Growth Marketing

How I Turned Dozens of Bad Reviews into Hundreds of New Customers

Unhappy customers appear out of nowhere.

Usually online. Usually passionate. Usually vocal.

Nobody likes getting negative reviews. And I’m not advocating that you go out and try to stir some up. But here’s what a lot of people miss about getting bad reviews:

You can write some really great copy – and optimize your offers – using what unhappy customers tell you.

I did exactly that.

What I’m about to share works great for small businesses, freelancers, even established companies. If any of these scenarios rings a bill, you’ll want to read on:

  • Your business gets negative customer reviews that are public
  • Your business gets bad feedback from clients and customers, via support, phone or in-person conversations
  • You find yourself anxious or afraid of your work not being good enough to pass the test of all those strangers out there who might not like what they see… and might then say negative things about you.

Let’s turn bad feedback – which everyone gets – into a blessing.

Here’s how I just did exactly that for a client of mine.

My client’s last-ditch attempt at salvation

It all started when I received an email from a lead:

Long story short, this guy wanted me to work on his email campaign. He seemed to be in a rush. Nothing out of the ordinary. Leads almost always want things done yesterday.

Me + good money = good work.

Good work = happy client!

That’s what I thought… until I started researching his business and found a bunch of very negative one-star reviews:

I had a problem…

A HUGE problem. This client had so many negative reviews! It wasn’t catastrophic. But for a business getting most of it leads online, it certainly wasn’t going to make my job easier.

My client had so much bad feedback he could give Comcast a run for its money

Would people buy anything from him?

I relayed my thoughts to him and got an apt response:

“Just do whatever it takes to get me some business.”

Ah… if only it were that simple.

The nature of my client’s industry meant customer opinions and reviews were really important in influencing sales. It didn’t matter if I was John Caples’s reincarnate; prospects would always stop and reconsider their purchase the moment they checked the reviews.

I was very close to refunding my client’s deposit…

Then, it hit me.

What if I could somehow leverage negative customer feedback to improve conversion rates?

What if I could adapt the age-old sales technique of handling the objection before the customer brings it up?

Any other business owner would have raised concerns over the suggestion. But I knew my client was so desperate he’d accept whatever I offered to help keep the business afloat.

After a few hours of research, I realized most of the negative feedback revolved mainly around two things:

  1. poor customer service and
  2. the offer itself. 

When we talk about copywriting, we’re really talking about three things, in this order of importance:

  1. The list / visitors.
  2. The offer.
  3. The copy.

Optimizing your offer is even more important than optimizing your copy. What the negative reviews showed us was that customers felt the offer, which was a 28-day fitness challenge, under-delivered on its promise. It was mediocre at best, and it was over-priced at $197.

Bad review. Good insights.

So I incorporated my findings into an email campaign for a new and improved bootcamp. Customers were invited to try a 14-day challenge, after which my client could then upgrade them to the 28-day program.

But I didn’t stop at optimizing the offer. Instead of shying away from the flaws in the previous offer, I used my client’s mistakes as leverage in getting attention for (and clicks to) our emails.

Check out this email subject line, for example:

That subject line represented the overall tone and approach of the emails: no excuses, and 100% transparency about the previous offer (and past mediocre customer service).

Within a month, we brought in over 300 new customers with this email campaign. And we would not have arrived at this place of growth had we not read through and used those negative reviews.

The fact that I managed to get 300 paying customers despite working with such a massive disadvantage was unbelievable, even to the client.

Wondering if the reviews improved? They sure did. Remember: we upsold the 14-day folks to 28-day customers, hence the “28 day” mentions:

I know what you’re thinking.

What if that was just a fluke?

That crossed my mind a couple of times.

So I decided to repeat the exercise, but this time for a digital marketing coach and good friend of mine. The business was doing OK-ish in terms of customer feedback – not too bad yet nothing to write home about either.

