Does Your Copy Need a Makeover?

7 Tests That Measure the Verbal Impact of Your Business Message

by     December 1st, 2009    Comments 36 Comments  

Bookmark and Share

2010 SEMMY WinnerCopy. Does yours work for the space you give it?

Does it reach out and grab your readers, not letting go until you’ve got them where you want them? Or does it loaf? A lazy filler of words inside a graphic border, ponderously leading to your contact info?

If you don’t optimize the power of your copy, you handicap your most basic business tool. For the web savvy, I’m not talking about SEO optimizing, and I’m not just talking about the copy on your website. The quality of copy on every brochure, every package, every press release affects your business impression on the world.

Optimized copy gives customers more than something to read. It gives them a reason to care about what you say. It weaves a web of words so compelling, your readers feel what you want them to feel, and do what you want them to do.

Simply put, optimized copy has impact. It drives your readers to action, and that means action for your business.

So don’t settle for lazy copy … put yours to these 7 Impact Tests.

Impact Test #1: The Target Test

Even the most powerfully written copy won’t hit its mark unless you aim it carefully at your target. Ideally, you (or your copywriter) won’t write the copy—won’t even decide what medium to employ—until after you identify and define everything you can about your target audience. You wouldn’t use the same techniques to reach pre-teen suburban girls as you would to persuade retired professional men over 50. That’s why you should define your target audience in the earliest stage of a project … and why this definition should affect every copywriting decision you make.

Does your copy pass the Target Test?

  • Did you define a specific audience before planning your project and writing the copy?
  • Did you consider your target audience’s age, urgent concerns, cultural references, and peripheral interests when writing the copy?
  • Did you research whether your target audience regularly uses the medium or media you’ve chosen to reach them?
  • Did you research what the target audience already knows about your product or service, versus what you want them to know, and did you create the copy to fill that knowledge or image gap?
  • Did you offer to solve a problem or fill a need specific to this target audience?

Impact Test #2: The Reading Level Test

Most experts agree that the average American adult reads at about the 6th grade level, regardless of the highest grade they completed in school. The Reading Level of your copy shouldn’t challenge readers with its vocabulary or sentence structure. That doesn’t mean you “dumb down” the copy. You just make it accessible.

Even highly literate people comprehend lower grade level copy more easily. They often find reading it a refreshing change from the stacks of contracts, proposals, and other verbose professional documents they have to slog through all week. Tired eyes and burned-out minds automatically reject challenging copy, but they might still comprehend a clear, simple message, even at the end of a long day.

You might be surprised to learn the amount of science and research that goes into analyzing the readability of copy. You can even use mathematical formulas, like the FORCAST Readability Formula, to calculate your copy’s readability. But you don’t have to go that far. You can just answer a few simple questions.

Does your copy pass the Reading Level Test?

  • Does your copy use mostly short, simple words that your target audience will find familiar?
  • Did you keep most of the sentences short and to the point?
  • Have you proofread your copy for spelling or grammar mistakes that could confuse the reader—and confuse search engines, if it’s on the web? (Hint: If someone else wrote the copy for you, you should still proofread it yourself!)
  • Regardless of your intended audience, could a typical 6th grader understand almost every word in your copy without using a dictionary?

Impact Test #3: The Hot Button Test

Your copy competes with up to 4,000 other commercial messages bombarding the average person every day. Non-commercial mail, email, news, and entertainment also vie for their attention. Business owners and managers get hit with an even greater barrage.

So how can a copywriter command the reader’s attention long enough to make a sale?

Press the right Hot Buttons.

We all do it … when we want to get a rise out of someone—for good or bad, during a discussion or an argument—we bring up issues that we know will push the other person’s buttons and help us manipulate the conversation.

Hot Buttons in copywriting work the same way. You raise a concern that makes the readers’ eyes widen … and they eagerly scan the rest of the copy to learn more.

Your company might be the world’s best at what you do, but instead of starting out with that fact, start out with the Hot Button that will answer the reader’s ultimate question:


For example, instead of starting with, “We provide the best financial planning advice available,” you challenge them with a Hot Button to wonder, “Will your retirement savings last as long as you do?”

Fear of want is the Hot Button, and many potent Hot Buttons do evoke our deepest fears. But not all Hot Buttons play on negative emotions. Some arouse universal human desires, ambitions, and other impulses that drive us.

Without incorporating at least one Hot Button, your copy will leave readers cold.

Does your copy pass the Hot Button Test?

  • Does your copy raise a prime concern that qualifies as a Hot Button for your target audience?
  • Do you introduce the Hot Button in the first lines of copy the reader will see?
  • Do you follow up with a convincing case that you can help solve the Hot Button problem or help manifest the Hot Button desire for the reader?

Impact Test #4: The Style Test

Copywriting style often ranks low on the list of concerns for business people because they see it as an abstract or trivial aesthetic issue.

But style does matter. The style of your copy directly affects its impact on your readers because: 1) Style effects readability, and, 2) Your target audience will decide whether or not you are “speaking to them” partially based on the writing style.

Regardless of your target audience, you want a clear, concise, and credible style of writing that avoids becoming vague, boring, or difficult to believe. You want to inject humor and personality, or at least wit, where appropriate. Choose inside jokes and cultural references that will “speak” to your target audience.

But don’t assume that conversational-style copy will work, especially if you take the term “conversational” literally. If you listen to the way people speak, you’ll often find their sentences repetitive and dull, loaded with passive verbs like “is,” “are,” and “will be.”

You want strong, active verbs that take a stand … and compact sentences, written in the present tense whenever possible. Compare the impact of these two sentences:

“We are expert consultants and we will be happy to help you quickly reach your business goals.”

“Our expert consultants help you reach your business goals—fast.”

