10 Key Takeaways From an Expert Copywriting Webinar

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What’s great about someone like Bob Bly—and why he’s worth paying attention to—is that even with all his experience and accolades as a copywriter, he’s advising us based on analytics and results, not just opinion.

So when he showed two envelopes during his advice-rich SIIA webinar on Wednesday, The World's Best-Kept Copywriting Secrets, it wasn’t a surprise to hear him say, “I like the top one" but here's how it tested. The top one—which featured a big company name in the top left and a pertinent question to ask yourself on the right—was outpolled by 50% by the bottom one. That one features a small company name but then a big red and black message across the middle:

On the top one, “you’re kind of saying, ‘yes, next weekend I’ll get organized,’” Bly said. “The bottom one has a very specific benefit. You will get one more hour each day. Specifics sell.”

Here are 10 more takeaways from this excellent webinar and 5 mistakes to avoid:

1. Do some research on your audience. Bly gave us the example of a group trying to sell a communications workshop to IT professionals. The initial effort, with the headline, Interpersonal Skills for IT, fell flat. “What beliefs, desires and feelings do they have?” Bly asked. “They’re smarter. IT is a most important technology. They’re constantly adding new programming language, new skillsets, and they also want to be respected… There’s an adversarial feeling with the users who don’t know what they want and can’t explain it.” So they did a Beliefs, Desires, Feelings (BDF) analysis and decided to write about that adversarial feeling with this lead: “Important news for every systems professional who has ever felt like telling an end user [to go off].” It generated six times the response.

2. Don’t forget the secondary promise. “The big promise is appealing,” Bly said, “but the problem is that it can become unbelievable, so you need a secondary promise. It can be a lesser benefit, not as large but should be big enough that by itself people will still order the product.

3. Shorter subject lines do better. Bly said that he has close relationships with two of the large email distributors, and they find that 35-37 characters and less generate higher open and click-thru rates.

4. “Free” works gangbusters in B2B. Bly was very insistent on this. “We’ve tested numerous times the word, ‘free.’ Yes, you’ll hit a couple spam filters and get some depression, but it’s more than offset by the appeal of the response. We use free in the subject line. It almost always works. If it’s free, say free—bold, all caps, say it multiple times, ‘the new free report,’ ‘yours free.’ There’s no reason to avoid it and every reason to use it.”

5. Copywriting should adhere to the 4 U’s. There should be a sense of urgency. It should be unique, not the same old thing. It should be ultra-specific, and lastly, useful—making a promise/delivering a benefit.

6. When you emphasize everything to everyone you emphasize nothing. “The narrower the audience, the better your results will be,” Bly said. He gave an example of a radiology newsletter tailored specifically for radiology offices.

7. Be up front. During the Q&A, Bly was asked what he would do for customers who have opted for a trial but haven’t opened any emails. He said that a recent a robo-call he received made an impression. The first thing the voice said was, ‘don’t hang up.’ I hung up. But still I spoke with a friend about it who owns a telemarketing agency. He tested that opening and told me that leads quadrupled. So I would try, ‘don’t delete this email.’”

Side note: I checked with Christina Karabetsos, director, client communications, for QCSS Inc., and an expert in telemarketing. She wrote back this:

Depending on the program, we have different approaches we utilize—and being honest in any sales or lead generation call is always a golden rule! Over the phone we utilize meta-communication strategies that are very direct. We give the prospect or current customer insights on the communication they can expect to have should they stay on the line. Here are a few examples: 

Telesales/Lead Generation/Appointment Setting
“Thanks for taking my call, John. I know you’re busy and I’ll be brief.” 

Survey/Market Research/Customer Satisfaction
“I appreciate your help today; this survey will only take 3 minutes of your time”

8. You don’t need long copy to generate a lead but you do to sell. Bly said that consumer copy has gotten longer and longer, but B2B is getting shorter. “Visuals help. Showing pictures of a free gift increases response, but showing the newsletter issues doesn’t”—where a customer might ask herself, ‘Do I want to pay that much for a pdf?’ You’re selling big idea."

9. Don’t start with the product, start with the prospect. Bly showed an old, “not fancy” ad for a company that sells extra-wide shoes. He said that it worked then and it worked now because people need them. “The only change they’ve made [over the years] was adding a url in the bottom right.

10. Before writing copy, examine your product. “If it’s a newsletter, what’s in it?” asked Bly. “Make a list of the features and what do they do for you? I had to write about some dietary supplements so I got samples of the product and used it. You’ll get a better sense of features that way.” His example on the webinar was a No. 2 pencil. “We looked at it, brainstormed (though I’m not crazy about that word), and found that it’s lightweight, erasable, a bright color. Take first crack at it and then take it to people who have also have a say—editors, buyers, publishers, customers, etc."

Here are his 5 mistakes to avoid:

1. Being boring. Bly pointed to an interview headline, “Advances in clinical chemistry.”

2. Being unbelievable.

3. Not testing. “What we like doesn’t count for squat,” he said. “You don’t know until you test.”

4. Using the wrong language. “It’s not used cars today, it’s certified pre-sold vehicles,” he said. He gave an example of a cake that increased sales by 60% when it was redubbed a “native Texas pecan cake.” Another example showed a special report of repurposed articles from American Spectator, Inside the Clinton White House. It sold well—much better, Bly said, than, “Subscribe now and we’ll rip out a couple old articles for you.”

5. Not having an offer. “The more you stress the offer,” Bly said, “the higher the response rate. Offer-driven copy outpolls brand-driven copy.”

You can listen to the webinar here.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…