11 July 2022
A modern-day copywriting classic by one of the gurus of the field, Persuasive Copywriting was updated in 2019 to include chapters on content marketing, social media, creativity and how to evaluate copy.
First of all, Persuasive Copywriting is not a primer. Andy Maslen assumes his readers know the basics of marketing and copywriting. That said, it’s very much geared towards active learning; it combines theory and practice, and offers exercises, downloadable templates and other tools throughout.
It’s also an entertaining read; it had me nodding furiously throughout and at one point laughing out loud (on a crowded train). Like other authors I’ve reviewed to date on The Marketing Copywriter’s Bookshelf, especially Steve Harrison, Maslen is unafraid of challenging unorthodoxy. This is something I always enjoy, even if I happen to be attached to the orthodoxy under fire.
A key argument that appears again and again in Persuasive Copywriting is one of plus ça change… – i.e. not as much has changed as we think. He’s referring, of course, to the internet and its impact on marketing and copywriting.
He believes that the internet has largely left the fundamental drivers of customers untouched. “They still want softer skin or a faster motorbike.” He maintains that readers have always scanned text, for example. It’s not something we recently started to do when coping with information overload.
“It altered a few things that affect the presentation and consumption of copy, but left the underlying psychological principles of influence untouched. This is the old world wearing some snappy new clothes.”
He’s also clear on what has changed. The “panoply of channels” at our disposal, compared with the limited repertoire of the pre-digital era. And mobile technology. Smartphone screens are transforming the way we write and format copy. A paragraph is now a unit of depth rather than a unit of meaning, for example. To lose sight of that means overwhelming mobile users with a wall of text.
Maslen is at his most entertaining (and crushing) when critiquing content marketing. For him, this is yet another emperor parading around in new gear. I’m spoilt for choice when quoting him here, but this is his core argument.
“Put simply, content marketing means providing useful information for nothing in the hope that people will search it out, consume it and trust the provider sufficiently to place their next order with them. It is of course entirely possible that we are training our potential customers to come to us for free information and nothing else.”
And here’s the bit that had me laughing out loud on the train:
“Organizations of every size and shape are churning out blog posts, reports, presentations, videos and podcasts with the zeal of a Soviet-era Russian tractor factory trying to meet its production quotas.”
Comedy brilliance. When it comes to copywriting, Maslen can both show and tell. I’ve read that out to several people since. (I’m a barrel of laughs on a night out.)
Just because I value his argument, however, doesn’t mean I completely agree. I think that what Maslen has failed to consider is that the internet has transformed the B2B buyer journey, notably that prospects now carry out online research as a first step, rather than wait for a cold call from a travelling salesman. That’s what drives content marketing.
Where I agree with him entirely is that far too much valueless content is being churned out. The internet is littered with blog posts and guides whose promising titles draw us into meaningless garbage. In the past few years, though, quality over quantity has started to prevail and long may it continue.
Another core element of the book is the role of emotions in decision-making.
“At its heart, copywriting is about understanding how other people feel and showing them alternatives to the lives they lead. Better, richer, more fulfilling lives; lives free from anxiety, doubt and insecurity; lives with problems minimized or solved altogether.”
How to engage with a prospect’s emotions in the right way is something that Maslen acknowledges as difficult. It’s especially tricky when you’re selling something “reason-based” like a supply chain management platform. But at the end of the day, B2B decision-makers are humans and consumers, i.e. “the exact same people who are buying the ice creams, cosmetics and sports cars”.
The book provides particularly valuable guidance in this section. Maslen patiently explains why emotional engagement is key. He identifies different levels of emotions as well as pitfalls such as making sure you’re targeting the reader’s emotions rather than describing your own.
But his pièce de résistance is a list of 19 emotions, with 110 words and phrases that trigger them. Maslen is inviting us all, as copywriters, to identify the emotion we want our reader to feel, and then use one or more of the words listed under it. A copywriter friend I particularly respect told me that she uses that as a daily resource. And that was my number one reason for reading and reviewing Persuasive Copywriting.
