Why copy matters
In a world full of distractions competing for attention, copywriting is essential to effective marketing, fundraising, and advocacy.
The core principles of copywriting
Learning to write copy is like any endeavor… it requires constant learning and exposure to the craft.
Initially it might feel overwhelming. Start by focusing on the fundamentals outlined in this guide. Because as John Reed wrote in his book Succeeding:
When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles — generally three to twelve of them — that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.
Practice the principles and fundamentals, and you’ll find yourself writing copy that competes with seasoned veterans.
What is copywriting?
Copywriting uses words to engage.
It involves proven tactics and techniques that attract, engage, and persuade readers while offering solutions to their problems.
Content writing informs and builds thought leadership, copywriting convinces a reader to take action.
It converts lurkers into advocates… and visitors into donors.
Below are some basic tactics for crafting compelling copy at your nonprofit!
The Rule of One
With each piece of copywriting, identify:
- One reader – speak only to them
- One big idea – showcase your most powerful benefit
- One call to action – offer the most important action you want users to take
One call to action
Effective copywriting involves giving prospects one call to action—and one only.
Many nonprofits want their single piece of collateral to be multipurpose, forcing it to serve more than one function or reach more than one audience.
But this confuses readers, and they end up not knowing what you want them to do.
Including more than one call to action forces users to make multiple decisions. This leads to decision fatigue. And then they take the easiest route possible: They exit and abandon your message without taking any action.
Copy for calls to action
The best call-to-action phrases are brief and use strong verbs.
They speak directly to the prospect and use the imperative form (an order or command).
Avoid weaker, nondescript calls to action such as “click here” and “learn more.”
Instead, use specific words speaking directly to the desired outcome, such as:
- Join our community
- Launch your next adventure
- Make a difference now now
- Become an Advocate
- Join the cause
Effective calls to action can also involve:
- Risk-reducing, no-obligation statements: Download your free guide
- Telling people what to do next: Sign up now
- Encouragement to respond immediately: Become an advocate today
Crafting killer headlines is both art and science.
Here we’re just barely scratching the surface of this important topic.
Dive deeper into headline strategies by reading other resources and courses.
Also build a swipe file of great headlines as well as a collection of headline formulas you can adapt in your own copy.
Headlines that get your message read
Why are headlines so important?
Because drawing readers into your message depends on your headline.
In a world of short attention spans and distractions, you have mere seconds to convince readers to keep reading.
A powerful headline accomplishes four things:
- Speaks to the pain or desire of your audience
- Grabs and holds the reader’s attention
- Intrigues them to keep on reading
- Offers instant clarity
Pain and desire
When you speak to the things that matter to your readers, it tells them you understand them. And it reassures them that you can solve the problem they face.
Competition for your reader’s attention is fierce.
Make sure your headline is relatable to the reader and snaps their attention to you.
Build curiosity by teasing your readers with just enough helpful information without giving it all away.
This strategy creates an open loop that readers are compelled to close. Why? Because we’re wired for closure. We want to connect all the dots and tie up loose ends.
Using this strategy leaves readers wanting to know the rest. Which draws them to keep reading.
Techniques to build curiosity include:
- Using this, these, here, how, why, etc.
- “Do you make these mistakes in copywriting?”
- “Here’s how to write headlines that double your conversions.”
- “Why your social media content is failing.”
- Including a number
- “5 hacks to boost engagement on your website.”
- Asking a question
- “How many of these copywriting tactics have you tried?”
Trying to be clever often distracts and confuses readers.
Write clear headlines. Avoid fancy words, and don’t try to be witty.
Here’s the secret to writing a killer headline
Time. Work. Rumination. Rounds and revisions.
There are no shortcuts.
You could write a headline in a couple of minutes, and it might be a good headline.
But the best ones take time.
Try writing 25–50 headlines for your copy before choosing one. This means you’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time on the headline compared to the rest of the copy.
But why bother creating good body copy if you don’t have a clear, relatable, grabby headline to pull people in?
Formulas: PAS and AIDA
Good copywriting doesn’t come down to creativity.
It comes down to process.
Which is why copywriters love using formulas—time-tested, repeatable processes proven to increase conversions.
The Problem Agitation Solution (PAS) formula guides you to structure a message that taps into people’s desires and turns visitors into buyers.
Start by highlighting something painful in order to elicit a strong emotional response.
Intensify and amplify the pain. Turn the knife and make it hurt a bit, which makes them more open to a solution.
Present an amazing solution and paint a picture of a positive future should they choose your solution.
You can also mix in other elements into PAS.
Add in some intrigue after agitating, and then paint a picture of a positive future (i.e. what could be) before introducing your solution.
AIDA is another simple formula based on proven results.
Use an attention-grabbing, relevant headline that snaps the reader’s attention on your message.
Pique their interest and nudge them deeper into your message with compelling information and fresh insights.
