Does Your Copy Look Spammy?

It’s been interesting this year to watch the intersection (some might say “collision”) of direct response Internet marketing and the blogosphere.

Basically you’ve got the purveyors of the sales letter trying to figure out how to live in the hype-intolerant social media environment.

It’s often not pretty, and here I am right in the middle of it all with a blog about copywriting.

The latest dust-up came when WordPress selectively enforced trademark rights against two popular sites that sell WordPress tutorial videos. Without rehashing the whole thing here, in essence one might say that the problem boiled down to how those two sites looked.

Yes, they use those highly effective long-copy sales letters that many in the blogosphere hate. And the sentiment from WordPress was they looked “spammy” and “scammy.”

Now, we could jump up and down and say that it’s substance (i.e. “content”) that matters, not the format it’s delivered in that should determine whether something is “spam” or a “scam.” For the record, neither of the two sites in question are scams; in fact, at least one is extremely well-regarded and puts out some of the best WordPress instructional videos around.

The problem is, first impressions do matter. And fair or not, as well as those sales letters work with some, they will utterly fail with others, often at first sight.

However, I like to point people to 37 Signals when they say the long copy format never works.

Oh really?

Even Web 2.0 software companies are moving to sites with more copy, less graphical fluff.

Why?

Because when selling any type of information product–whether ebook, video tutorial, software or seminar– long copy works better, and graphical fluff and excess navigation do not.

Ultimately, it all comes down to presentation, and that depends on the audience you hope to reach. Both bloggers and traditional Internet marketers are leaving money on the table by sticking with convention and failing to learn from one another.

Copywriter Henry Gold seems to be attempting to do something interesting about this. He’s been doing side-by-side case study comparisons of websites on his blog, and inviting people in the comments to guess which converts better.

He’s now released a free copywriting manuscript, and is holding a free teleconference where he intends to reveal the elements he changed on some of those sites to make them convert better. I think he will be touching on some of these presentation issues that people wrangle with.

Grab the free copywriting PDF and sign up for the teleconference at Henry’s blog.

I’ll be writing a bit more about this topic in the coming weeks, as I present a case study of my own using the sales letter of a popular ebook site.

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  1. I’m far from a copywriting expert. But judging from that manuscript, I would say the copyrighting secret is…

    “creating curiosity”

    ;)

    Look forward to your case study!

  2. I think you’re right on when you say: “Both bloggers and traditional Internet marketers are leaving money on the table by sticking with convention and failing to learn from one another.”

    This whole argument reminds me of the genetics vs. environment debate back when I was in university. Anyone with a whit of sense could see the answer had to be “both”.

    Likewise, bloggers and traditional internet marketers can learn from one another. One group doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth…or smarts…

    Am also looking forward to your case study. –daphne gray-grant

  3. I’m tempted to say that the manuscript is a fresh pile of…well, you know. ;-)

    Anyway, I have to agree with Craig. On page 19 of the manuscript, the author says “the copywriting secret works with every person” and every person is curious by nature.

  4. “…information product–whether ebook, video tutorial, software or seminar– long copy works better…”

    How long is long copy?

  5. Hi Brian

    Thanks for the link through to the WordPress debate.

    There is actually another aspect to this, because copy is not just a single sales letter, especially when people use the tactics from the Product Launch Formula.

    A major part of copyrighting is testing and tracking results.

    How do you test results on copy that you can’t determine how many people read it directly, and how many people those people subsequently shared it with?

    That is one of the points I have raised in another controversial subject, the sharing of RSS, and the lack of tracking provided by Google.

    Email clients already don’t display images by default, but then email is a medium abused by spammers. People receive messages they haven’t requested.

    With RSS, someone has requested to receive the data, so images are being displayed, but the whole message is being cached for all readers.

    Advertising companies collect all kinds of data, including Google, yet this data is being held back from publishers of content via RSS.

  6. I think the long-copy sales letter almost always equals spam. Products that can actually stand on their own don’t need it.