He sees personas as a way of identifying those emotions. Since this revised edition was published in 2019, leading professionals in this area have started focusing right down to the buyer journey when devising personas. This involves stripping out the lifestyle stuff that I’ve long thought was little more than a bit of fun for the sales team on an away day. Who cares if purchasing managers play golf? And do they really play golf, or are we just imagining it?
However, in the context of emotion-driven copy, you can see the value of a fuller persona for identifying emotions, and that’s Maslen’s approach. It’s hard to argue against addressing persona pains when writing content. And if you’re taking a detailed persona approach, Maslen provides detailed guidance.
But if you get your reader’s emotional mindset right, your copy will stand out in the most crowded of markets.
I loved Maslen’s section on dramatisation, in which he advocates copy that brings an idea vividly to life in the reader’s mind. Dramatisation is very much in the ‘show not tell’ realm of writing, and involves putting your products and services in a setting and story that feels real. It’s so much harder than merely describing features and benefits. It will involve a lot more research, even field work. But the copywriter who dares is likely to win the reader’s emotions.
Closely related to emotional engagement is persuasion. As Maslen reminds us, our ultimate goal is to change the reader’s behaviour. Make them do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. Maslen turns to the rhetoricians of Ancient Greece to present a practical framework:
“Ethos refers to the speaker’s character. In other words, why should we trust them (and their words). Pathos is the emotional appeal of the argument. Getting people’s feelings engaged with their arguments. Logos is the intellectual component. The reasons why the listener (or reader should believe them.”
Maslen goes on to recommend how best to balance and sequence these three elements of persuasion to meet different needs.
It’s hard to be creative on demand. That’s why Shakespeare plays commissioned by royalty (such as Merry Wives of Windsor) tend to be weaker than his other works. But Merry Wives of Windsor is not without its charms, especially if you see a good production. And let’s face it, copywriters have to be creative on demand. It’s our job. And there are deadlines to meet.
As a research-driven B2B copywriter, Maslen’s step-by-step guidance is particularly valuable to me. And this is the starting point, attributed to leading copywriter, Vikki Ross:
“Given time, the brain and the subconscious are able to deliver real magic.”
So Maslen’s advice is centred on the need to harness the power of the subconscious. Most of us have experienced lightbulb moments when we least expect them – on a morning run; in the shower; unloading the dishwasher. So it’s all about creating space and providing the source materials for your subconscious to perform its magic exactly when you need it.
Maslen puts a number of useful provisos in place when releasing your inner creative:
There are some great micro-tips here. These include writing for yourself every day. And reading novels. I am an avid reader of novels, but I’m not sure they’ve ever given me creative ideas. Music and art museums tend to work as creative triggers for me. Maybe it’s something to do with the change of format making my mind work harder. This chimes with Maslen’s advice to consider changing the place and time you do things to release creativity.
There are far too many micro-tips to give them all the attention they deserve in this review. So what I’ve done is to pick out the top ten that either resonated with me or piqued my interest:
But Maslem offers much more than micro-tips. He offers new methodologies to rival the time-honoured AIDCA – Attention; Interest; Desire; Conviction; Action. Maslen proposes a new copywriting formula, TIPS, which draws on ideas from psychology and neuroscience around emotional decision-making. You’ll have to read the book for a full account, but basically it’s Tempt; Influence; Persuade; Sell.
And then once you’re closing the sale, Maslen’s four Rs comes into play. Repeat the story. Remind them of the benefits. Reassure them that they’ve made the right decision. Relieve them of their money.
So there you have it. Some of the key ideas from this classic text. And because, like a good album, it’s all winners and no fillers, I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t even started to talk about how good his advice on storytelling is.
I’ll leave you to decide whether this value-packed highly readable and relevant book is worth your time. But Persuasive Copywriting is a classic for good reason.
