Rather Test or Guess?

“Make me a deal on a split run.” Of all the negotiating ploys we as marketers might consider, this simple sentence has more success-seeds than any of the fustian and fury we could force out of our bargaining-parleying fingertips. And a “Yes” answer from an understanding medium, which costs zilch, has to result in information far more profitable than even our top-of-the-line brainpower can match.

TM0810_searchglobe copy“Make me a deal on a split run.”

Of all the negotiating ploys we as marketers might consider, this simple sentence has more success-seeds than any of the fustian and fury we could force out of our bargaining-parleying fingertips. And a “Yes” answer from an understanding medium, which costs zilch, has to result in information far more profitable than even our top-of-the-line brainpower can match.

One assumption we certainly have enough professional knowledge to lean on: the circulation of the medium has at least a tenuous match with a logical buyer. Our prospects won’t think we’re approaching from the planet Mars.

For print media, a split run is easier to mount today than it ever has been since, some hundreds of years ago, we as marketers invaded the nooks and crannies of publishing. For direct mail, it’s a bonanza whose luster dimmed when direct radio and then direct television mussed up the turf. For online, it’s too natural and obvious to be regarded as an innovation.

The overriding interpretation of what we’re discussing is a single word: test.

If the notion of testing a direct appeal is foreign to you, call me or any of about fifty thousand other self-proclaimed marketing experts, and we’ll be glad to take advantage of your naiveté.

Or, if you’d rather, make one decision that has to be profitable: what to test.

The most common test element is price. What price represents the best addition to the bottom line? $19.99 may bring more orders, but $24.99 is more profitable. And in today’s wild marketplace, where 99 cents has almost universally replaced the venerable 95 cents, $24.99 just might bring in more responses than $19.99. What if we glamorize the offer? $29.99 versus $19.99? We can test to give us an answer.

(Sample example: a recent three-way test for a collectible priced the item at $15.49, $15.99, and $17.99. Which brought the highest total number of responses, not just dollars? Right. $17.99. I suspect because the product has a tie to tradition, $17.95 would have left $17.99 in the shade, but the testing impulse didn’t extend that far. Maybe next time.)

And easy? What test could be easier? Just be sure that each addressee gets just one distinct offer and the response code differs for each price.

“Seat of the pants” guesswork is old-fashioned and amateurish, and depending on the deal you can make with media or a lettershop, not an optimal investment in marketing.

Hmmm. Here’s a unisex jacket. Here’s a tablet computer. Here’s a DVD whose content dwarfs any approach to the business problem its content solves. Here’s an extraordinary assortment of dessert-goodies.

A true split is just one split-test: When an offer appears on our monitor, we can’t tell if it’s unique or part of a split run … that is, if the code doesn’t betray the technique.

What does that mean? Well, suppose you get an online offer from “Firearms.” Does that, emotionally and in your mind factually, differ from “Guns” or for that matter the singular, “Firearm”? What if the sender had split the subject line, sending to one group “Look out. This gun fires in both directions” and to a parallel group “Gigantic 75% discount, today only.” Even from this example, any of us can predict that response will be skewed by the difference in appeals. What we have is a message test, even though only the subject lines may differ.

Creative Cage Match: Greetabl vs. Old Navy

According to Radicati Group’s “Email Statistics Report, 2015-2019,” the consumer inbox got hit with approximately 93 emails a day in 2015. That’s a lot of email, which means marketers have to nail the subject line in order to win the open, then deliver on the open.

There’s a reason that pro-wrestling is so popular — and it’s not just the juicy drama and bespangled costumes. People love a good fight, and have for millennia, dating back to the gladiators of Rome and beyond.

So, once a month I’m going to select two marketers and toss them into a Creative Cage Match. I’ll be looking at everything ranging from email to direct mail, website to mobile site. It’ll be a mix of objective and subjective, and each time a marketer will walk out of the ring triumphantly.

