Podcast Episode 30: It’s not about you – the art and the science of commercial copywriting
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Commercial copywriting is not what most people picture when they think about freelance writing. It is so different to typical fiction or non-fiction writing, and in this episode, Lorrie and I talk about why this is, what PPC ads can teach us about why good copy might not be that good, and what the deal is with features versus benefits.
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LH: Hello, and welcome to Episode 30 of A Little Bird Told Me. I can’t believe we’ve got there but it’s Episode 30, yeah!
LH: So this is Episode 30, 3-0, of the podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.
PW: Episode 30 did you say?
LH: I did say Episode 30.
LH: Yay! So if you’d like to listen all the way to Episode 40, and hopefully 50 and beyond, you can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, including RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where there are plenty of tips, tricks and topics to enjoy and you can also find links to our websites and social media feeds. So you can come and have a chat with us about any of the topics we cover in this podcast, and any we haven’t covered for that matter.
I’m Lorrie Hartshorn.
PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts and today we are talking about copywriting. Both Lorrie and I we do different styles of writing in different parts of our work and one of those that we both do is commercial copywriting.
In A Little Bird Told Me we do look at different aspects of copywriting regularly but what we’ve talking about today is quite specifically about the art and the science of copywriting because the thing is it’s quite a unique skill and it involves the techniques that don’t tend to be found very often in fiction or non-fiction writing.
LH: Yeah, I think it’s definitely true that copywriting’s a very distinct skill and it’s very different from what people think of when they think of writing. You know I’ve chatted to people and they say, “So what do you do?” and you go, “Right, well I’m a writer” and they go, “Okay, what do you write?” You know they’re automatically thinking like novels.
LH: I say, “Well I’m a copywriter” and they’re like, “Right” and you start to see their eyes sort of glazing over a little bit. It’s kind of like, you know, there’s not really much of an awareness of really the bare bones of copywriting as opposed to just writing.
PW: Yeah, even in business context at networking meetings if I introduce myself as a copywriter some people just even know what it means.
LH: Mmm, yeah, they mistake it for copyright as in intellectual property.
LH: You know so while copywriting is still very creative you’re actually dealing with like a whole framework, depending on the kind of document or text that you’re trying to produce, and there are rules that you have to learn and conventions that you need to respect and all kinds of things that you have to take into account, such as SEO, formatting, you know if you’re writing on a website that’ll be different for if you’re writing on social media or in a print document or on something else. Copywriting is as much, for me at least, about skill as it is about talent and skills have to be learnt properly and thoroughly for the results to be any good.
PW: Yeah, in many forms of writing that you might do you’re trying to express yourself in a way that’s pleasing to read, you might want to show off a bit with a bit of flowery language or astound people with your incredible progressions of logic, and that is great; however, not when you’re copywriting.
Copywriting isn’t about what you can do. It isn’t about you at all. It’s about your client and I’d say more importantly about your client’s client or their customers or prospects.
LH: No, absolutely, I think you’re completely right. I think copywriting is, to a certain extent, it’s much more utilitarian than just other forms of writing. You know you’re writing for a reason, it’s not just for the pleasure of writing but the pleasure that your readers are going to get. You know your client needs their clients to get something from what they’re reading, whether it’s a general feeling of benevolence towards the company, they need to be informed about some sort of progress that the company’s making, they need to be persuaded to buy a service or a product. You know there has to be a purpose behind it.
While we’re actually on the topic one more thing that I do want to mention is I think it’s a not so well known fact about copywriting and that’s it’s different from content writing.
PW: Yeah, it’s kind of like there’s a Venn diagram, isn’t there, and there’s a crossover but that doesn’t mean that they’re the same thing.
LH: Yes. I always struggle with Venn diagrams, especially the ones that have got three circles. I always sort of try and work them out. I sit there going, “Right, that and that and then that and that. Oh, it does work. That and that.” Every time I found myself astounded, I’m not quite sure why. Bar graphs and pie charts don’t quite have the same effect. It’s quite overwhelming, but yes, copywriting, content writing; I don’t want people going away from this podcast thinking, “Oh, well I don’t do copywriting, I do content writing so, you know, these tips don’t apply to me.” The term ‘copywriting’ is often used as a coverall term for content production and to a certain extent that’s fine and that’s really, I think, how we’re going to be using it in this.
PW: Yeah. There are also people who believe very strongly that copywriting should only be used to describe sales copywriting but, again, that’s not what we’re talking about today; we’re not talking just about sales writing but as kind of commercial writing in a wider context.
LH: Yeah. I think because the word ‘copywriting’ came from the advertising industry, didn’t it?
PW: Yes, yeah, ad copy.
LH: Yeah. So I think that’s why people go along with that. So yes, definition pure of ‘copywriting’ is producing text that is trying to persuade your readers to get on board with a certain point of view or to persuade them to buy or desire a certain product or service but for the purposes of this podcast whichever type of writing you do, either content or copywriting, and it’s likely to be both unless you’re writing purely sales and ad copy, most of the points, if not all of them, are going to apply to you because at the end of the day you’re writing on behalf of your client and that’s what we’re trying to tackle in this episode.
PW: Yeah. So yes, so that’s the definition of copywriting we’re working with today and as we mentioned above one of the key things about copywriting is that you have to put your own preferences aside. You may end up writing something that you don’t love from an artistic point of view but that’s not the point of copywriting.
LH: Yeah, 100%. You know as Pip’s just mentioned writing on behalf of somebody else means that the first thing you have to do, as long as you’re happy to take on the brief, is to put your own feelings about a certain subject or product or service or company on one side and decide what you’re actually trying to achieve with the content that you’re creating.
LH: A point that follows on from this is that you need to put your personal writing style on one side. Now speaking from experience I write for clients in the waste management and compliance sector.
PW: She does.
LH: I do, lucky me.
