If you can’t understand it, you can’t write about it

selling the invisibleOver the last six months, I’ve noticed an alarming rise in two things – and they’re not entirely unrelated. The first is spam, of course. It’s now reckoned that 80% of all email sent in Europe is spam. Cialis, Viagra, uppers, downers, hot stocks and sexy shares — the torrent continues day after day. The second, though, is more intriguing. It starts with a phone call. “Hello. Is that Kevin? My name is Joe. I’m looking for somebody to write a sales letter for me.” Now I know sales letters. I’ve written sales letters for everything from holiday homes to fish tanks, from bouquets to business services. So I ask for more detail. What is Joe selling? “An internet marketing programme,” he says. “Marketing what?” “DVDs” “Right. And what are the DVDs about?” “Internet marketing.” “Yes, but what are you actually marketing?” “DVDs.” “I see,” I say, but only out of courtesy. If I’m honest, I don’t see at all. So I ask what he needs from me. “A sales letter – one that I can send out and put on my website. But it’s got to be at least 16 pages long.” At this point, I usually politely decline. The brief, as I can understand it, is to write a very long sales letter about DVDs that show you how to market on the internet using DVDs. Apparently, Joe tells me, you can make a lot of money doing it. I bet.  But I have some simple rules when it comes to writing copy – and especially sales letters. First, if I can’t understand what’s on offer, I can’t write about it. Imagine how long Joe’s elevator pitch is. He’d struggle even in the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Second, I don’t do long sales letters, or long web copy. My rule is simple: take as much space as you need. But no more. It’s not that long copy doesn’t work. It does. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t write it. The idea is to address every single objection that a prospect has. By the end, they give in, and buy whatever is on offer. So goes the theory. In fact, fans of long sales copy say it has a much higher conversion rate than short copy. Maybe. But I’m not convinced. My third rules clinches it: I don’t write what I wouldn’t read myself. And when I see a never-ending web page, or a long sales letter, I switch off and move on. Joe and Co. are always convinced that longer is better. Well almost always. Just a few days ago, I had a call from Malcolm. The conversation started out predictably enough: internet marketing, DVDs, sales copy. And then he surprised me. “I’m told long sales copy works best,” said Malcolm. “At least 16 pages. But personally, I’d never read that. Straight in the bin, chop chop. [He was a military type] Two pages, max.” So I took the job, right? Wrong. You see, I have a theory that this sort of hard sell works only with long copy. It’s such a nebulous offering that you need 16 pages to talk your way to a sale. It’s the copy equivalent of foot-in-door selling. And that’s not my style. So I made my excuses, and left Malcolm to his quest for long copy. Meanwhile, I got back to cleaning up my spam folder. Just 359 and counting. [NOTE : names have been changed]