Why direct response writing skills are so damn important

Why direct response writing is so damn importantWhere has SEO copywriting gone wrong?

I had an interesting moment yesterday.

I was chatting with a prospect and discussing how SuccessWorks (my firm) employs experienced writers with highly-honed skills in SEO copywriting and direct response writing.

His reply? “What’s direct response writing?

Ouch. Good reality check. I’ve drank my own Kool-Aid long enough that I assume that everyone else understands the benefits that really tight writing brings to the table.

And now I understand what I didn’t understand before. This is why good sites pay top dollar for keyphrase-stuffed copy that fails to persuade, educate or even interest the reader. Companies simply don’t know any better.

Obviously, I have some issues around this.

Long before there were search engines, there was direct response copywriting. Its purpose: to persuade readers to do something — call an 800 number, buy a Franklin Mint collectible or purchase a time share. You’d see it in your Publisher’s Clearing House letters (you may laugh, but I bet you bought at least one magazine subscription.) You’d see it as a special mailer, stuffed into your credit card envelope. You’d see direct response writing everywhere — and in fact, you still do. Persuasive writing techniques worked back then, and they work now. Like it or not, the more that the writing hits the hidden-need “hot buttons” — the more it grabs your prospects, gives them what they want and boosts your benefits – the better the page converts. As in: makes money.

So when did the definition of SEO copywriting get so bastardized that direct response copywriting principals are gleefully ignored? Where companies who don’t even employ experienced copywriters can charge good money for bad copy?

In short, where did SEO copywriting go wrong?

People, the copy on your Website is your only salesperson during an online sale or lead generation campaign. If you want Web leads to call you, the copy on your site has to persuade them that your firm has what they need. In order to score a sale, your site has to prove why someone should buy from you — and not your competitor who offers the same product for $5 less.

Placing strategically-placed keywords in the copy (the unique “twist” of SEO copywriting) is 20 percent of the SEO copywriting battle. A good content strategy, paired with ongoing content is 10 percent. In my opinion, the rest of the equation – so 70 percent — is writing copy that makes a prospect’s heart go pitter patter. It’s giving them the facts that they need to make an informed decision, still feel good about their decision in the morning and recommend your site to their friends later that day. It’s penning such persuasive prose that it’s like gently grabbing the reader by the hand, whispering in their ear, and leading them to your next action step.

It’s powerful, seductive stuff, man.

SEO copywriting is not about writing to make the search engines happy. Yes, do the keyphrase research and yes, put your keyphrases in the search engine power positions. I’ve been talking about SEO copywriting best practices for 10 years now — and those guidelines are still valid.

But remember — the search engines aren’t going to buy anything from you, nor will they contract with you for services. Your prospects just might — so write for them instead. Learn to embrace direct response copywriting and know that SEO copywriting is more about persuasion than algorithmic relevancy. When you demand better copy, you’ll realize mind-blowing results. Really.


Who’s really writing your Web content?

Is this your SEO copywriter?Yesterday, I received a voice mail that disturbed me.

The caller represented an SEO outsourcing service based in India. He wanted to know if I wanted to save money on writing costs and outsource my SEO copywriting projects to his firm. He then named three high-profile SEO firms that had (supposedly) done just that, indicating that I would not be alone in this outsourced copywriting world.

And it got me to thinking: Assuming the SEO companies mentioned really did outsource their writing to India, I wonder what their clients would think if they knew the real scoop.

This is actually an extreme example of a widespread issue. SEO companies, agencies and design firms know that their clients need SEO copywriting services. At the same time, SEO copywriting may not be the firm’s core competency. When that happens, sometimes, they outsource it to a firm (my firm, SuccessWorks, works with a few SEO companies.) Sometimes, they work with interns (really!) Other times, they’ll outsource to India. The client rarely (if ever) knows about this arrangement.

On the flip side, some companies that do keep their SEO copywriting in-house assign the content to low-level personnel with absolutely no direct response or copywriting experience. These folks are then promoted as “experienced writers” — when their main gig may actually be design, programming or answering the phones (true story — one company called their receptionist their “expert copywriter!”).

I think that transparency is exceptionally important. If a client is paying hard-earned money for expertly-written pages, they should know the copywriter’s background. They should know that the work is being outsourced to India, written by an in-house intern or (hopefully) penned by an experienced wordsmith.

So, what can clients do for SEO copywriting due-diligence?

