3 Things Experienced Copywriters Do …
But You Shouldn't

Let’s dive right in … with the three most common mistakes I see even experienced writers make (including me!) — and of course, how to avoid each one …

Blunder #1: “Me-Too” Headlines

I see this big old boo-boo all the time when critiquing copy.

If I ever look at a headline you wrote and say, “Anybody could say this,” I’m just being kind. What I really mean is, “This headline really blows. Start over.”

Let’s take a look at how we might never compel anyone to say such a thing about the headline on your ad …

Obvious Ads

In promos with straight benefit headlines (as opposed to advertorial and dominant emotion leads), your headline will typically focus on the one benefit you believe will be deemed most valuable to the prospects you’re addressing.

Alas though, you have gaggles of savvy competitors whose headlines vow to deliver similar if not identical benefits. Heck. You could probably tear their headlines out and paste them on your ad — and nobody would even notice the difference!

So what do you do?

Simple: Use your headline to differentiate your product — lift it head and shoulders above the competition and leave prospects believing your competitors are “also-rans”: Pale imitations.

“Golly Pete, Clayton, how in the heck do I do that??”

Here’s some stuff to try …

1. Be Unique: Everybody talks about Unique Selling Propositions today — but the fact is, most of the “USP” headlines I see don’t contain a Unique Selling Proposition at all!

According to Rosser Reeves, the “father” of the USP, a Unique Selling Proposition must meet three criteria:

  1. It must contain a proposition (a benefit that people are willing to pay for) …
  2. The benefit must be unique (not the same thing a competitor says about his/her product), and …
  3. It must sell (be powerful enough to move the masses).

Oh, yeah — I see tons of heads that shout a benefit, and in most cases, those benefits are something prospects are willing to pay for. But heads that differentiate the product by presenting a truly unique benefit are as rare as hen’s teeth.

And by “unique benefit,” I mean a benefit that prospects are willing to pay for — and that your competitors’ can’t (or don’t) promise.

Think: What overlooked fact makes your product work faster than the competition’s? What makes it more convenient, more effective, more cost-efficient, or cheaper?

Incorporate that into your headline, and watch response soar!

2. Be Specific: Specific facts in a headline do more than just add all-important credibility: They can also add a heaping helping of uniqueness to your headlines and by doing so, put miles between you and the competition.

Your competitor can claim that his product is the best ever — but if you include specifics that prove yours is better, you win!

A headline for a weight-loss system shouting, “Lose weight fast!” does absolutely nothing to differentiate you or your product. Any of your competitors could be (and probably are) making very similar claims in their ads.

Adding razor-sharp specifics — quantifying the results you’re promising — can make it come alive:

“World’s first and only supplement GUARANTEED to vaporize 15 pounds of ugly fat — from your belly, hips, butt, and thighs — in 30 days or LESS!”

Think: How much faster does your product work? 20% faster? 40% faster? Twice as fast?

How much time will it save your prospect? Fifteen minutes a day? Forty-five minutes a day? Five hours a week?

How much money will it make him or save him — down to the penny — and how often? How much will it cut his health risks or mitigate his symptoms?

Load up your headline and deck copy with these differentiating specifics, and you’ll be miles ahead of the game.

Advertorial & Dominant Emotion Leads

Sometimes, particularly on the Internet, people put words in your mouth that you never, ever said.

A while back, I discovered that some folks who read Bob Bly’s excellent blog (http://www.bly.com/blog/) seem to believe I claim that benefit headlines don’t work.

Bull feathers! Horse puckey! I’ve never, ever said any such thing!

What I have said is that many pure benefit leads are no longer working as well as they once did.

Why? The answer shouldn’t surprise anyone …

Every day of the year, your prospect is bombarded with tons of advertising messages. His email box, his physical mailbox, every website he visits, his TV and radio, his newspaper and favorite magazines, even his milk carton and cereal box are crawling with sales messages.

Of the thousand or so ads your prospect will see today, hundreds will have benefit-oriented headlines. And many of them (maybe even most of the ads he gets over the ‘net) will feature headlines that promise ridiculously inflated benefits: Benefits that nobody — least of all the guy who wrote them — even remotely believes.

In an act of sheer self-defense, your prospect has cranked his brain’s anti-advertising defenses up to DEFCON 5. He’s alert and ready to defend against this blinding blizzard of B.S. by ignoring or trashing anything that remotely looks like an ad.

So what’s the solution? How do you get through?


An advertorial is simply a promotion that looks and feels like a self-help magazine, special report, or booklet — and that begins just like they do: With a headline, deck, and opening copy that offers to bring value to the prospect’s life for free — simply for reading.

