14 Lessons Learned from One of the World’s Highest-Paid Copywriters (Lessons 1-5)

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This is part one of a three-part series on how to profitably translate advice from old-school marketing guru Dan Kennedy to a new online environment.

Dan Kennedy is the Sovereign of Sales Letters. (Or maybe that’s the Duke of Direct Response.) He knows exactly how to deliver a marketing message with maximum clarity and zero confusion. As he’ll readily tell you, he’s one of the world’s highest-paid copywriters. His classic book The Ultimate Marketing Plan promises low-cost ideas and high-profit results.

This book delivers on both counts, and it’s well worth the read. But it was written in 1991, and at first seems like it’s more relevant to a restaurant or dry cleaner than it is to an online marketer.

If you have a hard time translating bricks-and-mortar advice to your internet business, well, just be glad we’ve got Copyblogger.

The Ultimate Marketing Plan walks you through the 14 steps Kennedy considers necessary to build a bulletproof marketing plan that can help you to explode your business.

And this post will tell you how to translate those to what you’ve been up to.

Dan Kennedy’s 14 Steps to the Ultimate Marketing Plan

1. Putting together the right message

This is your business’s Unique Selling Proposition, boys and girls.

The principles behind the USP have been talked to death. You can call it the Purple Cow, your market position, your winning difference, or just the answer to Why Should Anyone Read Your Blog?

The reason the USP has been talked to death is that this core idea is essential to effective marketing.

Even though defining your USP is one of the best places to start when you’re building a solid marketing plan, it also seems to be one of the easiest places for people to get lost.

Kennedy defines the USP this way:

When you set out to attract a new, prospective customer to your business for the first time, there is one, paramount question you must answer:

“Why should I choose your business/product/service versus any/every other competitive option available to me?”

Kennedy, in his characteristically cranky style, has also been known to call this “justifying your reason to exist.”

You must know the facts, features, benefits, and promises that your business makes — inside-out, upside-down, backwards, forwards, and sideways. Because if you can’t clearly articulate what makes your business unique, how can you expect anyone else to care?

You will need to crow about your business if you expect it to expand, but it’s pivotal that you are trumpeting the right things.

The right USP coupled with the right offer, especially at the right time and place, is important for any business. For a business fighting for attention with millions of other blogs all over the world, it’s essential.

2. Presenting your message

Regardless of where you choose to market your product or service, there is a right and a wrong way to deliver your message.

According to Kennedy, the customer has five mental steps to take between first contact and completing the sale.

  • Awareness of a need or desire
  • Picking the thing that will satisfy that desire
  • Picking the source for that thing
  • Accepting the price/value argument
  • Finding reasons to act immediately

Let’s say your particular product is a vacation package that includes a seven-day cruise.

Pictures of an island paradise might spark initial desire, while shots of a cruise ship will put a finer point on the new longing. Information about what makes your company’s cruises different will let the prospect know that you’re the right source to satisfy their craving.

Copy that paints a picture of all the fun to be had as well as the tremendous value of the package, backed by proof (user testimonials and pictures both work great), will serve to convince your prospect that his money will be well spent.

Finally, a special, a limited time offer, or perhaps a coupon or room upgrade, will help to get the deal done today rather than . . . never.

Whether you’re online or off, it’s your job to lead the prospect through these five points. Without clear road signs, your prospect will get lost.

3. Choosing the right audience

Who you don’t serve is every bit as important as who you do. It is always okay to trim the tribe.

Let’s say you’re planning to open a steakhouse. What do you think is most important to a spectacular opening day?

  • Elegant decor?
  • A well-trained staff?
  • Ample parking?
  • A robust menu?
  • Reasonable prices?
  • Delicious food?

The answer: None of the above.

The best thing you could possibly have when cutting the ribbon at your new steakhouse is a starving, steak-hungry crowd with a growl in their collective belly.

Which means you don’t want to send your marketing message to vegetarians or calorie counters.

When it comes to reaching your audience online, you’ve got to find the equivalent of those hungry carnivores.

