Copywriting: what it is, how it works and how to find the right copywriter for you
The Oxford English Dictionary says that Copia in medieval Latin meant “transcript”. According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, by the 16th century it had come to mean any kind of writing as well as any form of reproduction. By 1905, advertising had taken ownership of the word; it’s used for the first time in that sense in The Art of Modern Advertising. But the word existed with pretty much its current meaning long before the birth of the popular press and the growth of advertising.
What advertising took, advertising has kept; “copywriting” is now taken almost everywhere to mean text written to persuade people to buy something. A product, a service, a meal – anything.
The nature of advertising has changed
Of course it has. The nature of everything has changed. Change is the one constant. And that’s a cliché of the sort I would never indulge in while copywriting for a client – but clichés become clichés because of the truth hidden within them.
For one thing, it’s ubiquitous. Dickens complained when advertisements started appearing on the sides of London omnibuses. He’d be minding his own business, perhaps thinking about slipping away from Mrs Dickens to spend a night with Nelly Ternan, and there passing in front of his eyes would be a puff for McTavish’s Iron Pills, sure to cure every known disease (and some no-one had heard of). Well, Dickens had it easy – he didn’t have ads popping up whenever he switched on his mobile phone, googled ideas for somewhere Samuel Pickwick, Augustus Snodgrass and friends could visit on their coach tour of England, or waited for the Number 19 bus.
And as ads have spread, they’ve become cleverer. To say nothing of more diverse. Native advertising, sponsored advertising, guerrilla advertising, product placement, carefully placed interviews, mailshots, emailshots (not the same thing at all), moving displays, infographics – Dickens knew nothing of any of that. Nor, great writer though he was, did he ever have to study critical discourse analysis (CDA) and search engine optimisation (SEO) as today’s copywriter does. He probably saw something like this cocoa tin as state of the art.
The Seller/Buyer relationship has also changed
One of the best salesmen I ever knew used to talk about “moving the battlefield.” The long-established big boys had traditional sales approaches sewn up; try to take them on on their own ground and their tanks would roll right over you. So, Rod would say, ‘Don’t fight them there. Find the weakness in their ramparts – because there’ll be one; there always is – and that’s where you open fire.’
I followed that advice for years and it did me a lot of good. Now, though, the battlefield hasn’t just changed – it’s turned completely around. From a world that belonged mostly to the seller, it’s become one owned almost completely by the buyer.
Only last week, someone asked me to copywrite a new campaign for his company. When I read the brief, I sighed at the failure to understand the world he was trying to break into. What he said he wanted to push was his company’s ability to “delight the customer.” I’m sorry, but you can no longer do that. Customers’ expectations are now so high that, if you meet them 100%, you haven’t delighted them – you’ve merely done what they expected. If you work at it and ask nicely, one in ten might put a note on your website saying what a good job you did (I’ve got five of those so far – see here) but give them only 95% and they’ll rip your testimonials off and feed them to the cat. Or tweet about your total inadequacy, which comes to the same thing.
You get nowhere if you don’t tell people what you’re offering
- You’ve got the best product in its field
- You’re having a sale, and values are incredible
- You just introduced a new product, there’s nothing like it in the world and it meets so many common needs you don’t see how it can possibly fail.
And you sit there in your store/restaurant/warehouse and wait for the orders to flood in. And wait. And wait. And…
Because those wonderful things will get you nowhere if no-one knows about them. Or about you. You have to tell them, and you have to do it in words that will make them interested enough to take a closer look. The person who has the skills to do that is a copywriter.
Copywriting isn’t about the copywriter – it’s about the copywriter’s customer
So, okay, how do you set about finding that copywriter? Well, look for a good record in copywriting, of course. Mine goes back to 1989, when I sold an article on the methods employed by direct salespeople to Good Housekeeping Magazine, but you don’t need to specify a 27 year freelance career – just make sure they have enough samples of work done previously to satisfy you that they can do the job. Look, too, at what other customers have said about them.
If any part of their work for you will appear online, make sure they understand SEO. I’m certified by Yoast as an SEO copywriter and I’m not alone; since Yoast are the leaders in that field, you might be wise to insist on a certified copywriter.
Most of all, though, look at the samples they show you for confirmation that they can vary their style to fit the customer. With due respect to me, you don’t want a blog post that people look at and say, ‘Oh, that is so John Lynch.’ You want one that is so you. A copywriter who can’t present her/himself in the client’s clothing is not a lot of use.
Novelists make good copywriters
Everyone who ever saw it remembers Fay Weldon’s great line for the Egg Marketing Board: Go to work on an egg. Salman Rushdie, F Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Sayers also worked in advertising before their novel writing careers took off. The connection is obvious:
- Good copywriters have vivid imaginations and can come up with off-the-wall ideas
- Good copywriters work hard – they never succumb to writer’s block because that would mean going hungry
- Good copywriters tell stories you want to read to the end.
If you’re feeling in need of a good read, you’ll find my novels here.
And if you’re looking for good copywriting, fill out this form; I’ll put you on the mailing list for my newsletter and, when you ask me to, I’ll contact you to discuss your projects.