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Subscriptions Strategy: The copywriter’s secret agenda - AA Gill and Michael Winner

The copywriter’s secret agenda - AA Gill and Michael Winner


Michael Winner

What does a subscriptions copywriter actually write about? The answer is almost anything apart from your publication. Read on to discover why copywriters and food critics have much in common, and print out our twelve-part list to distinguish good copy from bad.

What makes good subscriptions copy? And do you really need it? What does a copywriter actually do that your staff can’t? Surely, no one knows more about your publication than the people who put the magazine together?

These aren’t casual questions. I have been interrogated by one of the UK’s leading trade publishers about why it took so long (five days) to create a direct mail pack. I’m sure his astonishment was genuine. But perhaps the fact that his staff hadn’t been asked to do the work makes those questions worth investigating.

The answer is, of course, that there are different kinds of writers. Many journalists could write a decent non-fiction book, for example. But they would probably have little success creating a novel. Fact finding and story telling are worlds apart.

Neither could a restaurant critic write a cookery book. Although the subject is still food, somehow that leap is rarely made.

Your writers are part of an editorial team that together creates your publication’s appeal. But let’s look at what this actually means and how some famous writers actually achieve that high regard.


AA Gill

What do top writers actually write about?
The two top food and restaurant writers at the Sunday Times are AA Gill and Michael Winner. They are the paper’s star columnists. Without them, circulation would drop. Those two writers are the reason many people buy the paper each week.

But they don’t actually write much about food. I analysed one of AA Gill’s food articles and just 18% of his 1100 words was about food. It was mostly about the National Health Service and how they wouldn’t be giving fat people hip or knee surgery. That theme went on right into the second page. He wrote just 200 words about the oysters he ate and the oysters weren’t even cooked.

Michael Winner’s article in the same issue carried 17% of his 1440 words on food, even less than AA Gill. He writes mostly about the people in the restaurants he visits and the celebrities he knows.

Why aren’t these star writers writing about food? How do they get readers to respond – to come back week after week, year after year?

Why food writers are like copywriters
Those food articles are directly relevant to subscriptions copywriting and your publication because a good copywriter won’t write much about what you publish in each issue. If that’s what was required all he would need to do is send out a list of forward features. And all a food critic would do is reprint the menu with a score next to each item.

No. Most of the copywriter’s message will be about your readers’ needs and wants and how your information will meet them. That’s where good marketing comes in.

Copywriters and food critics have many things in common. Both jobs are difficult and disguise important truths. Let’s examine what these truths are.

A food writer can’t write much about the food he tries because:

A. What makes a good restaurant is the ambience, not the food

B. Restaurant food in the UK is a mediocre version of overseas cuisine

Many readers will take issue with these statements. Surely we have many great restaurants and chefs? Didn’t we eat in one only last week? Sorry, but no. We Brits know very little about good food and wine. Most of our celebrity chefs would be unable to sell their food in France or Italy at even half the price. Our inferiority complex is why so many of our menus are in French and why food and restaurant critics write about almost anything else than the food — they just can’t let on to us readers how ignorant we all are.

A copywriter’s hidden agenda is similar: he or she is not writing about your publication but about your reader and what interests him. If you look at one of the example promotions illustrated on this website you will see there is very little written about the publication itself until you get beyond the early pages.

Yes, but supposing the copy doesn’t work?
Copywriting is the art of selling by writing. But there is much more to that than just words. The reason most publishers don’t commission professional copy is because they worry it won’t get results and all their money will be wasted. But if you are commissioning a subscriptions letter, then the copywriter must be able to predict what revenue will come in and how many of those new subscribers will renew. That target should be part of his brief because like any business person you are looking for long-term profits.

Only an experienced copywriter can achieve this. Although your editors and marketers may be able to write workable copy, they either won’t like doing it, or they won’t be very good at it. Even a fairly good piece from an enthusiastic marketing person will only pull around half the response produced by a professional promotion.

