Yesterday, I told my kids what I did at work. They never ask – they’re not particularly interested really, like all kids, but I told them just to see the expression on their faces. It went something like this: ‘Today kids, I wrote two words’. All of them frowned slightly and stared at me. My eldest was the first to speak – ‘Was that it?’ The middle one said – ‘Is that all you do?’ The little fella added – ‘That’s easy!’ I explained that I had been in meetings, done a few rough visuals and researched projects but the most important part of the day was the two words.
I told them that these two words were the right two words – two words that will potentially drive a global campaign for a multinational IT company. These two words, like the immortal ‘Just do it’, would challenge, would be a catalyst for the future of a sector, would be something a company could proudly stand behind with commitment, openness and confidence.
The thing is, even though everyone who has seen these two words has loved them, the client has yet to see them. They may look at them the same way my children did – ‘Is that it?’ – then the whole thing dies. Amazing really – the life and death of campaigns. Every client is an Emporer giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to the gladiator who has fought bravely to stand in front and await his fate.
Eight years ago, one month before 9/11, I presented one word to a different multi-national IT company, this time the place was north of New York and had corridors so long that you couldn’t see to the end. They liked the word. The understood it, saw the potential, got behind it, really pushed for it – it was the right word and set them apart from all the competition in that sector. All associations were positive and it was a brilliant, insightful word that explained so much so simply. But it never saw the light of day. Someone somewhere for some reason (no doubt political) decided his or her wavering thumb would this time fall downwards. Subsequently, another nondescript, wallpaper campaign followed. Weird isn’t it?
But our quest for the right words, the right images, the right elements to make the right campaign never ends. Every set-back just makes you stronger and more committed to keep doing better work in the hope that that thumb points skyward again. And it will.
One month from today, I’ll be addressing an audience of a couple of hundred at a conference in Slovenia. I was asked if I’d come and speak about copywriting and creativity last June. Elliot Jacobs, previously Digital Director at catchpole&friends, will also be speaking. He’s sharing his significant knowledge on social media and online communities.
Refined, tweaked, amended, crafted and yours for free, here’s my lecture with a few examples – click on the little pic above to read the pack I wrote last year for Epson.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
How to write copy that sells.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, someone had a brilliant idea that would double the sales of their products overnight. Can you imagine the delight of the Board when this genius suggested that by simply adding one word to their bottles, their customers would be encouraged to use twice as much shampoo as they actually needed. Wash, rinse, repeat. Surely, if the product was good enough, one wash would suffice. Oh no!, they cried. To get your hair REALLY clean, you need to wash it at least twice, if not more – wash, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat? How many times? Until I’ve used up the whole bottle?!!
This is copy that sells, albeit short copy!
The difference between this example and what we have to do in our daily jobs is that someone has already chosen to buy the shampoo and actually wants to find out how to use it. No one buys a newspaper or magazine for the ads. No one watches TV for the ad breaks. No one waits by the letterbox or their email inbox for the next marketing communication. The casual, passive browser of advertising and direct marketing is usually a long, long way from putting their hand in their pocket to part with their hard earned cash. Our task is much more difficult but our clients dream of the same result – massive uplifts in sales.
So how do we do this?
If a picture tells a thousand words, why do we need to write? Why not take the lead of the upmarket perfume, clothing and accessories labels who show beautiful people holding their products? Somebody once said to me “there’s no point in putting letters in direct mail, no one reads them anyway.” I saw a statistic that said, on average, people read 23 minutes of direct mail every week. I don’t know about you but, come Sunday night and I’ve only read 18 minutes that week, I don’t dash frantically round the house to find another pack to make up the time!
People read what interest them. Sometimes it’s an ad. Sometimes it’s a DM piece. Sometimes an email. If you speak to someone at the right time about something relevant to them that will help or enhance their lives, they may read on.
What is Junk mail?
The definition of junk mail was trying to sell a lawnmower to someone who lives on the tenth floor of a towerblock. What this really means is bad targeting. It is actually irrelevant how clever and creative, beautifully shot, well produced and award-winning your work is, if you’re talking to the wrong person, they’re never going to buy. And, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter how mediocre, uninspiring and dull the work is, if it speaks to the right person at the right time, they’re more likely to respond. Consciously, they care little for how well the typography is kerned, how beautifully the sentences flow, the quality of the photography and print. As agency people, we care and so do our clients. After all, it’s their brand’s reputation that is at stake.
