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Content, Writing and Copyright Forum

Copy That Sells
They laughed when I sat down to play...

 7:47 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

"They laughed when I sat down to play..."

This opening line was the headline for magazine ads for a piano lesson firm... the ads ran for decades with only minor updating. Readers couldn't help but be drawn into the story about the individual who amazed his friends after secretly using their lesson plan. Apparently, it converted, too.

Perhaps more to the point, check the catalogs that have no doubt filling your mailboxes - the truly successful catalogs have great, engaging copy. Compare, "Our nylon parka uses space-age fiber filling to provide warmth and durability..." to "Sir Edmund Hilary would have loved this parka... but the materials we use weren't invented until 30 years after his famous ascent. Even if you aren't braving bone-chilling temperatures and knife-like winds at 20,000 feet, you'll appreciate..."

For those of us who sell tangible goods, it's all too easy to fall into the rut of writing descriptions that stress features and specifications, and omit both emotion and ultimate user benefits. The purchaser may need to know the weight of fiber filling in the parka, or the thread count of the nylon shell... but why is he REALLY shopping for it? Warmth and protection under harsh conditions? Perhaps he just wants a stylish, adventurous look while never leaving the city? (Think SUVs... the ads always show them surging through streams or flogging through brush, even though 95% will be driven only on pavement.)

One of the more interesting catalogs I've seen was a book of massively reduced overstock items. These were often military or industrial overstocks that the cataloger purchased for pennies (or less) on the dollar. The items often had little use for their original purpose, but the catalog transformed them. Mil-spec metal O-rings might become "Wedding Rings for Elves" or "Very Tiny Ring Toss Game Accessories". The suggestions were always fanciful, but the catalog was compelling reading. The writer turned the most boring commodities into laugh-out-loud copy. I occasionally bought stuff that I encountered while reading the catalog purely for recreation.

Of course, sometimes effective sales copy is straightforward - it identifies the need, and positions the product as the ideal way to meet that need. The features or specs support the copy's claims, but don't dominate the presentation.

On the web, truly effective copy will have at least two benefits: it will increase time on site (in a good way), and increase conversion rates.

So... is YOUR sales copy all it could be? Like me, do you catch yourself writing facts instead of engaging the reader's emotions? Where do you go for inspiration?



 7:58 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

Some of the most engaging catalogs on the planet come from Canada's Lee Valley Tools (hardware and hand tools for fine woodworking, mostly). I used to hand them out to use as examples when I was teaching technical writing.

Spend time reading Leonard Lee's descriptions and you'll not only know all the technical specs, you'll end up lusting for tools you don't even know how to use!


 8:11 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

"They laughed when I sat down to play..."

Full copy here - it's great:


 8:21 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

That's a cute link.
I wish they had the Lee Valley's catalogs here [catalogs.google.com]


 8:55 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

rogerd.. nice find and great topic!

As I recall, the piano ad was written by David Ogilvy (of the infamous Ogilvy and Mathers advertising agency).

Ogilvy had a very informative book ('Ogilvy on Advertising' I believe), that contained that ad as well as dozens of other great ads and ideas designed to capture your audience.


 9:02 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

Check my link - was written by John Caples for Ruthrauff & Ryan in 1925.


 9:07 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

Anything by David Olgivy is well worth reading.

Among other things he'll tell you over and over to judge an ad by how much it sells, not by what creative awards it wins!


 9:34 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

Yes, Ogilvy was sharp. Although its been years since I've read any of his books, there are always things that I remember from him while writing copy.

Start at top left with headlines.. use upper/lower case titles.. and grab the attention of your target audience (i.e. "Orange County Home Buyers").

Rather than my continuing to get worked up over the Florida update, I think I'll dust off an old copy of Ogilvy's book, and give it a read.

"Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things."
-David Ogilvy

bcolflesh, obviously David Ogilvy also thought of the ad highly enough to include it in one of his books. Ogilvy was best known for his advertising work in the 50's, 60's and 70's. I guess the piano ad was written a few decades before his time.


 9:50 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

Thanks for the link to the full ad text, bcolflesh... It's been years since I read through the whole thing.

