MESH Interactive Agency Blog

52 Things I Discovered Reading the Best Copywriting Books

In the words of iconic 80s band, Hall and Oates, if “You’re out of touch, I’m out of time.”

In the same way, if you don’t know anything about your audience, they don’t have time for you.

This is why knowing your audience before you write is so crucial to your work as a copywriter. From drafting outlines for new content and banging out thousands of words, to who-knows-how-many rounds of revisions—your work is never done.

Yet copywriters aren’t the only ones writing for marketing. The whole practice of marketing, in general, is one that—historically, leans pretty heavily on being able to write well.

Given this, when it comes to writing—and writing well—there’s always more to learn, and so much more that needs to be written.

Coming from a background of creative writing, copywriting—and writing for a business in general—was an alien task to me.

Lucky for me, last December, our leader here at MESH, Bill Schick, was ready to help me with my inexperience. It started when he handed me six of the best copywriting books out there.

When I finished those, he gave me six more. It became a process repeated itself many times until…

20+ books, 120 Old Fashioned cocktails (or whatever) and four crazy months later, I’ve soaked in so much from the masters of copywriting.

via GIPHY

Whether it’s how to write to be read, how to teach and simplify complex concepts, or deep and dark copywriting secrets only whispered in smoky shadows of dingy bars, my thirst for learning has been unquenchable.

As I worked through the material, I realized that everything you need to know about copywriting fell nicely into three distinct groups.

Those groups deal with secrets in the copywriting industry, teaching and storytelling, and writing to be read.

So sit back and strap in while I share some of the most amazing things I discovered when I dusted off the very best copywriting books.

Copywriting Industry Secrets

These books teach you the industry secrets of copywriting as if you were side-by-side on-the-job working and collaborating with the authors.

That said, hands-on learning is valuable because you are not only learning by doing, but you’re also learning secrets from masters in the craft.

Of course, when it comes to writing, everybody has an opinion of how it should be done. In reality, it’s all about finding what works for you.

The skilled copywriters in this section have built legacies based on practices that worked for them.

The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook, by Joseph Sugarman

Copywriting isn’t easy. That’s why Sugarman defines copywriting as:

Copywriting is a mental process the successful execution of which reflects the sum total of all of your experiences, your specific knowledge and your ability to mentally process that information and transfer it onto a sheet of paper for the purpose of selling a product or service.

Even the definition suggests copywriting isn’t easy.

And in copywriting, the goal is to get you to read content so compelling, it’s almost as if you’re guided to take a specific action.

Sugarman uses the metaphor of a “slippery slide” to describe this.

“Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slide.”

He shares practical techniques to help prospects and customers down that slippery slide such as using 1-2 word sentences—what he calls, “seeds of curiosity.”

It’s all about controlling your reader’s eyes.

Short and punchy paragraphs, bullet points, lists—all of it keeps your eyes moving.

To get them curious.

To get them down that slippery slide.

That slippery slide is made up of content customers care about—of content that answers a fundamental question: “What’s in it for me?” That question is the topic of the next book: Inside Story on B2B Copywriting, by Tom McCauley.

Inside Story on B2B Copywriting, by Tom McCauley

What I took away from Inside Story was the WIIFM element. WIIFM means “What’s In It For Me.” What matters is that you help clients with their problems. That’s all they care about.

According to McCauley, “You can’t just be… a vendor and hope to thrive. Also keep in mind that promises of high-quality, good service, fair prices, and professional workmanship do not impress… Those things are a given as far as they are concerned.”

This is particularly important for marketers to know. If you can’t help a client, that’s not their problem. They’ll just find someone who can. To that point, McCauley says:

The lesson in all of this – solve your customer’s problems if you want to keep them or get new customers.

Don’t bore them with your company’s history. They really don’t care.

Marketers should always ask themselves about the WIIFM element when creating content. In practice. the WIIFM element would look like a promise you would make with the reader. Consider the headline, “Give me two weeks, and I’ll show you how to lose 10 pounds.”

This headline works because it:

    1. Gives a time frame
    2. Promises results

It shows readers what’s in it for them if they continue reading right at the outset.

It’s worthwhile for marketers to know what promises can do for their content.

But just as you can’t force B2B organizations to care about your content, you also can’t force individual people to care enough to help with User-Generated Content (UGC) efforts.

This is where The Content Code comes out in full force.

The Content Code: Six Essential Strategies for Igniting Your Content, Your Marketing, and Your Business, by Mark Shaefer

Shaefer speaks to the importance of an “Alpha Audience”—those people who will share your content no matter what.

