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3 Classic Copywriting Books You Need Now More than Ever

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3 Classic Copywriting Books You Need Now More than Ever

3 Classic Copywriting Books You Need Now More than Ever

Classic copywriting books are needed now more than ever. With the explosion of marketing technology, AI-generated content, and companies worldwide competing for the same customers, timeless principles are priceless. 

Because although AI can generate content, understanding human emotions and psychology, as taught in these books, is essential for creating an engaging and persuasive copywriting piece.

With all our new technology, it’s easy to get pulled away from the fundamentals of copywriting. However, when you combine the fundamentals with modern technology, you become unstoppable.

Breakthrough Advertising By Eugene Schwartz

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Breakthrough Advertising is a favorite among copywriters. Eugene Schwartz, a direct-response copywriter who was prolific in the mid-20th century, is a legend.

Breakthrough Advertising is a dense book, and most reviews will only cite the Schwartz lessons from the first half. For example, almost every review will cite Schwartz’s advice that demand for a product cannot be created—only channeled.

(I guess I just did it too.)

That advice about customer demand is indeed sage wisdom to write down and remember forever. But it’s in the second half of the Breakthrough Advertising, which gets little attention, where I find the most gems. 

One of those gems is Schwartz writing about the topic of belief.

Belief is the goal, Schwartz states.

If you can channel the tremendous force of his belief—either in content or direction—behind only one claim, no matter how small, then that one fully-believed claim will sell more goods than all the half-questioned promises your competitors can write for all the rest of their days.

A prospect can’t fully accept and value your offer unless you build the necessary beliefs. Your coupons and bonuses will bounce right off your prospects unless they believe your product is right for them.

As an example, Schwartz describes a challenge he had in selling a TV repair manual. Back in the 1950’s, TVs were complex, intimidating machines that broke down constantly, leading to expensive repair bills.

The homeowner could save a ton of money doing TV repairs themselves. The problem was that nobody believed they could actually repair a TV.

Schwartz persuaded prospects they could repair the TV using nothing but his words. He did it through the way he structured his sales letter, strategically targeting belief after belief. You can find the full sales letter in Breakthrough Advertising—it’s incredible.

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK TODAY:

These days, the marketing world is filled with hype and over-the-top promises. Schwartz advises us to dial down those big promises. Instead, focus on building belief. Put yourself in your prospect’s shoes and ask, “What does my prospect need to believe in order to say “yes” to my offer?

If you want more on this topic of belief building in your prospect’s mind, I teach a step-by-step process in my own, Simple Marketing for Smart People.

The Robert Collier Letter Book

1710244564 581 3 Classic Copywriting Books You Need Now More than Ever1710244564 581 3 Classic Copywriting Books You Need Now More than Ever

Robert Collier built a successful direct-response marketing business by sending simple letters in the mail. 

He used letters to sell all sorts of products, from coal (Collier was a mining engineer) to women’s dresses. But he mainly sold books. 

The books were typically stories from history, such as H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History, or personal development books around achievement and success. Collier sold over 300,000 copies of his personal development book called The Secret of the Ages.

His letters were clear, compelling, and most importantly—human.

Collier has a way of writing that makes you feel like he’s writing you a personal letter even though has was mailing these letters to thousands of people.

One notable letter was written to mothers and sold a home study course. It has the headline: “There is No University Like a Mother’s Reading to Her Child.”

Really tugs on the heartstrings, doesn’t it? That’s classic Collier.

Now, these letters were not merely for entertainment. He calls the letters he writes “Resultful Letters,” meaning the letters had to lead to results. That is, a purchase.

But it’s Collier’s way of getting the reader to take action (i.e., to purchase the product) that sets him apart.

His approach centers on knowing your reader. Collier states:

Familiarity with the thing you are selling is an advantage, but the one essential without which success is impossible in selling, by mail or selling in person, is a thorough understanding of human reactions. Study your reader first—your product second. If you understand his reactions and present those phases of your product that relate to his needs, then you cannot help but write a good letter.

Wise words for today’s copywriter.

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK TODAY:

Use The Robert Collier Letter to add a human element to your writing. This book is different in that it’s learn by example. There’s not as much teaching as other copywriting books, but rather, you learn from Collier’s example letters, of which there are dozens.

Read Collier’s letters, his commentary, and his approach will sink in. The next time you sit down to write copy, you’ll naturally harness your inner Collier.

Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins

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Claude Hopkins is a pioneering figure in advertising. His most famous book, Scientific Advertising, is short at just 87 pages. Yet, it’s still constantly referenced for its timeless principles.

In Scientific Adveritsing, Hopkins writes:

The lack of fundamentals has been the main trouble with advertising in the past . . . it was like a man trying to build a modern locomotive without first asserting what others had done.

Hopkins laments that advertising success has felt like too much of a gamble, too much too much like speculation, like betting at the race track.

Do you see how even today, we’re wrestling with the same problem? We roll out a new product launch, ad campaign, or VSL, and it feels like we’re rolling the dice.

Hopkins believed advertising could be a safe and sure venture. But in order to do so, we must learn the fundamentals.

Hopkins then walks through his nearly 20 laws of advertising. He covers everything from headlines to distribution to giving samples. That last law, giving samples, was one of Hopkin’s favorite techniques. He sold a mountain of products by giving away samples. Hopkins believed the product should be its own best salesman. 

