5 Tips on the Effective Use of Copywriting Swipe Files

Image of Vintage File Cabinets

Smart copywriters use good tools to make themselves more productive, and one of those “power” tools is the swipe file.

Used properly, it can get you writing quickly, provide inspiration, and improve your copywriting skills.

But what if you don’t use a swipe file correctly?

Uh-oh …

  • Your copy doesn’t hold the attention of your reader
  • The language annoys your target market
  • It makes you look unprofessional

If you want to skip these problems, and get the best benefits from using your swipe file, read on …

When ‘swiping’ killer copy kills your own promotion

Successful marketing materials can run for years using the same copy. So it makes sense to study those pieces that have stood the test of time.

Unfortunately, simply lifting words and phrases for your own marketing can have a detrimental effect. There are so many variables that make a successful promotion and compelling copy is just one piece of the puzzle.

If you simply use someone else’s style without understanding why they’re doing it that way, you might find that it won’t work at all.

It also means you’re missing the true gold of using a good swipe file: learning to master the craft of copywriting.

So here’s what you need to do:

1. Know your audience thermometer

The first rule of copywriting is knowing your audience. One style of copy will not persuade all readers.

Let’s say you look through your swipe file and find a successful promotion for a high-intensity work-out program. You decide to use the copy to help you sell computer software to the medical industry …

If you want an extraordinary ERP system for your healthcare institution, you have got to go to the extreme. You’ve got to be prepared to bring it, work it and find out who you really are. If you’re seeing other hospitals and clinics showing off their ripped business processes, they’re probably already using our ERP system.

It’s probably not going to cut it.

So the first thing to do is to gauge the style of copy your customers actually respond to best. Or as I call it, figuring out your audience thermometer, simply meaning, how ‘hot’ can you go with your copy …

Cool

If your customers are a straight talking, no-nonsense kind of crowd, think twice before copying the style of a high-energy promotion like the one above. Think lots of facts, figures, and plenty of proof.

Warm

Are your customers keen to solve their problem but need a little encouragement? Perhaps they’re unfamiliar with you or how your service works. Take the time to explain your processes like an approachable expert.

Simmering

They like you, they like your stuff but they want to know that you can do what you promise. Build on this familiarity (but don’t take it for granted), and don’t be afraid to show off a little more of your personality.

Fiery

Your audience can handle ‘hot’ so don’t shy away from really agitating the problem and making a BIG promise. (Just make sure you can keep it of course!)

2. Learn the language (don’t just memorize the words)

Understanding why a promotion is successful rather than copying the words is the difference between learning Spanish for your vacation, and simply using a phrasebook.

Knowing a few phrases might get you to the nearest bar and help you order dos cervezas.

But building your own sentences means you can party all night with the locals because you speak their language.

The same is true for your copywriting.

Let’s look at the following classic copywriting headline from John Caples:

They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano
But When I Started to Play!

Now, this was a very successful headline. But let’s say we try and copy this style, almost word for word to sell retail software.

We might have:

They Laughed When We Started Using New Point-of-Sale Software
But When Our Employee Productivity Started to Increase!

This style of language would probably feel a bit ‘off’ on the audience thermometer for a target market of retailers.

But we can still use that first headline for inspiration if we take it apart.

For example, what are the key elements of that first headline? Here are a few that spring to mind:

  • It appeals to the customer’s pride and self-image
  • It suggests unexpected results
  • The process to achieve results seems simple
  • It arouses curiosity. What kind of product could create such a surprising change?

If we applied these ideas to our audience of retailers, we might develop our own headline which appeals to their pride, offers significant results and arouses their curiosity.

For example:

One Simple Change in the Point-of-Sale Process Can Help You Outsell the Competition by %125

  • Outsell the competition — It appeals to our customer’s pride
  • By %125 — The results are unexpected
  • Simple Change — The process seems simple
  • One Simple Change — It arouses curiosity. What could that one change be?

The above headline is just an example, but the process works.

I have used elements of classic consumer copywriting headlines to build successful marketing copy for much more serious markets such as the healthcare, retail, and manufacturing industries.

3. Look for transferable words

Even though you’re learning to build your unique style of writing, you will see certain words and phrases that crop up in successful promotions across a wide range of industries.

These are little nuggets of copywriting gold.

If you can spend time building your own list of these — and have them at hand when you write — it makes it much easier than trying to think of that word you once saw that is ooh … just on the tip of your tongue.

Some common copywriting words that you’ll see repeatedly through the years and throughout many industries include:

Curiosity words

  • Unusual
  • Odd
  • Strange
  • Simple technique
  • Different
  • One small thing
  • Surprising

Problem words

  • Risk
  • Danger
  • Damages
  • Unwanted results
  • Alarming

Attention words

  • Free
  • New
  • Now
  • Finally

These words crop up time and time again because they work. They’re like little triggers to your customer’s psyche, that, when combined with the right offer, fear or benefit can amplify the value of your message and get them hooked on your copy.

4. Copy the structure

Copying the structure of a successful promotion is a great time saving device.