It's good to see so many members familiar with this classic ad - is it safe to assume you all write killer copy for the sites you work with? ;) Any recommendations for techniques or resources when the copy well starts to run dry?


 9:51 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

David Ogilvy is probably the main inspiration that made me study business advertising in university, and earned my life with this up to now..

This book is a must.

Thanks for this post, i was surprised to read about it in WW, but it makes total sense.


 11:19 pm on Nov 25, 2003 (gmt 0)

> is it safe to assume you all write killer copy for the sites you work with?

I'm sure I've put people to sleep with my copy, but I'm reasonably certain I've never killed anyone. ;)

You ask a good question. One of my larger clients in the recent past required a LOT of copy. Unfortunately, the product is a very boring one ... not even a low-interest category, it's a no-interest category. Everyone needs this product, no one cares much about it. And that was the biggest challenge of a lifetime - making a boring, no-interest product sound interesting.

I could always use more tips and pointers ... even a "classic" example like the one you mentioned in your first post is a good jog for my creative side.


 12:43 am on Nov 26, 2003 (gmt 0)

Any recommendations for techniques or resources when the copy well starts to run dry?

One of the books on my shelf is 'Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This' by Luke Sullivan. Americans would probably know who Whipple is - I had no idea initially!

The subtitle is 'A guide to creating great ads' but there is plenty of inspiration in this book for everybody ;).


 2:20 am on Nov 26, 2003 (gmt 0)

i was surprised to read about it in WW

The inmates of the Content asylum, er, forum, get considerable latitude. ;)

Hawkgirl, one of my creativity challenges is a bit different than yours: one site I work with has a thousand products that are fundamentally similar, albeit with great differences in price, quality, style, application, etc. Trying to come up with clever and unique copy for each one is just about hopeless...


 6:08 pm on Nov 26, 2003 (gmt 0)

> Trying to come up with clever and unique copy for each one is just about hopeless...

Is that when you dig into the thesaurus, to find fifteen different ways to say the same word? :)

I suppose it's a good exercise in creativity ... plus you probably get to exercise your vocabulary more than usual when you have to try and make each similar product unique.


 6:42 pm on Nov 26, 2003 (gmt 0)

I just ordered 'Ogilvy on Advertising' from Amazon :) I've never heard of nor read the book.

I've never been into advertising that much, but getting into that now, so it will be a usefull read.


 5:00 am on Nov 28, 2003 (gmt 0)

Looked up "They laughed when I sat down..." in SEs and found several lists of the 10 or 100 greatest ad headlines. Interesting reading.

Then I found one true ad genius. He penned a list of the *101* greatest ad headlines. Funny!

Skimmed Ogilvy many years ago. I remember his advice that black text on a white background is almost always the way to go. Wish all web publishers knew that.

Mr Bo Jangles

 10:36 pm on Nov 28, 2003 (gmt 0)

Loved the post - thankyou - and just love the ad

in fact I think I just got some, er, 'inspiration'.....

[edited by: rogerd at 4:36 am (utc) on Nov. 29, 2003]
[edit reason] No URLs, thanks! [/edit]


 8:01 pm on Nov 30, 2003 (gmt 0)

We tested hundreds of permutations of a selling page.

We scientifically measured and tested each link on the page and its conversion rate.

In the end - we came to the following conclusions in terms of sales copy:

"FREE Month" - really worked well

Showing a price point increased conversion (i.e. "Just $9.95 per month!")

Exclamation marks increased conversion rates

"Limited time offer" - increased conversion rates

Placing a specific end date to promotions increased conversion rates (i.e. "Offer expires on December 22nd")

These truths held regardless of the other 'fluff' copy surrounding them.


 1:28 pm on Dec 3, 2003 (gmt 0)

While surfing, I ran across jpeterman.com - if you are looking for copy that transcends the product, check them out. You might think a flannel shirt is a fairly prosaic item... You can find them at Wal-Mart for five bucks, and they are the preferred cool-weather apparel for truck drivers and construction workers. If I told you I was going to sell flannel shirts for $148, you'd tell me I was crazy. Or, you'd tell me I'd need a heck of a marketing plan. Well, check out this copy:
On a trip to the Adirondacks, not long ago, in a cabin on the edge of a remote lake, I woke about 1 AM to an unearthly chorus.
Soft tremolos, yodels, mournful, drawn-out wails resonating through the night.
Haunting. Mysterious. Thrilling.
Then silence.
When I saw these shirts, I was reminded of that wild music. Somehow, a small family-owned Scottish mill that's been quietly chugging away since 1818 has managed to capture the same brooding, mysterious quality...