LH: I also write for clients in the fashion, style and beauty sector and everyone will be going, “Mmm, that sounds nice” but for me it’s just as terrifying. You know I’m not… in fact it’s more terrifying actually because I’m at home with the conventions in sort of environmental services.
PW: Yeah, yeah.
LH: Whereas fashion, it’s slightly more subjective.
PW: But I have to say, listener, Lorrie always dresses beautifully and she is very stylish but she’s not a big like talking all the time about style and always wearing labels and all that stuff.
LH: I never wear labels.
PW: Yeah, exactly, and so it’s not that Lorrie doesn’t have a sense of style because she very much does but, again, that’s not the point of the writing she’d be doing in that sector.
LH: Aww, I love that you just leapt to my defence and told everyone how stylish I am.
PW: You are; you always look gorgeous.
LH: Aww, aww listeners! Get a load.
LH: Aww. Well I feel completely off topic now.
PW: Just bask for a moment.
LH: I’ll just bask in the glory.
LH: So my point was going to be…
PW: Yes, sorry [laughs].
LH: …about my clothing and style, is that, listeners, do you think I write for these clients in the same way? Absolutely not, 100% not, and do you think that either of the writing styles, or any of the writing styles, that I create for my clients are actually ‘me’ and, again, no chance. I’ve no outside interest in waste management or scrap metal recycling or micro polymer processes. I don’t sit down and read you know reports unless I need to for work, you know it’s not bedtime reading for me, and nor do I have anything more than an extremely fleeting interest in high fashion. What I do have an interest in is writing and in creating and maintaining an authentic voice for every single one of my clients and there has to be a voice that reflects their mission, their values, their personality, in the case of individuals or prominent individuals in a company, or their brand, in the case of a company as whole, and it needs to be a voice that appeals to the target audience and gives that audience what it needs in order to have faith in the client.
LH: So a fun and frolicky tone with lots of exclamation marks won’t work for metal recycling experts but it does the trick for beauty bloggers in the 18 to 25 age range.
LH: You know likewise fashion fans don’t tend to want heavy stats and information on sort of legislative processes. So it’s just horses for courses really.
PW: That is a really good point. Often in social media writing I use statistics, especially early on. If you’re trying to be persuasive about a particular service, for instance, then it can be really useful to say however many million people use that service because that may make businesses go, “Oh, I should be on there” but, again, when I’m writing about garden furniture then the number of people who have a bench in their garden is entirely irrelevant.
LH: [Laughs] “One million British people have benches.”
PW: “Why don’t you?”
LH: You’re missing out.
PW: So yeah, but as well as writing in different styles and tones for different sectors you are also writing for different readers too; so you can’t write the same way in a light hearted, informal blog post as you do in a detail rich industry specific press release, even if they are for the same client. I mean it just highlights why the skills involved in copywriting are different to writing, I don’t know, your own blog for instance because if you’re feeling light and cheerful you can write a light and cheerful blog post, but if you’re feeling light and cheerful and your client today is a funeral director you need to put your good mood aside and get serious.
LH: [Laughs] yeah, I think that’s a good point, I definitely think that’s a good point, especially the point that you made about, you know, even if you’re writing for the same client the purpose of the text, you know if you’re talking about a blog post versus a press release; you know I have one client and their blog posts, by their choice, are kind of tabloid.
LH: They’re kind of like matey language, you know lots of exclamation marks and I know some copywriters and content writers think that’s like a hanging offence but I don’t. You know if my client wants a cheeky chappy style voice for their blog posts and their news articles then that’s exactly what I’ll give to them because I’ve had a look at their target market, I’ve had a look at their target audience and I think it’s the sort of thing they’d be receptive to.
PW: I think this highlights actually why research is so important in copywriting. You have to really know your clients and you have to really know their target market. You can’t just learn about the topic you’re writing about because like Lorrie says if they’ve got an 18 to 25 market you do tackle that differently to if they’ve got a 55 to 70 market and you have to have your head round that before you can even start really.
LH: Definitely because at the end of the day you’re not you, you’re your client. You’re not going to stick your own name at the bottom of a piece of writing; you are your client’s official voice, especially in something like a press release.
LH: To go back to what Pip was just saying, you know you need to keep it authentic but serious. You know you can’t… I don’t keep the same cheeky chappy tone in a press release for my clients but then again if I’m writing a press release for my cheeky chappy client and I know it’s only going to be a regional subject I might keep it a little bit more informal because I know the regional newspapers.
PW: Yeah and also like if you’ve got a company who, say, sells a product and they sell it direct to clients but they also sell it wholesale to businesses then the writing you would do for them to appeal to customers who buy direct from them is very different from the writing you’d do to appeal to customers who sell their product in their stores.
LH: Yeah, B2B versus B2C.
PW: Exactly, and so in every way there can be so much variety whether you’re working for 10 different clients or one client but with different purposes.
LH: That’s a really, really good point you know, and I did like the point you made as well about sort of the mood that you’re in.
LH: Because again, you know, I started out as a translator and there’s this concept called ‘the invisibility of the translator’ and some people are pro it and some people are anti and I’m pro. You know I think that a translator should be invisible and that’s the mark of a good translation, but I also think it can be applied to copywriting.
LH: I think you do need to be invisible. Your client needs to shine through rather than yourself and the same goes for the mood that you’re in on that day. You can be having the best or the worst day of your life; you have to keep it out of your writing for clients.
LH: You do. Sometimes I even end up laughing to myself, because I’m like that, just when I think about how little clue my clients have got, and indeed should have, about what’s going on with me on that particular day. You know it can be my birthday, I might have the giggles, I might have just had a laugh and a joke with Pip, or I might be full of feminist rage, you know maybe there’s a law that’s been passed I’m not happy with and I’m feeling a bit of an activist, whatever, I keep it to myself.
