February 3, 2011How to apply David Ogilvy’s sales technique to web copy
I’ve spoken before about how much I rate Tom Albrighton’s work as a copywriter. I’m also a fan of Ben Locker, in Colchester (Glad you’re not in London, Ben!). What have these two guys got in common? They’re both big fans of the “father of modern advertising,” David Ogilvy. So much so, in fact, that Ben recently produced a long-copy print ad in Ogilvy’s style as an experiment, testing whether or not long copy works. Well, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, too.
Who the hell is David Ogilvy?
Well, first things first, let’s be clear. David Ogilvy is not Don Draper. In Mad Men, Don prides himself on his creativity, his appeal to the emotions and, above all else, the fact that he’s “never written anything that’s longer than 250 words.” In many ways, Don represents the advertising world as it’s become: an emphasis on short copy, striking design and appeals to the senses, rather than to the rational consumer: don’t make them think they want it, make them feel it.
Ogilvy’s old school. He emphasises the importance of research, as well as tried and tested formulae — his book Ogilvy on Advertising devotes a considerable amount of time to telling the reader why they should never set white type on a black background, as well as why a 6,450 word ad in the New York Times was one of the most successful of all time.
I’m inclined to believe in short copy, particularly on the web. I tell my clients “stick to 300 words per page, preferably less, or people won’t read it.” Blog articles are the only exception to the rule. Even then, never use more words than is absolutely necessary to get your message across.
Ogilvy suggests a simple formula for print ads:
- A large photograph taking approx. 3/4 of the page.
- A headline of up to 9 words.
- 240 words of “editorial” style copy.
Ogilvy’s ads look a little dated and slightly corny now. But that’s only because they worked so well, everybody copied them — and they became overused.
Adapting Ogilvy’s technique for the web
When I launched my site, the front page consisted of three “sliders” with a little over four sentences on each. It looked beautiful. Designers praised it. But it didn’t convert.
I asked myself why and came up with an answer: it told people what I did, and what I believed in (“simple” copy). But it didn’t give them a reason to choose me.
So I decided to be more combative. My first page is as it always was: a picture of me and a description of what I do. I agree with Ogilvy: it helps to show a picture of the product. You’re buying my time — you’re not buying a typewriter. So my page features pictures of me, not copywriting cliches like clipart typewriters, pens, bottles of whisky, etc. My second page I changed to an argument, directly adressing the reader: telling them “their copy sucks” and I could do better. My conversion rate doubled.
But it’s still far from what Ogilvy suggests.
Ogilvy suggests the following “magic formula” for generating sales:
- A long headline (10 words) that offers helpful information or news
- This inspires up to 75% more people to read the copy, copy that should
also explain the benefit to the customer
- A clear indication of price, as well as the suggestion of any discount.
How many people would walk into a shop without price tags?
This is combined with his golden rule: advertising is never about guesswork, it’s always about research.
Using Google analytics, I noticed the following:
- Twice as many people (39%) viewed the “three sliders” as viewed the next nearest page, “about” (18%).
- At least half, and maybe more of the people who viewed this page, were web designers or digital agencies who’d come to look at the site’s design.
I’d previously written off most of these visitors as unconvertable — they’re not here to view the merchandise, they just like the design of the shop. Yet designers and agencies need copywriters — in fact, every one of these people is a potential sale.
It wasn’t a huge leap of faith to assume that my site wasn’t converting because it wasn’t speaking directly to its target audience. Using the techniques suggested in Ogilvy’s book, I came up with this:
The changes I made (and the changes you should make, too):
- Targeting each type of visitor and selling to them directly
- Being specific, open and up-front about price (even making it a feature)
- Providing information under headlines that promise it.
- Using print techniques like bold and underlining to highlight the message
- Eschewing “fancy” design — letting the words speak for themselves.
Is Ogilvy right about competing on price whenever possible?
With the exception of a couple of introductory offers, I haven’t raised or changed my prices in over two years. I’m now charging approximately 25% less per day than the average copywriter. Meanwhile inflation is running rampant at 4.8% and the price of petrol is almost double what it was in 2008. I have my own central London office that’s about 200 yards from the Thames. These things aren’t cheap.
So I figured there were two ways to make money: either start charging more, or find a way to increase my conversion rate. I’ve always agreed with Ogilvy on one thing: the price is always a selling point. It’s why I’m amazed more copywriters don’t even give ballpark figures on their websites, let alone a simple, transparent rate.
Again, I’m using research: more people find my site via Google through price related keywords like “rates” “copywriting rates” “price per word” etc than any other way.
So I’ve made my prices a major selling point — as well as explaining why this actually enables me to offer a better standard of service to my customers. If Ogilvy comes through for me and my conversion rate increases, I’ll be able to keep my prices low. If not, I guess I’ll have to raise them for the first time since August, 2009.
It’s a gamble. Will it pay off? Like Ben Locker, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and testing whether Ogilvy’s techniques still work. Watch this space.