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Master Class

How to write promotional copy

UPDATED November 2017

Introduction

In this article I'll be exploring the art and alchemy of promotional writing and showing you a few psychological tricks that can be employed to help gain the result you want.

If you are about to create a new brochure, email campaign, blog, website, advertisement or poster then this article is for you.

What is Promotional Copy?

Promotional copy is writing designed to persuade your reader to take a specific action. The action can be anything from clicking a link to buying a ticket. The action is all important and it is the main aim of promotional copy writing.

Reading

Before we launch into the writing of copy, we need to think about how people deal with promotional copy put before them in its various forms of leaflet, flyer, letter, brochure, etc.

How many of you, like me, have received a flyer, given it a quick glance, screwed it up and tossed it into the bin without reading more than a couple of words? Just about everybody has done this and it gives you a clue as to what we are up against when producing copy.

People need a reason to read something. If they do start to read it, they then need encouragement to read to the end. When they get to the end they may not to trust what they have read - why should your piece be any different to anything else they are bombarded with everyday?

In the quest to solve these problems we will be looking at:

  • The structure of copy
  • What to include
  • Ways to make copy writing more effective
  • Methods to improve engagement & response rates

Before we make a start, I need to explain some terminology I'll be using, the Customer and the Product.

The Product - You, your event, the service you offer or the thing you are trying to sell will be referred to as a product . Although some artists will baulk at this, it is important to realise that in essence, this is what you are. So a singer is a product for sale, a comedian is a product; a band is a product and a dancer is also a product. If you are an agent you probably already have this mind-set and each entertainer you represent is a product to be sold just like each of the other entertainment services that you have on offer.

In a later article I will take a closer look at  'products' and 'brands'.

Customer- I'll also be referring to the person, group of people, company or business that buys your product, engages your services or buys your tickets, as the customer.

What makes up good promotional writing that works

Copy writing is an easy thing to get wrong and many people do get it wrong. Even design professionals may concentrate too much on the aesthetic beauty of a brochure at the expense of a more important element –the text and the work it needs to do.

I'm now going to turn perceived wisdom on its head: that age old adage, “a picture's worth a thousand words” is sometimes wrong.  If you believe the old saying is correct, then think what it means if it is the wrong one thousand words are communicated? More vital is good text. Before you cover your ears and shake your head in disbelief I will say pictures are very important but they must be used correctly and need to be of the right subject matter. I'll go into that later but for now let's look at text.

When writing promotional copy you need to take into account content, layout and style. Content is all important and is about the words, the message, creating pull and fashioning a call to action. The layout and style are also key factors that serve to make the piece look and feel right. A good layout will make the writing look easy to read and encourage the reader to read on to the end.

Content

  • In preparation for writing we need to answer a few questions:
  • Who you are writing for?
  • How will you connect with your reader?
  • What benefits can the reader get from your product?
  • What message do you want to convey?
  • What action do you want the reader to take?

Some of these question can be answered by thinking like your customer. You must write your content in a way that will deal with the customer's desires. You have to step into their shoes because 

  • the customer is not interested in what you are selling 
  • they are interested in what they are buying

Many people think this is one and the same thing but it is not.

At first glance you might think the preceding couple of sentences are nonsense but this example shows what I mean.

The String Quartet

In this instance the product is a string quartet. From the quartet's perspective a customer is paying to hire a good, professional string quartet made up from highly experienced and qualified musicians. From the customer's perspective it's something entirely different that is foremost in their mind. 

The string quartet is SELLING:

  • A good professional string quartet 
  • Smartly dressed 
  • Highly experienced and qualified musicians 
  • High standard of light classical, pop & show music

Whereas the customer is BUYING:

  • A romantic dinner setting 
  • An ambience that will help them to sell more 
  • An experience to please their guests 
  • An incentive for customer to return

The fact a string quartet is being used is of secondary importance to the client. A harpist, classical guitarist or smoky jazz quartet may all fit the bill. Even subdued lighting and candles might fulfil the customer's needs. It's up to the quartet to convince the customer that they are the best at creating the type of atmosphere and benefits the customer wants rather than wasting time trying to convince them that they are the best string quartet around. However their qualifications will come into play later in their copy writing to give credibility to their claim that they can produce the required romantic ambience.

