5 Things a Bad Dog Can Teach You About Writing Good Copy

image of a bad dog

I refer to my dog Tika as my “learning experience” dog.

In her youth, she made Marley of Marley and Me fame look like a paragon of obedient canine virtue.

Tika had a troubled past and by the time I adopted her, she had pretty much every behavior problem in the dog training books. My husband couldn’t actually touch her for the first six months we owned her.

Want to test the health of your marriage? Get a bad dog.

Tika flamboyantly flunked two obedience classes and after consulting with vets and behaviorists, I embarked on a massive behavior modification campaign.

The good news is that it worked, and she has evolved into a wonderful dog.

The bad news is that you can’t let up on the basics. Tika is 14 years old and if we slack off even a little, her bad behavior returns.

Copywriting is the same way. You can’t slack off. If your last sales letter, or email campaign, or landing page fell flat, maybe you’ve forgotten some of the basics.

1. Get their attention

Tika flunked out of obedience classes because she couldn’t focus on anything for more than a nano-second.

After clinical testing, we learned she has doggie ADHD (called hyperkinesis in canines).

Getting the attention of a dog with a brain chemistry problem is challenging. Treats didn’t work, since Tika never actually looked at anything. Praise and happy voices sent her spaz-o-meter through the roof.

Most people reading your copy are at least as distracted as a dog with ADHD.

They need a reason to pay attention, since they’re bombarded with messages thousands of times a day. Why should they read yours?

You’ve read it before, but I’ll say it again: your headline needs to stop people in their tracks either by arousing curiosity or by saying something so mesmerizing that people feel compelled to read on.

If your headline doesn’t get the reader’s attention, it’s all over.

2. Make a promise

Teaching Tika the “sit” command was crucial, since stillness helps her focus.

After I got that far, I had to give her a reason to keep sitting, otherwise, she’d leap back up. The key is using a “release word.”

At our house, dogs have to sit until I say “okay.” Something good happens after I say the magic word.

Tika might get to eat, she might get verbal praise, or she might get some petting. Whatever it is, she knows it’s going to be good.

In much the same way, after your headline has captured the reader’s attention, you need to lead off with a strong promise that causes your reader to visualize what it’s going to be like to experience all the joys your product or service will bring.

In fact, your content itself has to be a reward for the reader — something delicious that will make her pay even closer attention next time.

Copy that works often reinforces beliefs your readers already have and describes some type of transformation they want. The reader may not know exactly how everything will work yet, but she knows it’s going to be something great.

3. Lead them where you want them to go

Tika was about 5 months old when I adopted her. In other words she was a canine teenager.

The adolescent period in dogs can be as unpleasant as it is in humans. Part of Tika’s behavior issues revolved around the fact that no one had set boundaries or told her what she should do.

In the absence of leadership, doggie mayhem ensues. A 5-month old dog left to her own devices is not a good thing.

By having Tika “sit” before she could do anything, I started to establish myself as a benevolent leader.

Your copy also needs to lead your readers down the path you would like them to follow.

If you meander or waver in the path, readers will just stop reading and go away. Each sentence must naturally flow into the next toward the conclusion you want the reader to make.

Your copy should provide compelling proof that you are an authority who can be trusted and that what you are offering will do what you say.

4. Have a call to action

Although teaching Tika “sit” was a good start, it wasn’t enough.

We needed a lot more commands to keep our sanity, particularly in the early years with Tika the Nutbird. So we added commands like “down,” and “go to your bed” to her repertoire.

We even taught her subtle differences like “go lie down” (which means, you can go find a place and lie down) versus “down” (which means lie down right here, right now). Any time Tika seems to need something to do, I give her something to do.

To be successful, copy needs to spell out the response you want.

You need to give the reader something to do, whether it’s sign up for a newsletter or buy a product.

If your copy doesn’t convert, it may be that you simply haven’t done a good job of asking for the sale.

5. Reward good behavior — ignore bad

When I was working with Tika, I looked for opportunities to tell her she was a good girl when she was actually doing something right.

