What’s the most important word in copywriting?
Most people would say ‘you’.
When I first started out in the industry, I remember one of the first direct response sales letters I wrote was for a personal finance newsletter.
The idea was based around an article about the best ways to ask for a pay-rise.
A quick check in my old swipe file and the headline ended up being:
‘Are you being ripped off by your boss?’
It got tested and I seem to remember it did OK. Or at least, it didn’t completely bomb and kept me in the game for another shot.
What I remember most about writing the promo was the peer review we did on it before the piece was finalised.
I was new to this kind of thing: your peers getting together, reading your work aloud and then openly lambasting you for being an idiot…sorry, I mean offering constructive criticism.
I’d come from the confines of bureaucratic local government, where the aim is to keep as quiet as possible and hold no opinion as to save people using your wild, outlandish opinions against you.
In the private sector, opinions are pretty valuable and encouraged.
And in this, my first copy peer review, one chap certainly didn’t feel like holding back.
“Me, me, me, me, me,” he scolded. “It’s all about you. Why would I give a shit about you and your experiences?”
This was weird. I thought writing in the first person so people could relate to me would be a good thing. That’s what I’d been taught in the creative writing degree I’d quit the council to do. But now this guy is telling me I’m using ‘I’ too much.
“You’ve got to put it on the reader,” he went on, or at least words to that effect. “What do they want? Why do they care?”
That’s when someone in the room dropped a piece of eternal copywriting advice I’ve remembered and applied to this day.
I honestly don’t remember who it was to properly credit them…but the advice was simple:
Instead of writing ‘I’, write ‘you’.
Essentially, write in the second person?
Let’s explore that idea…
But first, a brief interlude…
I wonder if you’d like to get hold of a simple guide I’ve put together that outlines my own copy training methods?
Hey, you might be above that kind of help – and that’s fine.
But of course there’s a chance one little idea lurks in this guide you’ve not thought about for ages and it could be this one little idea helps you write a piece of copy that performs better than you expected and earns you more money and industry plaudits. Maybe. Maybe not.
But it’s worth a look, right?
I bet you think this copy’s about you, don’t you…well, er, it is
Up until that point I think I’d only read two books written in the second person…If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino and Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.
It was considered weird to write in the second person. But here were actual business people who made money and went to the pub when they wanted and they were telling me I should write in second person.
I went through the whole sales letter and realised, despite what my creative writing teacher had told me, it was pretty easy to change the point of view of a piece of writing.
Wherever possible I changed ‘I’ to ‘you’ and obviously rejigged the phrasing around it so it made sense.
The result was plain for all to see…
The copy was much stronger and much more engaging for the person reading it. That strange but effective second person viewpoint brought you, as the reader, into the writing. It made you the hero of the piece.
Ever since, it’s a standard check I run on all my sales copy.
Mostly I address the reader automatically now and will naturally put you at the heart of the story if I’m able.
But sometimes, especially when in stream-of-conscious mode and just bashing out a certain section, I will forget and write in first person.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this is OK and sometimes necessary…especially if you’re writing for someone with a lot of credibility. But even then, it’s worth reviewing your copy to see if you can’t tweak a few rogue uses of first person to the more inclusive second person.
Even when it feels a bit weird…and if the dormant English teacher and grammar stalwart in you starts screaming because you’ve weirdly mixed up viewpoints in the same paragraph…do your best to ignore that (ultimately pretentious) voice in your head and go with what’s engagingly good, not what’s grammatically right.
Remember when it comes to writing good copy, you sometimes have to write in what others would call bad English.
I know that will upset many people, but it’s just a fact of copywriting life and one you should come to terms with sooner rather than later.
Copywriting is not about pleasing the writer… or the ‘I’ in the equation.
It’s about engaging the reader…that all important ‘you’.
There’s always a catch
As with everything in the world of copywriting, using ‘you’ over ‘I’ isn’t a hard and fast rule and, in different circumstances, writing in the first person can be more effective.
Indeed, it may interest you to know the subject line for this email newsletter that got the highest open rate over the last three months was…
Drum roll please…
“I’m an idiot.”
Yup. First person and all about me. Of course, it’s also a self-effacing statement, which us downbeat, negative humans always like. And it probably made many people open as they just hoped I was finally admitting my obvious idiocy. Which I was, kind of.
Still, the subject line performed significantly better, with a 10% higher open rate than is the usual average for this email.
So, as a rule of thumb…always try to address the reader directly and put them in the story.
But if that doesn’t work…just call yourself an idiot and be done with it.