It is vital when writing copy that you get inside your customer's head and write about the beneficial outcomes they get when they hire you. By beneficial outcomes I mean the good effects you will cause to happen as a result of your service.

As an example let's say you are the singer with a dance band. When someone hires your band they are not initially interested in the features of your band such as: you play Fender guitars, have three costume changes and have a tri-amped PA. They want to hear about beneficial outcomes they get from hiring you such as a full dance floor with everyone enjoying the party atmosphere that you create.  In short you need to focus on the benefits to the customer rather that the features of the band.

Why is that important? So what?

Use the questions “Why is that important?” and "So what?" to dig down to the detail you want.

Why? Is a question that many young children ask all the time, sometimes to the point of distraction. You might simply ask a child to 'wash their hands' and get back: Why?>so that they are cleanWhy?>So you can eat your dinner.  Why?so you don't catch any nasty bugs –and so on.  In this case, the beneficial outcomes the parent is looking for are to keep their child healthy, clean and aware of good etiquette. This can be further broken down with an examination of the benefits of cleanliness and good etiquette.

Pursue this line of questioning to peel away surface ideas of what you are selling. Repeatedly ask, Why is that important? or So what? about each and every feature you are selling. This will allow you to drill down from the features being sold to the benefits that each feature bestows on the customer.

An example from the world of entertainment might be:  a magician booked to work at a trade show.

  • A  close-up magician can  move around entertaining small groups of people in small spaces
    • So what?
  • Makes the perfect entertainment for visitors to a trade stand with limited space
    • So what?
  • acts as an ice-breaker, keeps visitors amused, stops them leaving the stand
    • Why is that important?
  • it creates a buzz around the stand that encourages people to talk about it
    • Why is that important?
  • The buzz will bring in more people
    • So what?
  • more people means more opportunities to sell

The benefits identified are:

  • creating a buzz
  • getting the brand talked about
  • increased sales opportunities

The trade show exhibitor is not paying for a magician; he's paying for a beneficial outcome.

Beneficial Outcomes

When a customer buys a product or hires a service they undoubtedly have multiple beneficial outcomes in mind. You need to identify what all of these might be.

This is an extremely important part of the jigsaw and one you should take some time over. Making a list of all the benefits your potential customer might be looking for is key to the process. Once you have a list of the various beneficial outcomes a customer might want, try to identify the features of your product or service that will satisfy each of these needs. Alternatively, you can do it the other way around by listing all the features of your product and then alongside of this create a list of benefits that each feature realises.

A customer may find it hard to equate your product features with the beneficial outcomes they want so you need to spell it out for them. I recently received publicity from a band in which they trumpeted, "we have a huge PA system". As I wanted a band for a small venue I instantly started to see the negatives in this  statement. They were obviously pleased with their huge PA but I thought along the lines of - They will be too loud - They will take up too much space. There were no benefits just detriments. Perhaps they should have written about crystal clear sound for any size of venue with nobody struggling to hear even in the largest of venues.

In brief you need to identify the customer's problems, wants and needs and offer solutions to the problems or some beneficial outcomes rather than a product or product feature. By doing this you are forging a link between your product and your customer's world.

Try to think of it not as selling a product to a customer but as helping them to solve a problem. This simple shift in thinking will make a big difference. With the onus on helping people rather selling to them you start to create a bond and trust. This is an important step that I'll cover in the next section which deals with the well-known acronym AIDA.

AIDA

There is an acronym that encapsulates what good copy writing does. It's the name of a Giuseppe Verdi opera and is AIDA.

