9 Copywriting Lessons From John Caples
John Caples was a famous copywriter with talent in mail-order advertising. This guide explores some of the key lessons copywriters can learn using his unique expertise.
John Caples was once labeled as one of the most effective copywriters ever by a peer in advertising.
Caples is perhaps most widely known for a classic ad that he created for the U.S. School of Music during the 1920s which ran in Physical Culture Magazine. The advertisement was a tremendous success and has been imitated by countless copywriters since then.
In 1927, Caples moved to work with Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn. After a few years, Caples claimed the vice presidency position at the company.
Caples wrote numerous books over the years which reference his techniques for successful copywriting.
Below, we’ll explore some of the key lessons that copywriters can learn from his teachings including the power of simple words and the importance of killer headlines.
The Headline Is Key
Starting from the beginning, Caple’s firmly believed that the headline was one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The evidence certainly supports this notion as according to some research 8 out of 10 people will only read the headline.
People tend to scan pages and pieces of text to find key information. The headline immediately captures their attention due to the different font and large letters.
More than a fifth of the books that Caples wrote were based exclusively on how to write fantastic headlines.
Indeed, Caples argued that a copywriter should spend most of their time focusing on getting that headline just right.
He suggested that copywriters should strive to achieve two goals: appeal to the nature of the audience and make the offer clear instantly.
Another point Caples made was that copy should be specific. He noted this in his book ‘Tested Advertising Methods.’
In his writing, Caples referred to the example of statistics.
He suggested that putting 52.7% instead of 50% made a point more powerful and copy more effective as a marketing tool.
Indeed, he provided an example where demand for a business fell dramatically when their reference stats became vague.
According to the expert, being specific will make the copy feel far more credible which will benefit the company as well as the audience. Using specific details will also ensure that your copy seems more authentic to an audience. (see also: How to Use Statistics, Facts and Quotes to Craft Compelling Copy)
Make An Offer They Won’t Be Able To Refuse
As mentioned, Caple’s experience and knowledge were born from the world of advertising. As such, he understood the importance of an explicit hard-sell.
He brought this to his general teachings on copywriting, suggesting that copywriters should always consider the connection between the audience and the brand.
He claimed that the audience is always expecting content to be pitching a product or service. To ensure that the connection remains intact, copywriters should make the aim of the content clear, bringing attention to a specific topic relevant to the market sector.
Copywriters need to show why the content is vital for the specific target audience.
Call To Action
In another of Caple’s popular books ‘Making Ads Pay,’ he provided a seven-point checklist for copywriters. Included in those points was whether or not you make it easy for the audience to act.
A call to action should be a familiar concept to anyone who is creating marketing copy. A CTA informs the audience where to go next on their journey and how to continue while leading them further down the marketing funnel.
It’s a vital part of the sales process. Today this is often in the form of an outbound link with ‘click here or ‘get in touch now.’
According to Caples, this next step needs to be enticing and exciting.
The journey to a sale begins with an eye-catching headline. It should end with a CTA that is just as appealing and will make an audience want to continue further down the path they have started. (see also: Master Hard and Soft CTAs for Superior Sales Writing)
Caples was perhaps one of the first major copywriters to suggest that a scientific approach was needed to deliver the right results. He was interested in using quantifiable methods to guarantee that copywriting methods were successful.
Caple’s recognized that subjectivity was always going to be a part of copywriting. However he believed this made testing even more important.
Testing, according to him, allows copywriters to skip the question of opinion or personal opinion to find what truly makes a great copy.
He believed that testing would also ensure that mistakes were not being made due to copywriters believing in certain misconceptions about advertising. He also suggested that through testing copywriters could ensure that they were always up to date with the latest trends.
Caples understood that copywriting would constantly evolve. What worked today may not be as effective tomorrow.
Get Your Ego Out Of The Way
Caples knew that simple words could be far more beneficial in marketing compared with complex ideas. It’s easy for copywriters to want to express their intelligence or show off their creativity with artistic choices and literary wonders.
Caples knew that the point of copywriting wasn’t to write the next great piece of word art. He warned that writers who could not forget their ego would end up with beautiful writing that was ultimately bad writing.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that copy shouldn’t make sense or utilize the correct grammar in punctuation.
The basics need to be intact but copywriters should focus on what they are saying more than how they say it. Blunt, focused language is more effective than writing that is beautiful and yet vague.
Copy must be clear and provide the right level of clarity for the audience. In other words, it’s not about writing big words or showing the power of your vocabulary. To write great copy, it’s best to focus on the work of Hemingway.
You need short sentences with simple language that anyone can understand.
Provide Long Copy
It has been debated whether a long-form copy is more effective than shorter pieces. Particularly in the world of countless digital platforms that don’t support this style of writing. However, according to Caple’s long copy is a more effective sales option compared with a shorter style copy.
It just needs to be written the right way. The copy should be fun, engaging, and interesting.
You need to spur the reader to continue reading and keep grabbing their attention.
Separating the copy into different points and sections is the best way to do this. It allows the reader to skim through various parts.
Caples also suggested that visuals should be used to ensure that the reader’s attention does not wander. Referring to the previous lesson, it’s important that long-form copy does not transform into waffle or drivel.
Despite being longer, it still needs to have a focus and be easy to read. If you don’t achieve this goal, a reader will lose interest halfway down.
Write More Than You Need
Caples suggested that copywriters should always focus on writing more than they need. By creating more copy than is necessary for a piece, he argued that writers would have plenty of copy to work with.
Caples believed that copywriting is as much about editing a piece as it is creating it.
Once copy has been produced he suggested that writers should focus on cutting out parts that weren’t important while sharpening elements to ensure that it was more effective.
Copywriters need to work to:
Get The First Paragraph Right
Caples claimed that millions of advertisements that had been created were left unread because of issues with the first paragraph. He believed that the first paragraph had the power to potentially either make or break a sale.
According to him, there were a number of ways to improve the first paragraph. First, it’s important to warm up by writing recklessly at first.
After getting plenty of words down on the page, writers can then siphon through to find the right starting point.
When you are happy with your first paragraph, make sure that you do get advice from an expert or a fellow copywriter.
The best copywriters will be able to read through the copy that you have created and highlight the section that should be your starting point.
Finally, it’s important to get the right amount of rest. If you constantly push yourself you will quickly burn out and your ability to produce a great starting point will slowly fade away. You need a clear mind to find the right first paragraph.
Caples is widely seen as one of the best copywriters to have ever lived. While he may be gone, his lessons continue to live on and his books that were written decades ago are fundamentals that marketers continue to use, when honing their skills.
Follow these lessons and you will take your copywriting to the next level. Your copy will be more effective at connecting with the audience, helping you land the sale.
(For more insights from pioneering advertisers, see also: 8 Copywriting Lessons from John Powers)