My friend wanted to generate leads for his new course and enlisted my help to craft his autoresponder. I could have gone with a tried-and-tested technique, but my success with the previous client had me itching for experimentation. We had collaborated for a long time so I knew for a fact that this guy had one fault:

He was terrible at client calls.

You’d be more likely to win the lottery jackpot than to have a productive conversation with him on the phone. I say that with love. Great dude. Terrible salesperson. And although he didn’t have actual negative online reviews for me to reference, I knew from our experiences together that he was getting negative feedback in client calls.

So I did an A/B test for the autoresponder:

Variation A acknowledged negative feedback, while Variation B was your industry-standard email series. 

Like I did with the previous client, I tackled the problem head-on by inserting language and insights from the business’s negative reviews into the copy. Here’s how one of the subject lines turned out:

I turned my friend’s problem into an advantage by explaining why the guy sucks at client calls.

This is an excerpt from the email body copy:

Notice how I turned the negative feedback into a good thing for the client by justifying why it’s alright for him to suck at calls. Sure, it is a questionable approach, but this client is gung-ho in his teaching style (think Tim Ferriss). So it was not out of place for his business.

Guess what! I got great results again.

We got 42 paid signups (for a course worth $197) within the first 12 hours of launch day, which was way above what the client expected.

I tried the same technique with another fitness client.

This client was eager to promote his latest weightlifting program. Unlike the first fitness client, this gym had just surpassed the 4.5-star mark on Google.

The problem at this gym was this:

A lack of coaches.

People were coming in only to get turned down or were receiving minimal assistance. And their reviews showed it:

My client wasn’t too keen about my idea of acknowledging the gym’s weaknesses. Given it had been building momentum from a number of glowing reviews, why would he bother bringing up negative feedback that only happened once in a while?

With the results of the previous two clients, I convinced him to run a similar campaign and to hire a handful of part-time coaches to keep up with demand. One of the headlines I came up with for the email funnel alluded to this change:

Surprise, surprise: We sold out slots for every location within two weeks of the launch.

It turns out this negative-review-mining technique can be replicated… and it can be used in various niches to produce fantastic results. 

In the following sections, I’m going to discuss everything I did in leveraging negative reviews so you can use them to your advantage.

Bad reviews are more useful than you think

Reviews are crazy important.

Spiegel Research Center showed over 95% of online shoppers check reviews before buying online while a similar study by the Content Marketing Institute placed reviews as one of the most impactful factors in purchase decisions.

The relevance of online reviews for US buyers (image source)

The power of reviews is why many business owners tremble at the thought of getting bad comments – including yours truly.

It hurts to have someone say something negative about your work.

Imagine hustling your butt off only to have someone say it sucks.

“I’m not gonna pay for this!”

Awful, right?

Well, shit happens even to the best.

Apple got a ton of flak for throttling the performance of iPhones with older batteries.

Netflix lost half of its share value after a price hike in 2011. 

JetBlue made international news a decade ago after leaving over a thousand passengers stranded.

Guess what?

They’re still in business today. Big business.

To overcome bad reviews and leverage them in your favor, you need to know why and how they happen.

I split negative customer feedback into two parts: your fault, and the customer’s fault

You get bad reviews when your work sucks (duh).

The same also happens even if you do nothing wrong. No matter how hard you try, some people cannot be pleased.

What you CAN do is recognize your blunders and be honest about them.

I’m sure you’ve been through sticky situations in your career. Missed deadlines, shambolic client communications, poor work quality – you name it.

The best comeback?

A sincere apology. Let your customers know you made a mistake, that you’re sorry and you will make up for it.

Wait a minute…

Can I trust a company so open about its weaknesses?!

What if they make a mistake with MY order?

Unless you’re building spaceships, you WILL be making mistakes from time to time. Hiding your faults is going to take a lot more effort than accepting them.

You need to embrace your weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Why does being vulnerable work, anyway?

