A New Copywriting Formula: The 4 Cs
by Bob Bly
I confess: I love copywriting formulas!
Why? For two reasons.
First, the best formulas are simple, easy to remember, and rapidly mastered. Knowing them can enable you to create copy that’s twice as effective—in half the time.
Second, the reason that they became formulas in the first place is that—they work!
Old-timers like me know there are literally dozens of time-tested copywriting formulas.
Yet most of today’s newbie copywriters have heard of only a handful . . . and have truly mastered even fewer.
Why is that bad? Because if you . . . or your copywriters . . . don’t know all the copywriting formulas, you could unnecessarily be wasting your time reinventing the wheel with each promotion you write. You could also be writing inferior copy that diminishes your sales.
In my day, no self-respecting copywriters or marketers worth their salt wrote copy without first studying the classic copywriting formulas and committing them to memory.
What are some of the most useful of these formulas? One of the oldest copywriting formulas—and perhaps the most famous—is AIDA. AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. It says persuasive copy must first grab the reader’s attention . . . get the reader interested in what you are selling . . . create a desire to own the product . . . and ask for action.
AIDA is one of my absolute favorite formulas, and I’ve been using it to write winning promotions for three decades. Yet in seminars today, when I ask attendees whether they know the AIDA formula, not one in 10 people raise a hand.
Less well-known than AIDA . . . but in its way almost as powerful . . . is the largely forgotten SELWAB formula. SELWAB is a mnemonic device to remind marketers what’s most important to the prospect. It stands for “Start Every Letter With A Benefit.”
Another useful and little-known copywriting formula is Star, Chain, Hook. The formula says you need a “Star” to capture attention…a “Chain” to pull readers along through the sales presentation without losing interest…and a “Hook” that holds them until they are ready to take action.
A copywriting formula I use—one of my own invention and published for the first time in my new book, The Business-to-Business Marketing Handbook—is the “Secret of the 4 Cs.” It says that every good piece of copy is: clear, concise, compelling, and credible. Let’s take a look at each element of the 4 Cs formula in a bit more detail.
What you write must be clear. Not just to you or a client or a marketing director. Ralph Waldo Emerson defines clarity this way: “It is not enough to write so that you can be understood. You must write so that you cannot be misunderstood.”
The typical advice given in writing classes about clarity is to use small words, short sentences, and short paragraphs, and this is sensible advice. Breaking long documents up into sensibly organized sections—each with its own heading—also helps.
But clear writing stems primarily from clear thinking, and the converse is also true. If you don’t really understand what you are talking about, your writing will be weak, rambling, and obtuse. On the other hand, when you understand your subject matter, know your audience, and have a useful and important idea you want to convey, the clarity of your writing will inevitably reflect your well-thought-out idea.
Now, you may be thinking that “concise” might apply to other types of writing, but not to copywriting for direct marketing, because direct response favors long copy.
But concise and brief are not synonyms. “Brief” means “short.” If you want to be brief, you simply cut words until you reduce the composition to the word count desired.
“Concise” means telling the complete story in the fewest possible words. Direct response copy is long because, to make a sale or generate a qualified lead, we often have to convey a lot of information. But in good direct response copy, we convey that information in the fewest possible words—no rambling, no redundancy, no needless repetition, no using three words when one will do.
It is not enough that the copy is easy to read. It must be so interesting, engaging, and informative that the reader cannot put it down—or at minimum, feels compelled to at least skim the document to glean the important points.
A major reason that so much copy is not compelling is that it is written about things that interest the marketer, not the prospect.
Marketers are interested in their products, their organizations, and in particular their “messaging”—key points they want to get across to the reader.
Unfortunately, the reader is not interested in any of these things. The reader is more interested in the reader—problems, needs, fears, concerns, worries, challenges, and desires.
As copywriter Don Hauptman has often said, the more your copy focuses on the prospect instead of the product, the more compelling it will be. The product is only relevant insofar as it addresses one of the reader’s core concerns or desires.
Copywriter Herschel Gordon Lewis has noted that we live in an age of skepticism; simply put, prospects are disinclined to believe what you say precisely because you are trying to sell them something.
Fortunately, there are a number of useful tools at your disposal for building your credibility and overcoming the reader’s skepticism.
Your prospects are skeptical of salespeople but are more inclined to trust advice from recognized experts in a given field or industry. Therefore, you can overcome skepticism by establishing yourself or your organization as a thought leader in your market. One way to do this is by publishing a lot of content. Prospects are distrustful of advertising, but are somewhat more trusting of information sources such as Websites, white papers, and magazine articles.
Become an active publisher of valuable content in your niche. Communicate your key messages in documents that do not look like sales promotions, but are published in editorial formats such as Webcasts and white papers. Not only will your prospects find the messages more credible when they are presented as content rather than sales copy, but these publications will accelerate your ascent to guru status in your niche.
The most obvious way to build credibility is with customer testimonials, and if you are not using them widely and proactively in your marketing, you are missing an easy and effective means of overcoming skepticism. Also, don’t overlook the opportunity to have customers give you video testimonials at your events, especially seminars you are videotaping. Post customer video testimonials on your Website and landing pages.
Another obvious but often overlooked means of building credibility is offering a strong money-back guarantee and then, if a customer asks for a refund, granting it quickly and with a smile, without question or argument. Rude, slow, or nonresponsive customer service can quickly destroy any credibility you have gained with your customer. In fact, you should take steps to resolve customer problems beyond what is required, so that customers feel you personally care about them and that they are getting more for their money than they have any right to expect.
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of 75 books, including Persuasive Presentation for Business (Entrepreneur Press) and The Copywriter’s Handbook (Henry Holt); and his new release, The Business-to-Business Marketing Handbook, which is the source of this article. He was voted Copywriter of the Year in 2007 by American Writers & Artists Inc. To learn more: bly.com.