This is the second installment about copywriting. It provides a much more in depth look at copywriting and its importance.
Verbal and written communications are the interface between your marketing and your customer. This article deals with written communications, and more specifically, written communications on the web or in print. The field involved in creating written marketing communications is called copywriting. Clarity is arguably the most important aspect of copywriting. Rather than write a long-winded treatise on copywriting, this article uses a series of case studies to convey important points about this subject. A deep understanding of marketing is essential to developing good copywriting skills. But this article will help even if marketing is not your strong suit.
Another important note: this article does not discuss web site design/layout and its interaction with copywriting. That is a complex topic for another day.
The use of the word amateur in this article is not meant to convey disdain.
The Company: Ronaldo`s Markets
Ronaldo`s Markets is a fictional chain of grocery stores based in Dallas, Texas. This is the information presented on the front page of their web site.
Home | Locations | Hours | Contact
Welcome To Ronaldo`s Markets
Ronaldo`s Markets are a Dallas-based chain of grocery stores that sell food to the public. We specialize in strategy, operations, payroll, and undercutting the competition. Ronaldo`s was founded in 1979 by Ronaldo Caiman and his brother Jorge.
This is a very common, and incorrect, format for the front page of a web site designed by many small business owners. The heading welcomes the visitor and the subsequent paragraphs talk about the company and what the company "does". This copy approach is the equivalent of "talking about yourself", when you should talk about what the company offers. Using the example of a grocery store, it becomes very clear to most people that talking about what you "do" is a mistake, mostly because most small business owners "do" many different things. Do you care if a grocery store does strategy? Have you ever walked into a grocery store because you thought they had top notch strategic planning sessions? Have you ever walked into a grocery store and tried to buy strategy? Similary, the customer is rarely interested in what you "do" and far more interested in what you "offer". What you "do" is certainly important, but you should not spend any time talking about it, except on the About page, in a whitepaper, or at the customer`s request. Here`s a rewrite of the above information, this time focused on what Ronaldo`s offers, instead of what it does.
Home | Locations | Hours | Contact
Fresh Produce, Clean Stores, Excellent Service
12 convenient locations open 24 hours day. You`ll love our clean, bright stores.
Each week we give away an order of groceries to a random shopper.
Register for our weekly mailer and find out why your friends and neighbors go out of their way to shop at Ronaldo`s.
The second example is completely offer-focused. As a result the text is much more appealing. Very often the information found on the front page of a web site actually belongs on the About page instead, as is the case with the first example. The second example also features a clear call to action. The visitor is enticed by the offer of free groceries and asked to register, which would likely involve filling out a form with name, address, telephone, and email. Of course the visitor also has to show up at the store and go shopping in order to qualify for the free groceries, and since there is a chance the entire order will be free, there is extra incentive to spend more. This is the power of good copywriting.
Copywriting is more than words; it is a mechanism used to execute marketing strategy. A copywriter did not decide to offer this attractive grocery promotion. The store`s marketing director created this promotion. However the copywriter is responsible for writing the words that tell the customer about the offer, and for knowing that the front page of the web site should communicate this promotion and do so effectively. Conversely, the store`s marketing director did not write the text that says "Fresh Produce, Clean Stores, Excellent Service". This text was written by the copywriter, who must understand how to describe the store`s offering in plain English.
Offer -vs- Do
The problem with writing about what you "do" is that what you "do" often provides no direct benefit to the customer. While proper attention to payroll and strategy provides an indirect benefit to the customer, most customers are not interested in indirect benefits, and it takes an expert copywriter to communicate indirect benefits. Fashion products such as clothes, perfume, and cosmetics are marketed using indirect benefits and abstract imagery. What is the real benefit of cologne? Hard to visualize, isn`t it? What is the real benefit of food? Easy to visualize, isn`t it? Have you ever seen the Jaguar advertisement that shows an older man leaning against a new Jaguar? The background is out of focus but there is an unmistakably beautiful and much younger woman opening the passenger door. That is an abstract benefit. An older man and a beautiful young woman brought together by a Jaguar. Every aspect of these campaigns is directed by people with decades of marketing experience and multi-million dollar budgets. You are correct to conclude that marketing indirect benefits is best left to experts with deep pockets.
Good copywriting clearly and crisply communicates what you offer in such a way that the customer instantly understands whether or not your offer is relevant to them. Really good copywriting stimulates desire and interest in the customer and can increase the customer`s perception of relevance. Desire and interest lead to action. Good copywriting must be jargon free and written in plain English because jargon and complexity do very little to stimulate desire. In fact jargon is marketing poison. If your customer cannot understand your copy in four seconds, or if your customer has to read the copy more than once in an attempt to understand the jargon, your attempt to communicate has failed. This doesn`t mean that you should always avoid complexity. Perhaps you sell engineering products for integrated circuit design. In that case you may have to use some complex terminology. But even a company who manufactures products for integrated circuit design can choose "Designing High Performance Computer Chips?" instead of "If you design and manufacture high density, oxide-process integrated circuits...".
As a grocery store, Ronaldo`s does not offer payroll or strategy to their customers. So why talk about it? Forget about what you do and focus on what you offer.
Another problem with most amateur copywriting is its scope. Many entrepreneurs invest a lot of time trying to write copy that is "all encompassing". Often the entrepreneur either does not understand their market position, or is afraid to pigeonhole their product, service, or organization. This is always a mistake. All encompassing copywriting quickly becomes abstract and abstract copy tends to confuse people unless it has been prepared by experts. Poorly written abstract copy confuses people and does very little to establish relevance. People tend to stop paying attention once confusion sets in, and they certainly don`t pay attention to irrelevant ideas. Most people want to position your product or service somewhere in their mind, relative to other products or services, relative to their needs, or both. Relevance and irrelevance. Those are your choices.
