Monday, September 4, 2017

Creating a Need: The Key to Effective Copywriting

Here in Central Texas, the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey may be most noticeable in the lines of cars waiting patiently (or not-so-patiently) to fill up at the limited number of gas stations currently carrying fuel. It's not actually a lack of gasoline as such; the fuel is out there, but distributors are having trouble getting it to the public, and the small amounts that are making it to the pumps get gobbled up fast. The situation would probably be resolved sooner if people weren't also buying 2.5 times as much gas as they normally purchase. No, they didn't purchase 1.5 more cars when nobody was looking. They're just responding to what they perceive as a strong, immediate need.

Now, you may not sell gas for a living -- but wouldn't it be amazing to see people lined up along the block, either literally or figuratively, to buy what you do sell? It's certainly possible to achieve that result if you convey a strong sense of need to your target market. Let's look at some types of need you can instill in your copywriting.

Practical Urgency

Before the widespread adoption of the automobile in American life, gasoline was nothing more than just another fuel. People lived their entire lives in one town, while kids trudged several miles to school in the snow (or so your great-grandparents claimed) without complaint. But once Henry Ford placed affordable, sturdy, gas-burning Model Ts in everybody's driveway, gasoline quickly turned into a must-have item. Gasoline allows people to work far from home, take kids to and from school, deliver commercial products to warehouses -- in short, it generally keeps everybody moving. As we became dependent on cars, we became equally dependent on gas for those bottom-line benefits. Which bottom-line benefits do your customers not just want but genuinely need? Or if they don't genuinely need it, what can you say to convince them that they do?

Emotional Need

Cars don't just represent utility; they also represent freedom, independence and flexibility. It's emotionally reassuring to know that your car can take you where you need to go at any given moment -- but by the same token, if you've grown accustomed to this feeling, the sudden prospect of not having transportation can be unsettling in the extreme. That's what turns "Oh, the gas supply will be tight for a while" into "OH NO, THERE'S NO MORE GAS IN THE WORLD EVER!" Rationally, we may know better, but emotionally, we're itching to grab our place at the pump. So ask yourself what your target market is used to. What products and services have they grown to love, and how would they feel without those products and services? What negative emotions can you evoke in your content to create a feeling of need -- emotions which are then eased by your solution?

Unique Solutions

To some extent, gas is gas -- a commodity, with one tankful no better or worse than another. The leading brands try to make their products stand out by trumpeting this cleaning agent or that performance additive, but most of us would be willing to take whatever's out there when gas is short. Even so, there are some high-performance vehicles that call for a particular octane, and the owners of these prized possessions will shell out the additional money for that octane. Does your business offer a better solution that the others? Are your services unique or especially well suited for a particular situation? If so, write to that need and you might well corner the market on a niche audience.

Remember, it's all about the perception and feeling of need -- from "I desperately need gas to get to work" to "I desperately need a jelly donut right now" -- and your unique ability to fulfill that need. And if you have a need of your own for some skilled copywriting assistance to help you achieve that effect, let me know!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bending the Rules of Copywriting: When the Wrong Words Are Right

One of the things I hear most often from business owners who engage my freelance copywriting services is, "I never do my own writing because I just know I'll get the spelling and grammar all wring." Well, of course effective copywriting requires a lot more than just a firm grasp of spelling and grammar. In fact, some of the most powerful marketing content deliberately plays fast and loose with those rules. Let's take a look at those instances in which breaking the rules can be good.

We've all seen examples of riotously incorrect ad slogans over the years. Half a century ago, Winston offered up the famous declaration "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," sparking immediate controversy over its misuse of "like" as a conjunction. Would it have been more correct to say "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should?" Certainly. But would the slogan have been swept into the public consciousness to anywhere near the same degree? No way!

(The tobacco industry seems to have had ongoing issues with grammar. "Us Tarrytown smokers would rather fight than switch!" was another faux pas that nevertheless caught on with the public. Perhaps a new medical study is in order....)

