15 Common Copywriting Mistakes that Kill Conversions

If you’ve ever tried to write a direct mail letter, space ad, or any kind of written sales pitch (online or off), then you know from experience that it’s easy to make copywriting mistakes.

And it’s easy to forget fundamental copywriting principles even if you’ve been writing copy for years.

But here’s what most people don’t know…

Even freelance copywriting professionals sometimes make mistakes, which kill conversions and ultimately hurt clients.

Obviously, it’s important for you to protect yourself — no matter whether you’re writing your own copy or hiring a freelance copywriter.

With that in mind, I offer the following 15 Copywriting Mistakes that Kill Conversions (and Hurt Clients).

Common Copywriting Mistake #1:
Failing to Do Enough Research

How much research do you do before you start writing an ad or sales letter? Probably not enough.

  • Research is the foundation of great copy.
  • Research tells you who you’re writing to, what they want, what they don’t want, their hopes, fears, problems, and aspirations.
  • Research uncovers how your market talks, particularly any kind of slang or market-specific phrases they use.
  • Research tells you who your competition is, what kind of claims they’re making, and how you can differentiate yourself.
  • Research tells you what the product does, its features, benefits, and advantages over similar products.
  • Research provides you with facts and figures you can use to bolster your claims so that your prospect believes you.
  • Research does all this and a whole lot more.

It’s been suggested that you should spend twice as much time researching than you do writing, and I think that’s good advice.

The more research you do, the easier the writing is.

But if you decide to take a shortcut by skipping or minimizing the research, chances are you’ll struggle to put words on the page. Worse, you may wind up with a sales letter that simply doesn’t work.

Common Copywriting Mistake #2:
Using the First Headline You Write

Sometimes the first headline you write is the one you will ultimately use. But it’s more likely that the first headline you write will be rubbish.

Initial ideas can almost always be improved upon, but only if you take the time and effort to make the improvement.

What exactly does that mean?

Well, in the case of writing headlines, that means you aim to write a certain number of them. Perhaps you aim to write 20 or 30 or 50 depending on the nature of the sales copy you’ve written.

I personally don’t feel comfortable until I’ve written a couple dozen or more.

Here’s a tip:

You don’t want to let the headline stop you from writing the rest of your sales piece. So I recommend you write a handful of headlines, pick one, and then keep writing.

When you’ve finished the first draft, come back to the headline. That’s when you’ll want to start writing as many headlines as you can.

At that point, you’ll have many more ideas because of the work you’ve done to write the sales piece.

And here’s another tip:

Sometimes you’ll find great headlines and subheads buried in the bullets you’ve written. I know I have.

That’s why I’ll re-read all the bullets I’ve written. I’ll take the most powerful bullets and test them out as headlines and subheads in the body of the letter.

Common Copywriting Mistake #3:
Hyped-Up Headlines & Copy

It’s often a good idea to make a strong promise or challenge a common belief in your copy. But it’s not a good idea to cross the line into hype.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line?

A good rule of thumb: When you’ve made completely unrealistic (or unbelievable) promises combined with short time frames and exclamation points.


“Discover How You Can Pocket an Extra $4,267 on the Internet
in the Next 7 Days Even If You Don’t Have a Website
and Know NOTHING about Computers!!”
We might like to believe that such a claim is true. But it’s almost assuredly false.

Hype is deception.

It is loud, exaggerated, and misleading promotion or publicity.

Now, please don’t confuse hype with enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm in your writing is a good thing. It is natural to be excited and enthusiastic about a genuinely good product or service.

Just be careful that your enthusiasm doesn’t run away from you and devolve into hype.

Common Copywriting Mistake #4:
Yapping about Your Product from
the First Sentence

In most cases, it is a mistake to begin a sales message by talking about your product. This is because most people are not interested in you or your product. They are interested in themselves.

It is best to avoid talking about your product or service for at least the first few paragraphs and maybe even the first few pages. Talk about things that are important to your prospect first.

As Harry Browne says on page 85 of his book The Secret of Selling Anything, “Most sales are lost because the salesman presented his product before he knew what motivated his prospect.”

Your goal is to enter the conversation that’s already happening in your prospect’s mind. He’s thinking about a hundred different things, but he’s probably not thinking about your product or service.

