10 Principles for Turning into a Killer (Copywriter)

Image of Quick Copy Tips Icon

In spite of being a literary snob, when I was first introduced to the world of direct-response copywriting … I fell in love.

I fell in love with the thought of using my writing to influence and persuade people.

I also fell in love with the idea of getting rich. (I wanted to be a wealthy snob).

But the road between loving it and actually writing with great skill (and making obscene amounts of money) is a long one. And I had one particular road block: I was the poet, but certainly not the killer

That would’ve been beneath me.

See, as a new copywriter I wanted what I wrote to sound so good that people would cock their heads, grin, and say, “Boy, you are so clever!” In other words, I wanted my ego to get stroked because of my creativity.

Unfortunately that desire held me back.

I didn’t write effective copy until I humbled myself and became that killer. And I didn’t become that killer until I understood the following ten principles behind effective sales copy …

1. The only purpose of advertising

Advertising is nothing more than a planned and purposeful neglect of everything except making the sale.

This means you need to include things in sales copy that support that plan — exalting benefits, building trust, overcoming objections.

Discard anything that doesn’t achieve those purposes. If you walk away from this post with only one lesson, let it be this: Good advertising is defined by actual revenue.

2. Treat sales copy like a salesman

Since your single goal is to make the sale, treat your copy like a salesperson and evaluate it on performance.

Does it sell or doesn’t it? If it sells, keep it and attempt to squeeze even more out of it. If it isn’t selling, fire it.

Here’s the thing. A salesman can only sell to one person at a time. Sales copy can sell to thousands at a time. The corollary to that truth is that a bad salesman can only harm your company a little. But bad advertising can harm your company a lot.

3. Sell in person first

When I was 14, I was offered a job as a canvasser for a home-improvement company. The guy who offered me the job was very friendly. I was going to work with a close friend, too. But I never showed up for my first day.

When I was 18, I took a job selling newspaper subscriptions. It was a trial run. I was supposed to call 100 people. I called two people. I was supposed to work eight hours. I took the offer to leave — without pay — after four.

It wasn’t until I was in my third or fourth year as a professional that I sold anything. Over the phone. And I spent two weeks as the customer service manager. It was difficult — but very rewarding. It’s being in the hot seat … thinking on your feet … that cuts a potent copywriter.

Before you try to sell your product online with sales copy … try to sell it in person first.

4. Use copy that would help a salesman

Now that you have had experience at selling … use what you learned to help you sell in print.

Would telling a joke help a salesman? Possibly. Would sharing the benefits of a product help? Absolutely. Would identifying with the customer’s pain point help a salesman? Yes. Would showing empathy help? Definitely. Would an example of social proof help? Yup. What about trotting out an authority? Indeed.

5. Clear, concise, and compelling conversation

Good salesman are not verbose. They do not use fancy words. They speak like an aged rural sheriff. Calm, confident, and kind.

They are patient, good listeners, and fantastic storytellers. Each word is pronounced properly. Each story is trimmed of excess. It’s a spell-binding time spent with a good salesman. In fact, you don’t even know you are being sold.

6. Literary writers are rarely good copywriters

William S. Burroughs. Lew Welch. Joseph Heller.

All writers who were once copywriters. They came from the educational ranks, did the responsible thing, and got a job. That job taught them the most important thing about writing: be clear, concise, and compelling.

It’s not the other way around. Literature doesn’t have much to teach copywriting. Tell a good story. Give your reader what she wants. Literary writers (like me) have to be broken to become good copywriters.

Interestingly, though, what you’ll  learn is that copywriting will make you a better literary writer, too.

7. Ignore the “Brief Copy” thumpers

There’s a pervasive thought (typically from non-writers) that sales copy should be brief … a paragraph or two … and the images should sell. This comes from the same person who has no problem reading a 3,000-word article in Sports Illustrated or a 70,000-word novel.

It’s not the length that matters. People will read forever if you make it about them.

If it’s interesting and solves a meaningful problem, it wil get read.

