What Copy Cosmetics Communicate

There’s a debate going on my Copywriters Board about “clean design” vs. “clunky design” with your copy, and how it can or cannot affect response rates.

I’m talking about odd layouts, inconsistent typestyles, emphasis using formatting (like underlining, highlighting, bolding, etc), “junking up” copy, and so on.

For example, on a teleseminar I was giving last week, someone asked “I see so much copy with poor design and bad grammar with spelling mistakes — is it intentional or just plain bad copywriting?” It’s even talked about on my board right now.

Which reminds me…

There’s the story of the Five Bell Pub. One day, a passerby noticed on the outdoor sign where normally five bells were hanging that there happened to be only four bells.

So he enters the tavern and asks the bartender, “Mate, don’t you know you have only four bells hanging outside your Five Bell Pub?” “Ah yes, I know,” said the barkeep. “It’s been like that for ages, but I’ve been so busy that I never had the time to fix the sign.”

He then adds, “While you’re here, what kind of ale would you like?”

There are two morals to this story. One is that people will always have an inclination to correct others. Call it pomposity, or call it courtesy. It doesn’t matter. You can never please all the people all the time, unless you were to write a salesletter for each and every single individual in your market.

The other is that some mistakes are intentional. Some copywriters will purposely add typos to involve and engage the reader, and draw attention to a key point. But as one board member eloquently put it, “You got to know the rules before you break them.”

There is a difference, however, between strategically placed yet occasional spelling mistakes to generate curiosity and business, versus a lackadaisical attitude toward grammar that will only reflect on the quality of your business overall.

That said, I’m not perfect and I do have errors. Typos or otherwise. And they are not intentional. And when they are pointed out, I always fix them, thank the person and even reward them.

But there’s a difference between people who point out a simple typo versus the Grammar Gestapo who will hang you for treason if your copy doesn’t meet Harvard standards. There’s a difference between grammar and style; between being conversational or informal, and being ignorant or, worse yet, illiterate.

Here’s an interesting article on my blog about VAL or “Venue Appropriate Language.”

But to me, the issue really boils down to one important truth: credibility. (Or the lack thereof.)

As technology evolves, people are becoming more and more sophisticated. Our jobs as copywriters are becoming increasingly more important if not tougher. But before I expound, I’d like to clarify a few things.

Sure, believability, credibility, trustworthiness, proof, credentialization and so on have always been crucial and fundamental components of copy.

When people say, “How do you write copy for an audience that has become more jaded, cynical, skeptical, cautious, blah blah blah,” I kind of laugh because I don’t think they are “more.”

They have always “been.”

It’s the increased availability of information nowadays that has caused a growth in all types of markets and marketers.

More and more consumers are becoming jaded in some markets (like, say, Internet marketing), just as much as more and more people who are naive (in one way or another) are entering other markets — as well as more and more marketers are becoming sneaky, crafty, creative, and insidious in trying to scam people.

Proof in copywriting is such an essential component, but sometimes it’s left to be desired by some rookie writers. Thankfully, some copywriters are starting to get it. (Although we still have a way to go yet.) And while our jobs will be a challenge to come up with different ways to prove our case, there are some basic things we can do to communicate it, even if subtly.

And that includes the message you communicate as well as the message you imply. “Implication is more powerful than specification,” a mentor once told me. And the image you project, the quality of your copy and the packaging of your product (which includes the design of your salesletter or website) imply credibility.

To the issue of “good design” versus “good response,” to me that’s somewhat of a non-issue because we are debating the wrong things. Why? Because good design has spoken and will always speak volumes of the quality of the product and service you deliver.

People will have tendency to judge your business by the quality of your appearance. And that has never changed. When people say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” the fact that such a saying exists means that we do. Regardless of how unfair it is or how much we want to change how the world thinks.

It’s just human nature, pure and simple.

Here’s my thinking.

Clunky, shoddy or cluttered design has a place in copywriting. Marketers will profess that the “value is in the content,” and that “why pay for the packaging and the glitter and the fluff?”

There will always be a need to be more personal, less contrived and more creative with your copy — such as the use of cosmetics to ramp up your response.

In my split-tests, I have found that formatting to add emphasis, like underlining, highlighting, italicizing, etc, do increase response. But the rule here is “use sparingly, judiciously and strategically.”

Tests show that used moderately to emphasize key words and key points, formatting increases response. It also helps skimmers.

Offline and online is different in this regard. Online, people skim. A lot more than offline. So you need “speed bumps” to stop people from scanning.

Use formatting to create eye gravity. But if you overdo it, then you muddy your message in a sea of highlights, bolds, underlines, whatever. You cause the rest of the message to blend together, appearing like one big blur, and losing the effect you wanted to create with highlighting in the first place, which is to draw attention to a keyword or phrase.

