A few years ago, a multimillion-dollar financial forecasting firm asked me to create a company-wide style guide for all of its brands. The guide is intended to supersede the Associated Press Stylebook.
If you have ever used a company style guide, you may be familiar with the typical hierarchy. When in question, writers should consult:
- First reference: Your company’s style book
- Second reference: The AP Stylebook
- Third reference: Webster’s dictionary
The company has employed a stable of talented, full-time copywriters for decades. As a result, it had amassed a substantial digital library of more than 100 pages of principles, guidelines and experiment summaries for how to and how not to publicly position itself in written communications. My job was to locate, compile and synthesize this diverse set of writing documents into a single, all-encompassing guide—then fill in any blanks as needed.
As a professional copywriter with a journalism background, an affinity for AP style and experience in daily newspapers, I had become the company’s go-to for AP style questions, so it was a fun project and a good fit.
Once complete, the style guide came to 22 pages (private message me on Twitter for a copy).
When I came across the guide in my desk drawer this week, I flipped through it and rediscovered how useful it is—once I remove the company-specific stuff—for all professional copywriters. Below I have adapted the guide’s 15 Principles of Writing Marketing Copy entry to apply to all writers.
Here they are:
- Test everything. Don’t be complacent. Test bold changes, not meek tweaks. Use A/B tests and multivariate experiments whenever possible. Be prepared to kill losers and promote winners. (Tweet it!)
- Write to one reader. Picture an embodiment of your target audience as one person. If it helps, create a persona, complete with quirky personal traits related to your organization’s personality, core values and offers. (Tweet it!)
- Reward readers for their time with at least one “Aha.” Even aggressive promotional messaging should tell readers something they don’t already know. (Tweet it!)
- Focus on the reader’s benefits of the offer, product or service more than the features, incentives, price or special promotion. Readers should feel the price is negligible compared to what they get. (Tweet it!)
- Focus on one big idea. Avoid overcomplicating and muddling the message. Choose a single angle/theme, and carry it through the copywriting all the way to the call to action. (Tweet it!)
- Capitalize on but don’t chase current events. It is fine to use current events as a point of entry into a marketing message, but don’t overdo it. It’s usually best to avoid sensitive events or tying your brand too closely to events. (Tweet it!)
- Attribute successes to your product, service or methods – not the expert behind them. Yes, your copy should establish your expert’s credibility and experience, but the objective is to communicate that it’s your expert’s methods that make him successful – not his divine wisdom or luck – and readers can make these same methods their own by following your call to action. This is key. Readers want to know your message applies to them. If you put your expert up on a pedestal, your reader will perceive there is no room for him there, too. It is also classier avoids over-hyping individuals, which can lead to future difficulties, even reader backlash. (Tweet it!)
- Clarity trumps persuasion. Present the offer/product/service in a fair, accurate, thorough way. Don’t stop at telling readers why they should follow your call to action; clearly demonstrate the benefits and lead readers to conclude it for themselves. (Tweet it!)
- Use common keywords. Speak in like language to your target audience. Aside from helping you communicate and connect with your target audience, it also helps SEO. (Tweet it!)
- Use testimonials to bolster claims and alleviate buyer anxiety. (Tweet it!)
- Be serious, not coy or cute. Avoid mystery for its own sake. (Except in the rare case that you have an especially goofy or fun-loving brand. Trust me, when it comes to giving up money, most people don’t like the funny business.) Instead, use intrigue that qualifies readers and sends them along a clear path to benefits. Don’t waste readers’ time. Individual voice, creativity, even comedy are all good when delivered clearly and professionally – and when it triggers a precisely timed emotion you wish to evoke at a specific point in the reader’s experience. (Tweet it!)
- Be bold but not outlandish. Avoid complex and over-the-top metaphors and analogies. Balance examples of success with humble, straightforward stories of failure and how you bounced back. Your reader will respect you for it. (Tweet it!)
- Respect your rivals. Avoid publicly calling out individuals or organizations with which you disagree by name. Refer to them generally, not specifically. (Tweet it!)
- Close with a call to action. Tell readers what to do next, why, how and when. Keep the target audience foremost in mind. Be timely. Tie the copy angle or theme to the benefits of the offer, and make the benefits “you”-oriented (e.g., here is what you get …). (Tweet it!)
- Promise only what you will deliver. Think carefully about the words you use and any guarantees you make. Be sure you accurately describe the reality of what readers will experience by following your call to action. After all, you want them to be repeat customers, so take every opportunity to boost their confidence and trust even after the conversion. Great conversion rate copywriting doesn’t stop at checkout. (Tweet it!)
Did I forget something? Please let me know. Leave a comment below.
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