Web Copywriting Lessons from the Roaring 20’s

By 02/14/2010August 12th, 2022No Comments

Web copywriting lessons from the roaring 20’s

Web copywriters in 2010 have all the answers to make your internet marketing succeed.

We know top SEO techniques.  We know how to write arresting subject lines that get emails opened.  And we develop strong, persuasive web content that gets readers to whip out their credit cards and buy.

When done by a top-notch copywriter, it’s brilliant!  It gets results.

It’s all cutting-edge stuff, right?


Successful copywriters owe a debt of gratitude to an old master, John Caples.

Caples launched his copywriting and advertising career in 1925.  Among many other things, he emphasized a 3-step approach to creativity that applies as much as ever 85 years later:

  1. The importance of headlines.  Nothing happens unless your headline causes your prospect to stop long enough to pay attention to what you say next.  (And today, subject lines which determine your email open rate.)
  2. Maintaining interest.  Keep your ad focused on what the prospect will get out of using your product or service.
  3. Move the prospect to favorable action.  Unless enough prospects are transformed into customers, your marketing has failed, no matter how creative.  That’s why testing is crucial (and in this day of internet marketing, a lot easier and cost-effective than in the 20’s.)

The headline that changed advertising

Caples is best known for an ad he wrote for the U.S. School of Music.  The copy was four typewritten pages, single-spaced.  But it was the headline that captured the imagination.

“They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano. But When I Started to Play!-“

The ad was hugely successful.  It started a new school of advertising, and launched dozens of other successful copycat ads.  I’ve even seen a take-off of it recently in the fantastic Rosetta Stone ads.

I could write all day about the genius of John Caples (and I will write more in future issues.)

But small business owners, take note.  Here’s what Caples had to say about headlines, content focus, and testing:


As a web copywriter, I spend probably half my time on the headline alone for any project.  It’s that important.  Subject lines qualify as headlines in today’s world, too. 

“I have seen one advertisement actually sell, not twice as much, not three times as much, but 19 1/2 times as much goods as another…headlines are extremely important.”     —John Caples

Legendary copywriters agree…

“The copywriter’s aim in life should be to try to make it harder for people to pass up his advertisement than to read it.  And right in his headline he takes his first, and truly giant, step on the road to that goal.”  —Vic Schwab

“The writing of headlines is one of the greatest journalistic arts.”                       —Claude Hopkins, father of modern advertising

“Five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.  It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90% of your money.”       –David Ogilvy

“By merely changing the headline, the number of new prospect and sales prospects can increase up to 17 times.  That’s 1,700% leverage.”                             —Jay Abraham

In other words, the headline is the one thing more than anything else that can dramatically improve the results you are getting from all your advertising.

Web copywriting

I’ve said it before, but effective web copywriting needs to be about solving the needs of your prospects and customers.  They don’t care how great you are, how your product is better than the competition, or what newfangled feature you offer that no one else does.

Caples said you need to always maintain the prospect’s interest.

In fact, prospects are always reading your copy and thinking to themselves, “So what?”  Answer that “so what?” with a compelling reason.  Let them know how their life will improve because of using your product or service.

Internet marketing testing

“Every single element in an advertisement – headline, subhead, illustration, and copy – must be put there not because it looks good, not because it sounds good, but because testing has shown that it works best!”

Finally, above everything, John Caples introduced the concept of testing to marketing.

With the internet, this is easy, cost-effective, and crucial to your marketing success.  Test everything.

3 things to remember about testing:

  1. Include in every ad a way to quantify the exact results.
  2. But don’t just include it.  Take the time to actually learn it!
  3. Base your future writing and design for the same product or service on what you learn.

Small business owners:  If you’re looking for one best book on advertising copy, pick up John Caples’ Tested Advertising Methods

And remember, headlines are of utmost importance.  Use web copywriting techniques that focus on the viewpoint of the prospects to keep their interest.  And always test everything.

Steve Roller

Author Steve Roller

I'm a business coach, author, copywriter, world traveler (33 countries on five continents so far), and professional speaker. In addition to helping companies get more customers and make more money, I help other writers create profitable businesses. I offer one-on-one coaching, professional copy critiques, and live, in-person business-building workshops. When I'm not writing, coaching, or speaking, I enjoy nothing more than hanging out with my wife and four kids and planning my next adventure.

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