So, I would praise her when she was curled up quietly on the floor. Or when she ran up to me and spontaneously sat in front of me, instead of jumping all over the place.

One principle of positive reinforcement training is that you reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior.

You can include positive reinforcement techniques in your copy too.

You might offer incentives for signing up early, such as a lower price.

Or you could set up attractive product bundles, add bonuses, or create repeat-customer reward programs.

Not everyone is going to be your customer. Don’t give your valuable attention to people who won’t ever buy from you.

And when customers do buy from you, shower them with as much love and appreciation as possible. Give them great service, fantastic value, and a superior product.

Persuading a dog that being calm and collected actually is better than running around a room like a Tasmanian Devil on crack is not easy. It takes a lot of time and patience.

Learning to write persuasive copy is no different. You’ll have to work at it. But as I found with Tika, it’s worth it.

About the Author: Susan Daffron, also known as The Book Consultant, owns a book and software publishing company. She teaches people how to write and publish profitable client-attracting books, and she puts on the Self-Publishers Online Conference every May. Use the code SusanSentMe and get 10% off your registration.

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  1. Susan:

    These elements have also been emphasized in earlier Copyblogger posts and elsewhere: Get attention (I.e. – AIDA) – attention, promise, lead, call to action, and reward).

    Having said that, I like the unique spin with the bad dog. It also is nice to see these things reinforced. Good food for thought.

    Randy

    • Hi Randy…yes, these basics been pointed out here and in countless copywriting books before CB existed. But sometimes we all need a reminder. (I know I do anyway!)

      Tika often curls up next to my desk (she is right now in fact). I looked down at her and made the connection between positive reinforcement in dog training and copy. The rest kinda flowed from there ;-)

      Thanks for reading!

      - Susan

      • Susan, I loved this article. I’m a novelist, consequently tuned into great words and phrases, similes and so forth.

        This cracked me up. ( running around a room like a Tasmanian Devil on crack ). What great imagery. I not only liked what the article said in regard to writing, but liked the way it was said. Just wanted you to know I like your voice.

        S.K. Hamiltn (Pee Wee)

        • Hi Sylvia…sorry I missed your comment earlier. Thank you for the kind words! I have to say I was kind of pleased with “Tasmanian Devil on crack” too. Anyone who met Tika in her youth knows how apt the description really is ;-)

      • I like this suggestion: “Don’t give your valuable attention to people who won’t ever buy from you.” but how are we going to implement it? How do we know these are not buyers?

  2. All great points, especially number 3. You have to lead you reader down a pre-determined path. If they start to wander off on their own, you’ll have a hard time getting them to act.

  3. There’s a good reader …..Who’s a good reader. ……You are!

    LOL, I thought this was both an amusing look at writing good copy but was also, of course very true. Thanks for a great article. It made me laugh and think. A potent combination.

  4. “Shane! Where’s that edit you promised me?”

    “Sorry, Susan’s dog ate it.”

    Seriously, that was a refreshing spin on copy tactics. Reminded me of a great book called Sales Dogs.

    • Hee hee. Actually, Tika hasn’t been the eater of inappropriate things. That would be Fiona, our fuzzy white dog. She ate my husband’s favorite hat while we were out at lunch one day. We refer to event as Fiona’s Hat Trick.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Speaking of not paying attention, I read the headline as “…Things a Bad DAY Can Teach You…”

    I kept wondering what all this dog stuff was about.

    Then it hit me that I was an example of what you are talking about. No one pays attention.

  6. What a really engaging read. I rarely if ever read a whole blog post but this was fun and really relevant. Thanks
    p.s. my puppy is 4and a half months !!!

  7. Great post Susan. It’s true. We spend most of our lives on auto-pilot — we make snap decisions in the same way a dog would.

    Didn’t get my attention? I move on.
    Didn’t make a promise? I move on.
    Changed directions on me? Now I’m confused. I move on.
    Didn’t tell me exactly what action to take? I’m going to do my own thing.
    Didn’t praise me when I did what you asked? I won’t do it again.

    Thanks for writing this!

