The Fastest Way to Master Copywriting

speed

What’s the fastest way to master copywriting… or anything, for that matter?

You could sign up for the courses online. You can read all the books. You can go to the seminars, drink protein shakes at the keyboard, or slaughter goats at the foot of a guru. And all are good, except maybe the goat bit. 

But there’s an even easier way.

Said Edmund Burke, “It is by imitation that we learn everything.” Of course, he was just copying Aristotle who had said it a couple thousand years earlier.  Classical Roman rhetoricians taught the technique as “imitatio.” And then there was Ben Franklin, who educated himself using an imitation technique he describes in his autobiography.

Who else? Before Stephen King wrote blockbusters, he wrote out passages of “Moby Dick” over and over in college.  Virgil did the same with passages of Homeric verse. Daniel Defoe holed up with a copy of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and copied it out a few times, long before launching into “Robinson Crusoe.” 

Painters, actors, and musicians — imitating the masters plays a key role in all their training.

I’ve even got a local example for you: My wife is a classically trained musician with a graduate degree in Baroque opera. At the conservatory, aside from actually singing the arias, she and fellow students had to sit down with fat scores of famous pieces and write them out — note for note — over and over again.

Once, she says, she and three friends once spent 72 hours hand-copying all 300 pages of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion. After finishing, they had to write their own fugues, but with Bach-esque flourishes sprinkled generously throughout. 

Here’s where the magic happens. The bridge between strict imitation and your own mastery is the spark that awakens, shapes, and educates that handy little tool we all call “creativity.”

Even in the natural world, you’ve got your irrefutable examples. Think about it. Not only do babies learn to speak by imitation. But also, beavers learn to build dams by imitation. Seals learn to swim by imitation.  Lions learn to hunt by imitation. Zebras learn to run by imitation.

So what’s stopping copywriters? Imitation, for some, has a stigma. It feels like cheating. Or a lack of confidence. Or maybe… illegal. And yes, if you’re talking about copying someone’s work and then passing it off as your own… that’s just not kosher. It’s even counter-productive to the growth of your own talents.

However, what we’re talking about here is different.

You’re copying — verbatim — the best stuff. But only to learn, in a way that you just can’t do by memorizing theory or learning from books and seminars, what’s working between the lines of the ads you’re studying. It’s an education of the subconscious. And you’ll be surprised by how well it works.

To try it yourself, do this:

First, get your hands on a blockbuster sales letter that’s similar to whatever you’re selling. Make sure it’s a good one and not a dud. Check the marketing reports, talk to the product managers, get on the mailing list.

When you’ve picked your piece, and before you do anything else, read it. Front to back, at least twice. Getting familiar with the words before you start copying will help you stay focused during the actual work of the exercise.

And here’s where the real benefit begins, in the last step.  You’re not going to do anything complicated.  You’re just going to copy out the sales letter page by page, word for word.  All of it.  If it’s too big to do in one sitting, then I recommend you spread out the task over a few days, a week, whatever you need.  But try to put in at least a half hour to 45 minutes each time you sit down.

And yes, I do believe you have to do this by hand on paper and not at the keyboard. Why? Studies show we learn differently when taking notes by hand. Where those studies are right now, I don’t know. But really, I promise, they’re out there. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that I can touch-type so automatically that I can daydream while reading the words. They seem to flow straight from eyes to fingers. 

Yet, when I write on paper, I have to stay fully focused on the task. I read a line, remember it, then turn to the page to right it out. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s much more effective. But what if you hunt-and-peck when you type? Well… maybe… but I strongly recommend the pen and paper approach. 

Think of the martial arts master. Slow movements and perfection. Not a rhinoceros plowing through the program. Yes, you’re knodding, you’ll try this. It sounds like a great idea. And I promise you, you’ll put it off… because frankly, it isn’t fun. And it makes your elbow hurt.

But I also promise you this: It’s worth it, in the end.

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Life: Once Complicated, Now Easy

 It’s often said that you can use certain sales messages over and over because, let’s face it, our target audience is a marching army. Over and over, they revisit the same points in life… they discover the same needs and wants… we show them how to satisfy themselves… and the cycle just repeats.

 It may be only half true. 

