Posts tagged “Copywriting”
That’s what it takes for movies to work.
Without our granting movie-makers “suspension of disbelief,” we could hardly enjoy the moment when it seems that the bad guy has gotten away alone on a plane, but suddenly hears some ticking and searches for the source of the sound. He finds the bomb that the hero has planted on the plane, looks somewhat surprised, then … cut to the hero and his pals on the ground looking into the sky as the plane with the bad guy on board explodes in a very satisfying ball of flames, sparks and smoke.
We never ask, “What about the camera crew that filmed the bad guy in his last few seconds? Or the director and lighting people? Weren’t they on the plane when it blew up?”
We don’t ask because we want the story-teller to tell us a story. Because we enjoy being entertained. So we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the entertainment. And we do it most often for movies since they are the most popular contemporary medium for story-telling. (If you loved the movie, read the book.)
Of course, we do it with books, too. Melville’s Moby Dick starts off as a first-person narrative – ”Call me Ishmael.” – but as soon as our narrator is aboard the Pequod, he melts into the background. The first-person narrative becomes an omniscient voice, invisible, yet all-seeing, even reporting what’s inside other characters’ heads. Suspension of disbelief at work.
We’ve been doing it since long before Samuel Taylor Coleridge formally named the phenomenon of our willingness to suspend belief in 1817. It has been thus since our earliest ancestors sat around campfires, wearing animal skins, being enchanted by stories of particularly good hunts by someone who was particularly good at telling those kinds of stories – the primordial story-teller.
Not so in marketing.
In our business, we face the most cynical critics and doubters. Advertising may be story-telling, but it’s not always entertainment. (That’s the best kind of advertising, by the way, the entertaining kind, since we’ll all pay attention if it’s fun.)
Just like stories, ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. Except in ads it’s typically the setup (the problem), the solution (how a product or service solves the problem) and the close (the call to action.)
How is it that everyone approaches our stories with such skepticism while swallowing movie story lines hook, line and sinker? Yep, the answer is simple: entertainment. We happily set aside skepticism to enjoy a good movie.
No doubt if aliens landed and we offered to take them to the movies, they’d be somewhat stunned by our ability to accept all the cuts, dissolves, jumps in action and melodramatic, manipulative sound tracks. They’d likely view us with pity, consider us “children,” and wonder how on earth (so to speak) we could possibly run an entire planet.
We want to be entertained.
Is it some mass psychosis? Or simply an agreement en masse to accept the premise of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen?
The smarter ad folk made the leap some time ago to applying story-telling methods to commercials. The great ones, that ones that broke new ground, stick in our minds: “Time to make the donuts.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “Where’s the beef?” “Bud Weis Er.” “Volkswagen: the Force“ ”¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”
We remember them, and we talk about them. Almost as much as movies. [Interesting side-note: Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" TV campaign was one of the highest-scoring in advertising history, yet sales plummeted. What happened? Chronic users thought they were being made fun of.]
Are entertaining ads and commercials sugar-coating the pill … or effective marketing? In the final analysis, our objective is to be memorable – or, to be more precise, to make our client’s product or service be the one that the target audience remembers. David Ogilvy and others called this “placing a burr in the consumer’s mind” and warned against creating ads that left people “remembering the burr, but not the sales proposition.” [e.g., Alka-Seltzer]
Tricky, isn’t it. We need to entertain to be memorable, but we also need to make sure that what’s remembered is our client’s brand. (It really is something that only professionals can do.)
Super Bowl commercials, like “Volkswagen: the Force,” are the exception to the rule. Those commercials are as much about people remembering the commercial as they are about creating broader awareness for the brand. And in fact competition is so fierce for inclusion in that most coveted of TV placements that it’s not enough to have the dough, you have to have the goods in your ad as well. After all, lots of people tune in just to watch those commercials. Imagine that.
Yes, English is going to hell.
The original meaning of “idiot” was derived from the Greek term for ”individual,” which came from the Greek for “private person.” When someone was called an “idiot,” way back when, it meant: “one who keeps to himself” – neither a gossip, nor someone interested in politics. How it came to mean “stupid” or “moronic” is a history lesson in the devolution of language.
Finally there’s outrage. Finally a great deal is being made of the mis-use of some of the most common words in English. Such as “great,” “awesome,” “ironic,” “travesty,” “enormity,” “literally” and “terrific.” Those and many other words are increasingly misunderstood and mis-used by people who think they mean something completely different than how they’re defined.
Why? Because of the devolution of language. The group that defines itself as “descriptivists” (essentially, “linguists”) will disagree. They’ll tell you that nothing is devolving, merely changing with usage. That change is inevitable, they will tell you. Because when usage becomes common, it enters the dictionary.
It turns out that as a “prescriptivist” (someone who cares about the rules of grammar and usage) I am as disturbed as are nearly all other professional writers, editors and proof-readers by the combination of laziness and ignorance that degrades both communication and understanding.
Take “idiot.” You don’t need to look any further for proof of the devolution of language than the astonishingly altered meaning of that innocent word.
The homonym trap.
Homonyms are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. Often, all it takes is changing one letter in a word to alter its meaning. Drastically. How can we possibly expect to be taken seriously if we use the wrong word, with the wrong meaning, in our writing?
Want some examples?
Accept, except / affect, effect / allusion, illusion / capital, capitol / climactic, climatic / compliment, complement / elicit, illicit / emigrate, immigrate / lead, led / principle, principal / than, then / there, their, they’re / to, too, two / your, you’re.
The point is that language can be an incredibly powerful tool. It can illuminate. It can educate. It can paint pictures in the mind. If the person wielding that tool has full control of it.
[update: 10/2/2013 NY Times photo caption: "Tim Hodges, a police officer at Jacksonville International Airport, lead a bomb-sniffing dog around a terminal on Wednesday, the day after the facility was shut down by a false bomb report." Clearly that "lead" should have been "led," an absurdly common homonym error. Alas. Full Story]
Can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten that depressingly incorrect usage in an e-mail response.
It seems that if words sound similar a great many people assume that it’s all right to use either. It’s not.