  • Attention – Attract attention
  • Interest – Foster an interest
  • Desire – Create desire for your product
  • Action – Guide to an action

A newer version of this acronym is AIDCAS which adds a C for Confidence or Conviction and an S for Satisfaction

Attention

Grab the attention of potential customers. In the context of writing copy, this will be the Headline, and in an email, the Subject. There is no problem if Attention grabbing extends into the first paragraph and you can include a photograph as long as it is relevant and adds to the story. In the wider world of promoting your product, this phase is to inform the target audience that your product is available.

A good attention getting headline for a mobile disco might be a question such as; “Do you want a full dance floor?” because that is definitely an outcome a customer will be looking for when booking a disco. Putting the headline as a question will encourage the reader to read on.

Interest

Interest them by talking about the benefits of using your services. This is where you communicate how their needs are addressed by the benefits of using your product. This section should naturally flow on from the headline and move the customer on from a simple awareness of your product to a more active interest. It should inspire them to move on to the next step which is desire.

Desire

When you create a desire for your product you are dealing with emotions. However you can now start talking about the actual features of your product and explaining how these features produce the beneficial outcomes the customer is looking for. Talk about your unique selling points (USPs) and how they will make things better for the customer. (Your USP's are anything that makes your product unique or different from the competition.)

Conviction/ Confidence

Confidence is something that will be needed by the customer before they move to the Action step of this process. Your potential customer needs to have belief in your product and the Conviction that you can deliver the benefits you promise. They need to trust you – but why should they? They know you're just trying to sell them something.

People are bombarded with sales messages all the time and they have no reason to trust what you say. Confidence and trust can be instilled by various methods. Build your case with the use of testimonials, photographs, facts and figures. If you have worked with celebrities, played at famous venues, been featured on TV or radio, etc. then mention it to help build confidence. If you have years of experience also mention that.

In psychology there is something called “space repetition” or "effective frequency" which helps with this part of the process. It's not something that can be fully incorporated into one piece of writing but is something to be aware of so I'll deal with it in a later article.

Action

This is the call to  Action where you prompt or lead the reader to take the desired course of action. This can be to fill in an enquiry form on a website, check availability, give you a call, send an email, book you, request more information, but a ticket, click a link, etc.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction is something that comes later and is not part of the writing process. The aim is to satisfy the customer and get repeat engagements, sales and word of mouth recommendations. You will only get this if you live up to your claims. Failing to deliver will produce dissatisfied customers so it's wise to let your customers know of any limitations beforehand. Don't waste time offering your product to customers that have needs you cannot satisfy.

A few rules and tips


You not me

Everyone likes to talk about himself or herself yet no one likes to hear someone droning on and on about themselves. 

We have all met that person who talks on and on about their job, their family, their holiday, their car, their cat, etc. It's all me, me, me and what happens? You switch off and stop listening.  In writing it's the same. You must focus on the customer rather than yourself. 

Whenever you write a sentence that contains 'I', 'we', 'us', 'our', etc. look at how you can turn it around to use 'you' or 'your' instead. It can be done in many but not all cases. 

A children's party organiser might write, “we can provide a choice of party games”. This should be changed to something like; “your child gets a choice of party games”. Changing the focus will better engage the reader because you are talking about their child and what their child gets rather than about what you do.


Jargon

Jargon is best avoided unless you know your readers understand it.  In this case it shows you to be knowledgeable on the subject of your writing.

In other cases, where a reader does not understand the terminology you are using, you are in danger of failing to get your full message across. Worse than that, you could alienate the client. Quite often a customer will not ask you to explain what you mean for fear of looking stupid. That creates a real problem.

Acronyms & Initialisms 

Following hot on the heels of Jargon is the Acronym and the Initialism.  An acronym is a word normally made up from the first letter of each word in a phrase. Sometimes an acronym will use more than just one letter as in RADAR which comes from RAdio Detection And Ranging.  An initialism is where you speak the initial letters individually such as CIA, DVD or MOT. 

Acronyms and Initialisms  have different meanings to different people and sometimes cause confusion.  RPG can be a Role Playing Game to one person and a Rocket Propelled Grenade to another.