One of the ways to get this die-hard brand loyalty is to find people who’ve been exposed to your content at least once. After you find them, send a whole bunch of ads their way.

But at the same time, give them something to hope for—to aspire to. That’s the last ingredient to make an Alpha Audience.

Since Alphas are “more than 250% more likely to transmit your content,” according to Shaefer. It would be smart then to leverage that and involve them in your content-generation initiatives.

With the increasing popularity of user-generated content right now, devices and platforms that are able to capture and instantly share photos and videos are a must.

Smartphones, tablets, PCs usually all have the capacity to create UGC. And mobile users are taking advantage of that fact. Nearly 40% of mobile users upload content, according to Statista.

Loyal customers participate in UGC. Knowing just how to drive that loyalty can increase your revenue numbers by helping you retain your customer base.

You can measure loyalty by interviewing current customers. Speaking of interviews, that’s what author Denis Higgins chronicled in The Art of Writing Advertising—he interviewed copywriters.

The Art of Writing Advertising, by Denis Higgins

Specifically, Higgins documents a series of interviews with advertising legends. The copywriters fielded questions about how they got started, what their creative process was and considered whether certain talents lent themselves to becoming a copywriter, or just writing copy in general.

Ironically, David Ogilvy said the act of copywriting never came easy to him:

I don’t think I’m a good writer, incidentally, but I do think I’m the best damned editor in the world. I can edit anybody well, including myself. So what I do is write my stuff and edit and edit and edit until it’s reasonably passable. At least, it sometimes is. It’s a painful business for me… I am awfully slow. I’ve done as many as 19 drafts on a single piece of copy before I’ve presented it to anybody to edit.

This interview tells you that you don’t necessarily have to be a great writer to be good at writing copy, but you do need to have sharp attention to detail and persistence to carry you through.

Attention to detail and persistence are applicable in any craft, but is especially critical in marketing when hiring talent.

When hiring talent for any organization, say, an agency, the right people can make or break it. Ogilvy On Advertising has something to say about getting the right people.

Ogilvy On Advertising, by David Ogilvy

This book belongs here because Ogilvy provides advice about how to run an ad agency. Knowing what it takes to run an agency may give new marketers a greater appreciation for those that do. After all, agency heads don’t traditionally write as much as manage:

I asked an indifferent copywriter what books he had read about advertising. He told me he had not read any; he preferred to rely on his intuition. ‘Suppose,’ I asked, “your gallbladder has to be removed this evening. Will you choose a surgeon who has read some books on anatomy and knows where to find your gallbladder, or a surgeon who relies on his intuition? Why should our clients be expected to bet millions of dollars on your intuition?

Ogilvy here makes the point that agencies get hired for a reason: to solve a client’s problems. As such, marketers should take care when spending the client’s money. It’s important for marketers to spend on practical tools and not the latest trending tech.

But tech can provide marketers with special insights that allow them to write creative ads.

Ogilvy would have pushed back against creative ads, saying, “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me you find it ‘creative,’ I want you to tell me that you find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

This is somewhat purist, but marketers should know that while creative ads may not sell as well, they are recalled easier. This means there’s a time and a place for creative ads.

Ogilvy expresses a similar sentiment when it comes to winning awards for ads. Inexperienced marketers feel their ads must be creative and original. Nothing could be farther from the truth–ads have to present valuable content that prospects and customers find useful.

Ogilvy, though, was not just about writing ads. He also advice gave about managing an ad agency in Confessions of an Advertising Man.

Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy

More specifically, Ogilvy reveals details about job security in running an ad agency in this book. Since marketers play in the same sandbox as copywriters when it comes to agency work, knowing what it takes to run one may be valuable for marketers.

As marketers progress in their career path, the work will increasingly lead to managerial tasks and responsibilities. But as marketers scale up in responsibilities, the risk also increases:

I envy my friends who are doctors. They have so many patients that the defection of one cannot ruin them. Nor is the defection reported in the newspapers for all of their other patients to read. I also envy lawyers. They can go on their vacations, safe in the knowledge that other lawyers are not making love to their other clients.

This means the utmost care must be taken when writing your copy because if it isn’t, you could lose your job. It’s important because even if marketing isn’t always client-facing, it is still a customer service issue.

And copywriting is all about the customer.

On that, Ogilvy speaks further, “I never tell one client that I cannot attend his sales convention because I have a previous engagement with another client; successful polygamy depends upon pretending to each spouse that she is the only pebble on your beach.”

Granted, if you’re not juggling clients, marketers still need to be able to multitask to succeed.

Success, though, is rarely defined by the age of the tactics used, as illustrated by Scientific Advertising.

Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins

Hopkins cautions marketers against a gimmicky appeal, like humor, or wit. He said that marketers should measure the success of ads as a salesperson would.

“Measure them by salesman’s standards, not by amusement standards. Ads are not written to entertain. When they do, those entertainment seekers are little likely to be the people whom you want.”

It’s important for marketers to know this because you have a tendency to write about what you know. But not everyone may know what you know. So when you measure an ad’s effectiveness, measure it by sales, not fans.

And speaking of fans, Hopkins wrote, “If you write to entertain and not sell, the prospect looking for a cure will brush away your advertising.”

The above quote speaks to a misgiving when writing copy for any client. When you write because you want your ads to be creative, you’re losing sight of your objective.

“This is one of the greatest advertising faults. Ad writers abandon their parts. They forget that they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause.”

It’s important for marketers to understand they’re trying to sell, not to put on a show for the client. But how your advertising comes across is another matter, and one which Robert Bly discusses in The Copywriter’s Handbook.

The Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Copy That Sells, by Robert W. Bly

Some people luck into their jobs, while others know just where to look—how and where to advertise themselves the best. Bly provides value by pointing out a few of the good places to begin a copywriting job search.

“Two excellent sources for job hunters are the help-wanted classifieds in AdWeek and Advertising Age.” Bly says, and he goes on to comment that:

Job seekers… spend a great deal of time agonizing over whether they’re qualified for the position being offered. They wonder, ‘Is the agency rigid about the job’s qualifications? Or will they take a look at me even if I don’t have the experience and background they ask for in the ad?”

The answer lies somewhere between those two extremes. The agency realizes that the “ideal” candidate is a rare breed and will interview people even if they lack some of the qualifications. On the other hand, an agency advertising for a top-level creative director is not going to hire a college graduate fresh out of Advertising 101.

It’s important to arm marketers with this information. True, it’s about how to find a copywriting job, but there are principles that are universal to hiring. For example, yes, an agency may say they want a marketer with 5 years of experience, but will settle for 3-4 years for the right candidate.

Why?

They compromise not because of desperation, but because a candidate may just bring the right ideas to an organization. Speaking of ideas, that’s where our next book—The Idea Writers—comes into play.

The Idea Writers: Copywriting In A New Media and Marketing Era, by Teressa Iezzi

A book about how to develop compelling content that sells, and the role copywriting plays in that, The Idea Writers gave me a peek into what a copywriter’s day is like.

I should say that I do not usually work in the office. I telecommute out of necessity.

While this allows me to get some extra sleep, I have always been curious as to what an in-office copywriter’s day might look like.

And as it would happen, the book includes the day of a junior copywriter, like myself:

“24 HOURS WITH JORDAN CHOUTEAU, JUNIOR COPYWRITER,
MOTHER NEW YORK…

10:00 A.M. Time to start the day. And at Mother there is no such thing as a typical day. But there is such a thing as a typical process. It starts when we are handed a brief. Our days are then spent “concepting,” a term creatives use for brainstorming. These are the days my partner, April Mathis (who is awesome, FYI) and I lay claim to the very few popular couches around Mother or head out to find a quiet café or dark hotel lobby…

There we think, talk, stare at one another, complain about the brief, break to gossip about a dude, order a coffee, complain about the brief, stumble upon an idea, build on that idea, decide we hate that idea, kill that idea, come up with another idea, then another idea, decide we have two good ideas, then decide we deserve a break.”

Chouteau’s daily grind may not seem important to you, but look again.

Notice the timestamp: 10:00. That’s when he started his day. He may have arrived at work a little earlier, but he started at 10.

He could spend that little bit of extra time sandwiched between 7 and 10 sleeping. Being able to sleep well boosts productivity.

Because your mentality is directly affected by how much sleep you get. It’s important for marketers to realize that self-care supports stronger performance.

And as a well-rested person is better than a tired one when it comes to conversations, it’s time for Conversational Marketing to take center stage.

Conversational Marketing: How the World’s Fastest Growing Companies Use Chatbots to Generate Leads 24/7/365. (And You Can Too), by David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt

Marketers write the landing page text on forms to get prospects and customers to take a specific action—that’s the very definition of copywriting.

Conversational Marketing aims to change that by explaining how you can easily employ chatbots to act as the face of your business even in your off-hours—24/7/365. Doing this frees you from having to create the text on landing pages.

According to Gerhardt and Cancel, chatbots help out marketing by qualifying leads:

Instead of powering marketing and sales with lead forms and follow ups, thanks to the rise of messaging you can now power marketing and sales with real-time conversations. And based on a 2017 study of thousands of B2B websites, conducted by Drift in partnership with Clearbit, we found that people from all over the world are flocking to websites and seeking out a real-time buying experience.

