20 insights from an analyst writing marketing copy
I am writing a lot of marketing copy lately. I’ve noticed some things you might find helpful.
Here’s what I’m currently writing and editing:
- Marketing description for a book on management.
- Marketing description for a book on the future of transportation.
- Articles about corporate AI strategy for an author.
- Blog posts announcing an AI-focused startup.
- The “Who are we” description for a security-focused startup with grand ambitions.
- Press release and blog posts for an innovative tech training and development company.
At least for this week, I am a marketing writer. While I’ve worked with many PR and marketing pros, I was never actually trained to write this way (in fact, I never took a business or marketing class in college). That gives me a fresh viewpoint.
If I’m not trained as a copywriter, why do these people hire me?
- I write in a clear, direct, and challenging way. I don’t follow rules, I just think about the audience and the objective. Clarity is in shockingly short supply among in copywriters.
- I was an analyst and before that, a startup executive and before that, a mathematician in training. That means I can understand the technology enough to explain it and understand how skeptical readers will react to it. (Tech analysts are the most skeptical of readers.)
What I’m learning
In no particular order . . .
- The only one who matters is the ultimate reader or buyer. The client’s opinion is important if it shows that you got the facts or the emphasis wrong. But they’re stuck in their own mindset. Your job is to represent the reader that they can’t clearly see.
- Hit the differentiation in the first two sentences. Otherwise, why bother.
- Ask a question. Then answer it in a way that only this company can.
- Headlines matter a lot. Many readers will see only the headline. Arguing about headlines is productive. It’s better to draft two alternatives than seven.
- Write as if every word costs $5.
- Be pushy. Lead the conversation, ask rude questions (politely), feign ignorance, ask “Isn’t that just [common as dirt idea].” If you push people outside of the rut they’re traveling in, you’ll get to better, more interesting ideas.
- For every word you use, you will reject dozens and dozens. So don’t worry about copy you write and reject. It’s a step on the way to the right answer.
- Take notes in Google Docs and share your doc with the clients in real-time. You have nothing to hide but your bad typing. And they’ll endorse or reject things faster if they can see them.
- These are bad: long sentences, exclamation points. These are to be rationed: dashes, semicolons, superlatives, jargon. These are good: periods, colons, paragraph breaks, verbs, lists, and the word “said.”
- Jargon should be as welcome as farts. A little is tolerable, but if there’s more than that, the result will stink.
- The more puffed-up prose you include about how great something is, the less people will believe you.
- Part of your job is get clients to clarify who they think they are. This is not copywriting, it is a voyage of discovery. That’s what they are actually paying for.
- If they can’t agree on who they are, you’re screwed, and so are they. The time spent will swell and the results will be a sad compromise.
- Think SEO last. If you think about SEO first, you’ll create prose that fails to touch actual humans.
- Love readers and meaning, not prose. Edits and criticism reveal clients’ view of the truth. Cherish them, not the words you wrote.
- Listen. Take notes. Engage. Active listening concentrates on what clients are saying, not what they want. Your job when listening is to imagine how readers or buyers will react to elements of what the client is saying.
- If you come up with a clever tagline, Google it. And look it up in Trademarkia. If it’s really good, somebody else may be using it.
- “I’d just like to run it by one more person” are the saddest words a marketing copywriter will ever hear.
- If the client is happy and you’re not, you failed. If you’re both happy, even though you are a skeptical, critical, pain in the ass (and they probably are, too), then you’ve done the job well.
- Respond quickly. Work quickly. If they’re waiting on you, nothing good is happening. If you’re waiting on them, that’s much better.
Do they teach this stuff in business and PR courses? I’d love to know.
I’ve done marketing writing and taught it for more than 20 years, and I’d say your post today pretty much sums up in a 10-minute read everything I’ve been trying to get across for decades. Nicely done.
Another gem, Josh.
Being an outsider often gives us writers a perspective that execs lack. They often suffer from the curse of knowledge. By bringing some degree of ignorance to the table, we really can deliver.
There is no formal guidebook that describes the best and worst copywriting approaches. However, because we’re working with business communication, all of the government’s prohibitions against deceptive advertising apply to the creation of copywriting material.
In general, a copywriter should avoid providing inaccurate information or promises, as well as using methods that “disarm” the consumer, i.e., take away their power of choice or right to protest.