According to Radicati Group’s “Email Statistics Report, 2015-2019” (opens as a PDF), the consumer inbox got hit with approximately 93 emails a day in 2015. That’s a lot of email, which means marketers have to nail the subject line in order to win the open, then deliver on the open.

You had my curiosity, but now you have my attentionOn this side of the ring, we have Greetabl, launched in 2013 as a creative attempt to bridge the “Gifting Gap.” Consumers are able to select from curated small gift options, choose and customize packaging, all with a few clicks. Why send a $60 bouquet of wilted roses when you can earn mega brownie points for something outside of the norm (while also keeping your wallet from crying)?

Across the ring is the retail powerhouse Old Navy — from the same family that gives us The Gap and Banana Republic — known for its clothing and accessories. Founded in 1994, Old Navy has brick and mortar stores, as well as an e-commerce site, and is known for quirky commercials featuring celebrities such as Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer.

Email vs. Email

With a jam-packed inbox, you have to nail the subject line, then follow through with the content by way of copy and design. So let’s look at two that I received recently:

Greetabl email“You know she needs this” is the subject line from Greetabl. This definitely grabbed my attention, and I’m pleased with what I clicked through to. I enjoyed the preheader — Overworked friends need extra <3 — and while it doesn’t give me a benefit, it made me smile.

The email is about a new Greetabl gift you can send a friend. The image is great, the copy is simple, to the point and in Greetabl’s voice, and at the very bottom I really like the Unsubscribe copy:

If you really, really don’t want to hear from us anymore, you can unsubscribe. We totally won’t take it personal. I mean, it’s just an email, right? It definitely does not mean we’re not still friends. Right?? Are we overthinking this? Love you, mean it.

Two thumbs up Greetabl … which reminds me … I have a bestie’s birthday coming up soon …

Now, on to the behemoth that is Old Navy.

Email Creative March Madness: Final Four

By now, you’re familiar with my Creative Cage Match posts, in which I throw two emails into the cage and one comes out a winner. Today, I’m going to mix up my sports metaphors to bring you: Email Creative March Madness.

By now, you’re familiar with my Creative Cage Match posts, in which I throw two emails into the cage and one comes out a winner. Today, I’m going to mix up my sports metaphors to bring you Email Creative March Madness.

March Madness Email Creative FInal Four competitorsSince launching Sass Marketing, I have hosted four Creative Cage Matches, which makes for a perfect mini-bracket. The winners from those four matches — the Final Four — are competing today head-on with NEW creative in two separate games. Then next Tuesday I’ll host the Email Creative March Madness National Championship.

There are five areas to score points, and scores are as follows:

  • 0 points: Dude you missed!
  • 2 points: Nice shot!
  • 3 points: You’re totally going pro!

Game 1: Food vs. Makeup
GrubHub was the winner of the first Creative Cage Match. Hailed as the “nation’s leading online and mobile food ordering company,” GrubHub’s original CCM performance impressed me with it’s multi-part drip campaign, sassy copy, entertaining design, and well-written subject lines and preheader text.

Gruhub St. Patrick's Day Creative Cage Match: March Madness EditionThis email, sent March 13, starts with the subject line: “Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Grubhub.” It’s to the point … and not much else. Surprisingly, despite preheaders of the past, this email skips it altogether. The St. Patrick’s day icons are whimsical and eye-catching, while keeping things from being too busy.

Possibly the best part of the email is that Grubhub identified a handful of restaurants near my apartment, and gave me a brief overview, including: restaurant name, cuisine, delivery charge, minimum order and address. Following each is a “View Menu” call-to-action button, as well as a photo of a menu item. I appreciate the quick “snapshot” that lets me make my ordering decision that much easier.

Grubhub’s Points
Subject line: 0
Preheader text: 0
Copy: 2
Call to action: 2
Overall design: 2
Total: 6 points

Up against Gruhub is Birchbox, the most recent Creative Cage Match winner who swept with its solid content marketing via email. This beauty subscription box loved by millions kept things simple and straightforward with its original winning email, letting the tutorial video do all the talking.