It boils down to how we treat and trust people who display signs of vulnerability. People who are vulnerable with each other are more likely to have longer lasting relationships than those who aren’t. 

Don’t get me wrong.

To be vulnerable is not to be weak; it is the willingness to let go of your ego and share your deepest, darkest fears as well as expressing your feelings truthfully.

You’re more likely to build stronger bonds with friends or family with whom you discuss personal issues than you are with colleagues or acquaintances who aren’t privy to your innermost thoughts and feelings. 

Umm… but what does this have to do with copywriting?

The exact same logic applies to businesses.

Your customers want to feel that closeness too!

Your customers want to know you understand them and that YOU have the best solution for their problems.

They don’t want to be another cog in the profit machine. They want to feel important – especially if your products are relatively expensive.

Last year, I finished an article way past the submission date.

My client commented on my lateness. And rather than making excuses, I owned my mistake and expressed my remorse. 

Obviously, he wasn’t happy about the late article but check out his response.

The point is…

I made a mistake, told my client about it and got back to work rather than finding excuses. 

When done correctly, apologizing builds trust and customer satisfaction – like in my situation. This guy has since become my most profitable (and happiest) client. And we’re still working together today.

Another perk?

Apologizing can help you win back customers and clients you’ve lost and turn them into loyal, profitable supporters of your business.

There’s nothing special about what I did.

Companies have been doing this for years.

Most successful companies have procedures to address their customers’ concerns, which also act as safety nets when shit hits the fan.

Companies fail from time to time,
but notice how they respond to negative reviews

Apple’s infamous Batterygate scandal is a textbook case of how effective this technique can be.

In response to the criticism, Apple released a letter addressing the problems with its phone batteries and apologized to customers for the inconvenience.

The complaints could’ve been brushed aside, but acknowledging the problems with the iPhone’s battery life was 100% the right move for Apple’s reputation. To top it off, Apple offered massive discounts on its batteries with no strings attached.

Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings made up for huge mistakes in his handling of pricing changes by apologizing publicly in an honest email, while former JetBlue president David Neeleman filmed an extremely personal video message after passengers were left stranded for over eight hours due to an ice storm.

And they worked.

Netflix continues to grow leaps and bounds every year despite the incident. And while Neeleman is no longer at the helm of JetBlue, his apology remains a top example of companies owning up to their failures and pleasing their stakeholders in the process.

Turn the frowns around: leveraging your negative customer feedback

Now you get why negative feedback is a good thing for your business. What can you do to make use of it in your marketing?

Step 1: Compile the negative reviews

Start by seeking out all the negative reviews you can find. A simple Google search on the name of your business will likely turn up a bunch. Review-sites like Yelp, Trustpilot and Facebook are also useful, or any other platform you may have set up for your company.

Don’t forget feedback via email, text messages, Slack channels and even phone calls. It all counts. Be thorough.

Pull out all the negative comments and compile them. (Try the Airstory Researcher.) For my clients, I copied every one- and two-star review and recorded them in Google Docs – like a swipe file for negative feedback.

Feeling down from all the not-so-nice words you’ve tallied up?

Take your time to bask in any positive reviews, too. Or go do something else for awhile.

Mistakes happen to everyone, and there’s always a way to bounce back from the bottom.

Ok, done?

Step 2: Identify the pain points within the negative feedback

Get out your highlighter (virtual or otherwise) and go through all the feedback you’ve collected. Highlight all the pain points mentioned.

A pain point is something your business must solve to function successfully. Ever pulled your hair out waiting for your license to be renewed? That is a pain point.

You have discovered a pain point if the person complains about something that:

  • They assumed you would do but you did not
  • You did but that was unsatisfactory to them
  • You shouldn’t have done, according to them 
  • Your competitors are doing better than you

Some examples of common pain points include:

  • Paying too much for a mediocre product or service
  • Bad customer support
  • Slow delivery
  • Broken promises

If there’s a rationale for the negatives, include it. Highlight the text that appears to reveal the source – or the why – behind the customer’s unhappiness, like I did here: 

If you’re having problems identifying the pain point and the reason for it, the review may be too vague or too short. In that case, move on to the next one.

