Why Sidebars Are Crucial

There are pretty much only two kinds of prospects in a marketer’s universe: (1) casual copy scanners, and (2) inveterate readers.

Hand a sales letter to a dozen people, and you’ll see what I mean. Some of them — the inveterate readers — will read the headline and every page of the copy.

The rest — the scanners — will quickly flip through, reading only the heads and subheads.

Before the invention of sidebars, we rarely gave scanners much that would draw their eyes into our sales letters. But sidebars turned scanners into readers. And because only readers respond to an offer, they dramatically increased our chances of making the sale.

My point — and I do have one — is…

Great sidebars turn scanners into readers — AND responders.

Notice I said “great sidebars.” Unfortunately, a lot of the sidebars I see are not great. They look like what they are: afterthoughts. Or, worse, “leftovers” from an earlier draft.

Instead of sleepwalking through your sidebars, try writing your running copy first. Then read each paragraph, thinking, “What kind of sidebar could I use to drive this point home in the most powerful manner possible?”

Do that and, suddenly, every sidebar becomes more focused. So does your entire sales message.

Then, after you’ve written a sidebar, ask yourself, “How can I make sure this is not a dead end? What can I do to help this sidebar drive the reader back into the copy? Or, better yet, to my order device?”

Most of the promotions I see would probably pull 10 percent to 30 percent better if the writer had followed this advice.

20 Kinds of Sidebars and How to Use Them

That said, let’s take a look at the kinds of sidebars that give you the best chances of turning scanners into readers…

Readership Sidebars are designed to sell the prospect on reading your text. They generally fall into one of three categories…

  • Tables of contents: A listing of the valuable information revealed inside the promotion enlists the prospect’s self-interest.
  • Pull-quotes: These boxes put an intriguing proposition… or a compelling benefit… up in lights. I often include a photo of the ersatz author of the piece for added attention-getting power.
  • Teasers and page-turners: Inserted at the bottom of a right-hand page, these little gems “sell” the reader on turning the page by hinting at the valuable information on the next spread.

Biography Sidebars are really a kind of a “credibility device.” They’re used to eliminate any doubt that the titular author of the piece knows what he’s talking about. They attempt to lift your expert — and, therefore, your sales message — head and shoulders above the competition. They often take the form of a…

  • Curriculum vitae: A true biography of the expert — his education, accomplishments, awards, books, and so on.
  • Case history: A narrative of an experience the expert has had that demonstrates his wisdom, experience, and/or prestige in his industry.

Proof Element Sidebars are used to present facts, figures, and other evidence that prove the truth of statements made in your text. I use them in three ways…

  • To document the enormity of the problem or opportunity: When I’m trying to evoke concern over heart disease, for example, I might include a chart showing how many Americans will suffer a heart attack this year.

In a financial package, I might use this kind of sidebar to document a claim that 80 percent of all mutual funds don’t keep up with the S&P 500. Or I might use a table listing the advisor’s most profitable trades. Or maybe a line chart showing soaring global demand for oil and plummeting supplies.

  • To demonstrate the wisdom of the expert’s approach: This kind of sidebar might be a chart or graph comparing the profits the expert has earned to another indicator — the S&P 500, for example. Or, it might compare the blood pressure of people who take a particular supplement with those who don’t.

Benefit Sidebars are really just like ads within your ad. Each one draws out one of the compelling benefits the product offers. More important, each one is presented in a way that connects with the prospect’s feelings about:

  • Avoiding or resolving a problem: With this approach, I typically put my prospect’s negative feelings about the subject at hand into words… validate how he feels… and empathize with him. Then I show him how my product will resolve those feelings.
  • Easing a fear: “Fear relief” sidebars appear around the middle of my sales message — after I’ve done everything I can to bring every concern or frustration my prospect has about the subject at hand bubbling to the surface. Once I’ve done that, I use these sidebars to show him how my product will free him from those negative emotions.
  • Fulfilling a strong, long-held personal desire: If my main theme is a positive one — focused on one or more benefits that will bring tremendous value to my prospect’s life — I use these “fulfillment” sidebars to prove that my product will, indeed, deliver.

Credibility Sidebars are invaluable tools for convincing your prospect that your expert’s view (no matter how radical) is valued by other experts, and that your product will produce the promised benefit.

  • Customer testimonials: These can take the form of straight testimonials or narrative testimonials. They can appear singly to add impact to a spread or be clumped together. I like to do both.
  • Expert testimonials: Praise from peers and other experts whose names are known — or whose titles are impressive and/or connect them with respected institutions — establish the authority and credibility of your expert.
  • Media mentions and appearances: These demonstrate that your expert is important enough to have been noticed, quoted, or invited to appear on major media outlets. At best, they’ll say something about him that reads like an endorsement. But the simple fact that he regularly appears on CNBC or “Nightline” or is quoted in The Wall Street Journal makes him worth listening to.

Sales-Closing Sidebars generally appear in the final third of the sales message. They are designed to remove the final roadblocks between the prospect and your response device. I use seven of these kinds of sidebars in just about every promotion I write…

  • Pull-quotes: To allow the author to look the prospect in the eye and deliver a compelling benefit or horrifying alternative and ask for the sale.
  • Premium ads: To ramp up the perceived value of the free gifts the prospect will receive. Usually, these ads are a series of bullets on the most valuable information in each premium.
  • Product ads: To fully lay out the value the product will bring to the prospect’s life. These are typically written in much the same way as a premium ad.
  • Value sidebars: To demonstrate how mind-blowingly cheap the product is relative to other things the prospect buys. These sidebars are designed to make not ordering feel like the dumbest thing he could possibly do.
  • Risk relief sidebars: “Risk relief” is just a fancy-schmancy way of saying “guarantee.” But I make my guarantees go beyond simply saying, “If you hate it, I’ll refund your money.” I use my guarantees to reiterate the benefits I’m promising… to have my expert sign a contract with the prospect, promising that he’ll deliver… and to demonstrate his “money-where-his-mouth-is” confidence that the product will perform as advertised.
  • Contact devices: Actually, these should appear on every spread and contain a toll-free number the prospect can call to order. I also like to break them out in sidebars to drive my prospect to my response device or to his telephone.
  • Action devices: Often imbedded in other sidebars, they urge the prospect to order now — either by calling a toll-free number or turning to the order form.

Lots to think about!

Now, here’s your assignment: Grab a pile of promotions and plop down on the sofa. Look at each sidebar and ask yourself, “Why did the writer include this? What kind of sidebar is it? What does it accomplish? Does it focus his main theme or serve to diffuse it?”

More important, read the running copy and ask yourself, “What other kinds of proof element, credibility, and other sidebars could have done a better job of making the sale?”

By the time you’re done, you’ll be twice the copywriter or marketer you are now.