Chatbots also make sales easier by scaling the sales funnel (pathway).

This has traditionally been a problem for marketing and sales professionals alike since the beginning. Luckily, chatbots can help here, too, particularly with Account-Based Marketing (ABM).

ABM is a focused approach that encourages marketing and sales to get along to target best-fit accounts to convert them from prospects to customers. The challenge with ABM, though, is how do you provide a 1:1 experience at scale?

Conversational Marketing has the answer:

“There’s a natural tension between ABM and scale. After all, ABM is intended to achieve a ‘persona of one,’ that is, every interaction should be—or at least convincingly resemble—a one-to-one exchange.”

Chatbots can provide that amount of personalization by remembering each prospect’s preferences.

Taken together, the purpose of chatbots is not to automate tasks that are normally within the scope of copywriting, marketing, or sales. It’s to make your job easier, not to render it useless.

All of this is important for marketers to know so you can concentrate on the eyes-on-the-prize type of stuff and make your job simpler.

When it comes to making things simple, this next group of books can teach you that and then some.

Teaching and Storytelling

In today’s marketing environment, your customer is more empowered than ever—so many marketing strategies rely on teaching and educating buyers along their journeys.

As a form of teaching, storytelling has been around since the dawn of time. Prehistoric humans would sit around a fire and share origin stories and cautionary tales with each other.

Since the most relatable form of teaching is a story, it’s critical as a marketer to be able to tell your brand’s story to your prospects and customers.

What’s important here—and what makes a story easier to digest—is that the language you use in those stories must be simple. Marketing buzzwords and jargon impress nobody—and in fact, make your story harder to understand.

Like the stories of our ancestors before us, the modernized versions of those we tell today must contain nuggets of wisdom to help people along their journeys.

While our lives may not depend on how well we tell, understand, and retain the lessons we’re teaching, the success of our marketing most certainly does, and that’s where Made to Stick comes in.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Become Unstuck, by Chip and Dan Heath

The easier your writing is for your reader to process, the better shot you have at them retaining what you’ve taught them. Made to Stick is a great example of this.

Made to Stick focuses on a six-part formula for getting your idea into your prospects’ minds and ensuring they remember it.

Collectively, those six parts of the formula form ‘SUCCES’:

S—Simplicity
U—Unexpected
C—Concreteness
C—Credibility
E—Emotions
S—Stories
(S)—Not actually part of the formula, but often added for the sake of making the acronym easier to remember

The part of the formula about concreteness stuck with me specifically. If something’s concrete, it’s easier to remember.

According to the Heath brothers:

Concrete ideas are easier to remember. Take individual words, for instance. Experiments in human memory have shown that people are better at remembering concrete, easily visualized nouns (“bicycle” or “avocado”) than abstract ones (“justice” or “personality.”)

Naturally sticky words are stuffed full of concrete words and images…

For instance, there’s a reason why marketing funnels are called “funnels.” A funnel is a concrete image. People know and have an understanding of what a funnel is so they don’t have to think as hard.

It’s important to know how to explain simply—in concrete words— because marketing tends to be littered with words nobody gets. When you layer onto this onto a lack of context, your reader will really struggle to understand what you’re talking about, and why it’s important.

Made to Stick is a helpful book for anyone looking to sharpen their skills at explaining complex subjects in conversational language. The key takeaway from Made to Stick, for me, is that even when you’re explaining complex concepts, keep it as simple and concrete as possible.

Concrete images are ingredients for a good story—something Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins deals with.

Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact, by Annette Simmons

This is one of the best copywriting books because it taught me that you can teach your audience without having to get deep into technical language. You can just use a story.

According to Simmons:

At its best, a Teaching story transports your listener into an experience that lets him or her feel, touch, hear, see, taste, and smell excellent performance… A Teaching story is a no-risk demonstration—a trial run by imagination. Scrooge’s ghosts were basically taking him on Teaching-story tours. Each ghost told a different Teaching story…

If you’re wondering how Teaching stories would be implemented in B2B, consider GE’s “Ideas Are Scary” campaign. They used creative storytelling in order to explain that their company welcomes ideas, regardless of how rough they might be. That, under proper guidance, ideas can shine.

When you think about it, it’s kind of what you do with stats and jargon—those numbers come to you raw and uncared for. If you polish them up in writing by attaching a story to them, they can shine, too.

More specifically, you can tell a data story well by comparing the data to something familiar. It’s important to note that stories work about 50%-70% of the time, according to Simmons.

