I was reviewing an essay by my daughter, a high school junior, when we got to talking about what makes for great writing. It was an interesting discussion.
At least I felt that way. She probably just wanted to get the thing done and turned in. I call writing my profession. She calls it a pain in the butt.
In any case, I got to thinking—after tapping on a keyboard for 25-plus years in the interest of inspiring readers to try, buy, attend, register, write, call, download, donate, share, care, click here and put your email right there…
What is the essential ingredient of great copywriting?
I’ve been doing this awhile. I know a lot of great copywriters. And they know a lot of great copywriting secrets, as do many of my peers who are journalists and content marketers that wordsmith with the best of ‘em. So I asked them this one question.
This post reveals their answers: the secrets to great copywriting from many of the professionals I consider to be amongst the best at the craft.
Doug Kessler, co-founder and creative director of Velocity Partners, is the best copywriter I know.
“The essential ingredient to great copywriting—and as a card-carrying lazy bastard I hate to admit this—is hard work.
The hard work of really, really, really understanding your subject, your audience and the building blocks of your story… The hard work of listening, asking questions and doing your research… The hard work of structuring, of building your case… The hard work of rewriting to improve clarity… The hard work of finding what really matters.
The final ‘wordsmithing’ is just the veneer on top of a solid table made with hardwood and nails and saws.”
Lena Prickett is the content marketing manager at SnapApp and a stellar scribe.
“The essential ingredient of great copywriting is time. You have to develop a deep empathy for your audience before you can write anything you want to resonate with them and that process takes a lot of time. Then, the writing process itself needs more time than you might think. Too many writers leave drafting copy to the last minute and don’t leave any breathing room for a rewrite. All the fun stuff happens on the rewrite: trimming out excess, adding in fresh and funny, and mixing things around in unexpected ways.”
You gotta’ feel it
Joanna Wiebe, of Copyhackers, writes the most precious stuff about copywriting. And when the right word escapers her, she makes a new one up.
“Heart. The essential ingredient in great copywriting—the thing it cannot be made without—is heart. If you don’t care, nobody else will, either.”
Jason Falls, SVP at Elasticity, always dishes no BS advice and I always enjoy it.
“You can’t have great copywriting without an emotional trigger. Something has to move the audience.
Maybe it’s to act. Maybe it’s to laugh. Maybe its to cry. But copy without an emotional trigger doesn’t.”
Robert Rose is chief strategy officer at Content Marketing Institute. He’s also an amazing writer, speaker, podcaster, musician and interviewee—a brilliant mind I tap often.
“Great copywriting is simply great writing. Stephen King once said ‘writing is refined thinking.’ I agree with that. But great writing—and especially copywriting—is more refined emotionality. Great copywriting changes beliefs, transforms perspectives. It connects. The essential ingredient of great copywriting is to create emotional value with brevity.”
Humankindness (or something like that)
Jessica Ann, of Jessica Ann Media, won me over with her heartfelt words the first time I set eyes on ’em.
“The essential ingredient in great copywriting is the purity of each word. The energy of the product or service becomes more palpable with each letter, each word, each sentence. The momentum builds until the reader literally and figuratively buys into the experience that the copy is selling.”
Julie Neidlinger, who I discovered via the great blog at CoSchedule, is a writer I’ve collaborated with and admire.
“The most important ingredient is honest voice.
We get wrapped up in the good copywriting advice of others and start to lose the sound of our own writing voice as we attempt to use the tips and tricks others have found work for them. Maintain your own writing voice, which includes not only the word choices you use or how you lay out your copy, but also the way you go about convincing readers to do something.”
Marcia Riefer Johnston writes books about writing and contributes to Content Marketing Institute’s remarkable publications.
“The essential ingredient of gotta-share copywriting (beyond having something worth saying) is caring about people connecting with what you have to say. Caring alone doesn’t get you there—you need all the skills you can acquire—but caring is the sine qua non.”
Victoria Hoffman is the content & community manager at Uberflip and ranks on high on my list of killer content creators.