PW: So yeah, even in your dealings with clients you might be having the most frantic week you’ve ever had but when you get an email from a client and you reply you can’t go, “Oh my God, I don’t have time” or, “Stop sending things my way for God sake, give me a break” or you can’t even say, “I’m in a really big rush but this looks okay.” You have to reply just as if it was any other day and you have to keep it under control, but yeah, like Lorrie was saying, in the copywriting itself you might be feeling rotten, you might be full of a cold, your girlfriend’s just dumped you, the roof’s leaking…
PW: I know, but if you’re writing a blog post for a comedy promoter you know it has to be upbeat and happy.
LH: Aww, you made me really sad now just thinking about that poor hypothetical copywriter.
PW: Aww [laughs].
LH: Listeners, if you’re having a horrible week come and talk to us.
PW: Yeah, it’ll be okay.
LH: It will, it’ll be fine. Do you know actually I was having a really stressful week a couple of weeks back and I was on my personal Twitter account, which isn’t linked to my work at all. So I was having a bit of a rant saying how stressed I was and somebody sent me calmingmanatee.com and it’s so lovely. You click on it and there’s a picture of a lovely looking manatee and it says, “Don’t worry sweetie, I’ll put the kettle on” and there are loads to choose from and I actually felt really calm, it was so lovely.
PW: We will add that link to the show notes if you’re having one of those days…
LH: We will.
PW: …where only a calming manatee will do the trick.
LH: Yeah, they’re lovely. I love them. So even if you’re having the worst day in the world, even if your life is horrible and you can be typing through the tears sadly if it takes a calming manatee to get through it that’s what you’ve got to do. If you’ve got to go and chat to somebody by email… you know Pip and I mouth off to one another by email all the time, like, “Why has this happened? What’s with this timing? You know I haven’t heard from this client for a week and now they’re emailing me at 7 am on a Saturday with a load of work and I’ve just not got time and what am I going to do?” and it all works out in the end but it’s good to be able to let off steam.
PW: Yeah. Another thing that’s important to remember about copywriting is that sometimes what’s effective in copywriting is not the most beautiful wording or the prettiest words.
LH: Yes, oh gosh yes. I’ve got a client, lovely client, long term client, but their name sounds like a plural.
PW: Oh yeah.
LH: You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?
LH: Aha. Well this nameless name ends in an s and we’ve had so many battles, this client and I, about apostrophes and pronouns, you know, and I would say we’ve had these battles in the past but it’s been quite recent as well.
PW: [Laughs]. So past is yesterday.
LH: That’s true you know, and one minute the client… well I say one minute, for a while the client will be happy with one thing but then somebody in-house will spot an apostrophe that looks weird and it’s completely grammatically correct but you know they say, “Well it looks weird” and my clients are in their sector and I’m not, so at a certain point I have to kind of really take on board what they say. So it’s got to the point now where I’ve had to accept that my client prefers, and this is significantly prefers, a grammatically incorrect approach.
PW: Ooo, that must be painful.
LH: It really hurts, it really does. I have to chop the possessive s off funny name and I have to refer to the company as ‘they’ instead of ‘it’, even though it’s a single company. So you know it’s one single noun and it drives me to distraction but…
PW: I can imagine.
LH: …if it works for the client, this is it, if it works for my client and there’s no negative effects on the audience, like I said earlier you have to do your research, then I have to put my feelings to one side because there’s no point being precious about it, even though I shudder at using that kind of grammar in my own writing, my writing, writing that’s attributed to me because it’s not my writing, it’s not my voice.
PW: Yeah, yeah. I’ve even read certain copywriters who specialise in the big dramatic sales, you know the long form sales letters that go on and on, I’ve even read some of them saying that they don’t care about their grammar and spelling even because buyers feel reassured by things, spelling mistakes. Now I would never go that far just because it would keep me awake at night…
PW: …knowing that I’d left typos in and I don’t think that works for every audience but it kind of reminds me a bit about the… about kind of George Bush and his inability sometimes to form sentences was some people very much criticised him for it but others kind of found it reassuring and humanising. I would be on the very much criticising side of things but yeah, I wouldn’t go that far but it does go to show that it’s never as simple as getting it correct necessarily and sometimes if you’re writing something salesy you might find yourself cringing at using certain clichés or dramatic wording but sometimes it’s exactly what’s called for. It’s not something you’d submit as part of a Creative Writing MA but it’s doing the job it’s supposed to do.
LH: Yeah, I had to use the phrase, and this is a true story, I had to use the phrase, ‘cast iron, rock solid 60 day bullet proof guarantee’ the other day.
PW: Oh dear.
LH: I actually had to write that and I had to write it seriously, ‘bullet proof, rock solid’ and I’ve used ‘solid gold’ before as well. I feel like it’s a confessional but you’ve got a new Pope, it’s time to confess.
LH: Yeah. No, I had to ‘cast iron, rock solid, 60 day bullet proof guarantee’ and it works, it’s horrible.
PW: Yeah, that’s the thing. We kind of wish that writing beautiful prose would work but it doesn’t necessarily.
LH: Well no. You know some of the sales copy that I’ve done, in fact most of it, the target market is sort of men from 30 to 55 say, and they tend to be quite high earners, so doctors, lawyers, architects, you know all that kind of thing but research into direct sales copy shows that this kind of hyped up ridiculous copy really works and less subtle approaches, and we have tried them, they really, really, really don’t work but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt the copywriter.
LH: No, but it’s an interesting point because when I was recruiting recently, as I mentioned in a previous episode, I had people getting in touch saying, “Oh but I have a really good level of language and grammar” and you know yes, good for you, great and you know it’s the basic starting point for a career in writing, any kind of writing, but it’s not enough, you know it’s really, really not enough, and sometimes it can be a bit of a distraction because, as you’ve just said Pip, you know you can’t sleep at night if there’s a typo. You know I do the same thing, I’ll send something off that I’ve read and read and read and proofread and proofread and proofread and the minute I click send I’m like “Oooh, but what if there was a typo?” you know. So it can be a bit of a distraction and it can stop you looking at other things in the text.