A blog that tries to speak to everyone will find few, if any, readers. It’s always smart to choose a general topic that’s got wide appeal. But within that topic, the tighter your focus, the easier it will be to grow an enthusiastic base of readers, then customers.

4. Proving your case

It seems every decade makes us more jaded. The Internet has only accelerated the process. Your marketing messages needs to survive a lot of cold, hard skepticism.

Some people might argue that you should never put negative thoughts into your customer’s head.

You won’t be.

You’re simply addressing what’s already there.

You cannot ignore this step. Proving your case will get you a lot farther along on your way to making the sale.

Address objections. Your prospect may desperately want your fantastic online cooking course, but she’s got a list of objections holding her back. Fortunately, we’re no longer in Kennedy’s 1991, where you had to use a photocopied 16-page letter to tackle each objection. These days you can do it in blog posts, email autoresponder sequences, and with virtually any form of social media.

Social proof is key. You’ll notice up there in the left-hand corner, that Copyblogger proudly advertises its 100,000-plus subscribers. That’s not bragging. It’s a decisive emotional trigger. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.

Gather testimonials. Happy, satisfied customers can be a magnet for more. What others say about you will always carry a much higher impact than what you say about yourself. While it’s a great idea to put customer testimonials on your own site, you also want to always be aware of what people are saying about you off your site.

Pictures tell a story. Before-and-after, shots of the product in use, or bright smiles on the faces of satisfied customers. Seeing is believing. If you can prove your point with pictures, you’ll go a long way toward silencing the skeptic. Images can also set a powerful mood, which gives your copy an instant emotional charge.

5. Putting your best foot forward

Like it or not, first impressions matter.

If you run a brick-and-mortar business, make sure your store is squeaky clean. Freshly washed windows and a floor you could eat off of will help to create an environment that’s conducive to sales.

Believe it or not, the same holds true online.

If you’re using WordPress for your business, make sure you’ve got a great-looking theme that’s well optimized for SEO. (As you might guess, we’re rather partial to Thesis.) Even if you’re on a budget, you will still be able to do some basic customization.

Make sure your layout is simple and clean. Emphasize your USP with a strong tagline. Be sure your page instantly conveys how you can benefit your reader and potential customer.

When you can afford it, have someone customize your site in a way that’s unique to you and your business.

Either way, if your website is your business, it should look its absolute best. Fortunately, for a tiny fraction of what bricks-and-mortar businesses pay in rent, you can have a “storefront” that shows you’re serious, professional, and worthy of your customers’ business.

(In case you think I’m not too good at counting, the other 9 lessons gleaned from The Ultimate Marketing Plan will come in two future posts. The links to the book are Amazon affiliate links, which means if you buy it, I’ll be able to buy a pack of gum! Put any of this advice into action and you should get quite a lot more out of the deal.)

Part 2: Lessons 6-10 from One of the World’s Highest-Paid Copywriters

About the Author: Sean Platt writes direct response copy, as well as helping authors write, publish and promote their book. Follow him on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (57)

  1. says

    Thanks Sean! Sometimes it’s difficult to translate Dan Kennedy’s teachings to apply to them to my online marketing, so this is an excellent update to Dan’s trainings.

    I look forward to the rest of the series. David

  2. says

    Hesham: Thanks! Yes, Thesis is excellent.

    Pallav: Thanks, I appreciate the compliment.

    Bamboo: It’s totally worth it. A quick read and lots of good, meaty psychology.

    David: Thanks David! They’re basic principles into the way people think, so it’s actually pretty easy to change the environment. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series as well.

  3. says

    Lots of great snippets of information there but if anyone thinks it is a ‘Ultimate Marketing Plan’ then they don’t have a clue on what a ‘marketing plan’ actually is….

  4. says

    Thanks for a well-written post Sean. Since I’m new to blogging, building a bullet proof marketing plan is essential to a content-hungry blogger such as myself. So I look forward to reading the next installments. Thanks again.

  5. says

    David: My pleasure, any time. The wisdom is all Dan’s.

    Stuart: Well, you’re reading one third of a series, which is essentially paring down a 200+ page book into a few thousand words. No reasonable person could expect to develop a solid marketing plan based on one, or even three, blog posts. However, that is the name of his book, and Kennedy does provide plenty of information and context that would help any business owner to craft a solid marketing plan.