Birchbox April Box Preview Creative Cage Match: March Madness EditionI received this email on March 16, with the subject line: “Sneak Preview! Your April Box Options?” (Trust me, the hibiscus emoji wasn’t as huge as it’s displaying here).

As a Birchbox subscriber, this is exactly the kind of subject line I look for every month. The inclusion of the emoji was cute, and also a nice way to make the email stand out in a sea of black text (especially since it’s a brightly colored flower).

The preheader text echoes the subject line, but is personalized with my name: “Melissa, we’re revealing the customization options for your April Box.” It’s also a clickable link, taking you to the Web page that includes the monthly reveal video. The email design borrows a border from the Rifle Paper Co. Botanical Notebook + Notepad Set —  an April featured item — and includes a image of Lorelei and Rachel, two Birchbox ladies who subscribers are very used to seeing in our inboxes.

Birchbox’s copy, as usual, gets to the point, supporting the “Reveal My Choices” call-to-action button. I mean, seriously … who’s going to pass up clicking through and finding out more info?!

Birchbox’s Points
Subject line: 2
Preheader text: 3
Copy: 2
Call to action: 2
Overall design: 2
Total: 11 points

Gruhub vs. Birchbox Final Score: 6 to 11

Oh wow … we have a clear winner in Game 1, with Birchbox wiping up the court with Grubhub. It was the subject line and preheader that provided the clear advantage in this situation.

Copywriting for Mobile: Don’t Phone It In

Remember how a few entries ago I complained about the exhaustive use of the ~Millennial~ label? Well guess what, I’m owning it right here, right now. My name is Dani, I am a Millennial, and that means I’m on my phone, a lot. Like, pretty much all the time. Right now I’m typing with one hand and texting with the other.

Remember how a few entries ago I complained about the exhaustive use of the ~Millennial~ label? Well guess what, I’m owning it right here, right now. My name is Dani, I am a Millennial, and that means I’m on my phone, a lot. Like, pretty much all the time. Right now I’m typing with one hand and texting with the other. (I’m just kidding about that. Probably.)

The point is, we all know the stats on mobile usage. We’re all inundated every day with the knowledge of how much more people are relying on phones or tablets instead of computers, my generation being particularly notorious for it. We’ve all become intimate with the phrase “optimize for mobile”. Usually, we’re talking about websites and graphic design.

But us copywriters should be keeping mobile in mind too — words also need a little bit of adaptation to make the best use of such a small space — not to mention a space frequently used while multitasking. When you’re typing away at your clever, compelling copy, are you making considerations for mobile?

I know I personally often neglect this important detail. So, for my benefit as much as any reader’s, here are a few quick tips for writing copy that won’t lose impact just because the screen loses inches.

Short n’ Sweet
You probably knew this was coming, right? Just your basic “Mobile readers are on the go! Short attention spans! Concise is key!” and so on.

In this case, it’s not just about not wanting to lose the reader’s attention through long, rambling prose, but also simply about saving physical space on the screen and making text easier on the eyes by keeping both sentences and paragraphs short and clean. Larger blocks of text with few line breaks are notoriously difficult on a small screen.

When I’m conscious of this, I try to keep “paragraphs” no longer than two lines (as much as my former English major side protests.)

Grab the Bulletpoints by the Horns

  • Really
  • Bulletpoints are golden
  • They make information digestible
  • And force you to remove excess
  • They’re easy on the eyes
  • Fit nicely on a mobile screen
  • Amirite

Head for the Headers
Just a variation on the theme; it’s all about readability. Catchy, bold headers (bold in both senses of the word) to introduce each new concept are a fantastic way to both organize your copy, and to help a scroll-happy reader find exactly what they are looking for.