    For me, seeing that red headline with an exclamation point and the “From the desk of:” header just telegraphs that my time is about to be wasted.

    The PPC + sales letter pitch is the modern equivalent of a late-night low budget infomercial – except with far lower production values and ethical standards, in most cases.

    Is there not a better, more sophisticated way to persuade people with the written word?

    I’m trying to find it.

  7. I’m an avid reader of your blog and your pointers have proved to be valuable in my work.

    You are right when you say that a well produced long sales letter provides results.

    What you don’t mention is that few of the examples you point to in this case are well produced. The typography is astoundingly bad and the design is ugly.

    The quality or professionalism of the copy is irrelevant if the type and design looks like it’s made by a scammer (the measure’s inconsistent, conflicting use of type sizes and color, etc.).

    The reason why the copy on this blog works is that it isn’t let down by the layout and design.

    The long-copy sales letter is hated because in the vast majority of cases they are designed by somebody with the aesthetic sense of an epileptic baboon.

    The long-copy sales letter, coupled with good design, is near-unbeatable when it comes to selling certain kinds of products.

    Uncoupled from good design, it seems that many copywriters have the same taste and sensibilities as spammers.

    Hence the prevailing dislike.

  8. >>How long is long copy?

    Long enough, but not a word longer. :)

    >>Is there not a better, more sophisticated way to persuade people with the written word?

    >>I’m trying to find it.

    And you’ll let us know how that turns out, won’t you? With split-testing results, not conjecture, right? :)

    Frankly, a lot of smart people have been trying to do just that for decades. Guess what the result has been?

    Now, whether a lot of the stuff you see on the web works well or not… that’s another question.

  9. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Masterson, Shiffern, Makepeace etc ad nauseum, they all have a “secret” to sell you. They all want to give you the keys to the vault when you listen to their “free” seminar (which after you’ve listened to one is an hour long sales pitch).

    You can be a “mooch” (copywriting term for customer) if you want to – or you can find some decent copywriting courses/books and figure this structure / stuff out for yourself at far less cost.

    As for what works – the same things work online as work offline. :-)
    People haven’t changed – only the method of delivery has changed. Some things sell better with long copy and some things sell better with short. That’s why you have split testing.

  10. Charlie Furlong :

    I think that any well written sales copy should generate curiosity. It should also encourage the reader to take some sort of action. This can seldom be done with very short copy.

    I have to say that Henry Gold’s writing style really only results in huge amounts of copy that waste the reader’s time and almost certainly will end up being scanned instead of read. What a waste of your target audiences time.

    I downloaded the free copywritting manuscript and without a doubt the same message, generating the same amount of intregue could have been conveyed in a quarter of the copy used. Probably with a more powerful NLP like influence.

    The document left me wondering why i had bothered to waste my time reading it. I bet i’m not the only one.

    I have no doubt that this method of writing is successful, but I bet if the copy was shorter and still conveyed the same information it would be even more successful. More people would bother to read it and less people would feel cheated after investing the time to read it.

  11. That’s an excellent point Charlie.

    I tend to be succinct myself, even with long copy. It’s information per square inch that matters to me.

    But styles do differ, and Henry Gold has made a bucket of cash, both with his own projects and for others, so I tend to also stay open-minded.

  12. It all depends on the intended audience for the product.

    A small change in colour scheme and fonts can make a difference in the overall perception of the product to a different audience.

    The 37 Signals website isn’t ideal either, because it only focuses on one potential customer group.

    One of the advantages of affiliate marketing is that you typically test different landing pages, and even allow the affiliate a choice of what style of landing page is most suitable for their own audience.

    An affiliate gets to split test their own traffic.

    My background is from the computer games market. I find it quite funny that “Product Launch” is such a new concept in Internet Marketing circles (over the last 2 years).

    Computer games companies have been building up hype in products for years. Often the product launch starts before they have even coded anything ;)

  13. Andy, even funnier is that the “product launch” formula is based on Hollywood film marketing.

    When developing a film, there’s always a “reason why” for a bit of publicity (in the form of “news”), right?