Never assume your reader understands the meaning of an acronyms or initialism and in the first instance always write the full phase followed by the abbreviation in brackets.  For example - Musicians' Union (MU).  Subsequently you can use just MU. 

Use an Active rather than a Passive voice

Using the active voice is normally snappier and less wordy than using a passive voice. Therefore it makes your writing more succinct and punches your message home more clearly.

Grammatically, in the active voice, the subject acts on the object. “I play drums” is an example of the active voice. 'I' is the subject, 'play' is the action (verb) and 'drums' is the object. The subject is active because it plays (or performs an action on) the object (drums).

When written in the passive voice more words are needed and the target of the action, the drums, becomes the subject. Passively the phrase would be, “The drums are played by me.” The subject is now the drums. The subject is passive because it takes no action in this sentence.

Converting all your passive voice sentences into the active voice makes your writing tighter.

Should & Could

Try to avoid using the words 'could' and 'should' to shield unpredictable outcomes. They ring bells and may be enough to put off the potential customer.

Here's an example: “Singer X has a very wide repertoire of songs that  should please everyone. Her songs are carefully selected and could have everyone up and dancing”. That's dithery. Obviously Singer X is covering herself because she knows it's not possible to please everyone and there's no guarantee she will get everyone dancing.

Much better would be “Singer X designs her show to appeal to the widest possible audience and handpicks her songs to get people dancing.” It's shorter, it doesn't make dodgy claims, it's a statement of fact and it gets rid of the “maybe she can, maybe she can't” elements introduced by Should and Could.


Can

Over the years I've read hundreds of promotional letters and brochures and one of the most common mistakes is with the flawed use of the word 'can'. It has a similar effect as described for 'could'.

These examples are taken from actual publicity (I've changed the names),

  • “Mr Clown can entertain your children with a variety of games, magic and activities”Makes it sound as if he can but he might not. It should be “Mr Clown entertains your children with a variety of …”
  • “You can choose the design for your face painting and we will make it happen”  Again the work 'can' is superfluous and just adds indistinctness.


Present Tense

It's said that using the present tense in writing improves the immediacy and intelligibility of the message. It's therefore better to write in the present tense and to avoid the past and the future tenses.

Don't say, “We have played at many weddings”, instead say, “We play at many weddings”. This changes it from something old that you used to do, into something vibrant that you are doing now.

To bring future tenses back to the present is quite often done by getting rid of the word “will”. Thus, “We will bring Monte Carlo to your venue” becomes “We bring Monte Carlo to your venue”. This sounds a lot more positive.

Psychological Effect of Scarcity

For some reason if something is scarce we want it more and when something is hard to obtain we give it more value.

  • We’ve all seen this at work
  • Sale ends Monday
  • Buy it now before it’s too late
  • Only two left
  • Weekend tickes are selling fast and we may run out

You can use this to your advantage in your writing but don't overdo it. Let it be known you get booked up very quickly or that availability on certain days of the week is scarce. Encourage potential customers to respond quickly to ensure they have a chance of buying your product.


Negatives

Positive statements are easier to understand than negative ones. They give you a clear message on what to do or on what will happen.

A negative statement tells you what is not happening but sometimes leaves you in the dark about what is happening.  A negative statement might be, “audiences have less interest in shows without live music”. There's a certain amount of ambiguity with this and it begs the question, what do audiences like then? A positive form of this leaves no doubt, “audiences are more interested in shows with live music”.

There are cases where the word 'not' is used. For instance “it's not uncommon for…” could be made positive by writing “it's common for…”.  Something like “the crowd is not unhappy” is much better written as “the crowd is happy”.


Repetition

You can repeat yourself to hammer home or stress the important parts of your message but try to use different words when you do so. Having a thesaurus to hand is a good idea.


Proof read, re-read then come back tomorrow and read it again.

Once you have created the first draft of your text, read through it then try to strip out as many words as you can without destroying the message. When you do this you will be astounded at how many superfluous words can be removed. As an example, you could replace “in the event that” with the two letter word “if”. You could also replace “in close proximity to” with “near”.

