Posts Tagged ‘copywriting

24
Oct
17

Marketing to Data Ghosts

Today, many a creative brief is a direct outgrowth of market research. Clients amass largely anecdotal data, out of which they construct a generic audience model. With a gracious nod to reality, that model most often describes a range of “personas,” each with a different relationship to the product.

I’ve met these mannequinized stand-ins many times. Whether it’s Priscilla Proactive, Inez Informed or Ned Nervous, I’m resigned to sharing an agency’s post-modern decor with a gang of data ghosts. I shudder to think what agency life will be like when, inevitably, Google or IBM develops data-driven persona-androids to oversee every project.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Priscilla will tell the copywriters — joining the throng of intelligences brimming with advice. Nor will the art directors have it any easier.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car,” Inez will insist. “89.2% of me drive a Volvo.”

But in the paradigm to come, account execs will likely have the easiest adjustment. Not only have they been data-driven for decades but, like Ned, they’re used to worrying about everything.

“What if I don’t understand the concept?” Ned will ask. “Let’s put all the benefit bullets in the headline.”

Talk about preaching to the choir.

Data-driven drivel
Kidding aside, what I object to is this: The tacit assumption that anecdotal data, quoted verbatim, should dictate messaging strategy. It makes me wonder if a temporal-lobe suppressant has been mixed into the Kool-Aid of modern marketing theory. That’s the only way I can imagine that so many clients and agency-types fail to realize how unfounded that assumption is.

As an illustration, consider the following from Samsung:

The Infinity Display has an incredible end-to-end screen that spills over the phone’s sides, forming a completely smooth, continuous surface with no bumps or angles. It’s pure, pristine, uninterrupted glass. And it takes up the entire front of the phone, flowing seamlessly into the aluminum shell. The result is a beautifully curved, perfectly symmetrical, singular object.

The what, now? If the display is “incredible,” why should I believe you? But, OK, I guess you’re telling me the screen is smooth. So there’s no reason to mention its lack of bumps — as if any smooth screen could also be bumpy. Next, you assert that the screen’s smoothness is also evident in its lack of angles.

Now, in what branch of Geometry do angles intersect with smoothness? I’ll have to bleep over that, too, and assume the Samsung Galaxy 8 has a flat, smooth screen. Except now, you also assert that the screen glass is “pure, pristine, uninterrupted.” First off, “uninterrupted” is exactly what I expect from a smooth, flat screen. Second, there isn’t too much about “purity” that isn’t included in “pristine.” But the fact is, glass isn’t pristine. As most people know:

Glass is a combination of sand and other minerals that are melted together at very high temperatures.

You realize I understand English, right?

Mistaken-identity messaging
Maybe you think I’m an idiot, with no grasp of the cultural context that generated your message. Is the glass “flowing seamlessly [smoothly?] into the aluminum frame,” because it’s molten? Are you saying I’ll burn my fingers on your phone? Or is your target named Norman No-critical-thinking-skills?

I suspect there are two sources for this inflated sales pitch. First, is the conviction that flowery language confers an aura of Quality to any product. I half-expected to see the phrase “impeccable craftsmanship,” that turns up in luxury car spots — even though, as every former autoworker knows, today’s cars are cranked out by mindless robots.

The second source is Market Research, the false friend of lonely ideologues. No doubt “pure,” “pristine,” “seamless,” “incredible,” “end-to-end,” and “spills over” all tested well inside a qualitative research facility. The result? A hapless copywriter, enjoined to work each of those words into a product blurb. It’s a laughable exercise that reminds me of those Vocabulary Builder assignments I used to get in 5th Grade.

And that’s how Samsung ends up with 56 words, dedicated to telling me the phone has a smooth, wrap- around screen that I might enjoy if I had any reason to care about such things. Too bad no reason is given. Instead, Samsung wants me to know its phone is “singular.” Right. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is singular. There’s nothing like it in the world, and there hasn’t been for over 500 years.

