10 Copywriting Lessons from John Carlton That’ll Help You Sell More Stuff

10 Copywriting Lessons from John Carlton That’ll Help You Sell More Stuff

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This article has been contributed by Mehedi Hasan Shoab.

John Carlton is the name of the game.

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He’s one of the rarest diamonds in the copywriting mine. Every story that comes out of his mouth ends up a remarkable one.

Due to his vast experience writing fascinating copy, John offers effective business advice and earth-shattering copywriting tips.

In this piece, we’ll go over 10 copywriting lessons from the legend that will help you sell more. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or just starting out on copywriting, this guide will help you.

So let’s get started.

1. Know What Makes a Good Story

The Science of Storytelling - Know what makes a good story to write the best copy you can

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According to Carlton, if you want to grab attention and keep it, you need to learn to tell good stories. Because stories have a visceral effect on us as human beings.

Take the topic you have in hand. Sit yourself down, think about it, and break the information down. Whichever format you have the information in – complex data, a block of knowledge, or an idea – break up the elements into chunks to present them in the form of a story.

But the question then arises – how do you know what makes a great story?

Reading. Any good storyteller is an avid reader. When you find an impactful story, press pause and break it down. Observe what makes it so impactful.

Ask yourself:

  • why does this part of the story stand out so much?
  • how are the words and phrases making an impact?
  • what tactics made this stand out so much?
  • how does the story make you feel?

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By analyzing stories this way, you get a solid understanding of what the storyteller was thinking and their techniques too. Then use them for your own storytelling purposes.

Make sure your story will resonate with your customers. If they can’t relate to it, you won’t be able to connect with them successfully, which is the whole aim of the game.

Survey your customers to gather the information you require. Use the details to present them with a story similar to their experience, with their wants and needs in mind.

2. Headlines Must Be Perfect

Copy headline fact: 8 out of 10 people read headlines but only 2 out of 10 read the rest

Image source: Copyblogger

The first thing your customer reads from your copy is the headline. A single word can attract or repel them.

A headline is tight when there’s no removable word in it. That is, if you remove something, the meaning will be distorted.

When writing a headline, you must make it persuasive, so it keeps the reader engaged. For that, follow the traditional “4 U’s” of headline writing.

The goal is to generate headlines that are:

  • Unique
  • Useful
  • Ultra-specific and
  • Urgent

You may not be able to include all four elements in your headline at once. But try to inject at least one or two to muscle up your headline, so readers stay glued to your piece.

Also try to integrate these top headline tips to ensure your heading grabs your readers’ attention and guarantees they keep reading.

  • Benefit-driven headlines tend to convert more than others, because people care more about what they’re getting from a product rather than its features.
  • Use power words to bring your reader out of a passive state into a semi-active state, even agitated.
  • Use these 9 words to form a solid headline; How, What, When, Why, Top, Best, Worst, New and You/Your.
  • Keep the main idea and the keywords of the headlines relevant.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words.
  • Use proven headline formulas to upgrade your headline to a better level.
  • Keep your targeted audience specific in headlines. Remember – the goal of your headline is to create emotional connections with your customers.
  • Use survey responses to produce headlines that will genuinely resonate with your readers.

The CoSchedule Headline Analyzer gives you a score out of 100 for your headlines.

3. The AIDA Model Sells

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The AIDA Model for Copywriting

AIDA is a classic selling formula. It stands for Attention, Interest, Desire and Action.

How does it work?

You get your customer’s attention, increase their interest, make them desire it, and then they’re tempted to act (buy from you).

For attention, you must understand your customer’s passion. This way you can present them things they can relate to. Avoiding boredom is crucial here.

Instead, it must force the customers to drop whatever else they were doing with passive attention and shift them to an active state. Questions do a great job of grabbing attention.

Next comes interest. Whatever product you’re advertising, your prospects want something simple to perk them up. You could throw an appetizing offer at them so they can sink their teeth in.

An appealing discount, combined with the prospect’s interest, is enough to engage them. You must lay these out clearly at the start of your ad.

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Then comes desire. Give your prospects a vision where they see favorable changes after buying your product.

Make them feel like they’re getting what they’ve been looking for all this time. Give them a confidence boost. That’s what will make them desire the product.

