How to Write Sales Copy
A work-in-progress by a slightly more-than-amateur professional.
What is copy?
Copy is writing that aims to sell.
What is direct response copywriting?
What a specific question! It is a distinction between brand advertising (Just Do It!) and advertising designed to produce an immediate, positive action.
Like, you might say, a direct response.
Copywriting. Doesn’t mince words.
What isn’t copy?
It’s not copyediting. This is for publications that hire people to get rid of errors.
Though we should aim to have error-free copy. Even if sometimes there are grammatically questionable choices.
Also, copywriting is not content writing. Though there are some overlaps (SEO, sometimes!), content writing is more generally about the stuff of digital marketing (articles, blog posts, podcasts, videos, long texts) designed to drive engagement.
Though we should write engaging words.
What falls under copywriting?
I have a bit of a practical mentality and believe in getting paid to learn. As such, I started by looking for copywriting jobs and found a grid asking would-be candidates to rate their skills at the following tasks:
- Facebook and Instagram Ads
- Landing Page Copy
- Long Form Sales Pages
- Email Sequences
- Soap Opera Sequence
- Blog Content
- Website Content
- Lead Magnets
- Case Studies
- YouTube Scripts
- Google Ads
- Product Descriptions
- VSL (Video Sales Letter)
- Social Media Posts
While I don’t think a purist copywriter would say that’s all copywriting (especially not the *blog content*), that gives a bit of a foundation for the actual types of copy worth pursuing. Soon enough, those will all be guides here. All in good time.
How’d you learn?
Look, I’m a professional in the sense that I am getting paid to do this. I’ve taken a 90-day course for sales copywriting and a 6-week email sequence class and read a bunch of books. I recommend that way if you have the time.
But you’ll learn even faster by doing.
Get feedback in real-time.
The fun thing about theory and classes was seeing the ways to use copywriting. But it’s overwhelming, too. There’s always another class. Another way to develop something for a portfolio. Another way to get started. Another niche to specialize in.
So, let’s just choose one.
How should we learn?
I’m biased because this is the majority of my experience, but I believe product descriptions are a great way to start. It’s high-rep practice, it’s productive, feedback comes quickly, and you’ll get a chance to apply theory regularly.
Plus, it’s not so inspiring that you’ll feel comfortable enough to stick with it forever. It pushes me to improve in the other areas so that I can keep growing.
There are theories?!
Lots. We are going to focus on Great Leads: The Six Easiest Ways to Start Any Sales Message because it makes everything else easier. These six little intros will frame how you think about what you’re writing, whether it’s 50 words about dishtowels or 1,500 words about portable translators.
It’s all about the lead. And the lead is the most important part!
Maybe that’s how I should’ve started this document. Oh well. Now it’s permanent.
Fundamentally, we have to:
- Emotionally compel the prospect
- Intellectually persuade the prospect
And all we have our precious little words!
So, let’s see how those words, well-used, could make a difference.
And if there are theories, surely there are books?
There sure are. There are plenty of copywriting and advertising books I’ve found helpful. The ones I’ve enjoyed the most are:
- Great Leads: The Six Easiest Ways To Start Any Sales Message
- Ogilvy on Advertising
- The Ultimate Sales Letter
I like the first book because it focuses so heavily on leads, otherwise known as headlines.
What are headlines?
Depending on the format, the lead is 200-600 words of a sales letter. It does the heavy lifting. It draws in the reader, tells a story, makes a promise, sets up a problem, and more.
The headline is part of that introduction. Nearly all of the product descriptions you’ll write have at least one headline. Some, should they head toward 500 words and beyond may have a few.
Plus, headlines are the subject lines of emails.
And the copy of a Facebook ad.
And the heart of a video sales letter.
Headlines are a key of sorts that unlock the rest of copywriting.
The One Idea
Effective advertising, and by extension, effective copywriting, should be based on the idea of one – and only one – powerful idea.
Aim for creating one emotion that compels the reader to respond.
Then, support that idea with one engaging story or compelling fact.
Still focusing all the work on prompting one action.
And what is a great idea?
It’s big enough to generate interest, easy enough to understand immediately, and clearly useful to the reader.
Okay, but which lead do I choose?
As you’ve seen (or will see once you read), there are six general leads. Offer, Promise, Problem-Solution, the Big Secret, the Proclamation, and the Story Lead.
Choosing which lead you employ comes down to their level of Market Sophistication and Awareness.
What do they already know?
If I asked you to sell a new Macbook to someone on the street, you could probably just say: Hey. New Macbook’s are in.
If I asked you to sell the Great Leads book I mentioned to someone who had never heard of copywriting, you might need to dive a little deeper. At the very least, a random person on the street would be familiar with books. They’re probably familiar with making money (capitalism!). And they have seen advertisements.
Could you say: Hey! Wanna learn how to sell anything to anybody?
A little general, a lot over-the-top, yes, but you’ve piqued at least their interest. And then you take that Big Idea and dive down.
So that’s where we get into the idea of awareness.
Awareness of the brand. The product. Themselves. Their problem. Their pain. The available solutions.
What’s the difference between selling pain relief to someone with a headache versus selling the specific type of pain relief that lasts 12 hours to a construction worker? Both understand physical pain, but with the latter, you’re making a specific solution clear.
“If [your prospect] is aware of your product and realizes it can satisfy his desire, your headline starts with your product. If he is not aware of your product, but only of the desire itself, your headline starts with the desire. If he is not yet aware of what he really seeks, but is concerned only with the general problem, your headline starts with that problem and crystallizes it into a specific need.” – Gene Schwartz, Breakthrough Advertising
How do I measure their awareness?
