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Latest Issue: Nov/Dec 2018

Then, now, and why copy matters more than ever

I’ve worked in direct marketing for longer than I care to admit, and been a copywriter for almost all that time. Back in the early days it was just print (the Internet was still in underground bunkers) and because of the specialist and costly nature of print, marketers employed professionals to write their ads, catalogues, brochures and mailing letters.

But digital media – the web, email, Facebook, blogging and such have changed all that. Businesses need a LOT of copy these days. Lucky for me and my mortgage, some multi-channel marketers still do outsource copy (tell you why later) but many don’t. Google is greedy for words. The web needs a never-ending stream of relevant, up-to-date and motivating copy. And with more in the marketing mix, even print deadlines seem to get tighter. No time now for most companies to cogitate, brief a professional writer, wait for the work, review, edit, refine… It’s perfectly understandable that most copywriting is now handled in-house. Doing it for yourself is all good – fast, efficient and cost effective, but only if you know what you’re doing.

Scanning the heads above your office partitioning for someone who looks like they know the difference between muscles and mussels, or waiting by the kettle/watercooler to see who looks idle are not likely to result in brilliant, competition-smashing copy.

However, prioritising copy as a significant and valuable part of your business is a wise move. In direct marketing after all, your copy is the voice of your organisation – it engages your customers, makes sales, builds your brand and is vital to your bottom line. “But people only look at the pictures these days”, I hear you say. Wrong. Here’s why your copy matters now more than ever:

Poor writing reflects negatively on a brand – yet branding is the one thing that consumers are still responding to in these perilous economic times. In fact branding is absolutely massive, so don’t invest fortunes on the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of your brand without making sure the words that come out of your mouth are well chosen and well written.

Leads me on to the ‘no copy’ approach – a new bad habit the dot coms brought with them (classic mail order companies would never have gagged themselves). Please don’t ever think of no copy as an option online or in print. Duh, the web is where people go for information – and if they don’t get it from you, they’ll go elsewhere – and maybe shop elsewhere too. And look books? Only print one of those if all you want people to do is look.

Back to bad copy. Serious customers are being constantly thwarted in their efforts to buy by poorly written and unclear copy on websites. Being clear in your writing starts with being clear in your thoughts. Have a structure. Then take care to write on your readers’ level of experience and not your own. Finally check, edit and proofread your work before publishing. There are no shortcuts to this.

And please stop talking about yourself. Businesses bang on about how great they are, how long they’ve been established, their big name clients, all the awards they’ve won… If your customers are not at the heart of your communications, you’re wasting your words and your money.

BEFORE: Our technical photographic skills are second to none. We have many years’ experience photographing weddings, and producing beautiful albums for our clients.

AFTER: If you’re looking to remember and cherish your wedding day forever, look no further. We’ll preserve every special moment of your big day – even the ones you missed.

Businesses have identified ‘creating more engaging content’ as a top priority. But what makes content engaging? I’d say it’s having the ability to interest, entertain and inform – using techniques such as storytelling. How can you achieve that if you are not a good writer?

Writing good content requires confidence – a bit of belief in yourself and your writing skills. Sadly, in my experience, what education has done to many people is destroy their confidence. Creativity hasn’t been nurtured and often, an overriding fear of getting the grammar or punctuation wrong all but kills the joy in any piece. What we’re left with is a sort of stilted, stripped-back copy that does nothing but inform – and description is not salesmanship.

Speaking of salesmanship; few would argue that consumers these days feel cheesy or pushy sales messages in the back of their throats – the old gag reflex. I believe that customer psychology – understanding why people buy things and how they choose whom to buy them from – is at the heart of writing great product copy these days.

Even if you’ve got good writers on your team, are they writing for your brand within agreed guidelines? Every brand needs a ‘voice’ and every copy piece, be that an annual statement or a weekly blog, needs a ‘tone’. Agreeing these as a business is the only way to ensure that everyone who contributes copy does so in way that is consistent and beneficial.

The good news? Anyone can learn to become a better writer. Just reading books will make you a better writer. Investing in training is another way. Back at the beginning of my career when I was a green Art History graduate, my then boss, Brian Rogers of Design Marketing Limited, sent me on a copywriting course with American copy guru Herschell Gordon Lewis. It launched me on my career. That course was hosted by the DCA, then called ECMOD, and I feel honoured now to host copywriting workshops for the same organisation.

And finally, back to why some businesses still choose to outsource copy? I once heard Nigel Swabey, Scotts & Co and DCA Chair, put it very succinctly, “Outsourcing your creative is the only way to ensure that it stays truly fresh.”

by Cate Ferguson, Freelance Copywriter 

This article appears in the May/June 2016 issue of Direct Commerce Magazine.