8. Avoid the strange and unusual

Imagine you walked into an auto dealership. You’re in the mood to buy a new car. It’s snowing outside, so the salesmen are idle, chatting behind the Volvo SUV in the showroom.

One walks toward you. He’s wearing a black vest, massive, billowing white scarf, white baseball pants, and a pair of pink Adidas running shoes. He doesn’t introduce himself, but asks you a riddle instead. It has something to do with caterpillars and pillows. You ask if he’s the mascot. No, he’s a salesman. Did he miss his morning medication? No, it’s who he is. You ask to see someone else.

Listen, I love me some dysfunctional. Some unusual. But when it comes to selling — be plain and simple. Black and white.

9. Don’t think of your audience — think of her

When it comes to selling online you are not in a conference room (with a chandelier) working a crowd of one hundred … or a crowd of ten thousand. When you sit down to write, picture yourself selling to one person.

You need to woo her and her alone.

A salesman does the same thing. He works on one customer at a time. Sure, he may be juggling a handful of prospects. But he never addresses these prospects as a group. He focuses on each prospect individually.

10. Study your customer

The best salesman and the best copywriter are both unapologetic students of the customer and product. Another way to put it: it’s not about you.

A good copywriter digs into the customer’s history, her likes, and dislikes. He studies her friends, her habits. He drills her with questions, bounces ideas off of her. He spends a great deal of time listening and good deal time of shutting his mouth. He never objects to what she says, but finds everything fascinating.

And then he studies the product. He looks for the angle — the hook — that will attract the attention of his customer, stir her desire, and build her interest in the product as if she feels that the product was made for her — and her alone, so not purchasing seems rather silly.

Your turn …

Great sales copy isn’t going to impress your writing professor. It probably isn’t going to win any awards.

What it will do, however, is persuade people to buy your product. And make you a good deal of money. That’s the “killer” way.

Become a killer today.

About the author

Demian Farnworth


Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Twitter or LinkedIn to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. Congratulations, Demian – I’ve finally managed to find someone who sounds like they were a worse salesperson than I was.
    To paraphrase Lancelot in John Boorman’s Excalibur,
    “The worst salesperson in the world, worsted!”
    I stuck at it for ten miserable years before stints in customer service, purchasing and e-commerce.
    Now I copywrite and blog for the company website and, if nothing else, I think my years in sales have given some idea of what customers want to hear about. (At least I hope they have).

  2. Archan Mehta :

    Thanks for your contribution: I had a fun time reading your post.

    Your ideas are interesting, but I believe that writers are artists whereas copywriters are salespeople.

    There is a difference between writing for your target audience and writing that comes straight from your soul without any desire to sell to customers.

    Some of our finest literary artists were not runaway success stories and did not write best-sellers.

    Some of our best creatives have died “unhonored, unsung and unheard” and were not recognised during their life-times; they gained fame posthumously.

    And most, well, not even that: we know so little about starving artists who passed away penniless, their creative output never shared with the world outside. There are so many potential stories here that we need to know about, but we are still groping in the dark.

    Other than that, your insights are valid and your ideas are spot on.

  3. To #6, let’s add that Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and Elmore Leonard were also hotshot copywriters before hitting their “artistic” stride.

    In Leonard you can see the punchy, concise influence of copywriting. In the other two… not so much :)

  4. I couldn’t agree with number 3 more, especially about being in the ‘hot seat.’ It is so easy to hide behind the internet and hear what you want to hear. But when you are face-to-face with someone, you cannot ignore their genuine concerns. It is about more than ‘selling’ in person. It is about listening.

    • I also found face to face also forces you to grow some courage … I have no problem going for the ask in an email or blog post, but in person or on the phone … it’s a lot harder.

  5. Selling in person was illuminating. I hopped on the phone with my prospect, delivered my free consultation, then went into my pitch.

    Turns out she had to interrupt me for me to get to the point. Partially because she had another appointment, and partially because she was already interested in the offer.

    Lesson learned – offer a speed ramp for people who don’t need as much information to be sold.