If the customer cannot position your product or service in their mind relative to their needs, then you have no chance to establish relevance, and it`s game over at that point. People move on quickly. Remember, you not only have to compete with other businesses for the customer`s dollars ... you also have to compete for their attention. If you are fully convinced that you need "all encompassing" copywriting, start with something specific anyway. You can always talk about additional products and services but you must use specific copywriting for each product and service. You should never attempt to write umbrella copy to describe a broad array of products and services unless you are an expert copywriter.
One example from the forums at StartUpNation is a tagline that said "Strategic Market Consulting". Most people, myself included, do not understand what "Strategic Market Consulting" really means and thus cannot determine relevance. Since relevance is binary, an inability to determine relevance usually results in a determination of irrelevance. Therefore "Strategic Market Consulting" is irrelevant. Since it`s irrelevant, I don`t have to pay attention. [What`s a strategic market anyway?] An awesome tagline for a marketing consultant is "You have marketing questions. I have marketing answers." Forget about using copy if its only purpose is to make you look smart or mysterious. Great copy communicates effectively, instantly, and effortlessly. Does the tagline "You have marketing questions. I have marketing answers." leave any question in your mind about the product or service offered? If you are a small business owner, do you feel that the service offered is relevant? Do you feel inclined to pay attention?
The other problem with wide scope, general copywriting is that it often conveys multiple positions to the customer even if that is not its intent. The problem with multiple positions is that they confuse the customer and work against very basic perceptive mechanisms. While some companies, like Microsoft are able to hold multiple positions in the mind of the consumer, this is really because Microsoft means "software" to most people. Your marketing communications should be specific. It`s the difference between being offered a pair of non-specific shoes and being offered a pair of tennis shoes or a pair of dress shoes. What would you say if someone offered you a pair of shoes without any further description? Would you want to see them first? Of course you would. That`s why specifics are important.
Repeat after me: It is not the visitor`s job to figure out if my product or service is relevant.
Generic -vs- Plainspoken
Good copywriting isn`t generic. The pursuit of all encompassing copy leads to generic copy. There is a difference between clear, plainspoken copy and generic copy. Generic copy tends to be full of useless words like "intelligent solution" and "dynamic organization". Worse still are cliches and worn out ideas like "passion for customer service" and "get started today". People rarely pay attention to worn out ideas and they certainly don`t pay attention to cliches. It is impossible to establish relevance if people don`t pay attention. Your goal: clean, neutral copy that uses ordinary words at the 6th grade level. Don`t laugh. This is important. Most amateur copy tends to be so poorly written that its relevance cannot be determined by anyone except the most persistent reader. Do you think most people are willing to invest a lot of their time trying to figure out if your product or service is relevant?
Word Count In General
I routinely critique web sites that have front pages with word counts of 500, 600, or even 1000. This is book report territory and it never works unless it`s contained in a white paper. Most people will simply turn off their brain and ignore any page on your site that contains hundreds of words. It is well understood that the average visitor is willing to spend four seconds reading your page before they hit the Back button or go elsewhere. When was the last time you actually read - word for word - any web page that contained 500 words? Articles don`t count. Feel free to use hundreds or thousands of words in any articles you write. When the user requests an article they are expecting a longer document.
Minor Design Elements
Front page attention-getting headlines should be displayed with large typeface and have fewer than 10 words. Taglines should follow the same general rule. Paragraphs on the front page should be constructed from a three or four short, entirely jargon-free sentences. Remember, your site has other pages. The front page needs to get the customer`s attention by establishing relevance if you want the customer to read the other pages.
Subjectives: Mindcatching, Sparkle, Hook, Brilliance
The best copywriting is almost unforgettable in the short term. Brilliance, sparkle, and hook refer to the attractive qualities of the words used and their ability to get stuck in the mind of the customer. If you`re writing your own copy, and you follow the basic rules, you have a good chance at writing something good. Writing truly great copy requires 1.] serendipity, 2.] quite a lot of practice, 3.] time. There are always the odd moment or two when the right words just pop into your mind. If find this happens to me in the car.
A hook is a series of words that gets the visitors attention. More than anything, a hook is the meat of effective copywriting. Some of the examples above that discuss Ronaldo`s Market feature quick copywriting with weak hooks. But the words "free groceries" are a great example of a hook that has the potential to hold the visitor`s interest. The more I think about it, were I to design the copy for Ronaldo`s fictional stores, I might just use the free grocery sentence at the top of the page. Hooks vary in quality, from the mesmerizing power of the atomic bomb hook, to the weak effect of words that only catch the customer`s attention for a moment.
Avoid spelling and grammar errors. Nothing screams "I don`t care!" as loudly as a poorly proofed marketing communication. Most people, including great writers, do a very poor job proofreading their own work.
Hallmarks of Good Copywriting
Clarity. Clear ideas are easy to understand.
Plainspokenness. People value honesty.
Directness. Don`t beat around the bush.
Relevance. People pay attention to relevant products.
Mindcatching. People remember mindcatching copy longer.
Sparkle. Is a pleasure to read.
Positioning. Where does the product fit?
Offer. Focus on what you offer, not what you do.
Avoid Cliches. People won`t pay attention.
Avoid Acronyms. People won`t understand.
Avoid Worn Out Ideas. People won`t pay attention.
Avoid Too Many Qualifiers. Makes writing seem weak and afraid.