  • He may be thinking about a specific problem he wants to solve.
  • He may be thinking about a specific goal he wants to achieve.
  • He may even be worrying about big problems that don’t affect him directly, but that affect his city, state, or nation.

So talk about the problems he’s thinking about… or build anticipation by talking about how he can achieve his goals… or tell a story he identifies with… or challenge one of his common beliefs.

Talk about anything that will capture your prospect’s attention; anything that will interest him; anything that will draw him into the copy.

Only after you’ve gained your prospect’s attention and interest should you shift the focus to your product or service and how it will benefit him.

Common Copywriting Mistake #5:
Formal 'Term Paper' Tone

John E. Kennedy famously defined advertising as “salesmanship in print.”

Here’s what that means:

When you write sales copy, it should sound as if you were in the room talking face-to-face with your prospect.

So whatever your write should sound as if it was something you would really say.

Do not use what I call “term paper” tone — you know, the kind of writing they taught you in high school and college. This kind of tone is borrriiing (not to mention confusing).

Example of what not to do:

When one wakes up in the morning, one sometimes feels groggy, exhausted, and lacking in energy. Therefore, one should examine a new product that addresses these irksome problems.

If you’ve been trained in the evil ways of academic-ese, and you’re finding it difficult to change how you write, then get a speech-to-text program like Dragon Dictate.

Then you can literally speak your sales pitch onto the page.

Or you can just record yourself delivering your sales pitch and then get the audio recording transcribed.

With a little bit of editing, you’d probably have a decent written sales piece that sounds just like you talk.

Common Copywriting Mistake #6:
Writing to a Group of People Instead
of a Single Person

Selling is a one-to-one experience. It’s me talking to you. Not me talking to “you-all.”

When you write, write to just one person.

Hold him or her in your mind’s eye as you write. Imagine you are sitting in a room together, and you are telling your friend about the merits of your product.

This is how you should write.

Now it’s easy to slip out of that “mental reality” and start writing to a group of people.

Example: “If one of you is a doctor, then you will know what I mean.”

That phrase — “one of you” — implies that you are writing to a group, and will destroy the one-to-one selling environment you want to create in your copy.

As you review your copy, ask yourself: Is this something I would say to a person sitting across from me? If not, change the copy.

Common Copywriting Mistake #7:
Being General Instead of Specific

It is easy to make broad generalities in your sales copy, and many copywriters do.

But this is something you should be diligent to avoid.

  • Instead of saying “many” or “a lot,” can you provide an exact number?
  • Instead of saying you will soon run out, can you say exactly how many are left in stock?
  • Instead of saying “soon,” can you provide an exact date?
  • Can you provide exact dollar figures, deadlines, and customer counts?

Anywhere you can use a specific number, do it!

Always be thinking about how you can replace general phrases with specific dates, numbers, and percentages.

This makes your copy more concrete, more compelling, more believable.

Common Copywriting Mistake #8:
All Promise, No Proof

It’s easy to make promises.

It’s much harder to back them up.

Said another way, it’s easy to talk the talk, but it’s difficult to walk the walk.

Remember: Whatever promises you make in your sales copy, you need to back them up with proof: facts, figures, testimonials, and whatever else you can bring to bear as you build your sales case.

And how do you come up with good proof?

Good research, of course! (See Copywriting Mistake #1.)

Some of the proof elements I like to use:

  • Quotes and predictions from experts
  • Results of scientific studies
  • Relevant awards or honors
  • Charts and graphs
  • Trust seals

There are dozens of ways to add more proof to your sales messages.

Just be sure your proof equals or surpasses your promises.

Common Copywriting Mistake #9:
Outdated or Vague Social Proof

Social proof can be astonishingly persuasive when it’s used correctly.

Yet it can also hurt sales.

Here’s how:

Let’s say you launch a product and get a handful of testimonials. And then you continue selling the same product for five or six years without ever getting any new testimonials.

If you have a long buying cycle, some prospects may notice and it could cause them to doubt the authenticity of the testimonials and the value of your product.

This is especially true if your testimonials have a date associated with them.

I realize it is not common to date testimonials, but one of my clients did when he posted snapshots of trading portfolios.

Problem? The dates on the trading portfolios were from 2006. He hadn’t bothered to get any new ones in 6+ years.