Finally, time for action.

Understand there are way too many ads around your prospect. Their news feed, email inbox and phone inboxes are full of sales messages. These mostly go unnoticed and ignored.

To stand out, your words must be powerful enough to shift them from just reading and postponing action to actually taking action right away.

The intensity of your words needs to knock them off the fence, move them past the dilly-dally state and push them to take action instantly.

4. Effective Research Creates Compelling Copy

The secret to writing great marketing copy is market research

Image source: ActiveCampaign

Focus on research. It’s key to producing engaging and compelling copy.

Research impacts your work big time. In fact, when writing copy, it’s 90% research and 10% writing.

Researching your audience and their needs helps you deliver focused, relevant and effective messages. It increases your efficiency, thus gets you the most out of your resources.

You will be able to pinpoint your customers’ problems and introduce your product’s benefits precisely. So prospect conversions will go up, instead of attracting customers of no value.

Also make sure you know all there is to know about your brand and product.

When you’re making claims, that your product would do this and that, do you really mean it? Do you genuinely think others will benefit?

When you write a product description, your research and claims can’t be vague. They must be on point and true.

Otherwise, you’ll just end up being another big-mouth company. Don’t just write what you find helpful. Fold your sleeves up and use your communication shovel to dig deeper.

Talk to the company’s receptionists, the errand-running salesman, the inventor, and gather all the gossip, rumors and opinions to understand the actual use of your solution.

Where do many companies go wrong? They write about why they love their product. But whatever impresses them most may not be the reality of the buyer.

When advertising, don’t use words the generic companies do. Most don’t have any copy knowledge, or aren’t willing to invest in it.

Go do your research, and stand out with your honest message. For this, you must keep your ego aside, and get out of your head. For a better customer understanding – get into their heads and listen to their opinions.

5. Trashing Your Competition Is Crucial – Sensibly

Direct competitors target the same customer as you with the same solution

Image source: Buffer

The goal of your copy is to leave your competition behind – and sell more of your stuff.

However, some businesses demean their competition without stating a logical reason. They may say things like: “it’s not worth it” or “don’t get ripped off’.

But without that logical believability, it’s not doing your business any good.

Instead, you can take a more subtle and sound approach. Go for propositions with logical support backing your words. Frame it differently when comparing your advantages and others’ weaknesses. Push a compliment and a shortcoming into your proposition instead of trashing the competition entirely.

Something like, “You can choose to go with other companies, a lot of them have been in the business for a long time. But if you’re looking for unparalleled customer support, we’re glad to inform you we have a 24-hour service line. All other providers operate from 9am to 5pm, which may work well for you. But in the case of an emergency at 10:00 pm, you can’t expect others to help. And that’s where we jump in. We care for our customers and want 100% satisfaction.”

That’s a strategic approach to convince customers. Charged demeaning doesn’t have the same impact. Instead, outlay your strength positioned against other brands’ weaknesses with confidence.

You can check out your competitor’s website and pick out their shortfalls. Go through their reviews and comments sections on different sites and platforms, like Google and user review sites. Leverage Quora too to identify customer gripes and concerns so that you can enhance your copy.

6. Testimonials Are Paramount

Testimonials are third-party approvals for people to trust something. They can be an extremely powerful tool.

Plus they boost conversions. There’s no way around them.

77.3% of people are impacted by reviews before they purchase

Image source: Yotpo

When writing testimonials, keeping them short is essential. According to Carlton, one-sentence testimonials work well, and testimonials should be two lines at most.

Testimonials don’t need to be a customer’s whole story. Nobody wants them on a sales page (that’s for case studies). So don’t stretch it – just go for the top 2 benefits. This way, you’ll retain your readers’ focus whilst garnering trust.

Now, when it comes to testimonials, specifics work better. But many customers aren’t going to be specific on their own. You’ll receive many testimonials like: “It’s really great, and I’m getting a lot of value from it.”

That’s just not going to cut it. You must get statements that compliment and offer realistic feedback. So when asking for testimonials, give users a few carefully-crafted questions to answer. The story of the testimonial must clearly showcase a strong benefit. When people answer your given questions, use it as your social proof. That’s what converts people.

