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How Empty Words Can Cripple Your Sales Copy
By Ernest Nicastro

In his keynotes and recordings, world-class motivational speaker and sales trainer Zig Ziglar often talks about the importance of having meaningful, specific goals. And he'll drive home his point with the rhetorical question, "What would you rather be in life, a meaningful specific or a wandering generality?" 
As marketers, if we want our sales copy to produce profitable results we would do well to heed Zig's admonition. Because nothing will hold the attention of your reader and advance your selling proposition as well as specific and meaningful benefit-oriented copy. But many sales letters and direct response mailers I receive - especially those from small businesses - show little regard for this fact.

For example, I recently received a sales letter from a commercial real estate broker. Here are the opening few paragraphs:

Few decisions are as important to your company's future success as where you choose to locate your company and under what parameters.

Fewer decisions still are as difficult to make and feel secure that you made the right choice. And yet few you will make can be made with as much confidence as relocation with the help of BKP Commercial Tenant Advisory Services. That is because with BKP as your exclusive representative, you can be assured you are not only seeing all your options, you are entering into the most economically favorable transaction.

After salaries and wages, rent typically is your second largest cost of doing business...

Let's overlook the overuse of the word "few" and the fact that the opening lacks any real attention-grabbling power. That said, what do you notice about the second paragraph? If your answer is, "It doesn't offer up any meaningful specifics to justify its claim," give yourself an "A." In fact, nothing in this paragraph or the entire letter explains or even hints at how it is... that when I work with BKP I can be assured that I'm seeing all my options.

Does BKP have a national up-to-the-minute database of available space that can be queried and searched by a multitude of parameters? If so, they should tell me. Are they part of a nationwide network with access to up-to-the-minute lease rates in all 50 states across 873 local markets? If so, they should tell me. Simply put, BKP should give me meaningful specifics instead of generalities and unsubstantiated claims.

Quality, Service, Value, Etc: Meaningless Without Specificity.

Want to set your sales copy and your business apart from the overwhelming majority of organizations you're competing against? Here's a simple but powerful strategy you can start implementing today. Specify exactly what you mean when you use such words and phrases as quality, quality services, customer-service-oriented, we put the customer first, value, etc.

These words and phrases - in and of themselves - are meaningless. Yes, they sound good. Yes, they look good on your stationery and in your email and on your web site. But the sales impact of using them, without defining and detailing what you mean, is virtually nil. Here's an example of exactly what I mean, taken directly from this company's home page.

Our Commitment To Quality

  • Quality Training
  • Quality Tools
  • Quality Lighting Systems that enable you to see the "entire dent"
  • Quality Staff to Support You
  • Quality Training Facilities
  • Quality Instructors to Educate You
  • Quality PERIOD!!!

That is exactly what The Ding King Training Institute will provide you with - Quality!

There you have it. We know exactly what they mean by quality. They mean, uh, Quality PERIOD!!!

Words That Made A Difference

OK. I couldn't resist having a little fun. But the flip side is that good things can happen when you translate terms like quality and value into specific, benefit-oriented, "reasons-why" copy. For instance, in his book, My Life In Advertising, Claude Hopkins tells of the time when his agency landed the Schlitz Beer account:

"All brewers at that time were crying 'Pure.' They put the word 'Pure' in large letters. Then they took double pages to put it in larger letters. The claim made about as much impression on people as water makes on a duck." (Is there any business today that doesn't claim to have a quality product or service? Yet most of them do not define what they mean by quality. Substitute the word quality for pure and the situation is nearly identical. - E.N. )

So what did Hopkins do? He toured the Schlitz brewery and witnessed the beer-making process. Specifically, he observed the many detailed steps that went into making sure the beer was pure.

In My Life In Advertising he recounts what happened next: 

I came back to the office amazed. I said, "Why don't you tell people these things? Why do you merely try to cry louder than others that your beer is pure? Why don't you tell the reasons?"

"'Why?" they said. "The processes we use are just the same as others use. No one can make good beer without them."

"'But," I replied, "others have never told this story. It amazes everyone who goes through your brewery. It will startle everyone in print."

So I... told a story which had never been told. I gave purity a meaning. Schlitz jumped from fifth place to neck-and-neck with first place in a very few months.

By the way, Budweiser had a campaign a few years back that reminded me of this story. It was the "born-on date" campaign. I thought at the time, "I'm sure every brewer could make that claim if they wanted." But Budweiser made it a point to - and anyone else who used this approach after them would only look like a copycat. Budweiser, of course, is the leading beer brand in the United States.

Now if you're thinking, "That's well and good, but I'm not a brewery and my target market isn't 'Joe Six-pack,'" I understand. The lesson herein though is still applicable no matter what it is you're marketing and selling. And that lesson can be summed up in two words: Specifics sell.

So when you or your staff craft sales copy, one of the key questions should be: "What meaningful details are there - about our consulting process, our project management, our product, our manufacturing process, our customer service, our people, our corporate culture etc. - that we can articulate that will resonate with our target market and differentiate us from our competitors?"

For example, a while back I did a copywriting project for a printing company. Early on, I noticed that every time I called them the phone was always quickly answered by a person - as opposed to an automated electronic attendant.

I commented favorably on this to their Marketing V.P. and this is what she said: "Oh that's company policy. A live person always answers the phone, and we answer it by the fourth ring." As you would expect, I made it a point to include that fact in the marketing materials I created for them.

2007: Amica Insurance Effectively Defines And Sells Value And Customer Service

More recently, I received an excellent sales letter from Amica. It seems that Amica wants to give me a quote on my car insurance, and I'm going to take them up on their offer. They tell me that, when it comes to car insurance, I have options:

"You can choose to get great coverage and exceptional service at a low price - for a better all around value."

Then a few lines later they define what they mean by value.

"'Value is a combination of what you get, what you pay, and how you're treated."

Early on in the letter they talk about how they've been "making quite a name for ourselves by employing a simple, but often-forgotten principle of good business: putting the customer first."

A couple of short paragraphs after that they offer up proof of that claim by writing that, "...our commitment to superior service has earned us a prestigious distinction. J.D. Power and Associates has rated Amica 'Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among National Auto Insurers' for seven years in a row.'"

Objective, third-party substantiation of their claim that they put the customer first. From a well-known, well-respected source. Excellent!

Then, for good measure, they include several testimonials from satisfied customers. This is a very effective letter. In my book it, beats a suave, talking lizard hands down. I mean, I may love listening to that English accent of his, but I'm going to get a quote from Amica.

Once again, as with Schlitz, this example is also from a business to consumer marketer. Nevertheless, the points highlighted are every bit as relevant for a B-to-B marketer. If you want your sales copy to have impact, you need to include, impactful, meaningful details.

Now, as I wrap up this article, I'd like to leave you with another quote by Zig Ziglar. Zig also says that, "Every choice you make has an end result."

And so it is with your sales copy. Every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph and page has an end result. For the most profitable end result, forego generalities and infuse your copy with lots of meaningful, detailed, benefit-oriented, response-producing specifics. Do this consistently and - to quote Zig one final time: "I'll see you at the top!"

Ernest Nicastro, a direct marketing consultant, copywriter and lead-generation specialist, heads up Positive Response, an award-winning marketing firm. He also publishes a free monthly newsletter, AIM For Positive Response. For more information visit Or you can contact Ernie directly at or by phone at 614.747.2256.


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