The Fundamentals of Persuasive Writing
By Robert W. Bly

What are the characteristics that make copy effective? Why does one ad make a lasting impression and sell merchandise, while another falls flat and doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay its own cost?

Virtually all persuasive copy contains the eight elements described in this article. The successful ad:

  1. Gains attention
  2. Focuses on the customer
  3. Stresses benefits
  4. Differentiates you from the competition
  5. Proves its case
  6. Establishes credibility
  7. Builds value
  8. Closes with a call to action

All ads do not have all eight characteristics in equal proportions. Depending on the product, some of these elements will be dominant in your ad; others subordinate.

Let’s take telephone service as an example. If you are AT&T, MCI, or Sprint, you have a long track record of success and a well-established reputation. Therefore, you will be naturally strong in elements five and six (proving your case and establishing your credibility).

A new telephone services provider, on the other hand, does not have a track record or reputation; therefore, these two elements will not be the dominant themes in the copy. Instead, the strongest element might be number three (benefits the service offers customers) or perhaps number four (differentiation in service resulting from superior technology).

Each product or service has natural strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are emphasized and the weaknesses de-emphasized. But all eight elements must be present to some degree, or the ad won’t work.

Here are the eight elements of persuasion discussed in a bit more detail, with examples of how to achieve each in your copy.

Element #1. Gain attention.
If an ad fails to gain attention, it fails totally. Unless you gain the prospect’s attention, he or she won’t read any of your copy. And if the prospect doesn’t read your copy, he or she won’t receive the persuasive message you’ve so carefully crafted.

There are numerous ways to gain attention. Sex certainly is one of them. Look at the number of products—abdominal exercises, health clubs, cars, Club Med, clothes, beer, soft drinks, chewing gum—that feature attractive bodies in their ads and commercials. It may be sexist or base, but it works.

Similarly, you can use visuals to get prospects to pay attention. Parents (and almost everyone else) are attracted to pictures of babies and young children. Puppies and kittens also strike a chord in our hearts. Appealing visuals can get your ad noticed.

Since so much advertising is vague and general, being specific in your copy sets it apart from other ads and creates interest. A letter promoting collection services to dental practices begins as follows:

“How we collected over $20 million in unpaid bills over the past 2 years for thousands of dentists nationwide”

Dear Dentist:

It’s true.

In the past 2 years alone, IC Systems has collected more than $20 million in outstanding debt for dental practices nationwide.

That’s $20 million these dentists might not otherwise have seen if they had not hired IC Systems to collect their past-due bills for them.

What gains your attention is the specific figure of $20 million dollars. Every collection agency promises to collect money. But saying that you have gotten $20 million in results is specific, credible, and memorable.

Featuring an offer that is free, low in price, or unusually attractive is also an effective attention-getter. A full-page newspaper ad from Guaranteed Term Life Insurance announces, “NOW... $1 a week buys Guaranteed Term Life Insurance for New Yorkers over 50.” Not only does the $1 offer draw you in, but the headline also gains attention by targeting a specific group of buyers (New Yorkers over 50).

You know that in public speaking, you can gain attention by shouting or talking loudly. This direct approach can work in copy, especially in retail advertising. An add for Lord & Taylor department store proclaims in large, bold type: STARTS TODAY... ADDITIONAL 40% OFF WINTER FASHIONS.” Not clever or fancy, but of interest to shoppers looking to save money.

Another method of engaging the prospect’s attention is to ask a provocative question. Bits & Pieces, a management magazine, begins its subscription mailing with this headline: “What do Japanese managers have that American managers sometimes lack?” Don’t you want to at least read the next sentence to find the answer.

A mailing for a book club has this headline on the outer envelope:

Why is the McGraw-Hill Chemical Engineers’ Book Club giving away—practically for FREE—this special 50th Anniversary Edition of PERRY’S CHEMICAL ENGINEERS’ HANDBOOK?