Speaking of “all right,” there’s really no such word as “alright.” It’s nonstandard English. The American Heritage Dictionary advises “it’s not all right to use alright.” Similarly, “all together” and “altogether” have distinct meanings – they are not the same. Neither are “alternately” and “alternatively.” Or “beside” and “besides” – they are simply not the same.
“Affect” and “effect” are in no way similar. And neither are ”allusion” and “illusion.” “Allusion” is a noun that means “an indirect reference,” as in “His speech made allusions to something that fascinates me.” “Illusion” is a noun that means “something that is false or not real but that seems to be true or real.”
Look it up, please.
We’re now fully in the electronic age. And that doesn’t just mean computers and smart phones. It means every form of communication. Words are flung at us from every direction because people really are trying to get messages through.
Words matter. What’s a movie worth without a good story? How effective is an ad without a relevant message?
But the ease with which words are tossed around may have a great deal to do with the increasing mis-use and misunderstanding of words. It’s just so easy to text and post. But, by the same token, it couldn’t be easier to look up a word before flinging it into the electronic universe.
Meaning matters. And so does intent. If you’re trying to get a point across and use the wrong words to make your case, your case falls apart.
copyblogger makes the same case and is well worth the read.
Save the language. Use a dictionary.
Some words really need to be looked up to be sure of their meaning because they look and sound nearly identical, even though they are not. “Discreet” and “discrete” are not two spellings of the same word, they are distinct (discrete) from each other. “Discreet” is an adjective that means “careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions,” as in “Her discreet handling of the situation put him at ease.” On the other hand, “discrete” is an adjective that means “separate or individually distinct,” as in “Each firm is a discrete entity.”
Same with “bimonthly” and “semimonthly.” Totally different meanings. Along with “cite” and “site.” And please, please look up “complement” and “compliment” before dropping a word bomb into your text. Really. Just type “dictionary” into your favorite search engine and multiple choices will arise.
This could go on for quite a while. For example, how “few” and “less” are entirely different. As are “figuratively” and “literally.” Along with “historic” and “historical.” ”Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not the same. And neither are “elicit” and “illicit.” “Elicit” means “to draw out,” while “illicit”means something unlawful. “Farther” and “further” are, in fact, different words with different meanings and different uses. “Farther” means “to or at a more distant point.” “Further” means “to or at a greater extent or degree.”
I guess I should go no farther … except to say that I’d happily be called an idiot … in the original sense and meaning of the once noble word.
This really bugs me.
There are things that bother all of us, gnaw at us in small ways, like gnats. It’s like that for me whenever I hear grammatical laziness – grammatical gaffs that are allowed to stand, or (horrors) used intentionally. They’re buzzing around, diving for our ears, making us swat at the air around our heads.
You want an example? All right. Here’s an example of the collapse of grammar as we know it, in none other than The New York Times: “But a cup or three of coffee ‘has been popular for a long, long time,’ Dr. Freund says, ‘and there’s probably good reasons for that.’”
See that? That godawful mis-use of “there’s?” That’s what drives me nuts. “There’s” can only be a contraction of “there is” (not “there are”) so it can only ever be used with a singular subject.
“There’s good reason” – fine. ”There’s good reasons” – the opposite of fine.
That mis-use, which occurs with horrifying frequency everywhere (TV, movies, media) also popped up with stunning regularity in one of my favorite shows, “House, M.D.” I couldn’t understand that because Hugh Laurie, the show’s British star, must know better. (I mean, his best friend is Stephen Fry, after all – the guy who did this.) I could only assume that he wanted to sound more “American.” Adding insult to injury.
“House, M.D.” was a dazzling concept: take the Sherlock Holmes stories and make them medical mysteries. Wilson was Watson. Cuddy was a female version of Inspector Lestrade. And House was Holmes … get it? They even made House’s apartment number 221B. Great show. Except for the grammar thing, and how often Hugh Laurie said things such as ”There’s lots of things this could be…” “There’s all kinds of ways to treat that…” “There’s people waiting…” Etc.
Back to Dr. Freund. Let’s say you’re Dr. Freund … or that I am … if I were I’d be wishing that the NY Times journalist who interviewed me had bothered to correct my spoken faut pas so that it didn’t appear that I had a “poor grasp of grammar,” to put it politely, no matter how good my medicine.
What do I mean by poor? Bad grammar, bad usage. What makes it bad? It’s entirely incorrect, by what we’re taught, when we’re taught grammar, and by mutual agreement on singular and plural usages, furloughs notwithstanding.
Please, make them stop.
I know I’m not alone in believing that we should, as often as practical and acceptable, correct grammar, spelling and usage. (Since it’s going to hell faster than an ice cube in a hot oven.)
And I know that I’m not alone in feeling that we’re witnessing an accelerated pace of acceptance of poor language, poor grammar, poor usage – in many instances simply for the sake of hipness, coolness, with-it-ness. How fatuous it all seems.
If you were writing dialogue in a story, I doubt you’d ever write. “he said u should phone him @ home.” Yet, that there is what many of our younger planetary citizens are doing. How long before it’s “literature” being taught in schools. How long before the Oxford Dictionary accepts “u” as a form of “you?”
I think we ought to get things “right” before we get them “wrong.” The fact that we can decipher what was written should in no way excuse how it was written. Laziness of mind is laziness of mind. The more we excuse it, the more it grows, like some ancient Japanese movie monster.
Prescriptivists vs. descriptivists.
It turns out there’s a term for those of us who worry about such things. I’m, apparently a prescriptivist. Had no idea what that even meant until someone pointed out, quite recently, in an online discussion, that “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are the names given to the two opposing views on grammar rules.
I had, it turned out, been arguing with descriptivists, with whom there’s no arguing, since they believe less in grammar than they do in “usage.” Descriptivists, it turned out, are linguists first and grammarians second. To them, if the mis-use of a word or phrase (such as “there’s”) occurs with more frequency than the grammatically correct way, then it becomes the rule. (See that black hole of grammar, there?)
The problem that occurs for us professional writers and editors is that without a set of rules to follow and point to, anything goes. And that’s not good for either our professions or our work.
All right, I’ll admit it. I live for this stuff – we are, after all, paid for it. What does it mean to be a writer or editor? It’s all about judgement calls. And how can you make them if you have no basis for judgement?