    Marvin: Definitely read the next installments, but check out the book itself. It goes into depth and is a quick read that you’ll probably reference time and again.

    Sherice: Hi Sherice! Thanks for the compliment. As far as The Ultimate Sales Letter – I’m working on it. : )

  6. says

    Hi Sean:

    Thanks for this post that reiterates a theme echoed with more frequency these days: “New” marketing isn’t so new.

    Human nature hasn’t changed. The better you understand your customer and the emotions that motivate her, the easier time you’ll have building relationship and, yes, selling stuff.

    All marketing–and even fundraising–content benefits from inclusion of the key positioning and persuasion elements you mention.

    Of course you’ll customize voice, tone, headlines and offer differently with different products/customers/donors. Maybe you’ll state benefits directly–or you’ll maybe imply them.

    But these are basics that translate across media and industry.

  7. Sonia Simone says

    @Stuart, in my experience, for most bloggers (and, in fact, most brick-and-mortar small businesses), actually implementing the advice in Kennedy’s book would create a total turnaround in their business, since most businesses have no marketing plan at all. At best they have an advertising plan, but with no compelling message, no USP, no urgency, no targeting, no process for how to handle leads when they come in.

  8. says

    If you are a writer, you really have to consider the delivery of thoughts. I believe Dan Kennedy was able to meet this very important criterion. The first five of his “14 Steps to the Ultimate Marketing Plan” can already make me up and running as a novice writer, much more if I can read them all. However, it’s not enough to just learn the lessons. We must apply.

    In the field of Internet Marketing, competitors are bounty so always strive for the best! Cheers!

  9. says


    Interesting stuff and I look forward to following your series.

    Dan Kennedy has always done a fine job presenting the nuts and bolts of messaging, as did Robert Bly. There is certainly some sales letter cross over for blogs in that they were among one of the few advertising vehicles to retain a conversational tone.

    One area where bloggers can improve to strengthen Kennedy’s approach to the unique selling point by ensuring it provides a contrast (not all USPs do). Contrasts help consumers make purchasing decisions.

    Just food for thought.

    All my best,

  10. says

    To be the best, learn from the best.

    Common sense advice that many tend to ignore. Inside we know that it pays to think out and effective marketing and act on it, but engaging in competitive marketing practices prevents us from making the right decisions.

    One thing though. If you’re *really* good you won’t have to prove your case. You’ll have a big enough following where you don’t have to convince others.

  11. says

    Great lessons. Having a strong USP is key. I have a slightly different take on #2. I spent a lot of time in Marketing Communications Strategy and Copywriting, and I typically us a 3 pillar approach: Why Do Something, Why Now and Why My Company. Very similar, but the order seems a little different.

    I’m looking forward to the next part in this series!

  12. says

    This helps reinforce several themes from “Selling the Invisible” that I’ve been thinking about. Thanks! Very timely, too. Those 5 mental steps a customer goes through gave me some good food for thought.

  13. says

    A fantastic post… I hadn’t heard of the UPS myself, so I appreciate the explanation and all the leads you provide in this article for more.

  14. Archan Mehta says


    Wow: what a great post full of interesting tips. Your comments are insightful. I like your style of writing too.

    Yeah, Dan Kennedy, Bob Bly, Michael Masterson (and a few others) I have been reading for a while over at AWAI and “Early to Rise.” These guys are old hands and have more than a few aces up their sleeves, to be sure.

    For those of you who are uninitiated, that’s just fine. So was I until I stumbled upon the works of these luminaries. Sometimes, they write articles and posts which are certainly worth reading. If you get a chance, check it out.

    And whenever I have a question or concern, Bob Bly has always made it a point to respond immediately from his home office in New Jersey. Usually, Bob makes it a point to respond within 24 hours (if not earlier). I have been struck by Bob’s sense of professionalism: he is truly dedicated to the craft of writing and is committed to his profession. In general, it has been such a pleasure to learn from such luminaries. No wonder your post resonated with me! It reminded me of my own experience.