Ultimately, you want stories to increase your sales numbers. Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins is very helpful toward crafting a story that gets in your prospects’ heads.

And getting into your customer’s head is central to selling to them effectively. This is the forte of SPIN Selling.

SPIN Selling, by Neil Rackham

SPIN Selling is one of the best copywriting books—yet it’s ultimately about listening. SPIN is a framework that represents the types of questions needed to effectively sell to a client:

S—Situation questions. Ask about a client’s situation.
P—Problem questions. Ask what problems your buyer is having.
I—Implication questions. Ask about what the implications are if the problem remains unaddressed.
N—Need-payoff questions. Ask what happens if the need is treated.

These questions get the client to effectively sell your product to themselves.

For example, Rackham details how a salesperson asks questions to add value during a sales call. In this example, situation questions are omitted because the client knows what their situation is, and the seller is experienced.

SELLER: (Problem Question) You’re getting too many mistakes [proofing docs]?
BUYER: … more than I’d like…
SELLER: (Implication Question) Does that take up a lot of time?…
BUYER: Too much…
SELLER: (Need-payoff Question) Suppose you didn’t have to spend that time [with your problem]?…
BUYER: You’re right…

In the (shortened) example above, the seller would ask multiple implications and need-payoff questions until they get the information they need to sell.

This gets at the importance of listening to clients and addressing their pain in a way that makes sense. Knowing how to get the answers you need so you can solve the client’s problem is vital in sales.

SPIN Selling is your go-to book for increasing your sales while getting to know your customer’s problems on a deeper level. Sales pitches start with an idea, which is the perfect intro to Idea Selling.

Idea Selling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision-Makers, by Sam Harrison

Idea Selling is about giving presentations to those with influence. As marketers present to important people representing significant brands, having the expertise embedded in this book comes in handy.

Presentations to clients are a big part of a marketer’s job. If you’re going to be making presentations to a business, it’s always helpful to speak its language. You won’t get very far in this craft if you don’t know the fundamentals of conveying your ideas effectively.

As Harrison elaborates, “No need to be a Warren Buffet, Ann Mulcahy, or Michael Porter. Just know the basics of profit and loss. Understand the principles of marketing and branding. Appreciate the difference between strategies and tactics.”

This is key because everybody in marketing comes from a different background. There’s no universal standard to be a marketer. It’s important that even if every marketer on your team comes from a different background, that they share a common marketing language.

This language would be marketing jargon, which often takes the form of words you wouldn’t normally say, but write. Mission statements for businesses and NPOs are notorious for doing this.

Marketing jargon, although you don’t ever want to use it in your copy, is good for explaining entire business concepts in presentations.

That knowledge can come from understanding the basics of marketing, which can be gained through a quick study of a marketing glossary. Once you have a common understanding, you’re free to share your creative ideas.

Those ideas can be gained from reading a few of the best copywriting books, which can spark creative wordplay ideas—the subject of Wordcraft.

Wordcraft: The Act of Turning Little Words Into Big Business, by Alex Frankel

Wordcraft is all about how a handful of major brands got their names. What’s crucial here is that there’s a lot of teamwork involved in the marketing profession, especially in agencies.

You don’t have to know it all, but you do have to know your area of expertise. The other team members will contribute to compensate for any gaps:

Lift got kicked around, then dismissed because it sounded like a name for a bra. What about BrightCircle? “Sounds too much like a Disney film.” … Kendra, the Greek word for “knowing woman,” also got some interest, too… The client came in next week to review the names, but none stuck.

This brand turned out to be BlackBerry.

As you can see, everybody contributes in a marketing environment. “Everybody” includes those who may not have a background in business.

For example, you’d have to have a thorough knowledge of Disney movies to know if a name suggestion sounded like one in the example above. In the same vein, you’d have to have a good grasp of linguistics to know about ancient Greek words.

These traditionally aren’t business skills.

Speaking further, Frankel says he found himself “in creative sessions of varying lengths with monologuists, performance artists, self-confessed late-night conversationalists, children’s book writers, and so called shower thinkers who all moonlighted as namers.”

Taken together, when naming something, including advertising and marketing campaigns, what you name them matters.

This brings us to the next point: choosing the words you use in marketing. When it comes to picking the right words, that’s where the Love-Based Copywriting Method gets its time to shine.

Love-Based Copywriting Method: the Philosophy Behind Writing Copy That Attracts, Inspires, and Invites, by Michelle Pariza-Wacek

Traditionally, marketers would zero in on a customer’s pain points and play upon them for all they’re worth. After all, some of the best copywriting books tell you to do just that.

