A Checklist for Breakthrough Sales Copy

I have always seen myself as a kindly, helpful soul — but clearly my memory fails me.

Back in my Ogilvy & Mather Direct days, people quickly turned their computer screens blank whenever I materialized in the creative department. Seems I had the nasty habit of reading the sales copy they were writing out loud and making derisive comments.

I only recently found this out from Steve Harrison, who worked with me at Ogilvy & Mather (and ended up running his own agency, then selling it for a goodly sum).

Did I terrify people into producing great sales copy? I prefer to think the 30-point checklist I’m going to share with you today did the trick.

Here it is…

How to Evaluate Creative

The Big Four

1. Review against the objective.

What are you trying to achieve with the copy? Strong inquiry or weak? Firm sale or sale on approval? Big commitment or small? Copywriters often do either too little or too much to meet the objective.

2. Zero in on the big things — not the trivia.

Never mind quibbles about grammar, punctuation, and illustrations. Decide whether your idea is right — then turn to the execution. Big ideas are relevant but surprising — and tend to make you a little nervous.

3. Is it right for the product and positioning?

Reject jokes about serious subjects, cheap treatments for expensive products — and vice versa. Clever openings must be relevant or they will confuse, distract, or overpower your message.

4. Remember, you are not the prospect.

You are unlikely to be typical. Picture someone who is. Imagine their attitudes, interests, hopes, fears, prejudices. Constantly ask: Would this kind of person relate to what we are saying?

What’s Your First Impression of the Copy?

5. Don’t give it much thought — your prospect won’t.

Review the copy quickly, carelessly. Would something about it instantly catch your interest if you were the prospect?

6. Does a clear competitive advantage emerge?

Your benefit or combination of benefits must be better than alternatives — not necessarily to all, but to a significant proportion of your prospects.

7. Do the incentive and benefit come through quickly and clearly?

If they don’t, you are taking a big risk.

8. Is the main offer or incentive the best you can make?

It has to be strong enough to overcome disinterest and the fear of commitment. Would it motivate you (a) to read the entire promotion (b) to act?

9. Scrutinize each of the main elements of the promotion carefully.

Opening of sales letter or ad, envelope, headline/illustration combination, means of reply, testimonials, captions, P.S. — are they all working hard?

10. Will each element communicate quickly, easily — or will it obscure or confuse?

Check for good verbal and visual communication. Assuming there’s a good idea and proposition in the first place, getting these details right makes an enormous difference.

11. Does the copy contain all the essential elements of persuasion?

AIDCA — Gaining Attention, Getting Interest, Creating Desire, Instilling Conviction, and Going All Out for Action should all be there, preferably in that rough order. 

Gaining and Keeping Attention

12. Does the opening tell people “There’s more to come”?

Don’t give away the whole proposition. Beware of claims and boasts. They rarely make people want to know more.

13. Is the copy precise — or vague?

Is the promise or claim quantified? Exactly how much does the prospect get or save, and how quickly? In numbers and cash — preferably not in percentages.

14. Does it say why you’re talking to them?

What’s in it for them? Something new or better? Why should they be interested?

15. Is the relationship, if any, acknowledged?

If they’ve bought from you, or you’ve written to them, or it’s been a year since their first purchase, or they’re an important customer, say so. This establishes common ground.

16. Is possible news value exploited?

After benefit/offer, news has the most potent appeal. If it’s new, or new to them, or even new from you, don’t throw that away.

17. Is the visual element of the promotion working properly?

Does it demonstrate the benefit? Does it clarify what is being offered? Too much stuff conflicts, misleads, or is just unnecessary.

18. Does it follow on logically — or stray?

Copy openings must deliver the promise implicit in the heading, subject line, or on the envelope. Is one strong idea carried through? Extraneous thoughts — even good ones — will confuse. 

Building a Persuasive Argument

19. Is it one person talking to another? Or a public address?

The best copy is me talking to you — in direct mail, e-mails, and often in other media. Using “we” instead of “I” is often a warning sign of corporate drivel to come.

20. Does it take the reader’s point of view — or yours?

They don’t care how wonderful you think you are. They want to know what you have for them.

21. Is it trying to satisfy everybody?

Don’t waste money and persuasion on those unlikely to respond. Go hell for leather for the best prospects. You can’t be all things to all men.

22. Is it believable?

Watch out for over-claim. (Is your product really that good?) And beware vague superlatives — adjectives like “exciting,” for example. The copy should start and follow up with an uninterrupted series of statements the reader can easily agree with. If you do make a very strong claim, explain why it’s true.

23. Beware jargon and showy or pompous language.

Jargon works only with special groups that appreciate it. Anything written to please the writer is unlikely to please the reader. Good copy is usually conversational, written the way you would explain something to a friend.

24. Is the promotion convincing?

Does it include proof? Testimonials? Media comment? Technical data (if you are selling that kind of product)? A sample, if appropriate?

25. Is it complete?

Is every sensible reason for responding given — and every reason for not doing so demolished?

26. Does it conjure up a vision?

The best messages make you feel almost as if you’re experiencing what is being offered. They convey an emotional conviction that is usually far more persuasive than logic.  

Going for Action

27. Have the benefit and offer been restated?

Before you ask for action, remind people what they get and how little is being asked. In direct mail, it usually pays to restate the offer in the P.S. In any medium, repeat the benefits before you ask for the response.

28. Have you made it easy for them to reply?

Stickers, check marks, YES/NO options are okay. Emphasize easy payment, free telephone ordering, etc. A spacious, easy-to-fill-in response device must restate the deal.

29. Does the offer breathe urgency?

Does it really go for action? Or is it a perfunctory request? Do they lose something if they don’t reply quickly? Do they get something if they do? Tell them.

30. The big question.

Put yourself in the shoes of your prospect. Set aside your prejudices. Would you reply to your promotion? Show it to somebody who isn’t connected with the job — preferably a likely prospect. Do they understand everything clearly? Do they think it’s worth it?

That’s it — the 30-point checklist I wrote as a guide for my colleagues at Ogilvy & Mather. I made everyone stick it up next to their desks, so they could refer to it. Eventually, I sent it to all our offices — and someone in India recently sent me a copy. I was surprised to see how relevant it still is, 20 odd years later.

[Ed. Note: Veteran copywriter and direct-marketing strategist Drayton Bird has worked with American Express, Ford, Microsoft, Visa, Procter & Gamble, and scores of other clients during his five-decade career, which included a stint as international vice-chairman and creative director with Ogilvy & Mather. In 2003, he was named by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.]