John Caples’s top 10 tips on how to write engaging copy

A legend in the art of effective advertising copy, this writing advice from John Caples is a vital guide for content marketers

Previously on Content Desk, we’ve looked at tips from towering writing figures such as Samuel Johnson and David Ogilvy.

Now it’s the turn of John Caples. After an inauspicious start in the US Navy, he turned to writing in 1925 – carving out a niche as a crack-shot mail-order copywriter. His ad for a home-study course (above) hit the big time and became one of the most successful ads of the twentieth century.

In a long, decorated career he became a committed student (and teacher) of the form. Here are 10 of his tips for creating effective, engaging copy.

1. Be specific

“Anybody who works on tested advertising will tell you how important it is to be specific in your copy.”

In his book Tested Advertising Methods, Caples tells the story of a mill. Initially, the business advertised its quality standard as 52.7% higher than the official standard required. When it lowered that figure to 50%, demand fell dramatically. 52.7% is more specific and more credible than 50% – don’t be afraid of such specifics, as they will add authenticity to your content.

2. Name your audience

“Don’t underestimate the value of beginning a headline by naming the people you want to reach.”

If you want to appeal to a certain audience (and you should…) then why avoid saying what that audience is? Am I right, content marketers?

3. Beginning headlines

Composing headlines was Caples’s speciality – writing reams of material on the perfect headline and the formula for success.

Headlines should provoke the reader’s interest with value promised from the copy – beginning headlines with ‘how to’, ‘why’, ‘this’, ‘because’ or ‘advice’ is a fail-safe method.

It also keeps the copy on track. When the goal of the piece is laid out as such, the writing has a clear path to follow and purpose to fulfil.

4. Offer a test

Another way to up the intrigue straight away is by offering the reader a test in the headline. Caples cites ‘Can your kitchen pass the guest test’ as an example. This advice seems particularly prevalent in the digital age, where listicles and quizzes can gain lots of traffic online.

It won’t work for every subject matter, but tests (such as this five-minute content test) can be effective at introducing an element of fun into your copy.

5. “Make an offer they can’t refuse”

Another one of Caples’s famous lines. His line of work was straight advertising – where the hard-sell is more explicit. But content marketers should remember the content marketing dynamic of brand and audience still relies on old-fashioned values of providing a service or product.

Be clear about what the aim of the content is – to sell a product, showcase some research, shine a light on a sector-specific topic – and express how the content is vital to informing the audience.

6. A strong opening

Caples said that advertisement copy should open like an article from Reader’s Digest – fact-packed, telegraphic, specific, with few adjectives and aimed at arousing curiosity.

The magazine reference may be out of date but the point isn’t. Even in highly specific or detailed topic areas, packing the opening of content tightly with facts adds authenticity and enables quick consumption.

7. Brand logo

Caples said: “The advertiser’s logotype at the bottom of the ad can be considered as part of the headline. After reading the headline, the reader instinctively looks down at the logotype to see the company name.”

Where to insert your brand is a tricky question, but one that all content marketers need to address. Mentioning your brand name throughout content is liable to put off an audience. Likewise, no audience wants to feel tricked – so if the content is sponsored then label it as such.

8. Call to action

In one of Caples’s books Making Ads Pay, he writes a seven-point checklist. Number six is ‘Do you make it easy to act?’

A call to action is a familiar part of content marketing copy – often, ‘click here for…’, ‘call us on …’ etc. But that sense of journey is vital. The journey that began with an enticing headline needs a place to continue. Don’t forget it.

9. Test, test, test

Perhaps Caples’s most famous legacy is his commitment to the scientific method behind content. He said: “Every single element in an advertisement – headline, subhead, photo, and copy – must be put there not because it looks good, not because it sounds good, but because testing has shown that it works best.”

It won’t be possible to apply such rigorous standards to every piece – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. A-B testing is common sense; so too is keeping a close eye on analytics.

10. Leave your ego out of it

Despite all this advice, writing effective copy is not an exact science. Copy may well be pored over and torn apart by a variety of voices within a business. This ping-pong of input is all part of the creative process – but requires an assured sense of confidence from the initial writer.

A truly collaborative process needs a blend of openness to other viewpoints as well as self-assurance. Nothing you write will be perfect first time – stay focused on the content’s objectives and ignore any damage to your ego that you might feel.

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