Now you should have a document full of your customers’ and clients’ pain points.

This is what mine looked like:

Step 3: Now check out what people are saying about your competitors

Next, you want to repeat the process but for your competitors’ feedback. Use whatever channels are publicly accessible, and compile a document much like you did for your business.

Criticism of your competitors’ services is a gap in the market you can fill. 

Since their customers are not satisfied, those very customers will be looking for another business or solution WITHOUT the negative aspects mentioned in the feedback. That’s where you come in.

For example: Picture yourself running a logo design agency. You discover your competitors don’t deliver their work on time. With this information, you know clients want deliverables to be sent quickly.

What do you do?

You craft your emails and proposals to include your agency’s speed in completing design projects, since you know that matters to prospects.

Make sense?

You can merge your competitors’ reviews together with your own, but I prefer to have separate files.

Ideally, you should have two documents: 

1) a document for your negative reviews and 

2) another document for your competitors’ negative reviews.

Highlight the pain points like you did in the previous step.

Step 4: Extract the biggest offenders

Organizing, extracting and analyzing your pain points – and those of your competitors – will help you unearth the most common offenders you’ll want to refer back to in your copy. 

I recommend building a table to record these pain points and sorting them based on the number of times they occur. You can do without it but it’s going to be messy if you have multiple reviews, so I suggest creating a simple table like this table I used for my clients (it’s yours for the copying).

I call it the Table of Mistakes. It’s extremely basic but it gets the job done. 

Sort these pain points into ‘bigpain points as shown below. Think of them as categories for your pain points.

The ‘big’ pain points vary for everyone. 

If you’re running a SaaS startup, for example, the availability and responsiveness of your website would be good additions to the table.

How the table works is simple 

The more entries under a big pain point, the more important it is for you to address and the more impact it will have when used in your copy. 

The same logic applies to your competitors’ table, except that more entries means a bigger market gap for you to fill.

Once you’re finished filling in the Table of Mistakes, focus on your biggest pain point and identify the key problems within it. These problems are the root cause of the pain point; they’re the reason(s) your customers or clients complained in the first place.

In my case, clients were confused about the cancellation and refund policy.

So I wrote that in the key problem column of my table.

The key problem column is a summary of the pain points for a category. In the example below, most of the complaints were about the product’s payment structure and cancellation policy. I summarized this and filled it in the key problem column.

Doing this allows you to see the big problem easily when you’re working on the copy later.

Fill in the key problems for your competitors’ pain points, too.

Nice!

You’re finally done with your Table of Mistakes.

Now you have a knowledge base documenting why prospects are unhappy with your business or industry.

Take a break or bookmark this post for later if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

The next section is going to talk about implementing what you’ve gathered into your sales materials.

Crafting an effective email campaign with your pain points

I’ll be talking solely about writing email copy, assuming you already have a list of subscribers to market to.

But if that’s not the case, and you’re interested in learning about how to generate leads or convert them to subscribers, HubSpot has an evergreen lead generation guide you can check out, and the incredible Jon Lamphier has a great piece on creating high-converting lead gen pages right here on Copyhackers.

Let’s turn your negative reviews into amazing, sales-generating emails.

For my clients, I used a five-part email series:

  • 1 introductory/welcome email
  • 3 value-based emails
  • 1 sales email (directing them to a landing page)

You can use any number of emails you want, but I suggest between three to seven emails for optimal results.

The key here is to acknowledge your vulnerabilities in your emails and, at the same time, convey your business’ strengths to your leads.

Cool. How the hell do I do that?

Refer to your completed Table of Mistakes. 

That table has everything you need to come up with incredible headlines and engaging copy.

Your only concern now is working your copywriting chops with the data you have and writing emails so good it’d be criminal for your leads to ignore.