For instance, while a lot about selling never changes — there are shades of expectations that can evolve quite a bit. Take today’s “lifestyle” cutbacks, thanks to the economy. What feels like ‘cutting back’ to today’s crowd is practically a step up in standards when you roll back nearly 30 years ago. On a more subtle level, that’s even true when you roll back just 10 years… or five years… or to a couple years ago.

 The modern consumer expects more. In some ways, they also expect to work less hard to get it. This just goes to show you that the promises you’ll make in your pitches can’t remain static. They have to keep getting bigger. Or at least, sounding bigger.

 Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I can’t tell you. After all, innovations happen when everyone from big companies to mom-and-pop outfits are pushed to compete and over-deliver.

 On the other hand, it can only go so far. There’s only so much luxury and accommodation we can sell before the expense of it breaks the system… or drains the consumer’s bank account and available lines of credit.

 So what happens when no marketers can afford to offer more… and no customers can afford to pay for it?

 Awhile back, the two mentors I mention most in these issues suggested a whole new consumer trend coming down the pipeline. After the wake-up call. After the bust. After the recovery.

 The Boomers, they predicted, would sideline their ambition for a life of luxury and convenience… and start yearning for something a little beyond the material. When they said that, I sniffed the wine. I figured they’d just gone a little loopy. But now I’m wondering… could they be right?

 Gene Schwartz once wrote, in his landmark book “Breakthrough Advertising,” that people’s superficial desires weren’t all that tough to spot.

 But only the best marketers knew that all people share an even deeper, second “secret” desire.

 It’s the desire not just for products, services or pitches we “like”… but a deeper desire for products and services that helps us flesh out our own ideas of who we are. Not to mention, who we could be. And maybe most important (to us) of all, who OTHER people think we are.

 I’ve long said — and I’m not the first — that the deepest desire most prospects (aka people) share is the desire to be loved and respected. Or at least, respected.

In good times, when it feels like everyone is getting richer and living larger than the next guy, respect comes from living like a king. Piling up stuff. Earning luxuries. Getting pampered.

 In tougher times, character starts to matter as much… or more. Austerity becomes honorable. Excess, an embarrassment. Security, prudence, sensibleness — those become the hot sellers.

 We start rolling back to the fundamentals. Looking for answers. Or at least, looking for people who seem like they have the answers… and the substance to back them up. Credibility, always important, becomes even more so.

 Could it be that this is where the Boomers — the biggest market in the history of capitalism and the driving force of most of over six decades of economic growth — are headed next?

 Maybe.

 Look, for instance, how many things have trended back toward fundamentals. Walk more, use glass not plastic, cook at home, eat natural, cut up your credit carts.

 It might well be out of necessity. Yet even necessity has a way of wooing her bedfellows. By simplifying, we may very well find ourselves in a position to also rediscover the things that matter.

 Is that why hype is dead? Is it why “relationship marketing” is the most powerful force, online? Is it why so many marketers love to talk about “brand,” not realizing that brands don’t matter until a consistent relationship of quality has been established?

 Your guess is as good as mine.

 But personally, I’m guessing yes. 

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Are YOU Creative?

checklist.png In the last post, we asked why some people are creative and others aren’t. This time around, let’s put it even more plain: Are YOU creative?

Even though I.Q. tests supposedly measure your brain power, there is still no “Creativity Quotient” (C.Q.) test that measures how creative you are.

But the same Scientific American research found that creative people often have similar character traits. See if any of these apply to you…

Ideational Fluency – Someone gives you a word. The more sentences, ideas, and associations you can match to that word, the more likely it is you’re a “creative type.”

Variety and Flexibility – Someone gives you an object, say a garden hose. How many different things can you do with it? The more you can think of, the better.

Original Problem Solving – Someone presents you with a puzzle or a problem. Beyond the conventional solution, how many other workable but uncommon solutions can you come up with?

Elaboration – How far can you carry an idea? That is, once you have it, can you build on it until you can actually carry it out in application?

Problem Sensitivity – When someone presents you with a problem, how many challenges related to that problem can you identify? More importantly, can you zero in on the core or most important challenge?

Redefinition – Take a look at the same problem. Can you find a way to look at it in a completely different light?

How did you measure up?

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Finding the Elephant…

"I just carved away the bits that weren't elephant..."

“I just carved away the bits that weren’t elephant…”

What’s it mean to be “creative?”

Says the great John Cleese, that’s an almost impossible question to answer. Easier is to ask yourself, “What doesn’t it mean?”