PW: I think, especially if you’re going to do… end up with a piece of writing that’s not necessarily 100% grammatically correct, like Lorrie was saying with her client with the apostrophe and plural situation, I think it’s one of those situations where you need to know how to do it right in order to then be able to do it wrong, if you know what I mean?
LH: Yeah, you need to be able to decide how much you can deviate from grammatical norms for example.
PW: Yeah, like you have to know the rules in order to break them I would say.
LH: No, I think that’s a really good piece of advice, yeah.
PW: So it is important to know this stuff but when you’re doing commercial copywriting it’s also important that you can sometimes put it aside.
LH: Yeah and know when to put it aside based on research and reading; you know don’t just get bored of correct grammar and then chuck it out of the window.
PW: [Laughs] I’m bored of commas.
LH: I don’t understand. Do you know honestly, I’ve had clients say to me before, “That comma looks funny.”
LH: And it’s like, “No, it’s fine”, “Could you just check it?” I was like, “No, I checked it when I wrote it. It’s fine.” I’m a bit precious about my commas, I do. Well I studied German so you know how accurate…
PW: I do, yes.
LH: …commas, otherwise nothing makes sense, and the same in English actually; I don’t understand where this idea’s come from that commas are optional because sometimes I really, really struggle to get the meaning from a sentence and I’ll realise that actually it’s because like a subordinate clause hasn’t been comma’d off.
LH: Oh it does hurt but that…
PW: Yeah, I was editing a CV yesterday that was very, very technical and had very few commas in it and they were just using incredibly long sentences with lists of… it just appeared like long lists of buzz words on every line and because there were no commas, or very few commas, I was having… it was almost like a foreign language in that I was desperately trying to work out where the different clauses were.
LH: Yeah, you try to find parts of sentences, don’t you?
PW: That’s it because if it wasn’t buzz words it was technical language and it took some work I have to say.
LH: No, I imagine it would. You know, but sort of to get back on track a little bit I suppose you know you need to be able to decide when and how to break the rules, as Pip’s just said. You know you need to be aware of when you’re publishing and where you’re publishing. You know, say, if you’re publishing content that’s going to be read online you can have sentences that are reasonably long but only very occasionally, you know you need to keep your sentences quite short. If you’re writing for video scripts you need to keep your sentences really, really, really short, like artificially short.
LH: You know you wouldn’t… you don’t write rhetoric in the same way that you would speak, for example. You know rhetoric is not the same as dialogue for example. So if you’ve had experience writing fiction with characters speaking in it don’t assume that you could write video scripts because, again, there are different conventions and you need to know those. Whereas if you’re writing a printed report or an academic report you can have a sentence that’ll run off, you know run away for a whole paragraph and it’s not a problem.
PW: Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot recently about PPC, which is pay per click advertising, which any internet user is familiar with. It’s the kind that you see on the right hand side of your Google search results or your Facebook page. Now to do well PPC ads need to be split tested, almost ad infinitum really, where one example is tested against another to see which is the most effective and they do that to get the exact rewrite combination of headline, image and text and so they test two options, see which gets the better results and then test that one against another, and again and again and again, and people who really know what they’re doing with regards to managing PPC ads can find that a difference of one word can change conversion rates massively.
Now PPC is kind of an extreme case but what it is is a really good example of where science actually overtakes art in copywriting because it doesn’t matter if the final PPC ad sounds clunky or if it repeats a word, or if it’s a bit of a mouthful, because if it’s proven itself to get more conversions than all the other wordings then that’s the one to go with. It’s kind of copywriting in a quite extreme nutshell really.
LH: My husband does loads and loads and loads of PPC stuff. He’s a marketer rather than a copywriter and it’s something we butt heads over, sort of good naturedly really, because I know, I know, of course I do, that the science has to overtake the art but when he’s showing me something that’s converting really well I’ll look it, I’ll go, “Well the grammar’s wrong” [laughs].
PW: I know, I know. You just see ads all the time.
LH: Oh I totally do.
PW: Yeah, at the top of my Gmail and it’s just, “Oh why did you word it like that?” and it may be, we don’t know from the outside, it may be that they’re rubbish at PPC or it may be that they’ve done 24 versions of multivariate testing and that one is converting massively.
LH: Yeah. My husband loves split testing. I don’t understand at all. He’s way more analytical than I am but he loves split testing, absolutely loves AB testing.
PW: I see that it is vitally important, especially for anything salesy, but I do think you need a certain type of brain that I don’t have.
LH: That’s it.
PW: So I’m glad there are other people who are very good at it and very passionate about it because I do appreciate that it’s really important but I’m also glad that it’s not me that’s looking at graph after graph after graph.
LH: No he really loves it.
PW: Yeah, to see where the ‘grab it now’ or ‘get it now’ works better.
LH: Yeah, I mean he finds it really exciting because obviously once you get a spike in a graph and you see that one particular colour, you know background colour, you know sticking a coloured filter on a photo, as you’ve just said, you know changing ‘grab to get’ and changing it back again, you know trying it out with all different colours and different pictures and you know he loves it, really finds it exciting but, you know, like you say, rather him than me. I’ll stick with my decent writing thank you.
PW: Something else to bear in mind is that some clients, especially if they’ve got a dedicated communications or marketing department, will have style guides that they send to any copywriters they work with and these can contain guidelines that hurts your grammatically correct heart.
I had one recently that said very clearly that there should be no more than one sentence per paragraph.
PW: I know.
LH: No. Hang on, hang on, no, no, no, hang on, one sentence per paragraph?
