February 3, 2011How to apply David Ogilvy’s sales technique to web copy

I’ve spoken before about how much I rate Tom Albrighton’s work as a copywriter. I’m also a fan of Ben Locker, in Colchester (Glad you’re not in London, Ben!). What have these two guys got in common? They’re both big fans of the “father of modern advertising,” David Ogilvy. So much so, in fact, that Ben recently produced a long-copy print ad in Ogilvy’s style as an experiment, testing whether or not long copy works. Well, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, too.

Who the hell is David Ogilvy?

Well, first things first, let’s be clear. David Ogilvy is not Don Draper. In Mad Men, Don prides himself on his creativity, his appeal to the emotions and, above all else, the fact that he’s “never written anything that’s longer than 250 words.” In many ways, Don represents the advertising world as it’s become: an emphasis on short copy, striking design and appeals to the senses, rather than to the rational consumer: don’t make them think they want it, make them feel it.

A classic "Ogilvy Formula" print ad

Ogilvy’s old school. He emphasises the importance of research, as well as tried and tested formulae — his book Ogilvy on Advertising devotes a considerable amount of time to telling the reader why they should never set white type on a black background, as well as why a 6,450 word ad in the New York Times was one of the most successful of all time.

I’m inclined to believe in short copy, particularly on the web. I tell my clients “stick to 300 words per page, preferably less, or people won’t read it.” Blog articles are the only exception to the rule. Even then, never use more words than is absolutely necessary to get your message across.

Ogilvy suggests a simple formula for print ads:

  • A large photograph taking approx. 3/4 of the page.
  • A headline of up to 9 words.
  • 240 words of “editorial” style copy.

Ogilvy’s ads look a little dated and slightly corny now. But that’s only because they worked so well, everybody copied them — and they became overused.

Adapting Ogilvy’s technique for the web

When I launched my site, the front page consisted of three “sliders” with a little over four sentences on each. It looked beautiful. Designers praised it. But it didn’t convert.

I asked myself why and came up with an answer: it told people what I did, and what I believed in (“simple” copy). But it didn’t give them a reason to choose me.

So I decided to be more combative. My first page is as it always was: a picture of me and a description of what I do. I agree with Ogilvy: it helps to show a picture of the product. You’re buying my time — you’re not buying a typewriter. So my page features pictures of me, not copywriting cliches like clipart typewriters, pens, bottles of whisky, etc. My second page I changed to an argument, directly adressing the reader: telling them “their copy sucks” and I could do better. My conversion rate doubled.

But it’s still far from what Ogilvy suggests.

Ogilvy suggests the following “magic formula” for generating sales:

  • A long headline (10 words) that offers helpful information or news
  • This inspires up to 75% more people to read the copy, copy that should
    also explain the benefit to the customer
  • A clear indication of price, as well as the suggestion of any discount.
    How many people would walk into a shop without price tags?

This is combined with his golden rule: advertising is never about guesswork, it’s always about research.

Using Google analytics, I noticed the following:

  • Twice as many people (39%) viewed the “three sliders” as viewed the next nearest page, “about” (18%).
  • At least half, and maybe more of the people who viewed this page, were web designers or digital agencies who’d come to look at the site’s design.

I’d previously written off most of these visitors as unconvertable — they’re not here to view the merchandise, they just like the design of the shop. Yet designers and agencies need copywriters — in fact, every one of these people is a potential sale.

It wasn’t a huge leap of faith to assume that my site wasn’t converting because it wasn’t speaking directly to its target audience. Using the techniques suggested in Ogilvy’s book, I came up with this:





The changes I made (and the changes you should make, too):

  • Targeting each type of visitor and selling to them directly
  • Being specific, open and up-front about price (even making it a feature)
  • Providing information under headlines that promise it.
  • Using print techniques like bold and underlining to highlight the message
  • Eschewing “fancy” design — letting the words speak for themselves.

Is Ogilvy right about competing on price whenever possible?

With the exception of a couple of introductory offers, I haven’t raised or changed my prices in over two years. I’m now charging approximately 25% less per day than the average copywriter. Meanwhile inflation is running rampant at 4.8% and the price of petrol is almost double what it was in 2008. I have my own central London office that’s about 200 yards from the Thames. These things aren’t cheap.

So I figured there were two ways to make money: either start charging more, or find a way to increase my conversion rate. I’ve always agreed with Ogilvy on one thing: the price is always a selling point. It’s why I’m amazed more copywriters don’t even give ballpark figures on their websites, let alone a simple, transparent rate.

Again, I’m using research: more people find my site via Google through price related keywords like “rates” “copywriting rates” “price per word” etc than any other way.

So I’ve made my prices a major selling point — as well as explaining why this actually enables me to offer a better standard of service to my customers. If Ogilvy comes through for me and my conversion rate increases, I’ll be able to keep my prices low. If not, I guess I’ll have to raise them for the first time since August, 2009.

It’s a gamble. Will it pay off? Like Ben Locker, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and testing whether Ogilvy’s techniques still work. Watch this space.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 at 4:41 pm and is filed under Advertising, Blog, Copywriting, Me and my business, Site Updates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Ben Locker says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing whether it comes through for you. Keep us all posted.

    My long copy ad did well. I picked up thousands of pounds worth of work on an outlay of £600.

    (Amusingly, the best paid job came about after the ad was spotted by a marketing guy who was an admirer of Ogilvy’s).

    I’m thinking of doing a series of long copy ads on other topics.

    (By the way, I was in London for a decade – but I moved out to Colchester in 2009).

  2. al says:

    Thanks Ben!

    Until last year I was actually based outside of central London near Guildford — so my costs were lower. Since moving centrally I’ve had to up my game a lot. But I wanted to try something new (and maybe learn something in the process) and try to up my conversion rate before I up my prices. Your ad inspired me to take a leaf out of Ogilvy’s book. Glad it worked out for you.

    Will definitely let you know how I get on! Am hoping for a similar success.

  3. Ben Locker says:

    I’m also at work revamping our website, and it’s far more considered than when I slung it up a couple of years ago. I’ve done some experiments on landing pages since, and found that concise, long copy with an adlibs style response form at the bottom pulls v well. I ran one this week using PPC and got a 66.6% clickthrough to conversion rate (I ran it for one day).

  4. al says:

    The great thing about the web is the metrics — I know exactly what works and what doesn’t, and experimenting with my own site has really helped me understand what works for my clients better, too.

    Likewise, let me know how you get on — you’ve reminded me of the next upgrade I need to do — changing the comment form to allow me to use the “send replies via email” plugin!

  5. Great site! I’d be very interested to know how these changes (and Ben Locker’s print advert) work out. Keep us informed! Ben Locker’s print advert is particularly interesting.

    I’ve been reading Ogilvy a lot but I’ve been trying to see how his techniques can be adapted for the web. I’ve seen a lot of very bad copywriting sites, yours is the best one I’ve come across!

  6. Thanks for the kind words. This is a fascinating post. Having agonised over my own site for aeons, I can fully relate to the thought process that led to your current approach.

    I also have pages targeting different audience groups – in fact, it was a turning point for me when I realised that I could list services AND client types – cutting the cake two ways at once instead of trying to find a single mode of segmentation. Online, you can have as many ‘views’ of the subject as you like, navigational clarity permitting. I tell clients this too.

    I agree that simple design and ‘printy’ graphics work well. Like Ben, I use a design that mimics ‘two-colour’ layout and also uses columns. Such a style foregrounds the content you’re using, emphasising your confidence in your words. And I’m totally in agreement about typewriters, pens and so on – as I’ve noted in a past post, writers talk about selling on benefits but then show the practical tools of their trade, which is inconsistent (at best).

    I don’t have my home page like yours for two reasons: (1) I present as a company rather than a person, for better or worse, and (2) I’d feel uncomfortable being so confrontational with my headline – worried that the reader might think ‘come on then, prove it!’, and that would set the tone for our working relationship.

    I’m not saying your approach is wrong – far from it – just that we all have to cut our copy according to our character.

    Another great approach you use is showing a face – yours. People respond to people and I’m sure visitors like the fact they click straight into the guy they’d be dealing with. Again, I hide behind an About Us page – although I’m there if people want to look. I’d appear on the home page if only I still had hair…

    Now, where can I get one of those dressing gowns?

  7. al says:

    Thanks Tom! I really enjoyed your post about the evolution of your site over the years — proof that change comes over time.

    While I’ve been copywriting since 2005 (I started out as a contact producer at a now defunct digital agency in Bristol), this site was only launched in 2009, so I’ve still got a lot to learn. Being able to learn from other people (like you and Ben) really helps.

    I agree my approach isn’t for everyone but when setting up the site I looked around and thought it was more important to differentiate myself from the other offerings, rather than add my name to a chorus of other (more established) voices. Better to be different and attract different clients than be in competition, right ;-)

    While I still have a full head of hair, I’m about 50/50 grey, so the black and white colour scheme definitely helps, too.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  8. Al, I discovered you purely by accident, can’t remember how now (probably through Tom or Ben, both of whom I’ve been following for some time). Funny how the thought processes can be similar, although I’m a few steps behind you. Thanks for the educational, fun trip!

  9. After going through this article I think it’s time for me to go back to the drawing board…we’ll see how it works! :)

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