The problem with long form copywriting

I received an unexpected marketing email today from what appeared to be a site I hadn’t subscribed to. My first instinct was to mark the message as SPAM, but then I dug a little deeper.

I signed up to a mailing list yesterday, which I believed would notify when a place became available in a forum. I read it at the time as “the forum is full and we can’t administer it with any more people”, which is an issue I’ve seen occur sometimes when moderators leave and there’s no-one to replace them. But after receiving the marketing email today, I now realise the site was using the “shortage” marketing ploy, often used to infer value through a lack of space/seats/stock. I believe it’s a variation on Keynesian economics, where the shorter the supply, the higher the value of the item, and vice-versa.

What’s long-form copywriting?

Long-form copywriting is basically a page full of text which in turns cajoles, encourages and pushes you to do what the marketer wants. It actively avoids getting to the point, and corners the reader, like a creepy person at a party who just wants to talk at you for an hour and a half.

It might work for print, but online I’d argue that it’s a poor way of doing business. The Guardian newspaper notes:

In a world of instant gratification and where an alternative website is just a mouse click away website owners need to find ways to firstly grab the attention of a user, and then keep it for long enough to get your message across.

Basically, if you’re online, you have to get to the point quickly and succinctly. And that’s the very antithesis of what long-form copywriting is all about.

Examining the letter

But don’t take my word for it. If you’ve the patience to continue, read on!

Hey lisa —

Sorry if you get more than one copy of this — we’re super-stoked to get this out to all our readers.

To cut straight to our news: NAME and I have decided to offer our COURSE for free.

That’s right: Zero money.

If you want to skip the explanation, you can go check out the details here:

http://unsolicited.url

Okay, here’s the first big issue. Even the most naive of computer user knows by now NOT TO CLICK URLS from unknown parties.

There’s also the fact that this URL is dotted not once but four times through the text. It’s like hitting someone over the head with a fish to get them to buy the thing.

fish slap image from http://mimg.ugo.com/201008/55075/cuts/jackass-3d-2_480x270.jpg
I feel sorry for the fish

Still here? OK, here’s the story:

You’re probably wondering whether we were struck by lightning or something, because this is a CRAZY idea.

This is a way marketers try to make you feel like the email is actually a conversation; it attempts to predict a response to the email and answer it accordingly.

The trouble here is that there’s not enough information provided to indicate how CRAZY an idea the offer actually is. The only way to find out more is to read on, or to click the link, which as already noted, is just INSANE!

I mean, this is our premiere class that teaches you how to write the query letters and letters of introduction that get you great-paying assignments.

Well, we have a good reason.

Though we have gotten a lot of great results from COURSE — for example, one student from our last class, NAME, landed an assignment with ORGANIZATION — we realized we don’t have any fully fleshed-out case studies to help us sell this class in the future.

Here’s why they’re offering the course for free. It’s not for your benefit, it’s for theirs. It’s the catch, the trip to a ski resort a doctor gets for prescribing you medication for your Sciatica.

Ultimately, no offer is truly without strings. And as the email progresses, we find out how many strings there actually are.

We need to tell you the whole story, of where our students started out, and how this class helped them bust fears, move forward with confidence, and get better-paying gigs.

This is what you’d call “hard sell”. It’s pushing an intangible benefit without — and they’ve admitted this — any proof of the value.

So how do we get these precious case studies? That’s where the free COURSE comes in.

If you sign up for this session of COURSE, do all the homework assignments — which include sending out eight different query letters and/or letters of introduction in the month after class — and you allow us to use your experience as a case study…then we’ll happily refund your entire class investment, whistling a little tune as we do it.

So, not free at all. You have to pay up-front and then if you finish the course and give them your experience as a case study, they’ll refund your money.

The question is, what happens if you don’t get work through the course? Case studies for marketing purposes have to be positive and infer benefit in order to get people to pony-up their hard-earned money.

(Hell, we’ll even send you a recording of us whistling that tune.)

Another “let’s be friends and relate to one another statement”.

That’s the offer. Free COURSE, if you *do* all of COURSE.

Now, there will be accountability (and that’s a good thing!). Your homework assignments need to be posted in the COURSE forums, and we’ll ask you to BCC us on each of your eight query/LOI emails you’re sending out to publications and businesses.

