Think of every way you talk to a customer. You describe your product. You talk about how your product will help them. You tell stories of others who have used it. You describe your company. You relate a story that shows customers you think like they do.You write a script for a video, a commercial, or an audio spot. For every one of these, there are two or three types of marketing copy. Now there are three ways to classify copywriting. By collateral. For example, letter versus brochure, versus webpage. By medium.
Think of video versus print, versus online. By style. Think of the hard sell versus the scare, versus the straight shot. Anything you write, will fit somewhere into each classification. There are infinite variations on each one, but there’s some typical types I can describe. I’m going to review each one briefly and why and when you might use them. First, there’s collateral. These are the types that most folks know. You generally set out to or hired to write a brochure or something similar. It’s better though, if you know which type works best for which situation.
That way, you can make the right choice of collateral, or give your client or boss some great advice. First is the brochure, online or off, this is usually the first thing any of us write. It’s a great catch all, that includes the call to action, the product or message, a bit about your organization, and sometimes a softer piece about what makes you or your company unique. Brochures are great as a leave behind, for meetings and sales calls.They’re also great as a take away in your office or your trade show booth. Online, a brochure is a good first website or a downloaded take away.
In a brochure, the call to action is more subtle and may show up in different ways.Consider a brochure the introduction or ongoing conversation, not the final handshake.The direct marketing piece. At some point you have to push your call to action to existing customers or people you think might be great customers. You most often do so using email or direct mail. If brochures are a catch all, direct marketing is generally the exact opposite. Don’t confuse direct marketing with permission based informational content, such as instructional email series or teaching booklets.
Direct marketing is all about the pitch. All direct marketing is delivered to the consumer in a situation where that consumer may feel like you’re intruding a bit. That makes it the trickiest of all copywriting. You have to communicate significance and deliver value, from the first sentence to the last. Use direct marketing copy when you’re trying to access a whole new audience or reestablish contact with an old one or a bit of both. Direct marketing copywriting is an art in and of itself. It also gets a bad rap, because most direct marketing is so awful.
But great marketing delivers values to those who need it, when they need it. Direct marketing does that too. The poster. This could be a print poster, a single webpage, or a billboard. Posters require brief, super punchy text that communicates a lot of information in a small space. Generally, the graphic element will dominate, where the text doubles as the graphic. Use a poster to communicate your brand, reinforce a message folks will encounter elsewhere, or to lead people to your website, booth, store, or elsewhere to get more information.
The call to action in poster will often be get more information, even if you don’t actually say that. The script. A script usually serves as the guide for a non written message. I wrote a script for this course. You probably won’t read it. Instead, I’m up here using the script as I speak. Scripts drive video, audio, animation, and other motion or non written marketing. Use them when you are using a non written form of marketing. The call to action may be subtle, or repeated thirty times.
It depends entirely on the audience or product. The one-liner. Use for business cards, social media posts, or those humongous banners airplanes tow around behind them.Unless it’s on a poster or other full creative, the one-liner might have to work out of context. There’s rarely a supporting graphic. And even if there is, you have to assume it might not be present when the readers see it. The product description. Somewhere, somehow, you have to describe whatever it is you’re selling.
This can be part of a brochure or another kind of collateral, or can live on its own in an online store or catalog. The call to action is implicit in a buy now or call now request. Use product descriptions when the customer is well into the buying process. They’ve already read that first bit of text in the direct mail piece, or they’ve clicked through your homepage and are perusing your wares. The next big category is medium. This doesn’t require a whole lot of description.
Online, print, radio, they’re all media. So is in person like a speech. Mobile, social media, or website are not. Those are channels. A medium is pipe over which the message passes, not the environment in which the audience receives it. The medium may or may not impact the collateral and style. I have to say that I don’t often find that it does, but you may see it differently and I’ll leave it at that. The final category is style.
Copywriting style is unique to each writer and product, but there are certain styles that are best for different tactics. Teaching, the lowest key style. Teaching helps folks learn first and offers a call to action second. Use teaching when you’d be comfortable if people simply bought the product or took action in somewhere, even if they didn’t buy from you. The call to action is please understand why you need this. I’ve built my entire company around the teaching style. We tell our audience exactly how we do what we do.
That sounds crazy, but what we do is really complicated. By teaching, we show our audience what they need and why they need us, while also taking away the air of mystery. Folks appreciate it, and they buy from us. The straight shot. You describe what you have, why yours is best, and then deliver the call to action. This is the most common style. Use it if you think your audience is ready to buy, and that they understand why they need your product. They just haven’t chosen it yet. It’s often low key, points out features and then leaves it to the audience to take action.
The laugher. You present your message and call to action by making your audience laugh. You can use self-deprecating humor, make fun of people who don’t buy your product, or present a funny version of the scare tactic. See the next style for that. Use this style if you know your audience appreciates a laugh. But use it sparingly. It’s fun, but it’s also very easy to offend your entire audience. It can really blow up in your face if you’re not careful. The scare tactic.
This is exactly what it sounds like. You deliver your call to action by saying, do this or bad stuff will happen. Think of messages where people need something for their own safety. Fasten your seat belt, don’t drink and drive, don’t smoke. If it takes a good scare to save people from all manner of trouble, I’m okay with it. Use the scare tactic when you think people will respond and there’s more at stake than a sale. The Hard Sell. Buy now!Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! Like the Scare Tactic, this style has a bad reputation. But you can use it if you’re in a crowded market, and your competition is fairly low key.
Or, you can use it to shout down hard selling competition. It’s a challenge to do it right without coming off as simply tacky. The people best at it are the great pitchmen and women. They write a fantastic script and then deliver it with more power than anyone else. The hard sell usually repeats the call to action sandwiched between the reasons you’d want the product. Neither collateral nor medium should dictate style. You can apply any style to just about any kind of collateral or medium. Knowing the types and styles of marketing copywriting help you make a deliberate choice when you write.
Most writers will have one or two comfortable styles. But as a marketing copywriter, you have to adjust your style based on collateral and so forth. So come back now and then and review this list. It’ll help you do a better job over your career.
Preparing yourself to write copy
Great, so it’s time to start writing. You open your word processor and you just start hammering away at the keyboard. Now, hang on a second. If you’re like me, you’ve had lots of teachers and writers tell you to prepare your workspace, make sure the lighting is right, make sure you’re sitting in the right way. But you probably just rolled your eyes and dove in. I gotta say, for years I did exactly the same thing. But there are certain things that will undo the best intended copywriter. First off, interruptions. A colleague may stick their head into your office and say hey, gotta minute? Your child may choose that moment to fill the toilet with paper towels and then flush it 11 times.
That’s actual experience. Your phone may ring. You may have problems with your computer or your software. Maybe the computer dies, the software crashes, or your pencil breaks. You may have a lack of examples or inspiration. In spite of free writing, careful pondering, and a long list of notes from your boss, you just can’t get started.Cats may be a problem. Your cat may jump into your lap. It may proceed to paw at you, claw at you, paw at your keyboard. It may tip over the glass of water on your desk. Or it may chase the cursor around your screen. Burnout.
You write for three days straight, after which you may never want to see a keyboard again. Writing requires concentration for solid stretches of time. All of my preparation, ensures that as much as possible, I can stay focused. Here’s what I usually do. First, I send a note to everyone in the office saying, I’m writing today, please only interrupt me if the building is actually on fire. Or I remove myself to a part of the house whereeverybody knows, do not disturb Dad, he’s writing and may growl. Then I put on headphones, which a lot of people say is a bad idea, but it really helps me block out other noises like ringing phones.
And then I close the door. I make sure that my calendar is 100% up to date. That way any other appointments or calls that I have to do that day are scheduled with reminders and I don’t have to keep trying to remember, constantly checking the time or looking at my calendar. I plug my laptop into the wall so that the battery doesn’t die right when I’m about to finish that last sentence, and I’m left weeping over my desk. I use the simplest possible word processor, and this is something a lot of people don’t think about. I prefer to use one that doesn’t rely on an internet connection.
I’m also a fan of this language called MultiMarkdown, so that means I can use any text editor I want to do my writing. That way, I can move my writing between any text editor, any computer, any word processor, and the simplicity of the software means there’s a lot fewer chances that the software will crash. And this may be the most important piece of advice I can give you in this entire course, turn off email and instant messaging. It can be a little scary to cut that digital cord, but you gotta do it. And make sure whichever cat is in the room, is either settled on my lap for a nap, or that all cats have been forcibly removed from the premises.
Same with the dog. No matter how cute and how good the puppy dog eyes are. I know it feels cruel, but it’s really necessary. And then I get a timer, and I set it for a chunk of time. Usually an hour or so. I write for that chunk of time, then take a five to ten minute break. That’s when I’ll check email. But barring a real crisis, I’ll defer answering any messages until I’m totally done. Then I repeat my miniature writing sprint maybe four to five times and take a longer break of a half hour to an hour.
Of course if I’m on a roll, I’ll just keep going. But marketing copywriting is really more about repetition and editing than it is about writing reams and reams of copy. There are exceptions like video scripts. But typically, you want lots of uninterrupted sprints and breaks in between. So go get your timer or install one on your computer. Shoo away the pets, cut the digital cord, and plug in your laptop. Close everything except your word processor and this page, set your timer, I can wait, I’ll still be here. When you’re ready, start the timer, and let’s get going.
