June 14, 2010

How to write potent webcopy

As regular readers know, I’m going through each chapter in David Ogilvy’s book “Confessions of an Advertising Man” while giving them a digital update. When I came to the chapter “How to write potent copy” I realised that not being a copywriter might put me at a disadvantage. So I called upon my colleague Henk Nieuwenhuis (creative director and copywriter at Ogilvy Amsterdam) and asked if he would be my guest writer. He agreed and below are his words. Thanks Henk!

What’s so interesting about Shakespeare that we still perform his plays? Well, he wrote about things that move people and make us feel alive. Then and today. Things like ambition, desire, friendship, treason, greed, envy, love. He wrote about eternal human truths. Good copywriting should do the same. Because good copy is not about pretty writing, it’s about finding a way to touch people’s hearts and minds.

Does this apply for David Ogilvy too? Does his advice stand the test of time and still hold true in the digital age? Let’s have a closer look at his copy confessions in the chapter of his book titled: ‘How to write potent copy’.

Should you read on?

Ogilvy starts with the headline, as being the most important element in most advertising. Why? Because this is the first moment your reader makes the decision: should I stay or should I go?

Now, of course David talks about ads. But the principle  of starting off with a strong trigger to grab the attention holds true for direct mailings, radio and tv commercials, banners, e-mails and landing pages alike. His motto ‘you can’t bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them’ is the universal underlying truth about writing effective copy for any commercial means.

Back to the headline. On the internet it could be as much as the subject line of your e-mail. Much is written about subject lines, as to how many characters work best or how explanatory it should be.  Because the nice thing about subject lines is, that they can easily be tested. By mailing different subject lines, you see what works better in an instant and for free. And what do we see? That David’s tips also work for the web Check them out:

1.     Interest your audience in your offer. Talk to them directly and put the product or the problem in the copy line. This still makes sense.

2.     Appeal to people’s self-interest. Still valid: what’s in it for me? was, is and will be the eternal question for any commercial message.

3.     Put some news into the headline. He states that the words free and new are the most powerful ones. Still true.

4.     Mark your words. Use emotional ones. And especially for the web: take SEO and spam filters into account .

5.     Include the brand name in your heading. If readers don’t see it already in the sender column where they make the first shift between read or delete.

6.     Write long headlines with the selling promise. True: subject line tests prove that the clearer you are, the more clicks you get.

7.     Make the reader curious.

8.     Don’t write tricky headlines –puns, allusions, obscurities- David says. And he’s right. I once rewrote copy for an online member-get-member promotion that didn’t live up to expectations. I took the fun and wit out and put the promise and explanation. Results went up 5 times.

9.     It is dangerous to use negatives in headlines.

10.  Don’t write blind headlines you only understand when you read the rest of the copy.

Have a chat with a dinner companion

When it comes to writing the body copy, Ogilvy suggests you’re should pretend talking to a woman sitting next to you at a dinner party. Talk to her in simple language. Try to convince with facts. Use your wit. Can you lead her into temptation?

This reminds me of the Dialog Method of the well known direct mail-professor Herr Doctor Siegfried Vögele, the offline equivalent of the usability-guru Jakob Nielsen. Both of them agree with Ogilvy when he states your copy should go straight to the point. Be specific and factual. And don’t be a bore.

Does size matter? Well, people always seem to have been intrigued about length. Even in his days, there was a popular belief that people don’t read long copy. On the internet it’s the same story. Best advice here is to start short, grab the attention and state your case upfront. It’s the inverted pyramid-principle: start by making your point first, than build on it. The deeper you get in the website, the longer your copy can be: now your reader wants to read. He has clicked, hasn’t he? So reward him.

As we come to the ultimate goal of copy, the idea is the same: your copy should be a complete sales pitch for your product. The really fundamental change is the fact that people don’t read from A to Z anymore – although I’m not sure they ever did-, but they hop, skip and jump through the pages and only read what they think is attractive. Online you make the sale in several steps. Can you make every step a relevant one?

David suggests you always include a testimonial. Well, the internet serves us well here, as user generated content is the latest big thing. You don’t even have to include it yourself: they will talk about your brand and product anyway. Using celebrities or giving advice, as David suggests, can help to spread the news online. We even can add the viral effect if testimonials are funny or remarkable in any other way.

His tips on style are also valid today. Don’t be pompous and avoid bombast but write normal plain language. The classic DM copy rule that you are always talking to a 14 year old, applies also for webcopy. Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs and make your copy personal.

Don’t just entertain. Don’t write copy for copy’s sake. Write to get results.

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