What is copywriting?
Copy is all around us – following us at every turn – impacting the decisions we make, and as a result, affecting many aspects of our everyday lives.
And yet, outside of advertising agency circles, the term copywriting is still relatively unknown.
In short, it’s the words that get people to take action.
Usually, that action is parting with some money in order to solve a problem.
That’s it! That’s copywriting in a nutshell.
Where is copy used?
Wherever you’re reading this post right now, you could probably look up or look to your side and see copy within your periphery. If you’re at a café, you’ll see copy on the big posters advertising the latest latte flavors. Oh, you’re too cool for that kind of coffee shop? Well if those chalkboards are doing their job, they’re tempting you to try the newest single-origin roast-of-the-day.
If you’re in a parking lot, look up and see the delivery vans around you vinyl-wrapped in photos of sandwiches or cartoon plumbers – they’ve got a tagline, too.
If you’re at home, copy has followed you there too – it’s all over your mail – from catalogs, to those
“get 50% off your first order” homechef mailers.
But look further – it’s on the jar of almond butter in your pantry – what words or phrases convinced you to pick that jar and not the one next to it? That’s copy!
It’s on the back of the book jacket sitting on your desk. How do you think the publisher chose the exact phrases to use? Which testimonials to include, and how to present them?
If you’re at an office, it’s in that email your boss forwarded you about a webinar for a new software product.
And if you’re on your phone, copy’s just a few swipes away, waiting for you in display ads, search ads, and most websites themselves.
Copy can morph and appear in website copy, brochures, postcards, posters, social media promoted posts and ads, in-app ads display, billboards, tv commercials, YouTube ads, radio spots…. Remember copy is any and all words that are trying to get you to take action.
What’s the difference between copy and content?
Ah, we’re wading into some tricky waters here and some experts might disagree with me, but I’d say any text that’s designed to lead people closer to making a sale is copy.
Content would be anything that helps build your brand, beef up your website SEO, educate customers without leading toward a sale. I would therefore categorize most blogs as content. I consider this blog to be content.
Now, you can still optimize content for conversion, by introducing elements like a call to action within each post, giving your readers the option to learn more about your products or services.
I also think it’s important to note that having a well-rounded content strategy can be an amazing way to get more organic search traffic.
And when you get those clicks, it’s your job to use *copy* to direct them towards a sale.
Likewise, your corporate customer services phone number might lead to a menu that’s not designed to make new sales (in fact trying to sell outright could frustrate callers who already made a purchase and are obviously having a problem with it right now!), but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to build your brand by empathizing with your customers, using language that’s in line with your brand voice, and providing a great phone experience that matches your online customer experience.
What makes good copywriting work?
Copy works when it strikes a nerve with the right person at the right time.
No coffee ad will ever work on my husband. He hates the taste of coffee.
Coffee ads do sometimes work on me though! I just heard about Starbucks’ new cinnamon shortbread latte and I can’t wait to go try it. (Although I’m gonna ask for less syrup because at full sweetness their drinks are just.too.much.)
I regularly see commercials for new restaurant deals and immediately start plotting a date to go try it out.
But copy’s effects aren’t always so obvious.
Sometimes it takes a few times for someone to see a message and decide to act. In fact studies show it usually takes someone seeing your offering 7 times before they decide to purchase.
Finding the right audience at the right time is critical for getting your copy to work.
If you’re selling popsicles, it’s gonna be a lot easier on hot days.
Selling light fixtures is probably gonna be more effective if your audience is homeowners, not renters.
That’s why knowing your market is one of the key pieces you’ve got to have in place before hiring a copywriter.
How copywriting convinces people to invest in solutions.
Copywriting isn’t just writing (we’ll talk more about the differences later). It doesn’t draw on brilliant creative ideas, or beautiful language, or the art of forming a perfect sentence.
Instead, copywriters draw on psychology, the study of in-person sales, and the science of human interaction and persuasion.
