Web-writing tips from 7 legendary copywriters

If you want your online content to turn readers into buyers, consider these pointers from some of advertising’s biggest players.

Each generation of copywriters is probably the same.

We think writing has changed. We try to reinvent the wheel, and hunt the Web for the latest, newest, shiniest tips.

Web copy is different from old-fashioned advertising copy, isn’t it?

Yes, of course some things have changed. We have to deal with information overload more than ever before, and our attention spans may be shorter. Our ability to assess information may have sped up. Our talent for searching the Web has grown exponentially.

But basic human needs remain the same: our need to belong, be loved, be free from pain and fear and to care for our loved ones.

Copywriting isn’t just about choosing the right words. It’s about understanding your audience and addressing its needs. Copywriting is marketing, sales and psychology.

That’s why century-old copywriting guidance is still valid today.

These legendary writers can teach us a few tricks for writing Web copy:

Lesson 1: Explain why readers need your product.

“The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).” -John Caples

That was true 80 years ago, and is still true today. Nobody is interested in your product, service, app or website. People want to know what’s in it for them.

Don’t just list features and specifications. Translate them into benefits for your readers, or mention the glitches, complications and problems you can help your readers avoid.

Lesson 2: Be willing to listen.

“The greatest asset after hard work is the ability to listen. You have to listen to several different layers out there in order to be successful. You have to listen first of all to the person who has whatever you’ve got, the problem you’re going to try and solve. You have to know that person so well that you can sound like him.” -Eugene Schwartz

Schwartz also said, “I write with my ears.” That’s more important now than it has ever been.

For potential buyers to find you on the Web, you need to use the same phrases they search for on Google. You have to know exactly which words and benefits speak to them.

Opportunities to listen are much greater today than ever before. Read online reviews, conduct online surveys with open questions, listen to social media conversations or phone your customers.

You have no excuse—you have to understand your audience. Appreciate their fears, and understand their objections to buying from you. Know how you can fulfill their wishes, because that’s how your Web copy becomes persuasive.

Lesson 3: Cut literary language.

“Many think of advertising as ad-writing. Literary qualifications have no more to do with it than oratory has with salesmanship. One must be able to express himself briefly, clearly and convincingly, just as a salesman must.” -Claude C. Hopkins

Hopkins’ lesson is even more important today than it was many years ago.

Your Web visitors are in a hurry; they won’t take the time to understand what you’re trying to tell them.

Stop worrying about fine writing. Use simple words and short sentences. Write as if you’re writing for a 12-year-old, because that’s how you’ll make your text readable and understandable.

Lesson 4: Be believable.

“Every type of advertiser has the same problem; namely, to be believed. The mail-order man knows nothing so potent for this purpose as the testimonial, yet the general advertiser seldom uses it.” -James W. Young

Most of us use testimonials for social proof. But how persuasive are your testimonials? Are they just sugary endorsements that no one believes?

To use the persuasive power of testimonials, write them as a story. Explain why a customer might have hesitated to buy from you, and how happy he is now that he has your product.

Lesson 5: Build credibility.

“When people perceive certain general statements as puffery or typical advertising babble, those statements are at best discounted or accepted with some doubts. By contrast, statements with specific facts can generate strong believability.” -Joe Sugarman

Being specific is critical to establishing credibility in your sales copy. Everyone hates to be sold to.

General statements make people think “yeah, yeah,” and you lose their attention.

Don’t write about hundreds of users-say 317 users instead. Use specific details and exact numbers to support your messages.

Lesson 6: Write with enthusiasm.

“Whenever you can, make the product itself the hero of your advertising. If you think the product too dull, I have news for you: there are no dull products, only dull writers. I never assign a product to a writer unless I know that he is personally interested in it. Every time I have written a bad campaign, it has been because the product did not interest me.” -David Ogilvy

If you’re bored with a product, then you’ll bore your readers. If you can’t be enthusiastic about a product, find someone who is.

Good copy is full of fascinating little details. How will you find all these snippets of information without learning as much as you can about a product?

Become an expert before you write the copy. And write your first draft at a furious speed, because that’s when your enthusiasm will show. You can’t make dull copy exciting, but you can edit passionate copy to make it clearer and more concise.

Lesson 7: Ask for action.

“Now, to get action you’ve got to ask for it. Perhaps you remember the story about Henry Ford, Sr., talking with an old crony who suddenly asked him, ‘Henry, why don’t you ever buy any bolts from me?’ ‘Heck, Joe,’ Mr. Ford replied, ‘you never asked me!'” -Victor Schwab

It’s so obvious, but how often do we forget to ask people to do something?

Before you write your Web copy, think about what you want someone to do after she reads it. That’s your call to action. Then work back from your objective to write copy that persuades readers to do what you tell them.

Treat each Web page and piece of marketing material as a landing page.

The harsh truth about writing Web copy

I’d love to tell you that writing Web copy is easy, and that you only need to follow a few simple rules to do it well.

But the truth is that writing Web copy that sells is hard work. You have to become the best salesperson, an excellent psychologist and a supreme marketer.

Above all, you need to understand your reader so well that you can talk his talk, think his thoughts and dream his dreams. That’s the only way you can take away his fears and objections to buying from you.

Henneke Duistermaat is a marketer and copywriter. A version of this article originally appeared on The Daily Egg.

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