Overview of the project for this course
So a quick personal story here. About eight years ago I wrote this book about internet marketing, and I used my daughter’s name as the name of this hypothetical business, Morgan’s Bikes. And this business was a bicycle shop in need of internet marketing help.My son, who was five years old at that point, was pretty offended. As the older, he felt he should have gotten the first shot at stardom. So Harrison, this is for you. If you choose to use the hypothetical company I have made up for this course, you’ll be copywriting for Harrison’s Helmets. It’s a small startup trying to launch their new line of bicycle helmets.Harrison’s debut line of helmets launched into a really crowded market.
If you’re a cyclist, you know. There are a lot of established brands out there, but his helmet has some great selling points. First, they’re absolutely the lightest on the market.second, they have the highest safety rating in history. You can do anything to these helmets and they’ll still protect your head. And then they come with these pads that you can heat or cool, and you can insert them into the helmet to help with the weather. They have by far the most interesting choice of graphics and colors out there. You want pink and purple polka dots, you can probably get it. Their attachment system is really simple and this is important for a lot of cyclists like me.
Because it doesn’t have that buckle, that when you clip it together it can pinch your chin and cause endless amounts of pain. And he wants to sell his product three ways. He wants to sell it through his online store, through bicycle shops, and through major cycling and sporting goods retailers. He really needs that combination of three to make this work. This means he has two audiences. The first is consumers and that really divides up into two different audiences. There are consumers who are going to buy online. And ask retailers for the product, thereby driving demand.
And then there’s consumers who already own a helmet, they’re not going to buy a new one any time soon, but they’re going to tell their friends about this cool new helmet, and then they’ll go buy one. The second audience is really buyers for bicycle shops and major retailers, which are pretty common in his industry. His product has to end up on shelves. If it doesn’t, he’s going to lose his biggest audience because e-commerce is not going to be enough. So your job, and what we’re going to learn in this course, is to select the types of copywriting you feel will most help Harrison. Choose your media, choose your styles, and then write the stuff.
For the rest of this course, we’re going to plan a copywriting strategy by choosing the media, style, and collateral. Then, we’ll write one or two actual pieces of collateral. I’m going to show you some basic typography. So you can learn to work with a designer, or do it yourself for online, and make your copy really work visually. You’re going to learn to edit and refine your own work, and then and this can be very challenging, edit and refine the work of others. Next I’ll show you how to start managing the team that you’re going to get, after you have your first big success.
Now, if you prefer you can use your own business as an example, it’s no problem. Just make sure you give careful thought to how and why you make the choices you make.
Assembling your tools
Earlier, I talked about how to prepare yourself to write copy, but now I’m going to get a little more specific. In my perfect writing paradise, I’m not saying I always get this but in it, I have a few things. I’ve got a timer. I need to track my sprints, so I need some form of timer. I’m a total nerd, so I went with something fancy on my computer’s desktop that flashes cool numbers at me and stuff. But you can do just as fine with an egg timer or an hourglass if you want the retro feel. But for myself, I like to use apps like Pomodoro or My Little Pomodoro. I keep a glass of water on my desk.
This is kind of my metaphor for concentration. I don’t want to break concentration for anything. Unless I smell smoke, hear bloodcurdling screams, have a medical catastrophe, or feel an earthquake, I’m going to keep writing. And that glass of water’s become kind of a symbol for me that I’m not getting up for things like being thirsty. You need some kind of storage medium. If you like writing on pencil and paper, great, go for it. While you can get a notebook wet, a magnet or a speck of dust isn’t going to completely destroy it, so embrace your analog self, it’s a great idea.
If you’re like me, you want agadget and a piece of software. My gadget is my laptop.Your gadget might be a laptop, a desktop, or a personal computer. It could be a tablet or a phone. Whatever works for you. Note that I didn’t mention an audio recording device.You can record your copywriting or use a speech-to-text tool to transcribe it for you, but I’m just warning you now, when you’re trying to edit that audio recording and refine it into a better piece of prose, it’s not going to be easy. Alright, I’m just warning you that now,because you’ve gotta become a sound editor.
It’s also not the shortcut you think, because the speech-to-text will sometimes garble your words. For example, I could say, until it carries very little meaning. And it might come out, until it carrots very little gleaming. Sorry, but that’s what it would be like if I used dictation software. Especially, if you talk fast, like I do. You also want to have some kind of backups. If you’ve never lost six hours’ work because of some unforseen disaster, lucky you. If you’ve never managed to miss every single warning window, every single box that says, are you sure you want to do this, from your computer, and managed to completely delete your work anyway, I salute you.
If you’re like everyone else on the planet, you’ve probably had one of those moments when your heart just drops and you realize that your work is irretrievably lost. Then, you’re going to go and try a few futile tricks of course. You’re going to jump on a search engine of your choice and search for recover lost files. Do whatever else. And you don’t get them back. It’s no fun. So make sure you have some kind of fully automated, every few seconds backup tool. A few options. An online word processor like Google Docs. It saves your work every few seconds.
It does not, however, back up your work. So if you delete the document, it’s toast. A service like Dropbox is the option I really like. It saves a version of my document every few seconds. And I have a copy both on my computer and up in the cloud. I also have a copy on every other device that uses Dropbox. It’s pretty handy. It’s still not true backup though, because the files, the other versions, are gone after 30 days. For that you can add a service like Packrat. Then your files are kept forever. You can also do it yourself.
You can install a cloud backup tool, configure it to save your work every few minutes. Or even write a script to back up to a thumb drive every few seconds, but even I’m not that geeky. If you want to do it, go for it. And you need a writing thingy. Like I said, if you want to use pencil and paper, excellent. Pens and pencils don’t generally crash and lose your work, and your kids can’t jump on them to play video games when you’re not looking, so I thoroughly approve. Again though, I’m a geek. I want my software. Most people use a full on word processor like Microsoft Word, which is fine. So is Open Office, or Google Docs.
I’ve used them all regularly. They all do the trick just fine. I though, like a little less clutter. I like a little more geek cred when I go out on the geek playground to play, so I use a plain old text editor that lets me enter this distraction free mode. The editor fills up the entire screen and turns off all notifications on my computer, so I can write without stopping for 45 minutes. I use a very simple formatting language called MultiMarkdown.It is very simple, I promise. You might want to go do a search for it. And that way, I can save all my files as plain old .txt, text format. It’s totally future proof.
I’ll be able to open it in 15 years. There are also an endless pile of really cool geeky word processors with minimal features that have that same no-interruptions mode, and they all support MultiMarkdown, because it’s just text. I played with ones like Sublime Text and iA Writer, they’re both really cool. And most of these tools save in a format so close to a text file that you can always recover your work regardless of your operating system or tools. Finally, you can use a note-taking tool like Evernote. I love Everyone, I’m not a fan of it for copywriting because the editing tools are a little bit limited for my tastes.
But it is a nice way to keep your work super organized. So give it a try if you want, and then let me know if you find a great way to use it, because I would love to find one.Lastly, you gotta use your brain. I spend a lot of time trying out new tools, fancy chairs, stand-up desks, you know, timers, everything else, but the one tool I can’t do withoutand you can’t do without is my own gray matter. When you sit down, stand up, or lie down to write, you need to get your brain engaged.
Creating the plan
So once you’ve assembled your tools, it’s time to create a plan. I don’t want to overemphasize this step because when folks hear plan they tend to envision these hundred page documents that everybody reads once and then uses as a doorstop. In this course, plan means take 30 minutes to think about what you’re doing. Think about your audience, the collateral you need, and the style that you think is going to work best.At which point you’re thinking, 30 minutes Ian? Are you out of your mind?” . My client and boss wants to spend five days on personas and audience analyses and all this other stuff. Which is great, but by this stage in the game, either you already have it or you’re not going to need it.
If you’re sitting down to write, the personas are written. The demographic reports are complete, or the project is small enough that you don’t need them. Don’t rewrite it all.Your plan should map out what you’re going to do in this context. Your plan will change five times before it’s done. That’s just the reality of modern marketing. It’s designed to get you moving, and tell you the next steps as you finish one piece and move on. Also, audience analysis could be a whole separate course, so I’m going to steer well clear of that. My copyrighting plan usually has three things.
First, any notes that leap out at me regarding my audience. You might get these from your client or from your boss, or you might simply rely on a brief conversation with the folks who’d know the audience, like a sales team. This is one or two sentences like, never ever, ever mention chickens, or really loves to hear about sports. These are the important hints that keep you on target and out of trouble. Second, I need a list of collateral that i’m going to write. You may already have this from your boss, your client, or your own business plan. If so, just review it and ensure you’ve got everything you need.
If you don’t, prepare it now. Last, my plan has a list of the styles that I think can work for this audience. And a list of styles that I shouldn’t use under any circumstances. That’s it, nothing fancy. Whatever you do, do not get hung up on this step. If you can’t come up with a plan, move on to writing. You can always return to this later, or think it up as you go. Folks often linger on the plan for fear that they’ll, quote, waste writing. But here’s my perspective.
If you create a full blown, detailed editorial or marketing or whatever kind of plan. That’ll probably require the work of two to three people for eight to ten hours each, minimum.So that’s 16 to 30 plus hours. On the other hand, if you just write the whole web page,and then don’t use it, what have you lost, two, three, four hours? Plus, chances are you’re going to use that copy somewhere. Or at least the process of writing it has helped you get your thoughts together for when you write the final piece. So, here’s my plan for our imaginary client, Harrison’s Helmets. The audience is cyclists who don’t want their head squashed.