Well-written copy enters the conversation you’re already having in your head (“It’s so hot this summer! I wish I had something cold to help me cool off!” “I deserve a treat – I’m gonna splurge on a latte today” “Our dining room is so outdated – I want to get rid of this ugly chandelier”).
We’re all having conversations like that in our head.
The best conversations go even deeper and address the underlying problems we want to solve. “I bet the Jones think we’re stupid and broke with our outdated house. Theirs is all re-done and beautiful” – Ouch! That’s an ugly thought. And maybe the homeowner isn’t even thinking it consciously. But if she suddenly reads copy that says “Tired of your outdated fixtures but can’t afford a complete remodel? Instantly transform your dining room with our new minimalist light fixtures” that message is going to strike a chord!
All of a sudden, she sees hope for a perfect solution to her feeling of unease and disappointment in her home.
In copywriting terminology, this is called message matching – we’re matching the message already in our readers’ minds, whether it’s the phrase they typed into a search engine, or the common thought patterns we’ve found through research.
A few more techniques copywriters use
To find that valuable info on what potential customers are thinking when they land on our pages, we’ve got to do a lot of market research.
One of the main forms of research good copywriters do is called “voice of customer” analysis. Customers are sharing valuable insights all the time in the reviews they leave businesses in the same industry, in comments in Facebook groups, and in reviews they leave on books on the topic on Amazon.
Copywriters dive into this treasure trove of intel and find the nuggets that matter to their clients. Whether it’s the complaints customers have about a competitor’s offering, or the questions they’re still left with after reading up on the subject, those pieces are gold to copywriters.
Once copywriters know where you’re at and what questions and problems you’re facing, it’s up to them to write copy that empathizes with your pain, and aggravates it even more. The point of aggravating it is to lead you to a point where you’re willing to look for, and truly value, a solution.
Then copywriters use a technique called “future pacing” to paint a picture of how amazing your life could be if you purchased their solution. Future pacing makes readers feel like they already have the solution… as if they are the kind of person who would, and did invest and is now living a new life – say, the life of someone with a gorgeous, up-to-the-minute dining room.
Why copywriting isn’t the same as other writing
This may be a revelation (it was to me!). Good writing relies on custom – on form, on following the rules of proper grammar and punctuation. And within those rules, outstanding writers use creativity and original untested ideas to create beauty.
Copywriting is not about any of those things.
Because it’s about entering into conversation with readers, it’s written in a conversational manner, using grammar to make the message clear, but ignoring the technical rules about things like starting sentences with conjunctions, or ending them with prepositions.
Copywriters rely on the elements listed above: psychology, sales principles, market research instead of relying on creativity to draft copy.
Now there is such a thing as creative copywriting – ad agencies invest in hiring highly creative writers to come up with new ad concepts all the time.
But conversion copywriters – the kind you hire for results, not just attempts – will use creativity only in partnership and under direction of research and tested techniques.
David Ogilvy, who himself ran an incredibly creative agency, said “Good copywriters have always resisted the temptation to entertain. Their achievement lies in the number of new products they get off to a flying start.” The proof of a good copywriter isn’t how much you enjoy reading their stuff! More on that in the next section. Because copywriting isn’t like other writing – it serves a specific purpose.
The ultimate test of effective copy
The only test of whether copy is truly effective is whether it converts.
Is your sales page converting into dollars? Is your homepage getting people to inquire with you? Are your product descriptions getting items into carts? Are your email subject lines getting your emails opened? Are your emails getting click-throughs?
If not, you’ve got to review:
whether you’ve got a good enough offer
whether you’re targeting the right audience
if your copy could be improved.
The right and wrong of copywriting
Copywriting, when done well, for good offerings, is a noble pursuit. But copywriting can go awry when it’s convincing people to buy junk food in excess, waste money on useless products, or sell people on services they can’t really afford.
When copywriting is done well, it’s a service to others. As Seth Godin says in This is Marketing, “Marketing is the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become …. Marketers offer solutions, opportunities for humans to solve their problems and move forward.”