When practicing the Love-Based Copywriting Method, though, marketers remind prospects and customers of their pain, as well as what will happen if it’s neglected.

Pariza-Wacek says that “It’s one thing to remind people of their pain so they can decide if they’re either ready to find a solution for the pain or if they’re not ready to move forward quite yet… But [to do it at the point of] suffering is another story.”

This is quite powerful because positive copy sells better than negative copy. It’s all about how your message is framed.

On that, Pariza-Wacek pushes for a different way of writing copy. She says, “In love-based copy, you want to focus on the transformation your ideal clients are looking for. People buy hope—so give them hope.”

Teaching and practicing positivity is key since buyers prefer to consume content from people they like.

This is crucial to growing your business with marketing. People buy from people they know, they like, and they trust.

This is the subject of the next book—How to Write Attention-Getting Memos. Letters, and E-mails. After all, people want to see things they like, and they only pay attention to things they want to see.

How to Write Attention-Getting Memos. Letters, and E-mails, by Arthur Bell

The next addition to this list of stellar copywriting books features tips on the more tactical side of telling stories. Author Arthur Bell says that we love stories “that end up with a powerful point or surprise.”

Basically, if you’re not surprising, you’re not memorable. If you’re not memorable, you’re not relevant. And if you’re not relevant, why does your business matter?

You don’t want to fall into the trap of creating and pushing content nobody will ever see.

Speaking of getting attention and being memorable, marketing and communications that say “yes,” to your reader builds relationships by fostering goodwill. Bell writes:

Your appropriate enthusiasm for your products or services can be contagious for the reader. There’s a fine line, of course, between upbeat enthusiasm and “step-right-up” carnival behavior. Demonstrate the energetic, optimistic spirit of a winner in your sales letters to motivate your reader to say “yes” to your sales appeal.

And today’s buyer will only say “yes” if you write conversationally. What better way to get a buyer to say “yes” than with an engaging story?

In fact, All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories deals with that very subject.

All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories; The Underground Classic That Explains How Marketing Really Works—and Why Authenticity is the Best Marketing of All, by Seth Godin

I consider this to be a top copywriting book because it looks at what makes a contagious story and why it matters that it’s authentic.

Godin defines “authentic” as “truthful,” first and foremost. But that truth is wrapped up in a solid story to make it easier to digest. Those stories tend to be multisensory experiences, aimed at a specific group of people.

Consider this story Godin gives below from his own life:

It’s 5:30. I’ve got three pots boiling on the stove and dinner is in twenty minutes. The phone rings.

A quick glance at the caller ID screen shows me a number and area code I’m not familiar with. The text ID says, “AAATeleServices.” I’m already telling myself a story.

The lie I’m telling myself isn’t pretty. It’s a detailed monologue about someone trying to steal my time, to rip me off, to deal with me dishonestly.

The story here checks off all the boxes for authenticity:

  1. It’s subtle. The story is about dishonesty in marketing.
  2. But that truth is packaged up in a story.
  3. It’s multi-sensory. The phone rings. Dinner is in twenty minutes. He glances at the caller ID screen.

It’s important that marketers know the components of what makes an authentic story.

Stories today are often published on blogs—which is a good segue into our next title, Born to Blog.

Born to Blog: Building Your Blog for Personal and Business Success One Post at a Time, by Mark Shaefer

Simply put, to write simply, try imitating other writers.

But don’t lose yourself in the process.

This is a great point from Shaefer. “You may read about other bloggers and admire other bloggers, but at the end of the day, it’s about “Who are you?—about how you fit in, your point of truth in this moment in time.”

Said another way, you have to be original. Shaefer helps you with this by providing a quiz in the book to help you identify which blogging skills you’re good at to get those original ideas.

It’s arranged more like an inventory where you generate a score in response to certain questions such as:

  1. Do you approach problems with a blank slate, preferring to try new approaches?…
  2. Are you the designated “talker” in group settings?…
  3. Are you comfortable with debate and conflict?…
  4. Are you often asked to lead discussions or present new material?

The whole point of the quiz is to determine what kind of stories you’d be good at telling on a blog. When you’re good at something, you want to show others—to teach them. Shaefer agrees with this. He says “blogging is teaching by example.”

As blogs continue to skyrocket in popularity, finding and adopting a casual business tone in your writing has never been more important, especially if you want your content to stand out—and be read, which leads us to the next grouping of books.

Writing to be Read

There are about 1,518, 207,412 websites in existence on the internet, all with copy and content on them. This means your copy doesn’t just have to be strong; it also has to be attractive.

Prospects need to feel the urge to read your copy. Given this, you need to write to be read. Part of writing to be read includes keeping a prospect’s attention.