    Preproduction
    Director attached
    Casting
    Anecdotes from the set
    Pre-premiere buzz
    Campaign launch
    Reviews
    Premiere

    None of this stuff is new. None of it is unique to the Internet.

    But no one calls film marketing “spammy.” So why must we hear it constantly online?

  14. The paradox in the link to Henry Gold and your article is interesting.

    25 pages of fluff, hype and wasted time. The exact opposite of what I’ve come to expect from your blog.

  15. Don’t worry, I’m not changing. :)

    But I do like to do things like this, and see how people react.

    The bad part is, there’s close to 6,000 people who subscribe to this blog, and I only get to hear from the most vocal people in the comments.

    In some of my past experiments with, say, affiliate pitches, the number of sales always outweighed the number of negative comments.

    Something to think about…

  16. There’s a place for the screaming long-form letter. There’s a place for the quiet, confidence approach of the Wall Street Journal classic promotion that started with a story “There were two men…).

    Bottom-line, though, is if you want to make $$ from your efforts (B2B, B2C, direct mail, blogs, what have you), you’re going to have to ask for the sale.

    Formats help you structure the request in the most efficient and effective manner.
    But you still have to ask for the sale and feel confident and genuine in the request.

  17. I believe that it was Dan Kennedy who instilled this “look like crap, but sells more” mentality that so pervades many small businesses. Especially online businesses with salesletters.

    In a day and age when Mad Ave copywriters drum up clever ads that never amount to much — and only entertain, not sell — the opposing attitude, which grew, was, “if it looks like crap, then the owner must have spent more time on the product than the marketing/packaging/copy.” Etc.

    People unconsciously assume there’s a parallel between one part and its whole. And that was the parallel in this case, because “shiny, fuzzy-feely” marketing was prevalent.

    But that was then. Now, I think the market has flip-flopped. Crappy-looking salesletters or websites tend to communicate a corollary attitude about the business, customer service, product quality, etc. That is, “if it looks like crap, then it must be crap.”

    One or two salesletters donning red headlines and inconsistent fonts? OK, no problem. It would have made but a small dent in the whole debate. (And that was the case earlier on.)

    But now, it’s too pervasive. Too many salesletters that scream, well, “Salesletter!”

    I think there’s a happy medium. Great long copy that sells, on a site that’s clean, professional-looking and well-designed.

    There’s an interesting study from a university in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada, that proved that people make instant decisions about a website not within a few seconds, as originally thought, but within 1/20th of a second.

    Finally, another point: “a product that can stand on its own” is not always true. (Many great products have fallen by the wayside during the dotcom crash.)

    I think it’s more of a case of laziness. Marketers, copywriters and business owners who don’t put in an extra effort (or dime) to be more pithy, more professional looking, and less “scammy” looking.

    The happy medium, between clunky/long copy and fancy/fluffy design, is the use of great copy that’s personal, targeted, long enough to make the sale, and conversational…

    … (and not third-person, contrived gobbledygook like copy you get from Mad Avenue ad agencies or the million-dollar, brand-oriented elite)…

    … Coupled with professional design that’s clean, builds trust and increases credibility.

  18. Hey Michel, thanks for stopping by.

    Here’s something you’ll find interesting… in my first draft of this post, I made reference to legions of would-be online copywriters mimicing what worked for Michel Fortin 3 years ago without realizing that times change.

    The only constant is change.

    I cut it because it became extraneous to my main point, but I think you somewhat allude to that situation in your comment.

    People copy what they see work online, but don’t understand that what sells a million bucks in a day for John Reese may not be the right approach for every situation, presentation wise.

  19. I may have alluded to it, but you nailed it.

  20. The uncertainty of human knowledge is its only certainty. Almost everything we know, we know in relation to an ever changing context.

    It’s funny how, in a Pavlovian sort of way, people came to associate formatting with a human attribute such as honesty.