The copy then proceeds to deliver on the headline’s promise by giving the prospect valuable information — stuff that empowers him to assuage a fear, end a frustration, or fulfill a desire.

Then, after you’ve demonstrated your advocacy, expertise, and honesty by delivering valuable information for free, you offer him more of the same for free — usually as a “Thank You” gift for giving your product a fair try.

Prospect-focused, dominant emotion headlines and advertorial copy defeat your prospect’s anti-advertising defenses in much the same way Rommel defeated the Maginot Line during WWII: They slip AROUND prospects’ defenses by addressing their deepest fears, frustrations, and desires.

I’ve already written volumes on advertorial and dominant emotion leads — and intend to write more. For now, just a few words about the concept or theme you select for your advertorial:

When I say “theme,” I’m talking about the general focus of your advertorial. In the investment markets, for example, your theme could be great profit opportunities (or dangers) posed by rising interest rates … the falling dollar … rising gold or oil prices … or the emergence of China and India.

Fact is, the theme you choose for your advertorial is one of the two most important decisions you’re going to make in your ad. Here are some rules I like to follow when trolling for the ideal advertorial theme:

  1. It must be unique: Resist the temptation to create “me-too” themes for your advertorials. If the competition’s hottest control is about soaring gold prices, going with the same theme is only going to get you the crumbs off his table.
  2. The opportunity or danger must be imminent: I learned this the hard way. If your theme focuses on a danger or opportunity that’s years away (like the profit opportunities presented by graying Baby Boomers, for example), you’re gonna get spanked.
  3. It must have personal consequences: Goes without saying — but strong themes always imply big personal rewards for reading — or penalties for not reading. “So-What” themes are guaranteed losers.

Blunder #2: The Buried Lead

Can’t tell you how many times I see direct-response promotions with fair to middlin’ heads and leads … then read on, only to find a 200-tons-of-TNT lead idea on page 4 … or 8 … or 14.

When it happens in one of my packages or a promotion I’m critiquing, it’s kind of a “good-news-bad-news” deal.

The bad news is, the copy isn’t there yet.

The good news is that a white-hot headline and lead already exists, and just needs to be brought forward.

The problem is, few writers are able to spot this kind of problem in their own copy. By the time we have a complete draft, we’re too close to the trees to see the forest.

I’m lucky — I have a secret weapon that instantly spots buried leads in my copy: The Redhead.

See, I never let anyone see my copy until I think it’s in pretty good shape. Then, I show it to Wendy before anyone else.

Wendy has a knack for sensing the feelings prospects will have in each passage of copy. What’s more, she takes tremendous delight in pointing out the sections that were slow or boring to her. And she instantly spots the sections that cause her temperature to rise.

What’s that you say? You don’t have a Redhead?

No, you can’t borrow mine. But you can find a reasonable facsimile: Another copywriter who’ll agree to critique your stuff if you’ll crit theirs.

One of the very first things I said back in my 2006 Summit was, “Many of you copywriters came hoping to find clients; and that’s a good thing. But finding another copywriter who’ll agree to exchange crits with you can be just as valuable!”

Gospel truth.

Until you find a copy buddy, the simple act of reading through your copy with a critical eye can help. Just be alert for subheads, phrases, or ideas that grab your gut more powerfully than your lead.

Blunder #3: Muddled Vision

The other day, I critiqued a package that promised one thing and delivered another. It began by offering a health benefit but right after the headline, launched into a five-page tirade against drug companies.

Prospects who chose to read because of the headline and lead copy would have immediately felt deceived. Ripped off. Flim-flammed. We fixed it post-haste.

More often, I see copy that takes so many side trips, you wind up wondering what in the heck the copywriter is smoking.

My advice: Have a roadmap before you get in the car with your prospect. Know where you’re starting from and where you’re going, then map out the quickest, most direct way to get the prospect from Point A to Point B.

Create an unbreakable, irrefutable chain of logic — beginning with a proposition that the prospect already believes. That gets you on common ground. Then introduce each new idea with ample proof elements to keep his head nodding.

Bring him with you every step of the way. Never make him wonder where you’re headed. Never make him feel disoriented or lost. Never make him work to figure out where this is going.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After reading this, you can see why Clayton’s one of the most popular presenters at Bootcamp. He’s smack on with his copywriting strategies. And he’s very funny to boot. You can meet him — and maybe even his “Redhead,” Wendy — this year at Bootcamp, October 24th-27th.

Click here to sign up … or to see what other remarkable copywriters and savvy marketers will be there to help you on your own FastTrack to Copywriting Success.

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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Published: July 30, 2012

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