To chemical engineers, who know that Perry’s costs about $125 per copy, the fact that someone would give it away is indeed a curiosity—and engineers, being curious people, want to get the answer.

Injecting news into copy, or announcing something that is new or improved, is also a proven technique for getting attention. A mailing offering subscriptions to the newsletter Dr. Atkins’s Health Revelations has this headline on the cover:

“Here Are Astonishing Nutritional Therapies and Alternative Treatments You’ll Never Hear About From the Medical Establishment, the FDA, Drug Companies or Even Your Doctor...”

3 decades of medical research breakthroughs from the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine... revealed at last!

The traditional Madison Avenue approach to copy—subtle word play and cleverness—often fails to get attention because many people reading the ad either don’t get it, or if they do get it, they don’t think it’s that funny (or they think it’s funny but that doesn’t compel them to read the ad or buy the product). A newspaper ad for New Jersey hospital, promoting its facilities for treating kidney stones without surgery (ultrasonic sound waves are used to painlessly break up and dissolve the stone), carried this headline:

The End of the Stone Age.

Clever? Yes. But as former kidney stone patients, we can tell you that having kidney stones is not a fun, playful subject, and this headline misses the mark. The kidney stone sufferer wants to know he can go to his local hospital, get fast treatment, avoid an operation and a hospital stay, have the procedure be painless, and get rid of the kidney stones that are causing his current discomfort. Therefore, the headline,

Get Rid of Painless Kidney Stones—Without Surgery!

while less clever, is more direct, and works better with this topic and this audience.

Element #2: Focus on the customer.
When writing copy, start with the prospect, not with the product. Your prospects are interested primarily in themselves -- their goals, their problems, their needs, their hopes, their fears, their dreams and aspirations. Your product or service is of secondary importance, the degree of concern being determined by the potential for the product or service to address one of the prospect’s wants or needs, or solve one of their problems.

Effective copy speaks directly to a specific audience and identifies their preferences, quirks, behavior, attitudes, needs, or requirements. A recruitment brochure for a computer consultant firm, for example, has this headline on the cover:

Introducing a unique career opportunity only a few dozen computer professionals in the country will be able to take advantage of this year....

The headline is effective because it focuses on the prospects (Information Systems professionals) and one of their main concerns in life (their career), rather than the consulting firm and its history, as most such brochures do.

Write from the customer’s point of view—e.g., not “our,” “Introducing our Guarda-Health Employee Benefit Program” but “At last you can combat the huge health insurance premiums threatening to put your small business out of business.”

WEKA Publishing, in a direct mail package promoting the Electronics Repair Manual, a do-it-yourself guide for hobbyists and others who want to repair their own home and office electronics, uses copy that speaks directly to the personality type of the potential buyer:

If you’re handy... fascinated by electronics and the world of high-tech... are happiest with a tool in your hand ... and respond to household problems and broken appliances with a defiant, “I’ll do it myself”...

... then fun, excitement, the thrill of discovery, time and money saved, and the satisfaction of a job well done await you when you preview our newly updated Electronics Repair Manual at no risk for a full 30 days.

A good way to ensure that you are focusing on the prospects, and not yourself or your product or your company, is to address the prospect directly in the copy as “you.” For example:

Dear Health Care Administrator:

You know how tough it is to make a decent profit margin in today’s world of managed care ... and how the HMOs and other plans are putting even more of a squeeze on your margins to fill their own already-swelling coffers.

But what you may not be aware of is the techniques health care providers nationwide are using to fight back... and get paid every dollar they deserve for the important work they do.

This direct mail copy, which successfully launched a new publication, works because it focuses on the prospects and their problems (making money from their health care business), and not on the publication, its editors, or its features or columns.

Copy that fails to focus on the prospect often does so because the copywriter does not understand the prospect. If you are writing to metal shop managers, attend a metalworking trade show, read a few issues of the trade publications they subscribe to, and interview some of these prospects in person or over the phone. Study focus group transcripts, attend live focus group sessions, or even accompany salespeople on sales calls to these prospects. The better you understand your target audience, the more you have a feel for the way they think and what they think about, the more effectively you can target copy that speaks to those concerns.

