ABCs of Copywriting

If you’re considering copywriting for side income, you may well discover it becomes one of your top-earning services. But even if you don’t intend to offer copywriting as a service, freelance writers should consider basic copywriting skills a necessity because it touches on so much of what we already do — particularly in Business Writing and SMM.

Copywriting is one of the most essential elements of effective online marketing … the art and science of strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) … [to] get people to take some form of action. -Copywriting 101: How to Craft Compelling Copy – Copyblogger

Common Misconception

You may have seen the term somewhere online before, but copywriting is often confused with content writing. The two are very different. Content writing is creating the body text of blog posts or web pages, among others, for the purpose of education or entertainment and to increase a site’s relevancy to improve search engine results.

Then What’s Copywriting?

Copywriting has the specific and sole purpose of getting the reader to do something — sign up, follow a blog, click a link, or buy something — which is the “Call to Action” or CTA.

There is a lot of crossover between content writing and copywriting because we always want our content to encourage readers to do something, and we want our copywriting to be relevant and interesting. The end goals are different, however, so both writing style and content structure differ.

Most business writing uses the traditional journalism pyramid structure, where the most important statements are made first and the rest of the content expands on it or adds other details. Copywriting, however, will frequently use the “inverted pyramid” — the details come first, and it narrows until you get to the primary thing you want to convey (usually a call to action).

This inverted pyramid isn’t always the case, but copywriters often begin by stating a problem and then weaving the details into an interesting story, a “straw man argument” that sets up the CTA like the punchline at the end of a joke.

The writing style also can vary tremendously, from formal to conversational. Humor works well if you can introduce it appropriately. The one common element is that, unlike in content writing, your goal is to get them to read the first sentence. And the only goal of that first sentence… is to get them to read the second sentence. And so on, down to the Call to Action. Many successful pieces don’t even mention the actual thing being sold (or site they want you to visit) until toward the very end! Google page ranking is almost completely irrelevant.

Copywriting comes in many styles, but the most common are “short form” and “long form,” which, as you might suspect, indicates whether it gets right to the point like a Facebook ad or drones on and on like many product sales pages.

Copywriting Examples

There are different forms of copywriting, as well. Whether you’re writing for a client or to promote your own book, copywriting is best when it’s creative. Part of the reason creativity matters is that the more you can make your copy look like something other than a sales pitch, the more likely people are to read it, even when they know it’s a sales pitch. Creative = entertaining…

A few “typical” examples of copywriting

  • Email sales letters (AKA “SPAM”)
  • Sales brochures
  • Product catalog entries
  • Product Descriptions that entice buyers (Amazon, etc.)
  • Web pages to sell products – those really long pages with testimonials, supposedly steep price discounts, and “Free Bonus if you buy in the next 20 minutes!”
  • Magazine advertisements
  • Writing for banner ads and box ads online
  • Standing Out From the Crowd

Your writing can stand out in a near-infinite variety of ways. There are whole books on the subject. A few ideas to get you started:

  • Attention-grabbing headlines
  • Using short versions of the call to action in several additional places. (“ Using a short story for most of the content
  • Creatively linking the product to an unrelated short story! Get them to read that next line…
  • Find buying triggers that are NOT the usual fear-based sales pitch. There are more emotions than fear!
  • Understanding the relationship between emotion and logic in the typical process people use to make the buy decision
  • Identify what is different about the product and then present the benefit to the buyer. How will they personally benefit from this product? How should that make them feel?

A Matter of Style

Most fiction writers considering freelance copywriting will be used to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), but there will now be times when you’ll need to know about AP-style writing (Associated Press), which is used in most business writing.

Much of your copywriting can be done in CMoS, but you’ll have some that are better with the AP style. Case studies, for example, are sales tools that don’t look like sales tools, and they will generally do better with AP-style writing. Become familiar with AP style, or at least the basic differences, as this gives you much-needed tools for your writing toolbox.

Creativity Matters

One of the things I love most about copywriting, among all the types of business writing that I do, is how creative we can get. Case studies are mostly a formula. Press releases follow a specific pattern. Content writing has the goal to entertain, which is liberating, but also to rank highly for search engines and contributing to page ranking, which does greatly limit what we can do with it.

