(The audio for this podcast is no longer available, but it is summarized below.)
Businesses have never had such a menu of choices for promotion and advertising. Broadcast, print ads, blogging, printed collateral — each has its own benefits, but also specific requirements for writing style. That makes crafting the message more challenging, because copy that might work well in one medium may not be as effective in another. In this month’s podcast, we’ll give some guidelines to writing styles for different marketing media.
Let’s start with some general guidelines for good writing.
- Your first draft is too long. This is usually true of any form of writing. But it is ALWAYS true in writing for marketing purposes.
- Eliminate wordiness. Is there a shorter way to say what you’re trying to get across?
- Cut adverbs. See if there’s a more descriptive verb – instead of “walked quickly,” should you say “rushed”?
- Avoid writing in the passive tense when possible. It’s the difference between saying we did the job (active) or the job was done (passive). There are times when you choose the passive tense – in the previous example, you emphasize the job when using passive. Other times, it’s hard to avoid, but overall your writing will sound much better if you try to stay in the active tense – especially if you’re striving for a salesy tone.
- Avoid “helper verbs.” I walked is often better than I was walking or I had walked.
- Use strong verbs, not weak verbs. That’s the difference between these sentences: A way to sell more cars is to advertise. Advertising helps sell more cars. “Sell” is strong, “is” is weak. (Also, notice that the first sentence is nine words, and the second is just five. Remember what we’ve said about eliminating wordiness, being brief, and avoiding the passive tense?)
- Can you get rid of that? The eggs I bought is better than the eggs that I bought.
- Avoid cliches like the plague. There is a better way to get your point across, I promise.
- Keep your language descriptive but clear. Don’t use big words just for the sake of sounding smart.
- Avoid overused words. I think most of us know what these are: “unique” means literally there is no other like it – it’s the only one. But that word is so overused that people are now saying “most unique,” which is ridiculous. There are other words to avoid: “a lot,” “really,” “very,” and so on. You’ll notice that most of these are adjectives and adverbs. Again, English is a rich language – what’s a better way to say it?
Marketing writing across the board
- Visuals are generally as important or more important than words. If you don’t have good visuals, go back to the drawing board – your copy won’t matter.
- Condense, condense, condense! This doesn’t mean switch to a smaller font size.
- Beware of jargon and acronyms. Unless you are writing for an audience that knows the jargon and acronyms intimately, avoid them – or if you can’t, explain them.
- Use bullets to make your copy easy to scan. Bullets should be parallel (that is, every bullet in a series should be sentence or a non-sentence, and punctuated accordingly). In many ways bullets are easier to write than a full narrative.
- Consider your purpose. What do you want the person reading this information to do? Call, visit a website, order, or what? Include a call to action that makes it clear what the next step is.
- Consider your audience. Do they know your product/service or not? Are they technically competent in your field, or do you need to explain what the complicated technical terms mean? Are they old or young? Does your copy address what they care about (which may not be the same thing you care about)?
- Consider how the piece will be used. This can help you determine what information is most important. For example, consider your company phone number. That’s a great piece of information to include in something like a brochure, which your prospect will hopefully keep and reference — or a print ad in a newspaper or magazine that the prospect reads. But when was the last time you copied down or remembered a phone number from a billboard, poster/flyer, radio ad, or TV spot? (For most people, the answer is never). For those media, a memorable URL is much more to the point.
- Consider your tone. A lot of times, you’re going for an effortlessly salesy tone of writing, but your business may be more formal or more casual, depending on what your company does and what your brand is like.
- Consider a tagline. This is your slogan, the thing you want to explain above all else that your company does. “Helping companies connect with their customers” is the tagline for Prime Design Solutions. Your goal is to be short and snappy, but not too cute.
Headlines for different kinds of media will change depending on what you’re trying to do.
- Print ads: your goal is to get attention, so you might go for humor or cleverness.
- Websites: here you’re likely to be more informational in your headlines. You want people to know they’re on the right page for the information they want.
- Brochures: If you’re dealing with a standard trifold brochure, you don’t have much space. So generally, your headline will be, above all else, short.
- Usually there is introductory copy that may direct to a longer explanation, if necessary. Most website layouts include callouts and other places on the page where information can be visually highlighted. Make good use of these as you’re getting your content together.
- Functionality and organization of copy is critical. If you didn’t know anything about your product or service, would the customer be able to find what they’re looking for when they come to your website? Who is your ideal customer, and what do they know about what you offer? Is the copy written for that customer? This is a critical part of user experience, or UX – if your customer can’t find what they’re looking for, it doesn’t matter how good the copy is.
- Sidebars can be used to great effect if there is technical information that needs to be included. That way, people can skip over that part if they’re not technical, but your tech-head audience has the data they need.
