There can be no single copywriting formula for advertising and marketing
success, because there is no single kind of copywriting, there are actually two. They do
their jobs differently, but they're united by a common end purpose. A purpose that should
be more obvious than it seems to be.
Copywriting Can Be Sunshine & Rainbows If They Sell
The marketing and advertising world has developed a peculiar disinterest in capitalism
it's not unusual to see definitions of copywriting that don't really invoke it. And it's not
that I think they're all wrong. I just think that some tend to focus on cause instead of
effect, and secondary benefits instead of the primary reason why copywriting exists or
Can copywriting have a conversation with your customers or build a relationship with your
brand? Yes. Netflix
social media copywriters are good at that. Can copywriting indoctrinate
people into your brand's worldview? Absolutely. Nike
and De Beers
have done bang-up jobs
of this. Can copywriting create magic? "A thousand songs in your pocket
" certainly did.
But those are all means and not ends, because copywriting exists first and foremost to sell.
You know, sales? That thing clients like to do because their livelihoods and futures depend
on it? It's kind of important in the capitalist system. Engagement and community-building
don't appease stockholders.
When we forget that, brands start talking for the sake of talking, leading to them speaking
up at the wrong times
, and saying unwelcome
, or empty
things, and generally
wasting the customer's time as well as their own. In short, when copywriting becomes about
intangible things, brands attain delusions of grandeur
, which leads to brand wankery
ads for ad people
Don't get me wrong. Magic can be dazzling. But the ethereal is very hard to create on
purpose. The harder you try to conjure it, the more likely you are to merely conjure
Magic is when you do something the audience thinks impossible, or hasn't previously seen or
imagined. But it tends to work better when it's in the service of some other goal, not as
an end in and of itself. For instance, a contortionist might bend herself into shapes and
poses you previously thought were impossible, but that alone isn't magic.
Magic is when that contortionist stands on her hands, arches her legs over her back, shoots
a bow and arrow with her feet, and hits the bullseye. And copywriting hits the bullseye if
it makes a sale. After all, capitalism lifts more people out of poverty than good intentions.
But There Are Different Ways To Sell Through Copywriting
While copywriting is selling, it's not always the literal exchange of money for goods and
services. Sometimes you're selling an idea. Or a point of view. Or a political candidate. Or
almost anything really. And even when you are literally selling, a sale doesn't always mean
money changes hands. A poor man might be sold on the idea of a Porsche 911 all his life
without actually owning one. And not all sales sells equally, and neither does all copywriting.
Copywriting either sells now or sells later. And it does this by being actionable or memorable,
respectively. Each type of copywriting has a different effect on the audience. And most brands
need some of both.
Actionable Copywriting Sells Now
Actionable copywriting sells now by trying to elicit an audience action or response, now.
It might be to buy something. Or it might be to open an email, click a social media post, or
download a whitepaper. The action doesn't really matter. What matters is that it's now.
Actionable copywriting often falls under the label of conversion copywriting or direct
response copywriting, though there are often conceptual elements involved. But don't let
the name fool you. While actionable copywriting may try to move a prospect down the
marketing funnel, or to another stage of the buyer's journey, it doesn't have to.
It can be used purely for awareness (a lot of B2B actionable copywriting is like this). But
even in these cases, there's typically a call to action (CTA) included, or a prompt ("act
now") or a QR code. It also may have a price or a percentage-off somewhere. And it may
involve some form of psychological trigger (i.e., inspiring curiosity) or psychological
pressure (i.e., spaces are selling out fast).
But these techniques generally shouldn't be obvious. Good actionable copywriting comes
across as persuasive or intriguing, while bad actionable copywriting seems "salesy" or
Memorable Copywriting Sells Later
Unlike the explicitness of actionable copywriting techniques, memorable copywriting is
implicit sales, by making an impression on the prospect in the hope they'll buy
something later. In technical terms, such copywriting creates brand/product familiarity
It often works by amusing the audience, or creating some other favorable or pleasant
impression, but it doesn't have to. Remember the Moldy Whopper ad? It increased Burger
King sales 14%
, even though the most common direct reaction to viewing the ad was disgust.
Memorable copywriting usually doesn't ask or tell the audience to do anything, but if it
does, it won't mean "right now." American Express used "Don't leave home without it
their tagline for many years, but that isn't actionable copywriting because it's not trying
to trigger a reaction now. It's more like advice. Or if you want to be literal, it's
trying to get you to do something when you leave home.
When it works, memorable copywriting comes across as impressive, or amusing, or moving,
though pretty much any intended feeling is better than nothing. And memorable copywriting
that doesn't work seems bland or inhuman. It doesn't resonate.