PW: Yes, one sentence per paragraph because their reasoning was that people have no attention span these days.
LH: Well in like long copy sales letters or online yes, yeah one sentence per paragraph, two absolute max.
PW: Yeah but this was blog posts, you know, but you know if that’s what they’re paying you to do it’s pretty much what you do. If it’s something that is really blatantly wrong you might want to carefully point it out to them but often that’s not your place and you do your best with what they give you.
LH: Yeah, I suppose it’s a good point really because it might rankle but you know, and it is worth pointing out to clients if there’s a specific problem with something that they’ve included in their style guide, and whether that’s an actual style guide or just a set of guidelines or preferences that they’ve got, if you can see something that’s going to have like an actively detrimental effect on their marketing, like it’s going to make them look daft, then I suppose it’s best to gather data to back up your claim and then put it to them in a polite and confident way and just let them do what they’re going to do with it, but it’s also good, I think, to note it down somewhere and to know what you’re talking about and then to bear it in mind in future because if you’ve flagged it up once it may be that that’s because it’s going to cause issues in the future.
PW: That’s very true, that’s very true, yeah. Now as well as putting yourself aside, which we’ve been talking about when you’re copywriting, sometimes you have to persuade your client to put themselves aside a little. It is often difficult for clients to distance themselves from their own products or services in a way that means they’re able to promote them effectively and that’s easy to understand. You know they’re very entrenched in their own day to day work and because of that they sometimes lose sight of what will really appeal to their prospects.
LH: Mmm, and I think there’s a certain amount of possessiveness sometimes.
PW: Yes, yes.
LH: You know and it’s understandable, even when a client has brought you on board though because they’re not getting the results they want; so, say, you know an open rate on an email marketing campaign or a conversion rate on a sales page or a really good level of content in a promotional brochure. It seems like it can be really difficult for them to accept that their personal opinion, particularly if they’re the brains behind the operation, isn’t necessarily what’s going to work or what’s important.
PW: Exactly and we do appreciate that for a lot of people their business is their baby you know and they can find it hard to feel like they’re letting go or losing control of it, but sometimes it’s gentle reminder that that’s exactly why they’ve called in a copywriter is what you need to do and it is our job sometimes to be a bit patient and ease them into it, as long as that doesn’t get ridiculous.
LH: Yeah, it can be really counterintuitive, especially if you’re suggesting something that they wouldn’t have gone with.
LH: But like you say, if a client sort of says, “Ooh, but I wouldn’t have written it like that” it’s like, “Well no, precisely.”
LH: You know you mince your words a little bit better than that.
PW: [Laughs] yeah.
LH: Well exactly. You know but that is the point. You know if they’ve tried writing for themselves or they’ve tried having somebody in-house do the writing and it’s just not working for them then yeah, it’s counterintuitive but they do need to bear in mind, and as Pip’s just said, you do need to help them bear in mind sometimes that that’s the whole point of you being there.
LH: And I think it’s a little bit like author intent to a certain extent. Once a product or a service or a company is out there, you know sort of on the public market, the originator, so the brains behind the operation, the owner, the creator, whatever, they no longer control the way that the public views, reacts to or engages with the product or the service and it doesn’t matter what the original idea was to a certain extent because the reality might have changed, depending on any number of things, you know changing target market, new products and services developed by a competitor, or customers just finding new uses for a product that the business owner might never really have thought about.
PW: Yeah. I mean if somebody’s invented something that’s quite clever but then people buy it and find another use for it that’s even cleverer then that may well be the angle to go for but if the creator is very, “Like no, I invented it for Purpose A” it can be difficult, it can, plus sometimes they can’t see where the absolute goal is in their own product because they have…
PW: Yeah, they have no distance or objectivity from it. I met some guys at a networking event and they had invented this… it was a very cool mobile phone app, I really liked it, and I was chatting to them and they talked me through how it worked and what was, to me, an absolutely clear sales approach was one that hadn’t even occurred to them. They were solving a particular problem really effectively but they were so caught up in setting up a business and the technical side of the app that they hadn’t spotted this other area of absolute genius in what they were doing and I talked to them about it and they were like, “Wow, you’ve got to write our copy.” You know that was like, “Great. You know that’s why I’m here.”
PW: Yeah. So we’re not all about telling people they’ve picked a crap aspect of a thing to promote. Sometimes…
LH: No, no of course not.
PW: Yeah, sometimes we’re pointing out that they are geniuses and they haven’t realised it yet.
LH: I often think I’m an undiscovered genius. I’m just waiting for someone to tell me.
PW: You are most definitely a genius m’dear.
LH: I know but thanks.
PW: For the record, I bought Lorrie a mug that says, “I’m not perfect but I am so close it scares me.”
LH: It’s true, it’s true. I’m not sure my husband’s that keen on the mug but I drink from it quite regularly now. I even wash it specifically so I can drink from it again.
LH: One thing that Pip and I have discussed recently has been the difference between benefits and features and it’s always worth going into because no matter how many times you go over it there’ll always be a bit of confusion with people.
LH: And I think it’s quite a relevant point when talking about the difference between writing and what we’re terming copywriting here for the purposes of this podcast.
LH: In a piece of marketing or sales copy one of the golden rules is to focus on benefits and not features. Now I found a really helpful article actually on a site called entrepreneur.com and I dare say it’s not out of the ordinary in its helpfulness because, as we say, benefits versus features is a topic that can run and run and run.
PW: It’s a bit issue and if you could just Google benefits versus features I’m sure there will be tons of resources, if, you know, you listen to what we’re about to say and then want to know more.
LH: Aha, yeah. I mean Google auto filled it for me.
PW: Oh brilliant.
