3 questions to make copy that converts

We're redoing all of our emails over at NativShark.

All of them.

Onboarding, account notifications, weekly content roundups — the works.

From the time that we founded this company, I've written 1,070 emails. If we also add the 50-100 or so automated sequences I've written over the years, we're somewhere between 1,100 and 1,200 emails.

The good thing about all of this experience is that I've learned a lot.

The bad part is that the farther you travel, the easier it is to lose your way.

So I'm taking this opportunity to get back to basics.

What do I want to convey in (almost) every single email we send?

Well, to get more sales! To convince more people to buy our product.

If you knew what I knew, you would definitely buy it.

As long as this is true, your only problem is conveying what you know. If this isn't true, then you need to go back and fix up your offer. Improve the value proposition, lower the price, or both.

In the case of NativShark, I believe this to be 100% true. Which means I can dive right into the "conveying what I know" part.

The hard part of copywriting.

The 3 questions that convert

I read this advice well over a decade ago, and I still come back to it every time I'm revisiting copy.

  1. Why buy?
  2. Why buy from us?
  3. Why buy now?

If you can give a compelling answer to each of these questions, the customer will purchase your product or service.

Why buy?

What is the problem that your customer is trying to solve?

This is really simple for some businesses. If my toilet is flooding my apartment, I know exactly why I want to buy plumbing services. (I also know why I want to buy now, in this case.)

"Why buy?" is less simple for products or services that the customer has never purchased before.

Let's say that you're selling membership to a mastermind group to entrepreneurs in your local community. Some of them will already see the value in a mastermind group, how getting feedback from people who have similar experiences will be provide a positive ROI for them. Others will think, "Well, why would I spend money on that?"

Before you can sell someone a new mattress, you need to point out the value of a new, better mattress. Maybe you need to talk about the importance of good sleep, less back pain — whatever.

At NativShark, we sell access to our language learning software. Namely, we sell a subscription product that allows people to learn Japanese.

So why should you learn Japanese?

Uh, it depends...

Different customers want to learn Japanese for different reasons. Some want to get closer to their families. Others want to play video games or watch anime in Japanese. Some do martial arts.

Because of these differing motivations, we try to get prospective customers to think of their "Why buy?" on their own rather than telling them what it is. This is the first thing you see on our homepage, a carousel of images with popular reasons for learning Japanese:

I want to: experience a new culture.
I want to: fully enjoy my favorite media.
I want to: get closer to my family.
I want to: make new friends.
I want to: live in Japan.

Then we end with:

I want to: learn Japanese.

This is really just scratching the surface, though.

There is a difference between getting a prospective customer to tell you why they think they might be interested in a product and getting them to really imagine their life after they have experienced what you're offering.

Let's say that your reason for learning Japanese is, "I want to: get closer to my family." Maybe your wife is Japanese, and when you see your in-laws, you basically sit there quietly not knowing what anyone is talking about. This is enough to get you to want to learn Japanese.

But have you really envisioned what it's like to connect with your in-laws and speak their language? What if I told you a story about the first-time I made my mother-in-law laugh, and how it was the first inkling of a lifelong connection we'd share. What if I showed you a testimonial from a student talking about how they held a conversation with their niece or nephew last week while playing video games together, how it was one of their favorite experiences in recent memory?

Suddenly the "Why buy?" is starting to feel pretty important.

I want this to be present in a prospective customer's mind, so in addition to the homepage design above, the first thing we'll ask them in their welcome email after creating an account is:

Why do you want to learn Japanese?

We'll get them to write it down, and we can respond to them and ask for more details, get them to envision how learning Japanese would change their life. This is valuable not only for us but also for them. They can come back to their own words when they're feeling less motivated in the future. They can remind themselves what their goal is, why it's important.

Why buy from us?

I think it's very tempting to jump straight to this one.

You'll often hear the sales advice:

Don't sell features. Sell benefits.

Feature: we have a tool called Shadow Loops that allows you to listen to repeated recordings of sentences you've encountered in our platform.

Benefit: Actually catch what people are saying by improving your listening comprehension with our Shadow Loops. Oh, and this will improve your pronunciation, too, so people actually understand you when you talk.

"Benefits, not features" is good advice. But I don't think you should worry about it unless "Why buy?" has already been answered.

If you have a plumbing service, then yeah, jump right to "Why buy from us?" Maybe something like: "We'll get to your house within 1 hour of you calling us" or "24-hour emergency plumbing service."

If you're selling me a mastermind group membership however, and you jump into the fact that your particular mastermind is affordable or convenient... well, that's great. But I'm not interested in joining one in the first place.

At NativShark, we've floundered a bit with "Why buy from us?" This is partly because the company and its product line evolved over time.