Unfortunately, many no longer have the attention span to read all of what you write end-to-end.

In short, most readers today scan for relevant ideas and messages when they read. Your writing needs to be scannable to meet that standard.

This brings me to the last set of books, which focus on how to write to get read. When it comes down to reading, there is a difference between reading, skimming, and scanning content.

You should already be writing your content to be read, but you also need to take an additional step. You need to format it so that your readers can skim/scan it if they don’t have time to read all of your copy.

The following books can teach you how and why you should create scannable content. The next book in particular helps you to write skimmable and scannable content without a lot of the practices that make for bad writing. Writing Without Bullshit enters stage left here.

Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, by Josh Bernoff

Bernoff is all business when he gives the most important rule in writing—he calls it the “Iron Imperative.” Bernoff says the essence of the Iron Imperative is to “Use fewer words. … Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.”

What Bernoff is saying here is that the reader is busy. They don’t have time to wait for your copy to say what it needs to say.

So, if “content is king,” it needs to be a concise king.

One way to make your writing—and content—more crisp, is to “front-load” it with benefits and promises. The attention of your prospect is as limited as it is valuable. They’re not going to read your copy end-to-end very long—that is, if they do it at all.

But when you front-load your writing, don’t do it with marketing-speak. That may make marketing presentations short and to-the-point, but it doesn’t do you any favors in your copywriting efforts.

Bernoff says that when you speak in jargon, you are turning off—or alienating—any of your readers who don’t know what that jargon means.

And while the best copywriting books don’t alienate readers, your copy shouldn’t either. It just isn’t a good way to get people to like you—a topic How to Win Friends and Influence People addresses in detail.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

Copywriting is the act of persuading someone to take a specific action using the written word. But if you’re not good at getting people to do what you want in “real-life,” what’s the chance that you’ll be persuasive in your copy?

In tandem with that thought, the very first thing Carnegie teaches is to never criticize or complain. As copywriting is a collaborative task, you need to learn to be a team player. Part of that includes never criticizing or complaining.

Carnegie points out, “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness. ‘To know all is to forgive all.’ ”

While you shouldn’t criticize your teammates, it should go without saying that you shouldn’t do that to your readers, either, even if it’s unintentional.

Criticizing your reader is also definitely not a stellar way to make them like you or want what you’re selling. That’s another tip from Carnegie—“Arouse in the other person an eager want.” It’s a surefire way to get a prospect to pay attention.

But a more powerful way to learn what a prospect or customer wants is by listening to them, says Carnegie. “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

All of these tips are important because influencing people to like you makes it easier for them to work with you. And in other cases, buy from you.

How you make friends and influence people is determined by a set of chemicals your brain releases. Established marketer, Andy Maslen, has a few words to say about this in Persuasive Copywriting.

Persuasive Copywriting: Using Psychology to Influence, Engage and Sell, by Andy Maslen

Prospects are ruled by emotion, even decision-makers aren’t completely free from irrational thoughts and biases.

While you already knew that as a skilled marketer, it’s also important for you to know just where that emotion comes from:

The limbic system [of the brain] comprises a series of discrete, yet linked structures. These include the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped organ involved in memory, emotional processing… and social relationships; and the olfactory bulbs, which allow us to smell, considered by many psychologists to be the most powerful sense, and linked, once more, to memory.

Marketers should know about the limbic system because knowing about it allows you to craft messaging that caters to it.

For example, if you create a selling environment that activates the limbic system, you’ll also turn on emotion, which as Maslen says, is linked to memory.

But to get prospects to notice the selling environment you’re trying to establish, you need to flag their attention.

One way to do this by taking advantage of the brain’s negativity bias—the tendency to remember negative things over positive—with a negatively-framed headline.

That’s the big takeaway from Maslen’s book.

If the buying experience is simplified, there’s a good chance that the content’s been simplified, as well. And if you know how the brain works, you’re one step closer to knowing yourself and others.

Knowing yourself and your customers also happens to be a tip from Content Rules—that’s up next.

Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs Podcasts, Videos, eBooks, and Webinars That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business, by Ann Handley

In this book, I found one content rule particularly helpful:

Insight inspires originality. Know yourself better than anyone. Get your brand story straight, and give voice to your distinctive point of view based on your mission and attributes. Know your customers, too, and what keeps them up at night. What are their concerns and objectives? What do they care about? How will your brand help them in their daily lives?