Remember the Inverted Pyramid 
We all learned this one in Intro to Journalism, whether we’re Boomers, Millennials, Gen Y’s, Lannisters or Starks. That Golden Rule of journalism, that looked a little something like…

Inverted_pyramid

 

I’m sure it’s ingrained in all of us by now, some of us probably have nightmares of this thing descending upon us like some sort of sharpened spear. And it’s just as well, since the inverted pyramid is great for writing any sort of copy that might be read on a phone, not just news articles.

Unfortunately, this format can’t always apply, exhibit A being this blog entry. But if you can swing it, those short attention spans and likelihood of multitasking would be best served by cramming as much of the meat and potatoes as your message will allow in the first few sentences, with the side of veggies toward the end.

Let’s Get Visual (Visual) 
Speaking of that image of the inverted pyramid above — visuals can be a vital ingredient in your mobile copy stew. Have you ever noticed that you’ll look at the graphics in an email or actually read an infographic with much more attention on your phone screen than your computer screen?

When faced with a lot of text or pictures in a small space, our brains just respond more easily to the visuals. The eye is naturally drawn to images, especially if we need a break from or better understanding of what we’re reading.

 

image1
This got your attention, right?

Images with relevant, interesting information (like infographics) is a great way to ensure the reader is still getting what you want them to get out of your copy. Photos of my cat looking surprised might not be the best example of this, I just wanted you to look at a photo of my cat.

To Wrap it Up…
This blog entry is now 722 words and I have effectively followed maybe two words of my own advice. Like I said, I needed this entry and the consideration that went into it too. Props if you did read this post on mobile.

If you have any tricks up your sleeve for mobile-friendly copy, any particular guidelines you’ve found most effective, please share in the comments! Feel free to share pictures of your cat too, it’s only fair.

 

A Headline Rhyme Is Sublime

Will a rhyme in your headline help your copy pass the cognitive fluency test? Cognitive fluency is a measure of how easily people interpret your marketing message. Using three simple copywriting and design techniques you can enhance your marketing and sales message effectiveness.

Will a rhyme in your headline help your copy pass the cognitive fluency test? Cognitive fluency is a measure of how easily people interpret your marketing message. Using three simple copywriting and design techniques you can enhance your marketing and sales message effectiveness.

It’s no surprise that people prefer easy-to-digest information over difficult. How you write and position your copy and content impacts the immediate judgements and opinions that prospects and customers will form.

In my last column, 8 Seconds to Pounce Using the 3 E’s of Copywriting, I shared how new research suggests that our attention span is dwindling down to a mere eight seconds. Since that’s only about 30 to 40 words in a headline and lead, it’s imperative to make points quickly. When writing with cognitive fluency in mind, you can boost the odds of getting your customer’s attention.

Through cognitive fluency, existing knowledge prepares us to receive new knowledge. Cognitive fluency dictates the ease and speed with which we process information, and it influences our opinion. It leads us to see new information as familiar. Cognitive fluency enables a shortcut in our mind. It helps us process multiples of stimuli that distract people and tug at attention.

Bottom line: cognitive fluency helps prospects and customers make a snap decision about what is worthy of their attention.

Studies have shown that when presenting people with content that is easy to mentally process, the performance and outcome desired can be more favorable.

  • Cognitive fluency helps your customers evaluate information products.
  • It can influence how people perceive others to be attractive.
  • It shapes how people evaluate candidates who are running for public office.
  • Cognitive fluency helps customers evaluate the business and innovation intelligence of an organization.
  • Content that works within the ease of cognitive fluency helps customers to be more forgiving and more adventurous.
  • When people read something in a low-contrast, small-sized, or ornate font, they transfer a sense of difficulty on the topic. When people read about an exercise regimen or a recipe in a less legible font, they tend to rate the exercise regimen as more difficult and the recipe more complicated than if they read about them in a clearer font.

Here are three simple copywriting and design techniques so your message is swiftly and easily absorbed and interpreted:

  1. Make words rhyme in your headline
  2. Repeat statements
  3. Use a clean font and layout

Keep cognitive fluency in mind as you write copy and content, and you will help your prospects and customers determine if your message is worthy of their attention.

