The insight is so great that I couldn’t let you miss it. Nick Usborne, a great copywriter and a fellow ClickZ columnist, wrote in a recent article that he is “best as a copywriter only when [he] can clearly see and empathize with the end user.” The statement is a stroke of brilliance, for to persuade your copy must magically capture your readers and speak directly to the needs that they feel. Average writers make uninvolved bystanders of their readers. Good writers turn their readers into interested observers. Great writers involve readers as active participants.
For your readers to take action, they must first imagine themselves taking that action. This is why effective (Web, email, or ad) copy is so critical to the conversion process. Below are the Seven Copy Choices of Advanced Wordsmithing — essentially decisions you must make before you begin to write. Your conclusions will serve as guidelines that will help you “clearly see and empathize” as you communicate with the people you are trying to persuade.
Copy Choice No. 1: Intellect Versus Emotion
Intellectual copy presents new information in an attempt to lead readers to a new conclusion. Emotional copy tells readers what they already know to be true, subtly inserting a new perspective that influences them to feel differently about the information. Before you put pen to paper, you must consciously choose whether your writing is going to appeal at an intellectual or emotional level.
Copy Choice No. 2: Then Versus Now
The past tense speaks of what has already happened. The future tense speaks of what will happen. The present tense speaks of what is happening right now. The present tense has a presence that the others lack; because it places the reader directly in the action, it most effectively engages the brain. But there are times when you need to evoke the experience of the past or the promise of the future. Consider which perspective will give your copy its greatest impact.
Copy Choice No. 3: Me, Him, or You
First-person perspective is that of the speaker: I am standing. (Who cares!?) Third-person perspective is that of the outsider: He is standing. (The reader tends not to care.) Second-person perspective is that of the reader: You are standing in the snow, five and a half miles above sea level… Second-person perspective puts your reader right there in the action; you’re saying to your customers, “This is you, the person that you care most about.” When your goal is to persuade someone to take action, the “understood you” is extremely powerful. It’s the imperative call to action (“Click here”); it’s the avenue that will lead your customers to the richest, most satisfying mental imagery.
Copy Choice No. 4: Time Versus Money
Business owners like to think that their customers choose their products or services because of financial concerns: “It has always been and will always be about price.” But it’s only that way because we think about it that way, because advertising usually promotes products and services based on price. Yet these days, in the United States of America, the customer is more often interested in saving time. There are probably a few exceptions to that. If your product saves both time and money, you have to make a choice about which to use in your copy. A good bit of copy is like a rhinoceros: It makes one point and makes it very solidly. Make your point very well, and use one bit of copy for one point. You’ll make your copy less powerful if you cram too much stuff in there.
Copy Choice No. 5: Active Voice Versus Passive Voice
This is the only one that has a right answer: Always use the active voice. The active voice emphasizes the doer, the agent of the action: Joe brought me the newspaper. The passive voice emphasizes the action: The newspaper was brought to me by Joe. It’s a wordier, often pompous-sounding construction that weakens the effectiveness of your copy. Using the active voice, you will appear more direct, more truthful. The passive voice is shifty; when you listen to a little kid who’s lying, he’s usually lying in the passive voice.
Copy Choice No. 6: Style Versus Substance
Are you going to sell style, or are you going to sell substance? It’s an important choice. Here’s a rule of thumb: If your product is mainly about style, you can promote it with style; if your product or the decision to buy the product is mainly about substance, then you’d better promote it with substance.
Nissan’s commercials with G.I. Joe, Ken, BARBIE, and the Van Halen song may have been the most famous ad campaign in the last 10 years (at least in industry circles). Unfortunately, Nissan spent over $200 million on it, and sales actually went down. Very few people make the decision to invest $35,000 in a substance product such as a car based solely on style. Nissan learned the hard way; now its ads focus again on substance.
Copy Choice No. 7: Pain Versus Gain
Will your copy appeal to your readers’ fear of loss or their hope of gain? Experiments show that when people are offered a choice between a guaranteed $3,000 or an 80 percent chance at $4,000, almost everyone chooses the sure thing. Hope of gain is motivating when there are no attendant risks. Still, there is something far more compelling — the fear of loss. Speaking to pain and igniting the fear of loss, however, can be dangerous — it can conjure up unpleasant mental images. If you choose this path, use it wisely.
Only one in this group of seven copy choices should always result in the same decision. If you always wrote with the same combination of choices, that would bore Broca. Your goal is to develop strong, consistent copy that persuades, and you want to maximize the persuasive power of your copy in a way that’s appropriate to the actions you seek to motivate. Thinking through these choices before you begin will help. Invariably, poor copy results from finding yourself halfway down the path before you ever decided which way you really meant to go.
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