How to write words that sell.

Written by Cole Schafer




 Over the past two years, Honey Copy has written $300,000 worth of words. These words have taken many forms: sales emails, landing pages, ebooks, articles, mobile applications, packaging copy and entire websites.

My clients have ranged from the largest and most well-known search engine in the world to the American Ultimate Disc League to a publicly-traded cannabis brand. 

I’m certainly no Ogilvy. But, for a one man band, I’m doing okay.

Here, “with all the dogmatism of brevity” are the things I’ve learned about marketing, copywriting, psychology and selling things with words.

Understand that people buy for pain or pleasure.

The vast majority of people buy for two reasons. They buy to move further away from pain. Or, to move closer to pleasure. Know the difference. Advil and car insurance are purchased to move further away from pain. Chinese massages and steak dinners are purchased to move closer to pleasure. Before attempting to market your product or service, first understand why people would buy it –– for pain or pleasure?

Simpler is better, most of the time.  

Unless you’re selling a product or service to Ivy League Alumni, your marketing communication shouldn’t be complicated. As a brand, it’s not your job to wow prospective customers with fancy complicated language and bullshit buzzwords. It is, however, your job to be understood. Ernest Hemingway changed literature as we know it because his novels could be read and understood by everyone, regardless of their education. In my experience, pompous brands with flowery tongues have empty pockets. 

When one of David Ogilvy’s copywriters would argue with him about using fancy language, he would offer the following advice…

“Get on the bus. Go to Iowa. Stay on a farm for a week and talk to the farmer. Come back to New York by train and talk to your fellow passengers in the day-coach. If you still want to use the word, go ahead.”

To put it simply, be simple.

Invest in damn good art (and give it away for free).

Cold leads are good, warm leads are better. That's where art comes into play. I'm using the word art here over "content" because art is something that's pretty, adds value to someone's life and is unconditional. Content isn't. Honey Copy has seventy 2,000+ word articles on its blog and countless newsletters to its name. They're pretty, they're valuable and they're unconditional... you can read all of them for free for the rest of your life without ever buying a single thing from me.

Brands should invest in creating damn good art and they should sprinkle it everywhere. If they do this and they do this well, something magical will happen... folks will be impressed. In fact, they will be so impressed that they will ask those brands to make art for them specifically (and pay them).

Shut the fuck up.

The other day, I jumped on a call with someone who was trying to sell me something and he talked 90% of the time. I couldn't get a word in. By the end of the call he didn't know what I wanted, he didn't know anything about me, he didn't know my goals, he didn't know why I was interested in using his software. Because of this, I decided not to spend $15,000 with him.

When you get on a call with a prospective client, ask good questions and shut the fuck up. The prospect, many times, will sell himself.

While this can be directly attributed to sales, it shouldn’t be forgotten when writing copy, either. An extraordinarily easy way to write more effective copy is to say what you need to say and then shut the fuck up. In other words, say more with less.

Show them the dog can hunt.

If you’re an expert in something, show us. You simply saying you’re something doesn’t mean you are that something. Being in business for twenty, thirty and forty years tells the customer nothing about your expertise. To sell the customer you must show them what you can do. In other words, show prospective customers the dog can hunt. Prospects want to invest their money in a good hunting dog that can do more than just bark. You've got to show them that you've hunted successfully in the past and that they can be confident you will hunt successfully for them in the future, too.

Whether you’re a brand or a freelancer, put together a portfolio or a body of work –– a living breathing library of how you’re changing the world (or, at the very least, the little bit of world around you).

Do cool shit, quarterly.

Some of the most successful brands I know do cool shit, just for the fun of it. Cards Against Humanity, a card game for horrible people, once bought out their Chinese production plant for an entire week to give its workers a week-long vacation. MailChimp, the best damn email software on the planet, once made and sold thousands of knitted monkey hats for cats. If you are a brand wanting to stand out, I would practice the DCSQ Law of cool brands –– do cool shit, quarterly. Once a quarter, four times a year, your marketing team should collaborate on launching cool, strange, wildly captivating projects.

Create the best damn newsletter for [fill in the blank].