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK TODAY:

Each of Hopkin’s laws can be applied today. For example, his law of giving samples is easier than ever thanks to shipping across the world being easier than ever. 

His law on individuality and adding personality to your copy is critical given the massive amount of content on the internet and the difficulty of standing out.

Weave Hopkin’s laws into your next copywriting project and enjoy the results.

Your Turn

The benefit of learning copywriting from history’s greats is that they weren’t distracted by the internet and modern technology. That meant they put all their effort into the only tool they had—their words.

Study these great books to learn the timeless principles that lead to high-converting copy. Then, combine those principles with modern technology and watch your results soar.


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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

Did you follow the Apple iPad Pro content debacle?

Here’s a quick recap. A recent online ad for the new iPad Pro showed a large hydraulic press slowly crushing various symbols of creativity. A metronome, a piano, a record player, a video game, paints, books, and other creative tools splinter and smash as the Sonny and Cher song All I Ever Need Is You plays.

The ad’s title? “Crush!”

The point of the commercial — I think — is to show that Apple managed to smush (that’s the technical term) all this heretofore analog creativity into its new, very thin iPad Pro.  

To say the ad received bad reviews is underselling the response. Judgment was swift and unrelenting. The creative world freaked out.

On X, actor Hugh Grant shared Tim Cook’s post featuring the ad and added this comment: “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

When fellow actor Justine Bateman shared the Tim Cook post, she simply wrote, “Truly, what is wrong with you?” Other critiques ranged from tone-challenged to wasteful to many worse things.

Actor Justine Bateman shared Tim Cook’s post on X, which featured the ad, and added this comment: "Truly, what is wrong with you?".

A couple of days later, Apple apologized and canceled plans to air the ad on television.

How not-so-great content ideas come to life

The level of anger surprises me. Look, the ad does show the eyeballs on an emoji-faced squishy ball popping under the plates’ pressure, but still. Calling the ad “actually psychotic” might be a skosh over the top.

Yes, the ad missed the mark. And the company’s subsequent decision to apologize makes sense.

But anyone who’s participated in creating a content misfire knows this truth: Mistakes look much more obvious in hindsight.

On paper, I bet this concept sounded great. The brainstorming meeting probably started with something like this: “We want to show how the iPad Pro metaphorically contains this huge mass of creative tools in a thin and cool package.”

Maybe someone suggested representing that exact thing with CGI (maybe a colorful tornado rising from the screen). Then someone else suggested showing the actual physical objects getting condensed would be more powerful.

Here’s my imagined version of the conversation that might have happened after someone pointed out the popular internet meme of things getting crushed in a hydraulic press.

“People love that!”

“If we add buckets of paint, it will be super colorful and cool.”

“It’ll be a cooler version of that LG ad that ran in 2008.”

“Exactly!”

“It’ll be just like that ad where a bus driver kidnaps and subsequently crushes all the cute little Pokémon characters in a bus!” (Believe it or not, that was actually a thing.)

The resulting commercial suffers from the perfect creative storm: A not-great (copycat) idea at the absolutely wrong time.

None of us know what constraints Apple’s creative team worked under. How much time did they have to come up with a concept? Did they have time to test it with audiences? Maybe crushing physical objects fit into the budget better than CGI. All these factors affect the creative process and options (even at a giant company like Apple).

That’s not an excuse — it’s just reality.

Content failure or content mistake?

Many ad campaigns provoke a “What the hell were they thinking?” response (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad or those cringy brand tributes that follow celebrity deaths).

Does that mean they’re failures? Or are they mistakes? And what’s the difference?

As I wrote after Peloton’s holiday ad debacle (remember that?), people learn to fear mistakes early on. Most of us hear cautionary messages almost from day one.

Some are necessary and helpful (“Don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “Look both ways before you cross the street.”) Some aren’t (“Make that essay perfect” or “Don’t miss that goal.”)

As a result, many people grow up afraid to take risks — and that hampers creativity. The problem arises from conflating failure and mistakes. It helps to know the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. I wasn’t wrong to try. My attempt just didn’t work.

Labeling a failed attempt a “mistake” feeds the fears that keep people from attempting anything creative.

The conflation of failure and mistakes happens all too often in creative marketing. Sure, people create content pieces (and let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that genuinely count as mistakes.

They also create content that simply fails.

Don’t let extreme reactions make you fear failures

Here’s the thing about failed content. You can do all the work to research your audience and take the time to develop and polish your ideas — and the content still might fail. The story, the platform, or the format might not resonate, or the audience simply might not care for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

Was the Apple ad a mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Was it a failure? The vitriolic response indicates yes.

Still, the commercial generated an impressive amount of awareness (53 million views of the Tim Cook post on X, per Variety.) And, despite the apology, the company hasn’t taken the ad down from its YouTube page where it’s earned more than 1 million views.

The fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” The Apple ad turns that statement on its head — Apple made many mistakes and still won a tremendous amount of attention.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t criticize creative work. Constructive critiques help us learn from our own and others’ failures. You can even have a good laugh about content fails.

Just acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Creative teams take risks. They try things outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they fail (sometimes spectacularly).

But don’t let others’ expressions of anger over failures inhibit your willingness to try creative things.

Wouldn’t you love to get the whole world talking about the content you create? To get there, you have to risk that level of failure.

And taking that risk isn’t a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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