The New Yorker did a piece on this, which, while quite good, misses one of the greatest (as in largest) points about language. The article describes élitist attitudes, but in its self-same élitism misses why correct and clear language is important. Most of us who became writers were the ones who cared as children when the rules were being taught to us. It meant something to us to master words and grammar. It was even exciting. Because we knew those were the keys to becoming one of the people we so much admired: writers.
How could you be one of those amazing story-tellers without being able to write in amazing ways.
Are we judgemental? You bet. When I meet someone who says, “My wife and me like to go camping,” I know we’re not likely to get along, and not just because I hate camping.
Language is more than communication – and clarity of communication is what the rules are really about, not élitism – it’s literally what defines a culture.
There are mistakes all over the place showing what kind of anarchy occurs when rules are either not known or ignored. Network World printed a doozy. ”Snowden seeks asylum from several countries including China, Russia.” To my mind that could only have been ”Snowden seeks asylum in several countries including China, Russia.” Knowing why is what the whole game is about.
If somebody is writing a letter to a friend, or speaking in a café, I don’t give a damn about grammatical structure and correctness. However, when major publications are allowing these kinds of errors, the apocalypse can’t be far behind.
We were re-watching “Michael Clayton” (an astounding movie) and I cringed when Clooney’s character’s young son was introduced, because at that moment he’s running around his mother’s apartment, shouting, “Mom, where’s my cards?” Several times. Ugghh.
So what about that? A major motion picture seen by innumerable people. What ethical boundaries are crossed when the choice to “accurately render an eight-year-old” risks further imprinting those who didn’t pay quite enough attention in grammar, junior and high school with horrible grammar?
It would seem that, today, fiction is more literate than reality. We never watched “The West Wing” when it was on network television but have been watching it via streaming. It’s amazingly literate, and clearly shows how much literacy matters. Would that it were so in reality.
When aspiring writers attend classes or workshops, they’re often advised to sit in a café and merely listen. When you do, you will hear two things: people typically do not speak in complete sentences, and people typically do not speak with perfect grammar.
The point of the exercise is to guide hopeful novelists toward more realistic dialogue, since hardly any of us will say: “While you’re in the kitchen making a sandwich for yourself, could you please make one for me, as well?” We’d most likely say, “Make me a sandwich, too.” (Despite the fact that the only grammatically appropriate response is “Abracadabra, you’re a sandwich.”)
Clarity is everything.
If people can’t make it through your messaging, how will they ever get to your product or service? Writing isn’t just about writing; it’s about conveying an exact message. That’s what the old saw “writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” is talking about. The easy part is putting down a bunch of thoughts. The tricky part is arranging all those letters and all that punctuation into something that truly grabs your target audience by the lapels and makes them remember what you said.
There’s truly no point in putting out confusing messaging. It’s a waste of time, space and money.
A local doctor did a landslide business after creating her own billboards. That’s a rather unusual occurrence. But she understood the importance of simplicity and clarity – especially in billboards. Hers were made up entirely of her smiling face, name, phone number and a large headline that said simply “I cure acne.” Those were the only words. And they were the only words needed because the people who needed her help found her.
I’m by no means advocating that every advertisement be that basic. But I am saying that honing your message can really pay off. Hers did. Her business boomed.
Imitation is for amateurs.
People who don’t know where to begin often begin by copying. Example, the “Got milk?” campaign that was so effective and compelling that a local land developer copied it with “Got land.” (Down to the all-black background and white type.) But … notice the punctuation? Did he miss the fact that the question mark was key to the milk board campaign? Or was he trying to say that he has land? (God, I hope not.)
It only confuses things to have writing that sounds like something else. You’re actually making the reader think of the original rather than you and your message.
Another common error is copying style, if not content. People will imitate a tone thinking, for example, that if they sound like Mercedes Benz they’ll be perceived like Mercedes Benz. But … that doesn’t really work, does it? Especially if you’re Subaru. (Not saying they do; only how silly it would be.)
The essential lesson here is: don’t write the way you think others expect you to write. Write the way you want to write. Write in a way that conveys not just what you do but also how you feel about what you do.
A recent LinkedIn article by Vivek Wadhwa described how he worked his way through the challenge of writing articles with advice from journalist friends: “What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.”
Extremely good advice. My version is very similar: “Pretend you’re writing to one person, a close friend. Be direct and honest. Be unafraid of judgement.”
Be brief, be clear, be compelling.
When I got my first job at an ad agency in New York, I spent the first few weeks having panic attacks. Every time I got an assignment, I stared at the blank, white page in front of me, thinking I was expected to put down perfect, award-winning thoughts. So, naturally, my brain seized up each time.
I knew full well, however, that I wouldn’t keep my hard-won job very long if I didn’t produce. So, after struggling this way for a while, I got tough with myself one day and thought: “Just put down everything you can think of and edit it later.”
That breakthrough turned out to be every professional writer’s approach. We all do that. So can you. Just start writing. E.L. Doctorow describes the process of placing one word after another as “… just like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights illuminate, but once you’ve gone that distance you can see the next piece.”
The first time I did it as a copywriter, I put down an entire page of copy … then crossed out nearly all of it. I ended up with one or two sentences. But they were the perfect thing to build on. And when I did, I made sure the copy was brief, to the point and entertaining.
Then I repeated that process with every assignment. Little by little, I began putting less unusable stuff down and more “perfect things to build on.”
That’s because writing is like any craft – the more you do it, the more you know which steps to cut out and which to keep. You begin to have the ability – before even putting anything down – to separate the valuable thoughts from the merely distracting.
Write for them, not you.
One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cull what will bore them and only keep what will make them respond.
That means, as so many writers have written about, “killing off your little darlings.” That, too, is what it means to be a writer.
Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal. Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting, and what they don’t.
Or, to pass on the advice I was given in my first few months on Madison Ave., “if you won’t be there to explain it to every reader, then your ad better be able to stand on its own.”
Tag lines tell us who you are.
Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns: truly good tag lines.
Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.
Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.
For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.
Copywriters, not clients.
Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.
The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.
What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)
A tag line defines the brand.
Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.
Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)
When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)
When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)
When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)
When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)
When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)
In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?
Great tag lines through time.
Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)
Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.
Here’s a Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)
That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)
But that’s show biz.