Specifics should cover:

  • Quantifying figures and dates
  • How much you’ve progressed
  • In how much time

These specifics help gain your readers’ trust faster. Also, ensure the piece has good readability.

Vague testimonials don’t grab much attention and don’t get read completely. There’s nothing wrong with helping your customer write a testimonial. Or, rewriting it with some power words, as long as the message is intact.

However, make sure your testimonials don’t match the voice and tone of your sales copy. This may come off sketchy and self-promotional.

Also try to include photos of the customers giving the reviews, as photos make testimonials more realistic.

7. Personalized Copy Wins

Research shows that personalizing your copy increases customer engagement. Check out this massive stat from Google from a survey of over 500 leading marketers:

90% of leading marketers say marketing copy personalization significantly contributes to business profitability

Image source: Think With Google

To start personalizing your copy, you need to collect information and details of your customers and find the best way to utilize them.

You can start personalizing by using your prospect’s name. People love hearing their names. Using their names will help them remember how you made them feel.

Or you can just simply use “you.” “You” ranked the #1 most powerful word in a Yale study. It’s great for establishing familiarity and trust between you and the reader.

Why so powerful? Because it shows empathy to the customers. Empathy is one of the major factors of a convincing copy.

Try to use other specifics to reach out to your customers. For example, craft a birthday message with an alluring offer and email it wishing them a happy birthday. Adding a personalized graphic will also land you outstanding responses.

Once you get sophisticated, segment your personalized messages based on the following:

  • Demographics: Section your customers according to their age, gender, profession and income
  • Behavioral: Observe your readers’ actions and categorize them per benefits sought, purchase usage, buyer level and purpose.
  • Geographics: Segmenting audiences by language, surroundings and the climate is also effective.
  • Psychographics: Understand your prospects’ nature and divide them using lifestyle, personality and attitudes.

The purpose of personalization is to grab the attention of your prospects, empathize with them and provide a tailored solution – all with a feeling of genuine connection.

The solution must have interesting personalized benefits to get them rolling. If you’re writing for a group of people, address them in a way they all can connect to.

Your personalized copy should make them feel like they’re actually talking to you about their problems. So make it conversational and resonating.

8. Bullets Are Essential

List copy presented in bullet form gets read by more people than lists without bullets. They make your content scan-friendly. Plus, they make writing copy easier for you by making it a breeze to present list items.

70% of peopl;e looked at lists with bullet points whilst 55% looked at lists without bullet points

Image source: Tyton Media

Bullets work like mini headlines. Therefore, each list item needs to have the similar appealing characteristics of a headline.

  • Keep the key elements of your bullets on point and succinct. Remember, you have room for significant words only, so avoid adding fluff.
  • Bullets should immediately be helpful to your readers, as they won’t go through the entire article. So help them skim through.
  • Keep the bullets short and add as much information as you can in digestive pieces. Use simple words for smooth readability and avoid sub-bullets.
  • Keep the bullets relevant to your product. One bullet should highlight one specific feature only so don’t get derailed.
  • All your bullet items must be consistent in terms of structure. For instance, make each item 1 or 2 sentence explanations as we’ve done here.
  • Know exactly which keywords to use. Bulleted lists get more attention from the search engines.
  • Don’t use too many bullets. You don’t want your copy to look like a shopping list rather than an article.

9. Benefits Sell, Not Features

Benefits sell, not features, e.g. staying dry in the rain rather than an umbrellas specifications

Image source: WebEngage Monk

What’s the underlying reason for someone reading copy? To get something out of it. That’s it, end of story.

Just the way you’re going through this article to better your copy, everybody goes through copy to find how it can benefit them.

Let’s dive into how you can transform product features into benefits.

Sell The Result, Not The Product

Ask yourself:

  • Are people attracted to the hammer? Or the hole to hang the family pictures?
  • Are people attracted to the latest phone? Or the super-fast user experience?
  • Are people attracted to the air conditioner? Or the comfort of cool air?

This is the truth: People aren’t really concerned about the products and services. Nor the technical specifications or features of them.

They just care about whether it can benefit them, and how much. So, your goal is to sell the result, the experience – not the product or service.

If you just cover features, it’s like offering somebody a backpack because it’s white. The white color is a bland feature, not an enticing benefit.