Build desire by explaining how your offering will improve their life. Showcase the benefits and back them up with social proof.
Present your solution with one specific call to action. This is also the place to overcome their objections and use scarcity and urgency tactics.
Benefits & Features
Features tell, but benefits sell.
Always lead with benefits, not features.
Think of features like the physical body. It’s tactile, concrete, and physical.
Benefits, however, speak to the soul… to the spiritual side. They capture the deeper meaning and value users will discover.
Benefits can (and often should) still be tangible and concrete, but they’re framed in a way that showcases the life-changing value.
The first-generation iPod
A unique selling point of the first-gen iPod was its 5 gigabytes. But that number meant very little to consumers.
So Apple led with a well-crafted benefit: 1000 songs in your pocket.
Focus on the benefit for your audience… the value they’ll get or the transformation they’ll experience.
How it works
Benefits can be elusive and require work to suss them out. Try these strategies:
1. Ask “so what?”
Ask it 3, 4, 5 times or more until you think you’ve really drilled down to the most essential value that your organization offers users.
2. The Forehead Slap test
Run each benefit through this question: Would it cause someone to wake up in the middle of the night and slap their forehead, exclaiming, “Oh no, I really need [insert benefit]!”
If the answer is no, then keep asking “so what?” to find the real, life-changing benefit that offers the most desirable outcome to your audience.
3. Be specific
Make your benefits specific and tangible.
This helps people visualize what life will be like if they choose to give.
Being ultra-specific makes the benefit feel more genuine, authentic, and intriguing.
In general, people find comfort knowing they’re not straying too far from the norm. They copy and follow what others are doing. This is what “keeping up with the Joneses” is all about.
Social proof shows your prospects that many others like them have benefited and enjoyed interacting with your organzation. It increases trust and confidence in saying yes.
Types of Social Proof
Positive donor testimonials are powerful. Increase their trustworthiness by using the donor’s name and photo and placing quotation marks around their testimonial.
Scour Amazon, Google, Yelp, and wherever else you can find reviews of your organization. You can quote reviewers (with proper attribution), and you can even include copy such as “# 5-star reviews on Google.”
If your organization has been endorsed by an influencer or celebrity, mention this in your copy.
4. Number of advocates/donors
Talk about the number of people who trust your organization. For example:
- Over 150,000 lives impacted
- Trusted by 10,000+ donors
- 41,067 advocates took action this week
5. Awards and recognition
These trust indicators make people more likely to say yes… because if your organization earned a reward or certification, then it must be good.
Conversational copy draws the reader in. It feels familiar, inviting, and personable.
Plus, it’s proven to convert prospects into donors.
How it works
1. Write choppy copy
2. Address the reader with “you”
Use “you” and “we” to address the reader on a personal level.
This creates a sense of intimacy.
It also places the reader front and center. Because they don’t care about you or your organization. They ultimately care about whether their needs are going to get met.
3. Write how you talk
Write as if you’re talking to a good friend.
Build a conversation and create a sense of connection.
This involves building rapport and showing empathy. Help readers feel like you understand their struggle and point of view.
Also use contractions (such as you’ll and they’re), and avoid big words you wouldn’t use in everyday speech.
4. Ask questions
We use a lot of questions in how we talk, don’t you think?
Occasional questions such as “don’t you think?” and “right?” and “wouldn’t you?” are great for making your copy more conversational.
5. Pause and create rhythm
Create space in your copy.
Let it breathe.
By favoring short, punchy sentences.
Then create momentum with a medium-length sentence.
But not too long.
And then, once you’re convinced you’ve got your reader’s attention, offer a long sentence that crescendos and builds to drive home your point.
That’s how you make music with your words.
Say it loud
Not sure if your copy is conversational?
Try reading it out loud. If it sounds stuffy or wordy, look away from the page and speak your message out loud, as if you’re talking to your friend in person. Then, write that down.
Break up your copy to make it super readable and skimmable.
- Short paragraphs: 1–2 sentences long
- Short sentences: each with just one idea
- Short words (e.g. swap “commence” with “start”)
- Use headings & subheads to guide readers along
- Use bullets to call out key information
- Embrace white space
Bullet hack: Make art with your bullets by organizing them by length.
A great story immerses people in the narrative.
The more you can do this for your readers, the more receptive they are to taking the desired action.
So how can you create a powerful, immersive experience with your copy?
1. Tap into emotions
Create a strong emotional connection. This helps sear the experience into their memory.
You can build an emotional connection by using a formula such as PAS: highlight the problem, agitate it, paint a picture of a desirable future state/emotion, and then offer a solution.
2. Evoke the 5 senses
Smell and taste are proven to be particularly evocative.
Incorporate these into your copy to craft a message that readers are unlikely to forget.
Want to go deeper on all the info above and learn even more? Join us for our Nonprofit Copywriting Bootcamp.