Whether it’s using AIDA, or problem, agitate, solve, watch how other people are laying out their offers and building the offer one paragraph at a time.

They key to this is to go through the templates of your swipe file and ask yourself “what is the writer doing here?”

Next time you go through a piece of copy you want to use for inspiration try and spot the order of the following elements:

  • Grabbing the reader’s attention
  • Outlining the benefits
  • Stating the offer
  • Outlining the product details
  • Covering objections
  • Making a big promise
  • Building proof in the product
  • Providing risk-reversal
  • Building credibility in the company or seller
  • Closing the sale

There will be a variety of formats, which means you can create a number of different outlines that you can then have to hand when writing your own landing page, blog post, or web copy.

5. Don’t be afraid to try something new …

While it is important to adapt your swipe file inspiration to your style and your target market, there’s a lot to be said for being brave enough to try something new.

There are countless stories of people who have borrowed a marketing style from outside their industry and used it to great effect.

Bill Glazer spent years marketing his menswear business using methods all other menswear businesses were using. When he applied radically different techniques from Dan Kennedy, his business grew 37% in a year.

That’s another reason why swipe files can be pure gold, you can see what’s working in other industries and test them in yours.

You might even stumble on a winning formula that other copywriters include in their own swipe file!

How about you?

What have you learned from using a swipe file in the past?

Share your own secrets below so we can all copy … ahem, find inspiration in them.

About the Author: Amy Harrison is a copywriter and content trainer. She provides workshops for businesses that need to write captivating content. She’s the host of AmyTV, an irreverent look at writing better content. As a Copyblogger reader, click here to get your free sales page and content writing gifts.

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Comments

  1. These are some great instructions! I particularly liked the example of using Spanish to order dos cervesas, great analogy! Thank you for the post.

    • Maybe it’s just a local thing, but most of the folks I know keep that phrase in their back pocket when they holiday ;-)

  2. I totally agree – it’s all about what you learn from the copy, not just keeping it as some (mostly ignored) reference item.

    Not to be spammy, but I started a Swipe File on my blog, and that’s what it’s all about – showing you the copy, sure, but also telling you what I learnt from it.

    Because if you don’t pick something out to learn, it’s a pointless exercise!

    • Hey Stephen,

      I just finished a training exercise in Bulgaria and I happily swiped from lots of different writers / businesses to illustrate different types of copy. Immersing yourself in what other people are doing (and understanding why they’re doing it) is invaluable.

  3. Yeah, I have a large swipe file or two. I don’t use them that often though. Sometimes I look for clues if I ever get stumped, but that doesn’t happen too often.

    I would be careful with words like “free”. I’ve noticed a lot of the time, that “free”, and similar attention getters, get over used, and they lose their appeal. When customers start seeing something too much, they begin to disbelieve.

    So, I almost never use the word “free” in my promotions. But, it is true, though, that people love to get free stuff. So how do you combat this? With my favorite writers tool, the thesaurus!

    Happy writing,

    Josh

    • Free is a funny one, and I’d love for others to weight in on this. It definitely gets attention and for me it has worked for my aims but I’d love to hear if anyone else has been inundated with freebie-hunters who aren’t buying. I’ve always found free content to work.

  4. Too right, Amy, some copywriters pick up a few ideas for their swipe file and think they’ve gotta use them all the time.

    But, on the flip side, here’s an example of where I took a great headline intended for a completely different audience and made it work for another:

    ‘The Brain-Dead Simple but Astonishingly Effective Way to Become a Better Writer’ was recent post on Jon Morrow’s BoostBlogTraffic blog.

    A few weeks later I wrote a marketing email for advertising placements in a local magazine. The concept behind the mag was an age-old and very simple formula – highly targeted local advertising only where you need it.

    So what did I use as the email subject line? You guessed it:

    The brain-dead simple but astonishingly effective way to market your business.

    Kinda fits doesn’t it?

  5. Killer tips here Amy!

    I think understanding your audience is the most critical part in knowing what areas of other’s copy you can lift and what parts you can’t.

    If you know your audience, you’ll be able to figure out whether or not they’ll feel that your copy is “authentic”, because if it isn’t, they’ll soon feel discomfort and be far less likely to be convinced!

    • Daryl

      That’s exactly, it’s all about sounding genuine, not faking it with some “swipe files”…

    • Wicked points Daryl. Especially as audience is everything.

      Today I held a workshop with people from Portugal, Malta, Brussels, Italy, Slovenia and Poland.

      I’ll admit that it caught me completely off guard and just studying one headline meant that we had to translate that for each audience depending on culture and objectives. Apparently a wicked headline in English would be an absolute joke in Italian. Lots to learn!

  6. Hi Amy,

    I liked how you pointed out that sometimes using an idea from your swipe file may not transfer to another target audience. This is why it’s important to know who your audience is and market directly to them.

    I created a Power Words file in Evernote and have over 1,500 power words (one of a kind, red hot, alert, battle, exhausted, and imagine (to name a few)) that I refer to whenever I’m stuck. I also look at the direct mail pieces I receive on a daily basis and take inspiration from them.