Element #3: Stress benefits.
Although, depending on your audience, your prospects may be interested both in the features and the benefits of your product or service, it is almost never sufficient to discuss features only.

Virtually all successful copy discusses benefits. Copy aimed at a lay audience would primarily stress benefits, mentioning features mainly to convince the prospects that the product can in fact delivers the benefits promised in the ad.

Copy aimed at specialists often gives equal play to features and benefits, or may even primarily stress features. But whenever a feature is described, it must be linked to a customer benefit it provides. Buyers not only want to know what the product is and what it does; they want to know how it can help them achieve the benefits they want—such as saving money, saving time, making money, being happier, looking better, or feeling fitter.

In copy for technical products, clearly explaining the feature makes the benefit more believable. Don’t just say a product has greater capacity; explain what feature of the product allows it to deliver this increased capacity. A brochure for Lucent Technologies wireless CDMA technology explains,

“CDMA gives you up to 10 times the capacity of analog cellular with more efficient use of spectrum. Use of a wideband block of radio frequency (RF) spectrum for transmission (1.25 MHz) enables CDMA to support up to 60 or more simultaneous conversations on a given frequency allocation.”

A brochure for a computer consulting firm tells corporate Information Systems (IS) managers how working with outside consultants can be more cost-effective than hiring staff, thus saving money:

When you augment your IS department with our staff consultants, you pay our staff consultants only when they work for you. If the need ends tomorrow, so does the billing. In addition, various studies estimate the cost of hiring a new staff member at 30 to 60 percent or more of the annual salary (an executive search firm’s fee alone can be 30 percent of the base pay). These expenditures are 100% eliminated when you staff through EJR.

In an ad for a software package that creates letterhead using a PC and a laser printer, the copy stresses the benefits of ease, convenience, and cost savings vs. having to order stationery from a printer:

Now save thousands of dollars on stationery printing costs

Every day, law firms struggle with the expense and inconvenience of engraved and preprinted stationery.

Now, in a sweeping trend to cut costs without sacrificing prestige, many are trading in their engraved letterhead for Instant Stationery desktop software from Design Forward Technologies.

With Instant Stationery, you can laser-print your WordPerfect documents and letterhead together on whatever grade of blank bond paper you choose. Envelopes, too. Which means you never have to suffer the cost of expensive preprinted letterhead -- or the inconvenience of loading stationery into your desktop printer -- ever again.

Element #4: Differentiate yourself from the competition.
Today your customer has more products and services to choose from than ever. For example, a customer walking into a supermarket can choose from more than XX different brands of cereal, XX different brands of shampoo, and XX different flavors and brands of soft drink.

Therefore, to make our product stand out in the buyer’s mind, and convince him or her that it is better and different than the competition, you must differentiate it from those other products in your copy. Crispix cereal, for example, was advertised as the cereal that “stays crisp in milk.” Post Raisin Bran was advertised as the only raisin bran having “two scoops of raisins” in each box of cereal. A cookie maker recently ran a campaign promoting “100 chips” in every bag of chocolate chip cookies.

Companies that make a commodity product often differentiate themselves on the basis of service, expertise, or some other intangible. BOC Gases, for example, promotes itself as a superior vendor not because their product is better (they sell oxygen, and one oxygen molecule is basically the same as another), but in their ability to use oxygen and technology to benefit the customer’s business. Here is copy from a brochure aimed at steel makers:

An oxygen supplier who knows oxygen and EAF steel-making can be the strategic partner who gives you a sustainable competitive advantage in today’s metals markets. And that’s where BOC Gases can help.

