There I was, noodling around, and the grand old man walks straight in through the wall. I couldn’t believe my lying eyes.
Naturally I dropped everything, sat him down in the conference room, hit the record button, and here’s the result …
Daniel Levis: So John, why don’t we start by having you give our dear readers a little background on you? How did you get into this racket?
John Caples: After leaving the naval academy in 1924 I went to work for New York Telephone and it bored the daylights out of me. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer at the NY Telephone Company, or anything even close.
So I paid a career counselor a tidy sum to help me figure out what kind of a career suited me, and that I could be happy in. Her written report was full of my shortcomings and unsuitability for most of the areas I had indicated an interest. Yet at the very end – I suppose in an effort to add some encouragement to an otherwise dreary assessment – she offered, “I would not discourage you in your ambition to become a writer.”
I took her advice, and enrolled in courses in copywriting at Columbia University, and in the fall of ’25 I was offered a job at a mail order agency at $25 a week, $6 less than I was making at the phone company. Of course I jumped at it.
Most of the copy I was writing was for home study courses. You know, things like improving your mind, learning a new language, improving your business skills, and of course, learning to play the piano.
Today, I think you call those info-products.
I loved my new job. I still remember my first big homerun. The headline went, “They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano – But When I Started to Play!” That ad put me on the map. Not because it was cute or clever, but because it produced results. Orders!
Mail order was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget the time I went home for Christmas one year. I could feel the pride welling up inside me as I showed my dear Mother my proof book, which contained some of the ads I had been working on at the time. I thought she would be so pleased with what I had achieved.
But her response just about knocked me off my chair. She read my headlines OUT LOUD, and with increasing concern …
“Fat men … Try This New Reducing Belt”
“Overnight, I Stopped Being The Underdog!”
“60 Days Ago They Called Me ‘Baldy’!”
Then she asked me questions like, “Can you really learn to play the piano through the mail?” and “Does this book really give you a magnetic personality?” Before long she closed the book up and said, “You had better not let your father see this”.
Then in ’27, I had a chance to take a position in Bruce Barton’s agency, BBDO, which was at the time one of the most prestigious agencies in the country. And so I took it.
Soon my ads were appearing in Harper’s Monthly, The Atlantic, and The Saturday Evening Post. And as they say, the rest is history.
Needless to say, my Mom was very pleased. I guess all’s well that ends well.
Daniel Levis: What can you tell us about improving the response to our online advertising today?
John Caples: Well in one way, you youngsters today have it a lot easier than I ever did. The hardest thing about advertising is determining the facts. For example, all of the power writing in the world won’t produce a profitable result until you’ve determined the winning appeal. The appeal is the most important thing. And it’s not something you can guess at, or infer from your own prejudices.
You’ve got to test. And testing on the Internet is much easier and less expensive than with any other medium you care to name. On the other side of the coin, because testing is so much easier, so much less expensive, and so much quicker to accomplish online, more people are doing it. And as a result, you’re seeing more direct response style copy than ever before. So rising to the increased level of competition is a challenge.
Still there’s plenty of opportunity to win big time through testing. I have seen one ad pull as much as nineteen times the response of another. Both ads occupied the same amount of space in the same medium, and both had superbly written copy and graphic design. The difference that made the difference was the appeal. One got it right, and the other didn’t.
I’d rather have junior copy and graphic design and a winning appeal, than the most skilful copy and design in the world and the wrong appeal. And finding that right appeal is often difficult …
There are usually many seemingly effective appeals to choose from for a given product, but only one right one. If I had a year to create an ad, I’d spend 11 months researching the appeal, and a month – or even a week – creating the ad. In other words, what you say in your copy is much more important than how you say it. That would be the biggest thing.
Daniel Levis: What do you mean specifically by “appeal”? Can you clarify this idea for our readers, just so we’re all on the same page?
John Caples: Oh sure. An appeal is nothing more than a buying motive. It’s the reason why people want the thing you’re selling more than the money you’re asking for it, and also the phrasing they put around that idea.
Any product you wish to name has many possible appeals associated with it. For example, a life insurance policy can be seen as a means of preparing for an emergency … as a retirement savings plan … as an estate-planning tool … as a way to make sure your children get a first class education if you die … as peace of mind … as a gesture of love and caring by a breadwinner for his or her family. The list could go on. And with respect to any given list or media in which you want to advertise at any given point in time, there is one right appeal that will yield more response than any other.
If you can find out what that right appeal is, you’ve made tremendous strides toward a profitable campaign.
