11 secrets of how to write effective copy, from a master
by Gordon Graham, Editor, SoftwareCEO
How about making this the year your software firm generates more leads... and handles them more effectively?
To help make that resolution come true, here are a dozen time-tested tips from one of the most accomplished copywriters in our industry.
Why talk to a copywriter? Why not a CEO, or a sales whiz? Why does copywriting matter to your results?
Let's face it, selling by e-mail and the web is all about the words. So if you plan on pitching anything to prospects this year—from a free download to a webinar—you need good copywriting to do it.
California-based Ivan Levison has been writing copy for software companies for almost 30 years now.
How good is he?
Never mind the glowing testimonials on his website from firms like ACCPAC, HP, Intel, Intuit, and Microsoft .
Never mind the warm words from big-name authors Geoffrey Moore and Seth Godin.
I can tell you, I've worked with Levison myself and he's great.
So let's dive into some tips from the master on how to improve your copy, generate more leads and fulfill them more effectively.
♦ Copywriting secret #1: Develop an offer in line with the commitment you seek
First of all, what do you want to accomplish with your lead-gen campaign?
Most B2B software firms want a fresh crop of worthwhile suspects—prospects not yet in your sales funnel — who've indicated interest and given enough contact information to trigger some follow-up marketing.
The real issue is, how much energy do you expect your suspects to put in?
Levison says on the low end of the commitment scale is downloading something like an ROI calculator, or a guide with a compelling name.
Toward the middle are the information kits that could contain a CD, brochures and any other item a company cares to include.
Higher still is a webinar, which demands 40 to 60 minutes from a busy prospect's life.
And the high point of the scale is what Levison sees as the ultimate: a letter that is "literally asking for an appointment with a person in their office."
"With this kind of letter"—and he says don't even think about trying this in an e-mail—"you want to avoid making the prospect feel that they're going to have the sales force knock down their door, come in and sell them."
So Levison positions the request for an appointment as a "high-level briefing" on an important area in the industry.
In a table, these options would look like this:
Level of Commitment from Prospect
Free down- load: ROI calculator, special report, useful guide
Information kit sent by mail, or podcast
Appointment for briefing in prospect's office
Naturally enough, the less commitment you ask for, the more prospects you will likely attract.
So most marketers start at the low end of the scale, build up a pipeline and gradually increase the commitment level as they find out more about each prospect.
♦ Copywriting secret #2: Create a compelling title
Levison recommends working hard to come up with a great, original title for your fulfillment piece.
"If the offer is an information kit, don't even use that label. I always give it a name," he says. "Saying 'information kit' is like saying 'white paper;' people's eyes just glaze over. I feel the term 'white paper' in the software industry is so over-used, I like to call them 'guides.'"
Here are some titles he created that worked well for his software clients:
- "Making E-Commerce Pay!
- A 'How-to' Guide for Nonprofits"
- "Information Security:
An Action Plan for Senior Management"
- "How to get out from under the thumb
of your payroll service bureau!"
- "E-Mail Alerts: An Exciting New Tool for HR Professionals"
- "Straight Talk About Bar Code Data Capture and Wireless Networks: A Guide for Manufacturers"
- "A VAR's Guide to Higher Profits"
And let's not forget the one he did for my firm:
"How to Unlock the Power of Oracle Applications"
Notice how each title pushes the benefits and the usefulness of the information included. Also note how many titles indicate the intended audience, explicitly saying "for ... "
♦ Copywriting secret #3: Sell the offer, not the product
This is a mistake that people often make—especially technical people.
"The goal of lead generation is simply to get the prospect to raise their hand so that you can get them in the sales funnel," says Levison.
"You want to make your offer so exciting, so irresistible, that everybody will raise their hands."
And what is motivating?
The benefits that the prospect is going to get out of your fulfillment piece itself—not your product.
"The way I always position it is to say, 'Your free guide was created by Acme Software.' And indeed, I do talk about the company, 'creators of XYZ Software' a little bit, but that's down below," says Levison.
"The product will come later in the sales cycle, but first always get their hands up with the benefits of your offer."
♦ Copywriting secret #4: Back up your offer with useful, compelling content
This is critical. When people give you their e-mail address, you have to deliver on your promise. You must fulfill their request with something valuable.
"If you tell them you're going to give them five reasons to pay attention to something, or seven mistakes to avoid, you've got to give them a good piece, or else they will feel ripped off," says Levison.
