Conversational Copywriting: Don’t underestimate “chatty” writing

Dear Copy Bitch: I’m banging my head over here because, once again, I’ve encountered a client who thinks writing web copy and feature articles in third person is “right” and that “conversational” is unprofessional. I know you advocate conversational copy, so how do you handle this with clients?

—Frustrated Copywriter in Boston

Answer: I feel your pain, Boston Copywriter. This writer does not believe that one should write in third person because the tone one creates is stuffy and aloof. (See?)

And I’d give my favorite George Clooney poster in exchange for the name of the first person who perpetuated the myth that conversational and professional are mutually exclusive terms.

You can be serious, professional, and conversational (next time you get “junk mail” for a charity, read it and consider the tone); fun, professional, and conversational (ditto for junk mail trying to sell you a new cell phone service or credit card); and annoying, unprofessional, and conversational (my neighbor, when he’s trying to sell God-knows-what from his balcony at 2am).

I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave over clients and it would remove any memory of the damage done by well-meaning high school teachers. “Formal writing” is fine for legal briefs and dissertations (I use the word “fine” loosely, because I think both of these items would be easier to read if written in a conversational tone). How many people go, “I’m in the mood for a good dissertation to bring with me to the beach?” No one that I can think of.

I’m also willing to say this: conversational copy is more important now than ever before, thanks to social media. You can’t have effective social media without having conversations, and you can’t have effective conversations if you’re not, well, conversational. As far as I’m concerned, this goes for ALL industries, even those notoriously “formal” ones.

So what can you say to your client? How can you prove your theory that conversational is more effective?  The best way is by conducting a split test, also known as A/B testing, because the proof will be in the conversions.

For web pages, this works really well, and it’s cost effective. Set up two landing pages for a particular campaign and have one page be in “client speak” (let the client write it–just edit it for typos) and the other be in your winning “conversational tone.” See which one converts better.

One thing you should keep in mind is this: it’s hard for some people to let go of rules that they’ve been holding onto since the sixth grade. Either accept this and applaud their baby steps or start working with those folks who recognize the beauty and effectiveness in a well-placed “bullshit.” (Guess which direction I’m taking my business in?)

Learn more about my no-BS approach to marketing writing here.

Taking a Writing Hiatus (i.e. Back Away from the Computer, Ma’am)

Dear Copy Bitch: We’re kindred spirits: I’m a copywriter by day, and at night (for the last three years anyway) I’ve been working on a memoir. Lately, I just can’t seem to do either well, even though I try forcing myself to write through it. I’ll admit that sometimes I work seven days a week, but I’ve always seen this as dedication to my craft. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just blocked. Would love to get your take. Thanks. Love the blog!

—Miami Memoirist

Answer: Sometimes the most important thing you can do when the writing isn’t clicking–be it client copy or creative writing–is to step away from the computer. Or throw down your legal pad. Or cast aside your journal.

Listen, I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I’m the biggest proponent of “Ass in Chair” and banging it out and working through it because I know that nine times out of ten, you can. But then there’s that stinky tenth time. You know, the one that causes neck and back spasms that leave you drooling on the carpet. The moment when you just. Can’t. Write. Another. Word. (Again, I don’t think this is a block; it’s your mind’s way of telling you it needs a rest–there’s a big difference.)

So step away. From the whole gosh-darn thing: from the room in which your computer purrs, from the house in which your writing festers, and get thee somewhere else. Anywhere. The park, the movies, the bookstore, your best friend’s house. Just get out. Leave it alone. For as long as you can manage (ideally 24 hours, but I realize this isn’t always feasible–even a morning or afternoon can do wonders). Try not to think about it (ha!). Seriously, though, give yourself permission to breathe and to take a break and to allow your mind and body a Take Five.

Go back to it the next day and see what happens.

Then, start carving time like this into your schedule. If you draw peace and inspiration from spending one morning a week with the dogs at the dog park, then book it. If you love film and feel that a Wednesday matinee is one of the best things since George Clooney’s birth, then block out that time (and don’t feel guilty, either. This is one of freelancing’s perks. Take advantage of it). If you need yoga three times a week to keep the mental muscles happy, okay. Dedication to craft is commendable. But so is dedication to your own sanity.

(On a completely unrelated note, I wish I could go back and mark the moment–the precise moment–when I went from a “miss” to a “ma’am.” Seems to me there should have been a helluva lot more hoopla involved.)