This is how confident we are you’ll get a ton of value out of this class: If you do the assignments and actually PITCH prospects, we know your experience will make an amazing case study, and show our next Pitch Clinic students the value this class offers.

(Did we mention that getting just *one* decent article assignment pays you back the class fee anyway? True!)

And there you go. You have to get an assignment. The fact the course even exists implies it’s not that easy to get an assignment.

The catch? Class is getting underway, so this free COURSE offer ends on Monday.

If you’d like to join us, you can do it right here:

http://unsolicited.url

So, another string: a time-limited offer. This is another trick of marketers used to create artificial demand for a good or service. Max Barry does an excellent takedown of this technique in the book Jennifer Government, where a couple of shoe executives decide to artificially increase demand by assassinating people who buy their shoes. The logic: the shoes must be amazing if people are willing to kill for them!

Oh, and note the second incidence of the URL.

If you’re thinking, “Wait — what the heck IS COURSE, anyway?”, we can tell it to you quick: It’s a 5-week class that will teach you how to write the kind of query letter and letter of introduction that gets a response — and gets you hired

Now, if this was up top where it counted, I might have investigated further. As it is, buried 20 paragraphs down, it’s next to useless.

Again though, it’s a technique marketers use – they’ve talked up what you can get from the course, and now they say what it actually is. They’ve attempted to increase your emotional attachment to the offer in order to get you to bite. It’s what a used car seller does when selling a dodgy motor: talks up the features, the colour, the fact you can get after-market insurance on the trim, and then they drop that the car is actually an Trabant on wheel blocks.

We have two highly experienced magazine editors on board to critique your homework in the forums. You’ll learn what makes your ideas and your pitches win with editors, and where you can improve to make the sale.

Plus, you get four live Q&A calls with NAME and me — two pro writers with 35+ years’ experience between us.

This is sweetening the deal; there’s professionals involved. However, what highly experienced magazine editors are doing checking the homework of journalistic novices is anyone’s guess.

You can get more details on the class — and sign up — here:

http://unsolicited.url

Remember where they said it was free, then it wasn’t unless you did some very specific things? That’s all been ditched now in favour of an out-and-out push to put your name on the dotted line and pony up some cash. Also, incidence three of the URL. How’s that head now? Want to buy that dead fish they’ve been hitting you with?

This is a win-win situation: You want to perfect your pitching skills and make more money writing, and we want case studies.

Sign up for COURSE, work your heinie off (and yes, it is WORK creating strong pitches!) — and we all come out ahead. You get the knowledge and confidence to make sales — and we get to tell your success story.

Well, win-win-win for them with three bites of the pie: money if you don’t complete the course, money if you don’t get an assignment out of the course, or case studies if you do. No guarantees for you whatsoever.

Are you in?

http://unsolicited.url

And yet another push to sign-up, together with incidence four of the URL. If you don’t sign-up by this stage you must be concussed. That or a vegetarian.

Enjoy,

NAME
WEBSITE SERVICE

P.S. We’ve never made this kind of offer before, and may never do it again. If you need COURSE skills, register now — doors close Monday night.

The sign off does two things. First, it keeps the light tone with a simple “Enjoy” rather than “Yours sincerely”, “Kind regards” or “hope the concussion from the fish hitting your head isn’t fatal”. Second, the use of the postscript “P.S.” which in this case is intended to further enforce the the time-limited nature of the offer. Dean Rieck of Pro Copy Tips notes of the P.S.,

However, like so many things in advertising, the P.S. is not about logic but about persuasive power. It is a convention adopted by copywriters to highlight an important point. It is not an afterthought, but a purposeful piece of copy.

Marketing=manipulation

Ultimately, marketing is all about selling something you don’t need for money you don’t necessarily have. This letter is a fine example of very basic and emotive copywriting, lacking in subtlety and pushing into hard-sell territory.

So, if you’ve read this far, you’ll perhaps have learned something about marketing you didn’t already realise. You may now be in a better position to reject the snake-oil salesmen when they come knocking on your in-box and click that SPAM button with extreme prejudice.

Author: gotheek

Sometime writer, full time human.