  15. says

    All the Dan Kennedy love on Copyblogger lately is great. I started learning marketing from Dan and now that I know more I realize he is the real deal with great ideas and advice. yes, he is cranky but sometimes the sugar-coated truth isn’t what we want or need. Thanks for the great summary, Sean!

  16. says

    Marvin: I hadn’t read Kennedy, outside of a quote here or there, until I got a couple of Kennedy books for Christmas. I hope you enjoy them!

    Lorraine: Exactly – anyone who thinks the old guys are no longer relevant is sadly mistaken. Taking the time to read books from the old guys is in many ways a great tactic to keep ahead of the new ones. It’s not about new social media strategy, it’s about old human behavior. Thanks, Lorraine.

    Liezl: Yes, no doubt. Learning is nothing without application behind it.

    Rich Becker: You’re absolutely right. Contrast is key. It highlights why you are different, why you are worth paying attention to, and why you are worth someone’s hard earned money.

    Ryan: I don’t know if that’s true. I think even with a giant following you still need to prove your case. If you don’t than your value will dim over time. And no one gets big without proving their case over and over and over again. Copyblogger’s running on four years of proving theirs, and despite a successful launch of the Third Tribe Forum last week, they’re back here this week proving it again.

    Chrystal: That works as well! I’m glad you enjoyed the first part. We look forward to seeing you next time.

    Bill: My pleasure, BIll.

    Travis: Be careful! You want want to separate yourself from the crowd, NOT get your packages delivered overnight. : )

    Archan: I’ve heard a lot of great things about Bob Bly, though I’ve only read him a bit myself. I’ll check into his stuff more. Thanks, Archan.

    Susan: My pleasure. I completely agree. I’m not really looking for feel good posts or books to tickle me while I read. I want practical strategy that will help me grow my business. Thanks for the comment.

  17. says

    This is a great and timeless post – I look forward to reading the rest of the series. While the internet has changed the marketing landscape on some fronts, most of these lessons are just as relevant today as when the book was written. If anything, they may be even more relevant, as the average person now has more power than ever to market themselves.

  18. says

    Dan is the man. His “No BS” book series is pretty good as well, although some of the latest ones are not worth buying. It’s always good to bring back the basics, since it’s really easy (at least for me it is) to get stuck in all of the minutiae of a project and miss the forest for the trees.

    The first impression item is key. You can have the best product in the world, that will help a million people, but if your site or your business looks like your kid brother made it, then you won’t sell anything.

    Your USP has got to tell everyone exactly what you stand for from the moment your customer haas any contact with your business. That is all part of your first impression as well. The USP needs to be specific and thoughtful to your customers and your business. Forget it if you are just going to say “quality and customer service are our number one focus.” That’s everyone’s focus.

  19. Sonia Simone says

    @Joshua, did you pick up his No BS for the New Economy? I thought it was actually quite interesting. Especially as he is so resolutely an old economy guy.

  20. Frank Green--The Bard Society says

    Direct, snail mail reached a point of sophistication that seems now to be superseded by e-mail, blogs, and social networking. However, there are four secrets to efficacious snail mail that I will be interested to see if they are covered in subsequent posts.

  21. says

    David: I’d say more relevant. Never has marketing been more important or more individualized. Kennedy’s words remain true on all fronts and carry more power per person now than ever before.

    Joshua: I’ve not read any of the BS books, but they are on my queue. I totally agree on first impressions, and though my sites are always in flux while I’m forever in search of the ideal layout, I always am trying. It always surprises me when people think that just doesn’t matter. Content may be king, but the king wants a nice throne to sit in.

    Lifestyle Design: That one’s at the top of my queue!

    Frank: Stay tuned. :)

    Chanda: Thanks! I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

  22. says

    This is great stuff! I am in the middle of changing my blog around and some of the things in this post I knew (USP) but others elements I need to learn or refresh. I even thought about starting from scratch to have a better blog.

    I am getting sales, but I want more! So the next few weeks are about research, vetting and implementing. What is the point of all of this excellent information if you are not going to use it? So this is definitely a timely post for me to come across!