So, if I’m thinking of going on holiday and someone asks me if I need:
a) suntan lotion
b) a beach towel
c) a new camera
d) travel insurance
my ears will prick up and I read on.
If you try and speak to me about:
a) a new fridge freezer
b) a new sofa
c) new car
d) moving home
and I’m less interested, for obvious reasons. As wonderful, clever and expensive the advertising and marketing work is, I’m just not interested right now.
So before we even start putting pen to paper, we NEED to know who we are speaking to and when we’re speaking to them.
Who? Why? What? When?
Creative people rely on the planners, data planners, artworkers and production teams to ensure all their hard work doesn’t go to waste. We rely on client services to liaise with the clients to make sure the briefs are a correct interpretation of the client’s business objective. And above all, the proposition (the main benefit which the new customer could not contemplate living another minute without needing to know more) is well thought through and approved. Without all these elements in place, creatives are useless.
Once you know who you’re speaking to, what they think now and what you want them to think, only then can you understand how to speak to them.
We all know the embarrassment of going up to someone who looks like staff in a shop, asking them where something is, then being told that they don’t actually work there…
When it goes wrong
One example of terribly bad targeting was a mailing I received for a sanitary towel addressed to Mr C Catchpole whose letter said:
Dear Mr Catchpole
Do you find yourself having problems on those heavy days of the month?….
Little did the writer of this pack ever think that it would be sent to a man!
So, now we know who you’re talking to, what do you say?
Well, I’ve never been a big fan of marketing speak. All those witty puns and word plays that feature so often in the work from years ago. The world has moved on and everyone’s perception of marketing has changed. These days, we all know when we’re being sold to. If a mail piece isn’t a bill, a bank statement or a private letter, then the chances are is going to be direct marketing.
There is only so far you can dupe someone with the most creative of packs that this is something truly personal.
Please keep the language simple, to the point and written as if you were speaking to the person. It helps to think of the reader as someone you know who might be interested in the thing you’re writing about.
Salesmanship in print
In years gone by and to a lesser extent today too, companies had a sales force of individuals who would visit potential customers at home to sell their products and services. This is no longer a cost efficient way to do business so now we write to them. What we must try to remember is that a good salesman would try every trick in the book to strike up a rapport with the customer to make them feel at ease. They would empathise with them when explaining the problem that they probably didn’t even realise they had. Then they would try to make the sale.
Rarely would they leave the house without a signature on the dotted line. This is what we are trying to do when we write to people. The opening part of the letter is crucial to engage and encourage reading on. All the way through we are trying to understand their situation and show them how their world would be better if only they signed up today.
To understand how the thing you have to sell will help the person you are selling to, try to see the world through their eyes. Do they work? Are they married? Do they have kids? How much do they earn? Where do they live? Always remember, you are interrupting their day to day life so you’d better make it worth their while reading on.
The first headline and first paragraph of any letter, email or any other communication is key to involving the reader and setting the tone for the rest of what you say. This is the point where you want them to say “that’s interesting – tell me more“.
You. You. You. Me.
Everyone’s favourite subject is yourself. You know more about yourself than anything else. A rule of thumb is to write ‘you’ three times for every ‘me’ (i.e. the company). For example, “When you’ve had a hard day at work, you like to come home, relax, perhaps switch on your favourite program, try to be yourself again for the evening. It’s the same with me. etc…”
Crossheads are key
Rarely does anyone start at the beginning of a letter or brochure and read the whole thing through in the order it’s set out. We all like to dip in and out, picking up the important points as we skim read. Crossheads are a great way to get across the main benefits. Keep them short, sharp and to the point.
1 ball or 20 balls
If I throw 1 ball at you, the chances are you’ll catch it. If I throw 20 balls at you, the chances are you won’t catch any of them. It’s the same with marketing. Keep the messages simple, one thought per paragraph, one umbrella creative theme throughout. Keep the sentences short where possible. Keep the language straightforward and everyday, explaining anything difficult in simple terms. If you don’t understand something, neither will the reader.
