There's enough fake and bland out there. We need an edge. Catch42 is our monthly newsletter, where we discuss ideas at the disruptive margins of digital culture, marketing, e-commerce, business strategy, and humans. All our open questions, obsessions, findings, and sources of inspiration.
Copywriting is hard. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it sucks. It's science, and inspiration, it’s practice, and luck. It's painting with words, and making music with them. Also noise. Today we bring you some tips on writing content that sells and doesn't stink.
There's more than meets the word
This issue is based on two fundamental assumptions: One, that you know how important copywriting is. That it can turn heads, inspire people, drive sales, define your brand, make or break your business. And two, that marketing is not an art form, and copywriting is not literature in the same way that web design will never match the beauty of an Impressionist masterpiece.
And yet, carefully choosing the best words and using them to craft content that conveys concepts, feelings, conviction and purpose certainly requires – and creates – some sense of beauty. Copywriting is the art of assembling words chosen specially to speak on behalf of a brand, in a beautiful way that delivers a message memorably, sometimes even a memorable message, that does things to those who receive it.
In this new and fascinating world of microchip golems barfing novels out of mouse clicks, we owe to our craft, and to us making it, a commitment to some essential definitions of what we believe good (truly good) content is about.
It’s about form, and its inherent beauty. No matter how relevant your content may be, writing is always about writing well. At least trying to. There’s certainly not one unique way to achieve this but it will inevitably involve good choices and combinations. What’s “good” anyway?
"Good" is that it works, so copywriting is also about efficiency. That’s the key element separating copywriting from art. As a marketer, you write for others, not because you need to tell a story. Your copy must deliver results. And that requires honing your skills, understanding human behavior, and being consistent.
It’s about writing truth – and I will keep repeating this at the danger of sounding like a self-righteous prick. Of course, you want to present content in a persuasive way that drives sales, but although it can be done, it’s much harder to sell lovely packaged crap. Even the worst brands can have outstanding marketing that's honest. I’m a firm believer that truth-based marketing lives longer.
Lastly, although writing copy is not about you, none of this would work without a pinch of, well, you. Your content should be quirky, unique, emphatic, ballsy, unexpected, challenging, convincing, good-weird. Like the people who write it, and the people who read it. True originality is wishful thinking (everything is a remix), but we can rise to the challenge, dare to put some heart into our writing, and make something special.
Perhaps it is a kind of art after all.
Time to polish our writing skills
Like genius, good copywriting involves more perspiration than inspiration, but you'll need both. Practice makes perfect, and inspiration makes better. Here are our favorite tips to up your writing game.
1️⃣ The classics still kick ass
It doesn't matter if you're a newbie or an experienced writer, going back to the roots always works. Here’s good brainfood from some of the giants on whose shoulders we stand:
- Sugarman’s solid stash of savvy sweetness. As perfect as can be.
- Learn and practice good ‘ol classic techniques (like appealing to emotion, using rhythm, and the rule of three).
- And of course, Ogilvy on Advertising, (also in the Digital Age).
2️⃣ Unleash science!
Humans are neither entirely rational nor totally emotional. We’re a messy blend of both. Effective copy combines emotion and logic; the first one makes you buy, the second one makes you feel good about it. It sounds like an oversimplification and it is. But still, effective copywriting is about understanding human behavior, and the mental patterns that influence decisions.
Behavioral marketing is a huge, potentially endless subject (humans are the test subjects, and we’re potentially endless, too). Here are a few of our current favs:
They are the shortcuts your mind takes when faced with a decision, sometimes with fancy names, like the widely known FOMO, more formally described as Loss Aversion, or Bandwagon Effect, Costly Signalling, Scarcity Tactics and even day-to-day social pressure. Useful tips and examples here and here (particularly, but not exclusively, about UX).
Understanding these hard-wires allows you to write piggybacking on human brain's defaults and automatic assumptions.
The Pratfall Effect.
We make mistakes. It used to be what made us human, until Chat you-know-what came by. Being honest about your flaws can be a good thing. The Pratfall effect is a cognitive bias that makes it easier for you to like someone when you know their flaws. It's super useful for candid writing, though it can be overused/misused too.
It’s not magic, it’s science!
A quick tour of some psychological principles behind copy that drives conversions by Hubspot. Lots of good stuff there.
Oh wait, it’s both!
Creative genius and advertising legend Rory Sutherland makes a case for standing up against the tyranny of logic and being a bit more magical. Marry creativity.
3️⃣ Headlines are people, too
Well, not really, but if you only take away one quick and actionable tip from this list, it should be to mind your headlines. Make sure you devote some time and care to them. They’re cliffhangers that you put at the beginning. It’s the fastest track to engage an audience, improve reading speed, and convey your brand’s
voice and tone. You can start with these guidelines:
- Scanning is a reaction, reading is a choice. Play with words and give hints to trigger interest.
- Copy is user experience. Read (or re-read) Krug’s Don’t make me think if you want to learn how to make things easy and enjoyable.