Naturally, prospects who see outdated portfolios will begin to wonder if something is wrong. They will wonder if the trading strategies still work today as well as they did in 2006.

In this case, it was better for my client to omit the customer portfolios until he was able to get updated case studies.

Social proof can also hurt sales if it is too vague.

Let’s say you’ve got a few testimonials, but they all say something like, “Great product! Highly recommended!”

First of all, this kind of testimonial is not persuasive or convincing.

Secondly, your prospect may think you fabricated the testimonials out of thin air. (And, yes, some people do write fake testimonials, so consumers ought to be skeptical.)

The last thing you want is for social proof to hurt your credibility.

With that in mind, avoid using outdated customer feedback and vague testimonials that sound as if they could have been faked.

And if you are ever in doubt, leave it out.

Better to err on the side of caution than to accidentally create doubt and suspicion in your prospect’s mind.

Common Copywriting Mistake #10:
No Risk Reversal

No matter what you are selling, you will almost always want to include some kind of risk reversal.

Sometimes it’s a money-back guarantee. Sometimes it’s a guarantee to replace the product if it should ever break or wear out.

In the service business, it may not be a guarantee to refund a customer’s money, but rather a promise to do something extra to guarantee a certain outcome.

The key is to minimize the risk so that it’s easier for your prospect to say yes to your offer.

Here’s an example of standard guarantee copy:

90-Day Full Money-Back Guarantee

Try our product for 90 days in the comfort of your own home. If for some strange reason you are not totally thrilled with the product, send it back for a full refund (minus shipping costs). But keep the ______ as our gift to you.

Remember, you have a full 90 days to prove for yourself that what we are saying is true. So there is absolutely no risk to you. Go ahead and place your risk-free order today!

Sometimes a clever guarantee will outperform a standard one. So feel free to get creative.

If you’re stuck for ideas, you may want to visit some of your favorite sites to see what kind of guarantees they offer — both their details and how they’re worded.

There is an art to writing good guarantees, and the more you study them, the better you’ll get.

Common Copywriting Mistake #11:
Being Verbose Just to Make Your Sales
Letter Longer

When you write, you should write only as much as you need to get the desired response — no more, no less.

While the maxim “the more you tell, the more you sell” is generally true, it does not mean you should write more words merely for the sake of making your sales letter longer.

Verbosity is not a virtue.

Edit ruthlessly.

Aim to say as much as you can… with as few words as you can… as simply as you can.

Common Copywriting Mistake #12:
Confusing Call to Action

When selling in print, you want a very clear call to action. In most cases, that call to action will be to buy the product or service being advertised.

And in other cases, it may be to complete and submit an opt-in form or a request for more information.

Here’s what you need to remember:

Don’t confuse your prospect by asking him or her to do two different things.

For instance, you would not want to ask him to buy the product and click a Facebook “Like” button at the same time.

(Although you might ask him to buy the product first, and only AFTER he’s purchased ask him to share something on Facebook.)

Now, you can give your prospect more than one option for completing your desired action.

So, for example, if you want the prospect to buy now, you can still offer him two or three different purchasing options (silver, gold, and platinum levels) or two or three different ways to respond (online, phone, or fax).

This can actually have a positive effect on sales because your prospect is no longer thinking “yes or no,” but rather “which one do I want?” or “which way do I want to respond?”

Common Copywriting Mistake #13:
Too Many Product Options

If you have multiple product options, try to keep it to one, two, or three options — but no more than three. Too many choices leads to confusion and lost sales.

Here’s why:

Choices overwhelm people. Too many choices offered at once produces inaction.

In other words, if you give a person too many ways to say yes, you will make it easier for the person to say no.

Making a decision is hard work. It’s emotionally taxing. The more choices and variables involved, the harder it is to decide.

Famous copywriter Joe Sugarman once wrote a newspaper ad selling a watch. His client wanted to sell three styles in three different colors for a total of nine different watches.

Joe wanted to only sell one watch: the men’s watch in black.

His client agreed to an A/B split-test. The results were surprising…

When both versions ran, the ad that featured only one men’s watch out-pulled the other version that featured nine models by a surprising 3 to 1 ratio. In short, for every watch we sold from the ad that featured the nine styles, we sold three in the other ad that showed just the one black watch. (Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, p. 162)

Even prior to this split-test, Joe had told his client, “…offering a customer too many choices [is] a dangerous thing to do.” (p. 161)

If you want to improve your sales, give your prospects fewer choices. Not only will they be happier, you’ll make more sales, more money, and more profit.