Thanksgiving has just come and gone in the U.S., and we’re moving on to the holidays that soften everyone’s hearts … while forcing wallets open. These are the in-between days when we know that the coming new year is another chance to address regrets and disappointments – to change direction, if we feel that’s needed.
This year, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, others sent and posted messages of thanks, taking the holidays rather more seriously than I recall before. It made me think I should add my own.
I’m thankful for:
- clients who happily pay appropriate professional fees for the services we happily provide.
- clients who understand the effort we put into writing and designing, and appreciate what we do for them.
- the opportunity to help new clients introduce products and services with the best possible language and marketing materials.
- returning clients who appreciate the level of professionalism we provide.
- clients who appreciate and value the skills, talent and effort required to produce effective marketing.
- clients who understand what it takes to create materials that break through the clutter and stand apart from the competition.
- clients who express sincere appreciation for how we polish copy, craft sentences, perfect paragraphs and marry that copy with design.
- clients who understand the value of the concepts we create for them so that their marketing materials are more effective.
- the opportunity to do what I love and be paid for it.
- being in a business that means partnering with other creative professionals.
- the opportunity to work with people who nearly always teach me something new.
- the fact that honing copy for marketing helps me be a better writer in every way.
Life is not a straight line. And neither is marketing. There are always ups and downs; periods of perfection coupled with challenges … even disasters. How we respond to those times and events defines who and what we are. How we address all the challenges that life brings defines what our lives add up to in the end.
So, most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunities to do the right thing, every day.
“I always wanted to be a writer.”
Do you remember being taught and encouraged to write as well as you possibly could? To write a first draft, set it aside for a couple of days then come back to it and cut out everything that made you stumble?
That was called “crafting your writing.” We were also encouraged to read the greats in high school and college, and were told it was important to understand what made them great … maybe even to emulate them. Perhaps, like me, you wanted to write as well as Conrad, O’Connor, Hemingway, Woolf, Dickens, Melville, Austen, Carver, Munro … et al.
When did all that striving toward quality turn into … teen vampire erotica? When did that emphasis on quality writing disappear in favor of … content?
If content is king, why is the writing so poor?
What we have online is far more often merely content vs. actual writing. Why? It’s a conundrum with multiple, dead-end answers. Here are a couple of stabs at the why. Content was desperately needed when, in the early days of the Internet, there was an explosion of Web sites desperate for clicks. (No content, no visitors.) But because of the nature of the Internet, Web sites also exploded our competitive frame of reference. Suddenly, anyone, anywhere, in any country could see and bid on writing jobs posted on the Internet.
It’s common knowledge that bidders out of Asia and Africa (many of whom barely have a command of English) will take peanuts compared to the Western world’s concept of fair pay … so, we have “Web site content needed: will pay $50.”
Too many clients cared too little about quality. Most wanted to fill up their pages for as little cost as possible. Or, as one ill-conceived boss out of my past put it with deep regret: “I guess we need some words on those pages.”
The problem created by the flattened earth (brought to you by the Internet) is that lots of folks in far-flung places think $1-2 per hour is just dandy, thank you. For those of us who live and work in an $8-10 per-hour minimum-wage economy (as in, $8-10 per hour to say, “Welcome to Walmart”) it’s the opposite of good.
That’s part one.
Part two is that content mills and farms (oDesk, Demand Media, guru.com, Elance, etc.) are stockpiling generic “articles.” They’re paying $10-15 for 1,000-1,500-word articles. Then, when starving publications (thanks to the Internet) go shopping for content, the mills and farms offer some that’s “good enough,” and underbid actual writers by treating written work just like stock photography.
And you do know what stock photography did to professional photographers, don’t you? For a frame of reference, prior to content mills and farms, actual writers of actual articles were getting $1-2 per word. (Per word.) A 1,500-word article could mean $3,000 in those days … and an o.k. income if you could sell 10-20 of them per year.
Any writer worth a damn will spend at least four hours on a 1,500-word article. (Way more than that when being paid properly.) At $10-15 per article, that’s $2.50 to $3.75 per hour. Hence, that’s why largely developing country respondents are writing those “articles.” And that’s also why the quality of much of what we see online is deplorable and has significantly downgraded the relevance and value of the Internet itself.
Apart from only fair-to-middling writing, we also have endless mash-ups – original content “re-purposed” and rehashed again and again so that when you go online to look up “concussion,” you’ll see multiple hits that are virtually indistinguishable and entirely unhelpful.
Wake up writers or you’re all through.
Part three is that we’re letting it happen. “We” means writers. Ours is a lonely, isolated profession. (All the more reason to take advantage of the online communities for writers – one of the good things about the Internet.) Some o.k. writers, who are desperate, accept the pitiful pay, which establishes precedence and perpetuates the developing world pay level. But there’s no crafting of copy. Who would bother at $2-3 per hour?
The Internet has been a tremendous boon. Yet it has also been a life-altering phenomenon. Most of us, today, go online first for news and research, so traditional pubs are losing sales and subscriptions (more every day). Advertisers are increasingly shifting away from traditional media and into “online efforts.” What’s the result? Less actual writing being done by actual writers. Way more “content” is cluttering our world. And the quality of writing and information is falling like a dead duck.
The outlets where we can still find quality writing are diminishing every day. They’re still there, but there are fewer of them every day. Literally. Saying no to the mills and farms is one way to stop the attrition. And supporting the few publications that still demand quality writing is another.
I’m certain it will take some time for the tide to turn, for people to get fed up with being fed garbage rather than quality writing. In the meantime, here’s a fairly pithy forbes.com article titled: Why you shouldn’t be a writer
Only if you’re a member of Congress.
“Write what you know.”
Take writing workshops or classes and you will inevitably hear this piece of advice. Things that sound so obvious often belie their depth. This particular advice is ultimately about producing writing that rings true, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When that advice is passed on, it means: try to BS your way through your writing and the BS meters will ring instead.
For copywriters and marketing writers, that means we have to study our subject until we know it well enough to write about it convincingly – which can mean knowing the subject nearly as well as subject matter experts. It all begins with input. If we don’t get good input, we can’t provide good output. That simple. If the client doesn’t know how to clearly explain what they do or produce (an all too-common problem), it’s our job to dig for what we need.
