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Why 99% of people judge copy the wrong way

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

When companies fail, they fail for a single, common reason.

Because their brands lack purpose? Because their social media posts lack engagement (whatever that means)? Because their programmatic advertising is insufficiently retargeting web visitors?

Nope. They fail because don’t sell enough of their products.

And eventually the owners of the business run out of patience, or money, and pull the plug.

Funnily enough, the same Darwinian logic applies to advertising agencies. Plenty have gone to the wall groaning under the weight of Lions, Clios, D&AD pencils and the rest. Very few with healthy P&Ls have done the same.

I’ve spent my entire career in marketing trying to help my employers/clients avoid that fate. And I’ve done it by writing to perfect strangers, encouraging them to fish out their credit cards.

On my first day working as a marketing assistant, on 6 May 1986, I helped the directors of the business open the post.

Most prized were the envelopes containing cheques. Next in the hierarchy were those containing order forms. We piled these up in rustling stacks – a sort of three-dimensional bar chart representing sales of different products.

The way they judged the copy that had produced the orders was simple.

The best copy was the copy that had generated the highest stack of order forms.

I’ve spent the intervening 31 years continuing to count order forms. Although nowadays they tend to be virtual. And sometimes, the order forms are sales leads or downloads or sign-ups to a newsletter.

Very often, I meet people – clients, copywriters, art directors and designers – who clearly have private incomes. How else to explain their blithe disregard for sales?

Instead they resort to a ragbag of unsuitable measures.

The most common mistake is to treat copywriting as an art form. You can tell when this is happening, because the person judging the copy will read it, then purse their lips and exclaim, “I don’t like it”. Or, more rarely, “I love it”.

But who cares? Copy isn’t there to be loved or loathed. It’s there to meet the brief.

Nobody should be judging copy on subjective, which amounts to aesthetic, grounds.

The question isn’t, “do I like it?” but “will it work?”. Or, to be more precise, “will it work better than what we’re using now, in a scientifically-controlled test?”

I have spent the greater part of my copywriting career in direct response. This is a wonderful place to work because everything is measurable. You can count order forms, in other words.

So I know what works (better). I have run split tests, and so have my clients, and we can assert with 99% confidence that this is better copy than that.

So, for example, longer copy is better than shorter. Courier is a better typeface for direct mail than Gill Sans. Green is a better colour for order forms than red. Prices ending in a seven are better than those ending in a nine. Web pages with “hand-written” comments are better than those without.

Yes, in many or all cases, most artistically inclined people will find the visual impression this sort of copy creates horrible.

But the statistically significant better results are not so easy to dismiss as “vile”, as one senior in-house designer did when I suggested they test Courier for a charity appeal.

Punters are just as guilty, though with less fault, of misjudging copy. With less fault, because they’re not in the marketing business.

Present a focus group with ad copy, or a piece of direct mail, or a website, and I guarantee they will coo approvingly over clean, cool, concise and witty copy.

Equally sure is that they will react with scorn and derision to anything that looks “cheesy”, “salesy” or “spammy”.

The reasons are twofold. One, they want to demonstrate their good sense and aesthetic discrimination to the people running the focus group. Two, they know that to express admiration or approval for copy obviously designed to sell is to appear credulous, or borderline stupid.

Yet, if you were to ignore them and simply run a split-test, their actions would be in direct contradiction to their words. The “cheesy” copy would pull more orders.

Let’s turn to the people commissioning all the copy. The people running marketing departments, in my experience, are almost always university educated. They are sophisticated people with sophisticated tastes in everything from cars and art to restaurants and holiday destinations.

Yet their customers are very often ordinary people. People who don’t walk around wondering whether Banksy is a better artist than Brancusi, or whether paleo is more passé than polenta.

So, too often they judge copy based on its appeal to them. Happily there are exceptions.

The editor of the Radio Times once said to me when reading some copy I’d written to sell subscriptions to her magazine, “I don’t really like it. But I don’t suppose it’s aimed at me”.

I think I may have kissed her hand in gratitude.

I once asked a marketing director, who had run exhaustive testing on everything from copy length to typefaces, what she thought about Courier.

“I hate it,” she said, her face twisting, before continuing, “and you must use it. It always does best.”

People like these are representatives of the 1%. Not the global super-rich, but the people who judge copy as a car engineer would judge a new engine component.

Not “do I like it?”, “is it on brand?”, “will it win us an award?”, “is it clever, funny or cool?”, “will it generate traffic?” or “does it demonstrate our purpose?”

But, “will it work?” In fact, “will it work better than what we have now?”

I’m sorry to say, many copywriters are just as guilty as the people who approve their copy of the sin of subjectivity.

Perhaps because a great many copywriters have arts degrees, especially English, they tend to feel that what they are writing has more in common with Tolstoy than toilet paper.

A recent tweet I replied to suggested that agency folk were useful because they had one foot in the world of business and one in the world of art. Anyone who believes 50% of their job is something to do with art is no help to a client with a quarterly profits target to meet.

The only appropriate way to judge copy is to take a rigorous, intellectually-driven approach that relies on evidence. In other words…

Counting orders.

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