  8. Great idea for giving perspective by relating readers to dogs. :)

    Really, it’s amazing the similarities the average reader has to a dog, as you’ve outlined here. Though I would hope readers at least bathe regularly and don’t poop on the lawn.

  9. Great article Susan. I honestly can’t relate to the dog thing because my dog is just about the best dog in the world (except he play-bites a bit more than most other dogs).

    But I like that your article gets back to the basics! Thanks!

  10. Fantastic article! Glad my readers don’t chew photo albums though…

  11. Original article, definitely some truth in there. Had no idea dogs could be diagnosed with ADHD — bizarre.

    • Yes, they can. If you do a search on canine hyperkinesis, you can learn more about it. I consulted with a behaviorist named Bill Campbell about it, after reading about it on his site. He worked with my vet to do a test and get the diagnosis that showed Tika is clinically hyperkinetic.

  12. This is a fantastic post. I think I’m going to print it out and keep it on my desk where I can refer to it all the time. I’ma relatively new copywriter and blogger and I am seeking all of the info I can get my hands on. Since I love dogs (and I have a challenging, ADHD dog of my own), this really resonated with me. Thanks!

  13. Susan,
    I loved the article-and yes you had my attention :) The blending of the story of Tiki along with real application of how great copy is designed was very sticky to my mind based on the way you delivered it. The common commands used to teach a beloved pet certainly are a great reminder of how we can gain the attention that we want for our products, services, and in sales pages. Thank you again! i look forward to coming back again. Sye-

  14. I’m not a dog person, but what a pretty girl!

    This was a great reminder. I think my CTA is lacking strength, so I’ll be evaluating it. Thank you!

    • To protect Tika from web stalkers, we have substituted a photo of another gorgeous dog. :)

    • Tika isn’t actually shy. She’s on a lot of my other Web sites. If you do a search on my name and Tika, I bet you’ll find her. Look for a golden retriever with deep, dark brown eyes. She is a beautiful girl ;-)

  15. Nice reminder about some important lessons. Your post also is a great reminder to find inspiration in everyday universals in life. We can almost all relate to having a bad dog, and that gives additional resonance to your message. Thanks for sharing that!

    • Even if you don’t have a dog that’s habitually bad, pretty much every dog has bad moments. No dog is perfect. The same can be said of humans. Thanks for reading!

  16. Hi Susan, wonderful article. I love the way you compare a bad dog with good copy. All of them are great points especially the fourth one. Thanks again for sharing an useful article.

  17. Great Post Susan,

    I really like the way you used your dog in all the analogies for copy writing. It is so true, you must lead them where you want them to go.

    • Many people who have problems with their dogs are not good at communicating what they’d like the dog to do. Same thing goes with copy. You really have to spell things out ;-)

  18. Susan,

    This is an excellent, and unusual way of describing one’s approach to copywriting. I particularly enjoyed it because (not to insult our readers but…) in so many ways the audience we reach is very much like a dog. They have no real reason to listen at first. They need to be shown that there’s something in it for them. AND, we’re trying to get them to perform a given action (for a dog: sit… for our audience(s): buy something.) It could be argued that, while humans are certainly functioning on a high cognitive level, this goal is a bit easier with the dogs.

    Thanks for sharing… great food for thought.

    • Thanks for the kind words. And you’re right, I wasn’t trying to insult readers. Both copywriting and dog training have their challenges. It takes a lot of patience and practice to do either one well.

      • A Skeleton in the cupboard.
        We often read in novels how a seemingly respectable personn or family has some terrible secret which has been concealed from strangers for years.the English language possesses a vivid saying to describe this sort of situation.the terrible secret is called ” skelton” in the cup board.At the dramatic moment in the story , the terrible secret becomes knowen and a reputation is ruined.the reader’s hair stand on end when he reads in the final pages of the novel that the heroine , a dear lady who had always been so kind to everyone , had in her youth poisoned every one of her five husbands.it is all very well for such things to occur in fiction.

  19. You are very lucky; my dogs only teach me annoying skills such as picking up the occasional tick and waking people up in the middle of the night, just for the sake of it.