Daniel Levis: So what you’re saying is that on the Internet we need to test different appeals to see which ones resonate with the target audience and produce more sales. But isn’t it true that with long copy we’re trying to exploit as many appeals as we possibly can to get the sale?
John Caples: Well you bring up a good point. On the Internet you’ve got a great deal of freedom as to the length of your message, so long copy is often used. When I say the right appeal, I’m not suggesting you can’t introduce more than one appeal in your copy. You can, but you’ve got to be careful not to cloud the main appeal. What I’m saying is that there is one main appeal that must be emphasized above all others in order to maximize response. And that one main appeal must appear in your headline.
After the main appeal, your headline is the next most important thing to test. Most people when surfing the Net pay scant attention to anything other than the headline when deciding whether they’re interested or not. Your entire success rests on the strength of your headline.
Here’s an example that one of my mentors, Bruce Barton, often gave to show how the same appeal approached differently in the headline can result in widely different results.
The old headline was, “John Smith made $110,000 the first year writing motion picture scenarios.” The results were ho hum. The new headline was “John Smith sold his first motion picture scenario for $9,000 one month after taking this course.” The new headline drew enormously.
Daniel Levis: What makes a great headline?
John Caples: A copywriter who truly realizes their incredible importance. Did you know David Ogilvy wrote 103 headlines and shopped them around the office for reactions before coming up with, “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest sound in the new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock”?
Once you’ve identified the right appeal, I challenge you to write at least 25 headlines around it, and then put them away for a day. Come back to them and try to read them from the perspective of a bored, mouse-happy surfer. Even better, find a few bored mouse happy surfers and let them read your headlines. See if their eyes turn to the copy below, or back at you. Then pick the few headlines that seem most promising, and test them one against the other.
Now to directly answer your question, a great headline has to instantly appeal to the prospect’s self-interest, that’s job one. It’s got to promise to give him something he wants, and wants badly.
Secondly, it can be greatly strengthened by adding a dash of curiosity. Something unusual or paradoxical about the statement of benefit will further induce readership.
Third, it should have news value, bringing the latest developments to the reader’s attention.
And finally, it should demonstrate or imply that the object of desire can be claimed quickly and easily. Self-interest and one or more of the other elements are always found in any good selling headline.
Beyond that, a long headline that says something is more effective than a short one that says nothing. But a short headline that says something is better than a long one any day. In order to stop your bleary eyed reader, you need a short, sharp, stopper that promises something they want dearly. No long-winded statement that requires effort to read and understand will stop them.
One of my favorite tricks is to take a long headline, and punch up the most important part into a short stopper, like this …
CORNS GONE IN 5 DAYS
OR YOUR MONEY BACK
Now there’s a headline that both says something, and is impossible to ignore. The entire sales proposition is right there. The man with foot trouble sees “CORNS GONE” and knows instantly it’s for him … “IN 5 DAYS”, so much the better … “OR MONEY BACK” … sold!
Daniel Levis: That’s great advice. I use that stopper technique all the time and it’s golden.
Now that particular example is the kind of headline you’d use for grabbing attention in a magazine or on a magazine style website when you’ve got a fresh claim to make, but what can you do with your headline to succeed in mature, skeptical markets where that target prospect believes he’s seen it all?
I’m talking about situations where he really doesn’t want to read yet another ad on the subject, either because he’s been burned before and refuses to believe the increasingly wild claims, or just doesn’t believe there is a solution out there that’s right for him. What can you do in cases like that?
John Caples: Great question. The key in these kinds of situations is to stop selling the product in the headline. Instead, you sell information about solving the problem your prospect is still desperate to solve. I once wrote for the hair tonic market, which was a very tapped out market, but did very well with this headline.
How A Bald Barber Saved My Hair
The self-interest is implied, yet no mention of the product claim is there, and there is a paradox that really pumps up the curiosity angle. Also, using the word “how” at the beginning of the headline is a subtle queue that there is a story under the headline. It points to a story underneath. And who can resist a paradoxical story?
Thus you can get in through the backdoor and begin pitching your product once you’ve got him hooked on reading your copy.
Other examples of headlines that promise problem solving information and point down to the copy below are headlines with the word “these” in them, such as “Do You Make These Mistakes In English? Headlines that begin with “How” and “How to” … “Why” … “Which” … and “Advice” also fit this description. These openers – provided the rest of the headline appeals to the reader’s self-interest – all send the message there is value in reading what follows. They have a sort of built in curiosity factor, don’t they?
