How is great copy really made?

May 24, 2021

Issue #130—May 21, 2021
Over the past week or so, I’ve been talking about how some companies (and even so-called “goo roos”) seem to think copywriters can be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI) software.

I’ve shared some real-life nightmare stories from some of your fellow Copy Insiders about clients who use minute-by-minute time trackers for copywriters, treating them like Amazon warehouse workers.

And I’ve broken down a newspaper-style direct mail promo I received recently that’s successfully using “old school” direct response copy principles in a format that effectively targets and persuades people who are mostly likely to buy (yes, those older 65 to 80-year-olds who like to read and who have money to spend.)

If you missed any of these emails, you can find them here on my blog.

The idea that we as copywriters can just churn out sales copy and have it be successful in converting a cold prospect into a buyer, especially in highly competitive markets, is a cheap client’s wet dream misconstrued idea.

There are proponents of “good enough” copy (I know, I’ve mentored some folks who work for these companies or clients) who believe the real magic is in the optimization of promotions…the email subject line tweaks or other minor tests that produce any kind of bump in conversions (it’s often not much).

But this “good enough” copy can end up costing far more when you factor in how much better great copy could perform…and how much money is being left on the table when clients and copywriters are settling for less.

It’s more apparent than ever that the way to great copy isn’t using templates, formulas, or AI. They can be helpful for short-cutting the process…but they can also send you down the wrong path to lookalike, “me too” copy from the start.

It’s why you have to spend the time on research…and ideally, do it yourself. If you have specifics of what you know you want, hire a researcher if you like.

But it’s that process of pulling up articles and studies that often generates more ideas and questions that you’ll want to make sure you pursue. And that can be lost if you’re farming it out.

Then, giving yourself time to walk away, think about something else, and let the big idea reveal itself, is an essential step in the process. (It’s one reason I had my mentees recently read “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young, a valuable and efficient read).

This is how great copy is made. (And we haven’t even talked about the writing part yet!)

The same direct response copywriting principles used 10, 30, even 100 years ago still apply today more than ever.

Reading classic books like Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising and Gene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising…and studying successful direct response promos…can give any copywriter a huge advantage they can apply to whatever hot new format or marketing channel comes along in the years and decades ahead.

(And it’s the best way to ward off the AI robot threat.)

Here’s something to keep in mind, though, as you read these classic books and study successful ads from decades ago. We are all mostly selling in markets that are in the 4th, if not 5th, stage of market sophistication.

There are still markets where 3rd stage market sophistication-like headlines and hooks will work. But after I did a presentation on this topic last week for a breakout group of folks in Brian Kurtz’s Titans Xcelerator mastermind, I realized something…

Many of my most successful control promos have resulted from my use of a 4th stage market sophistication headline going up against a 3rd stage headline. With a 4th stage headline, you need to enlarge the mechanism, and make it faster, surer, more effective.

Let me share with you an example of a 4th stage headline versus a 3rd stage.

Below is a promo for a digestive supplement that was the control (it was written by David Deutsch well over a decade ago). At the time, the digestion niche was hot…there were tons of probiotic and other offers clogging up mailboxes.

As you can see, David’s headline is a third stage headline…it’s introducing a new mechanism (the idea of a “simple solution that strengthens your entire digestive system”). It’s a new way of solving the problem…

Now take a look at the promo I wrote that eventually became the new control for this product…as you can see, I’m taking a fourth-stage approach to the main headline and deck copy.

I’m immediately acknowledging (and agitating) how all the other digestive solutions they’re trying aren’t living up to their promises.

And I’m enlarging the mechanism by making it more effective (“actually repairs your digestion” so you can put an end to your digestive misery) and faster-acting (“Starts working the very first day!”)

Important note: for several years, both mine and David’s promos were for the most part “tied”…so they were both rotated and used as controls. But my promo is the one that’s still being used more than a decade later, mostly as an online sales page.

So if you’re competing in saturated markets like most of the various supplement niches, financial publishing, weight loss, skin care, and others, you can bet you are speaking to the most jaded, “seen it all” prospects.

In fact, it’s one reason why in many markets “stage 5” headlines may work better. More than a decade ago, the great Jim Rutz’s headline “Read This or Die” called out to a large group of prospects who could identify with the underlying promise…but would have been skeptical of a more direct claim or promise.

That Rutz promo was for an alternative health newsletter…and even in the mid-2000’s, that niche was moving beyond stage 4 market sophistication.

This and other “old school” promos can give you ideas and inspiration for whatever market you’re writing for if you believe it’s moved on to the fifth stage. That’s why doing this analysis and thinking about what stage of market sophistication your product is in is a crucial step as you sit down to create a new promo.

Now, without further ado, I’m excited to introduce our first-ever…

Copy Insider of the Week: Rob Palmer

This week we’re getting to know Copy Insider Rob Palmer. Who, by the way, strongly agreed with me about whether AI robots can write effective copy after last week’s issue.

Rob had this to say, “AI tools won’t write great copy until they phone clients and get properly briefed on pain points, objections, levels of awareness, proof and all the other things copywriters take in their stride.”

So let’s get to know Rob, who hails all the way from Thailand…

What are you working on right now? I’m helping marketers upgrade their upsell conversion rates from a typical 10% to closer to 50% (thereby massively increasing AOV), using my super-cool, proprietary, exclusive upsell-formula template!

What are you most proud of in the past year? I loved writing this story lead:

What are you most excited about right now? The silver lining in the lockdown cloud is that offer owners have become very comfortable briefing projects via Zoom meetings, opening up opportunities to work on projects anywhere. A real opportunity for copywriters to go global!

What are you most interested in learning more about? Squeezing more AOV out of every sale, to combat rising ad costs and kick butt against tough competitors.

What’s your favorite food or drink to order when you’re out? I live in Thailand, so I’m spoiled for choice food-wise. Any Thai food is ‘aroi maak’ (extremely delicious), but my faves are Massaman curry and coconut soup. The meal should ideally be accompanied by Red Truck beer (brewed in Chiang Mai).

Pro tip: best to avoid the ‘fermented fish’ that’s buried in the ground for months, then dug up and cooked.

Where do you most want to travel on a future trip? The 29 U.S. states that I haven’t visited yet. To a Brit, America is a strange, alien world that’s endlessly fascinating.

What do you like most about Copy Insiders? The detail in the copy breakdowns. Small tips can make a big difference, and I learned a lot from the ‘poop’ analysis, amongst others.
Thank you, Rob, for being our first “Copy Insider of the Week!” It’s great getting to know you and your interesting background and how you’re helping your clients. And that fermented fish “pro tip” will definitely come in handy if I’m ever in Thailand!

If you’re interested in being a future “Copy Insider of the Week” and getting your 15 minutes of fame, simply click here and provide your answers and photo. I look forward to learning more about you.