  • Get to know the writer who will actually write your copy. You may have a great relationship with the salesperson or the CEO. However, the person you need to “click” with really well is your writer — the person actually controlling your online brand. There’s no reason why the writer can’t spend 15 minutes during a sales call explaining what she’s done and her experience. If the agency won’t put the writer on the phone, find another agency.
  • Outsourcing is not always a bad thing. If you hear “we outsource our SEO copywriting to freelancers” – don’t panic. That can actually be a good thing. I would still insist on chatting with the freelancer before you sign on the dotted line.
  • Review clips written by your writer. If his writing doesn’t turn you on — whether it be too “mechanical,” somewhat unclear, benefit statement-free or not very good, don’t figure that your copy will be different. It won’t.
  • Ask about the writing process. Good writing shops will insist on a kickoff meeting before the first word is penned. This is so the writer can learn about your business, ask about your preferred tone and feel, find out more about your competition and brainstorm possible approaches. This foundational step is so crucial that I would distrust any firm that skipped it. Yes, it’s really that big of a deal.
  • Remember that you get what you pay for. I have no tolerance for companies that pay low-dollar for writing services and then whine that their copy “isn’t converting,” “horribly written” or “is keyphrase-stuffed.” Would you trust a discount attorney or doctor? No. So why would you expect that paying super-cheap writing fees would provide you a good return. Sure, $10 a page sounds good”¦but I guarantee that the final result will look like, well, you spent $10 on a page. If this sounds like your company, reevaluate your budget and adjust your expectations. You’ll be much happier as a result (and see better returns from your SEO copywriting efforts.)

Breaking through blogger’s block

I admit it. I’m a SEO writing slacker.

It’s been two weeks since my last blog post – and I don’t have a reasonable excuse. I can’t play the “too busy” card (although it’s true; my life has been unusually full lately.) Nor can I lament how the Muse has left me — she’s right here, guiding how I craft my emails and pen my copy.

It’s merely a minor case of “blogger’s block.” That is, I could write if I had to — I just didn’t have anything to say. Or I knew exactly what to say, but I’m such a perfectionist that I would sweat every little syllable until a 100-word blog post turned into an 8-hour endeavor.

The end result is the same: intense pressure to get over the blogging block — and fast!

Don’t get me wrong. SEO copywriting dry spells can be a wonderful thing. Giving one’s creative juices a chance to build often leads to impressive, explosive results. I wrote my book Successful Search Engine Copywriting after a two-month writing dry spell in four focused months. I don’t remember much about the process, nor do I remember how long it took me to recover. I just know that I needed the calm before the writing storm.

However, every dry spell needs to end. And every blogger must break through his block. If you’re wondering how to forge ahead and groove in the blogging flow, here are six tips to get you started.

  1. Write in short, focused spurts. Sometimes, I can only write for five minutes before I burn out. Other times, my eyes will be red, squinty and dry from a five-hour type-a-thon. If you have the freedom to work when you’re feeling energetic and focused, learn to ride your peak writing time waves. The more “on”you are, the better your writing.
  2. Don’t push the process if you’re not feeling creative. This can be incredibly tricky if you’re on deadline — after all, “the Muse isn’t with me” isn’t a reasonable excuse for a missed milestone. However, if you have some wiggle room, it’s amazing how a half-day break can make a huge difference.
  3. Enlist an accountabilabuddy (thank you, South Park, for that fantastic term.) More nag than Muse, your accountabilabuddy isn’t afraid to ask you hard questions like, “Did you write something today?” Or, “So, I checked your blog today. When ARE you going to write something?” The good news? After enough nagging, you’ll get embarrassed at your laziness, give in and write. Trust me. (And thank you, Ron.)
  4. Create an editorial calendar. Newspapers and magazines plan their story ideas months in advance. Although “months in advance” may not be applicable in the blogging world, planning a week’s worth of content is a snap. Besides, you’ll save scads of time wondering what you should write about.
  5. Be mindful of spur-of-the-moment ideas. I’m more of a spontaneous noticer than an editorial planner. Watching South Park was the exact spark I needed to pull this post together. Other times, talking to a lead or client gives me the fodder I need for some fearsome writing. If you can’t act on the idea right away, it’s a smart idea to write it down. I’ve kicked myself many times over the great blog idea that got away and went poof out of my brain.
  6. Give yourself a break. It’s OK if you don’t write a 500 word blog post every time. And it’s also OK if you’re just commenting on someone else’s post and nothing more (thank you, Graeme McLaughlin from BCAA for that reminder.) Yes, you want more content than noise, and no, a 25-word blog post won’t do. But if the Muse is on a temporary holiday, do what you can do to keep writing. Now if I could only listen to my own advice”