Unsolicited Sales Calls Suck (So Don’t Make ‘Em)

Dear Copy Bitch: I’m having an argument with the sales folks in my office (I’m in marketing). I’ve created a form for a white paper download on our website. The form asks people if they’d be interested in a sales call to talk about our services, and it provides a yes or no option. The sales folks are furious and say that if someone fills out a form, the person has surrendered their information and it’s open season. In other words, the person will get a call whether he or she wants it or not. I disagree. What do you think?

—Morgan S., L.A.

Answer: I worship at the altar of Seth Godin and firmly believe in asking permission every step of the way. If you offer free content on your website, and I have to fill out a form to get it, I do NOT think you should “assume the close” and follow up with a sales call. Nor should you add me to your email newsletter list unless I ask to be added (any disclaimer saying that you are adding me since I filled out the form does NOT make me feel better, even if it covers your ass legally).

Like you, I get a lot of pushback from clients because they think more is better, when often times, it’s just more. If 50 forms come in, but only 12 have specifically requested that you contact them for follow up, the sales folks often can’t focus on the 12. Instead, they become fixated on the other 38 (methinks Freud would have something to say about this obsession).

“But we need to follow up with those people,” the sales folks whine. Um, no you don’t. Focus on the 12 who want you to call. Focus on crafting messages and providing follow-up materials that will continue to lead the people through the sales process. Why waste your time on calling all 50 and getting frustrated by hang ups and voice mails and, as a result, not spending as much time on the 12 who do want to hear from you?

My information is sacred. At least, I think it is. So shouldn’t the person who’s trying to win my business treat it like it is, too?

Yes. However, the sad truth is that so few do.

As Seth Godin would say, “sounds like an opportunity to me.”

By the way, for those who would argue that no one will offer up their information if they’re not forced to, I have a handful of client websites that proves that theory false. (I wish I had more than a handful, but most of the others aren’t brave enough to allow their prospects a choice.)

Word Confusion: Adverse & Averse

Dear Copy Bitch: It drives me nuts when people mix up adverse and averse. Any tips for readers?

–Jillian, teacher, San Francisco

Answer: Adverse means “unfavorable.” Averse means “opposed.”

Examples:

  1. I had an adverse reaction to the medication.
  2. I’m not averse to seeing a film that doesn’t start George Clooney.

A trick for remembering: who here likes ads? Nine times out of ten, I bet you find them unfavorable. So try to remember the “ad” in “adverse” and think about those unfavorable ads that bombard you everywhere you go.

I’d love to hear other tricks for this one, so please share in the comments.

Client Relations: Should You Give Customers What They Want or What They Need?

Dear Copy Bitch: I’d like your take on something. Lately, I’ve been dealing with clients who want to go in directions with their copy and marketing that I don’t think are in their company’s best interests. So what should I do? Take their money and do what they want? Or say no and walk away? I mean if I were in the business of building houses, and a client wanted a bay window, but I didn’t think it would work where they wanted it, well…I don’t have to live in the house, do I? So what say you, Madame Copy Bitch?

–Ed, Boston

Answer: Before you don your mercenary or martyr hat, consider another option: it’s called honest vendor.

I don’t always agree with my clients’ decisions. But that’s okay. I don’t need to as long as 1) I’ve spoken up and given my reasoning for The Other Side and 2) they listened to–and considered–my reasoning.

So, to get back to your specific question, my answer is no. You shouldn’t simply give customers what they want, at least not when it comes to copywriting and marketing advice. Nor should you ignore their desires and do what you think is right.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. Listen to their wants. Let them have the floor and talk.
  2. Ask questions. Dig deeper. When a client says, “I want to create a social media plan for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a blog” he or she might be saying, “I really need to get on board with all this social media stuff because everyone else is,” or he/she might be saying, “I really need more sales and this is the way, I’ve heard.”
  3. Once you understand what’s motivating these “wants,” you can then make suggestions about what they really need in order to fulfill these desires.
  4. Keep in mind that your suggestions aren’t enough. Despite the fact they’ve hired you for your expertise, you’re just one more person in a sea of well-meaning people telling them what they need to do. I always arm myself with hard evidence, like articles by respected industry experts that supports whatever I’m recommending (I don’t make recommendations based on hunches either. I have my hunch and then I research to see if my hunch is right).
  5. Don’t overwhelm the client with too much info. Give him or her enough to gnaw on. And give the person time to digest the info.
  6. Then, let it go. It’s out of your hands. At the end of the day, the client gets the final say.