Seems reasonable, but also think, current helmets are less than ideal. They must have some spare cash because the HH1, that’s Harrison’s Helmet 1, costs about 40% more than the average helmet. He’s building a website, it’s going to have a home page, a product page, and several pages of more detailed, feature specific information. I need to write a product description, some one-liners for each graphic or style, and then a few long form pieces that go more into the technical details. He needs an information card or a leave behind for trade shows and sales calls, and he needs one liners for the packaging.
Something like, my head has never been safer, or something like that. For now, that’s it.More is going to occur to me as I write, but it’s time to sit down and start writing.
Free writing to get ideas down
You’ve got your tools. The cats are exiled, the headphones are good to go. You are ready to start writing, and then you just sit there. Some folks call it writer’s block. Others say that you’re just bad at writing, and others walk away figuring the ideas will just flow better another day. By the way it’s not writer’s block. If you have real writer’s block, it feels like your frontal lobe’s been removed and you spend days unable to write anything.I sincerely hope this never happens to you. Here’s the thing, you already have the ideas.You do. Yes you do.
Do not fib, nod instead of shaking your head. There you go, very good, nod. You know you’ve already got the ideas because you decided to write. The moment you thought, I have to write a brochure about Harrison’s helmets, your brain started working. The trick here is to get those first sentences down on paper to limber up your lobes. Get the neurons firing. That’s what free writing is all about. I get some eye rolls when I mention it, but it’s the best tool I have ever had. Here is how you do it. Set a timer for five or ten minutes. Start it.
Once it starts, just begin writing. Do not pause. If you can’t think of anything to write, write, I can’t think of anything to write. Keep going. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or formatting. Just get those thoughts down. Every now and then I get really lucky and my free writing session gets me copy I can actually use. Normally though, it just kind of steers my brain in the right direction. Here’s an example I did for Harrison’s Helmets.What am I going to write. I’ve hit my head cycling enough times. I’ve been wearing a helmet every time.
It’s saved my life at least three times that I know of. But they’re awfully uncomfortable, even now. Plus, they make me look like an over inflated mushroom. And they make sweat drip directly into my eyes, which may ironically cause more accidents. Harrison’s Helmet really helps, because it’s so light, about half the weight of my current helmet. And it seems to have better safety ratings than my current helmet.
Why? I have to tell the audience how Harrison manages this. Or they won’t believe me.Hmm. Can’t think of an idea. Oh, wait. We can do a cross-section of the helmet and talk about the Unobtainium shell. That’s a whole new material, right? Folks have never seen it before. Doesn’t a pro racer already use this helmet? We should get a quote from him, too. And play up how cool it looks.
This helmet looks more like a TRON helmet than a bicycle helmet. And I can get glow-in-the-dark flames. Well, I wouldn’t want those, but it certainly demonstrates the range of color schemes you can get. OK, so I need to emphasize the light weight, the strength, the colorful awesomeness, testimonials. Ooooh! And maybe something like drive a car over it, and then over a competing helmet! That’s it.
Five minutes of frantic typing. Note the utter failure of my internal spell checker. My grammar wasn’t too bad. But believe me, that’s not the norm. More important than the quantity of words, is the way the writing pans out. Notice, I started with something about me, then I worked my way towards features and won’t I like the helmet. Note the idea at the very end too. By the way, I did not carefully create a fake, free writing exercise. This is the real thing, I didn’t have the idea of driving a car over the helmet before, that came out at the very end of the process.
Free writing works great. It’s five minutes of pure thinking. And it gets you focused for the next step, writing your first draft.
Writing the first draft
It’s time to write the first draft. Most writers sit down, open a word processor, and start tapping away. More often than not, I do the same thing. But a few simple steps will help you focus on your task, focus on your audience and focus on your writing time. But first, think about those major dos and don’ts. If you’ve already written them down, print them and hang them next to your monitor so you can have them at a glance. If you haven’t written them down, scribble them down now, and hang them on your monitor, literally.Seriously, just hang them there. Next, if you’ve already considered your style and collateral, print those and hang them too or write them down.
The whole idea here is to keep these important bits within eye’s reach. That way, if you need to refer back, you don’t have to shift from one screen to the other or shuffle papersor otherwise spend time looking around for information. I gotta admit, when I’m in my office, I’m a little spoiled. I actually use a gigantic monitor, and have all of this arranged on my screen. If you have a 30 inch plus monitor, go for it. Otherwise, paper stickies work just fine. Now, turn off your instant messaging, silence your cell phone, close email and any other devices, channels, transmitters, distractors that you have that might interrupt your thinking.
Quick aside here, if you’ve watched this course start to finish, you’ve noticed by now that I’m kind of obsessed with avoiding interruptions. Why is that? Because in my experience a five minute interruption means 25 minutes of time getting back into the flow of your work. I’ve had great ideas ready to write down, only to have a rogue house cat jump into my lap or a colleague ask a question, and poof, the idea is gone. So it’s time to start writing. Get a timer, whatever you may use, and set it for 45 to 90 minutes as your preference.
Start it and don’t stop writing until it goes ding. There’s not a way to write a first draft.This is the first structured piece of content that you’re putting together. But you don’t have to start at the beginning or follow some particular method. I want to share with you a few tips to help you put this first draft onto paper, real or digital. If you’re stumped as to the first sentence of first paragraph, write from the inside out. This works surprisingly well. When I was writing scripts for each video in this course, I never ever wrote the introduction for any video first.
While this drove the editors a little bit nuts, it let me get my thoughts in order and get to the business of writing stuff down. Then write the wrap up, and yes, even marketingcopy has some kind of start, middle, and finish. It’s not classic academic copy, but it still has structure. Don’t sweat grammar, spelling, or word choice just yet. Obviously, you don’t want to write total gibberish, but you also don’t want to clobber your thought process by constantly rewriting a single sentence. At this step, nothing is more important than getting your thoughts down and structured.
It’s almost free-writing, but with a clear sense of what you’re writing and why. Try to write one thing per sprint. Between the time you start your timer and the time it stops, get one entire chunk of your copy written. This might be an entire piece of collateral, or just one particular section. Just have some kind of predefined completion point. If you finish before the timer does, you can go back and review. If you’re not done before the ding, stop anyway. But try to scribble down your next thought first, so you can pick up right were you left off.
Keep the goal in mind. A piece of copy that grows a business. If you want to wax eloquent, go ahead, but try to remember why you’re writing. And then at the end of each sprint, stretch, smile, you got that much closer to a great piece of marketing copy. Then reset, and get ready for the next sprint.
Observing general rules
Writing is a very individual thing, and marketing copywriting is no different. But there are some general rules and tips that may help you as you write your marketing copy. I’ll use our example company Harrison’s Helmets as an example in this session. Let’s say Harrison is writing the basic copy for his flagship bicycle helmet, the HH1. His audience is consumers. He wants them going to retailers and asking them for the helmet. And he wants them buying it when they see it or ordering it online. A few basic rules will make his writing more effective. First, you ned to address the reader.
Use you and your, not one and one’s. Listen to these two descriptions of a single feature of the HH1. The unobtanium shell provides unbeaten protection for any cyclist in any conditions. Or, the unobtainium shell provides unbeatable protection for you, whetheryou’re a commuter, a mountain biker, or a competitive cyclist. The second statement is a bit more engaging. Yes it’s longer, but it points at me, the reader. I’ve actually tested this online, and copy that addresses the reader works 25 to 30% better on average.
Next, you need to remember that your customer is not an algorithm. Yes, I know you’re worried about search engines and search rankings, but your customers don’t care.Harrison’s ultimate goal here isn’t to rank number one for helmets. Truth is, he doesn’t have a chance of doing that against the established brands anyway. A top ranking might get him lots of attention, but if his copy is awful, that attention is going to wander in a hurry. What if, instead, he only got ten people to his website, but every one of them was so blown away by the HH1 helmet that they all started telling their friends, who told their friends, who asked at bicycle shops, and so on? That’s a marketing success.
So don’t worry about quantity just yet. Worry about quality. Another important tip, and one that took me a long time to learn, is that sarcasm doesn’t work. Don’t be subtle.Harrison grew up in New Jersey. For him, sarcasm is an actual language. Alright, it’s actually me we’re talking about here, but let’s just pretend. But it doesn’t translate to the written word. In fact, it doesn’t translate to any format. The only exception is where you’re writing for an audience that you know will value that kind of humor. And those are few and far between.
Try to stick to easily interpreted emotional tone. Copywriting is not a great place for subtlety. Next, tell me why. I’m a huge advocate of bicycle helmets, and so is Harrison.To help tell his customers why, he could point out that society spend $x on head injuries every year, and it’s every cyclist’s duty to wear a helmet for that reason. Or we could simply say, this helmet rocks! As a colleague of mine says, so what. Don’t be abstract.Tell me what’s in it for me. The consumer does have a need for helmet.
Your job and the job of every marketing copywriter is to turn that need into a want. Here is an example. Harrison could say, the HH1’s shell can withstand up to four tons of pressure. Great, I can use it as a jackstand when I change the oil in my car. But what does that matter? How about this instead? A fall from a stationary bicycle delivers theequivalent of two tons of pressure to your skull. The HH1’s shell can withstand up to fourtons of pressure, protecting you from impact injuries. That’s the so what.
It tells me why this helmet matters to me. Finally, you need to just say it. Be direct. Don’t make folks interpret. We’re all bombarded with information day in and day out. The last thing we need is marketing copy that requires a Ph.D on the part of the reader. Harrison shouldn’t start the first page on his website, print piece, or even radio ad with, your brain is a very fragile spongy material floating in your skull. Yes, it’s poetic. It also fails to even tell me why I’m reading. Instead, he might start with, you’re a cyclist. You want to protect your head.
