefit ... BENEFIT!"

They wanted me to begin logically — by headlining and then focusing on the benefits of investing in rare coins.

Meanwhile, on my right shoulder, Viguerie, Winchell and Huntsinger were doing their dead-level best to out shout them, telling the right side of the brain to begin with the feelings my prospect most likely felt relative to my product: Lead with "emotion ... Emotion ... EMOTION!" they chanted.

So I sat there, turning that old Morgan Silver dollar over and over in my hand. What is it, really," I asked. Where did it come from? Where has it been? What does it symbolize?

Suddenly, I was reminded of the movie Somewhere In Time — in which Christopher Reeves was magically transported through time after seeing the date on a coin. I thought ...

"This isn't a coin, it's a TIME MACHINE!"

"If these coins could talk ..." I wrote, "what wonderful stories would they tell?"

"They would speak of a time gone by. Of the hardy prospectors who mined their silver. Of smoky saloons, honky-tonk pianos, raucous poker games and painted ladies.

"They would speak of freedom. Independence. Honor. The code of the West.

"The Morgan silver dollar was there with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the gunfight in the O.K. Corral. And it was on the poker table when Wild Bill Hickock drew his "dead man's hand" and succumbed to an assassin's bullet.

"They only look like beautiful and potentially profitable 'rare coin' investments. And while they are, they are also more: Each is touchstone with our colorful, uniquely all-American history that you can hold in the palm of your hand."

Then, just to keep my left-shouldered, left-brained "benefit" angels quiet (and to give my prospects' spouses a plausible reason why their significant others had succumbed), I included plenty of "reasons why" buying those coins was the smartest thing they could do. After all — they were great investments!

That copy, a two-page flyer, mailed on January 1. Thirty days later, it had brought in $3.6 million in sales — TEN TIMES MORE than my client's purely rational, logic-based, greed-driven approach had ever generated in a single month.

And that was just the beginning. Within one year, my new approach had my client selling $16 million-worth of rare coins each month, making him the single largest rare coin dealer in America — by far.

Flash forward ten more years ...

The 40-something version of myself sat down at his computer on the top floor of my four-story beach house on the Gulf of Mexico ...

I had just completed my second promotion for Health & Healing. The first had been gangbusters, generating eight times the response of any health package Phillips had ever mailed.

Now, it was time to write my headline (yes, I do it backwards) — a way to "grab prospects by the eyeballs" and compel them to open and read my sales copy.

Just to humor the benefit boys, I tapped out the word, "CURES." After all — that was what my copy was packed with and promised more of.

My left-brain angels — Kennedy et. al. — beamed triumphantly.

But what kind of cures were these? Which strong emotion do these kinds of drug-free, surgery-free remedies trigger in my prospects?

"Well," I thought, "The medical industry doesn't want us to know about these alternatives, and even tries to silence people who recommend them.

"So they're ... let's see ... 'prohibited?' No ... 'banned?' No ... 'censored?' Not quite ... 'forbidden?' No ... wait a minute ...

YES! That's it! That's my headline! FORBIDDEN CURES!"

I loved the word "forbidden." It felt like a mischievous child trying something "naughty" for the first time. It also made me feel resentment towards the self-appointed, supposedly superior, paternalistic establishment that believes it's a better judge of what's right for me than I do. It made me feel bound and determined to not just break, but shatter their stupid prohibitions!

And of course, the angels on my right shoulder — the "emotion" boys — loved it, too.

When it mailed, the package beat my control so handily that Phillips' mail quantities reached six million pieces in each 60-day mail cycle. The royalties were so good, I took the rest of the year off and played on the beach.

From genius to dunce
in the wink of an eye

Adding the right shoulder/right brain/ emotionally driven copy techniques practiced by the great fund-raising copy writers ...

... to the more left shoulder/left brain benefit/reason-why/USP approach to copy espoused by the world's greatest advertising copywriters ...

... was quite simply, the single greatest breakthrough of my career.

It was making me richer and more in-demand as a copywriter. And, being young and cocky, I was absolutely convinced that, like Kennedy, Hopkins, Reeves and the rest, I had something new ... something better than anyone had ever thought of before.

But I traded my newfound "genius" status for a dunce hat the minute I began re-examining — and really studied — the ads that Kennedy, Lasker, Hopkins and the other Giants had created during their lifetimes.

These guys may not have said much in their books about the importance of connecting with prospects' resident emotions — but they sure did it an awful lot!

In fact, whether by intent, instinct, or as the natural byproduct of their obsession with selling benefits, they did it all the time!

And as I read their words with new eyes, I even found this, from ad legend David Ogilvy:

"Researchers have not yet found a way to quantify the effectiveness of emotion, but I have come to believe that commercials with a large content of nostalgia, charm, and even sentimentality can be enormously effective."

I felt like a drooling moron. It had been right there in front of me all along — but I had been too obsessed with the nuts and bolts of meticulously identifying product benefits, writing "reason-why" copy and shouting my USP to even notice!

Had I simply emulated what the Giants did — instead of just studying what they said — I would have been miles ahead of the game!

Not only hadn't I invented the technique of identifying and then mobilizing my prospects' emotions to create greater attention, readership and response ...

... it had taken me years to figure out what the Giants had been trying to tell me all along!

Maybe I would have caught on sooner, if, early on, someone had shaken me by the shoulders, slapped me a couple of times and said ...

"People act on their emotions far more often than they do on their intellect alone.

"People buy for emotional reasons far more often than for merely rational ones.

"If you want people to act on your copy and buy your product, first determine how your prospect is likely feeling right now.

"Then, use your benefits as bridges to activate the emotions that will compel him to buy!"

Couldn't have said it better myself!

That's when my work process changed forever.

Put Dominant Emotion Marketing to Work for You NOW!

Instead of beginning like I once had and as many copywriters still do — by identifying product benefits — wouldn't it make more sense to put the prospect and his most compelling emotions FIRST?

Wouldn't it be better, for example, to ...

1. Begin by figuring out what the prospect's resident emotions are regarding the things the product addresses ...

2. Figure out which of those resident emotions are the strongest, most compelling, most "dominant" in his or her life ...

3. Identify the benefits my product offers that will most effectively enhance his strongest positive emotions and/or resolve his negative ones ...

4. Address those benefits in ways that keep the prospect's most dominant emotions working with me — and never against me ...

5. And as you review and edit your sales copy, wouldn't it make sense to keep making this kind of emotional connection at every opportunity?

Hope this helps!

Clayton Makepeace,

How to Write Great Copy: Learn the Unwritten Rules of Copywriting

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