The copy goes on, but devotes just one brief line to the product specifications.

If this copy can move even a few $150 flannel shirts, I'd say it qualifies as "copy that sells"... You aren't just buying a warm shirt, you are buying the emotional associations they have created: generations of Scottish tradition and quality, combined with a mystical American outdoor experience most of us will never have. I had to struggle to avoid the "Add to Basket" button... ;)


 11:37 am on Dec 4, 2003 (gmt 0)

jpeterman is great stuff. My roommate in college sophomore year would do readings from the jpeterman catalogue. Just like it was poetry or Hemingway. Unfortunately the quality doesn't match up to the words. But as a testament to the power of their writing he would occasionally give in, even though he knew better, and order something anyway because it sounded so great.


 8:57 pm on Dec 11, 2003 (gmt 0)

Damn, I can't say how happy I am to see a discussion in this line : )

We've been seeing the same old ads since the early eighties, those that try to appeal to our 'desires' in a flank flank way (which in most cases 'bout comes down to sex, being better sexed, or to 'feel sexable', if the message isn't doing the above 'way better than another product' : ).

Imagination and emotion sells for sure. I've been trying to appeal to that through imagery, but yes, text leaves more room for personal interpretation (almost all images the imagination concocts from a text is based on personal experience) and should be all the more powerful. The hard thing about it is that modern attention spans are so short that that 'snare' text has to be all the more enticing to keep the visitor from zapping - and that right at the start in the first few words. I still think (IMHO) that an advertising web designer would still need some sort of visual lure to bring attention to the text - there's so much crap out there that a user anything above a beginner needs a real whallop to slap him out of his or her blaséed junk-biased surfing.

Sorry for going on without coming to any real conclusion but for sure you've given me something to think about and the above is just the beginning of that - thanks : )

What's most in this thread that has gone unsaid - it is a real pleasure to read well-written, appealing and imaginative text: we see so little of it nowadays.


 5:13 pm on Dec 13, 2003 (gmt 0)

...oh, and be sure to read my book : "1001 sure-fire conversation-stoppers."

LOL, sorry for my rambling : )


 3:25 pm on Dec 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

I ran across another nice copy example - this for a $30 shower head. Home Depot has low-end showerheads for $5 or less, but who could resist this appeal?

The Pampered Guests At Five Star Hotels Love This Showerhead
Revolutionary [BrandName] Showerhead Adds 10 Times The Oxygen to every shower you take. From your first shower you’ll feel the invigorating difference, and fitness experts are raving about its oxygen rich benefits. Imagine, your daily shower revitalizing your body and inhibiting free radicals that can damage and age your skin. Using the same principle as a jet engine the showerhead continually sucks in fresh air and infuses it into the water creating a powerful [BrandName] spray of revitalizing oxygen enriched water. The moment you turn it on you realize this is like no other showerhead you’ve ever experienced...[copy goes on to describe additional benefits, water savings, quick payback on product cost, short installation time, etc.]

The wording is a bit clunky, but it certainly gets the non-skeptical reader to think about their product. Compare the above copy to that for an even more costly showerhead ($83) at a plumbing supply site:

8" Adjustable Shower Head
-Can be installed on your existing shower arm or ceiling mounted.
-Shower Head has adjustable ball joint
-Avaliable [sic] in: Chrome, Polished Brass and Brushed Nickel (See options below)
-1 to 2 day lead time

This contrasting approach gets to what I alluded to in my first post. All too often, I think, we fall into writing the second kind of copy - factual & useful, but lacking any emotional appeal. It's fine if someone is looking for that exact product and has decided to buy from you. But will it induce someone who wasn't shopping for that product to buy on impulse? Or, if the customer is comparison shopping, will it cause them to buy from you instead of your competitor?

The second site was paying for PPC results for my search - do you think snappier copy might give them more bang for their PPC buck?

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