Three Steps to Writing Better Copy Based on Michael Masterson's Panel-Review Technique

Michael Masterson has been directly or indirectly responsible for more than a billion dollars' worth of direct-mail copy over a span of more than 20 years. And in all that time training and coaching copywriters, he writes, "I've never, ever seen the kind of progress…and performance I saw at this year's AWAI Bootcamp."

If you follow these three simple steps below you will undoubtedly create stronger headlines, leads, and more successful packages all around. In fact, we use this same review process for each and every package we mail at AWAI.

Step 1: The headline.

Eighty percent of the impact (and the success) of a direct mail promotion is derived from less than 20% of the copy. That 20% is the headline and lead.

That's why Step 1 is all about focusing on these two critical parts. Here's what you do:

Give yourself two deadlines. The first deadline is for the headline and lead of the sales letter; the second deadline is for the rest of the promotion.

When you have the headline and lead, gather three to four people who are familiar with the product and/or target audience to help review and provide feedback. If you're doing this with your client you might ask them to include people who have a variety of skills and backgrounds: a marketing executive, a product specialist, a creative person, and sometimes a typical buyer. As a group, you are going to assign numerical grades – from 1.0 to 4.0 – to the copy.

Start by rating the headline (headline only at this point) on the two jobs it absolutely must accomplish:

  1. How well does it get itself noticed? Even if you have a ton of papers on your desk, would this get your attention?
  2. Is it compelling? Does it make you want to read further?

If your headline fails to score an average of at least a 3.0, ask your panel for specific suggestions on how to make it more arresting and/or compelling. Do not entertain negative statements. Restrict their contributions to positive suggestions and then as a group rate those as either "better" or "worse."

Step 2: The Lead

Once you've got your headline up to snuff, have your panel read the lead (more or less the first 1-1.5 pages of copy) and provide, in numeric form, their gut reaction to it as consumers.

If it scores below a 2.5, it may need to be redone entirely. But if it scores between a 2.5 and a 3.2, then there is a strong possibility it will improve considerably with this process.

To evaluate the strength of the lead, you must ask:

  1. How well does this lead sell you?
  2. How strongly does it hook you?
  3. To what extent does it make you want to settle back in your chair and read further?

Again, you are looking for a gut reaction and you are hoping to score 3.2 or more. If not, then the following questions should give you the answers you are looking for.

  1. What is the strongest phrase or sentence in the lead?
  2. Would it help if it were emphasized or brought forward?

At this point you are asking for suggestions – specific blocks of copy that could be inserted to create the desired effect. After each offered suggestion, poll the other members of the group as to whether they think the new suggestions improve the existing copy. Ask them to respond: worse, better, much better or neutral.

If you get stuck at this point, you can rate the copy against any or all of the following criteria:

  • Credibility
  • Urgency
  • Uniqueness
  • Usefulness
  • Idea, and
  • Specificity

In four out of five cases, a single half-hour of this kind of work will produce a lead that is strong to very strong. Rate your revised lead to be sure it passes muster.

Step 2: The main body copy.

When the rest of your promotion is finished, go through it carefully on your own – highlighting every claim and promise made. Then sit down and determine if each is adequately supported. If it's not, figure out how it could be done better.

At the same time, read the package to see if it is balanced. A well-balanced package provides four things.

  1. A benefit. It makes a desirable promise.
  2. An idea. It suggests something that distinguishes the product from its competitors.
  3. Credibility. It establishes that the writer of the sales letter, the product, and the manufacturer of the product are reliable and trustworthy.
  4. A track record. It proves that all the claims are true.

Some of the best copywriters and marketers we know have adopted individual parts of it for their own use. You should do the same.

[Michael Masterson's technique for critiquing sales letters was also featured in his daily eletter Early to Rise. Visit Early to Rise to get a FREE subscription.]

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Published: October 14, 2002

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