Why So Emo, Copywriter?

You know, as a copywriter I have always felt that my profession very much resembles our day-to-day, emotion-filled lives.

I mean, the copywriting art of creating intent and thereafter convincing is certainly a skill that is needed in everyday life.

This starts very early in our lives, and right up to our senior years. Some examples:

Asking our parents to let us stay up a little longer
Convincing our siblings that there’s a monster under the bed
Influencing the teacher that it’s the other kid’s fault
Telling your friend that it’s cool to smoke this
Sweet-talk a girl/guy to go out with you
Get an employer to hire you
Persuade the bank that you’re good for it
Warning your kids not to stay up a little longer
Making your kids to get to the bed before the monster does

And these are just broadstrokes. There are countless little acts of convincing that needs to happen every single days of our lives – be it with ourselves or others – to have some semblance of being a functioning human being.

Just like convincing people to purchase, we don’t always get our way. There are failures and rejections to contend with – and most of the time it depends on the emotional connection with other person.

Emotions matter, because we want the recipient to be in a trusting, comfortable and accepting mood if we were to have any success.

Emotional Copywriter
Make the right emotional connection, or it’s eggs on your face!

Think about the last time you willingly agreed to do something.

Let’s say for instance you were asked to dine in a place that you know is average, yet overpriced. But you still agreed.

Did you feel compelled to say yes because you’re such a nice person? Or was it because you were emotionally invested to the person making the request?

Like if my wife asked me to do something I don’t really want to do (don’t get any funny ideas), I’d still probably do it – that’s being emotionally invested, and also so I can earn extra brownie points.

Apparently, being emotionally invested makes you less critical and objectively observant. Love is the greatest emotional investment – think about all the things you did for family, good friends and loved ones… it probably didn’t take too much convincing.

Buying gifts for your nearest and dearest is an emotion-filled task as well, where budget or inconvenience are not prime concerns.

But what if there is no emotional connection, as with life’s other activities? As a copywriter, convincing strangers to purchase a product or service is often devoid of any emotion.

Perhaps chemistry has the answer.

You see, there are a few chemicals we can try to trigger – in our intended targets’ brains – that can alter their emotional state to be more, well, ‘receptive’.

Be it from a copywriter or a salesperson, inducing these chemicals can be the difference between ignoring the message or taking action.

  1. Dopamine
    Improves focus, motivation and memory with an all-round, feel-good factor. Induced by building suspense and leaving things to the imagination with a cliff-hanger. Think teaser ad campaigns and movie trailers as real-world examples. Good e-Mail marketers also use this strategy – where a potent, well-crafted prose leads to a video or landing page. 
  1. Oxytocin
    Builds trust, nurtures generosity and improved bonding. Induced by weaving empathy into the storyline. Those UNICEF, WWF or SPCA campaigns usually take this route, to get you feeling all warm and fuzzy, making you more willing to donate. 
  1. Endorphin
    Makes people laugh and automatically puts them in a good, open and comfortable mood. Think ice-breakers in client presentations or a funny quote to start an e-Mail copy. This funny business is a bit mischievous though, use sparingly or you will end up looking not-so-credible. Great for memes, but not always for marketing communications.

So the next time you encounter a marketing content that spoke to your soul – be it a sponsored post, blog article or video – it’s probably one of the chemicals above at work.

And possibly thanks to a copywriter going all emo to make that soul-warming connection.

The key ideas for this post was based on a TedTalk by David JP Phillips on the science of storytelling. Pretty interesting if you’re into that kind of stuff.

Marketing Automation Fail

Have you guys encountered the talking parking fee machine?

You know, the one that keeps repeating the obvious to oblivion.

“Please insert your parking card”

“Please pay your fee by cash or coin”

“Press the receipt button if you require a receipt”

“I have been programmed to say this until a pandemic wipes out all of humanity, which is currently in progress”

“Please insert…”

Yeah that damn parking machine! Now you remember. I do have two baseball bats, I’m game… let me know when.

So that’s automation in its extremely basic form. Automated to guide or in most cases annoy the crap out of you.