I would also add that mental imagery is another factor to consider. If you can create an instant mental image in the reader’s mind you have a much higher chance of grabbing his attention and interest. Consider this headline:
The Deaf Now Hear Whispers
There’s something about the word whispers that creates a mental image in your mind. You can’t help but conjure three people, one whispering into the ear of another and the third one left out. Note also the news value implied by the word “Now”, and the paradox between the words “Deaf” and “Hear”.
And if there is another thing I would quickly add, it is the habit of calling out your audience. If you can work some aspect into your headline that shouts, “this ad’s for you”, it is proven to increase response. Such as in the headline:
TO A $25,000 MAN OR WOMAN
WHO WOULD LIKE TO BE MAKING $50,000 …
Note also the way the line is broken. It just drives me nuts to see long headlines that are broken incorrectly like:
TO A $25,000 MAN OR WOMAN WHO
WOULD LIKE TO BE MAKING $50,000 …
Each line of the headline should be as close to a coherent thought as possible.
Daniel Levis: That’s fantastic advice. What can you tell us about writing a good lead?
John Caples: Probably the biggest mistake I see is a lack of directness. What works best is to just carry on very directly from the headline, expanding on the promise. But very often I see writers beating around the bush with their lead, meandering like the Mississippi on the way to the point.
Warm up if you must, but for God’s sake go back and boil off the froth in the editing process. Very often you can just throw away the first few paragraphs, and there’s a great lead sitting right there in the fourth or fifth one.
Copy is like a pot of broth you know. The longer you distil it down to its bare essence the more potent it becomes. Think of yourself writing a telegram, and having to pay for every word you’re going to send. Make your copy telegraphic.
Beyond that your lead should be full of enthusiasm, fact packed, specific, use few adjectives, and above all inspire the reader’s self-interest and curiosity. That’s one of the reasons the story lead is so powerful. It arranges facts in a logical sequence, one leading to the other, and begging the question “where exactly is this going”. Just be sure to make it clear that the story is going somewhere the prospect desperately wants to go.
When in doubt, just be as direct and succinct as you can possibly be, appealing to the prospect’s self-interest with every word, like this.
Play popular song hits perfectly. Hum the tune, play it by ear. No teacher – self instruction. No tedious, ding-dong daily practice. Just 20 brief, entertaining lessons, easily mastered.
Do you see the telegraphic quality?
Daniel Levis: Yes I do, it’s very powerful. What about long copy online? Does it still work?
John Caples: Ah the perennial question: long copy versus short copy. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Generally speaking the more explaining you need to do to get your reader to understand the product’s benefits fully, or the more money it costs, the longer the copy you’ll need.
In many cases, longer copy will work best. But remember, it’s not because it’s long that it works. It still needs to be brief and succinct in the sense that it packs maximum meaning and benefit into each sentence. Remember the telegraph rule. Every word costs you money.
What I advise is to write long, and then cut it back. Distil it down as much as possible without omitting any of the points you’ve determined are of interest to the target market, and prioritizing your appeals from most important to least important.
And then render the copy in logical chunks prefaced with powerful, curiosity inducing sub-heads that stop skimmers and skippers, drawing them into the copy. Finally go back over your copy and edit your sub-heads into a logical summary of your entire sales argument.
That way you can put both short copy and long copy to work for you in the same ad. I doubt that will end the long copy/short copy debate, but it should increase your response.
Daniel Levis: We’re almost out of time. What can you tell us about graphic design? How can we use images more effectively online?
John Caples: Don’t use images as eye-candy. It’s true an image is an attention getter, but tests prove that when images are not closely related to the copy, attention doesn’t translate into sales.
Stick to real pictures. Show pictures of the product you’re selling. Show the product in action wherever possible. Show a person enjoying the rewards of the product, a woman admiring the ring on her finger for example with her fiancée looking on. Show a picture of attainment of ambition, for example a man handing money to his wife, as in the famous ad “Here’s an extra $50 Grace, I’m making real money now.”
Of all the images you can use, the most potent is the disembodied head. There’s no better attention getter than a picture of someone relevant to the product … the seller, the inventor … a customer … looking the reader squarely in the eye, nothing. Even when you have a very small space to work with, you can still crop a person’s picture to fit the space, and draw attention to the copy.
Headshots are also extremely effective in testimonials. They lend believability, and also provide a point of identification for the reader, allowing him or her to see the kind of people who use the product.
Daniel Levis: OK John, we’re out of time. I want to thank you for stopping by and blessing us with this knowledge.
John Caples: The pleasure was all mine.
For more of John Caples’ wisdom, pick up his classic book Tested Advertising Methods.