If your product is unique within its market niche, stress this in your copy. For example, there are dozens of stock market newsletters. But IPO Insider claims to be the only IPO bulletin aimed at the consumer (there are other IPO information services, but these target professional investors and money managers). In their subscription promotion the IPO Insider says:

IPO Insider is the only independent research and analysis service in the country designed to help the individual investor generate greater-than-average stock market profits in select recommended IPOs.

Lucent Technologies, the AT&T spin-off, competes with many other companies that manufacture telecommunications network equipment. They differentiate themselves by stressing the tested reliability of their switch, which has been documented as superior to other switches in the industry. One brochure explains:

The 5ESS-2000 Switch is one of the most reliable digital switches available for wireless systems today. According to the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) ARMIS report, the 5ESS-2000 switch has the least down-time of any switch used in U.S. networks, exceeding Bellcore’s reliability standards by 200%. With an installed base of more than 2,300 switches, the 5ESS-2000 Switch currently serves over 72 million lines in 49 countries.

Element #5: Prove your case.
Element #4, just discussed, claims product differentiation. Element #3 claims substantial benefits to product purchasers. The reason why these elements cannot stand alone is precisely that they are claims—claims made in a paid advertisement, by the advertiser. Therefore, skeptical consumers do not usually accept them at face value. If you say you are better, faster, or cheaper, and you do not back up your claims with proof, people won’t believe you.

ICS convinces dentists it is qualified to handle their collections by presenting facts and statistics as follows:

The nationwide leader in dental-practice collections, IC Systems has collected past-due accounts receivables for 45,717 dental practices since 1963. Over 20 state dental associations recommend our services to their members.

IC Systems can collect more of the money your patients owe you. Our overall recovery rate for dental collections is 12.4% higher than the American Collectors’ Association national average of 33.63%. (For many dental practices, we have achieved recovery rates even higher!)

BOC Gases tells customers that the gas mixtures they sell in cylinders are accurately blended, and therefore that the composition listed on the label is what the buyer will find inside the container. They make this argument credible by explaining their blending and weighing methodology:

Each mixture component is weighed into the cylinder on a high-capacity, high-sensitivity equal-arm balance having a typical precision of +10 mg at 95 percent confidence. Balance accuracy is confirmed prior to weighing by calibration with NIST-traceable Class S weights. Electronic integration of the precision balance with an automated filling system provides extremely accurate mixtures with tight blend tolerances.

Many stock market newsletters promise big winners that will make the reader rich if he or she subscribes. Since everyone says it, the statement is usually greeted with skepticism. The newsletter Gold Stocks Advisory combats this skepticism by putting their recent successes right on the outer envelope and at the top of page one of their sales letter:

A sample of Paul Sarnoff’s recent high-profit gold stock picks:

Company: Purchase Price: Year High: % Increase/Time frame: Potential profit* on 10,000 shares:
Gold Canyon C70 cents C$10.50 2793% in 14 months C$195,500
Coral Gold C$1.20 C$6.45 438% in 8 months C$52,500
Bema Gold C$2.20 C$13.05 439% in 20 months C$108,500
Jordex C70 cents C$3.75 435% in 6 months C$26,300
Glamis Gold US$1 US$8.88 788% in 84 months US$78,800
Barrick Gold US$4.81 US$32.88 584% in 96 months US$280,700

The most powerful tool for proving your case is to demonstrate a good track record in your field, showing that your product or service is successful in delivering the benefits and other results you promise. One way to create the perception of a favorable track record is to include case histories and success stories in your copy. Testimonials from satisfied customers are another technique for convincing prospects that you can do what you say you can do. You can also impress prospects by showing them a full or partial list of your customers.

Share with readers any results your firm has achieved for an individual customer or group of customers. IC Systems, for example, impressed dentists by telling them that the company has collected $20 million in past due bills over the past 2 years alone—a number which creates the perception of a service that works.

Element #6. Establish credibility.
In addition to the benefits you offer, the products and services you deliver that offer these benefits, and the results you have achieved, prospective buyers will ask the question, “Who are you?”