This exercise serves to make your writing more concise.

If you have the time, it is quite important to put your piece to one side and come back to it a day or two later. Then, when you re-read it, you do so with fresher eyes and you will probably see lots of room for editing and improving the piece.

It is a good idea to get a second person to proof read your piece before it goes public. When you are the author, it's all too easy to let your brain override what your eyes are seeing. This is because you know what you meant to write and your brain will sometime register it as correctly written when there is, in fact, a mistake.

Layout, Style & Readability

It's crucial that not only should your piece be easy to read it should also look easy to read. Here are a few simple rules:

Font Styles

Don't use too many fonts on a page as it makes things look untidy and unprofessional. For visual clarity two or maybe three are all you need. You can create emphasis and variation by using a mix of font sizes and occasional bold text.

Decorative Fonts

Decorative fonts are great for creating logos or adding impact to a headline such as this

horror

but please don't use them for the body of your text

text

Serif & Sans Serif

Serifed typefaces are considered to be more legible than sans serif and many people will tell you that you should always use a serif type for the body of your writing and sans serif to emphasis the headlines. This may have been the case but things evolve and I no longer agree with this rather outdated idea. We have become very used to seeing sans serif used for body text and studies have shown that we have adapted to it. If you want to be traditional then follow the rule otherwise use what you feel looks best.

Italics

Early italics were introduced to cut down on the amount of space taken up by the type and later were used in place of underlining for emphasis.

Italics look good with certain fonts but don't overdo it. Current thinking is that the use of italics can reduce readability by up to 50% and that's something to avoid.

Chunk it

If you have a lot of text, don't put it all into one big block. This gives the appearance of something that is going to be not only time consuming to read but also hard to read. It looks daunting to the reader and quite often people will look at it and think, I haven't got time for that now. Psychology labels this the perceived cognitive cost.

You get over this by breaking up your text into short well-spaced paragraphs. Small chunks of text are more inviting and your audience is much more likely to read what you have written. They look at the first small chunk and think, “I'll just read this bit – it will be quick.”

Having read that first chunk, your AIDA style of writing should have them interested and they think, “I'll just read this next small paragraph”. And so on …

Line length

For the same reason don't allow your lines of text to be too long. If you are writing something to be read on a computer screen make sure the lines do not stretch from one side of the monitor to the other.

If you think about it, newspapers control line length by using columns. It makes things much easier to read. Imagine if the lines of text extended across the full width of a broadsheet page. It would become very hard to read without losing your place every time your eyes scanned from the end of one line to the start of the next.

I'm not suggesting you should use columns on your web site because this would mean scrolling up and down to get from the end of one column to the start of the next. But you should try to keep your line length in check.

Upper & Lower Case

Don't use all upper case letters, it makes things hard to read and if you are writing for the Internet, web etiquette decrees it to be shouting. Take a look at this example:

All caps:

I REMEMBER HIM AS IF IT WERE YESTERDAY, AS HE CAME PLODDING TO THE INN DOOR, HIS SEA-CHEST FOLLOWING BEHIND HIM IN A HAND-BARROW—A TALL, STRONG, HEAVY, NUT-BROWN MAN, HIS TARRY PIGTAIL FALLING OVER THE SHOULDER OF HIS SOILED BLUE COAT, HIS HANDS RAGGED AND SCARRED, WITH BLACK, BROKEN NAILS, AND THE SABRE CUT ACROSS ONE CHEEK, A DIRTY, LIVID WHITE. I REMEMBER HIM LOOKING ROUND THE COVER AND WHISTLING TO HIMSELF AS HE DID SO, AND THEN BREAKING OUT IN THAT OLD SEA-SONG THAT HE SANG SO OFTEN AFTERWARDS:

This takes more space than mixed case lettering and it has a higher perceived cognitive cost. More to the point, it just doesn't look right.

There's an even more compelling reason to avoid using all caps. TAKE A PHRASE LIKE THIS. If you trace a line around that sentence, following the tops of the letters dropping down at the final 's' and then following the base of the letters you would draw a rectangle. No matter what words are there you get a rectangle.

