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An Article about Advertising Copy

Enough about You…
by Floyd Kemske

A man asked me to look at his website and give him some feedback. He thought perhaps he needed to rewrite his copy. “People seem to have trouble with the concept,” he said.

So I went to his website and I read his copy, but I had trouble with the concept. In perfectly good, workmanlike prose, his pages described transactions and support, and how a service offered by the website eliminated the need for CGI programming. I don’t know about you, but I never stay very long in a place where they are talking about CGI programming.

Why did I have trouble with this website’s concept? Basically, concepts related to me, I grasp instantly. Other concepts I don’t grasp at all.

Let’s Talk about Me
I am not just the last surviving member of the me-generation. In fact, I have charitable impulses, a sense of civic responsibility, and intellectual curiosity. Nevertheless, my primary field of interest is me. When you write marketing copy, you can hold my interest as long as you talk about me. Talk about anything else, and my attention begins to wander.

Here’s the progression: if it benefits me, then it relates to me. If it relates to me, then I grasp it. This progression isn’t unique to me. People like me make up about ninety-nine percent of your audience (which is a guess, but even if we are only fifty percent, you could still make a fortune catering to us).

I would have understood this website if it had explained the benefits of the service it offered. Instead, with its transactions and support and CGI programming, it was all about features. From web pages to telemarketing scripts and from television commercials to my own specialty of direct mail, good marketing copy emphasizes benefits. In fact, in the best marketing copy, everything that isn’t a presentation of a benefit is only there to either (1) get the reader’s attention so the benefit can be presented or (2) show the reader how to place an order once the presentation of the benefit has been understood.

Going Really Fast
We can talk about (1) and (2) some other time. Right now, I want you to know that if you master the skill of presenting benefits, you will write marketing copy that sparkles with inspiration. I am sure I don’t have to explain the difference between features and benefits, but here’s one example. “Dual overhead cams” is a feature. “Goes really fast” is a benefit.

Figuring out the benefit of a feature is not difficult. When it’s not immediately apparent, just ask the client. “Why did you put dual overhead cams in this car?” The client will probably hem and haw about compression ratios and other stuff that has nothing to do with me, but just keep asking why until you get to something that addresses my primary interest. Eventually the client will tell you: it goes really fast. If figuring out the benefit is easy, refining it is a little more difficult, and that’s where you earn your money in writing marketing copy.

In all forms of writing — fiction, poetry, journalism, whatever — specificity builds power. The same is true for the benefits you present in your marketing copy. If you write an ad for a car that says, “it goes really fast,” you may be writing a better than average car ad, but you’ll fall short of the real power in benefit-oriented copy. Instead of “it goes really fast,” write “it thrusts your body deeply into the specially contoured driver’s seat as it pulls away from the curb.”

There’s More to Me than This
So now you’ve harnessed the power of specificity in the presentation of your benefit. And you’ve got my attention. Can you take it further? Why does anybody want to go really fast in a car? There are probably lots of reasons, but spend a little time on an interstate highway and you’ll see that an important one is to go faster than the drivers of the other cars. So now you can sculpt that benefit a little more: “it thrusts your body deeply into the specially contoured driver’s seat as it pulls away from the other cars.”

But you’re not done yet. I am a complex person, and there is more to me than staying ahead of other drivers; not much more, I’ll grant you. But there is more. What’s special about a person who likes to drive really fast? For one thing, this is obviously a person for whom danger is no big deal. In fact, this is probably a person who rather likes danger. So let’s add danger to the benefit: “its heart-stopping acceleration thrusts your body deeply into the specially contoured driver’s seat as it pulls away from the other cars.” Now you have engaged my interest. Do you see how much you know about me, even though you’ve never met me? You’ve gained all this knowledge just by thinking about the benefits of a product I might buy.

Forget the Curb-Sitters
Note that as you have engaged my interest, you have disengaged the interests of others. For some people, there is no benefit in driving fast, and the drama of speed will not influence their buying decisions. Some people just want to remain on the curb. These people are not part of your audience. Don’t lose any sleep over them. You can’t engage the curb-sitters without disengaging me, so forget about them and concentrate on me. Marketers who try to sell to multiple audiences in the same piece (or, just as bad, try not to turn off one audience while selling to another) write insipid copy.

And that brings us to the most important point about benefits: they address specific audiences. You cannot write effectively about benefits without understanding the audience you want to address. You learned a lot about me indirectly, just by thinking about the benefits provided by a car with dual overhead cams. But there is no substitute for direct knowledge of your audience. Ask the client whom the product or service is intended for. Chances are, the client has a pretty good idea of income level, gender, or job description, when these characteristics are appropriate to potential demand for the product. Often they aren’t (avoid stereotyping the audience — it is the fast track to building prospect resentment).

Sophisticated and well-heeled marketers use so-called psychographic profiles. But you don’t need to sort out your prospects’ basic values and cultural affiliations to understand that you should approach corporate CEOs differently than you’d approach single mothers. And that neither of those approaches may be valid for single mothers who are corporate CEOs. I am sure that we could work out an approach to single-mother CEOs if we got a look at the product and maybe took a quick trip to Fedstats. Just don’t ask for my help when you’ve got something to sell to single mothers who do CGI programming.

©1998 Floyd Kemske
Published originally at the Writer On Line website

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