Jewel Marketing
Taiwan Content Marketing

Pen Me This Sell: How Copywriting Works

By Jason Patterson

Founder of Jewel Content Marketing Agency
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, and 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 should exist.

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, inappropriate, 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, and 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 something pretentious.

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 "clickbaity."

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 and mindshare.

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" as 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 reach out.

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.

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