LH: I was half way through Benefits A, typed in features. So I was like, “Yeah, even Google knows.” So yeah, the example that I found on a site called entrepreneur, we’ll link to that in the show notes, and it gives you some concrete examples of how to turn descriptions of a product or a service, which are features, into something that entices the reader and helps them see how they would benefit, hence the benefit, from those specific features.
PW: Yeah, your client might be selling a very intricate piece of equipment or some very clever software and they might want you to describe in detail the exact measurements of the engine or the processing capabilities and this is…
LH: Because that’s what they’ve spent years building.
PW: Exactly and that’s their frame of reference, that’s how they understand the product. However, in the majority of cases that’s not what’s going to appeal to the customer. The customer doesn’t go, “Oh I must find a 1.3 engine”, what they want to know is how that engine’s going to benefit them or what the software will make easier in their working life. So the copywriter’s job is to translate these features, technical detail, into information about how it’s going to benefit the customer. So if something’s got an adjustable height you don’t necessarily need to say, “The height adjusts from 1.2 metres to 2.4 metres”, you could say, “The height adjusts which makes it suitable for people of different shapes and sizes.” That’s more appealing.
LH: Definitely. I think the only time… I was just thinking about what you were saying earlier, the only time that you really need to focus on, say, the size of an engine or processing capabilities would be B2B.
LH: You know if you were trying to sell computer parts to distributors or like some of my clients are LED lighting companies who then sell on to electricians and lighting specialists, you know they’re more of a supplier than a B2C.
PW: Yeah, that’s very true.
LH: Then yes okay, you know in their brochure they need the specific features but still, in all their forward facing copy, they need to talk about the benefits and still, to their B2B clients, they do need to focus, as well as the features, on the benefits.
PW: Because I’m quite techy if I was buying a new laptop, for instance, I want to read a bit of prose about the benefits to me but I also want to be able to scroll down the page and see a list of numbers.
PW: And so one doesn’t have to exclude the other and, like Lorrie said, the audience is important. If you’re selling software to resellers who can then, you know, brand it themselves and sell it on to their clients they need to know those numbers but it doesn’t mean you can put those exclusively necessarily because yeah, even B2B clients want a bit of context I think quite often. That gives them a sense of the company and I think it’s important, yeah.
LH: Yeah. Going back to what we said earlier about sometimes the clients need to put themselves on one side, you know to take it full circle sometimes B2B clients are resistant to writing about benefits as opposed to features. It can be like, “Well we don’t need that. That’s not what I want to read” but to a lesser extent you do still need benefits for B2B writing. You know trust us, we both do write in the B2B sector.
PW: Yes, yes.
LH: And I think it’s good to remember that as a writer, rather than a copywriter, you might be quite a descriptive person. I am, I like to get quite flowery.
PW: Oh yes. Whenever I’m reviewing a first draft of anything that I’ve written most of it is cutting stuff out [laughs].
LH: Same really, you know, and you might get caught up, you know when you’re writing about a specific product or service, you might get caught up in helping your reader to really visualise something, like see the product, and you actually end up forgetting that you’re supposed to be effectively selling something but the piece of writing you’re creating is supposed to have a purpose.
LH: And I think benefits versus features, it’s a good reminder that it’s really important to keep your writing aims in mind, particularly as a copywriter, because someone else is relying on you for a certain result.
PW: Yeah it’s really true. The client will know their product or service better than you. However, you, when you have experience and maybe a bit of training, know better than them, probably, how to go about describing it and selling it and so it can be difficult to negotiate sometimes because it’s understandable that they can get precious over their stuff.
LH: Of course.
PW: But you don’t want to indulge that to a point where you know you’ve written something that’s not going to be useful to them.
LH: Yeah, definitely. I mean it can be… what I’ve found with B2B clients, because as you know most of my clients, until recently, have been B2B…
PW: Yep, same here.
LH: …what I find is that when you choose to leave something out they think you’ve forgotten it.
LH: You know and it goes back to the benefits and features thing. You don’t have to say everything but with B2B they can be so excited about a product and all of its functionalities and capabilities that they want you to crowbar them all in to like a press release and talk about the fact that it does this and talk about the fact that you can do that and talk about the fact that it can process x number of y’s in a certain z period and it’s like yeah, to a certain extent but don’t overwhelm people.
PW: And quite often, if you’re going to do a really good job on some sales copy, you need to do a bit of market research and that doesn’t mean sending out women to the city centre to ask people questions.
LH: [Laughs] women with clipboards.
LH: Have you been accosted recently? I wonder why that’s on your mind.
PW: I am accosted all the time.
LH: Are you?
PW: I think it’s because I walk quite slowly, they just like see me coming and go, “We’ll get her.”
LH: Head her off at the pass! You see I put my headphones on, stick my head down and stride away.
PW: Headphones are very handy for that but yeah…
LH: You can stop by headphones though. They’ll just be like, “Hiya.” It’s like, “No, no sorry.” I just shake my head and smile, “No.”
PW: But yeah, yeah it doesn’t have to mean that, it can just mean literally going onto web forums and seeing what the concerns are of the target market you’re working towards.
LH: Yeah, market analysis, competitor analysis or having a look at the sector, recent technological developments in there. It’s really common sense, isn’t it?
PW: Yeah and there are all sorts of ways you can go about it. There’s a website called Quora, which is just people asking questions and really in-depth answers. Forums are particularly handy to see how many people are concerned about certain issues. So say you’re selling power tools, so drills and screwdrivers and those things, and you sell a drill that has a particular purpose that you think’s really exciting, well the client does anyway, and then you go into some DIY forums online and have a look and you see that a good portion of the people who are posting are very concerned about the fact that their drill doesn’t do a particular thing, and you also see that nobody even mentions the first thing that your client thinks is important. That’s the time to drop really, or at least downplay, the thing that nobody appears to be concerned about and…
LH: Or to apply.
PW: Yes, yeah and to actually make this new product apply to the concerns they genuinely have and appeal to that big market there.