Here’s when I do what the clients wants, even if I don’t think it’s what the client needs:

  • If the particular task, in all fairness, could “go either way” in terms of results
  • If it’s simply a marketing/business decision that the client has thought about (I realize I’m not always going to agree…at some point, I need to respect my client’s need to run his or her own business and make decisions–and potential mistakes–as a result)

Here’s when I’ll walk away:

  • If the client has asked me to do something unethical (e.g. spam a list that hasn’t opted in) or, obviously, illegal (no amount of money is worth this)
  • If the client’s tactics make me feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason (listen to your gut)
  • If the client never, ever listens to my recommendations. I walk because I don’t see the point in continuing a relationship with someone who doesn’t value my expertise and recommendations. It makes me wonder why he or she is paying me to begin with.

How ’bout you, dear readers. How do you handle this scenario?

The Value of Good Copywriting

I received this email a couple of weeks ago (I’m not editing it):

Hi,

I am looking for someone to write web content for some of my clients and I would like to know what do you charge to write a 300-400 page. I have ongoing projects so this will be a long term project.

Thanks

– Don

What’s the problem with this request? The problem is that the prospect is thinking in rates rather than the value of good copywriting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand money talks and people need to be mindful of budgets and bottom lines (hell, I’m a small business owner, too). And I understand we’re in a tough economy. But when a web or marketing guy says to me, “How much do you charge to write 300 words of website copy,” he’s doing a major disservice to his client because he’s devalued what content can do: content can convert people into leads/sales or it can cause people to click away. This guy’s query smacks of “This is short copy, so it shouldn’t cost a lot.”

I was much more forgiving of this five years ago (even two years ago). But not today, at least not from a web/marketing guy who should have some understanding (if he’s serious about what he does) of the direct link between kick-ass content and conversions. This guy is stuck in ’90s Rateville instead of today’s Value City, at least according to this email.

Please know that I’m incredibly diplomatic when it comes to responding to people like this. Heck, we all need to learn about the wonders of Value City at some point (I did), and I’m always happy to share my knowledge and experience with a fellow freelancer. Here’s my response.

Hi Don,

Thanks so much for your email and for your interest in my copywriting services. I quote per project since every project is a little different.

Here’s what my quotes cover:

  • Talking to the client to get to the heart of what the company does…and figuring out how to engage the company’s core customers and prospects.
  • Providing input on design and the site map
  • Reviewing competitors’ websites to see what they do well (and what they don’t do well)
  • Reviewing all collateral materials (including, ideally, any messaging research that’s been conducted by the marketing people)
  • Crafting engaging copy for each page and following SEO best practices. This includes writing compelling, keyword-rich headlines; writing persuasive meta descriptions; and writing compelling calls-to-action (in addition to weaving keywords into the copy).
  • Brainstorming ideas for compelling offers (e.g. white papers). I’d charge separately for any writing that’s involved with these offers (i.e. I’d charge a separate fee to write the white paper).
  • One round of revisions

Note: I don’t typically focus on word counts per page (my main goal is converting site visitors into customers…sometimes this requires more copy and sometimes it requires less).

To give you an idea of my project quotes, I’m working on a 20-page site right now and charging $price redacted. I require 1/3 of the project fee up front and the balance is due within 30 days of the client receiving the first draft.

I write b2b and b2c copy. My style is conversational (which I believe is effective, regardless of the industry). However, some industries are a bit more “corporate” and prefer a more formal tone (think financial, insurance, etc). I refer these projects to colleagues who specialize in these areas (their rates are comparable with mine). I’d be happy to share their info.

Let me know your thoughts. I’d love to learn more about your business as well: are you a web developer, marketer, or…? Feel free to send me a link to your website or to send me portfolio samples. Also, how did you hear about me? If you’d prefer chatting on the phone, I’d welcome it. (I’m around during the holidays.)

Thanks again for your interest. Oh, one more thing: I’m booking into February at this point.

Best,
Robyn

Note: I used the word “rates” in my response to him. Why? Because this guy is my audience, and I need to talk in his language. I’m not going to convince him to go from caring about rates to value overnight, but it’s my hope that my email planted the seed.

I never heard back from the guy (even after sending a polite follow up that said “Just wanted to make sure you got my email to see if you have any questions), and I’m sure there’s more than one reader out there going, “Well, duh. You’re kind of blunt. And the guy was only talking about 300 words, and you overwhelmed him by talking about full-blown sites. This is overkill. And your price was probably sticker shock. Not to mention your closing line ‘I’m booking into February.'”

It’s true. I am blunt. For a reason. The person who responds to this email saying, “Yeah, let’s talk some more,” is someone I’d probably want to work with because he’s showing me that he’s seen the lights of Value City and would like to get closer. (Or that his email didn’t tell me the whole story, like maybe he really is a resident of Value City, but that this fact just didn’t translate in his query.)