Start by creating strong, personal subject lines

Everyone has their own beliefs, but I swear by starting with the subject line first.

I don’t have to tell you that the subject line IS the most important part of your email series if you care about open rates.  

No matter how great your copy or offer is, NOTHING will happen if the email is not opened in the first place.

In my client’s case, I used a brutally truthful headline for the first email:

This headline would’ve never seen the light of the day for 99% of businesses, but I had free reign and my client was comfortable with the tone.

I used the same style for the other subject lines in the series.

They were a hit. We achieved a 52% open rate average across every headline.

To make things sweeter, the autoresponder brought in 150 paid customers but the client only paid about $20 to acquire each one.

That’s the power of a strong subject line.

Higher open rates, lower lead costs and if your copy is equally top-notch, expect no less than a fruitful success from your campaign.

Choose a pain point as a base for you to craft your subject line.

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes.

What would be the biggest concern for you?

I’ll take cost as an example.

The big problem was that customers were unclear about how the business’s payment structure worked. 

This led to serious misunderstandings as they believed they were being charged without permission.

I came up with a subject line addressing the problem and, at the same time, relaying the benefits of my client’s offer.

The offer for the campaign had a 100% refund policy so I wanted to leverage it in my subject line.

Leading to…

I used personal words like “me” and “you” instead of words like “we” or “our business.”

Why?

You want your subject lines to be as intimate as they can be.

Going back to my opening email, which of these subject lines would you click on?

“We messed up. We’re sorry.”

“I fucked up. I’m sorry.”

The second one would win almost always because it’s personal. You feel like the CEO is talking to you, not “we”.

In a nutshell, use your pain points in your subject lines and write them in a way that makes your readers feel you’re talking to them one-on-one.

Read this comprehensive post on writing effective headlines if you need more guidance.

Write copy to generate trust

I made a huge blunder in the first few days I was working on the campaign in question.

I worked hard on coming up with honest subject lines, but the actual body of the emails did not represent at all what was mentioned in the subject line.

I realized…

You shape expectations based on your subject line.

Before I knew it, I was already in a pickle.

My client was losing his mind over the emails. Open rates were brilliant but conversions remained as awful as ever.

Thankfully, I had a fallback.

Whenever my copy fails, I always return to the Toyota of copywriting techniques – the ever-reliant PAS formula.

It was perfect for the campaign, although I needed to tweak it a little.

The pain points were the problems, the comments left by disgruntled customers settled the agitation part and the steps we took to nullify the problem were the solution!

Here’s how one of the email intros looked like:

I wrote the body in response to my client’s team not giving enough guidance and motivation to customers – one of the major pain points.

I agitated leads further by mentioning how it must suck to not have enough help in completing the program. 

VERY IMPORTANT.

Empathize with your customers and understand why pain points exist to make it work.

You won’t be able to agitate your readers until you fully understand how the problems affect your customer.

When done right, your customers feel connected to you – like you’re living inside their head.

They are more likely to trust and like you more. 

Guess what that leads to?

More sales!

In my client’s case, I knew customers would struggle to progress in his course if the team did not provide enough support – so I used it as my agitation point.

The question is:

How do you come up with effective agitation copy?

You already have all your (and your competitors’) pain points. So put yourself in the shoes of your prospect and think of how it would affect you if the highlighted problem did happen to you.

I would be mad.

Waste of time.

My progress would stall.

Tune your mind to your prospects’ feelings and you’ll quickly get the inspiration you need to agitate your readers.

Belinda Weaver has a great resource for writing effective PAS-based copy to give you some inspiration. And here’s another super in-depth and useful guide for writing agitation copy from Joanna herself.

Now on to writing the solution.

Tell your leads what you’ve done to solve the problem.

Explain why the pain points are no longer a concern and more importantly, how they can benefit from your solution.

Here’s what I did.

