How to Write Copy That Sells Like a Mofo by Joanna Wiebe

Copy that sells doesn’t sell broadly.

Copy that sells speaks in real words to a real audience made of real people. That audience may be large or that audience may be small, but it is never made of everyone.

To write copy that sells, you start with the ideal prospect.

I’m not talking about starting with personas. Those are all fine and good, but they’re a cardboard cutout of the real person holding the real credit card. Too often, a persona is simply demographics strung together and topped off with a stock photo. What’s wrong with that? Well it’s not terrible, but it’s just a sliver of what really matters.

As the folks at The Rewired Group teach, you don’t buy the Wall Street Journal because you’re 55, you’re male, you’ve got 2 kids and you bring in between $125 – $250K a year. That may all be true of the average WSJ reader, but it’s not compelling. Something motivates you to buy the Wall Street Journal – and that’s what we need to know to start writing copy that sells the Wall Street Journal. (In fact, to sell the Wall Street Journal, copywriters have done anything but worry about demographics, as this famous WSJ sales letter demonstrates.)

To write copy that sells, we need to start with a deep understanding of our prospect. So this is how I approach conversion copywriting:

  1. I begin by trying to understand the stage of awareness of the prospect visiting the page in question or reading the email in question.
  2. Then I dig into learning about them, about their motivations and anxieties, about the business, and about the product or service. This is the research and discovery phase of conversion copywriting.
  3. I then synthesize what I’ve learned into a messaging hierarchy.
  4. Which leads to a wireframe (for web pages) or a “spit draft” (for emails, long copy, etc).
  5. I then swipe sticky messages from the research I’ve done and combine that with proven formulas to revise the placeholder messages in the wire or spit into actual copy.
  6. Edit.
  7. Split-test where possible.

The first five parts of the conversion copywriting process are 100% about the prospect. You barely write copy at all in this process – most of what you’ll write is swiped from “voice of customer” data and paired with swiped formulas. (Check out this case study to dive deeper.)

Step 1: Find Their Stage of Awareness

How much pain is your prospect in? How excited about your product is your visitor? You won’t be able to write a page or email that converts without answers to questions like those, which speak to the stage of awareness of your prospect. Those stages are:

  • Completely unaware
  • Problem aware
  • Solution aware
  • Product or brand aware
  • Most aware

Completely unaware people may search long-tail keyword phrases, while product aware may use branded phrases and most aware may use buying-intent phrases, like “buy refurbished Macbook Pro laptop sale.”

(You should get the skinny on the 5 stages here.)

It’s critical to know where your visitors to a page or your email subscribers sit on the awareness spectrum so your copy is better able to join the conversation happening in their minds. And this is why we don’t land all our ads on the same landing page. Because there are different convos happening depending on the stage you’re in.

Once we know where they are, then we can start to learn about them…

Step 2: Befriend Each Prospect

This is technically the research and discovery phase, but you don’t research just so you can get the facts needed to convince. You research to become friends with the prospect, as cheesy as that may sound. I firmly believe you have to like your prospects in order to write convincingly and sell authentically. You can’t be afraid of them, and you can’t fake laugh at their jokes while trying to catch a glimpse of the size of their wallet. That’s why we need to get to know and like them.

With research.

This course is going to teach you all about researching to get insights, so I won’t go into the details. But I will say that, in my experience, you must run surveys and do one-on-one interviews with current customers, former customers and prospective customers. Open-ended questions are more helpful for copywriting than Y/N questions. You need to not only hear about who they are and what they want and need but also to find the words they use to express those things. (We’ll want to swipe their language when it comes time to write.)

My absolute favorite question to ask because it reveals so much is this:

“What was going on in your life that compelled you to 
come looking for a solution like ours?”

Answers to that question reveal the conversation happening in your prospect’s mind. Their motivation. The struggles that caused that motivation. The payoff they’re in search of. In real words. So you don’t have to guess or summarize.

I also like asking customers to describe the biz, brand, product or service in 2 words because that tells me what adjectives to use. I love asking them to talk about a time when they got surprising results with the product. And I dig asking for unexpected ways they’ve found value with the product; these answers will eventually fill my page with specific, powerful bullets, like so:

Unexpected Value

All of those examples came from answers to that survey question.

You should also get to know the ins and outs of the business and its products or services. Map features to benefits, collect testimonials, understand goals, etc.

Step 3: Synthesize and Order

Block off a day or two to pore over everything from Step 2, document what you’ve learned and then use that to help make sense of what you need to say to prospects in X stage of awareness. Don’t summarize; synthesize. Try to make sense of what you’re learning without muddying it up by adding in your own assumptions. Your job isn’t to think for your prospect; your job is to listen to them and then turn what they said into copy that will persuade them. (As I mentioned earlier, copy that converts is ALL about the prospect.)

You’ll not only organize what you’ve learned. You’ll also take note of particularly sticky language they use.

I finish this step with a written report, which I refer to constantly when writing copy. One of the tables in this report is directly below. In it, I paste the problems customers say X product has solved for them, the corresponding benefits of having those problems solved, and how frequently this solution is mentioned by customers. The more frequently something is mentioned, the higher in the messaging hierarchy it is likely to go.

Problems, Benefits, Frequency

Step 4: Wireframe or spit-draft.

Copy leads design. If you don’t believe and practice that, your copy is not going to convert as well as it could. Don’t cram copy into lines of lorem ipsum. Don’t start with the salesroom (design). Start with the salesperson (copy).

By now we know the stage of awareness of the prospects arriving on the page or reading the email we’re about to write. We asked my fave survey question, so we know what is likely to be going on in their minds so we can join that convo right at the top of our page. And we synthesized our insights into a report that helps us understand the order of the messages that we should share with the prospect based on where they’re at today and where they want to be.

So now we lay out the messages – not the copy – on the page.

NOTE: The message is what you say; the copy is how you say it.

Here’s an example:

Example Wireframe

Step 5: Write with Your Prospect’s Words.

Take the sticky language you documented earlier, and use it to revise the placeholder messages on the page. You’re not writing copy; you’re feeding your prospect’s words right back to her. We want her to see herself on the page. We’re selling her a better version of herself. So we use her words, not ours.

If she uses jargon, we use that jargon.

If she writes “cuz”, we write “cuz.”

If she wants to double her revenue while working less, we tell her how she’ll double her revenue while working less.

Always in her words. If we don’t know what words she’d use for a particular message, we go back to the research phase to find out, often in innovative ways like this, which save time and reveal natural language.

From there, we optimize our phrasing using tried and true copywriting formulas. Using formulas makes our headlines pop, makes our bullets engage, makes our videos hold attention, makes our buttons compel clicks.

Simply: combine the words of your customer with the formulas of great copywriters.

Step 6: Edit.

Let your copy sit for a day or so. Then read it over with fresh eyes.

  • What’s confusing? What needs clarification?
  • Which lines read like they’re trying too hard? Which aren’t trying at all? Which would be more believably expressed in a testimonial?
  • Is every claim or point proven with a testimonial, a screenshot, a demo or some other form of support? If not, why not? How can we fix that before hitting publish?
  • When the CTA appears, does it do so too early for our prospect in their stage of awareness… or too late? Is any anxiety, objection or design issue getting in the way of the prospect confidently clicking the button?
  • Is it clear that their pain will continue or their lack of delight will continue if they fail to act now?

Revise accordingly.

Step 7: Split-test.

I’m not going to tell you how to split-test. I mean, you read CXL, so you’ve got the resources to cover this step.

I will say, though, that split-testing is a game-changer for copywriting. Rather than writing by committee and doing round-table copy reviews (which just empower a whole bunch of folks that haven’t done the first 6 steps to chime in with wild guesses), split-testing answers real questions about whether your copy is working or not.

Please, please, wherever possible, test your copy.

I’ll finish with this: the better your solution solves a problem, the better your copy will work. Copy can’t save a bad product. And copy can’t do much if you haven’t found product-market fit yet.

But, if you’ve got a great solution for a real problem – which is probz true if your retention and referrals are high – great copy will be the most inexpensive and most productive salesperson you’ve ever hired.


  1. Understand your audience inside and out before you begin writing anything. Conduct the research. Learn about their motivations, fears, intentions.
  2. Create a messaging hierarchy. What problems and benefits were mentioned most often during the research phase? Use them to create a landing page wireframe or first draft.
  3. Test, test, test. You can do the research and follow the process, but A/B testing your copy is the only way to go from good to great, from great to remarkable.

For more from Joanna, check out Copy Hackers and Airstory.

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