- Always post all copy rather than just posting PDFs. Google doesn’t scan PDFs nearly as well as it scans website copy, which means you lose valuable SEO (search engine optimization) provided by that copy. You can also include a downloadable PDF, if that would be a convenience to the consumer.
- Testimonials are a really good idea. Who are you more likely to believe – a company explaining how great they are, or a customer who says so?
- A great advantage of web copy is that it is easy to change and refresh. When appropriate, take advantage of this!
- Short paragraphs make copy more inviting to read, because it creates line breaks. Visually, shorter paragraphs are just more appealing to the reader, and makes the content easy to scan. Your paragraphs should be shorter than if you were writing anything you’d print out on 8 1/2″x11″ paper — such as a business proposal.
- You also have to think about keywords when writing for web. Essentially, the goal here is to use the words and phrases that people might search on when they are looking for your product or service – this helps your SEO. Well-written copy is your first goal, of course, and you shouldn’t “keyword stuff” – search engines are getting more sophisticated to that. But you should keep keywords in mind as you write your copy, and include them as often as you can, wherever it sounds natural.
Brochures and collateral
- You do NOT have much space here. Your goal should be to get customers to call or visit a website, not to explain everything in detail.
- Visuals are extremely important, probably more so than copy. If someone just glanced at your brochure, would they get the overall gist of what you’re offering?
- Do NOT put everything in tiny print in order to cram in more information. Your goal is to make your brochure/collateral inviting to read. Similarly, it’s a bad idea to shrink photos in order to have more space for copy. If space is keeping you from including important information, consider adding another panel to the brochure instead.
- Consider the goal of your brochure before you write it. How will it be used? As a leave-behind piece after a sales meeting (meaning that someone will have an introduction to your company already), or is this something that will be put in a sales rack somewhere and therefore must be interesting-looking enough that people will take one?
- Bullet points are always a good idea. Again, being able to scan through the copy is important, and writing in bullets will help you keep the content brief.
Radio and television
- Obviously, your copy will be spoken aloud. So as you’re writing, you should actually say it out loud to have a sense of what it sounds like.
- Do not make your ad copy too long. Radio and TV ads that sound like an auctioneer is doing the voiceover, where the announcer is trying to cram in too many words for the time allotted, are exceedingly annoying to the listener. Some of the most effective TV spots feature mostly music and visuals, with a very short voiceover or none at all.
- Look to the media outlet for help. The media outlet in question may actually be producing your ad. If you’re uncertain about your spot’s copy, generally your sales rep and production team will have good advice. They produce hundreds of ads every year and know what works – draw on their experience.
- If you’re producing a TV ad, use chyrons. Chyrons are text blurbs that appear onscreen as the voiceover is read. This allows you to, for example, keep your website URL onscreen during most of the ad. Don’t overdo chyrons, but they can be very helpful in reinforcing your message. Brevity is very important here!
- Be careful about your call to action. If you want people to call your business, that’s great – but again, you might want to resist the temptation to include your phone number and stick with your website URL. Further, you don’t have to say www in front of your URL (and after all, www takes a surprisingly long time to say out loud, and you lose a few precious seconds).
- Social media is a little less formal than other kinds of writing. It’s also quite temporary– this is a good place to experiment a little with marketing writing, if you’re so inclined.
- Your goal is to be approachable and friendly – people talk to other people, not buildings. Go for authenticity, as facilitating two-way communication with your customers is one of the great things about social media.
- Humor is more appropriate here.
- Brevity is still important – on Twitter, it’s required!
- Follow the rules and etiquette of whatever social media you’re using. Use hashtags, mentions and so on. (This Learning Center is full of articles about Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more — choose from the categories in the left column for more details).
- Press release writing is very factual, not salesy. So while you might be able to say, “we make the best gobs in Western Pennsylvania!” in a brochure, you can’t say that in press release copy – you have to stick to what can be empirically proven, such as “Our gobs won best in show at the county fair.”
- Use Associated Press style for best results. Essentially, your goal is to make it easy for the reporter to use as much of the release as you wrote it as possible.
- Include a couple of direct quotes. This is where you can be a little more opinionated in what you write.
- If you’re not a writer, get help from someone who is. Nobody can be good at everything, and if copywriting is not your strong suit you might be better off in the hands of a professional.
- Have someone who doesn’t know much about your business read your copy, and then quiz them about it to see what they absorbed. Is it coming across the way you want it to come across?
- Finally: proofread carefully, especially if you’re printing something. Do not depend on spellcheck to handle this for you! It’s always a good idea to have someone who didn’t write it proof your copy. Your eye tends to read copy in blocks, so another good proofreading trick is to read the copy backwards – that forces you to focus on one word at a time, even prepositions and other words your eye might gloss over otherwise.