The Samsung Galaxy 8? It’s only singular to a data ghost, just brought to life by a research associate on Acetazolamide.

23
Feb
15

False Efficiency: The Legacy Copy Pick-up Shtick

One of the most time-consuming aspects of copywriting, especially on the digital end of the spectrum, is dealing with legacy copy.

That’s because digital marketing has been around just long enough to have a graveyard of abominably bad text “practice.” Unfortunately, many of the residents of that graveyard have a nasty habit of popping up when your agency acquires a new client.

No, not a client you’d actually want to boast about in an interview. I’m talking about the kind whose Web presence would do better in the acute care ward of the Hospital for Special Surgery than an ad agency. At its root, the problem with such copy is that it results from a process of random accretion—and the older the site, the deeper and thicker the layers of accretion go. You’ll find copy from:

• Print ads crammed border to border with mind-numbing detail
• Sales kits picked up almost verbatim
• Failed thought-leader essays “from the desk of…” a sainted company founder

…and that’s just the beginning. If your client offers a range of technology products, you’re sure to encounter a Who’s Who of clichéd marketing speak: All the greatest hits from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including such memorable moments as

• Best in Class
• Best of Breed
• Top of the Line
• At Your Fingertips
• Innovative
• …in minutes
• …in seconds
• At the Flip of a Switch
• Scalable Solutions
• Customized
• Tailored
• Custom Tailored

And rest assured, this is the technology product you need to meet your technology product needs.

The value of words.
Tied inevitably to the creative misery this kind of copy imposes is the general lack of understanding of what’s required to overhaul it. All those who speak blithely of “picking it up with a few tweaks” are either completely misinformed or cynically indifferent to inherent realities.

Because the simple truth is that the vast majority of those huge catalog sites contain copy that is utterly unusable online. Writing, for example:

This innovative, best of breed solution is easily scalable to keep pace with your growing business

…tells me absolutely nothing and gives me no reason to add your product to MyCart.

Innovation? You can count the number of true innovations on your fingers and toes. The wheel comes to mind, as does the light bulb or the telephone. Even the combustion engine was merely an evolution out of existing tech.

But OK, let’s include that too—on the condition that when we reach the level of, say, the tumblers in a combination lock, or the plastic on the outside of a tablet computer, we recognize that they hardly count as innovation in a global sense.

More to the point, misusing a word lessens its value. Why does that matter? Because advertising with words means having respect for the value of words. It’s respect that involves refusing to casually exaggerate your brand’s attributes. Does your wireless translation tower do a pretty good job of keeping the signal constant? That’s great—but once you assert it towers above the competition, you’ve degraded your credibility.

After all, are you seriously claiming your competition doesn’t buy its circuit boards, chips, dials and readouts from the same technology vendors you do? If not, you might have the beginnings of a valid brand narrative.

The wages of acquiescence.
Regardless, creating good copy starts with realizing that it has nothing to do with selecting the right words. It is, rather, the reflection of a coherent train of thought. It’s not how many times you say “innovative” but how cogently you demonstrate that this innovation benefits your audience.

Now, I have no doubt I’m not the first person to deliver some version of this advice to brand managers. But the persistence of pointlessly verbose sales copy tells me it hasn’t been said often enough. More inexcusable is the willingness of ad agency denizens to “find efficiencies” by using legacy copy—without asking the Creative team to evaluate it for viability.

Because the laws of the advertising universe are singularly perverse in this regard. From the moment you agree to pick up the client’s copy, it becomes yours—subject to criticism and ripe for multiple rounds of scope-creep revisions.

“I don’t think the copy’s customer focused enough,” you’ll hear, from the very person who insisted you use it. Far better to reject that legacy copy and start from scratch. Because by the time your client is finished demanding changes, your “found efficiencies” won’t have saved one dime. Far more likely, the retrofitting process will result in cost overruns, and guess who’ll be expected to pay for them? Worse still, that eaten cost will only serve to undermine the brand.