In terms of persuasion, of the three major topics you discuss in your ad—the prospect, the product, and the product vendor—the “corporate” story is usually the least important. The prospect is primarily interested in himself and his problems and needs, and interested in your product or service only as a means of solving those problems or filling those needs. The prospect is interested in your company only as it relates to your ability to reliably make, deliver, install, and service the product he buys from you.

Yet, the source of the product or service—the company—still is a factor in influencing purchase decisions. In the early days of personal computing, IBM was the preferred brand—not because IBM necessarily made a superior computer at a better price, but because if something went wrong, IBM could be counted on for fast, reliable, effective service and support. As PCs became more of a commodity and local computer resellers and stores offered better service, the service and support reputation of IBM became less of an advantage, and their PC sales declined.

Here are some examples of copy in which the vendor gives credentials designed to make the consumer feel more comfortable in doing business with them and choosing them over other suppliers advertising similar products and services:

We guarantee the best technical service and support. I was a compressor service technician at Ingersoll Rand, and in the last 20 years have personally serviced more than 250 compressors at over 80 companies.

For nearly 100 years, BOC Gases has provided innovative gas technology solutions to meet process and production needs. We have supplied more than 20,000 different gases and gas mixtures—in purities up to 99.99999 percent—to 2 million customers worldwide.

Lion Technology is different. For nearly two decades, we have dedicated ourselves 100% to training managers, engineers, and others in environmental compliance-related subjects. Since 1989, our firm has conducted more than 1,400 workshops nationwide on these topics.

You’ll find some of Paul’s fundamental research in precious metals summed up in his more than 60 best-selling books including Silver Bulls and Trading with Gold. Paul’s unique blending of solid research, combined with an unprecedented record of success in picking gold stocks, may have been what moved one New York Times reporter to dub him “the dean of commodities researchers.”

Credentials you can list in your copy include year founded, number of years in business, number of employees, annual revenues, number of locations, number of units sold, patents and product innovations, awards, commendations, publications, membership and participation in professional societies, seals of approval, agency ratings, independent survey results, media coverage, number of customers, and in-house resources (financial, technological, and human).

Element #7. Build value.
It’s not enough to convince prospects you have a great product or a superior service. You must also show them that the value of your offer far exceeds the price you are asking for it. You may have the best widget in the $100 to $200 price range of medium-size widgets, but why should the prospect pay $200 for your widget when they can get another brand for half the price? One argument might be lower total cost of ownership. Although your widget costs more to buy, its greater reliability and performance save and make your firm money that, over the long run, far exceeds the difference in price between you and brand X.

Stress cost of ownership vs. cost of purchase. The purchase price is not the only cost of owning something. There is the cost of maintenance, support, repair, refurbishment, operation, and, when something wears out, replacement. Therefore the product that costs the least to buy may not actually cost the least to own; oftentimes, it is the most expensive to own!

Example: Several companies are now selling artificial bone substitutes for orthopedic surgeons to use in bone graft operations. As of this writing, a small container of the artificial bone substitute, containing enough material for one spine surgery, can cost $500 to $800.

The short-sighted buyer sees this as expensive, especially since bone graft can be taken from other sites in the patient’s own body, and there is no cost for this material.

But is there really no cost? Collecting bone graft from the patient’s own body adds about an hour to the surgical procedure. With operating room time at about $1,000 an hour, it makes sense to pay $750 for bone material and eliminate this extra hour in the OR.

That’s not all. Often removing the bone from a donor site causes problems that can result in an extra day’s stay in the hospital. That’s another $1,000 down the tubes. And the removal of bone from the donor site can cause infection, which must be treated with costly antibiotics. Also, the removal process can cause pain; how do you measure the cost of the patient’s added suffering? So while $750 for a small vial of artificial bone may seem initially expensive, it is in fact a bargain when compared with the alternative (which, on the surface, appears to have zero cost).

