Persuasive Copywriting for Beginners (and Dummies!)

A few months ago, before I began working with Future Now - prior to any formal interview, even - they mailed me a copy of Persuasive Online Copywriting: How to Take Your Words to the Bank. Presumably, I was getting this book to preemptively further my copywriting expertise in case they hired me. They would have me learn a thing or twelve about their business by forcing me to read about something I've been doing on my own for years.

Did they mean to suggest I wasn't persuasive? Can you imagine the nerve!? Six years of national magazine and print journalism experience, and another two years as an online copywriter and marketer! Had they not seen my resume?

When the book arrived, my curiosity stirred. Who was this Martian on the cover, and what exactly did s/he want from me? The word "persuasive" stuck in my head-as did "bank," quite honestly. They'd hit a nerve.

I knew I was a good copywriter. (People kept hiring me, anyway.) Yet there was something different about online copywriting. Businesses trusted me to bridge the divide between them and their customers. But who were these confounded customers? What motivated them? How should I speak to them without seeming presumptuous or 'sales-y'?

This problem boiled over when a new, ultra-hip, high-end women's fashion boutique hired me to write their web copy and manage their site's development from the ground up. Aside from my uncanny sense of women's fashion-which we'll just call the "id"-I had precious little understanding of their soon-to-be customers. So, like many brave copywriters before me, I stereotyped their online visitors.

Stereotyping was a real time-saver. Everyone who came to their site would be a rich trophy wife-or soon-to-be trophy wife-who wanted clothes their rich trophy wife friends didn't have: the latest styles from semi-obscure up-and-coming designers from New York and LA. If I made an alluring pitch, material girls (platinum card in-hand) would flock to the 'Contact Us' page.

The result was a gorgeous site. My team completely over-delivered with an artful Flash intro, an interactive virtual walk-through of the entire store, beautiful photography, and the best copy I could muster. The client was thrilled.

Although the site was great eye candy and everyone was happy, I realized later there wasn't much of anything persuasive about it. People still love the site, but the problem is that new customers can't understand what's going on without some form of insider knowledge of this particular business. That leaves a lot of dresses on the rack.

So there I was, a year and a half later, reading about why all of my efforts amounted to essentially nothing-give or take a few sentences. As it happens, none of the web copy I'd ever written was persuasive.

After reading POC, I revisited every morsel of pixilated copy for which I'd cashed a check. It was all garbage; once powerful language now seemed painfully average. They offered me the job anyway, but I began privately hoping they hadn't dwelled on my resume. While I'd been stereotyping customers, these folks were writing for customer profiles and personas. For once, I had a lens from which to see online visitors as more than just a diverse cast of anthropomorphized lemmings. I quickly realized that persuasive copy isn't about genius writing; it's about having the right process.

Profile thyself lest ye be profiled ...

The best way to begin profiling others is to start at home. Admittedly, it's difficult to be honest with one's self in this situation. Our identities are the sum total of what we project onto the world. Still, the better we can approximate our own behavioral preferences, the better we are at empathizing with customers. In a perfect world, we'd all have the luxury of writing to customers as though they were three-dimensional personas. However, profiles shortcut the complexity of persona development.

During our recent Persuasive Online Copywriting seminar, The Grok administered a personality profile test for attendees. Much like high school, college, and the rest of life, some finished right away while others grappled with the questions in order to ensure they had the 'correct' answer. In the end, they were all right! The result only mattered in terms of what it said about the individual. Besides, profiles are nothing more than preferences, not black-and-white statements about who we are.  And these preferences are valuable because they help us understand the customer's buying decision process.

People were quickly identified as 'Humanistic,' 'Methodical,' 'Competitive,' and 'Spontaneous.' This did not go over well with some, especially once color-coded stickers were handed out. The natural reaction, of course, is to feel stereotyped. (After the initial shock, however, one realizes how this can be leveraged.)

As it happened, there was only one Methodical in the entire room. He was visibly uncomfortable and later mumbled something about how another profile type seemed to be described as "better" than his. He was the last person to finish the test-by a long-shot-and asked several questions about the test itself while taking it. Still, our Methodical friend was likely one of the smartest people in the room. In fact, he holds a very significant position at a top company. Why, then, was the test such a challenge? It wasn't. He simply needed his questions answered thoroughly. How the test was structured was his key concern.

(Methodical tip: They will be the last ones reading. They may even know your website better than you do. They'll also have the most questions about your products and services. Keep them happy by providing them with structured copy, bullet-point lists, and empirical data. The further down the page, the more methodical the copy.)

I knew where this was going and had to bite my tongue from demanding that we just give him a 'Methodical' sticker after his second question. Then again, I've recently found that I'm highly competitive. In fact, I skipped out on taking the test altogether because it seemed useless to me. I was certain that I was a Humanistic. After all, wasn't I paying such close attention to everyone else's type because I was interested in learning more about others? "My people care," I thought, "we're great writers, and doggone-it, people like us! Besides, I'm a Mac user at home-aren't we all Humanistic?"

(Humanistic tip: Humanistic-types are slow-paced and will take the time to decide who buys from you. They love testimonials. Your copy should have assurances from credible sources because they'll be investing their trust in you. Prove that you have integrity. They'll quickly spot and laugh at anything disingenuous, so don't turn them off with hype. They're also big gift-buyers, so don't shy away from making it personal in an up-sell situation. Like Methodicals, Humanistics will spend a good deal of time on your site, so give them plenty to read.)

Without realizing it, I'd rationalized an answer for the most typical of competitive questions: "What can this [test] do for me?" Since I'd already made up my mind, the answer was, "Not much, so why waste my time?" I was interested in everyone else's profile type primarily because I wanted to know what it said about them in relation to me. For evidence of this, just scroll up to the first paragraph of article.

(Competitive tip: Cut to the chase early on, and establish credibility. Quickly demonstrate your Unique Value Proposition on the homepage, and what it is that you offer. Competitive types want to know what gives them an edge. Comparative checklists between your services and your competitors' will help convince them you're the best.)

So, in the spirit of getting to the bottom line, let's forego the rest of this narrative, shall we? You get the point.

Spontaneous tip: This last tip doesn't need to be parenthetical. Most of those who suspected they're 'spontaneous' probably just caught the bolded text and skipped down here. They've already scrolled up and down, looking for relevance. This is way too far down to begin engaging the spontaneous. In order to please the spontaneous profile, quickly build rapport and usher them through your homepage. Give them opportunities to click around, but make it goal-oriented. Give them links, or risk losing them. They are fun-loving people - completely in the here-and-now - who care deeply about how others perceive them. Their identity is important, so let them know why they should buy from you. Offer them clear calls to action to peak their curiosity, and let them visit various points of resolution to give them instant gratification.

Now that you've profiled yourself to a degree, think about how you can write copy for scenarios that engage each of these profiles. Thankfully, we're not just sophisticated lemmings with credit cards-regardless of what the Competitive-types tell you.

Robert Gorell is with Future Now, Inc.

Volume 129: 5/1/06

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