by Jonathan Kranz
September 20, 2005

In his book, Mysterious Stranger, magician David Blaine
reveals the most important secret behind Harry Houdini’s extraordinary
death-defying escapes: obsessive advance preparation. While his
audiences never saw the months of practice and planning, they would
have found no magic to applaud if Houdini hadn’t invested so much
effort in his non-magical preliminaries.

Likewise, the secret to successful copy is in the all the thought, work and research you do before
you write a single word. In the following 10 tips, I lift the curtain
to reveal the backstage mechanics you can leverage for more effective

1. Gather your proof points. These are all the
tangible pieces of physical evidence, such as research statistics,
units sold, customers satisfied and performance figures that reinforce
your promises. Without this proof, broad claims for “innovation,”
“commitment,” “quality” and “excellence” ring hollow and shallow.
Innovators must be prepared to describe new products or features; those
committed to quality should be able to measure their performance and
show the results.

This tip comes first, not necessarily because it’s more important
than the other nine, but for the amount of time it may require to
assemble the proof points you need within your organization. Start
making inquiries now, then mull over the following nine points as you
collect responses.

2. Answer, “What do you want readers to do next?”
There’s no point in communicating, whether through a Web page or a
direct mail piece, if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want
prospects to do as a consequence of reading your work. Do you
want them to buy something, register for an event, attend a workshop,
remember a brand, shop somewhere, order an item, request more
information… or something else?

The answer’s important, because it will dictate both the form of
your writing and its content. Even a marketing tactic as oblique as a
bylined article has an intent: You want the reader to regard the author as an expert worthy of future consideration as a partner or vendor. Be sure your purpose is crystal clear.

3. Make an offer. Tell customers to do “x” to get
“y”: That’s an offer. Yeah, yeah, I know—offers are germane to
direct response marketing and not necessarily anything else. But good
old-fashioned direct response methods are gaining ground even as its
hipper cousin, brand advertising, is finding it ever harder to attract
customer attention.

Learn from direct: Don’t get so lost in the weeds of “creativity”
that you fail to blaze a path to the sale. In mail, ads, Web pages,
email or what have you, make your offer explicit—”Save $25 when
you renew today”—and be sure you tell customers exactly what they
have to do to get it.

4. Listen to your customer’s voice. Pretend you’re
eavesdropping on different conversations among investment bankers,
whole-grain bakers and Harley-Davidson bikers. I think it’s fair to say
that you’ll hear different vocabularies, different tones, different
ways people articulate themselves. When you write for a specific
audience, you’re joining their conversation; imagine their voices when you’re ready to work, then write the way they speak.

5. Look for testimonials and endorsements. You can
take the previous tip and take it to its literal extreme by directly
quoting customers themselves. After all, their opinions carry far more
credibility than yours or your company’s. In many cases, organizations
are sitting on testimonials or endorsements they forgot they have
collected. Ask for them—you might just find a few precious
nuggets you can weave into letters, collateral, Web pages and more.

6. Maintain brand identity. Just as graphic
designers have to constrain their efforts within the color templates
and design schemes that are part of an organization’s visual brand
identity, writers have to stick to the brand’s fundamental marketing
messages and positions. Otherwise, conflicting messages will dilute the
brand—and your boss (or client) will throw you out on your ear.
If the company’s brand identity is built on “authority” and “years of
experience,” don’t waste time with cheeky copy or irreverent humor.

7. Focus on one thing. I recently worked with an
engineering company that has many talents. They do design. They
supervise construction. They serve as expert witnesses in litigation.
In fact, they do so many things so well that it was hard to craft a
coherent message that wouldn’t confuse potential clients. In the end,
we agreed on a common theme: They solve problems that stump other
engineering firms. In doing so, we had to elevate some elements of the
message, such as “problem-solving,” while subordinating others, like

This winnowing process may be painful—we all prefer to say as
many good things about ourselves as we can—but it’s absolutely
necessary. Messages that are too broad disintegrate like powdery
snowballs and never reach their targets. But a focused message is like
a rifle shot—powerful because it is precise.

8. Anticipate objections. Put yourself in your
prospects’ shoes and consider the obstacles between them and the sale
(or your message). If your company is unfamiliar to them, they may
proceed with distrust. If they’ve been burned before, they’ll be
hesitant to act again. If they can’t understand the topic at hand,
they’ll turn away from you in frustration. And if the message is
confusing, they’ll simply stop reading.

Your job is to anticipate these and other potential
objections—then create countermeasures to correct them. When your
product is unfamiliar, perhaps you can use testimonials to reinforce
your credibility. Where there’s a whiff of risk, emphasize your
money-back guarantee. Is the topic complex? Simplify it. For every
possible hurdle, apply the rhetoric and marketing tactics you need to
get customers over the humps.

9. Understand your limitations. Marketing is the
art of the possible, of doing the best you can within predetermined
budgets and timeframes. Your idea of a pop-up, gold-leaf beagle that
leaps out of a box to the strains of Elvis’ “Hound Dog” might be just
the thing to sell a “Gold Level” veterinary health plan—but,
chances are, there’s no money for it. Be sure you work with the
necessary people, such as designers, marketing directors, account
executives and so on, to develop ideas that can actually be executed.

10. Set your benchmarks. What are you aiming for?
Responses? Sales? More Web visitors? Requests for more information? You
have to know your targets before you aim your copy. Otherwise, it’s
impossible for you to measure the success of your efforts. And to make
the adjustments needed to improve your work.

In sum: Ready, set… stop. Before you write a single word, make the advanced preparations that make marketing magic possible.