LH: Yeah, definitely because you know if you take it down to the building blocks of, say, online writing that’s going to affect your key words, it’s going to affect what you hyperlink in a text online.
LH: You know say if you’re talking about a certain functionality that nobody’s interested in there’s no point linking from, say, an article in your client’s blog to the product from those particular key words. You know you need to be linking from something that’s more relevant to their interests, their concerns and, as Pip’s just said, you need to be steering your writing more towards what they’re interested in in general and obviously you might have to go back to your client and have a bit of a tussle with them and sort of say, “No, people aren’t interested in that but here’s the link, here’s a screenshot of people discussing it. I didn’t see anybody mentioning Functionality A. They were all talking about this Functionality B that either it has and we haven’t mentioned, or it doesn’t have and we could include in a future product.”
PW: Yeah, exactly, exactly and that goes to show why key word research is also an important part of copywriting. It’s very similar actually to market research. There’s a tool offered by Google for free called the Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool, is it called? Something along those lines.
LH: If you search for Google Keyword Tool you’ll find it.
PW: Yeah and what that does you can search for a word or a phrase and it tells you how many people search for that per month and how much competition there is and it also suggests alternatives. Now from the information they give you you could easily spend a week analysing it but often for smaller jobs you know you’ve no desire or need to do that but what you can see is that if 350 people a month are searching for one term but 35,000 people a month are searching for another it also gives you an idea of people’s priorities and interests and also the way they’re wording them, which is important for SEO writing.
PW: So hopefully that’s been helpful in terms of giving you an idea of where to start really when copywriting and how to put aside your own style and preferences and also how to tackle trying to persuade your client to put aside theirs if necessary.
LH: Yeah. I mean often the proof’s in the pudding with the clients. You know don’t be surprised if they resent you for it at first.
PW: Oh yeah.
LH: You know they can get really, really grumpy and it’s like, “Well you don’t know. You don’t work in my sector” you know especially in very male dominated sectors.
LH: I get it, you know, “Some young filly’s just come in and she’s telling us what we already… she’s teaching grandma to suck eggs” and I just have to keep schtum until the results come in that were far better than the results they were getting in the first place and then it’s like, “Don’t worry. Don’t all apologise at once. It’s fine” you know because it doesn’t matter. You know people get precious and now, hopefully, Pip and I have given you a bit of a heads up that it’s not personal, it’s just it can be counterintuitive for them to say, “Okay, well I’m the expert in my subject but she’s the expert in writing about my subject.”
PW: Yeah, yeah exactly.
Now it is time for our Little Bird recommendations where we choose a blog post, a phone app, a Tweet, a piece of software or a bit of advice that we would like to recommend to listeners.
So, Lorrie, what is your Little Bird recommendation this week?
LH: My Little Bird recommendation this week is based on something I mentioned in the last episode and that was my solo episode about how to get started as a freelance writer and I talked a lot about how important training is, and it really, really is. You know I do at least two or three training courses a month.
PW: Yep, the same.
LH: Yeah and if you find yourself with a spare bit of time, I know that Pip’s exactly the same, you know try and get in a little bit of training even if, and it does count, even if it’s just a bit of reading.
PW: Oh absolutely, yeah.
LH: 100% you know, it all helps.
PW: Yeah. One of my main things that I learn from is I listen to podcasts compulsively [laughs] and I learn so much from them, especially because I do a lot of tech writing I need to be up to date and there are endless numbers of tech podcasts, so it keeps me informed. So yeah, it doesn’t have to be formal study, although that’s good as well.
LH: Yeah but imagine if you were in a lecture hall listening to somebody rather than listening to a podcast it’s all the same thing.
PW: And these are the experts, you know, like people from Google who really know what they’re talking about.
LH: Yeah and you wouldn’t be able to secure an audience for those sorts of…
PW: Never, no.
LH: You’d never ever get near them. So a podcast, yeah, is a brilliant way.
PW: Especially a very good freelance writing one.
LH: Yes that’s pretty stunning. If I was going to choose any I’d probably go with the A Little Bird Told Me.
PW: I think so.
LH: Freelance Writing podcast.
LH: No bias.
LH: So yeah, I was having a nosy around on the net and as I mentioned in the last episode I tend to spend a lot of time on OpenLearn, which is the Open University’s free training section, and alison.com, which is mmm, it can be hit and miss but it’s all free training courses and they’re quite interactive, they’re usually quite pointy clicky. So you know it’s a good place to be going around and I was looking to broaden my horizons a little bit and I spotted what’s quite an old, it’s about three years old, two and half, three years old now, it’s quite an old article but it’s still quite useful and it’s on something called freelancefolder.com, and it’s, ‘10 amazing free online writing courses’ it’s called, and I expected this article to be stuff like you know how to write a limerick or how to write a sentence you know because people will spin articles about anything just to get people to click, of course they will, but when I actually clicked on it you’ve got things like ‘Learn to Write a Feasibility Study’.
PW: Wow, that’s a very specific skill.
LH: Very much so and it taps into, quite nicely actually, it taps into what we were saying about copywriting being a skill rather than a talent. You can’t just be naturally good at writing a feasibility study.
PW: Yes, yeah you need to know what you’re doing.
LH: This is it. You know you need that specific skill set. You’ve got the intensive grammar workshop, which is just so brilliant, it’s fabulous and it gives anybody who’s starting out, it’s good for people who are starting out as a copywriter and want to make sure that they’ve got all their grammar down pat. It’s good for non-native English speakers.
PW: And for proofreaders as well.
LH: Yes, yeah and it even says, “Remember that poor grammar can cost you a gig” and it’s true.
PW: Oh yeah.
LH: So you know the sources are actually quite good. Some of them are from about.com, which I think is really unrated actually.
PW: Yeah, it does often have some really good information.