Copywriting, on the other hand, has only one goal — keep people reading, line after line, so that by the time they come to the closing Call to Action they’re already convinced that they simply have to have the product, click the link, whatever the goal is. Anything that works is fair game. Want to write a hilarious case study-like sales pitch? Go for it. Want to connect Marilyn Monroe to Twitter via a seemingly unrelated story about her life? Super! You couldn’t do that with content writing because it would dilute the page’s message. Copywriting doesn’t care about a message, other than the CTA.

I’ll give you an example, one of my most successful pieces ever. For my freelance writing business, one service I offer is to write Twitter posts. I use the best ratio of sales pitches vs. entertaining/educational tweets. I know the best days to post different categories of tweets, and even the best times of day for those categories. I know how to get a compelling message written in 140 characters, and how to identify and use the best hashtags. I could have pitched my experience, my references, my testimonials. I could have pitched the business case that makes it a good investment, especially for small business.

Instead, my headline screamed that World War II guns were responsible for Marilyn Monroe being discovered. It relayed the story of how she was found by a talent scout while he toured a weapons factory. It talked about being in the right place at the right time. Only in the last paragraph did I connect that to Twitter and the service I offered.

I got a lot of business from that piece and helped a number of small local businesses gain a competitive advantage, despite their small market size.

There’s no way I could have used that piece as written for general site content since it had almost nothing to do with what I actually do. I didn’t even mention my many qualifications — by the time they’d read to the end of the fascinating story I wove, they were already convinced I was the right person for the job. A job, by the way, that they had no idea they needed until they read my piece.

Getting Clients

Getting copywriting clients when you’re starting out is a huge challenge, of course, because you have to convince someone not only that they’re better off hiring someone to write their sales copy, but also that you’re the best someone for the job. Here are a few tactics that I’ve either used myself or heard from other copywriters.

  • Join UpWork and PeoplePerHour – both sites have categories for freelance writing of all sorts. Starting out, pitch as many gigs as you can regardless of the price they’re asking. Get those 5-star reviews and testimonials! Copy those testimonials to your professional website, too. Ask if you can use them as a reference in the future (but only use them once, or you risk burning your bridge with them).
  • Find Facebook Groups that focus on whatever your personal interests are, whether that’s 1967 Chevy cars or the care and feeding of worms. Because it’s a topic you’re interested in, participate without pitching yourself for a while. Once you’ve been around a bit, you’ll find someone who says something that may lead you to believe they could use a copywriter, even something as simple as mentioning that they have a sales website. Offer to write a piece for them for free if they’ll give you a rating and testimonial on your own Facebook Page (if you have one), or for your website. Then upsell them for more gigs. They’ve used you already, given you a great rating, and they know you now. They know how you work and what kind of service you offer. There’s no more of a hot lead than that!
  • Use your awesome copywriting skills to create sales material for your own business!
  • Create professional-looking business cards and leave them in places prospective clients are likely to be. Chamber of Commerce, H&R Block, etc. Don’t forget supermarkets with the community corkboards — business owners eat, too!
  • Leave your business cards at the library, tucked into books on business, both basic and advanced.
  • Volunteer to write a chain of emails for a charity. You can use this for your portfolio, and the business owners who often donate to these causes will ask who did their copywriting if they like it.

Read, Read, Read

There are many excellent books on basic copywriting. My personal favorite is The Adweek Copywriting Handbook. Although it’s a bit dated in terms of using technology, it’s not that outdated and the principles it teaches are timeless. I didn’t read it until long after I got into copywriting, and I truly wish I’d discovered it sooner. There are other books that cover every aspect of copywriting. Different styles. General techniques. Specific applications from banner ads to long-form ad pages. Email funnels. And on and on.

When searching for books on the topic, don’t buy the latest books available — get ones published a year ago or more, with many reviews and at least a 4-star rating. This ensures that you will get books that aren’t just some fad, and have been field-tested and approved.

And remember that any experience writing fiction can directly translate into effective copywriting. Many of the skills cross over — in the end, copywriting is a creative endeavor.

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