“Writing bullets is the single-most important copywriting skill.”
I still distinctly remember when Ken McCarthy told me that. Ken was, for the uninitiated, the ORIGINAL internet marketing expert. He put on the world’s first internet marketing seminar, in 1994, just as the visual web browser was being born.
He went on from 2000 through 2010, and ran The System Seminar, where most of today’s IM gurus (and their teachers) learned internet marketing.
His “Traffic + Conversion = Profits” is still the most valuable core lesson any internet marketer can learn.
He was the topic of my very first Breakthrough Marketing Secrets essay.
He was one of Brian Kurtz’s Titans when he hand-selected the world’s best direct response marketers for The Titans of Direct Response.
Ken has worked with and known many of the world’s greatest direct response copywriters for the last couple generations. When Gary Bencivenga retired, Ken was the ONLY person to interview him (which Ken gave me a copy of, for which I’m forever thankful — I also got Ken, Gary, and Brian to include it in the Titans bonus giveaway).
Ken was also my second freelance copywriting client, for a small project of his.
My project was small. An opt-in landing page. And he asked me to read some emails of his, and write bullets to tease the content.
I did. He liked them. In fact, he told me they were very good. Which, from him, was a high complement. Because, as he told me, “writing bullets is the single-most important copywriting skill.”
Which is all a great lead-up to today’s Mailbox Monday question…
Remember: it’s fast, easy, and free to have your question answered in an upcoming Mailbox Monday issue. Simply fill out this form and submit it.
I answer all kinds of questions about marketing, copywriting, selling, business-building, life, and more. Submit it, and as long as I believe the answer will be valuable to at least a segment of my regular readership, I’ll answer it here.
My question is this: Can one build a solid copywriting career writing bullets (fascinations) only?
I am “fascinated” with bullets and keep coming back to this possibility. I really believe I have a knack for writing them.
First, a quick-but-fascinating tale of when bullets were the height of fashion…
Perhaps you’ve heard of Boardroom, Inc. — now Bottom Line? They were, for a time, one of the world’s largest direct marketing companies. And while their eventual peak around $150 million per year in annual revenue was helped along by some infomercial successes, most of their hundreds of millions in sales were made through direct mail.
And in direct mail, they were the KINGS of bullets.
In fact, they had one bullet writer who was their secret weapon. I don’t know all the details, but he was hired with a fat compensation package and a secrecy clause, so the rest of the world didn’t know who was cranking out their bullets.
His name was Mel Martin. And he was “The Master of Fascinations.” Which were, in Boardroom-speak, those copy bullets that were so insanely fascinating that you’d order a $39 book just to figure out what the heck the secret was behind them.
Among the most famous?
— What never to eat on an airplane
— How to collect interest from two different banks at the same time
— The two most forgotten tax deductions
— Bills it’s okay to pay late
— What credit companies don’t tell you
— How to refund airlines’ non-refundable ticket
— How to make your car very, very hard to steal
— Vitamins never to buy in a health food store
— How to know when a slot machine is ready to pay off
In fact, for a time many of the BEST Boardroom ads were simply a barrage of bullets flying at you. The headline was the biggest bullet. The deck copy was a handful more. And nearly every line of body copy was yet another bullet.
There was little narrative structure to the ads. Perhaps all that was written in prose was the opening sentence and the offer, and even those were barely more than a few lines. The envelope was a wall of bullets. The sales “letter” was page-after-page.
In fact, I once heard Eugene Schwartz say that good copy was very much like a blockbuster action movie. It opens with a barrage of bullets. Followed by just enough story to let you know what’s going on. Followed by more bullets. And then some more. Next, a little story or dialog to keep it moving. Then more bullets. And so on, until the story climaxes in yet another barrage of bullets. That’s what fills the theater, and that’s what will fill your mailbox with responses.
I bought this hook, line, and sinker…
And so, like many novice copywriters, I made a study of bullets.
Which turned out to be a smart thing. Because I’ve spent most of my career selling information. And bullets are one of the most powerful copy elements you can use to sell information.
Example: my dad had been selling his video on how to cut foam wings for model airplanes, via eBay. It was a valuable piece of content, so initial auctions got bid up to about $30, just on the topic and a brief description alone. But eventually, it fatigued, and the average auction had dropped to about $5.
That’s when I stepped in. I told him I’d set up a website, and we could start selling it through the website.
One Saturday, I sat on my living room floor, in front of our VCR (I know, right?) with a pad and a pen. I hit play, and when he said something interesting, I’d pause it, and quickly write a note about it. Maybe it was a tip to make something easy. Maybe a common mistake. Maybe just a simple recommendation of the best material to use for wing-cutting templates.
Whatever it was, I’d write it down. Then, I’d re-write it as a bullet. Which meant I’d tease the value, but not give it away. The idea was to convey the specific benefit, while stirring the curiosity of the reader.
Eventually, probably three or four hours later, I had a wall of bullets.
From there, writing the copy was easy. Simply put a little narrative on the front and back sides of the pile of bullets — plus some subheads to break them up — and I had a sales letter.
I then used my “expanded bullet technique” and took some of the tips I’d written bullets about, and used them to write really quick emails that gave value while teasing more to come if you bought the video. I loaded those up in my email autoresponder, and we were off to the races.
I was able to run traffic to that site profitably for years. Never a ton because the market was small, but we made a decent chunk of extra change, from a video that had nearly stopped selling on eBay.
And primarily, it was because I’d learned those core lessons in writing bullets.
But back to the core question: what’s the power of being a bullet-writer TODAY?
… And, perhaps, can you make a career of JUST being a bullet-writer, like Mel Martin?
Well, I don’t speak in absolutes, because they’re almost always wrong. But I’ll go out on a limb and say the likelihood of succeeding ONLY as a bullet-writer would be nearly nil.
That is, I don’t think there’s as much demand for bullet-writers as there was in the print-only days.
Bullet writing as a skill will still teach you a ton. If you can write a bullet, it means you can encapsulate a wallop of powerful selling energy in a tiny amount of copy.
Every good headline is a bullet. Every good subhead is a bullet. And most body copy benefits from bullet-writing ability as well.
But most marketers today use at least a significant amount of narrative copy, beyond the bullet.
And, in markets like financial where much of the copy is also being produced as a video, bullets just come across as awkward when someone is reading them to you.
In fact, just the other day I was telling a copywriter that I write almost ZERO bullets anymore. Not for lack of ability, or their lack of selling power. But because the copy I write just doesn’t call for it.
If you do work with a lot of marketers who are selling pre-packaged information (such as books, etc.) and using primarily words-on-page (including digital) there may be a lot of work there.
And I think developing a reputation as a copywriter who can write “bullets that wound” (which I hear spoken in Gary B’s voice) would be quite valuable.
But to artificially constrain yourself from being able to write more narrative copy for things like emails and multimedia would be to artificially limit your potential as a copywriter.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,