There are three points to this content rule that marketers should know:

  1. If you want to be original, dive into the data and figure something out. How will you help your customers?
  2. Knowing yourself includes knowing your body’s inner rhythms—find out the best times to write. Know yourself and what you’re capable of.
  3. Know your customers. This means research. Many marketers dive deep into re search for their ideas.

And while I’m on the topic of research, it’d be a great time to introduce another Handley title—Everybody Writes—since great writing begins with it.

Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, by Ann Handley

Writing allows you to time travel. You can go into the future with an outline and you can travel back into the past with editing. Handley sums this concept up with an eight-word sentence: “The more the think, the easier the ink.”

And yet, those eight words hold enormous value.

What Handley means is that writing is easier when you “[figure] out what you want to say before you say it.” That’s why Handley clarifies:

Think before ink means finding your key point by asking three questions about every bit of content you’re creating…

  • Why am I creating this? What’s my objective?
  • What is my key take on the subject or issue? What’s my point of view?
  • And, finally, the critical so what?—because exercise: why does it matter to the people you’re trying to reach?

It’s important for marketers to know this because writing is best when it’s organized, especially if it has an outline.

And while it’s true that everyone can write, certain types of writing are more beneficial in certain areas than others. It’s now time for Power Sales Writing.

Power Sales Writing, by Sue Hershkowitz-Coore

Writing is an activity of persuasion. That’s why Power Sales Writing is an important contender for one of the best copywriting books.

Power Sales Writing taught me to keep your prospects’ or customers’ eyes moving when they read your copy. This is different from the concept of Sugarman’s “slippery slide.”

Instead of providing tips on how to make the slide, Power Sales Writing told me “67% of adult Americans read in what the researchers called a “Z” pattern. Our eyes take in the words in a pattern resembling the letter Z. We are in such a hurry to finish reading the message we don’t even bother to read the end…”

Knowing this helps marketers front-load the important information first. At least, as far as web pages that aren’t copy-rich go, such as landing pages, Z-shaped patterns are a good idea.

For articles, an F-shaped pattern works when you want to call users’ attention to your sidebar. It also works when you want to provide them with important information they should take away from your content.

Important information may include attention-getting headlines, benefits, and promises—something, master copywriter, David Garfinkel, knows a lot about in his book, Breakthrough Copywriting.

Breakthrough Copywriting: How to Generate Quick Cash With the Written Word, by David Garfinkel

Garfinkel is a big fan of making things easier for the reader. In the foreword of this book, it says it will read like a conversation where someone gives you the skinny on copywriting advice. When someone gives the skinny, it’s the “short” version.

You might even say it’s the “easy” version. And writing copy using a template as a starting point saves you a lot of time coming up with catchy headlines that may or may not sell.

With Garfinkel’s advice, you can just use a template that works. For instance:

So, here is the template: “Who else wants…” This headline is very effective when your prospect has a desire or goal, and your naming it easily incites awareness of it.

One thing to understand is that “wants” is not what your product does. It’s what your customer wants. They don’t want your product or process. They don’t want the steps to go through. They want the end result, the big payoff, the big enchilada. That’s what they want.

Templates often feel unoriginal since you’re not the one who came up with it. At times, it may feel like you’re stealing another’s work.

For example, many (new/inexperienced) content creators often feel like they’re ripping off another’s words/concepts when they use formulas. Even the Heath brothers in Made to Stick feel like copy templates is equal to stealing another’s work.

According to them, in reference to the famous John Caples headline for the U.S. School of Music, “The headline was so successful… that it’s still being ripped off by copywriters decades later.”

The headline was “They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano—But When I Started to Play!” It worked because it has a familiar story—that of the underdog rising above. It’s similar to Garfinkel’s advice with the templates, as those, too, are based on familiar stories.

So if you decide to use those familiar formulas, do it ethically. They sell because they’re based on well-known stories, not the same story word-for-word, or a fill-in-the-blanks rendition.

via GIPHY

And when it comes to copywriting, that’s a big bit of our business—but not all of it. We can help you build your story, develop content, and create amazing digital experiences that help you move the needle. Click the chat button to start a conversation with our founder, Bill—or contact us today.

Jayme Severance

As the Junior Copywriter at MESH, Jayme brings a quality craftsmanship and artistry to assignments he creates, as well as a bit of motion to the office as a freestyle dancer.

Marketing Agency

MESH is a digital marketing agency that has pioneered Account-Based Marketing via our proprietary Outcome Driven Marketing (ODM) methodology. We keep our focus on tightly integrating (or MESHing) lead generation, inbound, and outbound methodologies. We help you understand the hidden levers that impact your customers’ buying decision process, develop the right marketing strategy for your unique business case, and effectively execute and measure all aspects of your Account-Based Marketing program.