This is a crucial aspect to copywriting, and one that’s not always understood. I’ve often had new clients look askance at me, wondering out loud if I really can write about their particular widget if I’ve never made any. What they don’t know is that a real copywriter is a generalist. A seasoned copywriter can write about anything. Because ad agencies can’t survive on just a single client or line of business – you’re asked to work on whatever comes up. (That’s one very realistic thing about Mad Men.)
We copywriters learn how to dig for what we need. By contrast, someone who has spent their entire career as a specialist, rather than a generalist, say for pharmaceuticals or farm implements, will have serious trouble writing about cars or perfume or shoes.
That’s the first secret.
Here’s the second: understand your target audience. It’s not enough to become familiar with the product or service we’ve been hired to promote – we must also understand who wants or needs the product or service, and why. We can’t possibly write convincingly if we don’t know that. (That’s a hint – if you’re working with somebody who doesn’t bother to learn about your target audience, you could be working with the wrong somebody.)
Example: I’ve never used chewing tobacco but I’ve advertised that product. (Not happily, but I did. See clients.) To do that, I had to learn about the products and the people who do use them. And it’s not just cowboys. They’re called smokeless tobaccos and they’re popular with people who work where smoking isn’t allowed. Ultimately – potential health risks aside – it’s no different than selling laundry soap, brassieres or riding tack: you have to know (1) the category, (2) the audience and (3) how to differentiate your client’s offering.
Yes, it takes work. Being able to craft sentences that sparkle like perfectly-cut diamonds is only half of the six-pack you’ll need for this picnic. You have to know the target audience even better than they know themselves. You have to know how to reach their emotional hot-buttons. You have to know how to get them thinking and talking about your client’s product or service. No matter how dull.
When I was building my spec book, I had a campaign for Mercedes-Benz that was a beaut. But several CDs with whom I interviewed told me, “That’s too easy. Everyone would buy a Mercedes if they could.” (Light bulb moment.) What they said, was “How do you get people interested in your client’s me-too product? Such as deodorant? Or beer? Or fertilizer? Or acne treatment?” That’s the real work. (And, yes, I’ve done all that.)
Are you convinced, yet?
Marketing is pre-sales. It’s the navy shelling the beaches in advance of troops landing. It’s about creating awareness of products and services. It’s what some of the early greats called “planting a bur in the brain.”
Here’s why. Tide advertising isn’t primarily about convincing you that they have the best laundry soap. It’s actually about trying to sub-consciously guide your steps in the grocery store so that the laundry soap you ultimately reach for is Tide. You may not remember why you think Tide is best, but you may remember that you probably ought to buy Tide (your brand here). And that’s all they ask for.
Mountains of research have shown that it takes multiple impressions (exposures to an ad or campaign) for a brand name to sink in – typically five. Ever gone car shopping? Ever gotten to the point when you couldn’t remember which car had which features, or even which one you liked best? That’s the minefield marketing is trying to step through.
Our method is to employ truth. Truth will get you through that minefield. Empty claims will get you blown up. If you really know what you’re talking about, it comes through. If the copy rings true, you might actually convince your target audience about the “superiority” of your client’s offering. And the copy can only ring true when you’re sticking to things that you truly know, and that are true. Surprised?
The opposite of truth.
We’re in the middle of campaign season in the U.S. Something like a four-year flu. Empty claims are flying all around us. The perversions of the basic principles of marketing are sickening to watch. All methodology is abandoned for scare tactics and promises of a better future. Outright lies replace basic truths.
Tobacco advertising requires health warnings – this political stuff should come with warnings that it will rot your brain.
My point isn’t to rant, it’s to point out that we all have built-in BS meters and we all know when they’re going off. Like now, during presidential election season.
The really good writing in really good marketing and branding campaigns won’t do that. It will make you feel better about yourself for wanting or liking something. It will make you feel like your life could be just a little better with that particular item that just tickled your fancy. And that’s what really good marketing will do.
The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.
That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.
The dark side is always there.
Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.
This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.
Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.
Communication makes us human… sometimes.
What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.
Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.
So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.
Can’t forget why we communicate.
Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.
In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.
The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.
Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].
That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.
Can the answer be in a book?
There was a rather interesting question posed on a LinkedIn group: ”What ‘must-have’ copywriting book do you recommend?”
That seemed to imply that reading a book on copywriting could allow anyone so inclined to become one. Nothing could be more misleading. Of course, if the question was meant to learn how to become a better copywriter, then it’s slightly more possible. But it’s still the same answer: copywriting is a craft, like any other, which will only improve with continual, ceaseless practice and experience.
You really have to want it.
I’ve never known anyone who woke up one day and decided they had to be a copywriter. To want that, you’d have to desperately want to earn your living crafting finite messages in an enormously competitive field. You’d have to want to perfect the use of language, metaphor, euphemism, vernacular – all of it – so that what you write might not only stop readers, viewers, listeners and visitors, but might also convince them to focus on your message. You’d also simultaneously have to be far subtler than the morning news.
Screaming headlines do not make any of us more interested in marketing messages. To be universally appealing, copy must be clever, enticing and compelling. And if you’re targeting a very specific audience, you also have to be unerringly relevant.
So before you count on a book to guide you into this parallel universe to diamond cutting, you damn well better have some relevant life experience – as a reader and writer – before jumping into these shark-infested waters.
Further, no book on “copywriting” will get you a job. Only your samples will. And you’ve got to have the chops to get there.
Catch 22, again.
With a nod to Joseph Heller, copywriting is one of those professions in which you can’t get a job until you’ve had one. No, that wasn’t a typo. You have to have extraordinarily impressive samples of the craft to even be considered for a job. The wormhole we’ve all found is to create a portfolio of spec samples until we have actual, produced ads to show.
To pass on the very sage advice I was given when I was starting out: “only do samples of things you really love so that that will come through in the writing, and get a young art director to help you so that you both have samples to show.”
I took that advice to heart and created a pre-job campaign for my favorite Indian restaurant. If they ever did much advertising, they certainly would never have done the full-page, four-color ads I created for them. But they were great ads, in all humility, because they were fun. The first headline in the campaign was “There’s no such thing as curry powder in India.” Which is true, and educational. I had fun doing the sample ads, and people had fun reading them.