    Human behavior is slow to change regardless of how fast technology moves. Some of the best movies, songs today are remakes! Which goes to show you, that good stuff regardless of age will always be good stuff!

  23. Frank Green--The Bard Society says

    For those who market primarily through a website, there is $10M in primary research free on MarketingExperiments.com (also MECLabs.com). They have bimonthly webinars. All free. They are the premium website optimizers and make their money primarily from clients who want want daily longterm monitoring for optimization.
    An affiliate site is MarketingSherpa.com, which contains primarily secondary research.

  24. Kristina says

    I have read some of Dan Kennedy’s books before and have been more and more impressed with each one I find. I look forward to this one too. Dan Kennedy is no holds barred that is for sure!

  25. says

    Sean, I love your writing style! Refreshing, engaging.

    You write: “Even though defining your USP is one of the best places to start when you’re building a solid marketing plan, it also seems to be one of the easiest places for people to get lost.”

    The scary thing about USP is we are to micro-target who we are marketing to. It seems risky to keyword for such a narrow audience and perhaps miss a wide range of people.

    I’ve read elsewhere tonight that the CTR (which I think means conversion rate) is higher even though the traffic is less when your blog laser focuses on your choses USP.

    Great review of the value of USP and Mr. Kennedy’s work.

  26. says

    Choosing the right audience? Is this is one way in creating a group separate? Any audience which we get is an inventory that is priceless.

  27. says

    Fantastic article Sean – I can hardly wait for the follow ups!

    Everything resonates with what I’ve been learning over the last year or so. But especially poignant to me is the five stages of presenting your message. I need to fine tune and nail the reason to act now!

    I’m noting these points on paper for future reference in my GTD system.

    Please don’t keep us waiting too long for the next episode… 😉

  28. says

    Dan’s message is always inspiring and his old-school approach is sometimes ironically refreshing (but other times it feels like it’s ignoring important aspects of the web). However, I think you’ve nicely “updated” his thinking and also helped to turn his work from very direct-marketing-specific thinking to a broader blogging approach.

    Nicely done, Sean!

  29. says

    Great post Sean!

    Ive learned a lot from Dan, specifically in his Marketing To The Affluent book. I think he should be required reading for every entrepreneur…

    Also, his No B.S. Wealth Attraction book really has helped me get rid of a lot of bad “mental blocks” I had about money.

    Keep it up man.

    – Justin

  30. says

    I like how Dan’s advice has been applied to blogs.

    This goes to show that any kind of marketing advice can be used by bloggers to build better blogs.

  31. says

    Glendon: The great thing about these modern tools is that it’s never been easier to test and improve. If you’re getting sales already then that’s great. Just a matter of time until you multiply.

    Frank: Thanks.

    Kristina: Yeah, he’s really direct, which is great. Not a lot of theory, but tons of nuts and bolts.

    Rinaldi: It is a three part series. That way the information can be consumed in bite sized chunks.

    Joanna: Hiya Joanna! I don’t want to speak for Sonia, but I think that though Kennedy might not have her favorite style, but there’s a lot you can learn from him and Sonia’s a terrific student.

    Pete: Thanks! I appreciate it. Yes, that’s exactly right. The more general you are in what you do, the easier it is to truly plug in to the deeper needs.

    Paul: Absolutely. No doubt about it.

    Aglo: Yes, if you are speaking of emotional value. However, if we’re talking dollars, then no. An audience of people who are looking for what you have to sell will always have more numeric value than an audience that does not.

    Pat: Thanks, pat – the first one’s up now. I’m sure the trilogy’s end is right around the corner. :)

    Povesti: My absolute pleasure.

    Aaron: Thanks. I really liked the Kennedy books for exactly that reason. There was just something really smooth. Like seeing a good carpenter’s work. Not fancy. But hand crafted well enough to be almost beautiful.

    Justin: I agree on the required reading part. I was lucky enough to have someone point him out to me, then put the book in my hands. I’ve never had a mental block about money. I’ve always liked it and it’s always liked me. Though it did up and walk out on me for a stretch there.

    Stone: Absolutely. That’s what Copyblogger does best.

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