20
Sep
14

Oh, Those Poppy, Snappy, Smart-mouthed, Rim-shot Headlines

Despite the myriad changes in the advertising world—and the world in general—since the glory days of the early 60s, many creatives still cling to a heroic model of the headline. They yearn for a slam-bam, one-shot, no-nonsense, short-and-sweet, straight-and-to-the-point summation of brand value that’s also provocative, a tad naughty and—of course—cast in the form of a pun.

Now, I have no arbitrary bias against traditional headlines. If a headline works, no one should care what ideo-theoretico-politico bandwagon it jumps on. But to assert that one and only one type of headline is essential to engage your audience is the purest form of nonsense I know.

Just pick your head up from the One Show annual and look around. You’re liable to notice that, aside from a very few universal truths, everybody’s not the same. Even if you could prove that snappy, humorous headlines were the most effective, you’d face a major hurdle: There’s no universal consensus on what’s funny.

It’s hard enough, as many a broadcast TV executive knows, to tap a vein of humor that resonates as well in Camden, NJ as it does in Carmel, CA. Trying to get a rise out of a global audience? Forgetaboutit.

That’s because humor is an outgrowth of a worldview. The ethnic jokes that once dominated stand-up routines in the last century succeeded solely on the basis a shared perspective: Anyone outside the mainstream was considered inherently funny.

Nowadays, even the concept of Mainstream itself has outlived its shelf life as more people recognize how vulnerable the Big Tent is to the winds of change. In light of that, can you seriously assert that only one headline style works?

Formula 10.
And yet it takes very little effort to find advertising and marketing pundits ready to assert they know the Top Ten Ways to grab attention with punchy headlines.

As I see it, the place to start in crafting headlines is the mindset of consumers. Yet, despite today’s insistent rhetoric about “audience engagement,” a copywriter often finds his or her real target is an ideologically-crazed creative director or a box-checking brand manager, whose only business goal is the attainment of plausible deniability.

“Hey, I followed best practice,” says the arrogant fool. “If it didn’t work, you must have targeted the wrong list or screwed up the body copy. But let’s have a breakdown session and figure out where you went wrong so you’ll know for next time.”

And yet, to reach an audience, you must ignore the static and dig out a nugget of truth from your own observations or from the pale wisps of insight that waft in from market research. Brace yourself—you might need to summon the courage to write a headline in plain language, simply because your audience perceives the topic in plain terms.

Needless to say, another factor that ought to enter into the equation is the realization that times change.  The “attitude” humor of the 70s and 80s has long since entered its geriatric phase. If Louis CK can still pull it off, it’s only because he tempers his jibes with a ring of self-deprecating awareness.

Formula zero.
In a related category, in the sense that they’re also the product of mechanical thinking, are headlines cut to fit a familiar template. You know them when you see them:

• Your [life process] is tough. Your [practical function] shouldn’t be
• The [first attribute]-est, [second-attribute]-est [service] just got [first attribute]-er & [second attribute]-er
• Looking for a [positive adjective] [positive noun] without all the [negative noun]?
• The-I-never-thought-[item]-could-[verb phrase]-so-good [same item]
• Why do 4-out-of-5 [practitioner or gender-specific role]s prefer [product or service]?

…and there are many more.

At issue is not templates  themselves, rather that 4-out-of-5 creatives who use them have little regard for the specific people they’re trying to reach. As in, anyone over 40 who has heard these gambits often enough to mistrust them—or anyone under 40 who’s already over you before you can get to the punch line.

That’s because the only way to connect is to look your audience in the eye. Only then do you have a chance to send the most important message of all:

I feel your pain and I’m here to help you relieve it.

If you can do that with a touch of drama or a dash of humor, so be it. Mind you, “pain” can be anything from a medical necessity to the need for a status-enhancing smartphone upgrade. But know that when the metrics come in, success won’t be measured in chuckles or tears, but in how many people empathized with your message, trusted you because of it—and acted on the basis of that trust.

