8 Copywriting Lessons from John Powers
John Powers is considered to be the first full-time copywriter. In this guide, you’ll discover the key lessons and teachings of this pioneer that are still relevant for marketing today.
John Powers launched his copywriting career in 1870. He began selling sewing machines for Wilcox and Gibbs. Shortly after this, he arrived in the U.S where he began to write ads for Lord & Taylor. Powers also wrote copy for a clothing store that was close to bankruptcy.
Arguably his most famous piece of advice was to this same store. When the owners came to them fearing bankruptcy, he suggested they tell customers the truth. The company agreed and Powers wrote an ad encouraging customers to come out and save the store.
The success of this campaign led Powers to be hired by a company full-time to write ads for a store. Indeed, Powers’s profound skills as a copywriter helped the store double the revenues from $4 to $8 million.
After he eventually left this position, Powers became a freelancer and earned more than $100 per day.
Here are some of the key lessons that you can learn from Powers to improve your copy.
As you might have guessed, one of the first lessons from Powers is to ensure that you are honest with your writing. Many businesses have certain rules about claims that are unsubstantiated. This includes companies that sell both finance and healthcare products.
However, avoiding making claims about a company or product that are false is not the same as being truthful about the product in question. For instance, when you are writing copy, you might want to consider the flaws or the issues with a product.
According to Powers, highlighting the flaws of a product or service and making sure that your audience is aware of them can ensure that your copy is far more compelling.
He firmly believed that the only way out of trouble was for businesses, to tell the truth. You can try advising audiences why they shouldn’t buy a product or service and give them a list of pros and cons.
Copywriters often associate the truth with negative connotations. However, being truthful can bring attention to the benefits and advantages of a product in a way that feels more honest and sincere to an audience.
Tell A Story
Today, telling a story is one of the key pieces of advice given to people who want to write great pieces of copy. However, it was arguably John Powers that first unleashed the power of storytelling in the form of copywriting.
Powers believed that the greatest stories had the power to move people to take action.
Stories can create or trigger emotion and from sympathy to excitement or even anger. Furthermore, a great story can also be memorable. It will ensure that the writing remains in the memory of the reader for a while after they read it.
Similar to a fantastic piece of fiction, the right story will ensure that the reader is front and center. It will allow them to imagine using a product or service and understand what it’s going to mean to them or the impact it will have on their life.
Ultimately, the ideal story won’t just capture their imagination. It will make your writing more immersive and action-oriented. (See also: How to Tell a Great Brand Story)
Make Headlines Short
Powers had a strong belief that the headline was the first piece of the puzzle to a great piece of copywriting. However, he also suggested that headlines should be short and that it was important to not get too carried away with introducing a complex idea.
According to Powers, to provide the right impact headlines needed to be short and punchy. This was demonstrated through his work.
Due to his focus on the truth, it was easy for him to write headlines that had a bite without spreading them over multiple lines. The firm belief here is that a headline is too long then a reader will get bored before they’ve even finished it. They won’t make it to the next section of your article which is a massive concern.
However, a short headline still needs to tick some key boxes.
It should be:
Use Simple Language
Similar to other great copywriters, Powers believed that there was no point in using language that was too complex or too difficult to understand. This, he believed, would lead to the original message behind the marketing getting lost in the shuffle.
As such, it’s important that you don’t focus on using long words when shorter ones will do. Think about your sentence structure too.
Sentences that are short and snappy will be more hard-hitting. Don’t use two words where one will be enough to make the argument or the pitch that you are interested in.
If you keep it simple, then you will make your copy easier to read.
This is going to help ensure that readers get to the end of the copy rather than skipping out halfway through.
Powers was the first copywriter to realize the importance of delivering value to the customer. He introduced several key concepts to the marketing world including the money-back guarantee and the free trial offer.
Both these concepts are still used this today to market products and ensure that copy does gain the attention of the reader. Of course, this isn’t the only way that you can provide value to your target audience.
Providing value can be as simple as ensuring that you do deliver information that is useful or relevant to them.
Alternatively, you can highlight why a product that they are considering purchasing would be beneficial too. Many people forget the importance of demonstrating value in favor of instead marketing the product whatever the cost.
Talk About What The Product Does Rather Than What It Is
When you are writing a copy, the aim is often to sell a product or a service. It’s easy to write the copy around what the copy is.
If you do this, then you might end up listing the features and the different elements of the product. You could get bogged down writing about the design or stuck focusing on the history of the product or service in question.
Powers asserted that it would be more beneficial to write about what the product does and specifically and what it does for the customer.
Allow them to see how a product or service could benefit them in their lives and - in modern marketing terms - tackle some of their pain points.
To do this, you need to understand the mindset of the audience and assess what issues they are facing. You can then present the product or service as a solution to the problem.
This also fits into the storytelling technique that we mentioned above. Above all, it’s important to ensure that the copy is interesting when addressing the issue. (see also: Copywriting Pro-Tip: Highlighting Benefits Over Feature)
No Emotional Words
Despite capturing emotion by telling stories, Powers kept emotional words out of his copywriting as part of a formula now known as the “Powers Style.”
He believed that putting too much emotion behind a piece of copy would make it more complicated than it needed to be and lead to the point being missed. As such, his copy was never vague.
Instead, he would always get straight to the point. Some considered his writing to be too straightforward and many even suggested that it was borderline rude.
However, there is no possible way to doubt the results of his style. As mentioned, several companies owe their success and even their recovery on the market to his style of writing.
No Images Or Extras
According to Powers, words are the true tool of a great copywriter. He would never use pictures, diagrams, or illustrations in his copy. This, he believed, was just one more way to either exaggerate a point or suggest something to a reader that likely wasn’t true.
Pictures simply wouldn’t have fit with his style of writing and many still hold the belief today that if the copy is good, then pictures aren’t required. This is all about ensuring that you strike the right tone from the opener and keep the attention of the audience throughout the entire piece.
We hope this helps you understand some of the key lessons of the copywriting lessons of John Powers. Ultimately, he was a firm advocate of telling the truth.
Powers did believe that advertising could be used to sell poor products on the market but that this would only work once. That’s why he believed it was so important to be truthful with an audience.
He suggested this would ensure a company had the right level of integrity. These days, it’s the secret ingredient to ensuring that the perception of a brand continues to remain positive in the eyes of the customer.
(For more insights from pioneering advertisers, see also: Copywriting Lessons from David Ogilvy)