LH: It really does. I do like about.com and I do like wikihow.com.
LH: Because often these sites are populated by very, very good writers who want to get back links from what are huge, huge high traffic sites. I mean these sites are massive and if you did have a back link from those sites that would do you the world of good. So the content on those sites is really very, very good, even though we’re just looking at, you know, sites with text on them. So if you’re receptive to reading things and you’re not looking for a podcast about.com and wikihow.com are great for different types of writing and learning how to go about getting started and you can often find templates on there…
LH: …for various kinds of writing. So as Pip mentioned in a previous episode, I think it was when we were talking about writing the perfect press release, they’re a good place to start looking, they’re really, really helpful.
You’ve got other available courses; you’ve got technical writing, marketing writing tips. Now a couple of the links are broken but the sites are still there. So if you just go back it looks like the page has been moved on the website.
PW: Ah right, yeah.
LH: So I think it’s No. 9 and No. 10, which are ‘Marketing Writing Tips’ and ‘Creative Writing 101’, they’ve been moved. Now I’ve had a click through the ‘Creative Writing 101’ and it’s quite clear where the rest of the course has gone. It’s there, it’s just it’s been revised I believe.
LH: You know and this article’s just really, really helpful. It tells you kind of what to expect. There’s just loads of really useful, interesting stuff on there and it underlines the importance, I think, of taking on a variety of training courses.
You know I try and… I’ve got a list of courses that I want to do in a whole year and I try and choose like a couple that I’m really, really into and a couple that I’m kind of dreading.
PW: Yes, I’m exactly the same. I do some just for the love of it and I do others because I know I really should, that I would benefit from it but it doesn’t inflame passion in me [laughs].
LH: No, like ‘Videography’ and ‘Audio Recording’ and stuff like that, it’s just not my cup of tea at all, whereas ‘Introduction to Fiction Writing’, you know seeing what a certain training provider is suggesting the ‘Fiction Writing’ but I find that interesting.
PW: Yeah, exactly.
LH: You know, so that would be my recommendation of the week you know.
PW: It’s a very good one.
LH: And I suppose one more point I would make is that these are all courses aimed at freelancers.
LH: They’re all at freelancefolder.com. So they’ve been collated with freelancers and self-employed people in mind.
PW: Brilliant, brilliant.
Now my recommendation; earlier this year we both… we did some episodes, I think there was a dual episode and two solo episodes all about money and how to decide what to charge I did a solo episode about, Lorrie did one about how to increase your rates and we do know that for freelancers, especially people who are starting out, knowing what to charge is a big issue, people find it incredibly difficult. Now in those earlier episodes, which I’ll link to in the show notes, we went through a few different ways of deciding how much to charge and how to go about it but my recommendation this week is a freelance billable rate calculator.
PW: Ooo. It’s on a site called Micro Business Hub, which I hadn’t come across before.
LH: No, I’ve not heard of that one either.
PW: But they actually coded and created this calculator and if you’re the kind of person who really wants to drill down to the penny and get it exactly right without taking any risks, or not even necessarily without taking risks, but who wants to…
LH: So you want to pounce at every single penny?
PW: That’s it, that’s it, you don’t want to miss anything out, you don’t want to forget about an important cost, this is the calculator for you. It covers everything. It has basically lots of different fields to fill in about how much you spend on marketing, how much you spend on insurance, entertainment and then how much you want to earn and then also a section about how much you work, so how many days you work a week, how many weeks you work a year, how many bank holidays there are even, and then it gives you a calculation of your hourly billable rate, what it should be or what it needs to be to meet your own goals.
Now what I like about this is there are lots of people I know who would love to do it in this much detail. I’m not one of them. I’m happy…
LH: [Laughs] I’m glad you said that because neither am I.
PW: I know. I am happy working it out on a reasonably informal basis. It’s still based on calculations and it has a basis in reality but some people feel much more comfortable knowing that everything is accounted for.
The other thing I like about this is first of all it’s based on UK earnings. So first of all there’s just the novelty of it not coming out with a dollar sign at the end, it comes out with a pound sign instead, and that’s rare when you’re doing any kind of money calculation online, but also it has tax information at the top in terms of Income Tax and VAT, and it’s just a really comprehensive way of going about working out your fees and you can also get the report at the end emailed to you.
LH: Oh that’s helpful.
PW: It is.
LH: It’s surprising that that’s free actually.
PW: Absolutely and this site, Micro Business Hub, have coded the form themselves. A woman called Jo Waltham has done it and the comments underneath the calculator are also really positive people. Stunningly simple but brilliant for instance. It’s… and I think…
LH: People say that about me all the time!
PW: They do, stunningly simple they say [laughs]. So that’s my recommendation.
If you’re unsure about your earnings, you’re not sure you’ve calculated it right or you’re not sure you’re asking for the right amount of money check out the freelance billable rate calculator along with the link to Lorrie’s recommendation is in our show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.
So goodness me, Episode 30 is complete.
LH: That’s more than me.
PW: I know. It’s not quite me but it’s more than you. The podcast is older than you and yet you’re in the first episode, which is almost magic!
LH: Possibly. I’m going to have to go away and think about that one.
LH: I haven’t had a coffee yet, so once I’ve had a coffee I’m sure it’ll make more sense.
PW: Thank you very much for listening and for supporting the podcast through 30 episodes. We’re really proud we’ve got this far and we’re really glad that people are enjoying it. We’re getting great feedback and we love it. So do get in touch.
LH: And tell us we are marvellous, we love to hear it. We don’t bite. If you’ve got any questions about this podcast, any other podcast episodes that we’ve recorded, any questions about anything at all really, keep it decent but you know come and have a chat with us, come and ask us.
PW: Thank you so much for listening. I have been Philippa Willits.
LH: And I, for the 30th time, have been Lorrie Hartshorn and we will catch you next time.