I am extremely bullish on email newsletters. While there are a lot of them out there, most of them are done very poorly and this gives brands looking to put forth a little effort some serious opportunity.

Honey Copy’s marketing newsletter, Sticky Notes, is a great example of this. I write it, design it and send it and I’d put it up against some of the best marketing newsletters floating around the web today –– even the one’s large advertising agencies are putting out (I know because large advertising agency executives read my newsletter). This goes to show you don’t need an entire team to run a successful newsletter, you just need to show up each week with something interesting to say. I’ve written extensively on how to start and build an email newsletter here and here.

Write kick-ass headlines.

Most headlines read like instruction manuals or superhero comic strips. They’re either terribly boring or fake and car-salesy like a bunch of exclamation marks having an orgy.

You must give your readers a reason to open up your emails, click on your articles, download your ebook, listen to your podcast episode, etc… and this always begins with crafting a kick-ass headline.

I take a ton of time and consideration when writing my headlines and the results show, here are the open rates by headline for my marketing newsletter I mentioned earlier…

  • And so it begins… 55.8%
  • Hide yo kids… 44.3%
  • You might be giving your customers too many choices… 37.9%
  • Too long; didn’t read… 45.4%
  • Don’t let this be the one that got away… 39.8%
  • I’m no Hemingway… 45.5%
  • Please stop talking about yourself… 48%
  • Persuasive writing techniques that work like witchcraft… 62.3%
  • How to build a spaceship… 48.4%
  • What Vonnegut, Woolf and Steinbeck can teach us about marketing… 47.8%
  • Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself… 49.4%
  • Pulp Fiction, a hillbilly lawyer and marketing rules to live by… 45.3%
  • Look who is laughing now… 50.8%
  • I sold my soul ghostwriting… 44.7%
  • How to make money while you sleep… 45.2%
  • Write drunk, edit sober… 41.9%
  • This isn’t a tickle competition… 44.6%
  • How I earned $8k from my first product launch… 40.8%
  • How to build an email list from scratch… 43.4%
  • I’m pretty much f*cked… 47%
  • Famous authors who were total badasses… 38.1%

Long story longer (hat tip to Christopher Lochhead), take pride in the headlines your brand is creating.

Say “no” more often than you say “yes”.

Selling isn’t just about you selling the prospect. It’s also about the prospect selling you. Early on in my copywriting and marketing career, I’d say yes to everyone.

Now, I’m much more selective, realizing quality is far more important than quantity. I’m not interested in working with penny-pinching high-maintenance unappreciative brands. I want to work with brands who have big budgets, who are easy to work with and who understand and value the power of pretty words.

Whether brands are working directly with other brands or selling directly to customers they need to be focusing less on the quantity of sales and more on the quality –– are they selling to the right people?

Leo Burnett, one of the greatest advertising minds of all time once said… I have learned that you can’t have good advertising without a good client.

For brands to be great, they must have great customers. Not to mention, there is a lot of money to be made in having great customers…

Brands get rich from repeat business. 

It’s damn hard persuading new customers to try your product. And, oftentimes, wildly expensive. However, it’s much easier (and far cheaper) to get someone who has bought once to buy again. Brands should focus a large chunk of their time and energy keeping current customers happy and coming back.

Don't be afraid to say now isn't the right time.

If you’ve ever nursed a broken heart, you know sometimes it’s the right person at the wrong time… the same can be said with prospective customers. I will never sell something to a brand that doesn’t need my services, who would be putting themselves in a bad position financially if they used my services or who aren’t totally confident in using my services.

That's a good way to end up in hell. When I'm on a call with a prospect that I know could use my services (but isn't totally confident just yet or would be stretching their budget), I tell them something along the lines of...

"Micky, I'm digging your company, I love what you're doing, we don't have to work together today. You can call me in 6-months, a year, I'm still going to want to work with you. So, why don't we hold off for now?"

Most of the time, we find ourselves crossing paths in the future. Prospective customers can smell sales breath. Be easy. be cool. Be understanding. Have their best interest in mind.

And, don’t forget to collect their email.

Double down on your winners.

