Thursday, July 9, 2009

So You Want to be a Copywriter?, Part 2

Direct Response copywriters are the door-to-door salespeople of the writing world. I say that without a trace of sarcasm and with great admiration. These copywriters labor in the vineyards of Direct Marketing, so they don’t depend on dazzling style alone to make the sale. Instead, they focus on writing the very best “Because” copy possible, because that’s what’s required to motivate Baby Boomers to take action. “Because” copy supplies the Reasons Why anyone should give serious consideration to what you’re saying and selling. Its purest form might be a short bullet that makes a rather common product feature seem like something that will enhance the life of the target market.

Effective “Because” copy is especially important with Direct Marketing prospects because they always want to know “Why?” Why is that such a good feature? Why should I believe the claims that are made? Why is the product worth the price? Why should I buy the product? Direct Response copywriters answer each Why with at least one credible, compelling “Because”, because that’s what it takes to convert browsing Boomers into loyal customers.

Direct Response writing is the closest thing to “writing as science” that I can think of because its results can be measured. However, despite what the latest seminar du jour may claim, there aren’t any reliable formulas for successful Direct Response copywriting, although there are certain guidelines that are usually worth heeding. For instance, research suggests that using certain tricks of the trade can influence response rates in a positive way. There are plenty of good books around that can teach you the basics, but there are no shortcuts to mastering Direct Response copywriting. It may be part science, but it’s part magic, too. And, as with every skill, you learn by doing, refining, doing, refining… It’s not easy, but it can be very rewarding for both you and your clients.

It’s a shame that the general public considers Direct Response copywriting to be shilling rather than a serious tool of commerce, like consumer research. This is partly due to simple ignorance, but it’s also because people think that all writing should rise to the level of “fine art,” whatever that is. Besides being a snooty point of view, it’s also misguided. Writing of any kind, from a short poem to a ponderous tome, has always been about selling something, be it an inspiring idea (Walden), a defense of a political position (universal healthcare), or simply entertainment (choose your favorite sitcom).

An advertising client asked me if I’d ever written anything “serious.” I guess she meant a novel, or even less profitable, a short story (I’ve written both). I replied that copywriting is the most serious kind of writing that I do. It’s serious because I have to convince some pretty tough customers to carefully consider parting with their money. That’s a lot more challenging than getting them to turn the pages of a book. Over the past four decades, I’ve written just about everything you can think of from billboards to short films. Some of that stuff may have caused the audience to laugh, cry, ponder, or rage—all important effects, I suppose. But if I can get you to pry open your wallet and spend some cash (OK, put it on plastic), that is quite an achievement in my book.

A final thought: Through the years, I’ve worked in ad agencies and belonged to various professional organizations, where I’ve met a lot of aspiring writers. I’ve mentored some, too. And I’ve found that there’s one characteristic that all successful writers share in common: They write. I’m not trying to be funny. I’ve heard too many wannabes talk about writing, theorize about writing, moan about writing, but they don’t actually write.

So, if you’re sincere about being a really good copywriter, especially a Direct Response copywriter, you must sit down with at least one good idea and write about it for at least an hour a day. Every single day. No excuses. And don’t just ramble on. Revise your stuff until you have at least 500 good, solid, publishable words. If you do that long enough, and well enough, one day you will awaken to the fact that you are, indeed, a real pro.

No comments: