How to research for any copywriting project

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

Text-based image "How to research for copywriting projects"

Before you start any copywriting project, you need to research. No matter whether you’re writing sales pages, landing pages, full-blown websites, emails or social ads, you need to understand how to research and hence fill your brain with the ideas that are going to persuade your reader to buy from you.

Fortunately, over the past 100 years, we humans haven’t changed that much. The factors that influence us now have always influenced us – the persuasion levers, so to speak. Of course, the levers you need to pull will vary. But there are decades of research and experience on how to research and what to look for, so the process can be as streamlined as possible.

The purpose of copywriting research 

Research is what tells you what you need to say and who you need to say it to. For conversion copywriting, you’re generally trying to talk to your most profitable persona. But, of course, you might have other personas in place. The coming approach still applies.

Your target persona will have hot spots and zones of sensitivity, and you need to uncover them in your research. These are your persuasive levers.

How to structure your research findings

Research is a messy process. You’re going to find information and make connections between data when you least expect to. That’s kind of the beauty of it. You never know when the ‘a-ha’ moment will arrive.

But in order for that to happen, you need to fill your mind with the right type of information.

So, whilst you should structure your research approach (the rest of this article), you need to allow a bit of wiggle room, some back and forth, and ultimately, some time to let your subconscious incubate.

How you save and order your findings is up to you. Everyone has their own style. Personally, I like tables grouped into research categories. It’s clear to view and add/move findings around. In the later stages of my research, I’ll organise my findings into the sections of what I’m writing. For example, if I’m writing a home page, I’ll order the information by home page section.

What your research needs to find

Eugene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising has paved the way for countless copywriters. He brought together timeless principles that changed how copywriters view the forces that influence a market’s propensity to buy.

As part of your research, you’ll look at his three key forces. These are like the overarching vines that weave themselves through your research. They help bridge the gap between researching and writing (because writing is still the end goal here!), and most importantly, they help you write copy that connects. His three key forces are:

  • Market desire
  • Market awareness
  • Market sophistication

From there, your research then falls into three main categories:

  • Customer/market research
  • Product/brand research
  • Competitor research

Before you dig into the research categories, let me bring you up to speed with Schwartz’s forces and the types of decision-makers you’ll likely face. They’ll change how you present information later.

Explained: Market desire

I’ll start with a direct quote from the book.

“The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy. Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it.”

As a copywriter, you must accept reality for what it is and abide by these facts. Selling to someone is hard enough. You can’t waste your energy swimming against the tide.

Sat beneath market desire is timing – maybe the most powerful asset to great copywriting. If you correctly time the launch of your copy, you can work with existing market desire and ride waves of ephemeral desire. For example, you might be able to capitalise on trends and recent news and propel your results to a new level.

Naturally, most (long-term) businesses are built upon long-standing human desires, fears and needs. But it’s always useful to see if there are any more recent external factors you play into.

Schwartz then explains his three dimensions of mass (market) desire.

  1. Urgency, intensity and degree of demand to be satisfied. (e.g. chronic arthritis vs a minor headache)
  2. The staying power, degree of repetition and the inability to become satiated. (e.g. starving hunger vs the craving for fancy food)
  3. Scope – the number of people who share this desire. (e.g. to play a video game very few people have heard of vs Grand Theft Auto 5)

What this means for you, then, is that you need to research and find the most pressing hope, dream, need, fear or desire in your market and channel that onto your product. You should already have an aspect of your product (e.g. a feature or use case) that satisfies this mass desire.

Explained: Market awareness

Taking Schwartz’s market desire into more detail, you need to see where your audience sits on the awareness spectrum. Why? Because the best copywriting bridges a gap. 

At the time of buying, your prospect will be “Most aware”. You need to walk your prospects from where they are to this point. Finding their awareness level gives you the starting point. 

Remember, external events can influence the speed of stage progression, too.

Stages of market awareness
Stages of market awareness

When it comes to writing, this helps you understand what you need to lead with. For example, if your market only knows they have pain, you need to lead with the pain. If they know there’s a solution, lead with the solution. 

Or, if you flip it, leading with any details about your offer to a ‘pain-aware’ audience is a waste. They don’t even fully understand their pain, nor that there’s a solution to it… let alone specific offers around a solution. Connect with where they are.

Explained: Market sophistication

The final concept of Schwartz is the level of market sophistication. 

The easiest way to think of this is the number of – or exposure to – other products like yours on the market. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer: how many other businesses are making the same claims as you?

The purpose of finding market sophistication is to make sure your claims stand out – and don’t blend in, making you easily forgettable and poorly positioned.

Please don’t overlook this. When your market is bound by the same market desire, it’s easy to make the same weak claims they are. 

Your message delivery is the final hurdle. Don’t slip now.

Explained: Types of decision-makers

Moving on from Schwartz’s key forces, it’s also wise to understand the different types of decision-makers that exist. The relevance of this will largely depend on the type of copy you’re writing because it alters how you present information.

For example, with home pages and long-form sales pieces, it’s particularly important. But with short-form OOH advertising, it’s less so, but a wise consideration nonetheless.

Your target persona is likely going to consist of a few types of decision-makers because there’s a natural variation among people. Nobody is solely one, rather a tendency towards one (and a mix of multiple).

As you piece together your research, you should be able to group findings into each decision maker to ensure each (or the main ones) get what they need from your copy. Here they are, based on Miller William research.

The types of decision-makers split into their pace differences
The five main types of decision-makers

Note: With Controllers, clever copywriters can lead them in the right direction still by pre-empting and planting questions.

Of course, there will be crossovers between them. What works for one decision-maker will work for parts of another. So, it’s not like you need to write five different variations of your copy. 

It’s more about cleverly presenting the information and drawing attention to different elements so each decision-maker can easily find what they need. This requires an understanding of where each decision maker is more likely to spend their time, especially in longer sales pieces.

For example, with a home page, benefit-driven crossheads suit fast-moving Charismatic decision-makers (they’re easy to scan over). Then, you can supplement the crosshead with body copy so that the slower, more methodical Thinkers get what they need. You could also focus the top of your page towards the fast movers and the bottom of your page towards the slow movers (because they’re more likely to read the little details).

Where to research

To find the path of least resistance – the path of most persuasive potential – you need data. 

This data could technically come from anywhere. But generally speaking, you’ll find the answers to your research questions in the following places:

  • First-hand experience of using the product/service
  • Blogs
  • Reading reviews (known as ‘review mining’) for your or competing products
  • Social media posts and comments
  • Interviewing past customers
  • Speaking with ideal customers
  • Customer service experience/data
  • Research surveys
  • Traffic sources
  • Thank you pages
  • Previous launches

If you have access to it, you can also analyse website heat maps or other analytics data – as this article from Copyhackers recommends.

Of course, you are not limited to these options. Wherever your potential customers are – or could be – is an opportunity for you to pick on some insights (that includes earwigging at your local coffee shop).

Remember, you’d rather have too many insights than not enough. 

Preliminary research: What to look for before you begin

Get a feel for the market and look at what people are saying, selling and buying. This helps you identify market awareness and decide whether the project is something you want to take on… unaware audiences are much harder to sell to!

I generally find it best to start by loosely familiarising myself with the product before heading into market research and then returning to the product. 

Why? Because you want to keep yourself intentionally naive to what the product can and can’t do. At the moment, it’s just a base for your audience research. This will help you make some initial connections and give your research context. 

But because your audience research is arguably more important, you need to get under their skin, wear their trousers and put yourself in their shoes. Then, when you’re able to view the world through their eyes, you can view the product in more detail and see things how they would.

As with all research, you must be careful of your own biases and do your best to view your findings objectively.

Audience research

First up, your audience research. Here you’re trying to identify your target persona, get inside their skin and view the world like they do. You’re trying to find the emotion(s) that are going to drive them into their pockets.

Audience research falls into four categories:

  • Pushing (to find a solution) – e.g. current pains and problems
  • Pulling (towards a solution) – e.g. best-case scenarios
  • Switching (from alternatives, including doing nothing) – e.g. comparison details
  • Language use (Voice of Customer, VOC) – e.g. candid ways of expressing a pain

Remember, Schwartz’s forces weave in and out here. By the end of this stage, you should be crystal clear on the scope of the market/mass desire and have a better idea of what stage of awareness they are. For example, is your research showing more of a “I’m having this kind of issue…“? (Pain aware), or are there more features around a solution? (Solution aware).

A list of audience questions broken into the main categories
Audience research questions

In a nutshell, you should then be able to easily answer the following questions: 

  • What do they want?
  • What’s currently getting in the way of them getting it?
  • How can you remove those blocks?

All the data you find should help you understand your target persona’s psychology and their view of the world. These kinds of details aren’t always explicitly stated but more where you have to put on your investigative hat and read between the lines. Do they seem vain? Do they have enemies? A reputation to uphold? Their tone of voice and language use can be a good indicator.

And then, as a final note, try to follow behaviour where you can. As David Ogilvy famously said, “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say”. 

But where – and how – they spend their money will shine a light on their personality. This is where Copyhackers’ earlier recommendation to follow analytics and heat maps can be incredibly helpful. 

Language research

You can see the language – VOC – research questions above, but I want to clarify why VOC data is so important. Your role as you write copy is to act like a chameleon. You need to absorb your target persona’s mood, thinking and views of the world – and use their own language back at them to create a deeper, more unconscious sense of rapport between you.

It’s difficult to explain what the best VOC data looks like. So trust me when I say you’ll know it when you see it.

It’s usually very candid/unpolished turns of phrase. Words or phrases only your audience would use.

Product and business research

After audience research, you’re ready to dig into the product and business. You should have a (very) good idea of what your audience is going through and what they’re looking for. You should know the market desire and their awareness level. Now it’s time to plug the gaps and give your audience what they want/need.

Try to get hold of the product and use it yourself. Your own thoughts, feelings and experiences are really valuable here because you’re paying more attention to them.

And if you’re writing this for your own product, don’t skip this step. Don’t assume you know everything about your product. These questions might open up new perspectives and, hence, opportunities you’ve previously missed.

Why you need to conduct business research

Like how the awareness level lets you start where your audience is, understanding your audience’s perceptions of your business helps reinforce the bridge you’re building. 

By this, I mean, if you were to come out with a message radically different from what you’d usually say, you’d be met with a lot of resistance. In some cases, you might have to stick to a radically different message. But you still need to understand what you’re up against so you can handle it accordingly. 

A list of research questions for a product and business
Product and business research questions

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Your research might point towards other areas but this list should get you most of the way.

Proof research

Your business and product research should cover some of this, but your next port of call is to go through all the possible proof you have. For example, reviews, detailed testimonials, case studies, affiliations/partners, brands you’ve worked with, places you’ve featured, special customers, years of business, number of customers, awards/accreditations, research data, media mentions, guarantees and endorsements.

It’s important to go through it all. Compile it every last bit. It’s tedious, I know. But when it comes to writing, you want to leave no room for doubt in your claims. Copywriters always battle believability, so you need to gear yourself up for it. 

Besides, nobody’s ever bought anything because they trusted a company too much.

As you go through, you’ll likely find some good VOC data, too. There are usually some gems that make great crossheads, subject lines and bits of body copy.

Pair up your proof with anxieties

Because you’re now familiar with your audience, you should also be familiar with their anxieties around your product/other solutions. These could be with the product itself or the process of buying the product. 

So, your next step is to match your proof to the relevant anxiety – i.e. the proof that best settles those anxieties.

Don’t forget that product features can help settle anxieties, too. Or even better, product features matched with their relevant proof (e.g. a review talking about the feature).

Here’s how you might match proof with anxieties:

  • Security worries? Your level of product encryption.
  • Price objections? Your money-back guarantee.
  • Product durability? Material spec, research data or awards.
  • Hidden fees? Reviews highlighting costs (and lack of surprises).
  • Won’t work? Performance awards, reviews or guarantees.

Competitor research

The final part of your research is to see what your competitors are doing. You might have already looked at your competitors in earlier stages, but now you’re bringing a different type of attention to them.

The objective here is to better understand market sophistication so you don’t repeat the claims (in the same way) everyone else is. You might even spot elements of your products that are technically the same but not stressed enough, giving you a seemingly new “advantage”.

The easiest way to do this is to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. Do what they would. If you know they’re pain-aware, search symptoms and see what comes up. If you know they’re solution-aware, search solutions and see what comes up.

You can then gauge the types of claims your competitors are making. Are they exaggerated (e.g. faster or easier)? If they are, maybe the sophistication level is higher. You might need a different mechanism to deliver your core value prop/promise (e.g. an unstressed feature or an even more exaggerated claim).

You can also use Facebook’s ad library or look at your competitors’ pages on LinkedIn to see what ads they’re running. 

Conclusion

With your research in order, you’re ready to start writing. You’ve got all the insights you need from your audience, product, brand and competitors. Now it’s time to put it all together and tackle your most sceptical reader and persuade them to buy your product, whatever your medium.

If you’d like help researching and writing about your product, you can message me for free here.

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