Is it overkill? I don’t think so. Even if I’m writing only one page of copy (and I can’t for the life of me remember when I’ve been hired to do just that), I want that copy to work (i.e. convert), and that involves much more than simply sitting at a keyboard and banging out 300-400 words (why 300-400? Search engines don’t require specific word counts anymore, if they ever did).

Sticker shock? I’d be willing to bet that’s what this guy experienced when he saw my quote on the 20-page site, but that’s because he’s not thinking value.

Was my last line a “show-off” line. Nope. I’m booking web projects a month out (at least the completion of said projects). If this guy was looking for a 48-hour turnaround, it would be a waste of time to continue talking, so I think it’s only fair to say what my booking schedule is like (And yes, dear readers, it’s true: saying I’m booking a month out DOES sound like I’m selling myself by showing I’m “in demand.” The Copy Bitch has to don her pretty little sales hat from time to time. She is a working girl, after all.)

By the way, value won’t ravage your bottom line. It will improve it. And value won’t hurt your budget, if you base your budget on value. But if your budget is based on cheap rates, well, remember what your mama used to tell you about getting what you paid for.

Word Confusion: e.g. &. i.e.

Dear Copy Bitch: Can you settle an argument I’m having with my SO? What’s the difference between “ie” and “eg”?

–In Love in Indiana

Answer: Use “i.e.” when you mean “in other words” and use “e.g.” when you mean “for example” (think of the e in e.g. and the e in example to help you remember).

Examples:

1. If George Clooney were ever to speak to me, I’d probably get all supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (i.e., I’d sputter nonsense for lack of anything brilliant to say).

2. I love anything with chocolate (e.g., ice cream, cakes, pies, etc.).

Update: I caught Get Shorty on the telly the other day. Here’s a funny (NSFW) scene that demonstrates the i.e. vs. e.g. conundrum.

How to Use a Semicolon – Just 2 Rules

Dear Copy Bitch: You often say to avoid semicolons. But I want to know how to use them correctly. Any tips?

—Punctuating in Poughkeepsie

Answer: Here’s the good news about semicolons: you have only two rules to remember. The first deals with sentences where you’re probably itching to put a comma, period, or semicolon, and you don’t know which one to choose. The second rule deals with items in a series where you’re already using some other form of punctuation within the series, most likely a comma.

Let me explain. (And I’m not going to explain these rules the way your English teacher would, talking endlessly about independent clauses and transitional expressions.)

The Copy Bitch’s Semicolon Rule #1:

What you need to remember about Rule #1 is this: whatever comes before the semicolon should be able to stand on its own as a sentence. Ditto for what comes after it.

Example:
Winning George Clooney isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

I could have just as easily written this: Winning George Clooney isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

Here’s another example of proper semicolon usage:
I’m supposed to go to the movies tomorrow; however, the weather will likely interfere with my plans.

What comes before the semicolon could stand alone as its own sentence. And what comes after the semicolon could stand alone as its own sentence.

Notice the word “however,” which is called a conjunctive adverb. Other conjunctive adverbs include therefore, moreover, hence, and furthermore. These words are used as transitions between two independent clauses, and they should be followed by a comma.

See? This is one of the reasons why I tell people to avoid semicolons. The problem is that so many people don’t know how to use them correctly. The other reason? Go back and re-read the two George Clooney sentences above. Even though they mean the same thing, the punctuation does have a subtle effect on how your mind reads it (you might be unaware of this effect, that’s how subtle it is, but it’s there).

I think you should haul a semicolon out of your bag o’writing tricks when the piece you’re working on calls for this effect. But that means using the semicolon once or twice, not every sentence or every other sentence. Copywriters and business writers should avoid semicolons 99.9 percent of the time (there’s always an exception). And even creative writers should have a darn good reason for littering a page with ’em, at least in this copy bitch’s not-so-humble opinion.

By the way, do NOT think that semicolons and commas are interchangeable. They are not. If you put a comma in place of the semicolon in the examples above, you have what’s called a “comma splice.” And it’s illegal. You could be arrested. Consider yourself warned.

The Copy Bitch’s Semicolon Rule #2

This rule isn’t optional. If you’re writing a sentence that includes a series and within that series you use some sort of punctuation (most likely a comma), you must use a semicolon to separate the items in the series. It’s for clarity’s sake.

Example:
Last summer, I visited Boston, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; and George Clooney’s birthplace.

Want to see the semicolon in brilliant action? Read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Check out the 12th paragraph (but if you’ve never read the whole thing, you should…it’s a powerful piece of writing).

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