If you look at the sales your products and services are generating, you will find that 20% of them are generating 80% of your revenue. These 20% are your winners. You should double down on these winners. This is called Pareto’s Law and it is nature’s way of telling us what the market wants. If your brand is selling 10 products or services, I would almost guarantee that 3 of them account for 90%+ of your sales… cut the other 7 and market your winners like crazy.

Don’t be everything.

You’re not Amazon.

There is a reason we perceive a buffet as being cheap in comparison to a steakhouse. While a steakhouse has a focus (steak) that it has mastered, a buffet might sell hundreds of items.

You’re not an idiot. I’m not an idiot. Our customers aren’t idiots. We know that it is impossible for the buffet to make the best Tiramisu, the best lobster alfredo and the best steak dinner for $10.99.

Your brand should seek to be a steakhouse rather than a buffet. It should seek to achieve mastery over variety.

Don’t play the discount game.

If there is one universal truth in business, it’s that there is always someone that can create and sell something cheaper than you. Because of this, being the cheapest is a race to the bottom. Instead, figure out how you and your brand can pack more value into your products and services and charge more money. While competitors will always be able to charge less, few will be able to do what you do better than you. Which, brings me to my next point…

Become what makes you different and market it.

Christopher Lochhead is a friend, client and mentor of mine. He is a retired 3x Silicon Valley publicly-traded company CMO and he essentially invented a concept known as category design –– the discipline of creating and monetizing new categories and products. Instead of competing to be the best in a specific category, create your own category where there is no competition.

Uber created its own category. Airbnb created its own category. While it’s disgusting, the folks who first started making cricket protein bars created their own category –– in 2016 they raised $4 million from investors. If you’re a brand looking to create a new product or service, don’t look to do something that has already been done before… look to do something totally different.

Stand for something.  

Brands today are scared to be polarizing. They’re scared to stand for something. Not to get political, but Cards Against Humanity once raised money to buy real estate where Trump was building his wall. While this surely pissed a lot of people off, it garnered them publicity and it made the customers that already loved them love them even more.

Your marketing should stand for something. It should be polarizing. It should act as a filter to drive your brand closer to your “great customers”.

Sticky Notes, is slowly becoming one of the most popular marketing newsletters on the web. However, every time I send out one of my newsletters, I lose between 20-50 subscribers.

I don’t just measure my success in the subscribers I gain, but the subscribers I lose, too.  

Don’t have too many chefs in the kitchen. 

Your brand’s voice should sound human. One thing I run into often with clients is having too many chefs in the kitchen. I will write an email. The marketing director will give his two cents. Then, the designer will give her two cents. Then, the CEO will give his two cents. And, by the time it has made its rounds, it reads like ambiguous bullshit. When you’re writing emails, landing pages, articles or what have you for your brand… you should have one writer and one editor and sounding board other than the writer. That’s it. 

Someone once said a great way to kill a great idea is to put it in front of a board… the same can be said for great copy.

Service businesses should become hybrid businesses. 

If you’re a business selling services, package those services and sell a product, too. Selling services is great. But, they can be hard to scale. Trust me, I run a service business. Give you and your business some breathing room by becoming a hybrid. Today, I’m pleased to announce that Honey Copy is a 75% service and 25% product business. 

Not to mention, by selling a product in addition to your services, you can offer a tiered pricing model. If a customer wants your hands on something, you can charge $10,000. If they don’t have the budget, but still want to work with you, you can sell them a product that still gives them the results they’re wanting (like a video course of sorts) for $1,000.

Give the customer more than they pay for.

I have a pricing philosophy at Honey Copymy clients will pay a lot to work with me, but they will get more than they pay for.

It’s inspired by Seth Godin and my father, a real-estate tycoon in Southern Indiana.

Growing up, I watched how my father would bend over backward for his home buyers and sellers, going above and beyond what was required to not just close the deal but ensure his clients were ecstatic about closing the deal. Every single client that bought or sold a house with my father wouldn’t just say it was “worth it”, they would say they got more than they paid for.

I’m a romantic, but I think brands can get rich while giving their clients a damn good deal.

Is this all I know?

Of course not.

There’s a lot more where this came from… here.

That, or you can inquire about working with me, here.

By Cole Schafer.