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The Copywriting List: What Copywriters Have in Common with Jockeys

by Demian Farnworth

Part of the Sales Letter Makeover series.

“You just had to let him run his race … and if he decided to win it, you’d better hold on because you’d be moving faster than a train.”

That’s Willie Shoemaker talking about Silky Sullivan, the popular California horse that Willie rode to hundreds of wins.

At 4 feet 11 inches, Willie Shoemaker was a giant in the world of horse racing. His size no doubt helped, but what truly allowed him to become one of the most successful horse jockeys in the world was his choice of horses.

This Is How Much Power You Have

What does this have to do with you and sales letters? Let me answer that question by quoting copy writing legend Gary Bencivenga:

“Even the best jockey can’t win on a bad horse.”

In other words, if you want to write sales letters that sweep prospects off their feet so they hand you their hard-earned dollars, then you better make sure you are targeting the right people.

You are the jockey. The products you write for are the horses.

The same is true about the list. If you want to be successful, then you need to choose your products and their lists wisely. Great copywriters turn down jobs when they recognize a product or list without a future.

That’s about all the power you have over a product and list that is not yours. But it’s good power to have.

How to Find and Cultivate a Good List

Customers are legion. Paying customers are scarce. You’re job is to fit the product with the right market.

Think about the iPad. It’s a great product, but you’d have to be an idiot to promote it to a list of late-adopting Baby Boomers–unless that’s the stage the product is in.

Selling Viagra? Identify the proper audience (free pony ride for anyone who gets this right) and the little purple boxes fly off the shelves by themselves.

Selling pony rides? Then throw up a sign in rainbow letters that says “Pony Rides $5” and children will come screaming.

As a result, you better know the product inside and out. More importantly, you better know the ideal customer for this product inside out.

Schwartz’ 5 Stages of Customer Awareness

The basic problem, however, for copywriters is that customers are at different levels of awareness when it comes to a product.

In 1966, copy writing legend Eugene Schwartz broke these different levels down into 5 categories. Here’s how he laid them out in his book Advertising Breakthrough:

  1. The Most Aware: Your customer knows your product and only needs to know what the offer is.
  2. Product-Aware: Your customer knows you have a product to sell but is not convinced it is right for him.
  3. Solution-Aware: Your customer knows that he has a need, but he does not know that your product will satisfy that need.
  4. Problem-Aware: Your customer knows that he has an unmet need or desire, but is not sure there is even a solution to his problem.
  5. Completely Unaware: Your customer doesn’t know he has a problem or that there is a solution to it.

Can you see how you might approach a sales letter differently depending on what stage your customer is in?

For example, if you have a segment of customers in stage one, all you have to do is present the offer. This is what magazine’s like Time do. Everybody knows Time magazine, so their copywriter doesn’t waste much space explaining what the product is or even the benefits. They just present the offer: “One year subscription for $29 if you buy before midnight January 1.”

Now, if you have a customer in stage 2, you won’t need to spend much time explaining the product…you’ll spend more time explaining the benefits. Oreck vaccuum’s have great mind share in their product space, but most people aren’t sure why they need an expensive vaccuum. The copywriter has to share the benefits.

People with high-blood pressure know the solution they want–lower-blood pressure–but may not know there are products out there to lower it. You have to demonstrate to them that your product can help them achieve their desired result.

Stage 4 customers know they have a problem–ballooning mortgage payment, for instance–but are not sure what they want or even how to get it. You have to show them the preferred solution, and how your product delivers that result.

Finally, customers in stage five do not know they have a unmet desire or need and do not know their is a product out there. The iPod is a great example. Most people were satisfied with the products available at that time until Apple unveiled a product that allowed you to carry a massive amount of music on a tiny device. The rest is history.

After you’ve investigated the product, your next step as a copywriter is to look at your list.

What to Do When It’s Not Your List

If you are writing for a client, it’s imperative you find out what type of list he has or is buying. If he buys the wrong one or wants to promote a product that won’t fit their demongraphic, and your sales letter flops, you will naturally get the blame.

You need to probe your client about the list BEFORE you accept the gig. Ask questions like:

  1. Who is on the list?
  2. How did they get on the list?
  3. What have they bought in the past?
  4. How have they responded to offers?
  5. Can you see those offers and sales letters?

Here’s the deal: you are the jockey. The the list is your horse. And that horse can make you or break you. Great copywriters don’t become great or rich by taking dysfunctional products and convincing uninterested people into buy them.

In fact, they recognize the impending failure of such a venture and turn down opportunities like that. They know they’ll lose.

In turn, great copywriters sniff out great products, find a crowd of people desperate for that product and promote it to them. With the right copy and the right offer, sales will skyrocket. Which brings me to the next topic: how to write strong copy, which will be the subject of my next blog post. See you then.

Your Turn

Have you given much thought to lists? Your audience? Customer development? If you’re not a writer but manage them, do you think to ask your writers how much they know about your audience? Give me your thoughts in the comments. Brutal and all.

Part of the Sales Letter Makeover Series. Other posts in the series:



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Demian Farnworth

Demian Farnworth is a freelance writer who hustles the finer points of web writing at The CopyBot. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.


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  1. Jake says:
    November 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Now that was funny!


    • Demian Farnworth says:
      November 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      What exactly was funny, Jake? 😉

  2. Milo academy says:
    November 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for sharing .

    • Demian Farnworth says:
      November 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm

      Glad you you liked.

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