Geeks worldwide know and love (or hate) Apple's encouragement to "Think Different." I was just beginning my writing career when that campaign first launched, and I remember some English majors sneering about how Apple's proofreader was asleep on the job. Surely the company meant "Think Differently!" But they missed the point entirely: Apple was using "different" as a concept -- a way of life, not a modifier. 

My various writing instructors used to insist that you have to know the rules before you can break them. In other words, if you understand a rule and then break it intentionally, you're creating a deliberate effect and not an ordinary screw-up. If you're quoting a certain famous cartoon bird, for instance, you can't correct his speech to read "I thought I saw a pussycat," because you'll lose the whole pop-cultural context and you won't be making your point (whatever that is).

So, yes, you can break the rules. You may even want to. But let us know, somehow, that you know what you're doing and why you're doing it -- and make sure the result is genuinely compelling. Heed the wise words of the members of Spinal Tap: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."

Monday, August 7, 2017

On Vacation? Keep On Marketing!

Many years ago, an underground cartoon character by R. Crumb made a big stride into mainstream popularity. You may remember him as that dude sticking a big giant foot out in front of him, accompanied by the immortal slogan "KEEP ON TRUCKIN'" (which was also the name of the comic). Here was a guy who was going keep making his forward steadily, no matter what the circumstances. Many of us entrepreneurs and one-person shops promise to put that kind of persistence into our own marketing efforts -- until vacation time ambles along, when we gladly pack our bags and run off to enjoy a well-earned vacation. Unfortunately, when we stop marketing, we find ourselves "on vacation" even after we return from vacation.Why? Because we weren't marketing our products and services while we were gone.

Now, that doesn't mean you have adopt a life of servitude to your business, laboring away 365 days a year. But it does mean that you'll want to think about ways you can keep promoting your brand even while you're out relaxing and enjoying yourself. Here are some strategies to consider:

Network on the road. Surely there's enough room left in your overstuffed suitcase for a stack of business cards. Take them along with you, and be ready to hand them out when you get into a potentially-lucrative conversation en route to (or at) your destination. Seek out casual networking opportunities such as mixers and Meetup groups. Food, drink, and interesting chats are always welcome additions to any vacation -- and they're also pretty good for greasing the wheels of commerce.

Stockpile your marketing content. If you want to stop thinking about business entirely during your vacation, put a little extra thought and effort into your marketing content before you take off. For example, you may want to pre-write a stockpile of blog articles (or outsource them to a freelance copywriter) so you or you team can simply post them (manually or automatically) according to your usual schedule. Those steady updates will help maintain interest and enthusiasm from your target market, while also helping you avoid giving the impression that you totally abandoned your online marketing efforts.

Keep your social media activity business-centric. Business owners seem to love posting tweets and Facebook pictures of their feet stretched out on a beachfront lounge chair: "Ha ha, you're working and I'm not!" But bragging about your laziness isn't necessarily a brilliant marketing move. At the very least, it certainly doesn't communicate the image of a present, fully-engaged professional. And if you're obviously the heart and soul of your company, your audience may decide that there's no point in even contacting your enterprise for the time being. Keep in mind, too, that no matter how much fun you may be having, any social media posts via your official channels need to remain aligned with your brand image and values.

Have a great vacation -- and do some great marketing at the same time!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Right Time for Marketing? Right Now

Steve Martin used to joke about the most important element in comedy: "And that, of course, is...ti-MING, ti-ti-ime....ming."

No one's timing is always perfect -- not in comedy, and not in business. But we like to bamboozle ourselves into thinking that there's one perfect shining moment in which to act, one perfect thing we can do or say that will hit the cosmic jackpot and get customers running to us. We watch and wait for that moment, hoping that we'll be quick enough to pounce on it when it arrives.

And in the meantime, our business hangs in stasis.

Procrastination is human nature. We want all conditions to be optimal before we commit to starting something. We want to know the temperature in the pool before we even dip a toe into it. A lot non-swimming happens that way.