“The essential ingredient for great copywriting is relevancy. You could be the greatest copywriter in the world, but your writing won’t make an impact if you can’t connect with your audience. Take the time not only to understand the topics of interest of your audience, but also the language they use, and their intentions. Use these insights to fuel your marketing materials, not your own objectives.”
Kathyrn Aragon is director of content at Mirasee, a very sharp writer, and my go-to gal for smart insights about the role of the multi-author blog editor and all things content.
“The most essential ingredient in copywriting is clarity. It doesn’t matter how good your offer is, if no one understands what it is and why it matters, they won’t respond.
To write crystal clear copy, you need to work out the logic of your argument in advance. What makes your offer unique? What’s the value proposition? Why buy from you and not someone else? In concrete terms, how will your product or service make a difference in their lives?”
Meaning (and then some)
Jean Spencer is a global content marketing strategist at Microsoft. A few years ago, I was floored by the writing style of a Kapost eBook, traced down its author, and came to know this fast rising star.
“The essential ingredient to great copywriting is saying exactly what you mean. It seems so easy, but this fundamental aspect of communication is the art, the poetry, of powerful copy. It requires the writer to have a complete understanding of audience, as well as a commanding knack for punctuation, anticipation of readers’ comprehension, and the ability to state exactly the right amount of stuff—no more.”
Uniqueness… or You-Niqueness?
Joe Putnam is director of marketing at iSpionage and a highly accomplished writer.
“The essential ingredient of great copywriting is to not be boring. Not only are you competing with direct competitors when writing copy, but against the thousands of other things your prospect could be doing instead of reading your copy. If it’s boring, people aren’t going to read, which means your message won’t get across.
Find a way to break out of the same old boring copywriting that everyone else uses. Companies need to dare to be bold in order to stand out and win more loyal customers.”
Gini Dietrich is CEO of Arment Dietrich who brings some one-of-a-kind special sauce to every thing she writes. @spinsucks
“The essential ingredient of copywriting is YOU. You are the only one who can make your writing unique. You have a unique perspective, experience, and expertise.
I love the story of McDonald’s versus Wendy’s to prove this point. The head chef of the Golden Arches in Canada created a video to show the world how to make the special sauce. Four months later, Wendy’s had a new burger on their menu that was, yes, two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. It flopped big time. They had the exact recipe and they couldn’t replace the Big Mac.
So don’t be afraid of competitors copying you or making non-prospects angry or leaving a bad impression. You are the best ingredient to your copywriting.”
Ann Handley wrote “Everybody Writes” and nobody writes like her.
“An audience-centric point of view. Strong tone of voice. (That’s 2!)”
Seth Price is all things marketing rolled-up into one megastar creator and leader. He’s the host of the way-cool podcast, The Craft of Marketing, VP of Placester, and chief whippersnapper and co-author of my forthcoming book, The Road to Recognition: The A to Z Guide to Personal Branding.
“The best copywriting always starts with listening to the audience you’re writing for, listening for the things they’re not saying, the things floating in their mind. Once you know that, you’ve got to connect right out of the gate in a way that arrests their attention, makes them pause for that instant of recognition and desire to act.”
Dan Norris of WP Curve is rocking content marketing in every conceivable way. He’s a Content Machine, which also happens to be the name of his new best-seller.
“I’d say it’s a deep understanding of your ideal customer and their deepest pain points. From there the rest is a lot easier. I think every copywriter would say that.”
Demian Farnworth (who clearly agrees with Dan) is chief content writer at Rainmaker Digital/Copyblogger Media. Read anything he writes and you’ll understand exactly why.
“A deep understanding of the psychological, emotional, spiritual, political make up of our target prospect.”
Joel Klettke of BusinessCasualCopywriting.com writes approximately half of the copy online. He’s seriously in demand. I find his work on many of my favorite sites and often wish I wrote it.
“It’s not enough to see data on your audience—you have to be able to think like them, feel like them, rationalize decisions like they do.
Great copywriting—whether it’s a landing page or a blog post—is rooted in an understanding of what the audience actually wants and needs—not just what they tell you they do.