Common Copywriting Mistake #14:
Not Using the P.S. Effectively

It doesn’t matter whether your sales message is on paper or online — the P.S. (postscript) is still one of the most-read parts of your letter.

Prospects who receive direct mail letters often read the headline and first couple paragraphs, then flip to the last page and scan the P.S. and whatever else is below the signature line.

The same thing happens with online sales letters. Prospects often scan the top then scroll to the bottom. If they like what they see, they may scroll back up to the top and continue reading.

So what should you say in your P.S.? Here are a few ideas:

  • Reiterate the offer, including the price and deadline to respond (if applicable).
  • Reinforce the guarantee. Remove the risk of purchasing to encourage the prospect to take action.
  • Restate the big idea of your sales letter. Remind your prospect of the benefits of ordering today.
  • Introduce an extra benefit not mentioned in the sales letter. For example, the famous Wall Street Journal letter introduces a potential tax benefit. It says: “P.S. It’s important to note that The Journal’s subscription price may be tax deductible.”
  • Intensify the urgency. Tell your prospect why he could miss out if he doesn’t respond immediately.
  • Introduce more social proof. Save one of your strongest testimonials for last.

While the P.S. comes after much of the selling is done, it should not be an afterthought.

Spend some time crafting your P.S. to maximize its selling power.

Common Copywriting Mistake #15:
Not Taking the Time or Effort to Split-Test

Many copywriters are content to turn in their copy, cross their fingers, and hope it works. This is not a good strategy.

Who’s to say that Headline A is better or worse than Headline B?

Before copy is tested in the real world, all we have is opinions. They may be right, they may be wrong.

Claude Hopkins described the market as “the court of last resort.” Whenever there is a disagreement about which copy to run, let the market issue the verdict.

Naturally, you increase your chances of success if you split-test two versions of your sales copy. One version will perform better. But before you run the test, you won’t know which one.

I’ve seen far too many tests where I predicted the wrong outcome. The version I thought would lose, won. The version I thought would win, lost.

And this in spite of more than 14 years writing and testing sales copy!

Contrary to common belief, split-testing sales copy is not that difficult, especially on the Internet. Tools like Visual Website Optimizer and Optimizely make split-testing brain-dead simple.

Invest the time and effort to split-test your copy and the return on investment will be almost immediate.

That's a LOT of Mistakes! What's Next?

Whether you write copy full-time for a living or write copy for your own business as needed, it’s easy to make one or more of the mistakes listed above, especially if you’re writing quickly and editing hastily.

Study these mistakes and keep them in mind as you write. Then spend half an hour (or more) to review your copy after you’re done to make sure you’re avoiding them.

Of course, it’s sometimes difficult to effectively edit and rewrite your own copy. You get too close to it. You lose perspective. You get frustrated.

One of my clients, Paul Burns, sent an unsolicited email to me recently. He said:

“I was beating myself up… over this copy writing problem!”

Paul BurnsI decided to take Ryan up for his Copy Critique of my home page. I think being too close to my industry and having difficulty standing back for a clear view was messing me up. I had done all the research on my market and wrote tons of copy, but what I really needed was a professional that could look at my copy from a clear advantage point. Ryan re-wrote my copy with decisive and clear thoughts that I was unable to do. I’m very good at what I do but a man (woman) has to know their limitations. Writing copy is not my forte and as hard as I tried Ryan really came thru. My Sincerest Thanks, Ryan!

Paul Burns
President of Porcelain Tub Restorations
Bowie, Maryland

Paul’s experience is certainly not unique. Many of the clients who’ve hired me have expressed similar frustrations with writing and editing their own copy.

So if you, like Paul, feel you need a second set of eyes to review your copy, then you may want to check out my Copywriting Critique service. It’s one of the most affordable ways to work with me. And the results are worth far more than the fee.

You can learn more about my Copywriting Critique services here.

-Ryan M. Healy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published in installments during August and September of 2012. I have since combined all 15 original posts into a single post.

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Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy is a freelance copywriter, list manager, and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.

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