8 Seconds to Pounce Using the 3 Es of Copywriting

Eight seconds. That’s the average attention span of today’s reader, with those precious seconds representing about the time to ready only 30 to 40 words of copy. Or about HERE (at 35 words).

Eight seconds. That’s the average attention span of today’s reader, with those precious seconds representing about the time to ready only 30 to 40 words of copy. Or about HERE (at 35 words). As recently as in 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds. But when online and mobile use exploded, along with distractions from multiple streams of media, another one-third of our attention span was lopped off.

Attention span, as defined in a new study, is “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” Commanding concentrated time in just eight seconds is a tall order for marketers.

As I wrote above, those eight seconds only allow reading 30 to 40 words (based on my informal findings). That represents about five to eight words for a headline, followed by a couple of average length sentences, or three or four short sentences. That’s all the time you’ve got to engage your reader to convince them to give you more time.

Consider these stats:

  • Average attention span in 2015:
    8.25 seconds
  • Average attention span in 2000:
    12 seconds
  • Average number of times per hour an office worker checks their email box:
    30 times
  • Average length watched of a single internet video:
    2.7 minutes

There are a few other stats out there that underscore how we, as a culture, don’t pay attention for very long before moving on:

  • Percent of web page views that last less than 4 seconds:
    17 percent
  • Percent of web page views that lasted more than 10 minutes:
    4 percent
  • Percent of words read on web pages with 111 words or less:
    49 percent
  • Percent of words read on an average (593 words) web page:
    28 percent

There’s more: users spend only 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words speed reading through web copy.

What does this mean for direct marketers? You must grab your reader using three E’s in copywriting that:

  1. Entertains
  2. Educates
  3. Engages

This doesn’t necessarily mean writing shorter copy.

  • Copy must work smarter to get attention. Use the three E’s in combination.
  • Eliminate “warm up” copy and stimulate emotion fast by introducing fear, uncertainty and doubt in your prospect’s mind.
  • Quickly calm your prospect’s mind with your solution and why your prospect should go beyond eight seconds to learn more about you.

Grab the reader with the three E’s of copywriting and improve your odds they’ll stick with you. But if you hope to make the sale, your copy must quickly get to the point to interest the reader longer than a mere eight seconds.

Words Matter

It’s said that in life, words matter. Simple phrases and how we say them as we interact reveals much about our inner character. I recently listened to a message about how three phrases have the power to change emotion. And it dawned on me that these same phrases, all filled with goodness, have a place in the tone of our marketing messages.

Words in a sales letter, email, website, blog post, social media post or video have the potential to shift emotion in a positive way. The most effective words are simple. Once you understand and empathize with the feelings of your reader or prospective customer, you can shift the tone of your message in a positive way.

While these three phrases could be literally stated in your marketing message, it’s really the tone you should strive to send. So today I suggest you think about how you can put an encouraging tone on the emotion you want your message to convey, and consider how your headline, body copy, or story, can move your audience to a positive emotion.

  • “Thank you.” By themselves, the words can be a bit hollow. “Thank you for your business” is nice, but a sincere thank you that reveals the depth of your inner gratefulness can be much more impactful.
  • “I appreciate you.” Most of us like to be appreciated. Once again, the exact words you use don’t have to say “I appreciate you,” but rather, convey the appreciation of people as customers in your actions and with words.
  • “I love you.” You probably wouldn’t say this in your marketing messaging (although you’ve surely seen signs that say “We love our customers”). In this instance, think of it as affection for your customer or the pleasure you have in serving them.

The tone you convey using the emotion of these phrases does matter. Sincerely expressing these feelings can become a platform for building, retaining and strengthening long-term relationships with your customers.

Two Proven Approaches That Supercharge Headlines

The headline and lead are considered the most important pieces of copy that make or break direct marketing campaigns. So why do some headlines come out so feeble? I think it’s a combination of reasons. Today I share six culprits and two ways to review copy and strengthen weak headlines.

