Thursday, July 31, 2008

Five Rules for Writing Copy and Headlines for Conversion

Roy H. Williams can often say in a sentence what I would require an entire page to equal. I this weeks Monday Morning Memo, he summarizes the value of personas like this:

"Your business has only 3 or 4 customers living at thousands of different addresses. Your marketing should be crafted to reflect the preferences of each of them."

I required a short white paper on conversion to essentially say the same thing.

See the entire feature from the Austin American Statesman, July 25, 2008

As if in cahoots with Roy, our local newspaper, the Austin American Statesman ran a feature in the auto section in which "Area dealers match efficient cars with distinct drivers."

It's a great little lesson in writing copy and headlines that convert your visitors to leads and sales.

Car Dealers Address Four Personas

The feature offers up four kinds of drivers that are looking for a fuel efficient car that meets their needs:

  1. Family of five that needs plenty of space
  2. Construction contractor who relies on a sturdy vehicle for hauling
  3. Commuting couple that wants to save on gasoline
  4. College student who occasionally travels home on the weekends

Five dealers take their best shot at providing a model that fits each persona's needs.

When writing headlines, we have limited space to make our point. Likewise, the dealers have space for about 20 words in which to make their pitch.

Here are five rules that are illustrated well by the copywriting gusto of our intrepid dealerships.

Avoid Those Irresistible Adjectives

As is so often the case on the Web, our dealers' copywriters can't resist dropping in random adjectives. For the family of five, the local Dodge dealer makes a good, if ineloquent stab at addressing a family's need for space. But, the writer insists on calling their crossover "new."

"Dodge Journey: It has a third seat option in it and it's a new crossover with mileage in the high 20s and low 30s."

Nothing in our persona description says they want a new model. Don't new models always have problems?

Likewise, our Ford dealer offers a

"New seven-passenger vehicle with a V6 and rated at 24 mpg."

This dealer actually misses the opportunity to use an adjective productively. In stating that the car has a V6, he's clearly trying to say it's powerful. So why not say "with a powerful V6?" Here the adjective "powerful" closes the loop between the feature and the benefit.

Why is a V6 good? Why would our persona care?

The Volkswagen dealer also uses "new." The Mazda dealer drops "unique" into the mix. Is the Mazda5 "unique" because that model only holds six passengers while the others hold seven?

What is really unique about the Mazda5? Is that important to our personas?

The worst case of random adjectivitis is displayed by the Ford dealer, who actually brags to the Construction Contractor that their Ford Ranger is a "smaller" pickup.


Use Specific Language

The power of having personas is that you can very specifically target language to your readers. Just as keywords influence search engines, they also influence readers.

For the Construction Contractor persona, our Mazda dealer offers the best use of specific language:

"B2300 Pickup: Available with contractor package. Gets 26 mpg on the highway."

Now, I don't know if Mazda actually offers a "contractor package." I suspect that the writer of this ditty is talking about a combination of options, such as the towing package, the bed liner option and the heavy-duty upholstery option.

None-the-less, calling it the "contractor package" is using language that will specifically draw the attention of this persona, a contractor. Mazda wins in this category.

Volkswagen tells a family of five that there is "ample room for multiple passengers." Did they mean "multiple personalities?" Why didn't they say "five" or "six" or "seven" passengers? With a little thought about the day-to-day challenges this persona faces, they could have offered "ample room for a family of five and the neighbor's kids, too."

How many is "multiple?" This copywriter knew that the persona was a famliy of five."

Tell the Story

It is my experience that Web copywriters are afraid to tell stories. Drawing pictures with your words is powerful, but often difficult, especially when writing headlines.

Our Mazda dealer wins in this category again. For the Commuting Couple, they offer this:

"Miata: Convertible makes commuting fun. Available with power retractable top. Gets 28 mpg highway."

With four words -- "convertible makes commuting fun" -- the writer has me in a sporty car, top-down, on a sunny day, rocking to some AC/DC and smugly grinning at those drivers trapped in their metal cages.

You too can afford to use limited space for storytelling. This is because, like me, readers will fill in the details that you leave out.

When a reader fills in the details they are actually customizing your copy for you.

How could our Dodge dealer have turned "leather interior and alloy wheels" into a story?

Stop Making Excuses

How do you interest your reader when your product doesn't actually meet the known needs of a persona? You don't try.

In several places, our dealers try to distract the reader from the limitations of their offerings. This is why Mazda tells a family of five that it's limited capacity Mazda5 is "unique."

Volkswagen tells contractors that the hopelessly irrelevant Tiguan compact SUV "offers versatility." What burley contractor is going to admit that he bought a "Tiguan" anyway?

Ignore personas for whom you don't have an option. If you've got to fill the space, appeal to your best reader.

For example, Volkswagen's branding targets young folks. They could tell a contractor: "No trucks, but your college student will get 29 mpg in one of our New Beetles."

When you try to make words cover for your shortcomings, you can spin off into some strange places. Our Ford dealer, apparently self-conscious about the mileage rating of its Focus, offers this to the Commuting Couple:

"Ford Focus: The window sticker shows 33 mpg, but we've got reports of customers getting 38 or 39 mpg."

That's all they wrote.

A surprising waste of excuse-making space.

Inevitably, making excuses leads to foggy copywriting, and this is where throw-away words make their entrance.

Throw Away the Throw-away Phrases

Avoid phrases that are so commonly used they have lost all meaning. It's just plain lazy writing. On the Web, we are regaled with "industry leading" solutions, "cost-effective" plans and "easy-to-use" products. Our dealers are no different.

The Chevrolet dealer offers the Commuting Couple an Aveo, which comes "well equipped." Mazda and Volkswagen claim "versatility." GMC offers "Excellent towing capability." The Volkswagen writer heralds the Beetle as being popular for "styling and efficiency."

Readers ignore these phrases.

To get an idea how this problem is impacting your message, go through your copy and mark out all of these common phrases, euphemisms and metaphors. That will show you what your readers are truly "hearing."

Instead of "well-equipped," Chevrolet could say "with power windows and doors."

Instead of "Excellent towing capability," our GM dealer could say "Effortlessly tows your construction trailer and boat." ("boat" = lake, sun, freedom. See "Tell the Story.")

Instead of saying "styling and efficiency," our Volkswagen dealer could take a lesson from Dodge, who tells their College Student:

"There's plenty of room for stuff and it looks cool."

To a baby boomer, this may sound like a poor writing. However, we're not writing for a baby boomer. For an 18 to 20 year old college student, this may sound to them like Dodge speaks their language. In both cases, this style is unexpected -- the opposite of a throw-away phrase -- and will "wake up" the reader to the message.

The Matrix is Not a Bad Idea

It wouldn't be a bad idea to make your own matrix. Like our car dealership example, you would list your personas down the side. Across the top you would list products or specific features. Then compose your primary messages or headlines that are use specific language, tell stories and let the reader fill in the details. Then go back and check for avoidable adverbs and throw-away words.

If your product of feature doesn't offer anything for a particular persona, leave it blank.

Here is the persona-based feature in all of its glory.

The MondayMorningMemo© of Roy H. Williams, the Wizard of Ads®

The Austin American Statesman

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:49 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I write press releases for car dealerships, and I am always looking for tips on how to improve my writing for their audience of car buyers. If you know of any other specific articles or tips on other blogs, etc., that address a similar topic, I'd love to know about them. Thanks. Great read.


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