It took several months of working on my spec book along with willing art directors to get to the point when I actually landed my first ad agency job, on “Madison Ave.” In advertising, you’re only as good as your last campaign. That’s why everyone’s portfolio is worth its weight in Au (http://bit.ly/lM7nWn). So like many others I knew, I had duplicate portfolios in case one was lost. Why would a portfolio be lost? Because advertising headhunters were forever shuttling them around to various agencies looking for copywriters and art directors.
And that’s another fact of life about advertising: to grow your portfolio, you often have to keep changing jobs. (My first assignments were on Seagram’s 7-Crown and Crown Royal, and Schaefer beer. All booze, all the time. I needed a change after a year of that.)
The book I recommended.
So was there a single book that everyone agreed on? Ha. Every single answer was different. And each showed the author’s background, preferences and proclivities. Nearly all advertising books are either memoirs, which don’t help neophytes get past square one, or self-advertisements, which are equally unhelpful.
That’s why my recommendation was: “Get yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.”
No book can ever guide one into how to write – the most any book can do is describe what it”s like to write. You really have to work and work and work. You have to find your voice, play with tone and style, and ultimately just keep doing it. Inevitably, as you do, questions of grammar and style will come up. The NY Times Manual of Style and Usage is great, along with the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. But for something small, handy and wholly reliable, I most often turn to the The Elements of Style.
One of my jobs is teaching effective story-telling to businesses.
Stand in my shoes for a few minutes and here’s what you’d see when a copywriter meets with new clients for the first time. We’re warmly greeted, offered coffee or water, then told in great detail about the product or service this new client wants to market. They’re truly excited about their offering and believe all we have to do is tell the world it exists and sales will tumble like the falls at Niagara.
But frequently they’ve missed a critical step: placing themselves in the minds of their target audience.
The effective use of narrative means, most of all, knowing (a) who your audience is and (b) knowing what they want to hear. This is a tough hurdle for many clients. This is the moment when they’re faced with a hard fact: we are not running ads for them. In fact, anyone who does an ad strictly based on pleasing the client is wasting the client’s money. (Dear Client, you run ads for your target audience, not for yourself.)
For example, a headline that pleases your client may bore the pants off your true target audience. Just because they think ‘thermal wrapping cloth’ is better than a moon landing doesn’t mean the people who actually need it will be as excited by it. You have to find out why it will interest them.
So here’s where the science and methodology of copywriting comes in. You have to understand both who will be most interested in what you’re writing about, and why. You have to become familiar with the specific marketplace and understand what the competition is saying and selling. You have to do a lot of homework before you even start writing.
If you are selling a product or service that’s custom-made for college-educated women between the ages of 24 and 54, you have to know what they read, what they watch, what they listen to, and – most of all – what matters to them. By understanding the kinds of books, magazines, newspapers and broadcast media they care about, you can target both your media buys and your messaging to grab their attention. And that is ultimately the objective of all marketing.
Think about it this way: you know you won’t get the same audiences reading Car & Driver and Vogue. Use the right medium to reach the right audience with the right story.
Crafting the story: the real work in writing.
Many professional copywriters have had the experience of telling someone what we do only to have that person say, “oh, you write jingles?”
No, we don’t write jingles. (The days of jingles are long gone.) We craft stories. We make new cars sound impossibly enticing. We help you believe that new watch is something you can’t live without. We convince you that this new beverage will change your life. Etc. Are we lying? No, we’re doing our jobs through the effective use of narrative to promote products and services for our clients to the most appropriate target audience.
For narrative in marketing to be truly effective, it can seldom be just about the product or service. It must also be about a very specific target audience. E.g., if we happen to be writing about a high-end Mercedes-Benz, we have to understand the mindset of the people who could afford one and might want one. We have to know something of what their lives are like. And we have to do the very same thing for everything we write about. We have to understand the specific demographic for each specific product or service.
Take high-tech. The typical audience for high-tech products, such as computer networks and data centers, are people who are highly knowledgeable about their industry and profession. So you aren’t going to win points writing for them as if you’re describing a vacation in the Bahamas. Telling them their life will be “a walk on the beach” with this super-duper new wireless router will sound, to them, like someone’s trying to sell them the Brooklyn bridge.
Believability is key to effective narrative. And to be believable, you have to be knowledgeable about both your product and its true target audience. In the case of the high-tech example, the story you tell has to sound like a day in the life of an IT manager, or CTO. And that’s never a walk on the beach.
Everything is part of the narrative.
Every part of every marketing effort – down to the way ads, marketing materials and Web sites are designed – should be there to support the narrative. And a key part of that narrative should be a call to action. It can be a soft sell or a hard sell, but it ought to be included as part of the story.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being paired with designers who thought that how something looks is far more important than the lowly message. Fortunately, I’ve also had the experience of working with true professionals who understand that everything we do is about communication. We’re telling a story in words and pictures.
A key aspect of any design is where your eye is led. Really good designers understand that. They know that when you open a magazine to your client’s ad your eye should be led through it to the ultimate objective, whether that’s branding or a bold call to action. And when you open your client’s Web site it should be easy to follow how its constructed and how to get where you most want to get within that site.
When the opposite is true, when an ad or Web page is a jumbled mess of graphics that simply confuse the eye, the narrative falls apart. There is no story when there’s merely confusion. Lots of “off the shelf” Web sites create an impression of cohesiveness, but that will quickly dissipate if you’re left scratching your head, wondering, “what exactly are they trying to say here?”
The narrative must grab a viewer or visitor, it must pull you through, and it must leave you with a better understanding of the product or service as a result. That’s the job of story-telling in marketing. Now that you know, you’ll start to see when it works … and when it doesn’t. And you, too, will know the importance of story-telling in marketing.
The message matters most.
Can we exist without communication? I think not. Can we prosper without communication? I’m sure not. Who produces the communications that help us prosper? You guessed it, writers.
No matter what the product or service, no matter where in the world, in order for commerce to take place, there must be communication. Communication is the keystone of commerce. From the days of merchants rolling carts through villages, shouting their wares, to the half-time commercials during Super Bowl games, communication is key to making the sale.
Everyone knows that. No one gives it a second thought. But where would companies be without written communication? Where would the global economy be without written communication?