    Swipe files can spark your inspiration when you don’t feel like writing a blog post. Marketing pieces are creative. :)

    • I have both an online file and a stack of mail order magazines that I delight in flicking through when looking for inspiration :-) I have happily reused elements that wouldn’t be recognised in the forms that I’ve used them, so yay inspiration.

  7. hi Amy

    I rarely use swipe files “as is”. I usually read them for inspiration or find hooks. I have a bunch of swipe files for headlines, P.S., money back guarantees, and whole sales letters…

    If you don’t know the basics and overlook the customers’ language, any swipe file will be used the wrong way. So first things first: re-read today’s article, and get to know “em” like never before. Then use swipe files for inspiration not word by word copy-cat.

    Does it help?

    • Hey John,

      I like your point about overlooking the customer’s language. If you copy a swipe file as-is and it doesn’t work, you might feel there is no value in that copy. Developing a habit to look at the techniques beneath the word helps you adapt them to your situation.

  8. I’m pretty new to the game so a swipe file is honestly something I had to go and Google! I have been doing something similar to this in an Excel spreadsheet. Standout posts on FB and Twitter get recorded on it with interactions/exposure logged as well. It’s good to go back and see what worked and why in one sheet like that.

    Would you recommend putting posts from competitors in the swipe file? I could see the benefit of it but I’m wondering if that is a good idea given point number 5, being different.

    Nice!

  9. Nice article with thoughtful points! Thanks for sharing. Too many people swipe phrases and buzzwords in the B2B marketing world without understanding what they mean, and some of the most boring copy on the internet ends up defining our industry. Appreciate your thoughtful approach to swiping here and think it’s relevant for all marketers–not just copywriters.

    • Thanks Lisa,

      I was speaking to a marketer whose company had developed a great product that they kept referring to internally as a ‘global, innovative tool’ and they wanted to keep this phrase in her marketing. she had to explain that most customers she spoke to had no idea what this meant. Sometimes you also have to be careful if you’re swiping internal communication phrases for external use.

      • Excellent point! Internal company jargon rarely translates into something that would motivate a prospect — and that’s hard for company people who cherish their jargon to understand and let go of.

  10. Eric, that is an awesome point. I would have to say that to start out with, my swipe file was mostly competitors, but as I flexed my writing muscles, I found myself looking for inspiration from those who were not directly competitors, but who were perhaps outside of the industry. It’s down to your judgment but I would recommend you to spend time looking for sources who were not direct competitors but who could help inspire you to develop your own style.

  11. I keep a small file of paper advertisements and marketing advice. I’ve learned A LOT from other hypnosis marketers. I’ve integrated some of their language into my marketing blogs/updates/tweets etc. with great success. The best advice I can give a marketer who is new to using a swipe file is to run a split test. Publish one copy of a piece using powerful words that you pull and one with synonyms you’ve used in the past with your audience. See which one gets you more conversions. :)

    • That’s a good suggestion Malinda, and one that I think can help people overcome their fear of using new techniques or words on their audience.

  12. Like lots of writers I’ve know, I usually follow the ‘what’s trending style’. Thus, using some current news and relate to my topic like for example relating the issue of British airways to social media and what lessons can we learn from it. Things like that. Well, it’s not bad to copy as long as your better than the one your copying. :)

    • What is it they say for creative processes – “assimilate, replicate, innovate”?

      Sounds like that would work well for swiping copy.

  13. Swipe files can be helpful, but it should only be used as a source or reference for ideas and inspiration. I, for one, am not really a fan of using swipe files because somehow, the original copy does affect how I write my own copy. What I do is I analyze what made the swipe file so successful in the first place and just draw from that.
    The point I have to agree with the most is knowing your audience. If you know what your audience likes and wants, you can write an original piece catering to what they are looking for. It’s about making your piece true and genuine.

    • That is interesting, I wonder how much we absorb a tone or style without knowing, just from studying a piece of copy.

      If I’m ghost-writing, I try and absorb as much material as possible to adopt their style, but when it comes to using a swipe file for a new audience, that wouldn’t be the best outcome.

      Thanks for commenting!

  14. Swiped your list of “transferable words” into Evernote.

  15. Amy–your article was informative and inspirational; but more … it was educational and triggered comments from writers adding more education for those persons taking the time to read the many comments–like one bird that flies and stirs flight from the flock! Thanks for your good work.

  16. Love the article, Amy!

    Too often, the definition of a swipe file focuses largely on what you summarize in tip #3 – that of transferring words from one successful piece of copywriting to another piece of content, in the hopes of getting the same great results. That’s a technique to use, for sure, but relying too heavily on just that strategy can cause pieces of a writer’s work to look too similar to one another and become templated.

    Your article goes beyond that, especially in tips #2 and #4, moving writers beyond simply looking at the surface of a successful piece of copy. You encourage them to delve deeply into the structure of the writing and glean important lessons that way. And THAT, to me, is the heart of swiping — a concept that you have articulated clearly and effectively.

  17. Thanks for the comment Kelly,

    I do enjoy pulling apart other writers’ works to find the lesson beneath. You have more flexibility that way when you adapt it to your own killer copy. :-)