Or as he puts it in the brilliant talk below, think of the sculptor who was asked how he made a beautiful statue of an elephant from a piece of marble.

“I just,” he answered, “cut away the bits that weren’t elephant.”

Watch below and be both enlightened and amazed…

John Cleese Reveals How to Be More Creative

P.S. Thanks for this, via our friends over at copyscience.com.

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How to “Stalk” a Client

Before you get the wrong idea, Cupcake, from looking at today’s “stalking” title… no, we are NOT about to review the best places to hide in people’s bushes or which telephoto lens get you in close for those elusive sunbathing shots.

Rather, let’s dive into a hot-off-the-presses piece sent over by our pal Chris Marlow, the famous career coach to copywriters the world over.  I’ll let Chris take it from here…

 

When stalking pays off

by Chris Marlow, the Copy Coach

 

Have you ever met your perfect match… in a client?

But they barely know you’re alive?

You’ve studied your market like your should.

You know what your ideal client looks like. And this potential client meets every criteria… and then some.

You love their product… maybe you even use it. Perhaps their office is right next door!

But their copy is crap. You could do so much better. You could make money for them!

The company grosses well over $5 million a year and they have a marketing director.

They don’t have a copywriter on staff nor do they have an agency they work with. 

No one’s mentioned an entrenched freelancer. The door should be wide open!

But your calls aren’t getting through and your letters haven’t produced. 

What in the world is wrong with them?

It’s time to go into stalker mode

Now before you call the marketing cops, what I mean by “stalker mode” is that you simply adopt a “don’t give up” strategy. (Some others may call this stalking.)

Because if you truly believe that you can do wonders for that client — if they’d just give you the chance — then you owe it to them to be persistent. 

Remember: if you don’t do the grunt work of finding them, then they have to do the grunt work of finding you. 

By contacting them, you’re doing them a favor! This is always the mindset you should have because it is true.

Believe me… your marketing directors and business owners would agree with the statement: by contacting them with a perfect match, you’re doing them a favor.

So the logic goes:

** Don’t give up quickly on a perfect match

** Don’t be an annoying pest and badger them weekly… every three weeks to monthly works best

** Have something new to say or offer each time you come back

** Know when to fold ‘em (my own personal threshold is not more than 7 months of contacts — after that I delete their database entry with great relish because the fools  — they so missed out!)

Combine stalking with flattery

Flattery combines really well with stalking. 

In fact, in marketing circles it’s acknowledged that “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

And for whatever reason, flattery works really well with those who hire copywriters. They are human, after all.

In my “get clients” coaching with copywriters, we’ve found many ways to effectively flatter the prospect.

One of my favorites is to say something to the effect of, “I’m looking for one very special client to round out my roster of clients. I’ve studied 250 websites over several months looking for just the right match. I’m writing you because I believe I’ve found it in your company.”

Now first of all, there is no lying. My students do look at between 250 and 500 websites to compile their customized target list.

But do you see how flattering it is to let your prospect know how hard you worked to find her? And by saying you’re looking for one very special addition to your client list, you don’t come off looking like you’re flat broke with no work.

Rather, you look like you’re busy but smart enough to take the time to do your marketing.

The flattery is such that potential clients want to know more. “Really?”, they say. “How is that?”

The right kind of flattery can open a conversation that starts off on the right foot, because this type of flattery carries with it a strong dose of curiosity. They want to know more. “What was it about our company that…?” You’ll notice a tone of pride in their voice… which lets you know that, as a copywriter, you’ve hit a hot button.

There are other ways to flatter a prospective client, but this approach has been a winner for me most of my copywriting career and I’ve shared it with many students as I copy chief their letters. 

It’s such an effective approach that it’s now standard in all of my prospecting letters, in one form or another.

There’s a famous direct mail letter written for Newsweek that used the same principle of flattery to sell millions of subscriptions:

“If the list upon which I found your name is any indication, this is not the first — nor will it be the last — subscription letter you receive. Quite frankly, your education and income set you apart from the general population and make you a highly-rated prospect….”

Yes… flattery will get you everywhere if used correctly and direct response history shows that to be true. 

So the next time you market your services, think about adding a bit of curiosity-building flattery and for ideal clients, a bit of stalking. You’re likely to close a few more deals.

