How to: Write Effective Copy

Are you using the right words to attract and retain the interest of those you are targeting? The ideas here can, with only minor obvious modifications, be applied to all media that relies on the written word. 

Headline Strategies

In the how-to 'Constructing a Press Ad' I talked about 'optical dead centre', how do we make the best use of it? Obviously we have to construct a headline that 'hooks' the prospect's interest immediately. The best way of doing this is to frame your headline whilst keeping in mind three key words: Invitation, Benefit and Curiosity.


A headline should always be an invitation to the reader to read on. The use of keywords in framing this invitation is important and many authorities have pointed out that headlines using action keywords such as New, Announcing, Why, Which and How tend to be more successful. By posing a question or making a bold but believable statement the copywriter is inviting the prospect to read further for supporting information.


Likewise, where feasible, the implication that the reader will get some benefit from reading further ("How can you reduce your debt payments by 50%?", "Announcing Operating System X, mission critical reliability for PCs") will encourage people to stick around long enough to read your informative copy.


All headlines have to make the prospect curious, they need to be convinced that the copy may contain information that they were not previously aware of. Curiosity is as much a factor of efficient targeting as it is of copywriting skills. However good your headline is, you're unlikely to invoke curiosity in your excellent new financial software package by sending your letter to the Human Resources department, or placing your ad in a publication not read by your target audience. I'll talk about targeting in a future article.


OK, you've got your great headline, it uses action words, its been sent to the right person, it implies a benefit for the reader. The chances are that by itself only 30% of the people who read and are interested in the headline will read on. Why? Because what directly follows your headline hasn't been crafted to assist a transition from the bold headline to the rather more detailed copy.

When I use the word 'transition' I mean something that will build a bridge between your attention-grabbing headline to the detailed message you're trying to convey. A transition might be a subheading or (more likely in the case of direct mail) the first few words of 'normal' sized text.

There are a number of strategies that you can use to formulate the wording of your transition text, including:


Where you confirm that the prospect is indeed a true prospect

How can you reduce your debt payments by 50%? 
Do you lie awake at night worrying about bills? Are you burdened with debt repayments that are crippling your ability to provide for your family? Easy Credit Finance can help you reschedule your debts...

Deliver the benefit

Illustrate how your solution will lead to an easier life

Announcing Operating System X, mission critical reliability for PCs 
Over 70% of PC crashes can be prevented with Operating System X, removing the need for time-consuming re-boots and the lost productivity that entails. By utilising 'extreme programming' techniques from the start of our development project, our programmers have ensured that...

Repeat your promise

Particularly useful in cases where your initial claim might stretch the credulity of a cynical audience or where your headline is a very bold statement.

You can reduce your debt repayments by up to 50% 
That's right, 8 out of 10 of people who've refinanced with Easy Credit Finance have had their debt repayments reduced by 50%, in some cases even more. Now you can take advantage of the knowledge of our financial experts to ease the strain of..

Make them an offer

For instance a free trail of your product or service that they would be fools to refuse.

A new kitchen for under £1000? 
Call us today and we'll give you a free no-obligation quotation that'll enable you to have the kitchen of your dreams at a price you'll find hard to believe. By combining the skills of our approved craftsmen with a purchasing operation that demands the lowest prices for the best materials, we're able to...

Credible Copy

With headline in place and transition at the ready, now you need to craft and position credible copy that both retains interest and re-enforces your main headline. A copy item can be text itself, a picture, a diagram or a quote but most likely it'll be a combination of more than one of these items.

Whilst graphical items are not always possible or desirable in direct mail, in adverts they're invaluable in providing multiple entry points into your copy for anyone who's missed, or chosen to ignore, your headline. A picture or graph illustrating a benefit can capture attention just as well as a headline. Try always to use graphs that illustrate extremes, for example a picture might show someone ecstatic after using your product or desolate without it. A graph might show a steep rise in something or a steep fall but never a steady line (steady lines tend to make a potentially interesting graph look like a boring grid).

When constructing text copy, credibility can be crucial. Even the most outrageous headline, backed with credible arguments, can be seen to be genuine. You can encourage credibility in a number of ways:

Tone of Voice

You can be serious, you can be humorous, you can sprinkle your copy with three letter acronyms unintelligible to all but your target audience, all approaches to tone of voice are acceptable - providing they accord with your already agreed positioning for your product or service. If you've decided your product is 'serious' then use serious language.


Never over-elaborate. State your case as precisely as possible and then leave it, too much repetition breeds suspicion.


Don't just tell the prospects how to use your product or service, show them and emphasise ease of use. A demonstration could be a simple statement on how to install the new operating system or a 'before and after'  comparison.


People trust other people far more than anything else. If you have a positive comment from an existing customer, use it. Make sure you can attribute it, unattributable quotes are worse than useless.


Establish your no nonsense, no quibble guarantee of success at an early stage. A guarantee on the quality of your product, the service associated with it or the delivery time can all help to overcome buyer fears.

Regulatory approvals/endorsements

Like testimonials, approvals from independent bodies (if available) can be powerful in overcoming reticence, likewise endorsements from recognised third parties such as independent reviewers.

The extent to which you need to establish credibility does of course depend on how well known and respected your offering already is amongst your target audience. Here are some simple guidelines for marketers of new and established products:


  • Give prominence to your (well known) logo.
  • Adopt a warm and friendly tone.
  • Give generous guarantees, but not too generous.
  • Stress your company's human face; avoid sounding like a large corporation even if you are one.
  • If your item is signed (as with a direct mail item), make sure the signature is believable. A prospect might believe that a Senior Manager is writing personally to them, they will not believe that the CEO is.
  • Provide company background information (years in business, financial data, etc)
  • Include endorsements from independent third parties.
  • Use testimonials if you have them.
  • Include trial offers where possible.
  • The smaller your company or the newer your product, the more likely the prospect is to believe that a VERY senior figure was involved in writing the copy. So use the CEO's signature.

Understandable Copy

One key factor in making your message comprehensible to the target audience is sentence complexity. In his definitive work "The Art of Plain Talk", Rudolph Flesch suggested a number of guidelines for general communication with the public. The study was based on an analysis of WWII communications.

  • Sentences: easiest to read 8-10 words; recommended average 16 words; maximum 32 words.
  • Affixes (ly, ing, ab, etc): no more than 26 per 100 words.
  • Personal references (I, you, we, etc.): at least 14 per 100 words.

Of course, it should be stressed that this study assumed communication with the public at large. The extent to which you stick to these recommendations will depend on the complexity of your target audience. The more familiar they are with the subject matter, the more flexible you can be in sentence construction.

More important is ensuring that your copy changes pace. Don't stick solely to long or short words, sentences or paragraphs, instead mix the lengths to keep your reader's full attention. As a general rule, the more 'dignified' and sober your presentation, the longer your sentences should be. Use shorter sentences for exciting, new propositions. Short sentences can help convey a sense of breathless excitement.

A few words on pictures

In both direct marketing and advertising a correctly used picture really can be worth a thousand words. Pictures can be used to demonstrate a problem, illustrate the benefits of your product or service, present a role model (i.e. a happy user of your product) or present your product in close-up (used to promote ownership rehearsal if the product is visually appealing).

Always ensure however that whatever picture used is tied to your written copy. There's little point in using a picture of your office building if you're not trying to persuade prospects of your company's stability, or a picture of a real satisfied customer if a quote from that customer is not prominently displayed.