Gary Halbert was a tremendous inspiration to aspiring copywriters from the mid-1980s until his death in 2007. His regularly published columns with his secrets of great copywriting, The Gary Halbert Letter, were eagerly pored over by newcomers and seasoned professionals alike.
Halbert’s style was a bit flamboyant, and sometimes salty, but he understood how to get to people’s hearts and move them to action.
In one of his famous newsletters he revealed what he called “the most powerful and important technique of all when it comes to writing copy.”
The basis of this technique was his belief that you’d never write great copy by going into your own imagination and trying to come up with something that would work.
In order to really be successful, you had to find out as much as you could about your prospects – who they are and what they want. From that intimate knowledge you could gear your copy to be in alignment with the interests, needs, and values of the people you were trying to sell. He summed up the concept in the following haiku-like instruction:
More Answers Will Be Found
Through Movement Than
Will Ever Be Found Through
Halbert said that deliberately trying to be clever and creative, to “dream up” an ad that would work, was a very “dumb” way to approach writing. You couldn’t possibly make up something in your head that would work.
Really great copywriters were willing to “become intimately involved” with the people they were trying to sell. They were willing to talk with them, meet with them, discover the secrets of their hearts and minds. From that knowledge great copy would flow – not necessarily copy that sounded clever, but powerful copy that spoke directly to prospects and motivated them to order the product.
To help copywriters accomplish this, Halbert suggested five steps to take that progressively led to closer interaction with prospects and the discovery of what it would take to sell them. Some of these are pretty extreme, and some are maybe a bit outdated, but they are also highly educational.
And if you’re a business owner who is trying your hand at copywriting for the first time, this would be an ideal program to follow. So let’s look at Halbert’s technique for writing better copy as summed up in these five steps.
Step #1: Get a Printout of the Names and Addresses
And then Read that Printout!
Reading Halbert’s description of how he looks at an address list, and all the information he can glean from it, you feel like you’re watching a genius at work.
First he looks at the composition of the people on the list. Are there more men or women? Do the names indicate that the people generally favor one ethnic group over another? Are they Latino? Asian? Do they sound Muslim, Jewish, or Christian? Are they the type of people who use their full names, or do they tend to use initials? Do they have titles, like Doctor, or Professor?
Now look at the addresses. What part of the country do they favor? Do they live in big cities or in rural areas? Do they live in apartments, multi-family dwellings, or one-family homes?
What kind of neighborhoods do they live in? If you know the area well yourself, you can tell by the names of the cities and towns. If you don’t know the area, you can research the demographics of different ZIP codes. That will tell you if people tend to be wealthier or poorer.
Can you believe all the gold you got just by looking at mailing labels? That’s just the beginning. Let’s move on to Step #2.
Step #2: Look At The Mail You Receive From Your Customers
If your company receives mail from people, it is very instructive to look at it. Don’t read it (that comes later). For now, just look at it.
Now this may not work for you if most of your interaction with customers is over the phone (people no longer have to pay for long-distance calls like they did in the 1980s) or by email.
Still, even a small amount of actual letters or order forms may be instructive, although they will probably represent a limited sample of your customer base.
You can tell if letters come from a computer printer, a typewriter, or if they’re handwritten. Do they have the spidery handwriting of an elderly person, or is the writing firm and robust? Are letters written on expensive stationery, or are they written on a sheet torn off a yellow pad? Is the return address label a freebie from Easter Seals?
If people mail in orders, do they pay with cash, money orders, stamps, or checks? If it’s a check, is it written from a joint account or a single-owner account? And is it a plain check or is it illustrated with kittens or American flags?
You’re beginning to get a clearer picture of who your best customers are. You’ll learn more if you go on to Step #3.
Step #3: Now Start Reading Your Mail And Start Taking Telephone Calls From Your Business Customers
Now, actually read those letters, and find out what people are writing about. Are they complaining? Making requests? This will show you what’s important to them and give you clues as to what features of your product and service to stress in your sales pieces.
You’ll learn even more if you talk to customers when they call in with orders, complaints, or questions. Turn it around and start asking them questions. Why did they buy the product? What did they like or not like? Why are they returning it? What would make the product better?
Then try to upsell them and learn what works best. Is a discount effective? Is it better to offer them buy two-get one free? This will teach you just how to position your offer in your sales pieces.
You’ve learned a lot of valuable information. Only the really dedicated will dare to try Step #4.
Step #4: Start Making Telephone Calls To Your Customers
If you’re willing to reach out to your customers and call them yourself, you can really get some great information.
What Halbert suggests is to send a letter to 100 of your best customers, with a dollar bill attached to the top of your first page. In the letter tell the customer you put the dollar bill on the letter to get his attention because you have something important to tell him – and tell him the important information in the letter (maybe it’s about a new product or change to your service).
Then, several days later call him, and remind him of the letter. He will remember it and now you can start a conversation. Ask the right questions, and you can learn more about how to sell to your customers than a thousand creative types who are writing from their imaginations.
Now, only the most sincere will move on to Step #5, and I don’t necessarily recommend you follow it, but here it is.
Step #5: Go Out To Where Your Customers Live And Knock On Their Front Doors And Ask If You Can Come In And Talk To Them
This is pretty extreme, and it’s unlikely many will do this. But sitting at someone’s kitchen table will certainly show you first-hand how your customers live, and it will give you the opportunity to find out what they want, and how to tell them what they want to hear so they make the decision to buy.
Halbert’s main point in taking all these steps is this: “When it comes to writing great copy, it is not so much a matter of knowing how to write as it is of knowing what to write.” You won’t know what to write, until you know who you’re writing to, what they really want, and what sells them the best.
Learn everything you can about your customer, and the writing will take care of itself.