If your headline doesn’t grab the reader, all the effort to write the rest of a promo will probably be a waste. Some copywriters suggest that 80 percent of time should be allocated to writing the headline and lead.

Personally, I think it’s less about time and more about ideas.

There are hundreds of winning direct mail control packages available for review (and to wisely steal from) at Who’s Mailing What. And there are plenty of books and copywriting programs available with proven formulas, created by successful copywriters that are a lot less costly to purchase and apply than producing a losing promo.

Before I share two approaches to supercharge your headlines, there are, I believe, several culprits behind weak headlines that should be overcome first:

1. Lack of Information: The lack of information about the product, market and benefits usually results in the copywriter lobbing a powder puff headline that’s cute and doesn’t sell a thing. If you’re the product or marketing manager, it’s your responsibility to deliver a list of all features and benefits to the copywriter.

2. No Research: This is a shared responsibility of everyone, marketing managers and copywriters alike. Look for research studies that support the need for your product to build credibility in your message.

3. No Competitive Intel: The marketing team should have samples of competitive products and promotional materials. It can be tough to get samples of direct mail, but in this day and age, a website surely exists for competitors.

4. Lack of Copywriting Experience: We all start our careers somewhere, so it’s tough to suggest that you bypass an eager, up-and-comer copywriter. But if you are working with someone a little green behind the ears, point them in directions where they can hone their skill about how to write headlines by reading books, going to seminars, or other training (in a moment I’ll share another resource I recommend).

5. Lack of Identifying the USP: The marketing team should work with the creative team to identify the unique selling proposition to set your product or service apart from competitors.

6. Approval by Committee: A great headline isn’t likely to come via a committee of well-meaning critiques. Let the copywriter do his or her job. Better yet, read on for a better solution for producing the strongest headline possible with a team approach.

Two Recommendations
If you want to supercharge your headline and lead, I can think of no more powerful and effective tool than engaging in a peer review between the copywriter and a handful of marketing staff. More than a decade ago I was introduced to a peer review system that helped me write a headline, and carry the theme through an entire direct mail package, that resulted in a 60 percent lift over a long-time control package. Millions were mailed. That copy review process introduction came from American Writers and Artists (AWAI).

You can read about the AWAI peer review system by clicking this link, but in short, you gather a small group of people together to evaluate a headline and rate it on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high). If the average is under 3.2, brainstorm ways to improve it. If the rating is really low (perhaps 2.5 or lower), then it’s probably best to start all over. In all cases, let the copywriter do the job of rewriting and editing.

Another copy strengthening system that I like and teach for AWAI students is called the C.U.B.A. review. It’s simple, but effective. While reviewing copy, you ask peers in a group if any copy in the headline or lead is:

  • Confusing
  • Unbelievable
  • Boring
  • Awkward

Both the peer review and C.U.B.A. are fully explained in Copy Logic, a book by Michael Masterson and Mike Palmer.

If you’re having trouble with writing strong headlines, try these two peer review systems. They work, and I speak from first-hand experience.

And if you use another proven system that strengthens headlines and copy, please share your process in the comments below.

Stimulating Awe, Goosebumps and Chills in Copy

When your copy stimulates awe, your customer should experience a physiological reaction like goosebumps or chills. A physical reaction comes from stimulation of the mind. And the positive emotion of awe is more likely to move a person to action. Direct marketers and copywriters have the opportunity to create these physical sensations with awe-inspiring copy

When your copy stimulates awe, your customer should experience a physiological reaction like goosebumps or chills. A physical reaction comes from stimulation of the mind. And the positive emotion of awe is more likely to move a person to action. Direct marketers and copywriters have the opportunity to create these physical sensations with awe-inspiring copy.

The link between positive moods and the physiological reaction we get with goosebumps is proven. So if you give your prospects goosebumps, surely you can sell more.

