23
Aug
15

“Killer Copy”: Drowning in a Cardboard Sea

Stick with copywriting long enough and eventually someone will ask you to “refresh” an existing block of copy—whether it’s a one-page promo or an entire Web site.

At first, and I have to say I get fooled every time, it sounds like your client really wants to revitalize the tried and true. They’re looking, you delude yourself, for a more clearly defined brand voice. Or maybe just something less boring.

If you’re dealing with a consumer product, it’s even easier to get snookered, as your imagination goes into overdrive to create a distinctive persona for the…whatever. And sadly, that’s where all the frowning starts.

In the first place, you rarely get the full story from your Account team, for the simple reason that an MBA doesn’t include any meaningful training in critical thinking. All that talk about “fresher?” It all boils down to “shorter.” Turns out some market researcher discovered a roomful of lie-abouts only wanted to look at pictures.

So you’re enjoined to write something “catchy, fast” or my personal favorite, “smart.” Smart copy for people the average marketer believes are too dumb to read more than 50 words at a time? I don’t think so.

Who are you talking to?
If your goal is more effective communication, you need to start with a clear picture of your core audience. Not, mind you, some marketing-conference abstraction like “Fixers and Forgetters” or, say, “Dipsomaniacal Nincompoops,” but real people who actually have a snowball’s chance of buying your product.

And that has to be your most important demographic profile. Yet most marketing is done without the slightest acknowledgement of how many options consumers have, including the option to live without the product. Leaving aside the 50 gazillion people who rush out to buy the latest i-gadget, you’ll need a whole lot more than a bunch of Reasons to Believe to make your brand top of mind for any consumer.

Your marketing approach has to grow directly out of the personality of that select group of customers who think you’re swell. And depending on what you’re offering, snappy headlines, catchy lead-ins—like the ones on Yahoo that someone is perpetually telling me to emulate—may not be the ticket to higher market share.

You might, instead, have to tell the truth.

Because that’s what effective copy is about. Getting the truth out in a way that’s memorable, precisely because it lets the product speak for itself. To do that, you have to unlearn everything you’ve either picked up by osmosis from today’s degenerate advertising culture, or from those ridiculously terse maxims that revolve around letters of the alphabet. As if real communication were ever a formula!

Speak up, in a clear voice.
That’s it, forget about the 4Ps, the 8Ms, the 6 tips “every copywriter should know“—and just speak, person to person. Sure, you might need to create a persona for yourself to write through, but that’s a standard part of the creative tool kit. If all you’ve got up your sleeve is a list of best practices, do us a favor and write a textbook on marketing communications instead. We all need a good thick book to prop up that wobbly bookcase in the den.

Anyway, once you’ve found your voice, get to the core message right away. Remember, you’re asking someone to turn off Game of Thrones to read about your client’s…whatchmacallit. As I see it, your best shot is to engage your targets as real human beings, not prey on their fears about missing the deal of a lifetime. If, and I mean if, the product has something to offer, its benefits don’t need all that hype. For instance, any phone company leading with the phrase:

“Pricing Plans You Might Actually Understand”

…would immediately get my attention.

But that’s where we come full circle. Because the desperate cry for someone to punch up the copy always comes from clients who know their product is weaker than weakness itself.

Freshen the copy? That’s putting the tablet before the ISP—unless you’ve actually put in the time and imagination to develop a meaningful product and now have the courage to sell it.

And to everyone who’s worried about alienating an audience by being too definitive, let me point out that nothing on this Earth is more alienating than the sugar-coated oatmeal that generally passes for “killer copy.” You’d do better going door-to-door, than drowning your pitch in a cardboard sea of punchy phrases.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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