25
Aug
14

Market Research: Railroading Their Train of Thought

Consider the following imaginary train of thought from an fictionalized character in an, as yet, unpublished novel about the advertising industry. The scene is a candle-lit table at a middle-brow bar in a major city:

The standard line about the value of market research? It’s been repeated so many times that…what’s that saying? Oh yeah, “it attains the status of truth.” And let me tell you, that’s in spite  of the fuzzy logic and waffley “results.” You ask me, any market research finding that can be found to be true can be teased out by common sense without spending thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, any finding that’s later proven wrong? Those guys will blame anything except their own so-called methodology. Trust me, they’ll blame the moderator, the media, the weather or, more often than not the “obvious” flaws in the creative. And this from a bunch of nerds who can’t write a headline to save their lives!

Now, surely, the previous two paragraphs sum up an outrageously distorted POV about the profession of market research, as dished out by a curmudgeonly personality who perhaps exhibits the classic symptoms of Oppositional Defianct Disorder. I’m told the character comes to a bad end in Chapter 27.

And yet, as I listen to the literal way market research data are often interpreted, I can’t help wondering if that same urge to generalize at all costs—just for the sake of achieving a tidy assessment—is the sole provenance of cranky nut cases with an axe to grind about scientific marketing methods. Hang out in the more data-driven agencies and you’ll hear some variation of the follow phrase at least once a week:

“This [headline, message, photo, illustration style] tested very well in research.”

…dripping with the unstated assumption that, of course, the element in question should appear word-for-word or pixel-for-pixel in each and every audience outreach from here on out. That is, of course, until the next round of market research yields a different response.

Definitions gone wild.
The problem with such a literal approach to interpreting market research data? Let’s start with the unexamined premise that information collected in a focus group meets the definition of “data” used by, say chemists, astrophysicists or even the current generation of science-savvy chefs. The data of hard science is numerical, measurable, repeatable.

By contrast, the survey responses and focus group voting we’re pleased to call data in market research is subjective—not only at a fundamental level, but also because we have no basis for knowing whether respondents are sharing their true feelings, or merely spitting out an answer that supports a cherished self-image. Market research methodology, we’re told, works around this issue by asking the same question from different angles and then checking for discrepancies.

Trouble is, people just aren’t so stupid that they can’t see this coming. Nor can we be scientifically certain that a question asked in a different way isn’t, essentially a different question, the answer to which has no relation to any quantifiable norm.

Truth, like fire. Heartwarming, handle with care.
No matter how you slice it, market research data is therefore interpreted for you, before you receive it—once by the participants and once by the researchers.

All the more reason not to treat it literally, but to continue the process of interpretation within the scope of your own discipline. Much as I value learning that consumers value products and services that give them a balance of freedom and control, I would never recommend a headline dominated by the words “Freedom” and “Control”—as I was required to produce early in my career— for two reasons.

First, the words themselves are generic, capable of almost universal application and, as such, brand neutral. Second, doing so ignores an important aspect about human nature: the need to save face. There are, in fact, many things about ourselves we know to be true, many of them are not things we’re ready to acknowledge out in the open. Instead, we need a buffer zone which, in the case of advertising, or PR or, dare I say, guerrilla marketing, means an approach that evokes our self-knowledge rather than slaps us in the face with it.

Contrary to the cowboy marketer’s mandate to put “the point” on stilts and showcase it in the most lurid colors available, my own unscientific research tells me thousands of people are turned off by unrelenting sales pressure. All the more so by unrelenting sales pressure that so obviously seeks to manipulate them by dragging their innermost thoughts into the spotlight.

Rather like the phrase “you know you want to” in a very different context, this kind of literal use of even the most spot-on observational analysis is doomed to failure.