Writers understand this kind of fear better than just about anybody. Some speculate that the dreaded "writer's block" is, in part, a simple fear of commitment, an unwillingness to try ideas out and watch them fail. When you insist that everything that comes from your pen has to be gold, you make it impossible for yourself to start. So writers have to get used to the routine of starting somewhere -- anywhere -- and drafting a big chunks of text that will almost certainly hit the wastebasket. But in the process of crossing things out, we discover the piece we wanted to write among what remains.

Launching a marketing campaign can produce the same kind of fear. What if the timing isn't just right? What if you make a strategic error along the way? What if your judgement isn't perfect? Wouldn't it be more comfortable just to stay where you are?

There's no bad time to market yourself. I've had business owners wave off the prospect of launching some fresh marketing on the grounds that "I'm doing really well at the moment." It's those last three words that matter. Don't let yourself be blindsided by this month's numbers -- they are probably the direct result of the marketing you did last month, last quarter, or even last year. Slack off on marketing now, and you may hear crickets chirping a month of two from now. When things are going badly, marketing can help get you back on top; when things are going well, marketing can help keep you there.

"But I have no ideas." That's what marketing consultants and copywriters are for. You'd be surprised how many ideas you have once an experienced professional starts pulling them out of you. I've helped clients create entire newsletters, blogging campaigns, and article series out of what appeared to be thin air -- only it wasn't thin air. They had the ideas; I just helped bring them to life. We didn't wait for the planets to line up just so. We made it happen.

And so can you. Anytime.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Understanding Copywriting Rates

"How do you bill?" is a more complex question than you might think when you're soliciting the aid of a freelance copywriter -- or any freelance creative worker, for that matter. Different independent contractors have different ways of estimating and billing for their work, and just because you've always seen it done one way in the past doesn't mean that this new person you're working with is doing it wrong or trying to pull a fast one on you. But these different approaches can make the billing side of things seem unnecessarily and annoyingly murky for business owners and marketing agencies who need to purchase content. Let's look at a few basic ways copywriters rate and bill their work.

Per-Word Rate

A great many large agencies offer writers a per-word rate for their content, and some writers insist on such a rate themselves. On the surface, it seems fair enough. Putting fingers to the keyboard is work, so each completed word can be seen as a unit of work performed. It certainly takes a lot of the mystery out of how the writer came to his final payday. The downside for the client, however, is that more writing isn't necessarily better writing -- in fact, as I mentioned in a previous article, wordiness is more likely to make a piece of content less effective. The per-word rate actually encourages padding the text (at least up to a pre-agreed maximum word count), so you might end up with an impressive-looking wall of verbiage that's actually pretty weak stuff.

Hourly Rate

Billing by the hour is an extremely common approach taken by all kinds of independent contractors. Like the per-word rate, the hourly rate fixes what you're paying to a concrete, measurable variable -- the amount of time spent writing, editing and/or researching. Assuming your writer is using a verifiable program for logging those hours, you can rest assured that you're paying for X amount of labor. But there's a wild card in this deck as well, namely speed. Some writers agonized methodically over each and every word, while others blaze through the draft like lighting. To complicate things further, both writers may come up with equally fine results. So does the faster writer deserve to be penalized for his efficiency? Is the slower writer really working harder, or is he just being lazy (and racking up a bigger bill for you)?

Per-Project Rate

This is the method I generally use. That doesn't make it "better" or "worse," but I've found that it serves both my clients and me fairly well. In this approach, the writer either offers a fixed menu of rates for various kinds of projects, or he eyeballs the project's scope, thinks about how much time and effort he's likely to put into it, and then quotes a flat estimate. Additional charges may apply if the project grows way beyond its original parameters. Clients like this method because they always know exactly what they're going to pay before the project even starts. I like it because it makes it easier for me to figure out whether I'm meeting my own monthly budget and financial goals. There will be some times when the work turns out to be harder than expected (meaning you get extra work out of your writer for the same money), and other times when it turns out to be easier (meaning that your writer enjoys a better payday for the time spent). In the long run, I find that it evens out.

So what kind of billing system should you look for in a copywriter? Ultimately, that's entirely up to you. But I would urge you to look at the writer's experience, integrity and demonstrated skill first and foremost. If you're getting good marketing content, you're getting a bargain!