Our entire economy – indeed the economy of the majority of the world – is based upon competition. The message is frequently “why our product is better,” “how our product improves things,” “why you’ll be happier with our product.”
On this first morning of this new year, I sing the praises of the creators of the messages that make the world go ’round.
The writers craft the message.
Could Coke be Coke without the commercials and ads that proclaim its unique benefits? Could Mac be the rising star in the computing world without the commercials and ads that inform us why we should choose their offering over a PC?
Would we even be seeing and hearing those commercials and ads without TV, radio and print media? And would we even have those forms of “information and entertainment” without the writers who create the content?
When the Web was born, its progenitors announced, “content is king.” And you know who creates content …
You could justifiably ask, is there too much of everything these days … too many messages, too many puerile shows, too much competition for our eyes and ears? Yes, indeed, but again I say that thanks to writers we have the choice of what to watch, what to listen to … and what to buy. Communication informs us of our choices.
We vote with our choices, and in doing so we guide what the future brings us. If there are way too many ‘reality TV’ shows, it’s our own fault. We’ve chosen to watch them and reward their advertisers. What we have in the way of choices reflects the choices that have already been made.
It all starts with communication.
I worked on the introduction of the Sony Mavica – one of the very first commercially available digital cameras. It cost between $5,000 and $10,000, and when I asked my Sony clients, “who will be the target audience for this amazing device,” they answered, “probably just the national news media.” They had no idea what they’d helped spawn. Digital photography had been introduced to the masses. Sony also brought about digital music, as well as CDs as a medium, and look where that’s gone.
Sony knew, as every major manufacturer knows, that inventing something – however spectacular – is hardly enough. You have to get the word out. And who does that? Yep, the writers. We ask the key questions and put down the key answers so that the most appropriate target audience will get the most relevant message.
Marketing is about communication, not sales.
Sales comes after the message. First you have to inform, then you can seek the sale. But forget the sale if the message isn’t clear and compelling. That’s what we do. We’re the writers. We craft the message, and we do our damnedest to make it clear and compelling. We form the communication. We get the word out.
Without writers, companies wouldn’t be known, their products wouldn’t be known and their futures would be uncertain. The better the writer, the better the result.
It all starts with the message, the communication. Everything follows from there. Everything. And that, folks, is what it means to be a marketing writer.
Have you noticed sloppy, even grossly inaccurate writing on “how-to” Web sites? Or on travel and food sites? How about oddly similar articles showing up on multiple sites? Or enticing headline links for articles that entirely disappoint when you click on them?
There’s a reason. A new animal recently emerged in the online world: content mills. They are brokers of online content, and they’re quite uncaring about writing quality, let alone writers. And every self-respecting writer is outraged by what the mills claim as “fair pay.” So self-respecting writers won’t work for them. And that’s why you may have become disenchanted with so much of what you see online.
What kind of writers are producing this muck?
The only writers actually writing for the mills are the desperate kind. Writing, after all, is a lonely, cerebral, isolated profession. That fact alone seems to have made us ripe pickings for this mostly Internet-based phenomenon. Some examples of mills are Associated Content, examiner.com, Demand Media, Elance, and Seed. They all follow the same business model: pay as little as you can for words to fill up online pages.
What exactly do they pay? Demand, for example, claims to pay $5-15 for 500-1,000 word articles. Consider the fact that it takes a decent writer 2-4 hours to do a decent 500-1,000 word piece. So what do you do if you’re only making $2.50 per hour? You rush, you “borrow,” you plagiarize. Your mission in life becomes writing as many articles as you can, as fast as you can, so that you’re making slightly more than $2.50 per hour.
Hence, we have “mash-ups:” material grabbed from all over the Web and “re-purposed” for an article. Associated Content and examiner.com are even worse – they only pay writers by the click. So writers have to become promoters of their own sloppy writing to make anything.
Do mash-ups equal plagiarism? In many cases, yes. When the original author isn’t even given credit, what else can it be?
What should writers be paid per word?
The average good-quality magazine article pays $1-2 per word. So a decently written1,000-word article should pay $1,000-2,000. Not $10. But before you think of dashing off 1,000 words and looking for the $2 per-word market, you should realize that to get to 1,000 really good words for the really well-paying markets, a writer typically puts down 4-5,000 words, then works, re-works and polishes their material. And that can take 20-40 hours.
So, how can writers survive working for the mills? We can’t. And that’s my point. The mills don’t actually care about writers because quality has nothing to do with what they’re after. They only care about selling content, whatever it is. The business of the mills is to stockpile random content to sell to sites that need “stuff” on their pages. All kinds of sites and publications buy that stuff just so that you and I might be attracted to visit … and just possibly click on the ads there.
Where might you read some of this paltry-paying stuff? Demand Media lists eHow.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Cracked.com, Trails.com, Golflink.com, Answerbag, Mobile, and Impact Stories as some of their content. And here’s what Associated Content says about how they pay their “contributors:” “You earn money for every one thousand page views your content generates (PPM™ rate). The baseline PPM™ rate is currently $1.50 – meaning if you generate 30,000 page views, you’re paid $45.00 in Performance Payments.” That means that you only get paid if you drive the masses to click on your articles. So you’re not only paid peanuts for your work, you have to work pretty darn hard to get paid the peanuts.
What does this mean for you and me? The quality of online content is rapidly and clearly declining. But you may have noticed that.
The valuation of content over quality.
This really is a David and Goliath scenario. The mills are extremely well-funded and some of them are owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country. So even though the Web has brought a great many boons, if you’re a writer, globalization and content mills have become your foes. There is likely no stopping them. But a growing demand for quality may set them straight.
Jaron Lanier wrote about this very thing in his book, “You Are Not a Gadget.” He sees similar ills in the rise of aggregation of data with total disregard for the human element. In other words, many of the factors driving the growth of the internet are not based on what you and I really want. It’s based on getting those ads clicked. Period.
If writers were like other trades – teachers, police, electricians, carpenters, firefighters and so on – we’d be talking to each other, getting angry and starting to organize. But we’re not like other trades. We’re largely solo enterprises, and some of us truly hit the wall looking for work. Those of us who have reached that level of desperation actually bow down to the demon and start writing for the mills. None who do like it. But they think they must.