17
Sep
13

Tease, Tell, Lead, Compel

One obstacle faced by advertising copywriters is widespread, passionate disagreement about what the job entails. Within the same agency, from team to team, or week to week, copywriters are asked to uphold any number of conflicting standards. That they must also obey a long-standing edict to write “poppy” headlines and “snappy” copy, makes this a challenge worthy of Rumpelstiltskin himself.

Why? Because neither of these adjectives has intrinsic meaning. It’s a case of:

You say promotional,
     And I say interruptive!
You say authentic,
     And I say too soft!
Stronger!
     Outdated!
Intriguing!
     Confusing!

Let’s call the approval process off!

Action words…
Now, assuming they can squeeze a concise definition of these attributes out of their colleagues, copywriters must still reconcile such abstract standards with the task of communicating to a new generation—who see classic 1960s advertising lingo as a dead language.

Besides, copywriting isn’t about adjectives—or fundamentally about words. A copywriter’s job is to instill motivation through a coherent thought process that can be articulated in immediate, emotional terms. As such, it’s a tough, acrobatic feat requiring maximum flexibility. Restrain a copywriter with arbitrary rules of style and you might as well ask a trapeze artist to execute a straddle whip in an evening gown.

In fact, great copy is much more than a string of words leading up to a codified call to action. Great copy is, itself, a call to action and anything conspiring to drown out that call impedes communication with your audience. Instead of focusing on rules, adjectives or magic headline formulas, copywriters need to focus on the answer to a basic question at the start of each project:

how do we get x to do y?

Everything else is a distraction, born of the absurd notion that certain hypnotic phrases have the power to overcome human will—leaving aside the question of whether that’s an ethical pursuit.

But there’s another delusion, snuggled inside that one, that works just as hard against your prospects for success: The idea that the goal of every communication is necessarily to sell something on the spot. While it may make sense from an ROI perspective, this kind of thinking ignores human nature.

 …and the Art of Seduction.
That’s because human nature thrives on seduction—especially when it’s formulated as an affirmation that we’re special, unique and endowed with our own private chip off the block of divine beauty. So unless you’re banking your entire brand strategy on a Crazy-Eddie-style discount marketing scheme, you’ll need to introduce the art of seduction into your practice.

Keep in mind, however, that what qualifies as seduction changes with time and context. In the 1980s, for example, Crazy Eddie’s campaign succeeded despite the odds by having it both ways.

On one level, the announcer’s manic delivery could be read as an engaging parody of a promotional style that sophisticated shoppers abhor and abjure. As such, it flattered more than a few thousand metropolitan egos. On another level, of course, it worked as pure snake-oil marketing. The point is, an approach like that isn’t written, but conceived from one seamless thought process.

You start with a clear picture of what you want consumers to do and, just as important, how you want them to be affected by your presentation. You may want to:

Tease—because you want consumers to grasp your brand value as part of a larger marketing ecosystem. This has made Apple billions.

Tell—to build the case for a new way of accomplishing a goal that may have nothing to do with commerce, as in a political campaign.

Lead—consumers to reshape their perception of a product, say, from “extravagant” to “essential,” an equation anyone who bought an SUV built like a Bradley armored vehicle in the 1990s is familiar with.

Compel—by creating inescapable emotional appeal, especially in, but not limited to, cause marketing.

By identifying a communication strategy based on clear creative goals, you now have a yardstick against which to measure the copy emerging from it.

This approach takes pressure off individual phrases—whether headlines or bullets—to drive the selling message home. It also scrapes away generations of encrusted marketing-speak. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it. In 2013, advertising isn’t about selling either the steak or the sizzle, but the positive frame of mind that sharing a steak with friends can bring to everyday life.

Try doing that with a roomful of balloons—or a headline announcing your prices are INSANE. Instead, put your dog-eared Marketing 101 phrase book in a drawer and let your creative team earn trust, loyalty and brand advocacy over the long term, by letting a coherent messaging strategy take precedence over vague generalities about copy style.




Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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