Does your copy win the “so what?” game?

Posted by on Jul 30, 2009 in Brand Communications | No Comments
Does your copy win the “so what?” game?

We’ve all seen examples of bloated, jargon-heavy marketing copy that makes our eyes roll into the backs of our heads. Seeing it out of context from the Web site or brochure that is its normal habitat, called out as an example of lazy, long-winded space-filler, makes us laugh.

We laugh as the consumers of such copy — the intended audience digesting message after message about “state-of-the-art solutions.” And we laugh as copywriters — because at one time or another, we have been guilty of churning out that kind of drivel to make a paycheck.

But even copy that is punchy and interesting to read is in danger of falling in to the same trap as copy laden with generic marketing-speak. Polished, creative copy with real rhythm and personality may go a long way to helping express a company’s brand, but a true prospect or customer will see right through it if it doesn’t deliver the right substance. At the end of the day, your audience is there in front of you, ready to receive the single most important thing they need to learn: what’s in it for me?

What are you going to tell them?

Let the games begin
I think back to my journalism school days when we learned to write news articles with the 5Ws (and the less convenient “H”) — what, who, where, when, why and how. In newspaper ledes, we were told that the most important were the first four Ws, the pure facts. The “why” and the “how” were nice-to-haves in short, factual news stories, but the basic facts were most important.

Marketing and sales people tend to begin sales presentations, brochures and Web pages with the most obvious “Ws” — typically, the “what” and “who.” They may dedicate a half-dozen upfront slides or begin with a few paragraphs to describe what the company does. (For many large companies, it is so hard to consolidate this into a single pithy statement that the description ends up saying nothing at all.) Then the content speaks to how long the company been in business and who its customers are, maybe offers up an org chart or summary of fiscal earnings. This is all meant as an introduction, a way to establish credibility. But:

So what? The customer doesn’t really care about your company. The customer cares about himself or herself — and how you can help him or her succeed.

Perhaps, instead, you start out by talking about what the product (sorry, the “solution”) does:

The Best Solution Ever™ is a patent-pending, innovative business productivity solution that is part of an award-winning, comprehensive suite of information technology solutions designed to improve processes and save money.

You’re explaining what the product is (vaguely), what it does at a high level, and the fact that your company took the time to file a patent on the technology behind it. And the prospective customer asks once again:

So what? It all sounds nice, but what does it really mean for me?

How about if you approach it a little differently? Maybe your copy can put a little context around why customers need a solution to all their many problems:

Times are tough. Sales are down. Your business can’t get as much financing as it used to. To succeed, you need to be more productive. The Best Solution Ever™ gives you the ability to do more with less, increasing staff productivity while saving time and reducing costs.

Hmmm. You’ve piqued my interest. I’m listening, and you’re right. But — so what? Why are you the people to solve my problem?

You’ve hooked the prospect. You’ve overcome the initial incredulousness. But how many companies out there can say the exact same thing you’re saying?

Three strikes!  But don’t give up
In a sales presentation or live marketing copy, you’d be out by now. The prospect will have tuned out and moved on.

But because we’re just experimenting here, you’re still in the game. Let’s try this one more time. Consider these four principles as you consider how to begin your marketing pitch:

  1. It’s all about the 5th W and the H. This isn’t newspaper writing. The basic facts — the what, who, where and why — are important, but they shouldn’t lead the story. In fact, they should possibly be relegated to proof points. You want to lead with why and howwhy do you provide the best solution, and how can you help the customer?
  2. Walk in the customer’s shoes. Remember that, while you’re most likely very proud that your company has been in business for 25 years, won a major award two years ago and has offices in 17 different cities, the customer doesn’t care. All that stuff provides confidence that you’re not going to disappear off the map in two years — but the customer needs primarily to know that you provide a product that does 95% of what he or she needs it to do, does it in a way that nobody else can provide, and will actually change the customer’s day-to-day reality. You’re dealing with an impatient audience who is seriously overwhelmed with information, so you have to find a way to convey that quickly and succinctly in a way that resonates with the reader.
  3. Address specific results. Several weeks ago I participated in an all-day workshop by Corporate Visions, a company that specializes in helping corporations turn their brand messaging into sales-ready communications. One of their strategies is to think about the specific audience — the decision-makers or influencers whom salespeople most often approach or who will be doing the majority of the research about new solutions — and what keeps those people up at night. Yes, ultimately they want to “increase staff productivity and save money,” or “increase quality,” or whatever the high-level benefits touted in marketing copy may be. But what they really care about is being able to report to their bosses in their next weekly status meetings that they’re on budget, that their teams are producing results, that the work that they’re doing is tangibly making a difference.
  4. Call out what’s different. This is one of the hardest things for companies to do. In branding and marketing departments across the world, very experienced marketers spend a lot of energy coming up with value propositions that are truly distinctive from the competition, especially in B2B spaces where there are four or five clear leaders in a category. The challenge also is to do this in a way that’s not overtly confrontational by stating explicitly that your solution is best — because there’s always somebody out there who can find some fact to dispute that. You need to set yourself apart right from the start, but in a way that doesn’t seem like you’re looking for a fight.

Driving it home
So, using these principles, I took a shot at writing marketing copy for our fictitious software solution:

Simple to use and easy to adopt, The Best Solution Ever™ lets workers collaborate on projects, automate contact management and track tasks — without installing costly, burdensome software that absorbs IT resources. Built with unique technology that lets employees work together simultaneously on a project or account from multiple locations, The Best Solution Ever helps companies more effectively meet deadlines, close leads faster and improve departmental productivity by as much as 75%.

How is this copy different? Notice that:

  • The copy talks about what the software does, but from the customer’s perspective — it immediately addresses what customers can do with it, rather than how it works or what it is.
  • The differentiators are woven into the copy, calling out how the product is distinctive (it’s an ASP, it has an intuitive interface) while subtly referencing some of the biggest pain points customers may experience with other types of business productivity software: it’s difficult to use, employees think it’s hard so don’t adopt it, and it sucks IT resources.
  • It describes the true market differentiator, the “patent-pending” collaboration technology, by talking about how it actually makes a difference.
  • It references real, everyday benefits — the stuff that on-the-ground salespeople and managers care about. And it relies on customer case studies or research to put some proof behind the sweeping statement that the software helps “increase productivity.”

Prospective customers are overwhelmed with navel-gazing, bloated marketing copy. They’re jaded. Get past their filters by beginning the conversation focused on real needs and real results — and hit a grand slam with your marketing copy every time.

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