Research at the University of California, Berkeley between emotions such as compassion, joy, and love, versus the levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6)—a secretion which causes inflammation in the body—finds that those who regularly have positive emotions have less IL-6. Researchers noticed the strongest reaction with one particular emotion:

Awe.

You may not think of creating awe and wonderment when writing copy, but you should. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor and the senior author of the study, gave examples of awe by saying “Some people feel awe listening to music, others watching a sunset or attending a political rally or seeing kids play.”

So what is this emotion called “awe?” Look at a dictionary and you’ll be told it’s “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, and fear, produced by that which is grand, sublime, or extremely powerful.” It can also result in a subconscious release of adrenaline.

An adrenaline rush causes the contraction of skin muscles and other body reactions. Adrenaline is often released when you feel cold or afraid, but also if you are under stress and feel strong emotions, such as anger or excitement. Other signs of adrenaline release include tears, sweaty palms, trembling hands, an increase in blood pressure, a racing heart or the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach.

If you create a strong new memory in your message that reminds your audience of a significant event, with the adrenalin rush they may feel goosebumps or chills. Past awe emotions can resurface with the right triggers.

Most importantly, how do you spark awe in your direct marketing campaigns?

  • Stimulate emotions that recall a strong past positive memory
  • Use powerful visuals that accompany copy that paint a picture
  • Stir memory that resonates so strongly that it “feels” right

For your next marketing campaign, deliver that sense of awe so your customer feels goosebumps and chills. And there’s a chance you may feel them, too, as you look at your response rate.

2 Tips to Write More Readable Copy

When was the last time you checked your copy’s grade level reading scores? American’s reading ability is declining. And you could be writing over your prospective customer’s ability to understand your message. In the U.S., average reading levels are at about the eighth grade level. But 1-in-5 U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level. And surprisingly, 14 percent of U.S. adults can’t read

When was the last time you checked your copy’s grade level reading scores? American’s reading ability is declining. And you could be writing over your prospective customer’s ability to understand your message. In the U.S., average reading levels are at about the eighth grade level. But 1-in-5 U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level. And surprisingly, 14 percent of U.S. adults can’t read according to the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy.

Grade level reading scores from high school students has dropped. It’s now at fifth grade levels, and is an ominous sign for the future.

Even the writing and delivery of Presidential State of the Union addresses are at lower grade levels in the most recent generation than in generations past. President George H.W. Bush averaged 8.6. Barack Obama averages a reading level of 9.4. Bill Clinton, 9.8. George W. Bush, 10.0. Compare these scores to over fifty years ago with Dwight Eisenhower at 12.6 and John F. Kennedy at 12.3.

Given these declining readability statistics, chances are more likely than not your copy is written above the reading ability and comprehension of your prospects and customers.

So what to do?

Two tips:

First: research and test your copy to identify the reading level of your market. For reference, TV Guide and Reader’s Digest write at the ninth grade, and USA Today at a 10th grade level.

Second: use the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level test. It’s in Microsoft Word. Go to “Review,” “Spelling & Grammar,” and after you spell check your document, you’ll see readability statistics. You’ll see the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, percent passive sentences, Flesch Reading Ease (the higher the better) and ultimately, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (lower is usually better, depending on your audience).

For passive sentences, a lower ranking is better than higher. Target 10 percent or less. The passive voice is not as interesting and exciting as the active voice.

If the Reading Ease Score is lower than you want, and Grade Level score is higher than you want, isolate paragraphs and sentences to identify problematic copy. Then here’s how you change the score:

  • Use smaller words
  • Shorten your sentences
  • Shorten your paragraphs

A review of your copy’s Reading Ease and Grade Level is an essential step that should be automatic every time you write and evaluate copy.

And in the interest of self-exemplying, here is the Flesch-Kincaid score of how the copy for this blog post ranks:

  • Sentences per Paragraph: 3.0
  • Words per Sentence: 14.0
  • Characters per Word: 4.9
  • Passive Sentences: 3%
  • Reading Ease: 51.8
  • Grade Level: 9.5