A similar phenomenon occurred around 30 years ago when stock photography came into being. It pretty much killed professional photography. Ad agencies and magazines that used to pay thousands of dollars for photo shoots began paying $1-200 for stock shots instead. As the stock houses grew in number and strength, photographers bowed to them and turned over their images. That only helped drive the nails into their coffins.
“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Box? What box?
Everyone in marketing communications earns their bread by being “creative.” We are measured by the level of “creativity” that we bring to the table. It’s a constant challenge. But one develops a habit of not being linear; of “thinking outside the box.”
And yet it’s enormously challenging to explain to non-marketing people exactly what we do and how we do it. There’s a story that keeps circulating among us on Web boards about a writer who was hired to do an ad. He did it and he brought it to the client along with a bill. The client said, “That’s not very long. How long did it take you to write it?” The writer responded, “About 25 years.”
We develop our craft over time.
I can write far more quickly today than when I first began. A lot of that is the result of an evolving ability to make better and better judgement calls – we learn to more quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t the more we practice our craft. We also know how to jump-start our thinking to put things in motion.
Many people think that “creativity” is some kind of voo-doo. That we’re selling snake oil. Alas, there are far more who misunderstand us than those who recognize and appreciate what a good copywriter can do.
“Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard
Sometimes creativity is genius.
J. S. Bach wrote The Brandenburg Concertos as a kind of job application – a job he never got, and the concertos remained in some drawer for a couple of hundred years before anyone even played them. To me, he’s still the pinnacle of human creativity, and yet I can’t help thinking that in his own mind he always saw himself as a church organist (orgelmeister) who had to write a new cantata every week to support himself and his very large family.
And wasn’t Einstein exceptionally creative? The mere ability to think of light bending in space means that one’s mind is not bound by existing knowledge – one “creates” new ideas as one comes to a kind of enlightenment.
Then there’s creativity that borders on magic in all the technology we see coming into being on a daily basis, such as more and more functional flat-screen applications.
I will leave you with two quotes on this subject:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“The real technology – behind all our other technologies – is language. It actually creates the world our consciousness lives in.” – Andrei Codrescu
There are no copywriting courses.
While it’s possible to be trained as an art director or designer, it’s not really possible to be trained as a copywriter. The aesthetics of good design can easily be taught in theoretical courses, but copywriting is a craft, like cabinet-making. You can be shown examples of good copywriting, the tools you might use, but to learn how to produce your own copywriting you have to work at it and learn the craft through experience. And, like cabinet-making, the more you practice, the more you learn how to do it better and better.
I’ve been writing since I was about 12, and my first professional writing career was in public relations. After three years of that (in the music business in Hollywood), I knew I couldn’t keep doing it – it seemed incredibly dishonest to me since one had to continually say “I think this is the greatest (artist) (performer) (band) since the invention of sliced bread.”
Someone said, “why not try advertising?”
Someone I knew was a copywriter and suggested trying it. I found out fairly quickly that I’d need a portfolio, which I didn’t have. So I proceeded to work on building one – fictional ads for real products and companies. The more I interviewed for jobs, the more feedback I got (and requested).
Finally, someone said, “Your stuff is really good, but L.A. is kind of small (late 70s) so you should go to New York.” Eventually I made the move, got some interviews and was told, “Your stuff may be good enough for L.A., but not for New York …”
Back to work on the portfolio, begging for interviews for feedback, and a few months later I got my first job. The more I did it, the more I learned. But what struck me the most was that copywriting is a craft unlike any other. It’s the most powerful self-editing method I’ve ever encountered.
It makes capitalism work.
I initially recoiled at the thought of writing ads … after all, we all hate them, right? But I came to realize something: advertising is an essential element in our economic system. The American economy was built on competition. It’s pretty hard to compete if you haven’t got any awareness for your product or service. That’s where we come in.
Advertising is also far more honest than P.R. or “promotional” marketing. You aren’t telling anyone you personally love something. You’re creating a stand-alone message that says, “this is an ad for something; you know it’s an ad; we just want to introduce you to this (product) (service) and let you decide.”
The rest is up to the product or service. We don’t actually sell anyone anything. We simply create awareness of and interest in the products or services of our clients.
The use of adjectives such as “unique” to describe a product or service is a sure sign of weak or lazy copywriting skills. It takes real work and real effort to uncover benefit statements that are meaningful to customers, and that help products and services stand out.
Most of us start with questions when we work with clients. And the common element in all our questions is the uber-question: “why should people care?” When clients answer, “because we’re the best,” it doesn’t do us much good. We have to dig deeper because our client’s customers will demand to know: why are you the best; how did you become the best; how long have you been the best; who’s your closest competitor; what makes you better than them?
That’s why any copywriter worth their salt (Roman soldiers were paid in salt way back when) will insist on benefit statements over adjectives, because they’re the only way for products or services to truly have “unique” as a takeaway, without ever having to say it.
Adjectives are a crutch.
If you’re working with a writer who uses adjectives like “unique,” or “one-of-a-kind,” or “exclusive” as easily as most people use napkins, you could be working with a writer who’s dependent on a crutch.
That’s what those hyperbolic adjectives are. They’re known in the trade as “empty claims.” Pretty much in the same category of believability as “the check is in the mail.” No truly professional writer will settle for such lightweight writing—and you shouldn’t, either.
However, if your writer backs up those weak adjectives with powerful facts, that’s a different story. E.g., “we’re unique because we’re the only auto detailing business in town that will come to your home or business.” If that’s really true, that’s not so bad. But unique is still an adjective, so you still have to back it up. And as soon as someone else starts doing what you do—where you do it—you’ll have to drop it.
Find the difference, use the difference.
What if instead you could say, “the only auto detailing business in town where every employee is trained by Norm, detailer to the stars.” Nobody could ever take that away from you. See?
Sometimes clients realize their uniqueness and can provide benefit statements to back it up, but most often they don’t. So it’s up to us professionals to dig for them, polish them and present them to the most appropriate target audience for that specific product or service.
If your business really is a “me-too” business, such as another burger joint in a sea of burger joints, then your writer will need to work very hard to come up with that certain something that sets you apart, and then play it up for all it’s worth.