Thanks Chris!

Great advice, as always. And an interesting take on a thorny problem, especially for new writers.

By the way, if you want more of Chris’ wisdom — and why wouldn’t you — you out to check out the free webinar she’s giving next week, on June 4.

It’s a full hour of her revealing exactly how lots of top freelancers fill their calendars with new work. Oh, and there’s a Saturday, June 7 option if you can’t swing Wednesday. Plus, it’s free.

Take a look here for details: http://chrismarlow.com/free-training

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What You Don’t Need to Get Ahead

mbaHere’s something interesting from AdAge.com: MBAs can be bad for your health. Your career health, that is.

 Yep. Turns out that a survey of marketing execs from 32 different consumer-product companies showed a distinct disadvantage for companies that carried a Masters of Business Administration grad at or close to the helm.

 And we’re not talking tiny companies here, either. General Mills, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Pfizer, Clorox Co, Cadbury, Energizer, Kodak, Dunkin Donuts… they all made the survey list.

 On the list, there were 18 underperforming companies (sales growth lower than 7% annually) that were twice as likely to recruit their marketing execs from fancy M.B.A. programs.

 Of the outperforming companies, far fewer M.B.A.s held top positions (about half as many)… even though sales at those same companies grew 6.2% faster than sales of the underperforming competitors.

 What’s more, job satisfaction at the no-or-limited M.B.A. companies was higher, office politics tended to crop up less often, and in-house training was both more prevalent and successful.

 Did all grad degrees in the study fail the test? Nope. Just M.B.A.s. Interesting. Boy, am I glad I spent my time in grad school studying philosophy and classical lit instead, eh?

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What Marketers Do When Recession Looms

What marketers can do in tricky times.I’ve written before about what marketers and business owners can do in rough markets. Looking at what’s going on right now, maybe I should trot out that piece and run it again. Meanwhile, I came across someone else’s ideas on the same.

I liked it so much, I just want to share a little of it here.

Here are some of the highlights, from writer and marketer Ed Adkins…

 

  • Don’t cut your marketing budget. Shuffle spending instead and pick up the slack created by panicked competitors.
  •  Be ready to justify each expense in your budget. Companies and clients are looking to cut back. But once budget elements get lost, you might not get them back again.
  • Keep on networking. This is the time to keep business relationships strong. The same goes for shoring up relationships with your most loyal customers. Reach out to them and acknowledge the rough time they’re having.
  •  If you’ve got the resources, use this time to snap up new advantages that your weakened competitors will neglect.
  • Use this time to speed up your workflow and become more efficient. This pays double dividends when things start to speed up again.
  • Change your marketing message to reflect the times. For instance, you might focus more on family, friends, and stay-at-home activities.
  • Don’t permanently slash prices. Instead, create special sales events and bulk discount deals. This lets you go back to business as usual during a rebound.
  • Re-visit what counts to your business. During fast growth, it’s easy to lose sight of the roadmap that got you started. During slow times, it’s vital to revive your core ideals.

 

Great ideas, all of them.

Yes, tricky times are here. No, they won’t last forever. But you and your business can, with just a little bit of foresight to see you through the storm.

 If you like the teasers above, check out this site, where you’ll find lots of ideas on recession-based marketing and business strategy.

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Copywriting Jargon… Once Difficult, Now Easy!

It’s come to my attention that you, dear reader, might be sorely lacking in proper copywriting “vocabulary.”

Possibly because you don’t read this blog enough. Possibly because I don’t use the terms enough. Or possibly because, well, who wants to sit around talking terminology all the time? Nonetheless, I thought I’d do you a favor and lay down details on the handiest of terms. As follows…

Bluelines – Either (a) the term for the first-run package “proofs” you get from your printing company or (b) the drug they must do in the design department to make them think it’s ever okay to put screened graphics behind printed text.

BRE – (a) A business reply envelope, provided to customers to make it easier to mail back the order form or (b) a funky French cheese that goes well with baguettes, but makes your fridge smell like sneakers.

Break-even – Either (a) the level of orders it takes to recover the cost of your advertising or (b) Hey, no joking about the showing a profit here, Buster!  This is serious!

Bottom line, the – (a) The money and how much you’re making or losing; also, (b) the second or third most common patient issue discussed in the offices of  Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, as in “Doctor, I’m worried about how my bottom line looks when I where jeans.”