  6. Thank you very very much for that great article. It’s one of the best articles on our job I’ve ever read. It also helps me because I would like to write great short stories. But I’m not very good at it. Reading your article I understand why. I’ve a question: If you started again in our profession… what would you study? Creative Writing? Journalism? Marketing? Or anything else?
    Thank you for the best newsletter on copywriting
    Peter J. Beck

    • I would do it the exact same way: dive into the world of direct response marketing. It really does’t mater what your background/education was in. As long as you like to write. It’s how I tell/train other writers to do it, too.

  7. Hey Damian!

    Spot on!

    I spent a long time hiding my farming roots when I moved to Toronto, until I realized that those plain-talking, arrow-straight zinging, bench-chatting traits were much better gifts than my degree ever was.

    Your post was terrific and I really enjoyed it.

    BTW, you missed the fun of having a Fuller-Brush or a Watkins guy come to the door if you only tried tele-sales. Those guys made friends fast and we were glad to see both them and their products when they showed up. I think of them every time I start imagining that copy is an intrusion.

    Best wishes,
    David

    • Haha, I’m sure those guys would’ve put me to shame. The thought of knocking on someone’s door to sell them something makes me want to vomit. I always admire the people who do when they come to the door. And if they are good at it I tell them so.

  8. Great tips. I used to be the guy who wanted to sound clever also. And being clever almost got me evicted. great post

  9. A wonderfully written piece. Thanks Demian!

    Even with sales copywriting, it still needs to benefit the reader. Offering something that is valuable is the most effective form of copywriting.

  10. I love this! This is SO true. I have a degree in English Literature and a Masters in Creative Writing but the best experiences I have to draw upon for my day job are the two months I spent selling ad space on the phone as a student.

    (Once I’d worked out that the way in was not – “Hi! We’ve got ad space!” but, rather, “Hi! We can help you clear out the junk from your spare room. It’s easy – and here’s how.”)

    And the year I spent in an art gallery selling beautiful – and expensive – work to people who’d just ‘popped in to have a look’.

    Sadly my time selling double glazing was similar to yours on the newspaper subscriptions desk … a week long contract that didn’t quite make it past the Tuesday – but I made some great mates! …. Every cloud and all that.

    As for short and punchy – I love Chris Brogan’s advice to read Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’. As a model for the snappy sentence length it is superb.

    A great post Demian – *prints and pins to wall*
    Thanks!

    • Thanks for the fantastic comment. Never read “Shipping News” though I had a copy. Hemingway did if for me.

      Sad to say I never made any friends at the news sub desk … I wanted out of their bad I didn’t care to meet anyone. I think in my immature mind I thought that the people who were successful there were not the kind of people I’d want to be friends with. The snob strikes again. :/

  11. So true, especially the first one, which is sometimes the hardest one to learn. No one will care about how fascinating a detail is if it is not applicable to the general point of your post.

  12. Demian, thanks a lot for these awesome tips!!! I especially liked number 2. (Treat sales copy like a salesman).

  13. Personal connection is great, but perhaps difficult on a large scale. Maybe the use of video conferencing will get more widespread.

  14. Great advice Demian! I’ve been working on improving my copywriting skills, I will definitely keep these in mind as a write, Thanks for sharing!

  15. Thanks Demian, it’s true; we need to be more like a salesman. I haven’t been a salesman yet. We will put this on our wall as a checklist and reminder!

  16. Great post… it’s in my Evernote.

    To hone your killer ‘copywriter’ skills, find a piece of revenue generating copy and “copy” it. I recommend using a legal pad instead of a word processing document. There’s something about writing on a legal pad that makes the exercise worthwhile.

    FYI: you can use this exercise for blog posts and articles too.

    You can copy the greatest copywriters, just don’t plagiarize them. :)

    • Great advice, Amandah. And writing it out long hand is the superior method. I’ve done both, but I don’t do it nearly as much as I should. Thanks for the nudge. ;)

  17. Great list! It’s strange because most of the points listed SHOULD be common sense yet few people actually practice them, myself include. I am one of those people that switch off when someone tries to sell to me and I was creating content to match my personality. Needless to say my results were not good until I adapted.

