We've all encountered a stereotypical slimy salesperson at least once. Why is it so creepy?
It’s because he’s not a friend — he's a predator.
His aim is to make the sale, whether the customer’s needs are satisfied or not. He’ll bend or break the truth to do it. He knows how to twist emotions, using pressure and hype to create the urge to buy.
And when the engine falls out of your new jalopy, he’s nowhere to be found.
Sad to say it, but the net is crawling with similar characters. One day, perhaps clicking a link in your Twitter feed or in an online ad, you may have found yourself on a landing page like this…
- fonts of many colors
- hyperbolic promises
- phony-sounding testimonials
- screaming calls to action
- and text that keeps going, and going, and going…
These types of pages exist because history has shown these tactics can be very effective at closing a sale. (And used responsibly, some of these tactics CAN be valuable.)
But used poorly, this kind of copywriting has a cost. Because it feels cheap and manipulative, it affects how you’re perceived in the marketplace. It affects the long-term value of your brand. It can also affect your ability to earn repeat business.
So let’s say you’re sitting down to write the sales copy for your latest product — or new service, or your son's lemonade stand — and you want to show your prospects how valuable your offer is without sounding shady.
You want to sell, but not look like a jerk.
Read on to find out how.
Who's speaking? Figure out your voice
A sales page is a conversation between your prospect and your sales copy.
Good sales copy creates the sense of "voice," of a person (real or fictional) behind the words who’s talking to the prospect and explaining the deal.
The next question is: what kind of person do you want pitching your offer?
Would you respond best to a salesperson who was pushy and obnoxious or genuine and helpful?
What kind of communication would create trust and credibility? What would encourage someone to not only buy once but to build a long-term relationship with your brand — and even become a brand advocate in the marketplace?
While the voice of your brand should be unique, here are some general DOs and DON'Ts for creating an authentic voice.
Smart prospects will catch on to any fudging and trash your brand all over the net. Go out of your way to be self-consciously transparent, even if you’re sharing facts that may make the deal less appealing. What you lose in immediate sales you make up in long-term loyalty and respect.
Good copy tends to be crystal clear about the value proposition and the nature of the offer. Slippery copy will make you scroll down for five minutes just to find out what the product is. For goodness sake, explain simply what the offer is and why it matters. Clarity trumps persuasion.
Know your prospect and their needs
Expert freelance copywriter Peter Bowerman tells a great story in his book, The Well-Fed Writer that captures this point perfectly.
He was writing a brochure for some telephone automation equipment, intended for doctors’ offices, which would phone patients and remind them about prescriptions, appointments, etc.
He was stuck for ideas until he realized that his true audience was not the doctors themselves but the front office managers who would actually be responsible for implementing this solution. Knowing his prospect helped him target the unmet need and write copy that would appeal to them.
You should carry out the same process writing your sales copy. Who will be reading it? What do they want? What is the real value of your offer to solve their problems?
Showing an understanding of your prospect and their needs is respectful and also effective; it will build trust and lead to the right kind of sales.
Appropriate humor is a great way of making an authentic connection with your audience; humor builds trust. I get funny sales emails from people like Johnny B. Truant or Naomi Dunford, which I always read, just because I know they’ll be witty and entertaining. I may not buy anything right away, but each time I read a funny email these people are continually building brand equity in my eyes, and so I’m more likely to do things like link to them in blog posts.
Use fresh language
Even when sales copy doesn't sound sleazy, it's often boring and unoriginal.
How many businesses out there are “leading-edge" or offer "innovative solutions”? How many restaurants offer “elegant cuisine" and use "only the freshest ingredients”? How many smartphone screens, computer monitors, or flat-screen televisions are described as "vivid," "vibrant," and "crisp"?
Most valuable niches are extremely competitive, and most sites sound the same, defaulting to hackneyed phrases and stale industry jargon that make them indecipherable from everybody else.
Even your best copy can be like a trendy sweater: at first it was awesome, then everybody had it, now it just seems worn out.
Such is life in a market that constantly moves. Good words can lose the vibrancy they once had. Sometimes the best approach is to keep making it new, going back to basics, re-discovering the root need and the root value, and describing it in a natural voice.
Not even a little. Exaggeration or hyperbole counts too. Better to under-promise and over-deliver than to exaggerate the value of your offer.
Mess with people's emotions
To me, these are capital crimes of copywriting:
- giving people false hope
- playing on their greed or laziness or fear
- creating a false sense of urgency
It's one thing to be passionate and persuasive — quite another to be manipulative.
Once someone recovers from your influence, they'll know they've been had, and they'll feel bad. And mad. At you.
It's great to sell on the power of your offer and to use all the tools in your kit to do it (testimonials, vivid imagery, product comparison charts, costs vs. benefits analysis, etc.). But don't succumb to the dark side. You'll thank yourself later.
Go heavy on the adjectives
The poet Basil Bunting famously said: "fear adjectives; they bleed nouns."
Most sales copy is littered with empty adjectives, excess verbiage that contributes nothing but hype or that sounds shopworn and stale.
Instead, use specific facts and nouns — especially concrete nouns that are tangible. These hold weight in the mind.
Adjectives can be slippery and we tend to distrust them: how do we know that something is “high-quality,” or “elegant,” or “innovative”? You don’t. Instead, demonstrate your claims through facts.
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Selling is a tough job. You need to show someone why they should give you their money. And even great offers don't sell themselves.
Many ethical and honest marketers may take a different approach than the one I've outlined above, and I don't mean to say they're bad. But even pragmatically speaking, I'm convinced that a lot of the classic copywriting formulas have lost or are losing their power because of overuse and cultural shifts.
So hold fast to your principles, and then adapt your tactics as the circumstances demand.
What do you think? What kind of copy do you like, and what makes you cringe?
Justin is a copywriter and marketer with a one-man agency, Type Shop Communications. He specializes in website copywriting, small business marketing, and convincing stubborn words to do his bidding.
Although a computer geek, he tries to get away from his computer and into the forest whenever he can.