I addressed the customer support concerns by mentioning that every customer will have a dedicated support staff member assisting them throughout the course, along with the gym’s updated 24-hour response policy.

Notice how I transitioned from weakness to benefits in the solution. 

What started off as an email to acknowledge a vulnerability has now turned into a pitch for the lead to try out a better solution for his or her pain point.

The key is to explicitly convey what you’ve done to address the deficiencies.

Saying, “Hey, we did something for you” is not going to work.

Customers want to hear, “Hey, I did X, Y and Z for you and here’s what you’ll gain.”

Relay how these changes impact your customers positively. 

For my client, improving the team’s attention to customers would mean that they would be able to complete the offer faster and eventually increase their bottom line.

You’ve heard about it a million times, but remember to emphasize the benefits your CUSTOMER will gain, NOT the benefits to your business.

Instead of:

“We have improved our team communication times.”

Use:

“Send a request and we’ll respond in an hour. Guaranteed.”

Another great conversion booster is specificity. This means including figures or statistics in the benefits of your solution as it’s a fact that specificity improves conversion rates

In my case, the client gave a $37 discount to leads who joined early. Instead of using dollars to convey the discount, I used a specific percentage to illustrate the savings. This drove home sales considerably as it was easier for buyers to see how much they would save if they signed up early.

This works in other industries, too. If you’re an accounting freelancer, for instance, telling your leads how many hours and the potential headache they can save with your services is a good way to apply specificity.

You can learn more on specificity in this really good post by Kelton Reid.

Why these tactics work

To help me understand what was working, I asked customers targeted in these campaigns why they made the purchase.

It turns out people were surprised by this:

How honest the emails were. 

In a barrage of generic “Last chance!” and “How this person used X and earned Y” nonsense, our emails stood out and made them feel like their attention mattered.

A huge contributing factor to the success was the subject lines.

I made sure they were:

  • Personalized to each prospect using their name or location
  • Relevant to the pain points I collected

Neville Medhora talked about how powerful personalized headlines can be in his blog post (totally worth reading) on writing great subject lines. 

The low-down?

Personal-sounding subject lines had significantly higher open rates compared to other types of subject lines.

I also received a brief but enlightening email from a customer…

When you use the tone or language your prospects are familiar with, they are more likely to trust what you say. The (slightly) vulgar headlines and copy I used may have been disastrous for larger companies where professionalism is a must – but they worked great for this particular client, where the audience talks like the client does.

Too many marketers become so engrossed in crafting awesome copy to the point where they forget who they’re writing for.

Can’t find the right tone to use for your audience? Don’t be afraid of emulating bodies of work that you like. Look at what other companies are doing successfully to gauge the effectiveness of your copy and gather inspiration – copywriters have been doing it for decades with swipe files.

When all else fails, go the old-fashioned route: get in touch with your customers personally.

Gather up those one-star reviews and start emailing

Hopefully, I’ve opened up your mind to the possibilities of leveraging negative feedback to your advantage.

So the next time you see a one-star review notification pop in your inbox, don’t fret. That review may just be the catalyst you need to kickstart a new offer and a successful email marketing campaign.

About the author

Julian Foo

Julian writes engaging long-form content for companies looking to break out of cliché, 1,000-word blog posts. He also crafts sales emails that don’t end up in the Promotions tab. You can find him over at jujuservices.com.

  • Russell Goodman

    Julian….this is PURE GOLD. And though I don’t have a specific client in mind…one WILL come up in the future. This article will be neatly tucked away for that foreseeable purpose.

    And I’m correct in saying the email campaigns (sequences) you created for clients was for NEW prospects who have handed over their email address, they were interested, but not signed up because they read a sh*t ton of bad reviews?

    Lastly, can I ask: would this be good for reducing customer churn? Say it’s a SaaS product/software and a client found people were jumping ship in a similar pattern, would these be good to send to THOSE people? i.e. anticipating their problems (with an explanation/acknowledgement and solution in hand) and therefore retaining customers?

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