Improve copywriting with “experienced-based empathy”



By Robert W. Bly


            In one of his lectures, AWAI co-founder Michael Masterson told his audience – mostly new and aspiring direct response copywriters – “I highly recommend you have children.”

            Copywriter John Forde also advised his readers to have children in a recent issue of his Copywriter’s Roundtable e-zine.

            Michael and John want you to have children not just to experience the joys of parenting, but because it will make you a better copywriter.

            How so?

            The most crucial part of copywriting is your ability to understand your readers -- and reach them on a deep, emotional, personal level. And the more you are like the people you are writing to … the more experiences you have shared with them … the easier it is to be empathetic with them.

I call it “experienced-based empathy.” It means being able to relate to a person because you are in their group or have common experience or background.

            Experienced-based empathy is a powerful technique. Not only does it enable you to get inside the minds of your prospects in a way other marketers can’t. But you can actually use it in your copy to forge an instant connection with your reader, e.g., “As a CPA, I know all too well how time-consuming it is for a busy accountant like you to keep up with constant changes in the tax code.”

Of course, you cannot become a member of every target market you write for: you can’t be all things to all people. A man, for example, can’t be a woman (for the most part). Therefore, one can argue that a female copywriter is a better choice to write ads for feminine hygiene products, bridal gowns, or cosmetics.

            As a rule, the more well-rounded your knowledge, and the more experience you have in life, the wider the range of audiences to which you can write with strong empathy and understanding. But you can’t know everything about everything.

The solution? Broaden your knowledge and experiences, but do so selectively. The best areas in which to acquire new knowledge and experiences: markets you want to write for, as well as characteristics or habits that are widespread rather than unusual.

For example, the “norm” in America today is to have children, not to be childless. Therefore, if you never have children, you distance yourself from your readers who are average people. In addition, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the responsibilities and emotions of parenting, because you haven’t been there.

            Do I think you have to be a golfer to write good copy for golf clubs, golf balls, or golf books or videos? It’s not mandatory. But if I had to choose between two copywriters of otherwise equal experience and ability to write my golf ad, and one played golf every weekend and the other had never played, I’d probably choose the golfer. If you are a golf-playing copywriter pitching a golf account, it can’t hurt to let them know you’re a duffer.

            I do believe copywriters should pick and choose their projects based, in part, on their knowledge of and experience with the product and its market. For instance, at the beginning of my career, when I badly needed the work, a book publisher offered me a project writing direct mail packages for books on hunting and fishing. I turned down both topics – the hunting and the fishing – for slightly different reasons.

            Hunting was easy. It sickens me. I love animals. I could no more write enthusiastic copy about killing a warm-blooded animal than I could write copy telling people to smoke cigarettes.

            I do not have the same problem with fishing. I have gone fishing. My older son likes it, and fishes off the dock of our weekend lake house. My father loved fishing with a passion.

            I’ll do it. But I don’t love it. And so I turned down the assignment to write copy for fishing books.

 I understand fishing well enough to write empathetically about its positive points. Fishermen are usually nice people. But I told the client that plenty of people – and copywriters – love to fish. I advised him to find a copywriter who is passionate about it. I only tolerate it.

            In business-to-business, “becoming your prospect” can be even more difficult. I once wrote copy for a company whose products were sold to orthopedic surgeons. It was not realistic for me to become an orthopedic surgeon just to write better copy for this client (even if I wanted to, I couldn’t get into med school).

            On the other hand, I knew an account executive at an industrial advertising agency assigned to a welding account. To better understand his target market, he took courses at night and became a certified welder.

            I am a chemical engineer, so during the first half-decade of my career, I worked largely with industrial clients, particularly in chemical processing and related industries. Not only did I understand the client’s prospects better, but engineers working for my clients felt more comfortable talking with me, knowing I was one of them and not a typical “ad guy.”

            When home computers were introduced, there were more copywriting opportunities in high-tech than in industrial marketing. I enrolled in night school and trained as a Certified Novell Administrator. Again, by training to become an IT professional in a class full of IT professionals, I became better able to understand and empathize with IT professionals on a deeper level. 

While I’m not recommending you totally change who you are, here are some suggestions that can enable you to market more confidently to a broader range of prospects:

1.      Read widely in many different fields – not just marketing.

2.      Seek out new experiences – snorkel, sail, rock climb, build a new deck. If you volunteer to feed the homeless at a shelter, do you think that would improve your copy to raise funds for your client’s homeless shelter?

3.      See popular movies – the ones grossing $100 million a year or more.

4.      Get married, have children, adopt a dog or cat (or both) from an animal shelter. This will allow you to experience emotions you might otherwise miss.

5.      Whenever possible, buy and use your clients’ products. Own shares of their stock.

6.      Talk to people. You may discover that a relative, neighbor, or friend can give you insight into a group they belong to (Vietnam veterans, boat owners, Wiccan) that you might have to sell to some day.


            About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 70 books including The Copywriter’s Handbook (Henry Holt & Co.). His e-mail address is and his Web site address is