    • That’s an interesting point (about creating content to match your personality). And you are right, that’s our default in situations in which we are trying to persuade someone … in that case I wouldn’t call it intuitive, though. :D

  18. Hi Damian, this is a great post, I can definitely relate!

    I’m currently reading Advertising Secrets by Joe Sugarman, and I can see a lot of similar ideas between your post and the first 1/3 of his book. There’s a part he talks about creating a setting to make the sale, the same way you would make a fancy presentation to sell a piece of art which is similar to no.9 here.

    I also agree with the last point. I recently started blogging about personal branding, and tried this time around to take a moment to figure out who I’m writing to ironically that spawned ideas for posts I can write I probably wouldn’t have thought of! :-)

  19. Kendra Dahlstrom :

    Great article. Keeping messages simple, relevant and empathetic is key.

  20. Jeff Schaffzin :

    This article completely contradicts the reason why people institute content marketing initiatives. It seems to promote creating content that benefits sales which is an old way of thinking and ultimately the customer suffers.

    Now more than ever, companies need to think of more imaginative ways to get a customer engaged and promoting the personal touch may be good initially, but hardly sustainable. You may not want to buy from the auto salesperson that you mentioned above, but that is the one that I gravitate towards because I don’t like slickness and I am sure others feel the same way as me.

    Think about high tech companies and if you don’t interface in that arena, an auto manufacturer. I personally buy from companies who try to educate me on why they are the best product on the market, not spit out feeds and speeds and expect their sales reps to close the deal. That’s just craziness.

    Check out the Content Marketing Institute to learn more — I have absolutely no affiliation with them other than a person who likes their articles, tips and tricks.

    • We’re very familiar with CMI, we’ve spoken there in the past and will be leading an intensive workshop at their conference this fall. :)

      Unfortunately (and CMI does not make this error), many suffer from the belief that content marketing isn’t about selling. Content marketing is about making the sale in an ethical way that respects the intelligence of the customer.

      All of these techniques need to be set in that context, which is what we teach every day here.

      If CMI or any content marketing expert tried to tell businesses to publish content that had no sales function, they would rightly be shown the door. Marketing exists to facilitate the process of a stranger becoming a prospect, and in turn becoming a customer.

      If the marketer is honest and describes the product truthfully (and you’re a fool if you think you can get away with anything else), the customer benefits.

      • Jeff Schaffzin :

        Thanks for replying to my comment!

        I agree with your second comment wholeheartedly.

        Maybe I am being naive here but I hardly think that any marketer would write content without having some sort of hook to move them from mildly interested to becoming a prospect (at the very least).

        The biggest mistake that a marketing writer can make is fail to do that, especially in sales collateral. This is easily remedied when a copywriter doesn’t simply write about the products and/or services that s/he is asked to write copy, but actually gets a chance to see it in action or ideally use it/them.

        Besides, if you are a truthful marketer, not only does the customer benefit, your company does because will you (hopefully) gain a customer but also an advocate for your company and/or its products.

  21. A wonderfully written piece. Thanks Demian!

  22. Well said Demian.

    Sell in person first, I like that :-) That will definitely show you what you’re capable of won’t it?

    There was a time when I couldn’t sell water to a thirsty man but going through all these principles and really understanding them, anyone can write great copy.

  23. Ruth Sheldon :

    The points you make aren’t new, but you have an artful and memorable way of stating them. You’ve got the “bones” of a great copywriter and the “soul” of a artist (which is way better than that of a snob).

  24. Fantastic article Demian. You make a very, very good point in #2… “a bad salesman can only harm your company a little. But bad advertising can harm your company a lot.” Online sales copy can reach so many people, it’s crucial that it presents you and your business in the best possible light.

    The waiter story? Do tell ;)

    • The short version: I could not understand why people kept asking me for things. I took their order, I brought their food. What more did they want from me? The tips, if there was one, said it all.