Call to action
What do you want them to do? Call a number, send back the coupon, email, text? It’s important to make it very easy to respond. However, I continually have battles with my industry peers who still tell me that the bigger the number or url, the greater the response. I always used to reply that if someone was interested, they would read until they came to the number. After all, do you listen harder to someone who shouts at you or someone who whispers? Want I have realised is that we just need to make things easy for people. They have little time in their lives and we want them to act NOW. So tell them what you want them to do and make it really obvious.
P.S. I love you
Often, adding a P.S. at the end of a letter is a good way to explain the offer simply or talk about a close date the emphasise the importance of an immediate response. People will often skip to the end of the letter to see if there’s anything interesting in the call to action. (As I said, people are very marketing literate now.)
Short or long copy?
This battle will run and run. If there’s a lot to say, say it. Sometimes, the commitment we are hoping for from the reader will be expensive or very long term. I once had to write to elderly people asking them to remember a charity in their Will. This is difficult to explain in a few sentences.
The trick with long copy is to take the reader on a journey. It’s not about stopping and starting, going off in different directions all the way through or finishing then starting again with another thought. Planning the structure and flow of the information is extremely important. It is no less important in a short piece but there will be a limited amount you’ll be able to get across. Think about your argument and order it. Imagine a company telling their sales people not to say too much just in case the person gets bored listening…
Simplify and shorten
The best bit about writing is the rewriting. Someone once said “I have written you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.“
Everything can be trimmed back. Your first draft will never be the one that makes it out of the door.
Language is a wonderful thing. You can say the same thing in so many different ways. Most people use too many words when they write. They over complicate the message and can tie themselves in knots trying to finish what they were saying.
Remember who you are speaking to. It’s really boring being spoken at so try and involve the reader in this one-way conversation. If you can get them nodding or asking themselves the questions you’ve put to them (always with a calculated guess at the answer you want to hear), you won’t lose them.
If you are speaking to a cold audience, address them as such. If they are existing customers, make reference to this. If you walked into a bar, you would speak to a stranger completely differently to someone you knew. Obviously, the conversation with the stranger is much more difficult but if you’ve got something to tell them of real interest and relevance, they’ll listen. Try and be as natural and conversational as possible.
Get someone else to read it
Mozart wrote down his music perfectly first time without ever needing to correct any of it. Unless you really are as talented as him, never think that what you have written is perfect. Always get someone else to read it through and give you their opinion. You are your own worst critic.
No one gets in a car for the first time and drives perfectly. No one plays beautifully in their first violin lesson. Mona Lisa wasn’t Leonardo’s first painting. Practice makes perfect. Write as much as you can as often as you can and you’ll find the words start to flow.
Take care in everything you write. Please go back over emails and correct any spelling mistakes, clarify points, write more clearly. Your readers will thank you for it.
Things worth remembering
Every brand has a tone of voice which must remain distinguishable. This helps people to identify who is speaking to them. Some are funny, some cheeky, some very humble, some very posh, some exciting, some rock solid, some old, some young, some wise, some crazy – to understand
a brand, you need to understand how it speaks. Tone of voice is just as important a part of brand guidelines as the colours, typefaces, design and style guides, if not more so. If Brad and Angelina always spoke in baby voices, they wouldn’t be quite so attractive.
A simple, intelligent conversation
Not clever or showing off your skill with obscure words, just flowing language that communicates simply. You will almost always be asking someone to do something by the time you’ve finished so make sure you get to the point though.
A few years ago, I had to craft a letter into the shape of a keyhole. Yes, it was tricky and yes, there were a few amends (which didn’t help!) but a skilled writer can write to fit. There will always be other words you can use if necessary.
One big confidence trick
I always tell writers to write confidently. There are bad spellers but I don’t believe there are bad writers – just ones that need more practice and/or more confidence.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Learn from the best. Read what has gone before. No writer of literature ever wrote a masterpiece without having read a library full of classics before setting down the opening sentence. Look at the work that has won awards. Read everything you can – from books, newspapers and magazines to ads and mailers, websites, emails even take away menus. Be a sponge. Soak it all up. It can do no harm to know your subject inside out.