It’s not about ‘wordsmithing’ or being clever; it’s about knowing how to communicate an idea in a way that an audience will respond.”
Great copywriters think alike
The winning answer, by a longshot, is empathy. Everyone that follows used the word or idea. Each brought something new to bear, so check out each one.
Brian Clark is the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital. He never stops innovating and fuels all of his successful online businesses with thoughtful content.
“Empathy. Great copy doesn’t speak to people, it enters the conversation already playing in their head. Unless you can put yourself in their shoes, see their perspective, and walk their path, your copy will never qualify as great.”
I believe Brian’s thought is worth tweeting…
Jay Acunzo, host of Unthinkable, the podcast for craft-driven content creators, and VP at NextView, a tech startup VC firm, writes scathingly funny and pointed posts that are not to be missed.
“Empathy. (Wait, really?) Yes, really, voice in my head. The entire goal of copywriting—or any writing—is to trigger an intellectual or emotional response from the reader. These responses are necessary to create first in order to then receive any action that benefits us—enjoying our work, remembering us, clicking, reading, subscribing, sharing, buying. Great writers have extreme empathy for the reader experience.”
Sarah Bauer is a copywriting gem I tried to keep busy and keep to myself, but I failed. Navigator Multimedia, in British Columbia, stole away my ace freelancer.
“Empathy—the ability to sense other people’s emotions—is the essential ingredient of great copywriting. ‘Good’ copywriting abounds, but great copywriting stands out as having been channeled through the writer’s application of empathy. It goes beyond understanding your audience’s experience; it’s about being able to feel the experience as though it has happened to you, and make predictions about what desires and expectations are born from that experience.”
Jon Morrow, CEO of BoostBlogTraffic.com, is the blogger we all wish we could be, which is why his tribe of students is growing as fast as his audience.
“Empathy. If you can’t empathize with the prospect, you’ll never be able to write copy that appeals to them.”
Andrew Davis of monumentalshift.com is an inspired idea machine whose writing helps make sense of all this digital marketing stuff.
“The essential ingredient to writing great copy is empathy. Can you empathize with the audience you’re targeting? Will they see themselves in the copy you write? Do you understand their aspirations, their hopes, their dreams? Do you know what they’re feeling? Without empathy you’re just writing copy, add empathy and become a copywriter.”
Henneke Duistermaat is an irreverent copywriter and business writing coach and the mastermind of EnchantingMarketing.com. Her copy always tastes seductively sweet.
“The essential ingredient for great copywriting is empathy. When we understand our customers’ fears, pain points, wishes, dreams and secret desires, then our copy becomes more persuasive. As copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz suggested: ‘Write with your ears.”‘
When we listen to our customers and repeat their messages in their words, then they feel understood; and they’ll believe our offer can help them solve their problems and make them happier or healthier.”
Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios works both sides of the brain more so than any marketer I’ve ever known. He’s a mentor, inspiration, and friend to me and the co-host of my podcast Content Matters.
“Great copywriters are brief, because they know their readers are busy.
Great copywriters are great at formatting, because they know their readers are scanning.
Great copywriters use a personal tone, because they know their audience is made of individuals.
Great copywriters use benefit-driven headlines, because they know their readers have crowded inboxes and social streams.
What do these all have in common? They’re all focused on readers. So the conclusion is simple. The essential ingredient of great copywriting is empathy.”
What does Joe know?
A holdout: Joe knows content
Joe Pulizzi, as you’re about to see, rather speak for content marketers than copywriters. But don’t be fooled, the founder of Content Marketing Institute never stops writing. Given that he’s blazed the trail for most of the people in this post and writers everywhere, we’ll just go with it.
“I’m by no means a great copywriter, but I do know a thing or two about building an online brand. To be successful, first, focus on a particular audience and particular topic that you actually have a chance to be the leading expert in the world (in that area). Then, pick a main content type (textual, video, audio, print, in-person). Then, pick your platform (blog/website, iTunes, YouTube, etc.). Then, consistently deliver content (daily, weekly). That formula has built the greatest media brands of all time and it continues to work today.”
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