“You’re probably right that in my Luddite zeal to dynamite the CM machine, I may have overstated my own case. What I truly object to, as you rightly picked up in your review, is the unquestioning boosterism of many in the content marketing “community” who, it’s plain to see for anyone with eyes and more than three weeks’ of commercial experience, are simply riding a gravy train.
Yes, decision making has become more complicated, and I am sure buyers in business, along with consumer goods purchasers, look for info before making a decision. Well written, recorded, drawn or filmed information can be helpful in that process. But go back to say the 1830s and you would find factory owners poring over articles in engineering journals about a new piece of equipment, or attending a talk by its inventor. As you say, plus ça change.
Interestingly, I was an early adopter of content marketing. When my wife and I launched our copywriting agency, Sunfish, in 1996, our marketing strategy was called the BEAST: books, exhibitions, articles, speeches, training. No mention of advertising or direct mail, you notice.
I launched a copywriting newsletter more or less at the same time. It was one of the first in the UK (there may have been one or two others). Now every newly fledged freelance puts one out. The newsletter worked, for a number of years. But in the end, market saturation saw open rates fall to an unsustainable level and I killed it off.
So, yes to content marketing whose costs and ROI (return on investment) are measured, evaluated and acted upon; no to the Soviet tractor factory approach.
The other half of my response concerns the same question: what works? Do we live in an age where without a TikTok video or Instagram story, we are doomed to penury? No prizes for guessing my answer.
For the last seven years, I have been working, first part-time, and, since 2019, full-time, as a thriller author. You were kind enough to mention my storytelling skills, and these have found full flower in my new career. At the time of writing I have published 26 novels, 23 on my own account and three with Thomas & Mercer (an imprint of Amazon Publishing).
I have built a profitable author brand that brings in enough money to live on comfortably. And I’ve done it almost entirely by advertising. Relentlessly. Day in, day out, 365 days a year. I currently spend $600 a day. I have tested images, videos, headlines, body copy, subheads and call to action buttons. I have, most importantly, tested the audience and the offer. In terms of their impact on profits, these tests followed exactly the sequence laid out by my mentor and the man from whom I learned the most about, not just copywriting, but marketing in general, Drayton Bird. Specifically, the list matters most and the copy matters least.
In every single case, I have adopted the more profitable version and ditched the lesser, regardless of my own aesthetic preferences.
Which brings me to my third, and final, point. Marketing, ultimately, is a process that ought to contribute to the growth of a business. It might do that by creating a much-loved brand; it might do it by generating warm leads for a sales team; it might do it directly, by bringing in sales at a profit.
Everything that increases the chances of one of those three things happening is good. Anything that lessens them is bad. But I would always choose increased profits over a shinier brand. History teaches us that companies fold for a great many reasons, but chiefly for unprofitability. Profitable companies with so-so brands rarely fall under the accountants’ axe.
I’ll close with a story. For many years, I worked with a major global children’s charity. I wrote copy, gave marketing advice and trained its comms teams. In one meeting to discuss a new fundraising campaign, I made the observation that setting letters in Courier tended (tended, mind) to bring in more revenue for a fixed cost. Revenue they could spend on their child-protection programmes in some of the world’s toughest places to grow up.
I drew on three sources. Drayton’s own books. Conversations with other charity marketeers who had run their own A/B tests. And my own experience.
The most senior designer there flat out refused even to countenance a test. Why? Because, as she put it, ‘I think Courier is vile’.
Now, leaving aside the weird intensity of that particular adjective as applied to a mere typeface, especially from someone working for a charity dealing with everything from acute childhood malnutrition to sexual abuse, here’s what she was actually deciding.
‘Because of my own aesthetic preferences, I am willing to see more children die.’
That’s not marketing: that’s vanity. As copywriters, we start with a goal. Sell more desk-lamps. Break the record for attendance at a festival. Save the lives of vulnerable children. Then we do everything in our power to achieve it.
As a copywriting neophyte back in ’86, I learned a simple truth that has guided every single campaign I have ever written, including those for my own novels. The best copy is the copy that brings in the most orders. Nothing else matters.