Copywriting Tip: Getting Started

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Questions to ask when you’re staring at a blank page.

When you’re staring at a blank page, trying to write copy for your latest marketing piece, start by asking these questions:

  1. Who are you talking to?
  2. What they need to know?

Recently, I had someone reach out asking for help with writing a page for their website. They didn’t know what exactly they wanted or needed. This makes it tough for them (and for me!), but if you start with these basic questions, you can easily get on track.

The first question can be answered a lot of different ways. You may have data insights that tell you age, geographic location, and all kinds of good information. But, don’t worry if you do not have that level of information. Even if you are just making a really good guess at who your audience is, it will help.

The second question can be tricky. There’s a difference between what you want your customer to know and what they need to know. Here’s an anecdote from my personal experience to bring this to life.

Back when I finally decided to get a smartphone, I went into my provider’s shop to pick out a phone. I was leaning heavily towards the iPhone, but wasn’t 100% sure. So, when the salesperson approached me, I told him I was looking at an iPhone, but was open. And, I let him tell me about Android phones.

He started listing off a bunch of benefits and features (at the time) of Android phones: better for movies and games, larger screen, etc.. Every benefit was “meh” to me, because I didn’t want a smartphone to watch movies and play games on. He didn’t ask me what I was looking for in a smartphone, which (at the time) was to take pictures, access social media, and browse the internet. If he had asked that first, he would have been able to tell me how Android phones were able to do those tasks…or tell me that an iPhone was the better choice.

Sometimes, telling your customer what they need to know just means prioritizing the benefits of your product/service differently within your copy. Tell one group of customers about the convenience. Tell another group about the quality. Simply, tell them about the benefits that are most helpful to them.

Once you know the answers to those 2 questions, the information you need to include in your copy will become clear and the words will come easy.

Copywriting Tip: Help Your Customer Choose the Right Product for Them

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Bed Bath & Beyond Mailer

This one comes from the latest mailer I received from Bed Bath & Beyond. In general, you need to tell your customer about the product benefit first (how it helps them) and then tell them about the features (how it does what it does, also known as the “reason to believe”).

In many cases like curtains, the benefit is generally understood: block out light, create privacy, and/or decoration. Now what? Of course, you can tell them about the features—quality fabrics, designer styles—but go above and beyond and walk them through selecting the perfect curtains for them, like this little “Windows 101” blurb does.

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Bed Bath & Beyond “Windows 101” Blurb

Bonus: your brand/company looks like an expert and we know from one of my previous copywriting tips, this starts to build customer trust.

When should you do this? Well, it’s all about knowing your customer. If you’re an insider, selecting window treatments may seem easy, duh. But, some people aren’t interior designers and haven’t thought about window treatments ever—maybe they’re furnishing their first home. Are you writing for one of those people? Then, help them through the decision-making process. A quick look at Bed Bath & Beyond’s website shows they have 1,858 window curtains and drapes. That’s a lot! Help the customer by writing simple instructions.

In short, know who your customer is and help them choose the right product.

Copywriting Tip: You Do You

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Spread from a recent Lands’ End catalog.

When you sit down to write copy for your business, write like yourself—in your own voice. Or, if you’re writing for someone else’s business, write like that business sounds.  In short: you do you. Don’t try to be someone (or something) else.

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The rhyme! The exclamation points!

There are plenty of “rules” for copywriting out there: don’t use puns, don’t be precious, and so on. But the most important rule is to write like yourself—or if you’re a copywriter, write like the brand. Case in point, Lands’ End. The copy here could be considered corny. “Brassiere” and “disappear” rhyme, for goodness’ sake! (Obviously the reason the writer didn’t choose “bra.”) But, this is Lands’ End. I’ve seen this tone of voice in their catalog before. Lands’ End does Lands’ End, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it definitely will catch the eyes of the right audience. (And I, for one, like rhymes…and Lands’ End jeans!)

But, easier said than done, right? I wish with certainty I could say it was Brené Brown who I watched/read a story about how she took some colleagues/friends to a beach house for a few days in order to write one of her books. The process went something like this: she’d lecture her friends about a topic, they would take notes, and then afterwards, she would collect the notes, return to her room, and feverishly write about the topic for the book. The point of this was so that she would write more like she spoke—write truer to her own voice. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything in my notes about this being Brené Brown and a Google search is fruitless to confirm it. It’s a good anecdote, though. Write like you talk to your friends or colleagues. You surely aren’t carefully branding your interactions with your friends. You’re just you.

What if you’re a copywriter writing for a brand or company that doesn’t sound like you, though? You’re held to a tone of voice that sounds like that brand/company. You can’t go rogue and write in the way you want to and sometimes you really don’t sound like that brand/company. Here are a couple of things you can do to understand the tone of voice:

1.) Ask for brand guidelines. Study the internal documents that lay out what the brand should look and sound like. If it’s a thorough set of guidelines, there will be a section on the tone of voice. If there isn’t a tone of voice section, study the tone of the visuals and the copy used to explain them.

2.) Read any and all copy that the brand has produced—website, social media feeds, direct mailers, brochures, and so on. This works wonders. Have you ever read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street? It’s hard to read it and NOT start thinking/writing in Cisneros’s distinctive tone of voice. But, check and make sure that the creative director wants the copy to sound like it—perhaps you’re being asked to write new copy because the old copy isn’t the right tone.

You do you. Or, for just a bit of time, become the brand, and then you do you.

Copywriting Tip: Pick the Perfect Details

Rifle Paper Copy
Rifle Paper Co. Packaging

“The devil is in the details,” they say, but the brand is in them, too. I recently purchased some Rifle Paper Co. Valentine’s Day cards. Of course I flipped the package over and read every bit of copy. To repeat that these cards are printed in the USA (it’s already in the “Made in USA” at the bottom) and to explain how the sets are hand-assembled in their Florida studio does a lot to express the Rifle Paper Co. brand.

None of the copy there in the middle is necessary, but it paints a picture of the company caring about the cards as much as the person ordering them does. This is stationery–a personal, caring touch is what it’s all about! “Studio” brings to life the artistic value of these cards. “Florida” further brings the brand to life. It doesn’t feel like a big, anonymous company.

That’s all to say, the details you choose to include or exclude from your package copy matters. It exposes what your brand cares about and what it stands for. While packaging has a lot of requirements, the copy you put into the empty spaces can have a huge impact.

The key is to carefully select the details. There’s no need to put every single little detail of your brand or company’s story onto a package. And, don’t feel pressured to exaggerate the details in an attempt to make your story sound like you think it should. Every brand and company has a unique perspective and the details will show it and connect with your customer.

Copywriting Tip: Educate the Reader

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Hang tag from Lands’ End jeans.

One of my favorite copywriting techniques is educating the reader. There are a couple of benefits of doing this. Lands’ End did a fine job of it on this tag that was on a pair of jeans I recently purchased.

Here, they’re teaching me what “crocking” means. Surprisingly, I didn’t know what this word meant, even after writing for a fashion e-commerce site for a few years! There really is no need to look it up in the dictionary. The parenthetical expression defines it: “staining of other fabrics or skin.” (For the record, the dictionary definition is “to transfer color.

The effect of this technique is twofold: the brand gains authority in the readers’ (customers’) minds. As in, I now know that Lands’ End truly understands denim. Second, the readers feel included because they now know this specialized language, too. If the copy hadn’t explained what “crocking” is, the readers may have been confused if they didn’t know the word.

Subtle is key. There’s no need to be patronizing when using this technique and like all good things, moderation is best.