And for a very long time that machine was at the top of my personal automation fail list. Why I have such a list is none of your concern.

And then one fine day this happened.

Lazada 1 Sen Coupon
So thrilled to receive a value that’s not even in circulation anymore. Rare indeed!

Lazada has become a behemoth in online retail these days, and I have been an occasional customer for many years. As with all customer-conscious, competition-wary online marketplaces, Lazada decides to reward me for loyalty with a wallet-busting sum of 1 Sen.

Talk about making it rain!

Now I’ll be fair, the intention was laudable. In fact, I’ve received better valued coupons from Lazada before. Like 2, 3 or 5 Ringgits that didn’t make me feel like a complete broke-ass loser.

And that’s what you want a loyal customer to feel, like they’re getting extra value once in a while.

But this was just bordering on insulting, as unintentional it was, is still was insulting. They might as well just click-bait me and tell me I have RM1 million in credit waiting, and then make me enter a contest that I will never win.

Which I think they have done, oh never mind.

So my take is that this is not an intention fail, but an automation fail. While the talking parking fee machine is mainly just annoying, this automated 1 Sen coupon is marketing automation gone awry.

You see, this coupon was issued probably because I hadn’t bought anything for a few months. And so, an algorithm calculated my previous spends and decided that MYR0.01 was the best amount to convince me to return and go cart crazy.

All fair and good. The only part that they completely missed is setting some rules for the algorithm, just a bit of filtering that doesn’t allow anything less than 1 ringgit to be issued as coupons for example.

Educate Your Automation

While we surely can’t expect someone to review all coupons issued, there surely must be some checks and balances built-in to educate the automation and avoid making a mockery of customers. Because we all know how important it is to maintain customer loyalty, I mean just look at these stats by AnnexCloud, a prominent customer marketing platform:

  • The chances of converting a new customer are just 15-20% compared to 60-70% with existing customers
  • Acquiring a new customer can cost up to 16 times more than retaining existing customers
  • Up to 80% of future profits will potentially come from just 20% of existing customers
  • 46% of customers will potentially increase business with a company for offering loyalty rewards – anything more than 1 sen will be encouraged
  • Existing customers can contribute up to 65% of a company business, whereas only 35% comes from new customers

As a copywriter who has been involved in direct marketing and loyalty programmes from the time of print ad coupons and SMS vouchers, let me tell you this:

Reward appropriately and often to build a loyal, consistent customer base.

So Lazada got it right, until they didn’t. And often, all it takes is one misstep to undo years of trust and relationship building.

Maybe I should send Lazada a physical 1 Sen coin as a token of my appreciation for bestowing a content idea for this blog.

They can use it for the talking parking fee machine I suppose. And it wouldn’t even be accepted. Tough luck!

What the Tech!

You know, I started in the advertising business as a copywriter in 1998 – that was my first job fresh out of college.

I graduated right smack in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis and jobs were few and far in between. Out of sheer persistence and a hefty dose of luck, I landed a job as a copywriter for a small independent advertising agency.

I remember having to work without a computer, perhaps it was deemed unnecessary for me although I was the only writer in the agency at that time. I wrote copy by hand on A4 pieces of paper, and once approved, personally keyed directly into the layout on the designers’ gleaming Macs. Yeah, thug life.

This was a time before spell check and autocorrect, which meant I carried around an Oxford dictionary and thesaurus like how one would carry a smart phone now.

Research was with whatever printed journals and publications I could get my hands on. Doing some ‘internet’ research meant I had to wait for an open Mac, which usually happens when the designers were out for lunch.

There was no Google – actually there was but it was pretty crappy then. Yahoo! and Alta Vista were all the rage. Files were transferred using 1.44MB floppy disks, I know, cutting-edge shit. Purchasing stock images meant browsing a printed catalogue, placing the order via fax and someone would physically deliver the hi-res image on a disk a day or two later.

Floppy Tech
Tech can make your content flop

I could go on, but you get the gist, right?

The business of advertising back then was very analog, time-consuming and painstaking. The studio – where we creatives work – was a wonderous world where a lot of effort would go into creating a piece of marketing communication. It was hard, often manual, brain-crunching work – yet very fulfilling.