This is the common scale for thinking about awareness.
Most Aware – They’ve likely bought something before and love the brand. They know what they want. At this point, they just want to hear the deal. They can be the easiest to sell to.
Product Aware – This person is aware you sell this thing, but isn’t convinced it’s right for them. The buyer on the fence. It’s your job to win their trust.
Solution Aware – Your customer hasn’t heard of or bought this product, but is aware this kind of product exists. They know the results they want, but not how to achieve them. It’s like they’re standing in front of the open fridge.
Problem Aware – Here you’ll find frustrated people who don’t know there’s a way to resolve their frustration. They sense the problem exists. They only worry. There’s no hope. It’s up to you to show you feel their pain.
Unaware – Welcome to the wild unknown. This person has no frame of reference for what’s coming. It’s where you’ll find new markets.
Lead #1: Offer Lead
“Give me five days and I can give you a magnetic personality … let me prove it — free” “You must win at least $7,500 with my 13 points or they’re yours free”
“Free for a month … a full head of hair in only 32 seconds a day”
“Pick the brains of a millionaire for $10”
“Free to brides — two dollars to others”
“I guarantee (with my own money) that you will shoot your lowest score ever on your next round of golf”
How this headline works in a lead:
- Immediately focus on the most emotionally compelling detail of your offer
- Underscore the most valuable benefit of that deal
- Elaborate on that same deal-benefit in the lead that follows
- At some point, include a compelling “reason why” you’re offering that deal
The Offer Lead is as direct as it comes, so this is the kind we’d use with more aware customers. Given that we’d have their trust already, they’ll be more open to hearing this kind of pitch.
Lead #2: Promise Lead
“Advertising works best,” says Drayton Bird, “if you promise people something they want, not — as many imagine — if you are clever, original, or shocking.”
The Promise Lead is slightly less direct than the Offer Lead, in that the product usually isn’t mentioned as early. But, it still opens with the product’s best and biggest claim
This includes perhaps the most iconic Promise Lead of all time: How to Win Friends and Influence People.
To find the promise you’ll write about, think about the product’s Unique Selling Point. Then think about the desire you’re targeting. One idea worth thinking about is you can’t create desire in a customer, you can merely awaken the desire that’s already there.
Here is a handy checklist from Great Leads:
- The Promise Lead should start with the product’s biggest benefit.
- It should hit the targeted promise right away.
- It must connect the core benefit to the prospect’s core desire. Should sound as new and original as possible.
- Should be bold but still believable.
- Must follow with even bigger proof.
- Often focus on speed, size, or quality of results.
- Usually won’t work to skeptics or highly “unaware” prospects
- Can work very well with “on the fence” prospects.
As a reminder, much of this is connected to the whole lead.
Lead #3: The Problem-Solution Lead
This type of lead works by identifying your prospect’s biggest, most emotionally charged, and relevant issue, leading into promises that the product (the solution) can solve.
These headlines and leads become less direct. They often begin with a moment of empathy, a show of understanding what the target audience is dealing with.
From Great Leads, here is a checklist for drafting this kind of lead:
- Target worries that keep customers up at night.
- Make sure they’re worries that carry deep emotional weight.
- You have to stir those emotions first, to prove you feel your prospect’s pain.
- You don’t want to linger on the problem too long before offering hope.
- You must offer hope for a relevant solution at some point in the pitch.
Questions are particularly effective because they can catch a reader’s attention and get them reading, especially if it connects with a problem they may already be thinking about.
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Lead #4: The Big Secret Lead
A tease of hard-to-come-by knowledge, a formula, or ‘system’ leads the promo. The secret may be a solution or hidden problem or, as in many financial promos, a ‘system’ for getting consistently good results. You’ll get the best mileage when ordering the product reveals the
According to Bill Bonner:
The Secret Lead really connects to a deep instinct in people to feel that there are secrets to things; that the things that you know and are obvious to everybody don’t give you any edge. What everybody knows is what everybody knows and once you know what everybody knows, you’re just like everybody else.
If you want to get an edge, you need to know something that everybody doesn’t know and those things tend to be secrets. You look at people who are very rich, for example, and you say, “What’s his secret?” Or, you look at somebody who is 60-years-old with beautiful skin and perfect body and perfect hair and you say, “Oh, what’s her secret?”
Some ideas for pulling it off:
- The secret is intriguing and beneficial
- It is introduced in the headline
- It is not disclosed during the lead
- As the letter progresses, more clues are given
How to create it? It could come from something in the product, to take something familiar and rename it and reposition it so it seems new and secret.
Lead #5: The Proclamation Lead
Decidedly indirect, the Proclamation Lead seeks to jar the “unaware” reader out of his seat. Maybe with an incredible factoid, maybe with a shocking future forecast or prediction, or maybe with a bold statement. The goal is to disarm the prospect for just long enough to work your way back to the product and your pitch.
Steps to writing this kind of lead:
- Make the proclamation bold, not reasonable
- Make a promise
- The subject must be relevant and address something the prospect cares about
- Return to the proclamation (applies more to the close)
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Lead #6: The Story Lead
These are the most fun! They’re indirect and powerful. Everyone loves a story. What’s more, stories can engage readers who don’t know you or the product well or who might flinch at a more direct, unbelievable claim. Testimonials, guru bios, historical proof, or track record — all yield Story Leads. Tell the story quickly and keep it in the context of the bigger promise/core idea of the promotion.
The headline involves conveys the following:
- One strong idea
- One desirable benefit
- One driving emotion
- One inevitable solution
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So there you have it. A very rough, very quick introduction to writing sales copy. There’s much more to it, but this should get you started. Be sure to check out Copywriting Resources for even more.