The HH1 does that better than any other helmet on the market with style. There is no perfect template for marketing copy. But I encourage you to use these general rules to help you stay on track.
Polishing the draft
You’ve written your marketing copy on-point and using the correct style. But you’re not done. It’s time to put the polish on it all. I’m going to use several examples in this video and have included them as exercise files for this course, so be sure to check them out.Harrison, CEO and Founder of Harrison’s Helmets, just finished writing the introductory copy for his flagship bicycle helmet, the HH1. But it needs some work before it’s ready for public use. Here’s some basic rules he should follow. First, get some help. If at all possible, have someone else edit and proofread your marketing copy too. They’ll find things that you don’t.
But I know that’s not always possible. Deadlines get in the way. Just have someone else review your copy as often as possible. Next, you need to edit and then proofread. Editing for our purposes means we’re reorganizing, rewording, and modifying our copy.Proofreading means we’re checking spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If you proofread first, you’ll probably have to do it again after you edit. Plus, proofreading is a whole different frame of mind. Editing is a good next step after writing because it’s still about the ideas. So edit first then proofread.
After that you need to go active. Whenever it makes sense, use the active voice. That means a thing acts as opposed to an act is performed by a thing. Active voice is really hard to explain and easier to demonstrate. For example, Harrison wrote, your head will be well protected by the HH1. He edits it to, the HH1 will protect your head. Do you see how that’s much more direct? Another important rule is to not use two words where one will do. While there are exceptions, you generally want to keep your marketing copy brief.
Harrison wrote this. The unobtainium shell provides protection that can’t be beat for you,whether you’re a commuter, a mountain biker, or a competitive cyclist. Change it like so.The unobtainium shell provides unbeatable protection, whether you’re a commuter, a mountain biker, or a competitive cyclist. There’s also a huge list of phrases that can bloat copy. Some of my favorites, meaning I write them a lot, are, had ought, which should be ought, as to whether, which should be whether, kind of, should just be deleted, because it doesn’t mean anything.
So as to, should be to. On account of, should really be because. The reason for, becomes since. Due to the fact that, should be why. This is why, should be why. For the reason that, should be why. In a situation which, should be when. In reference to, should be about. Concerning the matter of, should be about.
And where, whatever your topic is, is concerned, should be about. It is important to, should just be should. Has the ability to, should be can. It is possible to, should just be may. There are many, many more. I’ve included links to sites that have great lists in the exercise files. The next rule is make it clear and clean up the mud. Harrison wrote this.The HH1’s shell, which is made from fibers of unobtainium glued together using our patented Smush Process, comes in all sorts of great styles and will protect you from crashes.
That mixes together technical, style, and safety. It’s a bit confusing especially if I skim it which I’m going to. He revises it to this. The HH1 shell protects you from crashes. Why?Because of our patented Smush Process, which molds fibers of unobtainium into a tough, flexible shell. And, it comes in lots of styles. I’m not writing a work of art here, but you get the idea, group ideas logically. You also need to remove clichés and vernacular.
If Harrison knows that he’s writing to veteran cyclists, it might be okay to refer to the helmet as a brain bucket. It might even make sense to novices. But how about huge audiences like Latinos who speak English as a second language? That’s a lot of confused potential customers. Other examples of vernacular that you might not think of. A word to the wise. Unvarnished truth. Too many cooks. Turn over a new leaf. If you’re writing to a geographically broad audience, avoid local vernacular or clichés.
Writing a headline
headlines. The headline can grab attention, inform, and tie together the entire piece. It can make or break the rest of your copywriting, if the rest of the copy is good. Folks sometimes obsess about headlines at the expense of the rest of the copy. That’s why I’m talking about headlines so late in the process. A headline should be driven by your copy not the other way around. It should not hold up the rest of your writing as you seek a perfect headline. And it doesn’t have to be perfect right away. Finally, it may change even after you publish your first round of copy.
I’m not a big formula guy, but I’ll admit that there are some techniques for framing your headline. I’ve spent a lot of my career testing different headlines, too. And I’ve really weeded out the ones that don’t perform. So here are Ian’s five magic rules for headline writing. As always, I’m going to use our imaginary company, Harrison’s Helmets, as our example. First, headlines should not be mysterious. A lot of non-marketing copywriters say that a headline or title should be mysterious.
That, that pulls a reader in. Harrison decided to follow their advice while writing the introductory copy for his product, a bicycle helmet called the HH1. Here are his first attempts. The Banging of the Head. Brain Matter, Protected. Brain-Injury Risks. In marketing copywriting, mysterious rarely works. Now I’m a data geek, so I’ve tested this on the Internet. Online, a clear headline outperforms a mysterious headline about two to one in every way.
Why? Because as other great marketers say, people don’t have time, they have options.If they skim your brochure and don’t understand it, they’re gone. There are plenty of other helmets out there. All headlines should pass the blank-sheet-of-paper test. If you write the headline on a blank sheet of paper and show it to a stranger on the street, they should understand it, or at least the basic concept behind it. That does not mean a headline has to be boring. It just means it has to be as close to fully descriptive as possible.
Note that the blank-sheet-of-paper rule isn’t always absolute. In print, headlines generally show up in the context of other information. Online though, headlines may make more sense because of the referring channel or search. Here are a few examples that Harrison wrote. Introducing the HH1: Unrivaled Head Protection for Cyclists. Strong, Light, Protective: The HH1 Cycling Helmet. How the HH1 Helmet Might Save Your Life.
All This and Brains Too: The HH1 Cycling Helmet. Now, note that not all of these, perfectly fit the blank sheet of paper rule. Harrison may or may not include bicycle with helmet, depending on the audience. If he knows everyone reading the copy is a cyclist, which is a safe bet, he can leave helmet or bicycle out of the headline. While it won’t be fully descriptive, it will deliver a little more punch. Next on my list is to mostly avoid fear mongering.
There is a place for marketing copy that scares the reader. When selling a product though, it can backfire. Western readers don’t like scare tactics, so these headlines don’t work for the HH1. Your Brain, Smushed. How Your Skull Will Crack. Don’t Be a Statistic: Wear the HH1. Oy, these are a little harsh. Try something a little more positive. Keep Your Brains Intact.
Wear the HH1. That still implies the lesson. You could smoosh your brains if you don’t wear a helmet. But it doesn’t threaten or scare. Next, is to use a few formulas. There’s some decent formulas for writing a great headline. You can get started with some of these. Number reasons that blank matters, is worth it, et cetera. product name colon the answer to blank. Blank ways that product name does something cool. Now you can have blank.
Testing your headlines
Headlines are hard to write, and crucial to the success of your marketing copy. That’s the bad news. The good news is, that you now have a few easy ways to test your headlines and see which ones work best. The test method hasn’t changed since the pre-internet days. We perform direct mail spilt testing like this and this is how you’ll do it online as well. We break our list into three segments. Two smaller and one larger. We pick our two favorite headlines and then send one headline to one segment and one to the other. Use the one that performs best for the larger segment.
Back in the pre-internet days, this had some real disadvantages. You can’t test, say a magazine headline. It has to be the same for each publishing run. If neither one worked, you were out of options. You can’t just keep segmenting your list. If overall response rates were low, you’d never have enough data to decide. With the internet though we have some great tools. Here’s how I do it. First, pick your favorite two or three headlines.If you has a massive audience of tens or even hundreds of thousands of folks who will see the headline, you can maybe break it up into more than two or three tests.
Otherwise keep it to two or three. Next, run your test. These are my four favorite test techniques. First is just ask. An easy way to do this is to go to Google Consumer Surveys. They have a great tool where you can just type in your headlines, send out a one-question survey like, which headline do you like better? And then tally the results.You can also run an ad. If your headlines are short enough, you can put them in a paid ad on something like Google AdWords or Facebook.
See which ad gets more clicks. That’s your winner. Next, you could just send an email. If you have an email list, use your headlines, as the subject line of your next newsletter.Split the email list into as many segments as you have headlines. Test each headline and see which one gets the most opens. Finally, you can build a landing page. If you already have the product, build a landing page and use one of the many multivariate testing tools out there, such as, Optimizely and Unbounce to randomly display one of your headlines.
Watch to see which version gets the most sales, sign ups, or other conversions. Don’t go nuts with data though, sometimes a great headline just works, and you know it in your gut. Remember these are humans you’re writing for, not computers. Instinct has a place, too. Just keep these tests in mind as a really good gut check.
Selling the page
Sometimes you just gotta sell the page. That means giving folks a reason to keep reading. If you’re writing a two-line bit to go on packaging, it’s not that important. But if you’re writing a long form copy, you need to show readers why they should invest the time to hear the rest of your pitch. Reading a full page of copy may be the first micro-conversion by a customer, before they buy from you. If you can get them to read, you’re one step closer to a completed sale. There are a few ways to sell a page. I’ll use our example company, Harrison’s Helmets, as Harrison writes the longer, exploratory copy, for folks who want to learn more.
One option, is to entice with a fun summary. You can sell by promising to entertain. This is a great way to get folks to read. If the content that follows is entertaining. That means people will genuinely see a value in it beyond the call to action. Examples of this might be. The HH1 is your perfect relationship. Brains, brawn, and great looks all wrapped up into one. Or.
