Some things we all agree on.
Benefits are better than features.
Headlines that tap into a reader’s needs are good.
Addressing the reader in the second person singular, as ‘you’,builds rapport.
So far, so uncontroversial.
But there is another class of copywriting techniques that bring many people up short. Many copywriters, in fact.
The problem with a lot of the academic work on readability is that it a) focuses on literature as its source material and b) uses controlled experiments to determine its results.
Why scientists shouldn’t test ad copy
The problem with THAT is a) literature is in itself interesting to read and carries a strong motivational component to keep reading: we want to know what happens next and b) when people are being studied by scientists they KNOW they are being studied by scientists, which leads them to want to please the investigator by providing the ‘right’ answers.
This latter reason explains why people generally report preferring ad copy that is short, witty and with minimal decoration.
There is an alternative to scientific research. It’s called the split test.
And why copywriters should
Instead of asking people in an artificial situation what they feel, think or believe, you measure what they actually do.
So, you suspect that writing more will sell more widgets, fine. That is a testable hypothesis.
Take your market, hive off ten percent, split that in half and send half your short-form copy (control) and half your long-form copy (test): the remaining 90 percent get the short-form copy.
Now, all you have to do is count the responses from each half of the ten percent ‘test cell’. As long as you have statistically significant results (at, say, 95 percent confidence), you can say, THIS works better.
What you previously believed doesn’t matter. Nor does what your focus group in pre-testing told you they would prefer to receive.
The numbers don’t lie.
Often drawn from direct response copywriting – that used in coupon ads and direct mail – these copywriting techniques seem counter-intuitive, or wonky, to use plain English.
Here are a few of them with my explanations.
Why Does This Ugly Typesetting Bring In More Orders?
It’s Wrong To Set Your Copy In Title Case. It Makes The Eye Jump Up And Down At The Start Of Each Word. Sentence case is better.
Well, it’s certainly easier on the eye when you set your copy in sentence case, but what about what it does to comprehension?
In A/B, or split, tests, ads with headlines set in title case have outperformed ads with the headlines set in sentence case.
I would hypothesise that by slowing the reader down, they retain more of the headline’s message. More readers go on to read the body copy and more then go on to buy the product.
There’s no such thing as long copy, and here are some very good reasons to test it in your next campaign
Let’s begin by reframing this old argument.
There is no such thing as ‘long copy’. We talk about it as if there were but this is only industry shorthand.
What we mean is ‘longer copy’. Longer, in this case, than the other copy we’re testing against.
As a concrete example, do you feel 700 words is long copy?
Well, it depends, doesn’t it?
If you’re testing it against 100 words, then, yes, it is long(er).
But if you’re testing it against 7,000 words, it must, by definition, be short(er).
In all the tests I have ever run, on my own account or that of clients, longer copy has always outpulled shorter.
It’s also the result you will read in any book on advertising or copywriting.
Why is it so successful? This is simple, really.
Giving your prospect more reasons to buy, and more reassurance that buying is safe, will give more people the confidence to order.
‘Tell me I’ll make more profits with Courier again and I’ll send the boys round’
Ah, dear old Courier. If you want to start a fight with a bunch of designers, or brand or advertising copywriters, suggest that Courier is a more profitable typeface than any other.
Then retreat, muttering, ‘Well, it is for direct mail’.
Split testing tends to reveal that letters set in Courier outperform letters set in other typefaces.
Why is this ugly old sow of a font so effective at parting Jo Public from their money?
Two thoughts here.
One, its very unvarnished look suggests authenticity, truth and a straight-arrow writer. Nobody using this typeface would do anything as lowdown as sell to you, would they?
Two, being a monospaced serif typeface, Courier has pronounced serifs that guide they eye along the line like a visual railway, allowing the reader to absorb your message more easily.
‘I can’t read all-italic copy’
In comprehension experiments, test subjects will report finding all-italic text harder to read and remember.
However, when tested on recall, those subjects given the all-italic text perform better than those given roman text.
I suspect the reason is as for the title case text above. By slowing the reader down, the italics force them to spends longer figuring out what the text is saying to them.
Nobody buys into handwritten comments
‘Nobody believes that old-fashioned cheesy crap, do they?’ is, quite literally, the sort of thing people say to me when we get round to discussing what works and what doesn’t. (Even on the web.)
And do you know what? I neither know nor care what people ‘believe’.
People, as they read landing pages, emails or good old-fashioned sales letters, may well be tutting to themselves about the writer’s naked commercialism and rank amateurishness.
But consider this, how would they be feeling that UNLESS they were reading it at the same time?
We are powerless to resist ‘handwritten’ amends to marketing copy because they are disruptive – separate from the beautifully cut type they snuggle up to – and because they suggest human agency.
PS Try this and sell more stuff
The copywriters who foam at the mouth when presented with fake highlighter or handwriting have an equally hard time accepting a PS.
‘Why?’ they rage. ‘Why does it work. It’s so obviously fake.’
They work because they sit underneath the writer’s signature, a place most readers will look, so they get read too.
They work because they still have some residual power to evoke the thought that this is important. Breaking news, if you like.
Epistemological doubt has no place in copywriting
But in any case, the question ‘why?’ is somewhat redundant.
What are these doubting Thomases and Thomasinas so concerned about?
That there are readily available techniques that make more people buy more stuff more of the time?
Or that these techniques are, to them, aesthetically distasteful?
Or that they are intellectually hard to grasp?
None of these should matter.
Find out what works – and do that
We are not writing literature. We are not even writing journalism, which, while it may be wrapping tomorrow’s fish and chips, at least in ink-on-dead-trees format, is at least consumed for its own sake.
We are writing copy. Which, we should remind ourselves, is not held in any great esteem by the punters.
They, I imagine, refer to it as adverts, junk mail, spam or marketing bollocks. And not with any ironic fondness either.
We should be concerned ONLY with what works better within the limits of what is ethically acceptable, a subject, perhaps, for a future blog post.