Online Copywriting Secrets: John Caples’ 20 Methods

June 7, 2021 Content Marketing no comments

John Caples Copywriting Techniques

They Laughed When I sat Down at the Piano

But When I Started to Play!

Stumbled across this immortal headline? Well, they’re written in 1926 by John Caples, one of the grandmasters of direct response advertising.

A pioneer in applying “scientific methods in advertising,” John Caples honed his copywriting chops in mail-order marketing, and was widely known as the “maestro of headline.”

Despite having lived almost a century ago, Caples’ techniques to writing effective copy are still relevant in today’s digital age.

In this article, we will shine the spotlight on John Caples’ list of 20 methods covered in the book Tested Advertising Methods.

This evergreen classic contained lots of gems from Caples, who was not only a great copywriter but a huge advocate of testing your ads.

While the book was written in an age long before the Internet was invented, its lessons are still as relevant for online copywriters today as they were then.

John Caples’ 20 Copywriting Techniques

These gems of copywriting wisdom were developed by Caples’ after many years of testing and trying with different ads.

While they appear more focused on direct mailing, they could easily be adapted to digital copywriting on channels like the following:

  • Facebook posts and ads
  • Instagram posts and ads
  • Blog articles
  • Landing pages
  • Emailers
  • Online newsletters
  • Display ads
  • Banner ads

Let us dive into each of these now.

#1 Use Present Tense and the Second Person

Address your reader as “you” wherever possible. This will make it seem that you’re talking directly to the audience online.

Occasionally, you may use the third person – for example, if you’re addressing those who do not take up your offer – but avoid using them too often.

Thus, you should write this…

“You will enjoy a steady stream of business leads if you regularly adopt our techniques in social media marketing.”

#2 Subheadings (and Bullets, Bolds, Underlines and Italics)

For every page of copy, Caples advocated having at least three subheads.

This helps to break up the wall of text, and make the copy easier to read and digest.

I will like to add that you can use additional text tricks such as bullet points, underlines and italics to make your copy skimmable.

#3 Keep Writing Style Simple

Imagine speaking to your reader instead of writing to them. This helps you to keep you prose simple and easy to understand.

Using language that is dense, bombastic or flowery can make it difficult for your audience to connect with you.

#4 Use Simple Words

Likewise, avoid long, pompous words that few people understand.

Your goal is to make it as easy as possible to read your ad, get your message, and respond to your call to action.

Do not make your reader feel stupid — instead dumb down so that he or she feels smart!

#5 Give Free Information

I can’t emphasise this enough. To get marketing leads, you need to give value.

In the digital age, giving them something useful could be free information that you can offer right at the start.

For example, you can provide a free tip or trick that they can use at the start of your ad, and then ask them to sign up for your newsletter, or enroll in your course if they’d like the full menu.

Think of it as offering a free appetiser so that they’d order the full main course!

(These days, trying to sell the sizzle without the steak may not work as well as before.)

#6 Make Your Claims Specific

There are several ways to sound more credible and real here.

For example, instead of saying “Nearly 50,000 people have bought our vacuum cleaner,” you should write “48,245 customers have bought our vacuum cleaner at the time of this writing.”

And when you compare your wares to a competitor, it is useful to cite statistics if they are available:

  • Our brand is 22 percent cheaper than other competitors
  • We are able to reduce your time to market by 33 percent

#7 Write Long Copy

This may be debatable on certain digital platforms – you can’t really write very long copy on an Instagram Story for example – but the general rule that longer copy sells better than shorter copy applies on most web pages.

The secret here is to make your copy interesting and fun to read.

To do so, as I’ve mentioned above, use subheads, bolds, underlines, and italics to make your copy “dance.”

Apply bullet points to make your copy skimmable at parts.

Do also include visuals – photographs, videos, graphics, and charts – to make your online content easier to parse.

#8 Write More Copy Than You Need To Fill The Space

Here’s a trick that you may not have heard often – good copy comes from good editing.

Write more copy than you need. And then cut out the less important parts. And then refine and sharpen it further.

As you rework your copy, aim to rephrase, edit for conciseness, and slice out the boring bits.

#9 Focus on Your Specific Features and Benefits

Do not spend too much time waxing lyrical about your product category. Instead, highlight your specific product benefits or features.

For example, rather than talk about the importance of digital marketing and content marketing, I could share that my agency Cooler Insights have some of the best writers in the trade.

Or that our content strategists are experienced journalists, PR communicators, and social media marketers.

#10 Turn Your Ads into a Sales Talk

Your goal is to make your ad self-sufficient. Thus, you should put your entire sales pitch into your promotional piece.

Do not assume that your prospect knows anything about you prior to reading your post, ad, or email.

Also, do not talk about half of your benefits in one piece and the other half in another promotional piece.

#11 Include a Call to Action (CTA)

OK, this is probably common sense to many of you, but you’ll be surprised how often it gets left out.

The CTA should be as clear as day…

  • Act now!
  • Order yours today!
  • Fill in the form and get yours now!

An additional point is to create a sense of urgency. Use time-limited or supplies limited offers. Or qualify that the special deal will expire in ____ days.

#12 Include Captions under Images or Illustrations

This came from David Ogilvy apparently, and was quoted by Caples as follows:

“More people read the captions under illustrations than read the body copy, so never use an illustration without putting a caption under it. Your caption should include the brand name and/or the promise.”

#13 Make Your Copy Sell – Avoid Style Copy

You are not out to win creative ad awards. You are focused on driving sales.

Style copy is flowery language with unsubstantiated claims.

Selling copy is simple and proves claims.

#14 Arouse Curiosity

Tease, taunt and tantalize your readers.

Use a mystery or a puzzle to catch their attention.

Employ the Seven Veils strategy.

#15 Copy the Techniques of Mail Order Methods

Hailed as the benchmark for effective direct marketing, mail order ad copy normally employs a strong headline, gripping opening sentence, and copy that works for every medium.

#16 Overstatement vs Understatement

Do not boast or give unverified claims in your copy.

Provide supported facts. Be believable.

#17 Don’t Use Trick Slogans

Don’t use slogans that cannot be verified or are obviously untrue.

For example, saying that you’re “probably the best beer in the world” may sound catchy, but could be hard to prove.

Instead, a slogan like “melts in your mouth, not in your hands” could be more effective.

#18 Seek Help from Others

The best copywriters don’t just write and publish – they have a sounding board of people to offer their honest opinions.

#19 Do Not Write That a Salesperson Will Call

Most people are afraid of being approached by a salesperson.

Including this statement will cut down your responses tremendously – as much as 75 percent according to Caples.

Ditto with stating that you’ll follow up with an email or a text message.

#20 Study the Copy in Mail Order Catalogues

These days, most people do not really purchase as much from mail order catalogues as they do in the past.

However, it is useful to still get hold of them. IKEA has a good catalogue that you can pick up from their stores.

Study how they write and follow those techniques

BONUS Method: Tell a Story!

As I read through Caples’ memorable ad for a music school, I couldn’t help but marvel at how he told a story.

Using a storytelling approach can help your ad to stand out in a sea of “me-too” advertisements — be they online or offline.


And there you have it – John Caples’ 20 evergreen copywriting principles.

I hope that you found them useful. Let me know if you have adopted any of them.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Caples’ original ad is attached below. Read it and see how he has incorporated the 21 techniques that I’ve written below.

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.

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