How to write effective copy

Steve Harrison

Issue 42 | March 2017

My new book is called How to write better copy, and one way to achieve this is by choosing your words carefully.

You should keep asking yourself, "Does this word really convey what I mean?"

But as I look at the title now, it strikes me that I could have been more accurate. Because what I really hope to show you is how to write effective copy. And by 'effective' I mean copy that does three things:

It gets your readers to notice it.

It gets them to engage with it.

And it gets them to do what you want them to do.

1) Let's start with getting noticed

If you're writing marketing copy, spare a thought for your reader. She's bombarded by thousands of commercial messages every day. And, on the morning you send her yours, the poor girl will have been subjected to another onslaught.

Years ago, I nearly cut short my fledgling copywriting career when I saw some daunting Nielsen Research. It said the average UK citizen was exposed to 2,200 marketing salvoes every day. Worse still, it showed that twenty-four hours later, only eight had hit their target.

Since then, our industry has invented new weapons of mass distraction. All are aimed at catching the reader's eye, yet none have been any more successful than the equivalent of the longbow and catapult that I used when I started as a writer.

According to our industry's wisest blogger, Bob Hoffman, consumer interaction with this online advertising is essentially non-existent. For example, the average intentional click rate for banner ads is 4 in 10,000, and consumer engagement with Twitter posts is around three in 10,000.

Why the failure? Well, the people you're aiming at have a shield that protects them from the shell shock that would otherwise result from this non-stop barrage. If the message isn't interesting, it bounces off them.

Here's an example of one that got through and one that didn't.

From 1959 to some time in the noughties, Volkswagen positioned itself as the most reliable car in the world. In the UK this was summed up by the strapline: "If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen".

If you are over forty years old there's a good chance you'll have seen this line, and that you'll remember it. Why? Because reliability is an interesting quality in a car, especially when it comes to buying or selling it second-hand. And, as a result, VW's promise may well have made it through your defences.

However, in 2007, the Directors at VW decided they needed something different and decreed that every piece of VW marketing in the world carried a new strapline.

You were exposed to the line for over eight years. However, the fact that VW spent $32 billion over that period to ensure that you saw it thousands of times does not mean you noticed it.

Go on, have a go. Try to remember it.

Nope, it's not Vorsprung Durch Technik. That's Audi's.


If so then you'll see how easy it to carpet bomb the market - and still be ignored.

Getting noticed is much harder, but it is possible.

A recent YouGov Poll showed, "consumers respond well to good advertising that is relevant to them. When advertising is done right and is interesting, informative and relevant it is still the best way for brands to communicate with customers."

Jakob Nielsen offers the same encouragement in Legibility, Readability, and Comprehension: Making Users Read Your Words. "On the average web page visit, users read only 28% of the words." But he adds that users "do read web content, particularly when it includes information of interest to them". As the leading authority on how to write for the web, Nielsen's advice is worth following.

We'll talk later about how to make your copy interesting, informative and relevant. But let's move on to the next step:

2) Getting your reader to engage with your copy

If you've got them to notice your message, well done. But, really, that's just the start.

Because, at this stage, they're only willing to skim your copy. And in skimming, they're subconsciously working out the risk and reward of a) wasting their time by reading on, or b) finding out something interesting or useful.

In other words, you must get them to engage with your copy.

Now there's a lot of talk in marketing circles about "engagement", but little by way of definition. So here's one for you: readers engage with what you have written when they can see themselves in the story you are telling.

Take it from me, this definition applies to any writing, be it the kind of commercial copy that you are working on or a piece of best-selling fiction.

Actually, don't take it from me, take it from the chap who knows more about shifting shelf-loads of best-selling fiction than anyone else on this planet.

Stephen King is sure that "book buyers aren't attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning pages. This happens, I think, when people recognize the people in a book, their behaviours, their surroundings and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story."

Only then will you get them to resist the urge to seek more interesting alternatives (such as the stuff they logged on for in the first place) or easier options (such as not reading anything at all).

And if you can pull that off, then you're ready to achieve your final goal:

3) Getting your reader to do what you want them to do.

Getting readers to engage with your copy is so difficult, many marketers see it as an end in itself.

Indeed, according to the Fournaise Marketing Group, which specializes in measuring marketing performance, most marketers "are mistaking engagement for conversion by measuring key performance indicators such as website traffic, video views and open rates, rather than sales."

Getting people reading but not buying is like packing your bar with Muslims and Methodists. And Jerome Fournaise, Fournaise's Global CEO, concludes that marketers who act this way "need to stop living in their la-la land and start behaving like real business people".

To do that, you need to accept that your copy is an exercise in competitive persuasion. Moreover, you are using the written word to manipulate your reader.

You may be trying to introduce an idea that has never occurred to them or that they've previously disregarded. Or you might want to change a course of action they've already decided upon, and get them to follow your new route.

Like I said, it's manipulation. And it is very difficult for this reason.

Why it's difficult

To get your message, the reader has to decipher the squiggles you've put on the page or the screen. There's nothing innate about this. It comes as naturally to us as knowing how to play the banjo or speak Latin.

As Maryanne Wolf explains in her book Proust and the Squid, "we were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain."

Such improvisation is difficult. Ours is a primate's brain that evolved 10,000 years ago for hunting and gathering on the African Savannah - not scanning copy on an iPad screen. Reading is hard work and we'd rather not do it.

So we writers must make it as easy as possible for the reader's old grey matter to work out what our squiggles mean.

Making it easy for your reader

When it comes to making it easy, my twenty-five years as a copywriter have led me to believe that the brain prefers signposts (headlines and subheads) that tell it what's coming; squiggles (words) it immediately recognizes; and combinations of squiggles (sentences and paragraphs) that are structured in a way that aids understanding.

I'm delighted to say that my hunches are borne out by the research of psycholinguists, neuroscientists and cognitive and behavioural psychologists.

I'm going to explain to you how to choose the right words and set them out in the correct order. However, that is only part of the battle. For if your reader isn't interested in the subject of your copy, it doesn't matter how adept you are at putting the squiggles together.

So how do you achieve the most difficult task: coming up with something the reader wants to read? How will your message stand out from the thousands of marketing communications that appear that day?

And, more to the point, how can it compete against the Facebook posts, forums and football results; the traffic updates, tweets and TV shows; and the pub chat, podcasts and quick sessions on League of Legends that are vying for your prospect's attention?

Well, I'd love to tell you. I really would. But Directory hasn't given me enough space.

However, if you'd like a free copy of the book then drop me a line at [email protected]

I'll send one to the first 10 of you who get in touch.

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