Where Big Money Marketing Hooks Come From

Copywriters can suffer from overwhelm. Finding the perfect hook or transmuting a Big Idea from that pink mush between your ears to a pristine Google Doc can feel like Sisyphos’ eternal struggle to push his boulder up that hill. 

But let me offer young hopefuls a cool and liberating perspective. 

There’s an interesting paragraph inside Joseph Sugarman’s Adweek Copywriting Handbook:

“There are many words that mean the same thing. One day, for example, the hot buzzword in advertising might be positioning. A product is positioned or placed in such a way as to appeal to the consumer. Other terms commonly used are Big Idea, or USP (unique selling proposition), maybe even gimmick. Whatever it’s called, it means basically the same thing.”

When I worked on magazines, we were all about “hooks.”

What were we going to write at the top of the page to get people to read more? Which fifteen words we slap on the front cover will force people who walk into a newsagent thirsty for a can of Coke to walk out with a copy of our magazine?

Hooks, big ideas, positioning, USPs . . .

Are they all “basically the same thing?”

This was one of the inspirations for 80/20 Market Research.

My experience working with personal brands on Twitter had been that your positioning can be so strong that it becomes your Big Idea.

On Twitter, your positioning needs to be articulated in your bio and the way you talk about what you do. What you stand for and against. Your values and beliefs. 

So for me, positioning is a more fluid game than the Big Idea. 

Big Ideas stand alone like lighthouses, while positioning is about finding your own place in the market relative to others. 

Why do Big Ideas stand alone?

Let’s take David Ogilvy’s 1950s television advert for Pepperidge Farm bread as a visual example. Ogilvy didn’t sit there at his desk writing marketing hooks until the words “white horse and wagon” appeared in front of him. 

Instead, he dreamt about an old baker driving his horse and wagon along a country lane on his way to deliver bread. The white horse and wagon transcended marketing mediums and seasonal campaigns and appeared in television adverts for DECADES. 

Ogilvy said Big Ideas come from the unconscious.

“This is true in art, in science and in advertising.” 

On the one hand, Ogilvy’s statement takes the pressure off. 

Big ideas come THROUGH you but they are not OF you. 

You have to summon them by filling up with information, then walking away from your desk and waiting for the lightning bolt. Ogilvy’s the top dawg, who’s going to argue?

You might as well go for an ice cream. 

On the other hand, this is unhelpful advice if you’re writing a new sales page with a looming deadline. You need to be more proactive. 

Enter Eugene:

“You don’t get an idea… you dig it out of the market research and wring it out of the product. You read, you listen, you experiment. The creativity is not in you, it is in your market and your product. All you are doing is joining the two together.”

Gene Schwarz

That’s more like it.

On the mag, we’d go to the pub and chat shit. If someone said something that made the whole table laugh, we made a note. I recall big-hitting direct response copywriter Jim Clair saying he’d “riff” on offers and hooks with his business partner.

The point? Remove yourself from the equation. You are the conduit, not the vessel. The more you agonize over “creating” the perfect hook, the more obstacles you are putting in your own way. 

So chill. Research, yes. But also relax. Reflect.

Let it come.

P.S.P. French

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How to Write Better Copy

I have written for magazines, tech startups, and 19 private clients, but never once have I meditated on how I write. But people kept asking me, so I bookmarked a doc and said to myself I’ll add to it over time if . . .

1/ I have something original to say or
2/ I learn something that proves to be valuable.

This week, I opened the doc and decided to punch it up.

Here’s the result.

One piece of context: respect and success as a copywriter (which is the quickest way to get paid as a writer) come not from the technical quality of your writing but from how you position yourself and the results you get for other people.

That said…

1. Benefit + Curiosity is the only copywriting formula worth remembering.

2. People are more interested in why something is wrong than why it is right.

3. Chicago Style Manual > Cashvertising

4. Rough day? Read Bukowski.

5. It’s OK to start a sentence with ‘but.’

6. The most powerful form of persuasion is genuine compassion.

7. Re-read sales pages for products you’ve bought. Unpack your own belief systems and pain points. Geeky, but obvious benefits.

8. If you’ve wedged yourself in with a deadline (it happens), the quick way out to a “good” headline is to ask:

a) What problem do they have?
b) What one thing matters most to them?
c) What desire are they trying to satisfy?

9. When you’ve got time to write 10+ headlines, make the first one Ben Settle’s go-to:

What it is . . .
What it does . . .
What it does for you . . .

Then try and beat that.

10. Vibe check: don’t write the way you talk, write the way your prospect talks. If they’re loose with screamers (!) and thumbs up emojis, that’s a cross you’ll have to bare.

11. When interviewing a customer, you need to ask “Why?” three times before you get the answer worth using in your copy.

12. Lots of business owners already have great ideas but don’t know how to communicate them.

13. One way to deal with objections is FAQ style. The superior skill is turning them into benefit-driven subheads.

14. Get methodical when you read your copy out loud. Ask yourself if anything sounds too “C-U-B-A”

– Confusing
– Unbelievable
– Boring
– Awkward

15. Powerful verbs trump powerful words.

16. Be wary of ‘of’: often an opportunity to tighten phrasing.

17. Engage the five senses.

18. Use flashbacks.

19. Random analogies are great.

20. The word ‘very’ is as useful as a sled in a sauna.

21. The unique mechanism for brilliance is hard work.

22. Write for clarity. You can write to a 5th-grade level on Hemingway App and still confuse people.

23. A forgotten tactic is “just write.” No ideating. No prepping the page. No diddling with your avatar notes. Take the stabilizers off and freestyle. If editing is about killing your darlings, writing is about summoning them.

24. The best way to talk about new things is with new language.

25. You can name and claim old or common ideas with uncommon phrasing. When I ghostwrite, I read everything the client has written. I pull out the words, phrases, metaphors, and analogies that make them unique. Lots of ghostwriters do this. It’s an obvious starting point. But I’m the first to call it a Lexicon Extraction.

And finally . . .

I encourage you to question all of these. Some are tips, others are tenets, but you must decide which are which. Create your own techniques, draw your own outlines. Mix mine with yours, but build your own toolbox.

One of my all-time favorite philosophies, from Marcelo Garcia, 5x Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion:

“If you’re studying my game, you’re entering my game. And I’ll be better at it than you.”

P.S.P. French

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