I’ve been thinking for (literally) years now about the elements that make the difference between “ugh” pushy copywriting and the kind of copywriting that makes you actually like the company that puts it out.
For the same kind of product or service, one company will create copy that makes me want to run a million miles away.
And another company writes something that makes me fling myself at them with unseemly abandon.
I have about a thousand answers to this, but the other day I think I may have figured out the most important one — the factor that underlies everything else.
- Scuzzy copy uses copywriting “tricks” to make its case.
- Cool copy uses the voice of the audience to make its case.
(To be clear, I don’t mean “cool” like “I own a fashionable phone” cool. This is more like, “I’m not an asshat” cool.)
I’ve been saying for a long time that for marketers and business owners, everything good comes from the audience.
Let me put that into some shouty type.
“Everything good comes from the audience.”
– Sonia Simone
The “first wave” of folks selling stuff on the internet turned to classic direct response copywriting to figure out how to sell with words. (These were those hypey pages with yellow highlighter and red headlines — maybe you remember them.)
They relied on the traditional description of copywriting as salesmanship in print.
Now, I’d like to be crazy clear: There is nothing wrong with direct response copywriting.
As long as you are not misleading anyone, that “classic” style is not evil or bad. There are some very ethical, very cool people who identify as direct response writers.
I respect direct response, a lot.
But some of the copywriters who work in that tradition have missed one of its most important principles:
The right voice for your advertising and marketing always comes from your customer.
That’s why Eugene Schwartz, every advertising nerd’s favorite classic copywriter, said:
Copy is not written. Copy is assembled.”
Schwartz was a genius at listening to the voice of real people who bought the products and services he was selling, and using their words and their emotions to put his persuasive copy together.
Where this can go dangerously wrong
But in my opinion, there’s a common and serious mistake that comes up a lot in that community.
It’s a truism among those folks that effective, conversion-oriented copywriting isn’t “creative.”
It’s supposed to be taken purely from customer research, without any of the writer’s art getting in the way of that customer-focused voice.
But that’s a gross oversimplification. A giant pile of word salad doesn’t turn into compelling copy all by itself.
It takes a skilled writer to take shape those observations into a coherent message.
It’s absolutely creative.
And that is the secret to great copywriting, especially today.
Copywriting, 2019 style
“Wordsmithing” alone isn’t enough to write copy that causes an audience to take action.
Smart copywriting in 2019 still relies on persuasion principles to make a strong sales case. These are things like the psychological observations Robert Cialdini describes in his books, and the marketing tips we share on Copyblogger.
Great headlines, solid benefits, clear calls to action, and all the other nuts and bolts that hold copy together.
But effective copywriting is also based on a three-part understanding:
- You cannot sell anything to someone who doesn’t want it.
- Effective selling comes from offering people what they want, in language that resonates with them.
- You find out what people want and how they talk about it by listening to them.
The business that puts together offers based on what people actually want will win.
The copywriter who can use the language of customers to describe that offer in a meaningful, resonant way will win.
The “one weird secret” to writing resonant copy
You know all those ads telling you “one weird secret” to whatever the thing is?
(I have a hunch that the “one weird secret,” no matter what the problem, is always Don’t Eat Bananas.)
I recently realized that I actually do have one weird secret for writing copy that helps an audience see, “Ah, ok, this company gets me and they’re the ones I’m going to pick to help me solve my problem.”
The secret is to be able to write with the voice of another person.
And you know who really gets how to do this? Fiction writers.
Novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights all know that their work will fall flat if they can’t create convincing characters.
Characters who move, behave, and speak in a way that we can recognize. Characters we can see ourselves in.
Fiction writers do that with a lot of observing and listening. They keep notes on what people do, how they look, what they say, and how they say it.
That’s one of the cornerstone practices of what I call the Portable Writer’s Studio journal process. Spending just a few minutes a day to observe and write down the everyday language that you hear all around you.
(By the way, you can pick up the replay, transcript, and a handy worksheet for the Portable Writer’s Studio session — all free — by dropping your information into the form below.)
And if you want to get really excellent at this, we cover it in much more depth in Week One of the Remarkable Writing Workshop, which starts up again on January 9.
Week One is all about Voice and Persona — how to use your writing voice in different ways, to get different effects. We’ll look at some writers who do this particularly well, and see what we can learn from their rituals.
We also talk about beefing up your own writer’s voice, so you can develop your own distinctive style.
The Remarkable Writing Workshop takes exercises and practices from fiction writing and blends them with the most important techniques from content marketing (like what I teach over at Copyblogger). The workshop helps you develop those “fiction writer” skills that will serve you when you’re creating empathetic content and copy.
If you’re interested, I’ll be sending out an email early in the new year to let you know how you can join us. Drop your information below and I’ll be in touch!