The 10% Solution – Mastering the Lead

As a copywriter, 90% of your success depends on 10% of the copy you write. Get that 10% right, and you’ll have a golden career. Fail to master that 10%, and you’ll be eating ketchup sandwiches.

The 10% is the 300-500 words that make up the “lead” of your promotion or advertorial.

To begin, I’d like to take a look at one of the most common lead types – the “problem/solution” lead.

Up-and-coming copywriter Penny Thomas does a very effective job of using a problem/solution lead to engage her reader’s interest.

Let’s see what she does, starting with the headline:

How I Went From Layoff to Payoff –
3 Steps to Becoming the Copywriter You Really Want to Be

This is a “how to” headline. The “how to” in this case explains how the author of the article overcame a big problem the reader of the article might be experiencing himself or – at the very least – is worried about, especially given today’s economy.

Penny does three things to add gripping power to this very classic approach:

  1. She uses a rhyming phrase: “From Layoff to Payoff.” Studies show that most readers respond to and remember rhyming phrases.
  2. She adds some specificity to the solution: it will come in three steps. Three steps is a judicious choice for the implicit promise here. The reader is willing to read three steps. He may not be willing to read 33.
  3. She deepens the promise. The standard promise would be “six-figure copywriter.” She is going after another desire here, a subtler and deeper one, by broaching this promise of personal fulfillment.

I also like the byline. It establishes Penny as both an expert and a role model. Most of the people reading this publication, customers of AWAI, want to become professional freelance copywriters too.

Now let’s take a look at how she handles the lead:

Having survived four layoffs, every day at work felt like a gamble.

All I could think was, “Will I be next?”

It was Christmas time, and the investment banking firm I worked for decided on a fifth layoff – effectively cutting out 25% of the staff. As luck would have it, my name was on that list.

Fortunately, in October of 2002 – a few months before the layoff – I got a letter from AWAI in my mailbox that read, “Can You Write a Letter Like This One?” Initially, I didn’t give it much thought. But once I sensed things might go south at my company, I decided to order AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting as an “insurance policy.”

In only nine sentences, Penny has done an awful lot of work here. It’s really very impressive. What she has done is to introduce a problem/solution lead with a story. Rather than state the problem (that many employees today face uncertain futures), she creates a little story in which she is the hero with the problem.

Since it is first of all a story, Penny begins in the middle of the conflict: “Having survived four layoffs, every day at work felt like a gamble. All I could think was, ‘Will I be next?’”

She makes the story more visible by establishing location (an investment banking firm) and time (Christmas, 2002). She raises the stakes by making the problem worsen: the fifth layoff had just taken place.

And then, she suggests the solution: sending away for the AWAI program.

That is exactly what you want to do when you use a problem/solution lead: get the reader to feel the problem as quickly as possible, and then focus on the solution.

Let’s see what Penny does next:

And now that I was jobless, the freedom copywriting offered seemed a perfect fit with my love for writing.

To support myself, I did a little resume writing on the side, and took various temp jobs.

I studied copywriting every moment I could … my rise to success was slow but steady. By 2006, I had enough copywriting clients that I felt confident in focusing on copywriting full-time.

What’s more, now I’ve achieved the goal I set for myself at last year’s Bootcamp. To return a year later as a “Wall of Famer”!

In explaining the solution, Penny discloses that her progress was “slow but steady,” and yet it doesn’t seem that way to the reader. Because she was sparse on those details, the reader feels like Penny’s writing success came very quickly – which is just what the reader wants.

Let’s continue:

Much of my success comes from what I call “WSM.” It’s a system I use to make sure I’m always using my time to do the things that guarantee I’ll achieve the copywriting goals I’ve set for myself.

Now Penny is doing something else that is rather clever. Now that the reader understands the solution to the problem, he might put the article aside, feeling that he knows what is going to follow. So she creates a little secret by referring to the “WSM” system – the secret she used to succeed. A secret, she says, that is so good she would “guarantee” that it will work for the reader.

By now the reader is fairly well hooked. He wants to read on to find out exactly how Penny achieved the success she has. Thus, the article continues:

Here’s what it stands for, and how it can help you achieve the writer’s life:

W = Write
You’re not a copywriter unless you write copy every day. Writing is how you actually gain the skills and find your “voice.” Don't get caught up in the easy mistake of wanting to learn it all and never finding the time to write. If you don’t have any clients to write for, write spec assignments, re-write any one of AWAI’s promos, or write an article you could submit to a potential publisher or use as a self-marketing piece.

S = Study
In addition to writing, you constantly need to be learning and sharpening your skills. And that doesn’t mean only studying copywriting. Read books on marketing to give you a deep understanding of how this business works as a whole. The more marketing you know, the better copywriter you’ll be … and the more valuable you’ll be to every potential client that comes your way.

M = Market
As soon as you feel competent at writing copy, market yourself! It’s the only way you’ll land paying assignments. And if you’re feeling a little timid about “being a copywriter,” simply fake it till you make it. Although cliché, there’s a profound truth in it.

To market yourself, write a self-promotion selling yourself and send it to companies you’d like to write for. When I started out, I marketed myself to small, local companies. As my skills grew, I went to my local library, and got a copy of Direct Marketing Market Place – a reference book listing companies who use direct mail. Then I picked out a few companies and sent them a promo selling my services.

In giving the reader an explanation of the “WSM” system, Penny is providing a benefit, one that many readers will feel emotionally obliged to reciprocate.

And she adds to that by providing another benefit: she tells the reader how to solve a related problem (an objection) he might be having.

And finally she ends by repeating the original promise – the solution to the problem:

Once you follow WSM, you’ll be living the writer’s life before you know it. It worked for me …

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Average: 5.0
Published: October 15, 2008

5 Responses to “The 10% Solution – Mastering the Lead”

  1. Thank you for the "Good Reads."

    They help a lot.

    So does re-writing swipe file headlines and leads.

    Patricia del ValleApril 10, 2010 at 3:07 am

  2. I appreciate that Michael has broken this letter into segments and explained exactly what is being done.

    I found it to be very helpful.

    FoxfireSeptember 21, 2010 at 4:33 pm

  3. The detailed analysis of each section is very helpful. Something to file for future reference. Thank you.

    RosSeptember 30, 2010 at 8:24 am

  4. Wow, great breakdown! I feel like I could write a strong problem/solution lead by following Michael's step-by-step analysis!

    Jerry BuresNovember 16, 2010 at 9:18 pm

  5. Very impressive. Her style is captivating. I would like to read the entire letter

    A Francis February 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm


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