    And how our associations lead us conclusions.

    Well … I’m not sure if my website is one of “those” websites under discussion, or not. I do know it is most effective for generating an abundance of viable bid requests for me. And that is its singular purpose for existing.

    I sincerely apologize if you visit and find it offensive in any way. Especially for the big red headline.

    If you’re wondering why I use a big red headline, I can tell you why. After years of methodically testing bright red headlines against dark red, blue, black and various color combinations, my big red headlines outsell the rest…for me. I’ll continue to test them and when I determine otherwise, I’ll celebrate the day of change.

    And Michel is right, too.

    How can this be?

    Similar to assembling a puzzle, different people organize their conglomeration of variables, their elements of design and sales copy differently, but with equal
    effectiveness.

    Actually, neither of us are ‘right’. But both of us are correct.

    Back to the discussion at hand. Perhaps I can lend some historical perspective to current events.

    I believe this crass style we’re discussing grew out of an economy of scale (limited
    resources).

    Picture a person with limited talent, jumping up from their bed in the middle of the night with an ‘aha!’ They’d dash off a sales letter and mail a small test using as little of the funds they had readily available. If the test worked, change wasn’t considered.

    Successful results dictated marketers invest their remaining funds into postage and the production of letters in volume, without much regard for quality. Some grew fortunes on this meat-and-potatoes model.

    Michel is right; Dan Kennedy instilled the idea. Dan is the primary messenger.

    On an historically related note, it may be helpful to know that Direct Response, in
    general, is a two-trillion dollar industry. We operate by identifying baselines where available and extrapolating from them.

    We apply as much science as we’re able to use and are capable of bringing into play, but that doesn’t mean we don’t often shoot from the hip. As much depends on art and instinct as it does on science.

    Stepping beyond the simplest model can get messy, quickly and become quite complicated and costly. In a larger operation, testing a single letter to determine viability can cost $70K or more. Finding a winner may require testing fifteen or twenty letters. So, when we find what works, you’d better believe we use it. That part is simple.

    And, to some degree, that explains what and why marketers brought, what we brought to the online world — The graphic elements and financially productive design protocols that worked for offline mailings. And our limited design talent.

    To wrap up this long-copy post (sorry about that), I view *all* of the commentary here as an anticipated (and welcomed) response from a fatigued, over-advertised market.

  21. Since I’m knee-deep in the middle of product-creation time, I’ve been thinking about salesletters lately. My dream of the perfect salesletter is one that’s akin to the perfect dress: long enough to cover all the salient points, but short enough to still be interesting.

    There’s great long copy websites that have had me so drawn in that my debit card practically slinks out my wallet, and others where I don’t buy into the “dream”, and end up just page-down’ing to the end to see how much it costs.

    There’s really no magic bullet for this — but knowing who you’re selling to.

    If a salesletter is supposed to be a conversation where you’re encouraging the other person to buy, then it’s important to really know that person. When I talk to people about what I do, saying that I’m a marketer is obviously going to cause some tension (reputation…). If I tell them that that I “get paid to juggle a pen all day” — hey, that’s pretty interesting, eh? It opens the door to really talk about the subject, what I do, what I’m working on, and why they need it.

    Some of the biggest items I’ve bought have been because a salesperson took the time to actually see “beyond the horizon”. Programmers everywhere are pleased by this outcome. :)

  22. I am currently working on sales letter presentations to potential Angel Investors.

    My methodology is to create multiple “Elevator Speeches”, and then expand upon them.

    The final documents, whether they will be presented in long form, or over multiple pages, focus in on one particular reader, and allow me to write content specific to their view of the world.

    The sales process can begin before a product even exists.

  23. struggling with this issue, I tend to opt for the less less less is more.

  24. The long-copy sales letter, coupled with good design, is near-unbeatable when it comes to selling certain kinds of products.

    Uncoupled from good design, it seems that many copywriters have the same taste and sensibilities as spammers.

    Hence the prevailing dislike.