A hardworking print ad doesn’t try to be clever!

Let’s take a look at a few principles for writing and designing effective print ads. And instead of rehashing “classic” ads that you always see in advertising and marketing textbooks, let’s just pick an ad out of the newspaper. That’s where a lot of the ad dollars go anyway.

newspaper print adHere’s one I ran across today in my local paper. It’s not pretty. And it ain’t Shakespeare. But it’s a damn good ad. Why? Mostly because it’s all business. The copywriter isn’t trying to entertain. The designer isn’t trying to impress. Take a good look.

The ad copy here is doing smart things:

1. The headline selects the audience and identifies a problem.

2. The subhead promises a solution.

3. The body copy suggests the solution is easy.

4. The offer is simple and direct. And it’s free!

5. The title of “Dr.” and the testimonials establish credibility.

The ad design is smart as well:

1.The headline and subhead are big and bold.

2. The illustration ties directly to the headline.

3. The body copy is in large type and bulleted to make reading easy and scanning effortless.

4. The offer and call to action are highlighted and cannot be missed.

5. There is not one hint of cleverness to distract from the message.

This print ad won’t win a single award. Most ad agency copywriters or designers couldn’t bear to be in the same room with a print ad like this. But this is solid advertising. This is the sort of ad that works!

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The secret of great copywriting has nothing to do with writing!

Edmund Burke, a British statesman, once said, “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.”

Exactly right. Facts are the beginning for clear thinking and for powerful copywriting. To create effective direct mail or ads, you have to have something substantial and relevant to say. Puffery and empty technique just don’t cut it.

That’s why I always go through a set of basic questions when I’m starting a copywriting project. In fact, I have a standard advertising and marketing questionnaire to help collect the information I’ll need. This questionnaire covers the product, the prospect, and the promotion.

Here are a few examples:

Read the full questionnaire at my main site. This is really just a starting point. I can easily ask over a hundred questions. The more information, the better.

For many copywriters, the temptation is to start writing immediately. That’s a huge mistake. The best work is always based on facts. And facts take time to find and understand.

When people ask where I get ideas for headlines or sales letters, I say, “I don’t know.” I really don’t. What I do know is that they generally pop into my head as I’m slogging through tons of information.

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Is SEO copywriting a good idea for direct marketers?

There’s an ongoing debate between traditional direct response copywriters and the new breed of online copywriters about the importance of SEO (search engine optimization).

In a DM News article, Bob Bly writes about why he doesn’t believe in SEO copywriting. His point is simply that good copywriting should come first and that thinking about keywords is secondary, if you think about them at all. He says “forget the search engines” and “never change a word of strong selling copy.”

Then you have, well, just about everyone on the Internet, who say that SEO is the only way to go. Aaron Wall, for example, is the author of SEO Book and maintains that choosing the right keywords and using them in the right way can rocket you to the top of the search results and boost your traffic and sales.

Who’s right?

This debate is like the direct marketing versus mass marketing debate. It’s two groups of people, each with a different marketing model, trying to lay claim to the ultimate truth.

The traditional direct response guys generally use direct mail or e-mail marketing to drive people to their sites, so they don’t care as much about search engine results. The SEO guys generally use keyword tactics to pull people into their sites, so they care very much about search engine results.

The two are not incompatible. In fact, they can be complementary. It’s just that each has chosen a different way to create traffic.

My view? Why not use both? Does it matter HOW you get results? Smart marketers use any and every tactic that works. Besides, if you really understand SEO copywriting, it’s really about understanding what people are looking for and using the right words to connect to them. Isn’t that what good direct response copywriting is supposed to do?

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Write clearly, darnit!

Every time I drive through a road construction area, I see an orange sign that reads, “MAINTAIN PRESENT LANE.” This sign drives me batty.

I realize that it was probably written by some underpaid worker, on a busy day, sitting in the office of some mad bureaucracy somewhere. But it’s a good example of the “officialese disease” that prevents otherwise simple ideas from being communicated clearly.

Why doesn’t the sign just read, “STAY IN YOUR LANE” or “DO NOT CHANGE LANES”? Isn’t that more clear? Why the need for the big official sounding words?

I’m tempted to carry cans of spray paint in my car and, when I see one of these signs, pull over and spray it with one of my better written alternatives. Of course, I can’t do that. I must “maintain present lane.”

I’m not just talking about road signs here. Clarity is the single most important rule for any kind of writing, especially “action” writing where you’re trying to get someone to do something, which includes direct response copy for letters or advertisements. If people don’t understand you instantly, you’ll lose their attention and their money.

This ridiculous road sign is a lesson in how NOT to write clearly. Look over your own writing and whenever you see multisyllabic or pompous words and phrases strutting in, replace them with shorter, simpler words that everyone will understand at a glance. Okay?

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