    • Well, yeah there is that. I can think of a few more, but I’ll spare you. My dogs also teach me good things like the importance of taking a break and going outside for a walk ;-)

      • Spare me of the details? Why, after reading this article, I’d love to read more.

        “5 filthy things about your pets, that you (unwillingly) replicate in your copy writing.”

        That kind of reverse approach might actually work for a follow up article! I personally favor positive writing angles (such as the present article), but it might be interesting to read an analogous article that compared filthy pet habits to bad writing habits.

        Am I alone thinking this?

        Let

        • HA, that’s a good one! Tell Sonia (Copyblogger editor) you want to bring me back for a repeat performance ;-)

          I have 5 dogs. I’ve got stories of doggie grossness, badness, weirdness…you name it!

  20. Great post Susan. The call to action step is soooo important. I began changing how I make offers by actually spelling out what I’d like my readers to do. It makes a huge difference.

  21. Hmmm.. Were it not for the difference in breed and age, I would swear that Tika and my parents’ deceased dog George were separated at birth… He was actually on “doggie Ridalin” for his ADHD, and I know from painful experience the challenges of having a really difficult 90+ pound dog.

    Especially when he’s a triple-alpha and has zero conscience!

    But enough about George. I’m really writing to applaud you for an excellent post. I love your use of the dog metaphor. Anyone who’s ever tried to train a dog, even one with a double dose of conscience, knows how much patience and persistence is involved. Learning to write good copy, just like pretty much everything else worth doing, requires the same.

    • Hi Melissa! Actually, the drug Ritalin is used to do the hyperkinesis test. (Dogs react differently to it, but they do react.) Many “spaz dogs” aren’t clinically hyperkinetic, but some are. And believe me now I can tell the difference. As you say, a REALLY difficult dog is a challenge.

      I agree that most things worth doing require work. (Dogs and copy both!) Although dealing with Tika has not always been easy, she has given back more than I’ve given her. She is sweetest most loving dog you’d ever want to meet ;-)

      • Hi Susan,
        George wasn’t actually on Ritalin — I think it was Amytriptalin (sp?) or something), but we called it “doggie Ritalin” because it made it easier to explain. :)

        He also had his good points, despite the challenges. I’ll admit I was glad he lived at my parents’ house though, and not mine! ;)

        • Probably it was amitriptyline. It’s often used to treat anxiety in dogs. I had a dog with different behavior problems who was on that for a while. In her case, I subsequently figured out that her (massive) weirdness was due to a thyroid imbalance. The vet tested her and once we put her on thyroid meds she turned into a great dog. We adored her, even though she was still kind of a weirdo to the end ;-)

  22. Excellent tips. Thanks for this humorous and true bit of thinking. As new blogger, I appreciate your ideas and your email newsletter. I just posted to my blog what I thought was a good effort. Now I want to go back and change the title and the ending.

  23. Great points. I love how you always tend to compare things, which make your blogs interesting to read!

  24. Clicks to you! Loved this post- always helpful but especially so for this dog trainer. Thank you for leading me down the right path.

  25. Wow! What a terrific article. You are clearly a gifted copy writer. Actually, I think everything you’ve outlined here is essential to writing any article–doesn’t have to be sales copy. And the dog story really does all the work in this article.

    I loved Marley and Me, and at the same time I was thrilled that I don’t have a big dog!

    • Wow, thank you, Lynne {blushing}. I’ve found some small dogs can be quite a handful too actually. Sometimes those little dog have a bit of a Napoleon complex I think ;-)

  26. Hi Susan. Thanks for a great article. It goes to prove that thinking outside the square can make a huge difference between just another article and something that you want to read right through to the end. Leave an open-ended question at the end of an article like this and you’re guaranteed an almost 100% click through rate.

    I have only this morning been asked to write a “funny” article about a serious small business issue and you have certainly given me some food for thought. Thank you.

  27. The title grabbed me and pulled me right into your story … “must …. read!” LOL – hope the puppy got a treat for helping inspire your awesome article. thanks for the valuable info.