See Spot. See Spot ride. See why Spot’s HH1 keeps him looking awesome and keeps his noggin in one piece. Another option is to anticipate with a clear table of contents.Basically, a short bulleted list. You can sell the page by giving a crystal-clear picture of what the reader is going to see. This is as much a layout decision as a copywriting one, but as the writer you might do something like this. Great fit, great styles, great safety. Or, 355 colors or patterns, buckleless attachment, unrivaled head protection.
Another option and one that I like to use is to just ask. There’s nothing wrong with simply saying, keep reading or read this page to learn, or similar. Sometimes just asking makes the most sense. For example, keep reading to learn what makes the HH1 bicycle helmet the most advanced, most protective, lightest bicycle helmet on the market. Or, want to learn what makes the HH1 bicycle helmet the most advanced, most protective, lightest bicycle helmet on the market? Read on.
Or, the HH1 bicycle helm is the most advanced, most protective, lightest bicycle helmet on the market. Colon, and then whatever the reasons and information are. Asking isn’t about being clever, it’s about providing that clear call to action. Just like you might provide a clear call to action to buy. When people glance at your copy, they need a reason to keep reading. Remember they’re short on time, and long on options. Sell the page and you’ll get more customers who want to keep reading.
Structuring for print
Writing for print has its own unique set of requirements and advantages. If you write and revise with these points in mind, your writing will be much more effective. For our purposes, I’m referring to any offline copy as print. I know it’s a bit odd to refer to something like a script as print, but the rules below hold true regardless. First, think about context. In print, your copy tends to be set in a larger context. Images, other writing, other information are arranged around it. And it’s not easy to take any of it out of context. That means you don’t have to be quite as concerned that everything you write passed the blank sheet of paper test.
To pass that test, your headline in every other individual element on the page, has to make sense when written on a blank sheet of paper and shown to a stranger. In print though, the entire page together has to pass that test. That’s quite a bit easier. Next, think about permanence. Whatever you write has to really work. You can’t run around opening people’s mail or magazines and changing what’s written there, nor can you run into a recorded TV commercial and swap out a line or two. Once it’s out there, it’s out.
What does that mean? Careful editing, careful decision making, and a bit more frontloading of preparation. Remember, you can’t edit after you publish. Images should dominate. If you’re using images in your print work, give them the lead. In print, readers look at the images first, then the headline, then the rest of the page. The text is important. It’s what keeps people on the page, but the imagery is what sells it. You need to have a very clear, immediate call to action. Unless you are a top ten brand, you are going to need to provide some way for folks to contact you.
They need to be able to call, email or otherwise take the next step right there. Once they throw the magazine, or direct mail piece in the trash, you are forgotten. Do everything you can to have a clear call to action and all of the necessary components to answer that call. Some examples that work. Interested? Visit our website at http://www.websiteaddress.com. Get more information. Visit http://www.something.com. Call us today at 1-800-000-0000.
Visit your local bike shop. Examples that could use some improvement. Call today. Our product is the best. So, whatever you do, wear a helmet. Next is text layout. Whatever you’re writing, follow these basic rules about text layout. These are things you as the writer control, or at least can recommend to the person doing that layout. First, have no more than five to six lines per paragraph. Second, have no more than 15 to 20 words per line.
Third, use at least 1.6 times as much space between paragraphs as between lines. Note that subheadings are not crucial in print. All the rules I’ve reviewed date back to the 1920s when the first ad-men figured out what worked and what didn’t. And they still work because while print has changed, the people who read it haven’t changed as much as you’d think. In spite of all the changes in marketing in the last ten years, sometimes the old rules are the best rules.
Structuring for online
Writing copy for online readers is completely unique, so you need to take a unique approach. That approach involves compensating for the challenges we face when reading online and capitalizing on the unique advantages of the browser environment.Let’s talk about some of the special challenges first. Humans struggle with reading on screen. It creates some unique problems, including a lack of a context. A headline, image, or text could be lifted from your page and included in a tweet, a search result, a Facebook post, or a newsfeed. There’s also a sort of attention deficit.
Because reading on screen is so hard, most folks can’t read as much or as long without some special touches. There’s also different form factors. In print, folks read their copy based on the page on which it’s printed. Online, they might read it on a cell phone, or on a tablet, or on a Desktop screen. As the copywriter, you can’t do much about this, but keep it in mind and I’ll explain some ways you can mitigate the problems. Now, there are also some big advantages. The upside of online copyrighting includes the fact that it’s editable.
You can, of course, change the copy any time you like. It’s just bits on a server somewhere. It’s very testable. For the same reason, you can easily test multiple versions of headlines and body copy. There are multiple channels. Folks have a lot of ways to find your writing. When you publish online, the potential goes far beyond a single venue. So here are some basic rules for writing online copy. The main driver of these rules is the lack of context and that attention deficit I just talked about.
People don’t read online until they’ve skimmed the entire page. When they do that, they need some critical visual cues to tell them that they want to continue. So here’s the rules. No more than 13 words on a line. This is very similar to print, but online it’s even more important. It improves scanability and makes it much easier to retain information.No more than five to six lines per paragraph. This is all about scanability and information retention. It’s easier to read, and remember, many little paragraphs than it is to read one huge paragraph.
Have no more than three to four paragraphs without a subhead, or an image, or something else to break up the page. This helps when folks are skimming the page.Always use bullets or numbering for lists. Never, ever do a list with commas or semicolons in a sentence. Again, this is far easier to process as someone skims the page. Your headline must pass the blank-sheet-of-paper test. If you write it on a blank sheet of paper and show it to a stranger, they need to understand it. Remember, the headline could show up anywhere, so it has to be self-contained.
And link when it’s useful. There’s no ideal number of links. There’s no ideal type of link or style. Link when it’s genuinely useful to the reader. It’s simple. If I click the link, will I find it useful? If not, don’t link. And realize there is no search ranking benefit to putting lots of links on the page. Finally, your reader is not an algorithm. Do not write for search engines. That makes for terrible copy and it actually hurts you in the rankings.
Online copyrighting is a huge opportunity, but the readers do face a much more challenging environment. You can make things far easier for them and at the same time, get more customers.
Using typography effectively
As a copywriter, you focus on words. But you can add a whole other dimension to yourwork if you learn to focus on letters and lines. Basic typography as well. If you’re working in print, you may not have control over typography, but you can still provide guidance and anticipate type layout in the way you edit and organize your work. If you’re working online, you may actually have much more control, and be able to directly impact the look of your work. In this video, I’ll give you some quick typography rules to follow, as well as a tool or two. The basic rule is this.
Make your copy easy to scan no matter what. Long sales letter, short brochure, web page, movie script, it has to be easily scanned, because that’s how humans read short copy. And by short, I mean not a book. This isn’t super scientific, but I’ve tested pages with a solid glob of copy and pages that are broken into chunks, and it’s clear that people spend more time and convert better on a well-formatted broken-up page, regardless of length than they do on even a short page that’s one big lump of text.
These aren’t strictly typography rules, but they’re worth committing to memory. Note that these rules focus on online copy, but they work fine in print as well. First, have paragraphs of no more five to six lines. Have no more than 13 words per line. And no more than three paragraphs before an image or subheading. All listed content should use an actual numbered or bulleted list. Here’s an example of short form copy. This is a product page for our fictional example company, Harrison’s Helmets.
This page is super scannable because it uses a bulleted list of features or reasons you’d want to buy the product. Paragraphs that are essentially one line each. Logical subheadings that let the reader either stop and purchase or continue reading. There’s something else though, and this may be even more important. Font size and line spacing follow the golden ratio. That’s the ratio of 1.6 to 1 that drives so much basic design. I’m not saying the golden ratio is the only way to determine typography.
But the only folks I’ve seen who can do fantastic typography based only on their eyes are really talented professional designers. And if you’ve ever seen my site designs, you know I am not a really talented professional designer. For me, the golden ratio is a great way to set out rules for how I lay out my type. Here are the basics. Line height should equal 1.6 times the font size. Line width should be that which allows 15 to 20 words per line. But that’s some really messy math, and it’s not totally accurate.
Instead of relying on that, you can use this golden ratio typography calculator that Chris Pearson created. Now, you’re probably thinking, look, I’m the writer. Why do I care about typography? Well first, if you’re a freelancer, or have a boss or editor who reviews your content, optimizing typography, even in your very first draft, can make it easier for them to understand. And provide a better feel than a whole bunch of words just jumbled on a page. In other words, great typography may mean a happier boss or client.
So consider using these rules when you present your written product for review. Second, you’ll understand a bit more about how designers lay out your copy in a certain way, and that’s very helpful if you’re collaborating. Oh, and a quick word about fonts. There are a lot of discussions about serif versus sans-serif fonts. Folks used to say that you could use serif for the long-form copy and sans-serif for digital and short-form copy. That’s become increasingly muddled in the last few years.
The right serif font is super readable online, and the right sans-serif font works great in a three-page brochure. Choose based on preference, existing materials, your brand, or your audience, or just go with instinct. I’ve got no hard and fast rules. One final note.When copywriting, write first, edit second, proofread third, and do layout fourth. Don’t let the look and feel of your content put the brakes on your writing. Scanability is important, yes, but great writing wins the day.
Rewriting existing copy
At some point, it’s going to happen. A colleague will drop a piece of writing on your desk, and ask you to give it a quick once over. Then they’ll add oh, by the way, can I have it back in the next two hours? This, of course, is your chance to be a hero, right? You can ride in, rewrite that document, and produce a total masterpiece. Now, actually, wait.Someone gave you their marketing copy. Completely rewriting it is a bad idea for three reasons. First, they didn’t ask you to do that. Second, you don’t know the subject matter or the context like they do. Third, you probably just don’t have the time.