Customer Retention – (a) How long you keep a customer after the initial sale; or, loosely defined (b) how long your customer will stay in the bathroom to finish reading your latest promo package.

Deadline – (a) The un-missable, absolute moment when copy must be turned in or (b) I don’t know… I’ve never really seen one, though I’m almost certain they make a whistling sound as they pass.

Full Bleed – (a) When the colors or pictures on a printed page run to the edge.  Expensive.  (b) What your forehead does when you can’t think of a thing to write.

Fulfillment – (a) Everything involved in making good on your promises, especially the sending of promised premiums and the product itself or (b) the thing you hoped for back when you thought you’d actually grow up to be a poet.  And now look at you!

Indicia – (a) Postal information printed on every piece that goes out (b) a small country somewhere in the Pacific where old copywriters go to die… or retire.

Johnson Box – (a) a paragraph or so of copy that appears above the body of the main promo letter (b) where copywriter Gabby Johnson was resigned to living after his control got knocked out of the mail.

Lettershop – (a) the company that assembles, labels, sorts, and mails your stacks of promo letters (b) the people you blame when your “brilliant” mailing flops miserably.

List Broker – (a) specialist service that puts together your mailing lists, from selecting and sorting to deal-making to delivery (b) the people you blame for flopped mailings when the folks at the lettershop stop taking your calls.

Merge-Purge – (a) computerized comparison of mailing lists to sift out duplicate names and “dead” addresses or (b) what new employees do at your Christmas party – come together, get drunk, knock over punch bowl, apologize to toilet the next morning.

Personalization – (a) technique for dropping the customer name into the text or the headline of a package to make the pitch look more personal  or (b) the process by which copywriters take every critique of their “art.”

Response Device – (a) the card or coupon given to the customer so he can mark down his order, payment, and delivery information; gets mailed back to the seller (b) cattle prods, whips, knitting needles and other things used to speed up a sale.

Self-mailer – (a) A promo package that requires no envelope (b) as derived from the phrase, “What?  Does he think the d*mn thing is going to mail itself.”  Typically applied to marketing managers.

 That’s it for now.

Please memorize.  There will be a quiz!

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The Things Copywriters Wish Designers Knew

With online direct response giving good ol’ fashioned print direct mail a run for its money, you’ve got double the dealings with designers when it comes to getting  your copy seen by the general public. So what is it you’ll want any designer you work with to know?

First, the general rule is that good design can’t make bad copy work, but bad design can destroy the performance of good copy. So it matters. Just know how it matters. But what else can you do to make sure you get a “good” design for any sales pieces you write? To start, you’ll at least want your designer to know the following… 

  • Fancy design isn’t always good design. Your first aim is readability. Your second is to make sure the copy isn’t obscured by the design. Good design makes the copy feel easy to read. 
  • If you throw a designed piece of copy onto a table with other pieces of finished direct mail designs… and it disappears into the pile… you’ve got a problem. 
  • No screened images behind text. No screened images behind text. Did I mention? Please avoid screened images behind text.
  •  When in doubt, cut graphics before cutting copy. Really. By the time the designer gets a piece, the copy should be airtight. Or close to it. Graphics are less important than the written message. That’s just the way it goes.
  • Designers need to understand the motivations of the target market just as much as the marketers and copywriters. There’s no way to be a good designer when you’re working in a vacuum. 

One last thing, but very important: Always, always, always ask that your designer reads the copy. I’m blown away by how many don’t. And it shows. Boy does it show.

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How Woody Allen Would Write Copy

An interviewer asked Woody Allen how to write a joke.  Here’s what Allen said: “It depends on where I want it to take me.  First, I figure out where I want to end up.  Then I start asking questions so I can work backward to a beginning.”

Writing the end first is something a lot of novelists also do. Same for screenwriters.

So maybe it won’t come as a surprise to you that a lot of successful direct response copywriters to this too. For instance, I once asked great copywriter Bill Christensen how he gets started. “I write the offer card before anything else,” he said. “And then the sales close. Then I’ve got something to aim for in the rest of the letter.”

I was just getting started when he told me that. And I’ve done the same ever since.

Try it yourself. Especially if you ever feel unfocused or unsure of how to begin. Start writing by drafting a reply card and a sales close… and see if it doesn’t clarify your whole game plan.

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