Both say basically the same thing with different styles of writing. But the second version creates a greater impact, demonstrating that style does matter.

Does your copy pass the Style Test?

  • Whenever possible, have you used present tense and active rather than passive verbs for clear, strong sentences?
  • Have you eliminated unnecessary words and phrases, avoided flowery descriptions, and used short, to-the-point sentences?
  • Except for well-chosen buzz words that you know your target audience will understand, have you avoided jargon that might dilute the impact of your copy?
  • Have you promoted your strengths in credible ways, avoiding hyperbole?
  • Have you used well-written humor and personality that your target audience will appreciate, where appropriate?
  • Have you read your copy out loud to hear how well it flows and whether it sounds compelling and persuasive?

Impact Test #5: The Competitive Advantage Test

Your copy can tell readers what you do, brag about how well you do it, and drop names of high-profile clients. But nothing convinces them to use your product or service instead of another as persuasively as explaining your competitive advantage.

Survey some of your successful competitors. Compare their products or services, prices, and terms to your own. Identify every advantage you offer that they do not. Then make sure your business copy shouts those advantages out loud.

Does your copy pass the Competitive Advantage Test?

  • Does your copy emphasize all the ways in which your product or service is different and better than that of your competitors?
  • Have you worked references to your Competitive Advantage into every communication medium your business employs?

Impact Test #6: The Optimum Format Test

Professional copywriters, who work hard to spin captivating prose, would love to believe that the public eagerly devours their every word.

The truth is, most people don’t really read websites, brochures, direct mail, or other promotional material, even when they’re interested in the product or service. They simply don’t have time. Instead, they skim, usually absorbing 10-20% of the copy before deciding whether to ignore it or read more.

How do you get your message through to these time-challenged skimmers?

With Optimum Format.

Even the busiest readers don’t skim haphazardly. If they read anything at all, they read certain sections of your copy first. So you must optimize the impact of skimmer-preferred areas by placing your most persuasive copy there. These power placements might vary according to the medium, but they usually include:

Headlines. If the headlines don’t grab them, they probably won’t read anything else. On the upside, headlines have the greatest impact on a reader’s desire to look further, and a skillfully-written series of headlines can carry enough of your message to clinch a sale.

First sentences. The skimmers’ next stop: the first sentence of each paragraph. Compelling first sentences will make them want to know more.

First point in a bulleted list. Like the first sentence, the first bulleted point draws their eyes down the list.

Last point in a bulleted list. Because it dangles out into white space, skimming eyes sometimes pick up the last point on a list, too.

Photo captions. For those who prefer looking at pictures to reading—after they look—they most likely read the caption.

As I mentioned before, Optimum Format varies with the medium. For websites, the optimization process becomes more complex, because you must ideally optimize for readers and search engines.

In fact, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has become an art in itself, a subject that fills many articles. Briefly, (for those who don’t already know) SEO copy drives traffic to your website by making it easier for search engines to find your site, thus increasing its search engine ranking. A better ranking means your site comes up on an earlier page when someone searches with keywords related to your business.

Coming up on the first page of a Google search doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because a savvy SEO copywriter used the right keywords and phrases in the right sections of your site.

But a good ranking and lots of traffic doesn’t make sales, it only provides you with more potential customers to pitch. That’s why I have a problem with techie ranking consultants who advise clients to ignore or even sacrifice good copywriting on their web pages in favor of some SEO equation (such as, 7% keywords = page one ranking). The copy your visitors read must still grab and convince them, or they’ll move on to one of your competitors who does a better job of that.

Does your copy pass the Optimum Format Test?

  • Does your graphic design distract from the copy’s content or enhance the reader’s ability to absorb your message?
  • Have you formatted for easy skimming?
  • Have you used a legible font and point size, chosen with your target audience in mind?
  • Have you added paragraphs and bullet points wherever they would enhance clarity and ease of comprehension?
  • Have you placed your most persuasive copy in the areas most often read by skimmers?
  • Have you paid special attention to the impact of your headlines?
  • Have you Search Engine Optimized the copy on your website, without sacrificing the overall quality of the writing and formatting?

Impact Test #7: The Action Test

After your copy has passed the first six tests, it still has one more vital mission. It must tell the readers what you want them to do.

If this sounds painfully obvious, do some research and you’ll find that many brochures and even more websites actually give vague or difficult directions for the potential client or customer’s next step, or they fail to mention any next step at all. Others miss opportunities to entice their readers to act quickly.

Does your copy pass the Action Test?

  • Have you clearly and simply told your readers what to do next?
  • Have you made it easy for them to take that action?
  • Have you considered using a limited-time offer as an incentive and have you made the offer’s terms clear?
  • If your fees or prices will soon go up, or your supplies are limited, have you offered that as a reason to act now?

Use these Impact Tests to transform your business copy into the powerful, competitive selling tool it should be, or hire a talented professional to analyze your copy do an Impact Makeover for you.

In any case, never let your copy loaf. Wake up that lazy copy and put it to work!

It’s the verbal face of your business.

Do you believe that Copywriting Analysis and Impact Makeovers—like tightrope unicycling and crocodile training—should be left to the professionals? Call 407-654-3125 and let i. karumbah do the dangerous work for you! Or you can use our email contact form.

Renne Leatto, i. karumbah’s Creative Director and Head Writer, writes … well … EVERYTHING! She provides copywriting and creative consultation for Fortune 500 clients and small businesses, helping them achieve communication, training, sales, and promotional goals. Her screenwriting credits include more than 300 programs for video and television, plus numerous web and multimedia projects. Renne’s work with her co-writer and business partner, Lee Sommie, has won many national awards, including Tellys, CINDYs, and two Emmys.