Now use the same phrase in mixed case: Take a phrase like this. If you follow the outline this time you will see that the  ascenders and descenders of the text cause an irregular shape to be drawn. Each word and phrase makes a shape. It is this shape that the brain recognises and this makes for better readability.

Getting the reader to continue to the end

If your writing runs to a number of pages you can break a sentence across two pages so the reader has to turn the page to finish reading it.

To tantalise the reader; end chapters or sections with a taster of what's to come in the next section. I can do that here by mentioning: colour also has an important role to play as you'll see in the next section.


Colour

Don't overdo it! Too many colours can cause distractions and again make reading harder. Be wary of overlaying text onto coloured backgrounds. How many times have you picked up a brochure and found certain pieces of text hard to read because of the background colour?

Some suggest using around three colours, your main colour, a complimentary colour and a contrasting colour. There is a colour scheme designer site here  http://colorschemedesigner.com/

Remember that some people are colour-blind. Years ago I made the mistake of building a webpage with red text on a green background and that created problem for people with red-green colour blindness. Red-green is a very common and according to Wikipedia it affects 5% of males.


Back to Pictures

“A picture's worth a thousand words” OK perhaps it can be but are they the right words? Make sure the picture is relevant to the theme of your writing and matches up with the words you've written.

Don't be tempted to cram too many images on to one page, doing so makes the page look cluttered.

A photograph works best when it shows an activity taking place that is related to the text it is supporting. If the piece relates to a troupe of showgirls with the objective of getting work in cabaret floor shows then an action shot of the girls on stage, in their feathers, would be perfect. For a dance band you could use an action shot of the band at work and use a shot of a full dance floor to emphasise that particular beneficial outcome.

More Odds & Ends

Email

Research has shown the best and most effective time to send out an email shot, business to business (B2B), is either a Tuesday or a Wednesday. B2B is when you are targeting agents, managers, corporate clients and venues. Mondays are not good because people are catching up after the weekend whereas on Thursdays and Fridays they are starting to wind down for the weekend. This means they are busy clearing their desks.

When you are emailing direct to the consumer of your service (B2C) then a Thursday or Friday seems to be the best time. B2C is when you are aiming at weddings and private parties.

There is also a best time of day for getting a response and that's either 10am to 11am or lunchtime. It's best not to send at night or first thing in the morning because your email will probably be lost amongst a mass of other emails. In addition people tend to go about clearing out their inbox as first job of the day so your message may fall victim to an overzealous clear out.


Above the fold

In newspaper terminology there is an expression “above the fold”. This refers to broadsheets and the fact they are so large that they need folding over to make them comfortable to read. Everything “above the fold” is visible and everything below the fold is hidden and you need to turn the paper to read it.

This terminology is now used for websites. Everything you see on the screen, before you start to scroll down, is said to be 'above the fold'. The rest of the content is below the fold and you need to take the additional action of scrolling down to view it.

When you layout your copy for a website it is important to show the  Attention and Interest elements of your writing above the fold. The reason is simple. These are the elements that will encourage your reader to read more and to scroll down or click through to the next page.

Recap

  • Get into the mind of your customer. Identify the beneficial outcomes they are looking for 
  • Match your product features to those outcomes
  • Follow the AIDA method
  • Talk about the customer not yourself
  • Avoid Jargon - unless your readers expect it
  • Write in the Active Voice
  • Be wary of the words Should, Could and Can
  • Use the present tense
  • Use Psychological Effect of Scarcity
  • Avoid Negatives – Be Positive
  • Use Repetition to get a message across
  • Proof read – edit - set aside - proof read again …
  • Get a second person to proof read
  • Be aware of Perceived Cognitive Cost
  • Split up big chunks of text
  • Avoid overuse of font styles, colours and pictures
  • Avoid decorative fonts in body text
  • Photos must compliment & enhance the message


For guidance on writing a press release check out:
Get free publicity with great press releases

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