Even if only one out of three is tru,e you’re still better off doing a high level editorial rewrite than starting from scratch. You’ll save yourself time, avoid huge gaffes that can happen when you step into someone else’s copy, and avoid getting a pinch from annoyed colleagues. So the key to rewriting exiting copy is, whenever possible, improve without restructuring. The best service you can provide is another pair of eyes. A review by someone who hasn’t spent hours staring at the same page. You’re more likely to see areas for improvement.
Here’s what you do. First of all start with editing. Now ask your colleague for basic context. What kind of collateral is this? Web, letter, brochure, something else. What style are they shooting for? Even though you’re not doing a 100% rewrite, it helps to get that context. Now, read the copy for structure. This isn’t a high school essay, it doesn’t have to have an introduction, et cetera. But if it’s long form copy, it still needs to proceed semi-logically. Now, unless it totally lacks structure, leave it be.
If you do find a structural problem, flag it for the writer and ask them about it when you talk. Generally, I’ll stop my rewrite there until I either confirm that my structural changes are okay, or the writer makes the change themselves. Now, you can get down to basic editing. First, read for all those additional, unnecessary, superfluous words, if you see what I did there. There are a lot of ways we bloat our writing, everybody does it. Mark Twain famously said, I wanted to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have time.
Writing short efficient prose is hard, but in marketing copy it’s really important.Somehow you have to balance brevity and the entertainment, attention grabbing side of marketing copy. If you’re editing someone else’s work, you can look out for stuff like this.Long version of a phrase would be, we do a careful review. The short version would be, we carefully review. Long, in conclusion, short, just delete it because it means nothing.Long, has an effect on, short, affects.
Have an influence over, can become influence. Here’s one example. A very long version is, people use our toothpaste get one half the cavities of people who use any other toothpaste. A short version would be, use our toothpaste and you’ll get one half the cavities you do now. Even shorter, our toothpaste prevents two times the cavities. And really short, our toothpaste doubles cavity protection. Also, look out for plague words.
I’ve included a list in the exercise files, of words that make every writer flinch. There are many, many more than that. But be sure to check the file and use it as a reference to help you avoid these common pitfalls. Next, edit to active voice. If you’ve watched the other videos, you know I’m a teensey bit obsessive about active voice, that’s becauseactive voice is so much more effective. So, wherever it makes sense, use active voice.That means a thing acts as opposed to an act performed by a thing. I’ll use our fictional company, Harrison’s Helmets, and his copy for the HH1.
Harrison wrote, your head will be well protected by the HH1. He edits it to, the HH1 protects your head. You see how much more direct and clear that is? Finally, you need to proofread. Proofreading is another place where you can do a lot of good for another writer. When it’s your writing, it’s easy to miss misspellings and other small errors that could mean a lot. Here’s how I proofread someone else’s work. First, know that the spell checker isn’t enough. It wont keep you from making mistakes like using form instead of from, for example.
Second, just know that the grammar checker is not that good, so look at the stuff it highlights, but understand you need to look further as well. Third, read your copy forwards, looking for punctuation, grammar, and other errors. But then also read it backwards looking for spelling errors. Set it aside for an hour if you can, and then do it all again. Editing other folks’ work can be a real challenge. It gets easier if you have a routine that keeps you short of rewriting that work from the ground up.
Rewriting copy for a webpage
Rewriting web copy brings some unique challenges, you have to edit for readability, brevity and such. And proofread of course, but you also have to edit for online readability. Harrison, our owner of the fictional company Harrison’s helmets, hired a writer to put together copy for his homepage. Right now the homepage is all about their flagship product, the HH1. The copy is okay, but it’s got some editing problems. It’s far to clutzy and it’s a bit opaque. I can say that because I wrote it. Here’s a bit of it. Protect your brains with the best bicycle helmet you can find.
The HH1 is made of unobtainium fibers that are pressed into a sleek lightweight helmet.The shell is super hard, resistant to cracking and compression, and because it can be so thin and light, it can use heavier, more shock absorbing padding. The result, a helmet that’s more comfortable, safer than any other that’s ever been on the market. Even better, the HH1 uses a new buckleless attachment system. It’s as secure as the traditional buckle, but without the inevitable chin pinches that come with buckles.
Plus, it’s easier to adjust. And you can get it in a style that’s perfect for you. With 20 different colors, three different shapes for mountain biking, road racing, and time trial,and four colorful patterns, you can create your own unique HH1 in our online store. The first step, clarify your call to action. Change you can create your own unique HH1 in our online store to create your own, unique HH1 in our online store. Click here.
The next step is to change from passive to active voice wherever possible. For example, the HH1 is made of unobtainium fibers that are pressed into a sleek, lightweight helmet, can instead read, the HH1 is made with unobtainium fibers pressed into a sleek, lightweight helmet. Or if you want to edit a bit more, change this sentence to, pressed unobtainium fibers make the HH1 a sleek, lightweight helmet. That may require you edit the sentence before or after as well. Now look for instances where two or more words can instead be one.
For example, a helmet that’s more comfortable than any other that’s ever been on the market can become the safest, most comfortable helmet ever. Finally, have a little fun with it. This isn’t a textbook. You can change and liven up the language at the expense of grammar. Put all that together, and you get something like this. Remember, it’s just me. I bet you can find more to fix. Protect your brains with the best bicycle helmet you can find, the HH1. Pressed unobtainium fibres make the HH1 a sleek, lightweight helmet.
Super-thin, ultra-light, the helmet’s shell is crack and compression-resistant. That light weight means ample room for more, better padding, and a secure, buckleless attachment system. The result, the lightest, safest, most comfortable helmet on the market. Create your perfect style. Choose from 20 different colors, three different shapes, from mountain biking, road racing, and time trial, and four colorful patterns.Create your own unique HH1 in our online store.
Click here. Great, it reads better, right? All done. Eh, not yet. This is still one big lump of copy. It might work in print, it might even work on a web page. But for the sake of argument, assume that ultra readability is our top priority. If that’s the case, you want to break up the copy into some kind of list. Now there are lots of ways to create the ease of a list without bullets or numbers. That’s the unique challenge of editing web copy. You have to find ways to make it readable while preserving the look and feel. I tried this.
Protect your brains with the best bicycle helmet you can find, the HH1. Pressed unobtainium fibers make the HH1 a sleek, lightweight helmet. Super-thin, ultra-light, the helmet’s shell is crack and compression resistant. That means ample room for more, better padding. Combine that with our secure buckleless attachment system, and you’vegot the lightest, safest, most comfortable helmet on the market. Get it in your perfect style. Choose from 20 different colors, three different shapes for mountain biking, road racing, and time trial, and four colorful patterns.
Create your own unique HH1 in our online store. Click here. Add subheads and it gets even better. Protect your brains with the best, lightest bicycle helmet you can find, the HH1. Subhead, a strong light brain bucket. Pressed unobtainium fibers make the HH1 a sleek, lightweight helmet. Super thin, ultra light, the helmet’s shell is crack and compression resistant. Subhead. Tough, but comfy. That means ample room for more, better padding. Combine that with our secure buckleless attachment system, and you’vegot the lightest, safest, most comfortable helmet on the market.
Subhead. You’re unique. So’s the HH1. Get it in your perfect style. Choose from 20 different colors, three different shapes, mountain biking, road racing, and time trial, and four colorful patterns. Subhead, build yours now. Create your own unique HH1, in our online store. Click here. If you’ve watched the other videos in this chapter, you know thatI usually council minimal rewriting, when doing a rewrite of someone else’s copy. Here, though, I did quite a bit more.
That’s because I need to make it work in a slightly different layout and have to break up the train of thought a little bit. Because with web copy, you’re not just writing. You’re also laying things out. That’s the unique challenge of web copy. As you edit, keep the reader in mind and keep the environment in which they’ll be reading in mind. Even better, as you learn to do this, you’ll learn to format better copy for print as well. Become a real student of web copy, and you’ll also become a better writer.
Rewriting copy for a product description
All copy writers, including me, get their start on product descriptions, especially now in the age of eCommerce. Most of the time you’ll have an existing product description already in the catalog or on the website and you’ll have to rewrite it. This is important work, the product description may make or break a company’s performance. Customers see it when they’re most ready to buy. The information they see may persuade them,providing that last little bit of incentive. Or it may confuse them, tipping someone who’sprepared to buy away from making that purchase. If you watched the other videos in this chapter, you’re going to see a lot of the same recommendations with one critical difference, you’re editing a lot less text and space is at an absolute premium.
The creative team will want as much space as possible for the product image the thumbnails etcetera, so you have to do a lot with very little. Here’s what you want to look at. I’ll review an example shortly so don’t worry if this seems kind of abstract. First, change passive to active voice. You’ll love the helmet not the helmet will be loved by you.Don’t use three where one will do. Make the copy scannable, four lines per paragraph, using lists for lists rather than commas, and use sub heads if your copy is too long.
Have a clear call to action. Looking again at our made up company Harrison’s Helmets, Harrison took his site live about six weeks ago, he’s not thrilled with his sales so far and his website report seems to show that folks are bailing out, leaving his website, when they get the product page for his flagship product the HH1. Here’s the copy. The safest, toughest, lightest helmet on the planet the HH1 uses unobtainium for a super strong shell. The buckleless attachment system makes for a comfortable fit and the strong shell makes for lots of room.