And in case you're wondering, even if the copy is on a product's packaging, as long as the
copy doesn't ask the prospect to do anything now, and doesn't contain a prompt like "on
sale" or "2-for-1," it's memorable.
How Else These Two Are Different
Selling now and selling later might seem sufficient to distinguish these copywriting
categories, but there's another big difference that must be kept in mind. Good memorable
copywriting builds your brand, while actionable copywriting doesn't (at least not directly).
Memorable Copywriting Builds Your Brand, Actionable Copywriting Activates It
In marketing funnel terms, memorable copywriting is TOFU (top of the funnel) or middle of
the funnel. Such content is brandbuilding by nature. While actionable copywriting can
actually be for any stage of the funnel. But despite this fact, actionable copywriting has
a "lower funnel" type of effect on the audience (because it asks for something). And lower
funnel tactics spend your brand equity because they make your brand seem weak, needy, or
used-car-salesy (which is why luxury brands rarely do it).
However, most other brands need both types of copywriting. Why? Let's use a high-school
physics metaphor. Memorable copywriting builds your brand. And building your brand is like
building anything else. You're adding mass to it. And the more you build your brand, the
more mass it has. And mass has gravity. Gravity attracts. Which is why strong brands have
little need to do discounts, gimmicky promotions, or use actionable copywriting.
But most brands aren't this strong. And if you're one of them, you don't have gravity.
Which means people won't come to you unless you reach out. And reaching out means
sacrificing some of your brand's mass by converting it to energy, the energy required to
And this is what actionable copywriting does. It sacrifices a little of your brand equity
by reaching out. And if you do too much of this, you'll have no brand equity left, which
is a path to going broke, either by endless discounts or lack of business.
This is why you need to keep building your brand at the same time, which is why most brands
need memorable copywriting as well as actionable. But you need to know when to use each.
Don't Add Digital Crap To Memorable Copywriting Just Because
Digital thinking has been infecting real world marketing for a while. One way has been the
death of serif fonts in brand logos
. Another has been the introduction of digital prompts
(hashtags, QR codes, URLs) into brand, advertising, and marketing assets that don't need
them, which has transformed otherwise memorable (i.e., brandbuilding) copy into needy
actionable copy. I think this is a major reason why brand strength for a lot of once-mighty
brands is declining. A lot of brands that were once gods now seem ordinary and mortal.
Let's face it. Digital prompts make otherwise analog assets look cheap, because of the
Internet's inherently less substantive nature. Maybe 10-15 years ago we thought everything
needed a hashtag to seem "with it." Now we should know better, since digital is now the
default while analog has become special. But it's still surprisingly easy to get suckered
into needlessly adding something like a QR code because a client or your boss pressured
you into it.
So when should you and when should you not add a digital prompt? Like in many marketing
situations (and not nearly as acknowledged as it should be), the rules for new brands and
the rules for established brands are different.
If you're an established brand, you should only have a digital prompt when you have some
sort of activation or promotion going on. You've got a coupon for that QR code to link to.
You've got a giveaway you're running. You want people to visit your booth. Things like this.
Otherwise, don't do it. You don't need brandbuilding assets stained with digital birdshit.
But if nobody has heard of your brand, or nobody knows who you are, then you've got no
brand equity to waste. So go right ahead and add those digital prompts, because educating
your audience is more likely to make your brand memorable at this point than merely having
a nice ad for people to walk or scroll by.
And in case you haven't figured it out by now, even though we've established that memorable
copywriting does the glamour work, it's vitally important that your actionable copywriting
be good as well, especially if you're an unknown brand. Why? Because while the act of
direct selling doesn't build your brand, the money you make from sales does.
Revenue is capitalism's scorekeeping. The more you make, the better you are. Brand strength
doesn't have a one-to-one relationship with revenue or profit, but they are correlated,
especially if you're investing some of that money back into building your brand.
So your actionable copywriting, when you do use it, needs to work, or you've spent your
brand equity for nothing.
Odds & Ends
I'm aware there are some types of copywriting that might not fall into either of these
buckets, like some of the stuff that's written for UX, or stuff written in a company
website's governance section. I don't care. Marketing is mud. There are no clean lines or
absolutes. And if you're here, you've read the title. Which means you know what I'm here
to talk about.
I'm also aware that actionable and memorable copywriting are not straight apples-to-apples
terms. Because actionable copy that fails is still actionable, while memorable copy that
fails isn't memorable. Again, I don't care. This isn't academia. This is business. And I
picked these names because they're intuitive and memorable.
In other words, they're easy to sell.