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Call to Action: Your Marketing Content's "Curtain Line"

The first act had gone fine. The audience hadn't exactly leaped to their feet in an ovation, but they were still there when the intermission lights came up, and most of them appeared to be awake. So far, so good, I thought from the catwalk where many playwrights (or was it just me?) prefer to hide during a production of one of their plays.

My playwriting teacher knew where to find me, of course. "They like the play. The only thing you need is a new curtain line."

"New curtain line?"

"Yes. The closing line of the act isn't really strong enough. You need to put something else there that will really resonate with the audience on the way out, something that will draw them back for Act Two."

"Uh...okay." I wouldn't have minded having this conversation before opening night of the production, but sometimes you really can't tell what works and what doesn't until you try it out. So after the show I went home, thought up a new line for the leading character to end the first act with, and the next night the whole scene -- in fact, the whole show -- worked better. 

Copywriting has its own version of the "curtain line." It's known as the call to action. 

The call to action is that last compelling statement in which you force the readers to react to what they've just absorbed in a specific way. Maybe it's time for them to pick up the phone and place their order. Maybe it’s time for them to fill out the request form for more details. Maybe it's time for them to whip out their credit card and make that payment. The point's time. You've delivered a compelling message to them; now it's time for them to respond appropriately.

A good piece of copywriting has a shape to it, just as a well-written act in a play does. An effective act grabs the audience from the beginning, ratchets that interest level higher and higher, then leaves them in the most powerful, congruent emotional state possible -- the precise emotional state you want them to experience. Marketing copy should build in the same manner, ending with such an emotional punch that the reader feels compelled to take the next step.

So when you write that marketing piece, save the best for last. Rally the troops -- your readers -- with a rousing call to action. Challenge them to act on that feeling you just planted in them. Turn those prospects into customers and those customers into repeat customers. Get what you want the easy way -- by asking for it.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Why "Writing to Impress" Usually Backfires

You sit down to write your next blog article, new web page or updated brochure with a single goal: to dazzle your prospects and customers. But how exactly do you do that? You might be surprised to learn that "writing to impress" can do your content more harm than good. Here are a few examples of how this kind of overachievement can actually sabotage your goals.

Technobabble - If you've ever sat through a science-fiction show where the writers resorted to incomprehensible technical lingo at a key moment, you may have felt both irritated and excluded. The same holds true for marketing content that aims above the level of its intended target market. Companies in complex fields such as the technical, medical or legal arenas often feel compelled to display their expertise in this way -- without realizing that they're alienating their audience instead of impressing it. Technobabble only works when your ideal reader, listener or viewer is as fluent in that language as you are. If you need to reach the general public, you must boil your message down to general terms.

Formal-speak - Many business experts fall into the trap of using overly-formal language in their marketing content, especially consultants who feel the need to impress people. The approach usually means lots of passive verbs, indirect sentence structure and "five-dollar words." The end result is dulled emotional impact -- pretty much the opposite of what you want when you're selling your products, services and/or brand. Lack of directness pushes people away, while the longer a word is, the less power it usually holds. Clear, direct language will make your point much more quickly and effectively, while helping to establish you as a friendly peer instead of an unapproachable oracle.

Purple prose -  If you've ever seen an over-the-top amateur movie or book review, you've probably been hit over the head with phrases like "Buckets of tears were gushing out of my eyes like waterfalls from the very first scene" or "I was collapsing with laughter at every moment." This kind of hot-and-heavy hyperbole (a) is pretty hard to take seriously and (b) exhausts your audience's emotional batteries from from the beginning. If everything is spectacular and amazing and life-changing, then nothing stands out and contrasts become impossible. You've lost your ability to create emotional highs and lows in your content -- and with it, your ability to engage the audience in a meaningful way.

"Writing to impress" usually doesn't -- but writing to establish a strong, credible, instant connection with your ideal respondent definitely does. Honing your approach and technique takes some doing, but you can always engage a professional marketing copywriter who already knows his stuff. Either way, make sure your content makes the right impression!