As an example of a truly effective fulfillment piece, Levison points to a campaign dreamed up by Kathleen Litschgi at Best Software (now Sage): a kit with everything a middle manager could use to sell their boss on her software.
"She brought me this idea and I translated it and it was tremendously successful," says Levison.
You can see Levison's entire letter on this page of his site.
Always try to think on that highly imaginative level, he advises. Don't just put together just another same-old package for your prospects.
♦ Copywriting secret #5: Don't just send a jumble of data sheets
In fact, Levison says one of the worst things a software company can do to fulfill a request is to cobble together a clutch of existing materials pulled off the marcom shelves.
"People say, 'Hey, we've got this thing from 1927!' and they just write a dead-end letter saying, 'Thank you so much for your interest in our product...' and it goes out into the ether, and that lead is never seen again."
You've probably received packages like that. Not very exciting, are they?
♦ Copywriting secret #6: Inject some personality
The secret is to write with more flair and not be afraid of speaking like one human being to another.
Often the people who do copywriting in a software firm are product managers. They do what feels like a nice, clean job, says Levison.
"The problem is, those jobs often don't have the whole dimension that really makes the sale, the enthusiasm and the looseness of the writing that has personality. And quite honestly, when people see personality, they like it."
Levison is a master of the friendly, conversational style. For an example, look at any of his newsletters; he has seven year's worth of them on his Web site, and each one is a little gem.
This is the tone you want to achieve in your own copy.
♦ Copywriting secret #7: Mention the title of the download in your e-mail's subject line
You don't want to say "free" and get blocked by the spam filters. Instead, Levison often tries to work the title of the download into the subject line.
Another tip is to mention the job title of your target audience right in the subject line.
"And if they see IT, or security, or CFO — if they see themselves — you've got a real shot at getting that e-mail opened."
This might yield a crisp subject line that reads like this:
"Attn IT Security Pros: 8 Secrets of Protecting Your Network from Hackers."
Notice how this subject line almost writes itself... and is both powerful and concise at the same time.
♦ Copywriting secret #8: Humanize your offer with photos of people, but not fake-looking ones
A picture really can speak 1,000 words, but it has to be good to do it.
"For webinars, I sometimes use a photo of a person sitting at their desk thoughtfully watching the screen," says Levison.
"The trick is to use something human. The clip stuff is so terrible, with all these beaming, bright, scrubbed people. I've never once been to a meeting in Silicon Valley where the people looked anything like in the stock photos!"
Sure there are lots of good-looking keeners in Silicon Valley, but they're the ones actually doing some work, not striking poses for the camera.
Find a photo that looks real, not fake. If you have to, take your own. Hire a photojournalist from your local newspaper to do it for you. Use your own offices, your own city and your own people for models; they will likely be thrilled.
♦ Copywriting secret #9: Get them in and out of the landing page quickly
It's vital to have a dedicated landing page on your Web site that supports your initial campaign and it must be simple.
"I think it's very important to have continuity between the landing page and the initial message. You don't want to drop them off at the home page and make them struggle to find what you've promised," says Levison.
The landing page could say, "Thanks very much for responding to the e-mail that we recently sent you. Please fill in this information... You're one mouse-click away from your free download."
Then right below the form, it should say "click here." No muss, no fuss and no more selling, because they're already sold.
♦ Copywriting secret #10: Keep it short and sweet, in any medium
There is one factor that has changed over the course of Levison's career: length. Shorter is almost always better today, he says.
"Where I used to write four-page letters all the time, now I write two-sides of a page, that's the default and maybe four or five paragraphs for an e-mail."
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and for some high-commitment, high-value campaigns, you may need longer copy. But for everything else, keep it short and sweet.
♦ Copywriting secret #11: Mediums change, but human nature doesn't
Levison says that underneath all the latest marketing trends, human nature never changes; the same principles of effective copywriting apply.
"Something free is always going to be great. Something that helps solve a person's problem is always great. So whether we're talking about ink on the page or pixels on a screen, it's remarkably the same," he says.
What's the take-away message, as Levison would say?
To generate more leads, do something different. Offer helpful and practical information to your prospects. Write it up crisply, package it effectively, promote it properly — and you will definitely stand out from the crowd of software vendors.
What do you think? Got a comment or question?
Click here to join the discussion on LinkedIn.
Copyright © Computing Technology Industry Association, Inc. Reprinted with permission.