Here’s a simpler example. You need to buy a photocopier for your home office. Copier A costs $900. Copier B costs $1,200. The features are essentially the same, and the reputations of the brands are comparable. Both have an expected lifetime of 120,000 copies. Most people would say, “Everything’s the same except price, so buy copier A and save $300.” Copier A compares itself feature for feature with Copier B, and runs an ad with the headline, “Copier A vs. Our Competition... We Can Do Everything They Can Do... at 25% Off the Price.”

But you are the copywriter for the makers of Copier B. You ask them what it costs to make a copy. Their cost per copy is 2 cents. You investigate Copier A, and find out that the toner cartridges are more expensive, so that the cost per copy is 4 cents. You can now advertise copies at “half the cost of our competitor.”

What’s more, a simple calculation shows that if Copier B is 2 cents a copy cheaper, and you use the machine to make 120,000 copies, your savings over the life of the machine is $2,400. Therefore, an investment in Copier B pays you pack eight times the extra $300 it cost to buy. This is additional ammunition you can use in your copier to establish that purchase price is not the ultimate factor determining buying decisions, and that Copier B offers a greater overall value to the buyer.

If your product costs slightly more up front but actually saves money in the long run, stress this in your sales talk. Everyone knows that the cheapest product is not automatically the best buy; corporate buyers are becoming especially concerned with this cost of ownership concept. Only government business, which is awarded based on sealed proposals and bids, seems to still focus solely on the lowest price. And even that is slowly changing.

The key to establishing value is to convince the prospects that the price you ask is “a drop in the bucket” compared with the money your product will make or save them, or the other benefits it delivers. Some examples:

What would you do if the EPA assessed a $685,000 fine against your company for noncompliance with environmental regulations you weren’t even aware existed?

Now get the special 50th Anniversary Edition of
... for only $4.97 (list price: $129.50)
with your No-Risk Trial Membership in McGraw-Hill's
Chemical Engineers’ Book Club

Another way to establish value is to compare the cost of your product with more expensive products or services that address the same basic need:

The cost of The Novell Companion, including the 800+ page reference binder and NetWare utilities on diskette, is normally $89 plus $6.50 for shipping and handling. This is less than a NetWare consultant would charge to advise you for just one hour... yet The Novell Companion is there to help you administer and manage your network, year after year.

If your product or service is used over a period of time, as most are, you can reduce the “sticker shock” that comes with quoting a high up-front price by showing the cost over the extended usage period. For instance, a life insurance policy with an annual premium of $200 “gives your loved ones protection for just 55 cents a day.” The latter seems more affordable, although the two prices are equivalent.

Element #8. Close with a call to action.
Copy is written to bring about a change—that is, to cause prospects to change their opinion, attitude, beliefs, purchasing plans, brand preferences, or immediate buying actions.

To effect this change, your copy must be specific about the action the prospect should take if they are interested in what you’ve said and what to take advantage of your offer or at least find out more. Tell them to clip and mail the coupon, call the toll free phone number, visit your Web site, come to your store, request a free estimate, or whatever. Specify the next step directly in your copy, or else few people will take it. Some examples:

When you call, be sure to ask how you can get a FREE copy of our new audio cassette, “How to Get Better Results From Your Collection Efforts.” In just 7 minutes listening time, you’ll discover at least half a dozen of the techniques IC Systems uses—and you can use, too—to get more people to pay what they owe you.

For a complementary copy of the SECRETS OF BUILDING A WORLD-CLASS WEB SITE audio cassette, complete and mail the survey enclosed or fax it today to 1 888 FAX 2IBM (1 888 329 2426).

Put BOC’s quality gas solutions to work in your plant—starting today.
Think it’s time to talk with a gas supplier that really knows your business and has real solutions to your problems? Call your BOC Gases representative today. Or visit our Web site at

Bob Bly
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
22 East Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd Floor, Dumont, NJ 07628
Phone (201) 385-1220, Fax (201) 385-1138