- Remember these have to work. Google is smart enough to understand context and authority now, but headlines still play a role in SEO. Here’s a good round-up of tips. Make sure you balance the technical part with human and functional content though.
- Everything is a headline. Many times neglected, micro-copywriting is a fine thread that helps you convey style and enjoyment across your entire digital experience. Give your small texts some love. They’re nice little surprises that truly make a difference.
4️⃣ Be kind, rewind
Etiquette and style matter. Back to what we said about form and function. But it goes beyond that. The only similarities between being a copywriter and a con artist are that both require observation, creativity, talent, and expertise. Here are some assorted tips and ideas about style, and also about honesty, respect, and truth.
It’s easy to write good things about good things. But if you don’t have them, you can be honest about that too.
We try hard to make things look easy. We think there's value in uncomplicating things, showcasing simplicity. Easy is simple. It doesn’t mean we must write everything for dummies. That doesn’t mean you have to sound arrogant either:
"It is a mistake to use highfalutin language when you advertise (...) I once used the word OBSOLETE in a headline, only to discover that 43% of housewives had no idea what it meant. In another headline, I used the word INEFFABLE, only to discover that I didn't know what it meant myself”. David Ogilvy.
Also, humble pie. We should all have a slice. People aren’t really desperate to read our copy, which should remind us of the duty (and opportunity) to make reading it worth their while.
Long story short, make sure you can walk the talk, and (unless it really, really, really fits your brand) try not to be an asshole.
5️⃣ Speaking of long and short, go Bothism
Yes, size matters. We know because we had to cut down this newsletter in half. How do you define what's adequate?
- Our Pat says length does not determine quality, but it matters. It’s part of the form, and of the effect.
- Short copy takes time and skill to craft. And it works. Inspiration: Shortest stories ever written.
- But, plot twist, here's a case for long copy too. Just keep an eye on pace, rhythm and euphony.
- Is writing a form of design? Absobloodylutely
A-lone way to the top
Nope. This mountain has no top and copywriting is not a solitary pursuit. You write on behalf of your clients (which means "for the good of, or representing someone", but originally meant by someone’s side), and you write to their clients, or to those who will be their clients, if your work works.
Ideally, it’s not an entirely solitary activity either. Getting feedback and/or collaboration can make your work more efficient, thanks to the extra set of everything that a trusted colleague can bring to the table, to the process, or to the page. Run important things by someone who can make it better, or help you make it better.
Even if you are writing on your own, show what you consider to be your final draft to the person you will be tomorrow. Read what you wrote aloud, then edit. Like Hemingway said, before becoming an app we use to help us check our writing: The first draft of anything is shit.
Coda: Magic Contradictions
Words sell ideas, not the other way around. But it doesn’t mean you can do without them. You need ideas, at least one, and to a certain extent, any one will do, specially if it’s a good one. And even if it doesn’t work, because that means you are closer to finding out what might. That’s the fertile science bit, the experiment, which is constant and creative and uncertain, and sometimes even silly, or risky, or counterintuitive. Or contradictory. Rory taught us that the opposite of a good idea can be another good idea.
If we can resist the urge to pick a side like a hill and die on it, we might see that the best approach to our work is perhaps to combine the best of all seemingly contradictory approaches. Science, art, passion, and technique, together.
Good taste, good art, and good writing can be goal selling
DDB's William Bernbach, in his 1947 letter to Grey.
Things that make you go ❤️ Copywriting Edition
- What she did. We love it. Mouthy marketer. We love that too. Can we be friends?
- “Write like you talk” is timeless, priceless copywriting advice, specially now, when making sure your copy reads like it was written by a human is actually a thing. Irreverent, cheeky, opinionated, it’s fine, your copy should be as authentic as possible.
- Speaking of Mr. Ferreira, subscribe to his fantastic Creative Samba newsletter and become a better writer.
- Superb piece on how Unorthodox copywriting skills practice works too.
Numbers. Most are not fake.
- B2B buyers engage with more than three (and up to twelve) pieces of content to make a purchase decision
- 1926 The year this happened. And someone made a song about it.
- Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
- 42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Just sayin'.
Quick agency stuff before we go 🎺
Time for some shameless autobombo, agency, and partner news.
- Our CTO spent last week at BigDev. (We threw a bit of a Pratfall there too).
- In the wise words of Dora the Explorer, we did it. For the 5th year in a row, we made it to Agency Spotter’s top 100 digital agencies report.
- We’re so proud of how we solved the impossible copywriting challenge of selling a product without being able to say anything about it that we’re sharing this again. What we did for Treehouse.
Thank you, next
Stories are better if they're well-written. We'll be back in a month to talk all things #copywriting. Using words, tools, tricks, and frameworks to create content that stands out and doesn't look like the AI subpar crap everyone's spamming us with.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.
Got questions? Suggestions? Opinions? Cats? (We love all of those).
Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org