So we use better padding that takes up less space but protects better. The HH1 is available in dozens and styles and colors online with our custom helmet designer. If you buy one today, Harrison’s Helmets will donate another to the Los Angeles Unified Schools’ free bike program. That can use some work. First, look for passive voice. This sentence jumped right out at me. The HH1 is available in dozens of styles and colors online with our custom helmet designer. How about this instead? Design your perfect HH1 now with dozens of styles and colors in our custom helmet designer.
That’s still a bit long but it also gives a good call to action so I’m good with it. Reducing the number of words is one of my favorites, so I’ll take this sentence and give it a go. And the strong shell makes for lots of room, so we use better padding that takes up less space but protects better. How about this instead? The strong shell means you need less padding. The roomy HH1 still protects better than any other. That’s not perfect but you can take a shot at it too. I really don’t like the phrase makes for.
Although I use it all the time, so instead of the buckleless attachment system makes for a more comfortable fit, try this, you’ll enjoy a comfortable fit with our buckleless attachment system. Even better, if I’m allowed to get a bit creative, the HH1 even provides better chin protection. No more nasty chin pinches, thanks to our buckleless attachment system. Again, it’s longer but I can probably still end up with a net shorter piece of copy when I’m done. Finally, I’ll work on scanability and call to action.
Here’s the final result. Unobtainium makes the HH1 the safest, toughest, lightest helmet on the planet. We even prevent nasty chin pinches, thanks to our buckleless attachment system. With a shell so strong it can hold up a car, the HH1 needs less padding too, the result, and then this is bulleted, small sleek design, roomy fit, best protection on the market. Special offer, for the next two weeks for every helmet sold Harrison’s Helmets will donate another to the Los Angeles Unified Schools’ free bike program.
Protect two heads for the price of one. Use our customer helmet designer to order your perfect HH1 today. It can use even more but this is an improvement, and if you’re writing for an eCommerce site, that’s the beauty of it, you can edit this description again and again, tweaking it here and there for better performance. Remember rewriting product descriptions, may be your biggest opportunity to help grow a business. Follow these tips, get a little creative, and you’ll be on your way to doing just that.
Rewriting copy for social media
I’d say that social media copywriting is completely unique, except that all types of copywriting are completely unique. Note that in this case, when I say social media copywriting, I really mean posts to Facebook, tweets, or posts on sites like LinkedInrather than long form articles or blog posts. However, social media copy does have some unique challenges. What you write can spread across the internet really, really fast. It’s also very, very easy to offend people. But at the same time, people are very, very forgiving. There are many different formats, but you have to send the same message across all of those formats.
You’ll get near instant feedback. And it has the potential to send positive brand attention into the stratosphere, no pressure though. Actually, my first rule for social media copy is to just relax. I see companies and writers get completely verbally blocked when writing for social media. Maybe it’s the potential audience size or the horror stories they’ve heard. But the truth is, social media is a very casual environment. If you mind your manners, just as you would at a casual dinner or a first date, you’ll be just fine.
The point here is, yes social media copy can be challenging, but it has a huge upside.Folks who like your brand are predisposed to like what you post. Other folks will probably ignore you, and the casualness means that you can let your hair down, just a little bit.Ironically though, you can’t rewrite live social media copy. Once you publish, you can sometimes delete, sometimes edit, but the social mores say that it’s in poor taste. So you’ll only edit post publication if you make a huge mistake.
Most rewriting occurs before you publish. And you’ll usually do it on something you wrote in the first place. Unless you have a huge brand, or this post is really crucial, you won’t want to dedicate two writers to it. My rules for social media copywriting are fairly simple. First, enjoy it. Readers can tell if you’re having fun. And they’ll respond in kind.Next, do not be offensive. Obviously the line is different for different people and audiences, but use some common sense.
Getting attention with irrelevant references to tragedies, shocking people for the sake of shocking them, baiting people with insults and such, are all bad ideas. Instead, be sincere and tell the truth. Next, treat it like you’re having a conversation with a good friend. You’re hanging out, probably having a good time, but you’re also talking about some serious stuff. Keep your message brief. There are exceptions of course. The occasional 400 word post on Facebook can get a lot of attention. For the most part though, I like to aim for 300 to 400 characters or less.
Next, pair words with images. In every test I’ve ever run, posts with images outperformed posts without. Use relevant images, of course, and avoid obvious stock photos whenever you can. And use active voice. Address the reader. Use you and your, not one and one’s.Folks often ask me, how many promotional posts can I do versus non-promotional? You have to test against your own audience, but I usually start with 80, 20 non-promotional to promotional.
Frankly, it’s a lot easier to write non-promotional stuff for social media. Here’s an example of a promotional post that our fictional CEO Harrison of Harrison’s Helmets wanted to publish on Facebook. Buy a great helmet and help out! For the next week, anyone buying the HH1 automatically donates another to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bicycle program. Head protected, good deed done! That’s actually pretty great, right? But it can be made even better.
Buy a great helmet and help out. If you buy an HH1 in the next week, we’ll donate another to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bicycle program. Protect your head and do a good deed at the same time. You can order here. Rewriting social media copy requires a unique approach. In the previous example, I actually made the post longer, not shorter. I did the typical stuff, like improving the call to action. But I also went even further than normal talking to the reader, ensuring that every sentence faces the reader.
When you edit someone else’s social media posts, remember that the post is basically talking, it’s not a typical piece of copywriting. Do that, and you’ll help your brand present itself in the best possible way. And that means a stronger business.
Managing a copywriting team
There are few things more rewarding or maddening that building and managing your own copywriting team. Being a manager of two or more writers, makes copywriting seem easy, you gotta trust me on that. I’ve managed a great copywriting team and an entirecompany filled with, among others, some truly fantastic writers. Now, I’m hardly a shining beacon of management best practices. But I have learned a thing or two over the years.I’m going to give this to you as a list. It’s all based on long, sometimes great, sometimes painful experience. Some of these tips are directly relevant to writing.
Others are more about maintaining the mental health of you and your writers. All of them have been fundamental to my career as a manager. First, you now have three duties.Organize your team, mentor them, and be their advocate. Notice that none of these duties include write copy for clients. It’ll happen, and you’ll probably want it to. But you shouldn’t write client copy as a matter of course. It distracts you from those three core duties. Don’t let a workload scare you into doing it either.
You’ll be amazed how much you can help your team deal with the workload, by supporting and teaching them. Two, respect the craft, and the schedule. You’re under deadlines, and you’re responsible for everyone’s deadlines now, I understand that. But on the other hand, remember what it was like to be a writer yourself. Is there a perfect balance? Absolutely not. But when you’re pushing your team to meet a schedule, youcan do it empathetically or you can do it like a dictator. I’ve always preferred the former.
Third, build the list of freelancers you love. I keep a list of freelancers I’ve worked with, with their favorite topics or styles, whether they delivered on time, the number ofprojects we’ve done with them, and their cost. That way, of my team is booked solid, or we need to write about a product or subject outside our knowledge set, we can bring on someone we trust. Four, set aside one day per month for your team to work on their favorite project. All copywriters are creatives at heart, including me.
Supporting that even one day per month goes a long way to their sanity. Five, require vacation. I do not let vacation days rollover from one year to the next. I’m not doing that to be cheap. It forces my team, especially my writers, to take vacations. Time off is a mental purge. I always return feeling a lot more creative, and the words flow a lot more easily. Six, avoid binges as much as possible, avoid sending writers into multiday, overtime driven binge writing sessions.
I’m sorry, but no matter what people say, nobody writes well under those conditions.Seven, make editing part of the schedule. When scheduling a project, it’s easier to just set aside a chunk of hours and call it writing, editing, and delivery. But that makes editing part of the same chunk of time. When resources get tight, what gets dumped? Yep, editing. Instead, make editing a separate block of time and assign someone to that task.Eight, have a reading list and let everyone on the team contribute to it.
Nine, never, ever, throw one of your team under the bus with a client. No matter what happened. You can discuss any mistakes privately, but do not point the finger at your staff. It’s demoralizing. It also makes the client think you’re not a team, you’re more of a mob. And they can hire anyone if they want a mob. Ten, don’t go meeting-crazy. It’s very tempting. And you need to keep track of progress and answer questions. But you don’t need to have a 30 minute meeting every day.
I like to do it this way. Every morning, have a ten minute stand-up meeting where you ask each person if they have questions on each project. Once a week, have a 30 to 60 minute meeting where you review all deliverables, answer any questions, and move resources around as needed. Never have a meeting unless it’s going to result in a next action. 11, spread around the good stuff. I’m not going to lie. There’s really fun copywriting, and then there’s copywriting that feels like work. That’s part of the reason we get paid.
But its important that the fun projects get spread around among your team. Those projects recharge any writer. 12, mistakes will happen. You’re going to make them, your team’s going to make them. If you do, own up, especially to your team. They actually kind of like that. If they make them, review what happened, why, and how to prevent it from happening again. Thirteen, avoid the template mentality. Writing is not an assembly line. You can create a proofreading checklist, but you cannot create a writing a brochure checklist.
If you create template to make your team use them, they won’t be able to create their own work when they need to. They’ll be afraid to step outside the box you’ve put them in. You need to trust your team to exercise their judgement. 14, each writer has their own voice. Respect that and steer them towards products that are best for their skills and style. Now, managing any team is a huge challenge. After 18 years I’m still a beginner.And there are undoubtably many management experts who can help you. Don’t use my list as a be all end all.