The compelling thing about our product used to just be that we had a larger library of Japanese learning content than anyone else, and that we wrote lessons that were informative, casual, and entertaining. (This was the predecessor to NativShark, NihongoShark.)

But in the initial months after launching our new platform, we didn't have a giant library of content. Yeah, we had more than most students will ever complete, but we couldn't say, "Just buy it because we have the most content." In any case, that was never meant to be the primary value proposition of NativShark.

Instead, the main benefit of our product was that it was a simple way to learn a language. Yeah, we have a lot of content. Yeah, we teach it better than anyone else. But most importantly, we solve the number one reason people fail to learn Japanese: They don't know what to study when, or how.

In other words, we make learning Japanese simple. One place you have to go — one single button to click each day — in order to reach your fluency goals.

It took us 5 months to really clarify this in our marketing.

So when I go looking for testimonials to drop in these new onboarding emails — which I'm definitely going to do — I'm going to be looking for ones that answer this particular problem. More generally, I'll be looking for testimonials that answer "Why buy from us?"

Here's a snippet from one that came in this morning, for example:

I'm an interpreter and I'm quite used to studying languages, even languages that are different from each other. I'm constantly studying all of them because that's how it is 😉 So I think I have my own approach to languages…but with Japanese I struggled a lot.

I was studying it by myself, I had many books and took a group course. However, these methods didn't suit me. Studying alone without anyone guiding me was hard and I didn't know how to deal with this language because it had many new features for me…like kanjis to name one. The group course wasn't the best approach for me either, as it was very slow and I didn't feel like I was making any progress.

When I found NativShark I was blown away because it's really really effective. When I'm studying, I enjoy it so much that I would like to go on studying all day! Well I obviously can't, for many reasons, but this is just to tell you how much I enjoy it. 😄

One last thing I'll mention about "Why buy from us?" is that this is our opportunity to connect with the customer on a personal level. Responding to their "Why do you want to learn Japanese?" email doesn't just get them to dig deeper into their "Why buy?" It also presents a chance to show that we are like them:

  • I know what you mean. I used to have the same problem you have.
  • I understand what you're feeling and what you want.
  • I have your best interests at heart.
  • The issues you describe were the exact reasons we started this company.

For years now, I've opened most of our onboarding emails with a story about my own personal journey to Japanese proficiency. Because I didn't swallow a magical Japanese pill that taught me the language. I made a ton of mistakes. I wasted countless hours. I experienced all the things I don't want our students to experience anymore.

When I share this, they start to see that I'm a human being. And as the old saying goes:

People will do business with — and refer business to — people they know, like, and trust.

Why buy now?

I've always found this one the most difficult.

The tried-and-true method of convincing someone to buy now is scarcity.

The sale ends tomorrow.
There are only 5 spots left.

But NativShark is a software-as-a-service product. There are an infinite number of spaces, and you can join at any time. And attempting to only offer discounts to some users or at some times can backfire quite a bit.

So how do we get them to feel like they need this product right now?

There is no single correct answer to this question. Some companies run frequent sales. I personally don't want to do that because it cheapens the product, and if the sale is too frequent, there isn't really much of a reason to buy now, after all, is there? You can just get the deal at the next sale.

We do very rarely — maybe once a year — run a major promotion of some kind, but that doesn't help for the sales copy in something like an onboarding email to a product that I'm trying to sell today, 10 months before our next sale.

The way we've solved for this so far is to just make the first question — "Why buy?" — feel urgent to the prospective customer. If you want something badly enough, it starts to feel like you absolutely must have it right now. Thank you to Amazon and all the other companies out there training people to crave instant gratification!

I think that some marketers might argue that our "Why buy now?" falls short because it's little more than a ramped-up "Why buy?" Maybe they're right. Or maybe it's better to only be selling a product to someone who wants it so badly that they can't wait a moment longer to buy it.

If we really needed a discount to get you to pull out your credit card, then you probably aren't valuing the product enough. Students who don't value it are less likely to succeed in their studies. And I've never wanted to take money from people who don't actually learn Japanese with our product.

Yeah, it's inevitable that it will happen. I can't force everyone to show up and use the platform once they've purchased access to it. But at least I won't have pressured someone into buying it right now when now is not actually a good time for them to buy it, if ever.

Staying grounded

  1. Why buy?
  2. Why buy from us?
  3. Why buy now?

If the customer has a positive answer to each of these questions — and you've gotten them to consider these answers — then they will buy from you.

If they don't have a positive answer for each one, yeah, maybe your product or your messaging need a bit of work. Or maybe that person just isn't the right customer.

And that's OK.

As soon as you start acting like that's not OK, you may find yourself in danger of sacrificing an ethical business for one that puts a little more money in your pocket (short-term). A pretty shitty tradeoff.

We can do better.