Copywriting Survival Guide

Guest lecturing session at Florida International University. I spoke to a class of English majors enrolled in Technical & Professional Writing…

Notes for my guest lecturing session at Florida International University. I spoke to a class of English majors enrolled in Technical & Professional Writing (my assessment of the class: how to get a real job after graduating with an English degree).

Because I’d managed to do that, Professor Mike Creeden, associate chair of the English department, gave me three hours with his students. This was tough because I wanted to pack in as much practical information as possible along with the mental framework a copywriter needs to succeed.

Here’s what we talked about.

Promotional copywriting

Benefits not features

  • Features are about the product.
  • Benefits are about the customer. 

“500 mg raspberry ketones in every pill” is a feature.

“Lose 2 dress sizes” is a benefit. 

Precision is important — numbers are best. 

We vs. You

(weeing all over yourself)

  • Focus on the customer, not on the product (or our company, or our service, etc.)  
  • 75% of pronouns should be “You” and the remainder “Us”
    • … but this ratio is reversed in virtually all marketing writing

When would we say “we” vs. you?


Note: Branding has a negative connotation re: direct response (this is what we do) — one of the exceptions to this rule is the concept of branding. In terms of mainstream (vs. direct) marketing, “branding” means “advertising expenditures we can’t link to sales.”  Is that a good thing? 


Senses (especially texture)

Tell a story (narrative is great)

  • suspense and intrigue — secrets
  • Story about people who seem real, who have problems like the reader’s problems, but has solved them. 

How the reader’s attention breaks down

  • Headline: 80%
  • Subheads: 15%
  • Body: 5%

… therefore, your effort should break down along similar proportions. 


Prequalification is the process of guiding a customer toward wanting our product. It’s easiest to explain with a counter-example. 

Here are three hypothetical banner headlines for our US Male Enhancement funnel:

  1. Free Instant Sex
  2. Learn How Even “Average Guys” Impress Girls
  3. Buy Male Enhancement Pills

1. Obviously, the first example will get more clicks. However, the headline “Free Instant Sex” makes a promise that our product can’t even come CLOSE to living up to. The banner doesn’t even specify whether this is a physical product, or a service like online dating — or whether this offer is for men or women. 

For all these reasons, #1 is bad prequalification. 

2. This headline balances attention-grabbing copy with a more realistic and believable promise.

3. The final headline prequalifies the BEST of the three — however, because it’s so specific we wind up EXCLUDING every potential customer who doesn’t want to “buy male enhancement pills” right now. Therefore this headline OVERQUALIFIES and costs us sales. 

Target demographic

Imagine an individual person to talk to in your demographic. What are her fears? What is she looking for? What are her hot button issues?

Most people want:

  • feel loved/respected
  • friends and social support
  • money/success (and to be recognized as successful)
  • feel like a special snowflake while still fitting in

Ask for the sale

What do we want the reader to do? What’s the next action?

  • Be explicit and specific
  • The fewer steps, the better (less friction)
  • The lower the commitment, the higher the conversion rate
    • example: a button that reads CONTINUE destroys a button that says SUBMIT — who wants to submit, anyway?
    • example: a free newsletter converts MUCH better than a $100 purchase.

SEO copywriting


  • Kwd research
  • survey competitors
  • outline
  • write in the blanks
  • confirm kwd density targets

Kwd phrase IS NOT the H1 IS NOT the title — all should be different.

General tips for copywriting success

  • Start a swipe file (Evernote?) — things you want to imitate or plagiarize
  • Start a bone pile (also in Evernote?) — failed attempts create a compost heap from which future brilliance flowers!
  • What is your subject?
  • Ration exclamation points! (one per book, according to John Dufresne)

Evolutionary biology

Logic brain is younger than emotional brain. Appeal to emotional brain NOT logical brain. Emotional appeals go deeper into the psyche. 

When something “feels” right, that’s your emotional brain telling you — without words — that it agrees with your choice. When something doesn’t feel right, no amount of talking can change that feeling. 

Rhetorical Triangle

3 sides: Logos, Ethos and Pathos

Logos (Spock):

  • Logic
  • scientific studies
  • experiment
  • objectivity
  • “Let me explain why this product will work for you.”

Ethos (McCoy — “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a copywriter!”)

  • Appeal to morals or ethics
  • Also, appeal to authority
    • doctor in a white labcoat, or a CPA in a bowtie, or the President


  • Appeal to emotion — usually, but not always, negative emotions like sorrow, fear, uncertainty, anger.
  • Sometimes positive emotions: pride, patriotism, confidence, sense of belonging
  • Flattery
  • Pathos is considered the least elegant of these rhetorical tactics (equally valid, but least elegant…) 

Direct vs. Mainstream Marketing

“Direct” marketing means the pitch directly results in a sale. Advertising spends can be correlated to sales figures. 


  • Infomercials (call now!)
  • SEM ads (buy now!)
  • Display advertising (click now!)

Direct marketing results can be measured. 

“Mainstream” marketing means that the pitch results into brand awareness. Think about all the different brands of shampoo available at the drug store or grocery store — how do you differentiate?

  • LOTS of money — like, nation-wide ad campaigns
  • investment in retail support (save $5 when you buy at Walgreen’s)
  • Several orders of magnitude lower conversion rate

Mainstream marketing is incredibly hard to quantify. John Wanamaker (1838-1922) is credited with the saying “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

There’s a bit of accounting chicanery called brand goodwill that says companies can take some part of their advertising spending and say it makes the brand name worth more as an asset. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *