Copywriter Turned Consultant

Well, as eventful as it was, 2015 whizzed by like a speeding train.

In fact, my almost 5-year stint as a fulltime freelancer has gone by as if I was in a 100 metre dash.

And yeah, while I’m at it, my 18 or so years as a wordsmith in a creatively constipated industry now feels like a vividly twisted dream.

So here I am, awoken from what seemed like a pseudo-comatose state of mind – anxiously wondering where my career is headed as I approach my 40s.

Freaking 40s, nuts!

But to be honest, it hasn’t been as delusional or convoluted as I’ve made it to be. Yes, putting 18 years of your heart, soul and neck into something ought to be paying dividends.

And it has, for the most part.

pulpSEO
Pulp Optimization…

Strangely, something else has begun to happen over the last couple of years. I have found myself doing much less writing, while being thrust into situations where my overall know-how in marketing began to take the lead. I’ve gone from churning copy after copy after copy; to work on strategic, conceptual and the business side of marketing.

For a long time I thought I would be just generating content till the day I slump over my keyboard, or at best overseeing other lost souls churn out mindless garbage, and then set myself on fire on a pile of badly written client briefs while screaming “no more reeevissiooonnnsss!”.

Yes, people have mentioned I have a warped mind.

So, in essence, I am not just a copywriter anymore. I am somewhat in transition, or maybe I have already transitioned to become a marketing consultant of sorts. Don’t get me wrong, writing is still my first love, and I will continue to be a keyboard slave for a long time to come.

Maybe, just maybe it’s time I pursue my other writing interests. After all, no time to waste as 40 approaches in haste.

Oh…  better late than never, so happy new year!

Seeing is Convincing

Okay. Sometimes, I can be quite biased.

Just because I’m a copywriter, I tend to dismiss the other critical element of a great piece of marketing communication – the visual. Hey you can’t blame a writer who is defensive of his craft.

So why this sudden affinity towards visuals? Well you can’t refute facts, especially when they make a whole lotta sense. According to research by some geniuses, it is proven that:

People remember 80% of what THEY SEE
Compared to only 20% of what THEY READ

Pretty eye-opening stat, if you will. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. I would most likely remember the opening scenes of my favourite movie as opposed to the opening lines of my favourite book. Yes, we humans are intrinsically wired to prioritise visual information.

Eye is for the Brain
Roughly half of the human brain is devoted to processing visual info. That explains a lot about our half-brained politicians…

So that’s how people consume data, but here’s the more important stat part of the same research:

90% of the world’s data was created in the last 2 years.

Yes, the last 2 frigging years! And we all have access to virtually most of it thanks to accurate search platforms and social media.

So what does this mean for developing marketing communication content?

1. Target
Find out everything you need to know about your audience

2. Focus
Don’t ramble, keep it simple and concise; made easy when you know your target

3. Visual-ise
Take on an infographic mode wherever possible; icons, charts, graphs and illustrations

In essence, don’t add to the mindless drivel that’s growing exponentially every second. Say enough to evoke curiosity, compel action and you’re done.

The sad thing is, apparently only 28% of words in a webpage are actually read, which means 72% of this post just added to the mindless drivel.

More or Less…

We’re well into the New Year. And everywhere I turn, the air of uncertainty smacks me in the face. I’m pretty used to uncertainties; freelance copywriting is full of unknowns, surprises and WTF-moments.

These days, the uncertainties are external. The impending GST, falling Ringgit and steadily ascending inflation have concocted an aura of economic doom and gloom here in Malaysia.

The signs ignored, voices hushed and belts further tightened.

The situation seems out of our control, with our captain-less ship at the mercy of global economic winds and undercurrents of mismanagement. We need to fend for ourselves; work harder, spend less and save more. Yes, I’m venting a little here.

But they say necessity is the mother of invention. In marketing communications, a flourishing economy and big budgets does not automatically translate to great work.

Less is More
Have less > think different > get results > put some clothes on…

I know, because I’ve worked on campaigns for big brands with big budgets; only to see the work often become needlessly complex and hopelessly off the mark. And when budgets are cut, it is used to rationalise ineffectiveness and less-than-desired results.

These days however, I work mostly for start-ups, entrepreneurial businesses and SMEs. They usually don’t have a marketing budget or even a marketing department. But what they do have is the willingness to try new things, allow creative incubation and exhaust all strategic avenues.

The money is then spent to expound and execute a good idea, and not to bombard the media with a scratched-up campaign hoping for a miracle.

Perhaps the economic doom and gloom presents an opportunity to revamp our preconceptions of marketing. In today’s marketing there are no set formulas, cure-alls or guaranteed results, brands need to spark conversations, have a social persona and navigate the wilderness of technology.

Budgets may be trimmed, but we’ve got to roll with the punches.

Less is more, more or less, yes?

Loyalty is Overrated

When I receive communications from brands that begin with ‘Thank you for being a loyal customer bla bla bla…’, I feel like strangling the copywriter who wrote that opening.

But I am a fellow copywriter too, so perhaps just a smacking will suffice.

If I can’t find Coke, I’d probably drink Pepsi. No Pringles? Yeah okay, Mr. Potato will do. When Maxis sucked, I moved on to Digi.

Like most consumers, I’m hardly loyal. And I’ve repeatedly cheated on the brands that think I am their loyal customer. There is a significant difference between being loyal to a brand and being loyal to something that influences your life such as a loved one.

That difference is called emotion.

Mind of a Consumer
Brands can never ever evoke true loyalty, there's always room for cheating

Brands try really hard to make an emotional connection with their customers, but often fail miserably. There is just no way for a brand to replace what really matters; like family, friends, career and all other attributes that make up our personality.

So I feel annoyed at the capacity of brands to assume that I am loyal to an entity that is purely after my money. But the truth is:

I am not loyal, I have no choice.

I would end my relationship with you the moment someone offers me a better deal, and as long as I have nothing to lose by moving on.

Yes, the caveat is ‘if I have nothing to lose’. Which is why, mortgages have a ‘lock-in’ period that charges a hefty sum. Also the reason behind why telcos have contracts that impose a penalty upon termination.

And then they have the cheek to call me loyal!

If brand communications were truthful, then that letter would say ‘thank you for not going to our competitor, we really need your money to pay our inflated corporate salaries bla bla bla…’

Advertising Advertising

Look, I believe in advertising, especially since I’ve toiled in the industry as a copywriter for the past 15 years or so.

But I also believe some things should not be advertised.  While most products and services can benefit from incisive communication strategies coupled with compelling creative executions and targeted message dissemination; I believe those in the ad industry itself should not be advertising themselves.

In recent months, I’ve seen newspapers proclaiming that ‘print is the way to go’ and radio stations promising ‘increased sales’. And the fact that they are advertising in their own pages and airwaves seemed rather desperate.

Print Revenue Stats
The numbers don't lie. Ignore at your own peril...

Advertisers (or clients) will naturally go where there is a large audience. I think media owners should work on strengthening their audience base rather than proclaiming that their medium is a cure-all for communication conundrums.

It’s so obvious that the digital and social revolutions are giving traditional media – especially Print and Radio – stiff competition in terms of ad revenue. These traditional players must begin to realise that they cannot remain unchallenged and must improve on content and engagement, whilst embracing the future of communication.

It will take more than just advertising in-own-media to pry the ad Ringgits that are increasingly being channeled towards online advertising. And we all know that advertising a substandard product will only make it fail faster.

But then again, here are some interesting bits to chew on, based on a 2013 Global Survey of Trust in Advertising by Nielsen for Malaysia:

  • 72% of consumers in the country trust newspaper ads
  • Credibility of traditional advertising remains high compared to online paid media
  • Trust in digital ads such as online banners and social media hover at around 50%
  • Confidence in online advertising is swiftly growing, with ad spend forecast to touch US$34 billion in Asia Pacific by 2015
  • Word-of-mouth still remains the best form of advertising, at 86% trust level

So, while traditional advertising still plays a major role in ad campaigns and strategies, online advertising is fast catching up and cannot be ignored any longer.

Traditional media owners have realised this, hence the desperate attempt to advertise themselves. Only time will tell how long they can remain profitable while clutching to fading hopes.

And in case you didn’t notice, word-of-mouth is still and will always be advertising’s top performer. Maybe it’s wise to spark conversations rather than pour money down the media drain.

What’s the difference?

In my 15 odd years as a copywriter, the word ‘different’ is something I’ve constantly heard from clients.

There nothing wrong with wanting to be different, but the truth is copywriting alone cannot position a product or service as being different in the eyes of consumers. If what you offer is also being offered by a gazillion other competitors, then simply saying ‘we’re different’ isn’t going to cut it.

Think Different
They were truly different and sparked a revolution

Difference does not come from how copy is crafted, it comes from the core of your business itself. A few examples:

  • A totally new or innovative product that fills an existing untapped need (I know, not the easiest thing to discover)
  • The difference in serving customers (you have to go beyond saying ‘thank you’)
  • The way your company operates or a distinct difference in culture (easier said than done)

If your business cannot align itself with any of the above points of differentiation, then sadly the copywriting can only be skewed or tweaked to a certain extent. We copywriters call it tone and manner of delivery; which is to craft the same message your competitors are saying in an alternate way.

But tone and manner can only differentiate how you are saying it, but not what you are saying. Sometimes, how you say it can make a difference, but if your business can figure out something totally different to say, then your proposition becomes more meaningful.

If you want to be different, you’ve got to back it up by living and breathing distinctiveness. Don’t just expect a different copywriting tone and manner to mask the same-ol’.

You have to be the crazy one, the misfit, the rebel, the troublemaker… the one who see things differently.

Fluff is Out

Copywriting is the business of misleading people to buy things they don’t need with the money they don’t have.

Well it’s not that we copywriters tell outright lies to convince people. Sometimes it’s just about too much fluff.

While most of my clients these days understand that effective communication involves a clear, concise message with a touch of personal warmth, I do get enquiries to work on the old ‘catchy-punchy-juicy’ stuff.

FluffMarsh
If it ain't marshmallow, go easy on the fluff

I tend to steer clear from these kinds of requests because, well, the fluff isn’t all that convincing. We’re dealing with young, smart consumers whom are becoming increasingly averse to marketing speak and vague catchphrases.

We’ve all seen those websites, brochures, corporate profiles or even mail drops that are full of meaningless superlatives, mindless ramblings and generic ‘industry’ word play. That’s either a sign of a novice copywriter or a client unwilling to adapt to evolving consumer mindset.

Consumers just want you to tell it as it is so they can then decide whether to do business with you. Besides, none of us want to nor have the time to make sense of  textual mumbo jumbo.

If you still want to take the fluffy route, beware of these pitfalls:

Can you deliver as promised?
Fluff raises consumer expectations, and they expect you to deliver as fluffed. Can you?

Bye-bye repeat business
Once fluffed, twice shy. When all that fluff falls flat, the customer goes to your competitor.

Risk of attracting negativity
We live in a very social world. One disgruntled customer can start a negative crusade against your business.

Even if telling it as it is goes against convention, your product or service can still shine through and appeal to your intended target audience. A case in point is a company in Wisconsin, USA that tells the absolute truth, even it may result in some consumers not buying their product.

ZeroFLuff

Ahhh… I wish I wrote that.

The Name Game

Yes, I admit it. The thing that I dislike most about my profession as a copywriter is coming up with names.

For me, names are personal. Think about it this way, would you ask another person to name your newborn baby?

You created it, you name it. And I believe the same analogy should apply to companies, products and brands as well. The person who created them should be the ones naming them.

Hello
I'll make you a deal, lunch on me for the person who comes up with the best name for this... errr... juice...

Indeed, we copywriters can help name your product or service. But there will always be a sense of disconnect when we – a third party – attempt to create a name for something that holds many intrinsic values.

I always suggest to my clients to give naming a shot. And sometimes they find it very difficult, even when they themselves have incepted the product or service. So you can imagine how difficult it would be for me?

However, nothing is easy. So here are 5 key considerations to naming that might help:

1. Sensory Appeal
Ideally, a name should be able to activate any one, or better yet all five senses. A name that people can see, smell, taste, feel or hear subconsciously creates a sensory experience that’s memorable. A brand name like Apple activates all senses.

2. Service is Serious
The game changes slightly when it comes to naming a service though. People expect services to be credible, trustworthy and professional, and a name should reflect these qualities. Don’t ask me how.

3. Be Uncommon
Habituation is a human trait where we are desensitised by all the common things around us. You name needs to rise above the clutter or people will tune-out. Do you really want to be another ‘Pro-something’ or Expert-something’ or ‘something-Solutions’?

4. Break It Down
Break any names that you come up with into syllabuses. Read out aloud every syllabus to make sure nothing sounds unsavoury. This is especially useful in Malaysia, where multiple languages are spoken. I once saw a Bengkel Tah Yik… seriously!

5. Domain-friendly
These days, securing the URL you want can be a real pain. So make sure your name list is domain checked as early as possible because you will surely need to have a website. Sites like www.namestation.com is worth a try too.

If all else fails, do what I did. I just used my name for my business. It may not be the most ideal name, but it’s a true reflection of me.

Copywriter’s Constipation

Sometimes it’s hard – even after being a copywriter for 14 years – I don’t have it easy all the time.

Often, when I’m tasked to write something, I can immediately get cracking. Words swiftly turn into sentences, which leads to paragraphs. Some jobs take minutes, other hours and the rest days, but the word-flow is constant and premeditated.

I know exactly where I’m heading, and I’m usually pretty confident that the client will appreciate my take on their product or service.

There are times however; I’m left staring at a blinking cursor. Minutes turn into hours before I write even a single line of copy, which I re-hash over and over again until I realise that I’ve actually been watching TED talks the whole day.

I curse myself for being an idiot. The client has trusted me and I can’t even string a couple of decent sentences together. Idiot!

Writer
... or watch TED talks

These are the days when self doubt creeps up stealthily and I conclude that I’m not really a good copywriter after all. Then I shut down for the day and grab a… errr… cool, refreshing beverage, pondering whether I should have become a word-challenged pilot instead.

Another day dawns and the struggle continues, despite the looming deadline.

Then I stop working on the copy and start looking at the product or service I am writing for, just to see if there’s any inspiration hidden within the brief, e-mail conversations or materials.

Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

Finally it hits me. Maybe it isn’t me; maybe it’s the product or service that’s flawed in some way that my internal sensors aren’t being activated.

A weak product or service is the antidote to inspiration. Even the world’s best copywriter can’t turn a Proton into a Toyota in the eyes of the consumer.

If I can’t write a reasonably good piece of communication that promises some decent benefits to the consumer, perhaps the product or service needs fixing.

But of course, I can’t tell that to the client. Can I?

Can Advertising Salvage a Bad Product?

Not surprisingly, politics and advertising are considered to be the two least trusted professions in the world.

Every 4 years or so, these two groups of professionals often team up to create misleading… errr… I mean awe-inspiring ads about how everything is hunky dory in the country.

You may have seen these politically-driven ads recently, which I assume are supposed to instill nationalistic pride and encourage us to support the status quo.

Shouting Man
Advertising a bad product can be a real pain

But more and more people now realise that what these ads are ‘selling’ aren’t that good, sometimes just plain bad.

That’s because the boom in alternative views from independent news sites and blogs often discredit efforts by the mainstream players. And of course social media helps spread alternative news very effectively.

William Bernbach – one of the pioneers of modern advertising – once said:

“A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad”.

It’s like watching an awesome movie trailer, where a combination of fast-paced editing, a stirring soundtrack and teasing dialogues is delivered in two minutes. And then you go watch the movie and realise you might as well been watching paint dry for the last two hours.

Sure enough, when any of your friends wants to watch the same movie, you’d probably not recommend it. This ripple of ‘thumbs-down’ will almost certainly make this movie a flop.

There are many ‘trailers’ on TV these days illustrating a progressive, modern and united Malaysia, provided our votes are cast to oppose change. While I’m not writing the creators of these ads off, I just hope I’m not forced to watch the actual drama for the next four years either.

Let the mud-slinging begin!