Make Your Copy More Successful … By Learning More About Your Prospects

A copywriter’s best friend is research—the kind that helps you obtain knowledge about both the product and the market you’re selling it to. Here, I’ll focus on market or customer research, targeting active buyers.

Of course, your client is a primary source of information about the company’s customers. But sometimes it pays to go directly to the source. Customers can be a gold mine of data—if you ask them the right questions.

Early in my career as a copywriter, I created a survey device that has consistently worked well. This simple tool produces intelligence that can improve your copy and your results. (For three decades, I wrote copy mostly for newsletters and other publications, but the approach described below can be applied to any product.)

To access the company’s house list, you’ll need your client’s cooperation. But I never found this to be an obstacle. My clients were eager to help me write the strongest possible promotions. And the feedback this process generated proved useful to them in other ways as well.

By identifying the desires and concerns and needs of customers and prospects, I was able to create compelling sales arguments, powerful headlines and teasers, and great testimonials. This technique also produced specifics, anecdotes, human interest elements—all of which made my copy more credible and persuasive. Sometimes, it even generated the package concept or “big idea.”

The Questions to Ask.

So what do you ask? Strangely, a lot of conventional market research employs too many misguided and ineffective questions—and too few of the right ones.

For the newsletter subscribers and other information seekers I targeted, one of my favorite questions was: "What's your biggest problem right now?" I also asked about their worries, fears, challenges, the threats they faced, the mistakes they made. On the positive side: their goals, successes, the opportunities they perceived, the issues and trends they thought were hot.

Another tack, especially appropriate for B-to-B publications: "What do you need to know that no one is telling you?" Publisher and former copywriter Steve Sahlein recommends this variation: "If you had a million-dollar budget dedicated to research, what would you most want to learn?"

Of course, you might be selling baby food rather than a publication for investors or software industry executives. If so, you would ask parents about their concerns regarding health, safety, nutrition, convenience, price, etc. Adapt these guidelines to your situation. But always keep in mind an old rule of mine: Start with the prospect, not with the product.

Note that these questions are all "open-ended." The respondent must answer in his own words, not by checking a box. Researchers call such responses "verbatims." I favor questions that generate verbatims, and here's why.

Research experts will tell you that surveys with "check the box" items generate a higher response. And that they're easier to tabulate in order to create a statistical profile of the entire sample.

I can't dispute those points. But I've found that questions requiring an "essay" response give me far more useful data. Because the answers are in the subscriber's own words, they are more likely to be honest and accurate.

Verbatims also contain realistic, human touches. Even the choice of words can be valuable. When you "hear" what people say naturally, you often discover phrases that can be turned into powerful copy. When you talk to your market in its own language, your copy is more appealing and effective.

For creative purposes, I'm more interested in qualitative than quantitative data. Nevertheless, it's a myth that verbatims can't be quantified and tabulated. They can, if you or your client need such data, using "content analysis" methods. That process does require more time and labor, though.

Got Testimonials?

Still another benefit to my surveying approach is that it generates testimonials. You're not likely to get those from multiple-choice or true-false questions!

To stimulate great testimonials, probe for a specific experience. The strongest testimonials are success stories. They’re far more persuasive than superlatives, effusive praise, or empty compliments. Also, the credibility of testimonials is enhanced when they include details, concretes, and "color." These elements add a ring of truth.

Not everyone can instantly recall or articulate such minutiae, of course. If you spot the germ of a good story in a survey response, follow-up—by phone, if possible—and probe until you capture the full story.

Some important cautions: Do not initially ask, "May we have your permission to quote you in our advertising?" This will only discourage response—or cause people to "self-censor" their comments. If you decide to use a comment as a testimonial, contact the respondent for permission. (Be sure there’s a mechanism to identify the respondent or capture contact information.) Transcribe—and edit, if necessary—the statement on a release form, and request a signature. Though promising confidentiality may sometimes be advisable, don’t do so if you plan to quote and attribute testimonials.

How to do it.

Below, in rough outline form, are the cover letter/message and questionnaire I created and used numerous times. The language will require modifications for your purposes. If your questionnaire is printed, allow ample space for handwritten responses.