Use it instead as a starting point. For more information about management, there’sseveral great courses right here on lynda.com, such as Management Fundamentals by Britt Andreatta and Managing Teams from Todd Dewett.
Setting an editorial calendar
If you’re doing an ongoing campaign of any kind, you’re going to need a plan that tells you what to write and when. That means an editorial calendar. The editorial calendar is a great tool as long as you keep it flexible, structure your types of content in a way the client and your team can understand, And keep it flexible in case you didn’t think that was important. No matter what have an editorial calendar, because it’s that important.The terminology differs, but for me, the Editorial Calendar lists the specific titles we’re planning to write, who I think should write them, the type of content, and the status.
It’s your content creation dashboard. I usually suggest trying to keep the calendars plan three months out. Brainstorm, fill in what you can, and update the calendar as events dictate. Just a quick note. At my company, the tone and kinds of content we produce fit the 70/20/10 rule. You’ll hear me talk about this a lot in this session. 70% of our content should be solid standard stuff. Basic product information, how to’s, and advice that’s very safe and easily justified based on some business school.
20% of our content should riff on the 70%, but take some chances. This is the content that expands on the 70%, but may present products in a very unconventional way, flirt controversy, try appealing to a new audience, or otherwise be moderately risky. 10% of the content should be completely innovative. Things we’ve never done that, if they work, could become part of the 20 to 70%. Maybe an online comic book about famoushistorical figures who could have used your product.
Or an interactive game that teaches visitors to use your product while also demonstrating it. Okay, so back to the calendar. First, create the content schedule. The content schedule is a very high level six to 12 month guide to the general types of content you’re going to publish. This does not replace the editorial calendar. Rather, this is a guide for creation and update of that calendar. You can use a spreadsheet, or create a simple list in any word processor. Or, for that matter, you can just scribble it on a whiteboard.
Here’s a typical content schedule. Notice that this doesn’t get down to individual titles, ideas, or anything else. This is just a general set of goals, that tells the team what they’ll need to include in the editorial calendar, and when. Now, you can create the editorial calendar. Here’s an example. Note what I included. The date to submit a draft and the planned publish date. The title, which isn’t final, but should give your writer a head start.The target audience as a guide for the writer.
The designated writer. The designated reviewer, this is very important. You want to schedule editors in advance, so it’s already decided and resources won’t be a problem.The 70/20/10 category, in or out, meaning the client liked the idea or didn’t. I like to keep the ideas regardless of status. You never know when you might have a variation on the theme or the client changes their mind. Status, what’s done, what’s in process et cetera.When creating the calendar try to stick to some basic principles.
One, think big. If you have 25 10% content ideas, write them all down. You can always spread them out over the next 25 months. Two, don’t obsess over the percentages. 70, 20, 10 is a basic guideline. Don’t let it dictate content choices and structure. In other words, you don’t actually have to have 70% of your content be 70% of the content. Use the 70, 20, 10 structure to describe types of content not quantity. Three, do plan as far ahead as possible.
Four, designate reviewers carefully. Five, keep a separate list of writers, their specialties, their strengths and weaknesses, their on time record, and the performance of their previous content. That’ll make it easier to assign them to specific projects. Six, keep another list, of researchers, designers, et cetera. You may need them for 20 and 10% content. Seven, be flexible. If something great comes up, move stuff around. Editorial calendars don’t dictate what you write, but they can really guide you’re copywriting efforts.
By creating one, you can get ideas approved or changed by your boss or client, get your team prepped, and keep a record of what you’ve done. They’ve been an invaluable tool for me. Try them, and I’ll think they’ll be the same for you.
Managing brand voice
Brand voice is a term I here misused all the time. Many editors and writers think it means everything from the company story and appeal to appearance in writing style. But it’s more correct to call that the brand. The brand is every thing that impacts your audiences emotional and economic response to you. Brand voice from writer stand point, focuses on specific choices you make when writing copy for the brand. Remember, copy may mean radio scripts, product descriptions, or any other communications that start as words on paper. It’s very hard to distill brand voice into something you can pass along to other writers, but it’s essential if you’re going to truly manage it.
Without some kind of guide, you and other writers will each use their own perceptions of the brand. It’s not the end of the world, but it can reduce brand effectiveness. Here’s some tips, that can ease the process. First, have a lexicon. Create a list of words to show writers how you refer to things. I’ll use our fictional company Harrison’s Helmets again.Harrison is talking about helmets. In cycling, there’s a lot of slang used to refer to helmets. Brain buckets, lids, low blocks, et cetera.
While we usually avoid slang in copywriting, these terms are so prevalent, we know they’ll work fine. But it makes sense to pick the terms we feel will evoke the best response. Harrison chooses lids. The other terms either sound a bit gross, or seem too obscure. Write your lexicon down in one place, an excel file, a database, whatever works.Show each term and then the correct alternatives or replacements. And create an index, not a table of contents.
Writers may search for any version of a concept, lid, brain bucket, helmet, et cetera. And you need them to always see all approved alternatives. The indexing tool in Microsoft Word is pretty handy for this. I’ve also had great luck using Google’s custom search engine tool. Put your lexicon into HTML pages, install the custom search engine, and you have an instant index. Second, have personas. Some folks feel personas are unnecessary, but they are essential for managing brand voice.
Personas do not need to be fancy though. Here is what you do. First, consider your audience. Are there three to four classic types of customers? For Harrison’s helmets, there’s the pro cyclist, the gadgeteer, the commuter, and the parent. Now write a single paragraph describing each one. For example, here’s Harrison’s description of the gadgeteer. The gadgeteer always wants the latest version of cycling technology.Typically male, they have a disposable income and ride recreationally.
They may also race at the amateur level. They want to see lots of technical information.They research their purchases carefully, but most of the time if they’re researching a product, they’ve already decided to buy it. They’re important for us because they are themost likely to tell others about our products. See how that works? It’s a very high-level profile. You can do more in-depth personas, including demographic and psychographicresearch, but I like to keep it as basic as possible. Choose your own method.
Just make sure you write something. The personas will let other writers determine howto target their content and what content they need. My third tip for helping you manage your brand voice is to keep a library. Over time, you’ll accumulate approved and rejected copy. Save both with brief explanations of why a particular piece really worked or really didn’t. These examples will help writers figure out what to write. Next, you need to test your voice. This gets a bit more technical.
Test the various terms in your lexicon, and target your various personas using some kind of paid advertising. I usually use Google Adwords, Bing, or Facebook. Test to see whether any of your choices simply don’t work. For example, it’s possible that Harrison’s choice of lid as an alternate description of a bicycle helmet crosses over into other sports and is hopelessly confusing. By running ads he can see whether he gets clicks from relevant people, whether he gets clicks at all, and whether the folks who click through stay on his site. Then you can tweak the lexicon accordingly.
Finally, monitor performance. This gets even more technical. I’m going to keep the description very short. You can record all of the words you use in ads and other copy, and then see which ones show up more often in high performing content. I’m going to spare you all the nerdy goodness of this one, if you want to use this, you’re going to want to go do some research. Brand voice is a very, very subtle thing. But it can impact your business from top to bottom. It’s also a conscious choice. The words you use and the way you use them drive voice, so be deliberate about it.
Create documentation that helps other writers use and expand on it over time, and you’ll create a much stronger brand.
What’s next? You’re writing copy like crazy. You’re growing your business with effective marketing. And you’re creating standards you can use going forward. Your next steps depend on what you really like. Note that these aren’t mutually exclusive. I find myself drifting between them all the time. First, you may be an artist. If you love writing for the sake of beautiful prose, explore writing long form and big content. That includes longer blog posts, writing an art direction on infographics and other blended content, guides and booklets. You’ll probably gravitate towards this over time anyway.
So read some of the bigger books on style. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, is a required classic. Stephen King’s On Writing is brilliant, it’s another must read. On Writing Well by William K Zinsser is great for non fiction writers. You may be more of a pure marketer. If you love seeing a site rack up conversions, and you enjoy testing headlines et cetera to squeeze out a little bit more performance, you’re a marketer through and through. Read the classic marketing guides. Ogilvy on Advertising, Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples and the newer stuff.
Web Analytics 2.0 by Avinash Kaushik. This goes far and wide into analytics but the lessons are great if you’re testing copy. Landing Page Optimization by Tim Ash. You may also be a little bit of a geek, something I know a lot about. Geeks like to dive deep into language, learning how people respond to certain words and phrases, and measuring the same thing. Or you may just like building web pages. On the web pages side, start learning HTML and CSS. There are literally thousands and thousands of text about this.
For a great starting point take a look at the web section right here on lynda.com. For the uber language nerd try the heavy duty stuff. Concepts to start with include. Reading-ease measurement, TF-IDF scoring, parts-of-speech tagging, indexing content, sentiment analysis, and natural language processing as the larger topic for all of these.Books on these subjects, they’re a little hard to find. I learned from Natural Language Processing with Python by Steven Bird, Ewan Klein, and Edward Loper.
But it helps if you know Python first. This kind of stuff gets pretty far into the weeds, but weeds are awfully fun if you’re so inclined. Whichever direction you take, remember, your work is half art, half science. Refine your art and study the science. In the process, you’ll become a better writer and a better communicator. Because as copywriters, our first job is communications that deliver the right value to the right people at the right time. I think it’s one of the most important jobs out there and it has endless possibilities. (by Ian Lurie)