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Copywriting Heresy: “I” can be a more powerful and effective word than “you.”

Originally published on LinkedIn December 13, 2015

Years have passed since the high-tech entrepreneur showed me a letter he wrote. My copy of it has long since gone to the recycling bin, but it had quite an impact on my career. Best I remember, the structure was something like this:

Dear Personalized:
     When I was a Name Department head, I was frustrated by my inability to get XYZ Routine done. • I thought about it and came up with Routine Mate. • Routine Mate comes with a 2400 ABC feature, a 52-inch DEF, and a 25-pound GHI in a 3-ton JKL. • Routine Mate costs $(price of subscription) and new customers get (offer). • In the middle of the night, the 2400 ABC triggers the DEF and moves your XYZs under the GHI in the JKL. • Call for more information. • See how Routine Mate (here’s the value prop) automates and completes XYZ Routine without interrupting workflow.

Let’s see, he doesn’t get to the value proposition until the last sentence. The price and offer pop up out of nowhere, buried in the middle. It comes after a list of features, not benefits. And what about all that I, I, I?

Still, this copywriter scratched his head.

The Personalized in the salutation is a Name Department head. The author of the letter feels their pain and worked on a solution. These department heads know what those features are and do. To spell out the benefits is to insult their intelligence.

If the price and offer are as good as I suspect they were, the author surprises them with high value, even before he shows them how the pieces work together. The value prop sums it up.

More important, the letter oozed with a sincerity not recreated above. Reading the letter, I came to like this client. I trusted him. I believed every word he said.

A little more than a year after I saw that letter, I went to work in a direct marketing ad agency. We worked on big brands. We wrote letters. And I was fortunate enough to be in a group that encouraged experimentation.

I learned that I can establish rapport.

I can be genuine, even candid.

I can be modest and self effacing.

Or I can be earnest and forthright.

I can make you laugh.

Or cry.

I can personify all the values in that tome of a guidelines book creative people have to work from. In fact, you may hate the big-bad, Dow-30 company that I work for. Yet Imight be able to get you to like and care about meYou might like what I do for youinside this company.

In short, I can build your brand even as I convince you to engage or spend money.

None of this is to say that a copywriter should overdo it. There has to be something in it for you. And that something has to come through loud and clear.

In retrospect, there were probably a lot of ways we could have improved that Routine Mate letter. We could have moved points around, fixed awkward phrasing and killed redundancies. It definitely could have been shorter.

Not having the letter in front of me now, I don’t know if these efforts would have made the letter stronger. Or just slicker. More copywriter-ish.

We never heard from Routine Mate again and from what I’ve learned about its niche since, I doubt the service succeeded. (Contact me privately if you’re curious about what it was.)

Still, I remember that letter.

We’ve all had know-it-all clients who write their own copy and make us throw up our hands in disgust.

This time, I threw them up in humility.

Why bad advertising is harder to write than good.

Big Google and Me