Model Cover Letter Or Message:

Dear John Doe,

May I ask for your help?

I need your opinion. What do you think of [Product Name]? How do you use it? How could it meet your needs more effectively? Any complaints?

Here's your opportunity to tell us what you think. I'm enclosing a brief questionnaire. Completing it will take only a few minutes. Your assistance will help us to evaluate and improve [Product Name] and introduce it to others.

[Optional:] As a small token of appreciation for your participation, I'll send you a gift: [incentive name and description]. It's a $00 value, free of charge, just for helping.

Please go to [URL] / complete and return the enclosed form in the postage-paid envelope. Your reply by [date] would be appreciated. Many thanks for your assistance.

Sincerely, [Name, Title]

Model Customer Survey Questionnaire:

  • What's your single biggest concern right now?

    [Variations: What's your biggest challenge as a steel industry executive?
    What's the biggest problem you face as a teacher?]

  • What motivated you to buy [Product Name]?
  • Has it fulfilled your expectations? Please tell us how—or why not.
  • What benefits have you realized?
  • Can you recall a specific experience involving [Product Name]? Please tell us about it—and the results. For example: a decision you made, an opportunity you seized, a mistake you avoided.
  • Do you have any other comments or suggestions? How can we make [Product Name] even more useful and valuable to you?

Thanks for your help!
Please return via the enclosed postage-free envelope
[OR:] Click here to submit

The Mechanics.

Note that the model form above doesn't include every question and variation I’ve discussed. It wouldn't be wise to pack everything into a single survey. Make your choices, and adapt the questions and the wording to your own requirements. If you can't avoid the checklist approach entirely, include at least some open-ended questions.

Remember that people are busy, so keep the questionnaire brief. Be merciless. Eliminate useless questions that your client already has the answers to ("How long have you been a customer?"). Ask yourself what you plan to do with the answers when you have them. If you don't know, strike the question.

Your survey can be delivered via postal mail or email. I've also done customer surveys by phone, which has the advantage of allowing for dialogue and interaction. A seminal answer can be followed up immediately with a question seeking clarification or details. And responses can be used to guide and shape questions in subsequent interviews.

Popular online survey sites are,, and others. They allow you to do a simple survey, with some limitations, at no cost; for larger samples and more advanced features, the user must pay a fee. These services offer advantages over postal-mail surveying. One of the biggest is the speed with which you receive responses.

If your primary goal is obtaining testimonials, survey longtime customers—they're most likely to have positive things to say and impressive success stories to relate. But if statistical accuracy is important, use an nth-name sample. And if you want to know the bad news, survey former customers, too.

How Well Does it Work?

Here are examples of how market research results can be successfully exploited for promotional purposes:

  • A survey I created for a publisher of real estate newsletters gave us great feedback on the concerns of property owners and managers in a difficult economy. I used this data as a platform for a winning direct-mail package.
  • When subscribers to a publication for high-level financial industry people were asked how it helped them, one executive succinctly responded, "It keeps me out of trouble." We turned that comment into a powerful selling point.
  • While writing a promotion for a consumer investment newsletter, I interviewed subscribers by phone. One was a bartender who told me that because his job doesn't come with a pension plan, he relied on the newsletter to help him build his retirement portfolio. He cited specifics on how the recommended stocks he bought performed. That level of detail made for a credible and persuasive testimonial.
  • A subscriber to a client's business news service told us that it gave him a sales lead that resulted in more than $5 million in new business annually. You couldn't ask for a stronger endorsement than that!
  • Finally, Steve Sahlein, previously quoted, once did a survey for a client. The responses inspired the launch of a new product line—a series of books—that proved highly profitable.

So what are you waiting for? Start talking to your clients’ customers—or prospective buyers wherever they may be found. They're ready to tell you how you can get more money from them!

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Published: September 7, 2009

1 Response to “Make Your Copy More Successful … By Learning More About Your Prospects”

  1. We must all personalize the product , Idea or position when we are communicating to the end user


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