Click on the link below to see a recent mailing from Conde Nast Traveller magazine. This is what in-house writing looks like – a costly and wasted attempt – the kind of pack that won’t be sent out very often (how often a pack is sent out is the measure of a good promotion).

Click on the link below to take a look:

Conde Nast Traveller magazine direct mail pack

So what’s a professional copywriter worth? If you expect to bring in 10,000 subscriptions at £45, that’s £450,000 revenue. Doubling the response means you bring in £900,000, making an additional £450,000. Simple, isn’t it? You pay your copywriter out of that.

In most companies with a serious marketing budget the staff marketers rarely write their own copy. It’s a rare animal that can combine creative writing with working in a busy marketing department. There are personnel, budgeting and production responsibilities and little time for creative thought.

Writing copy is a specialist marketing task because getting money out of people is not easy. There are 12 elements to the buying process. Get them wrong and those prospects won’t buy.

How to distinguish bad copy from good
What constitutes a good example of copywriting? The ultimate test is results. Good copy reveals itself by the response it achieves. There are, however, tell-tale signs that distinguish bad copy. Here are twelve vital tests to assess a piece of copy:

1. Headline USP: does the headline describe the unique benefit of your product? Does it answer the prospect’s inevitable primary question: ‘What’s in it for me?’ If the benefit can be applied to any other product it’s a sign of weak copy and you should turn it down.

2. Objection handling: do the opening paragraph and heading cover the main objections a reader may have to buying? If you are selling information, could the reader get it via the internet or another cheaper source? The rationale for buying from you must overcome that objection.

3. Benefit-led: do not accept an offer-led promotion, where the main message is a cut-price deal. Unfortunately, repeat business is rarely achieved by cutting the price or giving away expensive free gifts. You need a benefit-led promotion to bring in long-term profits. The concept or message must catch the reader’s imagination and describe how much better off he will be with the product over the coming years.

4. Inexpensive production: is it cheap to print and dispatch the promotion? If it’s a mailing pack, the letter and order coupon should be cheap to print, to enable you to: (1) Run various price tests without incurring large bills, and (2) Allow inexpensive reprinting through the coming years as long as the mailing remains profitable.

5. Convincing copy: although copy will inevitably contain information about the product and its features, it should describe exactly what each feature means to the reader and how it will help him. All benefits should be declared, no matter how many pages it takes. Remember long copy works best.

6. Irresistible offer: is the reader unceasingly pushed towards the offer and order form? If it’s a web promotion, are there regular links to the details of the offer and the order page? Does the order page summarise the offer clearly?

7. Coupon: is the whole offer encapsulated in the coupon so the busy reader can see all he needs to know in one spot? Remember ‘readers’ will not read all of your promotion – they will ‘scan’ it to see if it applies to them.

8. Will it get read? The draft promotion you are shown may look good to you, because it’s all about your publication. But most promotions remain unopened and unread. What reason does the prospect have to open it up, read it and respond?

9. Testimonials: testimonials give independent verification and it should be impossible to use them to describe another publication. For example: ‘An indispensable overview of the whole market. I couldn’t imagine my working life without my weekly fix of _________’ could describe any business publication.

10. Deadline: is there a convincing reason why the reader should buy the product today? If not the prospect will put your promotion aside until ‘later’.

11. Track record: a copywriter should not simply present past work and let it ‘speak for itself’. It may look impressive, but what were the problems faced in the marketplace and what was the solution? What ROI has it achieved?

12. Longevity: are the copywriter’s previous promotions still being sent out? If not why not? A good piece of work is like a self-motivated salesperson, it will bring in repeat business year after year with only occasional input from you.

Your new promotion should be seen as a great asset-building machine. It must be peppered with so many compelling benefits it will awaken and excite the aspirations of thousands of prospects, transforming them into valuable repeat customers.

Just like a good restaurant.

Creative copywriting
If you are interested in creative copy writing, go to the wizardwordz.com website. You will find software that guides you through the often time-consuming and involved process of producing an effective sales letter:

Sales Letter Software

Peter Hobday
13 December 2005