Just as much as you need to write to be scanned and not to be read, you want people to scan so they can stop to read key elements in your copy in order to get them to start reading — not emphasize so much that you invite them to keep on scanning. That’s why overuse can kill your response. Add too much, and it will become counterproductive.

Overall design, however, is a bit different. When I say “clunkiness will always have a place,” it’s because in a world stuffed with fancy design, highfalutin’ corporatespeak, branding-oriented ads and shiny packaging, people have become jaded, but for different reasons.

Big name copywriters say, “Fancy design doesn’t sell, only good copy does.” I totally agree. But it shouldn’t be a substitute for good design, a professional image and a clean message.

True, such things are sometimes used only to be representing a product or service that was later found to be substandard (and therefore leaving people with a bad taste in their mouths). That’s why clunky design, at one point, became quite popular because it spoke volumes in a world jaded with fancy design work.

But they didn’t buy from clunky design because it was clunky. They bought because it was different. And it implied another form of meta-message.

Ah, yes. The meta-message. The message that’s implied. The message beyond the message. Just like body language and non-verbal communication can influence others when you speak, meta-messages in your copy are extremely powerful, too.

There was a show on Dateline NBC where they “tested” the audience after creating a completely fake “skin-moisturizing pill,” complete with clinical trials, scientific data, client testimonials, and fancy, glittery packaging. (Of course, the point of the show is that it was a scam. The whole thing was made up by Dateline’s producers. And the pill? Chocolate powder.)

Interesting show. But this proves something else. You can package a fake product, shoot a professional-looking infomercial, fatten it up with hype, and back it up with madeup credentials.

When “clunkiness” appeared on the scene (more because of Dan Kennedy than any other marketer, in my estimation), people bought because it was different, and not necessarily because it was clunky. The clunkiness communicated a meta-message based on the awareness level of the market.

What “meta-message” you ask? It was this:

“If they spent less money and time on the design, then that means they spent more time and attention on the content.”

That may have been true, but those days are gone. Well not entirely, but let’s just say their “heydays” are gone. When something is overused and abused, it loses its impact over time. It loses it’s uniqueness and “difference.” And that is the point I’m trying to make, here.

(Take the case of red headlines. When they were new, nobody was using them. So they attracted attention, forced people to read, and caused response rates to shoot up. Now, they’re so overused that every bloody salesletter with a red headline looks like, of all things, a salesletter! So response rates are slowly going back down. That’s why I’m starting to see better results with black, and blue, headlines. Just like before.)

Back to the issue of clunky design.

What I call a “UPA” (i.e., an unconscious paralleled assumption, that is they unconsciously assume there’s a parallel between one part and its whole) in this case is that poor design equals poor quality product, service, customer service, etc.

People unconsciously assume that, if the design is shoddy (or the copy is poor), then the product, customer service or company behind it must be just as shoddy.

That has always been the case, because it’s simply human nature. People want good design, professional quality, a sound image, great packaging, etc. Just as good covers or god packaging do sell books. (Which is why Dateline made such a good case with their fake moisturizing pill.) Great packaging does sell products. And great (and great-looking) copy does sell more.

Especially in the long-term.

Because credibility is the ultimate goal. Otherwise, with bad design, their thinking is, “If they can’t take care of their design (their website, their writing, their image, etc), how in the world are they going to take care of ME?”

That’s why, especially to consumers, good design communicates credibility. And while it may have fallen out of favor for a little while, mostly because of the teachings of some top marketers, it’s coming back.

And I would add, “With a vengeance.”

People are more educated and informed than ever before. It won’t stop scammers from lying, cheating and abusing consumers. But at the same time, it won’t stop the need to project a more credible, professional image.

That said, it will put more onus on the copywriter and business owner to find new and creative ways to communicate that credibility, even if it’s indirectly, through “meta-messages.” And yes, it starts with your design, your copy and your image.

As war may seem to rage on between both camps, there’s a reluctant middle, in my estimation, that will become more and more prevalent.

The happy medium, between clunky copy and fancy design, is the use of great copy that’s personal, targeted and conversational (and not third-person, contrived gobbledygook like copy you get from Mad Avenue ad agencies), coupled with professional design that’s clean, builds trust and increases credibility.

Bottom line? Focus on your copy. Then focus on your image. And finally, keep any attempt at being clunky as modest as possible.

Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter, author, speaker and consultant. Watch him rewrite copy on video each month, and get tips and tested conversion strategies proven to boost response in his membership site at http://TheCopyDoctor.com/ today.