Simple Steps to Strengthen Weak Copy

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Even a casual examination of your mail can teach or reinforce fundamental truths about copywriting.


In the past week, I received solicitations from banks, credit card companies, an alumni association and a home improvement company, among others. The errors weren't restricted to one type of mailer; banks made the same kind of mistakes as colleges. No one had a monopoly on weak copy.


The good news is that each piece could be salvaged. Here are examples taken at random, with suggestions for improvement:


From a credit card company:


"I'm pleased to tell you that you're eligible to apply for a personal loan ..."


Why am I eligible? What makes me special enough to qualify for this generosity? What makes me worth this exclusive offer? You can fix this by adding one word at the end of that sentence: because. Now you're forced to present a sound reason why you're sending this letter to this prospect. You prove the exclusivity of the offer and strengthen the bond between letter writer and recipient.


"As one of our most valued cardmembers, I think ..."


Same problem: I'm not told why I'm valued. Without an explanation, the phrase becomes meaningless and devalued. Instead, you can do what I did recently for an advance renewal. After I stated the exclusive offer, I wrote: "Why you? Why this? Why now?" Then I answered each question. I wanted to prove to the prospect the validity of my claims.


The sentence above also contains a dangling modifier, which is grammatically unsound. It should read: "As one of our most valued cardmembers, you ..."


From an alumni director:


"I look forward to working with each and every one of you."


Excuse me, but I thought the director sent this letter to me. Why address me as if I were part of a group? When you write copy, write to one person.


"I cannot stress enough how important your participation is ..."


Actually, the letter writer doesn't stress it at all. She gives me no compelling reason in the surrounding paragraphs to back up this statement. Overuse of the word important - without an adequate reason - renders the phrase empty. It contains no power.


"I am encouraging all alumni to become active in the association ..."


Why? What's in it for me? Sure, it might make the alumni director's job easier, but what do I get out of it? Here's a solution: appeal to my vanity. Flatter me with the idea that I can make a contribution to posterity and to "our" school. Appeal to my emotions.


From a bank:


"This offer to select customers is only for a limited time."


Does this sound personal or remote? The good thing is that it can be easily heated up with a human touch. For example: "I'm making this offer to select customers, like you, but I have to hear from you by XXX. Limited time means just that: I can't offer it forever." Studies show that framing something in human terms increases readability and reader involvement.


"To receive these low APRs, your account must be in good standing. Your account will not be in good standing if ..."


Sounds like a lawyer wrote this, doesn't it? I grant you that there are times you have to include the legal stuff, but must it always sound threatening?


How about this: "We're able to reward customers like you with a low adjustable rate loan because your regular account is up-to-date. That means you've got nothing past due, and you're not above your credit limit."


Not perfect, perhaps, but more personal than the original.


As a change of pace, here's an example of a letter from a conservatory designer that does most things right.


If I have a cavil, it's that I thought the term conservatory was referring to music, not an offer to build a sunroom! Fortunately, the salutation of the letter addresses me as "Dear Homeowner."


The letter includes a testimonial, doesn't overhype its product and includes wonderful image-building copy. For example: "By adding a conservatory, you can add value to your home, add living space for your family and express yourself through design and décor."


Three terrific benefits in one sentence. They flow naturally and make me feel that I'm making a wise buying decision. I can imagine the pride I'll feel in showing off my purchase - and how much more my house will be worth because of it. The copy compliments me on my investment and appeals to my sense of style - a potent combination.


With a little extra care, copy for any industry can be improved. These suggestions can be a good starting point.


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