I just read this article on Readymag about reader friendly typography, technical efforts to optimise type and crafting interesting content. It’s a good one, you should read it, too.

But as much as I know how to design an appealing article and how to give it a hierarchy and visual structure, as much do I suddenly realise that the actual content sucks, almost always. I’m merely sugarcoating it.

So this is a call to to those content creators and editors who write corporate content. Please do a good job.

I work at a small design studio. We are hired to make things pretty, interesting, memorable and usable. Clients get that. They know that it is a question of talent and experience to capture a brand‘s values and character in a visual design. Be it a logo, a website or some kind of print product. What they don’t regard as being our job is writing good copy. And we as an agency don’t, either.

External copywriters may not do the job

Corporate writing needs a thorough understanding of the corporate’s business and character and it’s clients, too. As an outside consultant you usually don’t have that. Getting it is a timely and expensive effort. That’s the main reason external copy writers often times fail at delivering satisfactory text. It’s because the company has its own way of seeing things, naming things, describing things. Each and every individual in the company has their own way. So besides advertising and blogging there isn’t much an external writer can do.

Marketing may not do the job

And there lies the problem. Most marketing people aren’t good at writing. That’s okay, it was never meant to be their job in the first place. So unless a company doesn’t have someone explicitly hired for copywriting, there just is no one who can fill that gap.

What about PR people and writers of press releases? Can they take that job? Let me put it that way: it’s different. Writing a press release, establishing a connection with publishers, offering content that people may want to replicate and all that PR magic, that’s an art of it’s own. But it’s got nothing to do with good copy writing.

There is so much to achieve with a unique way of writing, with a memorable voice and just the right amount of information. As a copy writer you know how your company sees itself. You feel it in your guts. Most times there isn’t a written down manual for a corporate language, often not even a style guide. As a writer you have to rely on your own sense for your brand and your clients. And that may be just a little too much.

So what can you do to improve your copywriting?

I do think that you don’t have to be an experienced writer to produce compelling copy for the web. (Even though professionals tend to do a real good job—maybe you should consider hiring one to get started.)
But in order not to aim for a false ideal, I’d recommend a few cornerstones to keep you from writing boring, faceless and ineffective copy.

1. Don’t use personas

Don’t envision some kind of fake person that you will then try to address in just the appropriate way. If the persona is fake, you are fake. Better take yourself as a reference. You are a part of your company. You couldn’t be any closer to its ideals and passions.

2. Try to be real.

Just imagine that you yourself would have to read that copywriting of yours. How would you want to be talked to and how would you like your information to be served? Would you like some sympathy from time to time or would you like to skip that marketing chatter? I am a strong advocate of trusting your own emotions.

Yes, it’s hard to resist the temptation to do it just like everybody else does it, to just copy what your competitors say. But there must be a reason to go with you and not with the competition. It might be just an undertone, a personal preference, a feeling of affection that makes a difference.

Of course you will not want to overcompensate. There is no good in underlining the issues and flaws of your company. Be real but be kind. Talk about your company like you would about a dear friend, maybe.

3. Don’t trust the numbers

Short detour: Data driven decisions

Data driven decisions are a good thing. But there are two factors to consider before relying on this method.
a) Do you even have enough data? Any average B2B corporate website has maybe 1.000 visitors a month, or maybe 5.000 or 10.000 if you are lucky. A bounce rate of 50% is not unusual so half of them is lost right away. How many of your users even get close to executing a conversion, buy your goods, fill that form or whatever? How many real conversions do you have and are these actually signed contracts or just hot leads? What I’m trying to say is to not fool yourself with crunching numbers. A change from ten conversions to twelve may be a 20 % raise but statistically it’s just a coincidence.
b) Are you drawing the right conclusions? Numbers only tell so much. Did you find the only true interpretation for your decision making? Almost all data can justify one route or the other. If the average time per page is high is that a good thing because people read your content or is it a bad thing because they can’t find what they are looking for? If you have many contacts through your chat is that good because people are interested or is that bad because you didn’t answer their questions in the first place? Especially if you do not have huge numbers misinterpretation is a risk.

Back from that short trip into why-I-don’t-believe-in-analytics-land my third advice would be to value experience over numbers. Not only your own experience as some kind of expert for your brand but the user experience of your peers, too. Ask a college how they experience that first draft you wrote. Ask you superiors. Go through short iterations and build up an understanding of how people respond to your ideas. Make an A/B test not with the fifty visitors of your landing page but ask your next table neighbour what version they like better.

4. Don’t state the obvious

If you take your visitors seriously you don’t want to waste their time. And you don’t want to play them for fools. Don’t tell them what they already know and don’t tell them what’s obvious.

Sounds like there is nothing to tell after all, right? But I’m not suggesting to be all brief and factual. An emotional reading experience, humour, an open word or a striking truth are all very entangling writer’s skills. What you don’t want is to bore your readers with platitudes.

A rule that might help is to ask yourself: “would it make any sense to state the opposite?” So if I say “we specialise in medium B2B customers” a sensible opposite would be “we specialise in large B2C clients”. Both describe a meaningful difference, a trait of your business that might make people trust in your experience.
The opposite of a statement like “we provide high quality service with passion” would be something like “we are bored manufacturers of crap”. Nobody would ever write that! And that’s the reason why nobody cares for your “high quality” or your “passion”. Because it doesn’t make any difference. Everybody understands that you don’t have anything to say if you make a statement like this.
If what you say doesn’t make a meaningful difference try to delete it.

But then again I’m just a designer

So, that’s my thoughts on effective copywriting. But I’m just a designer and writing isn’t my day to day job. It only seems a pretty waste of potential if writing is as boring and predictable as it oftentimes is.