However, what if you say, “The stunning white bag sets your child apart from the crowd, makes her feel special, and packs her with confidence.”

Spot the difference? You know that parents only want the best for their children and since you’re targeting the confidence of the child there, your copy steals the spotlight right away.

That’s how powerful benefits are. Use the below tactic to draw out the benefits.

The “So What” Test

The “So What” test is an approach to dive into features and transform them into benefits.

Here’s some product copy to clear off the fact:

Feature: The car contains anti-lock brakes.

So what?

Benefit: You have better control over your car, avoiding accidents.

Another one:

Feature: The sofa is built with polyester.

So what?

Benefit: The strong build can withstand huge everyday stress.

See where it’s leading?

That said – let’s take a service-based business into account. A content writing agency, in this case.

Feature: Article writing services.

So what?

Benefit: Saving you the stress and time of content creation, catapulting your brand authority, and landing more business.


Feature: Copywriting services.

So what?

Benefit: Boosting conversions and raking in the highest profit from all campaigns.

Just one more:

Feature: Cover letter writing services.

So what?

Benefit: For creating an amazing impression, landing the job of your dreams, and liberating yourself financially.

We’re basically tying features and benefits as closely as possible. When you do that, people are able to see how the features would benefit them.

So, to bring out your detailed benefits:

  1. Write down the features: No matter what you’re writing, list out the features first. These are technical specifications and facts. These raw materials help you with production. After that’s done…
  2. Deploy the “So What” test: After the benefits are down, you must think harder. Keep drilling into more powerful benefits. Keep in mind — the features and surface benefits are the leaves and branches of the tree. Keep drilling until you spot the seed.
  3. Collect insights: Don’t simply trust your experience to find the ultimate benefits. Roll your sleeves up and research to collect such insights. Reach out to past clients or prospects for gathering insights. 1-on-1 meetings with a few of your best-engaged clients are preferred. Also, you can do digital surveys to gather insights.

The next time you sit down to write, you’ll have all your messages in one place. So you can pepper them throughout your copy wherever appropriate.

When you produce copy with profound, powerful benefits, they will engage the reader from the start. Your goal should be to get the “Yeah, that’s exactly why I want to buy!” moment.

Instead of firing away with dry and boring facts, dive deeper with benefits.

Always remember: Features tell, benefits sell.

10. Gun-To-The-Head Persuasion Mindset Wins

Picture a gunslinger forcing you at gunpoint. The barrel of the gun is in your sight – pressed against your head. Write effective copy that lands sales, or the gun fires.

Not a very comforting scenario, is it?

That’s the main focus of the gun-to-the-head copywriting mindset. Picturing a gun pressed against you to be on-point while writing.

This idea was first introduced by John in his book “Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel.”

He says this mindset goes a long way when writing a stellar copy. It forces you to tailor your copy to make it more concise and benefit driven.

And it works. Every. Single. Time.

So, how does the mindset help you in action? Well, with this gun-to-the-head approach, you’ll:

  • Eliminate fluff, so it doesn’t derail your reader and waste their time.
  • Use the simplest language to keep the attention of readers.
  • Push yourself to think out-of-the-box and come up with compelling ideas.
  • Use proven headlines, sub-heads and persuasion points for conversion-focused copy.
  • Always offer juicy benefits throughout your pieces.

However, sometimes this method leads people to make mistakes. Make sure you don’t sound desperate and hungry for your position. Keep it professional and qualitative.

Restrain yourself from making crazy and irrational claims, as that’ll make the readers doubt your statements. Be honest with the words.

Why This Approach Is Effective

When copywriting turns into a question of life or death, things get very serious. When you’re risking everything, you’ll find a very compelling point of view.

As you may already know, John was struck by this idea when he was broke. Due to financial calamity, he either HAD to write converting ads or go hungry.

Nonetheless, rather than losing his cool and marbles, Carlton felt spookily calm and committed.

He approached every ad like a life or death battle – as if somebody put a fully loaded gun against his head during writing.

And the results? He ended up with more money than he knew what to do with. While not right away, he did eventually.

The lesson? Do not leave yourself any room for error, and you too will start to produce killer copy.


About the author: Mehedi Hasan Shoab is a freelance copywriter helping businesses skyrocket.