  28. Susan, I haven’t read anything by you before and absolutely loved this. You pulled me in with the headline and opening, and kept the story compelling enough for me to keep going.

    Great work and great communication of the copywriting basics many don’t know, and others know and forget!

    Thanks!

    • Thanks Debra! This is my second post for Copyblogger. And today, in fact, I discovered that if you click the author’s name under the article title, you can see all the articles he/she has written. Very cool ;-)

  29. Super cool, Susan! Thanks for mentioning the links in names. I love this, now I have a bunch of new writers to track down.

  30. Learning Experience Dog. Great….explaining your thinking with live examples is really a nice thing. I like this way, thats why…Everyone follow you here.

  31. A nice way of explaining things, I am impressed that you have focused on it so much and the outcome is brilliant. Great job.

  32. Hi Susan and fellow writers, I love dogs and train the odd Tasmanian Devil myself as well as writing for a living so this was a had-to-read and it was more than worth it. Non doggy-people would also no doubt be sucked in and fired up (or should that be ‘out’) with your copy – great words, beautifully put together and useful to boot. Thank you

    • As a writer and dog owner, I know what you mean. Another one of my dogs was arguably as difficult to train as Tika was (for very different reasons). As a result, I gravitate toward anything that includes dog training too. For me, whether it’s training or copy, there’s always more I can learn ;-)

  33. Thanks again for great tips. I just changed my post title from Dog-to-Dog Greetings to Stop Dog Fights Before They Start. And my Dog Leader Mysteries (.com) blog is all about becoming a benevolent leader. Now I’ve got to learn how to link to this post on WordPress.

  34. You taught me how to sit, stay & read your piece. All because of your very clever title- see item #1. Sadly, I have a good dog at home. I guess that means this old dog won’t be learning any new tricks.

  35. Confused about one thing, although I think it is simply a semantic difference. I know that when we write copy we are trying to get people to opt into something, but if reaching the right customers, shouldn’t we be leading them down the path to where “they” want to go.
    Curious.
    MK

    • Persuasion is all about getting people to understand that where you want them to go is in fact where they want to go too. No one really does something they don’t want to do.

      So in that sense, you’re right. But getting people to understand how something benefits them is harder than most people realize. And that’s because it’s hard to hold attention long enough to get there.

    • Not a trivial difference, IMO, you’re on to a great point — they know where they want to go … you know a good path that will take them there. *That’s* what you’re leading them toward. The result they want comes from them, but if they knew the best path they wouldn’t need you.

      Brilliant copywriter Eugene Schwartz wrote a lot about this … that we can’t manufacture desire, all we can do is build sails to catch the winds that are already blowing.

      (P.S. Nice to see you Mike!)

      • Good point! In the context of the dog analogy, you can’t ever *make* a dog do anything he is completely opposed to doing.

        For example, if a dog has had a bad experience at a vet, you’ll have a really hard time convincing him that getting his shots is going to be okay. (“Hey, do you have any idea what that guy in the white coat DID to me last time?!”)

        Along the same lines, it’s difficult to train adopted dogs that have had a troubled past. The dog has to learn to trust again. In much the same way, in the Internet marketing realm, it’s challenging to convince potential customers who have been burned before that your product/service is different and you aren’t a shyster.

        It can require a lot of treats (aka “cookie content”) to convince them ;-)

  36. Hi Susan!

    Love, love your post! You take a complicated subject and make it simple. Looking forward to finding out more about your event this May!

    Lori

    • Thanks Lori! On the conference, details are on the Web site in my bio. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that early bird pricing is in effect now. (It goes up April 16.) If you have any questions about it, please feel free to get in touch with me.

  37. A really interesting read – but the thing that had me – doggie ADHD. Never knew that was a possibility.

    • Yes it is. Do a Google search on “canine hyperkinesis” and you’ll find a bunch of information. Lots of dogs are “high energy” and/or spazzy. But hyperkinesis goes beyond regular canine enthusiasm. It’s a LOT more challenging, let me tell you ;-)