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How you can avoid copywriting fails today thanks to these dead people

What can you learn about improving your website from someone who died five years before the World Wide Web was even invented?

I’ll tell you:


And here’s why…

Copywriting, according to the American Writers and Artists Institute, is “the process of writing persuasive marketing and promotional materials that motivate people to take some form of action”.

And whether you’re updating the latest digital media channels or just sticking posters to lampposts to find your lost dog, that last point bears repeating:

Anything you write must motivate people to take action.

So why not learn from the best?

What better way to make your website more effective than by following tips from some of history’s most trailblazing marketers?

The fact that these legends snuffed it before the internet had its heyday is irrelevant. Their wisdom applies just as much today as it did then, and it’s almost guaranteed to win you more enquiries.

Let’s meet them.

Rosser Reeves – d. 1984

Ever heard the phrase “USP”? Of course you have, but did you know before now who came up with it?

Rosser Reeves and his advertising team developed the idea that every product or service needs a “unique selling proposition”, or “unique selling point” (USP). By emphasising the USP in his marketing campaigns, Reeves sold millions for Colgate toothpaste, Bic pens, and many more.

Reeves’s 59-second TV commercial for Anacin headache medicine made more money in seven years than the film Gone With The Wind did in a quarter of a century. But it’s another innovation of his that’ll make your website better…

At the Ted Bates agency in the 1940s and 1950s, Reeves set up a “copy laboratory” to work out which adverts were most successful. He discovered the best ones all had something specific in common:

“It is quite surprising how much we can find out about what moves people […] there is an incredibly long list of proved desires out of which we can evolve a diversity of creative, and imaginative, campaigns.” – Rosser Reeves

These “proved desires” reveal what people care about the most – and they’re just as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. Here are some that Reeves shared in his book Reality In Advertising:

  • “We want healthy children, and we want to be healthy ourselves.”
  • “We want to own things in which we can take pride.”
  • “We want to be secure in our old age.”

So how can you take inspiration from this to improve your website? It’s easy:

Tell your clients what they’ll really get when they use your services.

In other words, instead of promoting your expertise, talk about the benefits your services provide – the ways they transform your clients’ lives. Here’s how.

Instead of this… Write this
Download our guide to find out everything you need to know about saving for retirement Download our retirement guide to find out how to enjoy later life in happiness and comfort
Read our investment brochure to see how we can help your money stretch a little bit further Read our investment brochure to see how we can help you afford more of the things you treasure
Get in touch to learn how our specialists can build your completely bespoke financial plan Get in touch to learn how our specialists can give you the power to provide a better life for your family

 David Ogilvy – d. 1999

“The father of advertising.” That’s how David Ogilvy was known, which gives you an idea of how successful and important he really was.

Before starting the agency that still bears his name today, this Scotsman worked as a chef, a door-to-door oven salesman, an MI6 analyst, and a farmer. In his advertising career, Ogilvy produced bestselling campaigns for Dove, Guinness, Schweppes, and countless others.

Ogilvy once spent three weeks interviewing Rolls-Royce engineers to get information for an advert, which ended up selling so many cars the company couldn’t keep pace with production. But despite being responsible for some of the most creative marketing of all time, he had a motto that revealed a different priority:

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” – David Ogilvy

Actually, Ogilvy stole this slogan from a rival agency but, whoever said it first, here’s why it still rings true today:

You could have the most ground-breaking website on the planet, but if it doesn’t help you get more clients, it’s useless.

The solution?

Make sure the client you’re calling to action actually takes that action.

In his book Confessions Of An Advertising Man, Ogilvy shared a list of “words and phrases that work wonders” in advertisements and marketing materials. These are a handful of them:

  • Free
  • New
  • How to
  • Now
  • Introducing
  • Improvement
  • Quick
  • Easy
  • The truth about
  • Compare

Now here’s a two-minute task for you. Fire up your business’s current homepage, look at it very carefully, then ask yourself – and act upon – this simple question:

“How much more persuasive would my website be if I could weave some ‘words and phrases that work wonders’ into it?”

Victor Schwab – d. 1980

Picture the scene. It’s a busy New York advertising agency in the 1930s. In a smoke-filled corner of the office, a young secretary begins making suggestions and improvements to the company’s ads.

Does he get fired?

No. That secretary was Victor Schwab, and his contributions were so good they saw him promoted to full-time copywriter. In that role, Schwab pioneered the use of coded coupons to test and refine which newspaper adverts drew the best response, selling millions of products as a result.

His mail-order ad for the book How To Win Friends And Influence People made it a huge success, and it’s still a bestseller today. Later, his own book How To Write A Good Advertisement revealed his formula for successful copywriting, the first step of which is “Get attention”:

“The copywriter’s aim in life should be to try to make it harder for people to pass up his advertisement than to read it. And right in his headline he takes the first step on the road to that goal.” – Victor Schwab

In his quest for perfection, Schwab analysed headlines from 100 of the most successful adverts ever. Afterwards, he shared his observations about the things these headlines had in common that made them winners, and how businesses can follow their example.

  • The attraction of the specific

Use phrases that promise something (how, here’s, these, which, which of these, who, who else, where, when, what, why).

  • The primary viewpoint – the “point of you”

43 out of the 100 headlines contain “you”, “your”, or “yourself”.

  • Don’t worry about a “negative” approach

Sometimes you strike a stronger chord with the reader by pointing out their problem, rather than the solution.

  • Tell readers how quickly, easily, or inexpensively they’ll get the benefits you promise them

Give exact amounts (number of days, evenings, hours, minutes, £££s, ways, types of).

  • Get news (or news value) into your headline

Tease readers into your copy with a story.

All these tips still apply today, but there’s one more to add to bring Schwab’s observations into the 21st century.

When writing for websites, a good rule of thumb is to make your headlines between 20 and 70 characters long. To be clear: that’s a maximum of 70 characters (as in letters, spaces, and punctuation marks), not 70 words.

And when you’re ready to put these pointers into practice, what should you do to give yourself the best possible shot at victory?

Draft and refine your ideas into a headline that’s irresistible to your clients.

Like Schwab said, the headlines you use in your marketing materials are the first, most crucial step in getting attention. That means they’re worth every bit of extra effort you put into making them as good as they can be, something I can vouch for.

Scroll back up to the top of this page and read the headline again. I drafted and rejected nine other versions before I picked that one, so let me show you why I decided the headline I chose worked best:

  • How = “The attraction of the specific”
  • You can = “The primary viewpoint – the point of ‘you’”
  • Avoid copywriting fails = “Don’t worry about a ‘negative’ approach”
  • Today = “Tell readers how quickly, easily or inexpensively they’ll get the benefits you promise them”
  • Thanks to these dead people = “Get news (or news value) into your headline”
  • How you can avoid copywriting fails today thanks to these dead people = 69 characters.

Is it the perfect headline? Definitely not. But I’m going to let you in on a secret:

If you’re reading these words, my headline did its job. It got your attention, and held it long enough for you to read the first sentence, then the next, until you made it all the way down here.

And when you’re trying to motivate people to take action, sometimes it’s best to take things one step at a time.

Get in touch

Are you alive? Do you want a more effective website but don’t know where to begin? We can help. Email or call 0115 8965 300, and let’s discuss how to make your website stand the test of time.

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