Then technology happened. Now, just one person can ideate, conceptualise, write, design and disseminate a piece of communication. What took weeks with a team of 5 back then can probably be done in hours today – we’ll leave the quality out of the equation for today yeah.

The entire process has been condensed and simplified – with apps, websites and software. But has it become simple for a person to multitask and create a well-crafted piece of marketing communication? Not by a long shot.

The overload in technology has resulted in overload of communication channels, which has resulted in overloading marketing plans with strategies to cover the constantly evolving and growing list of media must-haves.

It used to be just a website and Facebook page. Now, a marketer must think about separate strategies for Instagram, TikTok, Linked-In, Pinterest, YouTube Channel and every other social media trend to reach a fickle, devoid-of-attention and triggered audience.

And a lot of so-called digital agencies are churning out the same garbage churned for one channel and ramming them down disinterested audiences across other channels, including social media. All this is being done with blatant disregard for suitability of the media for the brand or business, or at the very least proper versioning and tweaking of the message.

Just content after mindless content generated for the sake of adhering to the marketing calendar. It has truly become a cesspool of words, images and videos that hardly means anything nor compels any kind of response.

Digital Evolution

Look, I for one am overwhelmed as well with the volatility, dynamics and continuous mutation of the marketing communication landscape. And there’s no sign of stopping really with AI and VR set to hit the marketing mainstream next.

But having been in the industry for over 2 decades and experienced its progression, I can tell you that the fundamentals are still the same. Strategies may differ and tactics will need to be upgraded to the times, but essentially its all about compelling content that generates leads and thereafter converts to a purchase.

Essentially, it’s about the idea and the objective first, and then take advantage of the type of media that can generate the most results. It’s not just about getting likes or comments or shares – if it doesn’t convert, its just more marketing Ringgit down the loo.

Marketing work during my rookie years was a multi-step, multi-person process, all thoughtfully crafted to the end objective of eliciting response. That seems to still be the idea these days, but technology – be it in terms of marketing tools or the media itself – has not made anything simpler.

So take a step back and look at the big picture as you ideate and strategise. The tech is just to enable, and is not the idea itself.

And So It Begins…

2020 has been pretty rough for most, if not all of us.

This is the year that started bright and full of optimism. And before we could seriously hit the gym – in an attempt to absolve past new year resolution failures – the shit hit the fan so hard that we are still gasping for air. Yes, literally gasping for air from under our 3-ply, suspect-quality masks.

We’ve gone from ‘What happened to Wawasan 2020?’ to ‘Why am I washing my hands every 20 minutes?’. Not to mention our political drama that on its own would have taken the cake on being a disappointing year. And then to cap it all off, a certain Merseyside club won the English league.  What’s next, Kaijus lurking beneath the seabeds to unleash destruction on humanity? It’s only August so let’s see what else goes loco. Surprise me!

Bring It On

And you know what the funny thing is? This is the year that I had planned to finally re-commit myself as a full time freelance copywriter and marketing consultant. Meaning opting out of an almost full time gig that left virtually no room for me to take on any other client. It was a good, stable, well-paying gig but of late just became too one dimensional and mundane. It’s also part of the reason why this blog has been dormant for quite a few years now. And for someone who is a copywriter by profession, it’s seriously counter-productive and soul-killing when I’m not writing.

Okay, rant over.

So here I am at the dawn of a new beginning in a year that never really got started. Yes, I did let go of that gig… a necessary step for the greater good of my mental health. Despite my sensible self constantly reminding me not to rock the boat this year, I figured let’s get a guitar on board and rock it harder.

It feels like I am back at square one, just like when I quit my last ‘job’ 9 years ago to attempt my first foray into freelancing. Not the best of times to do this. But is there ever a good time to put yourself in a uncomfortable, uncertain position? Didn’t think so.

Let the chips fall wherever they may.

So yes, I am back and ready for all marketing-related enquiries – unless the Kaijus get to me first.

Confessions

Uninspired or not bothered?

Busy or lazy?

Attention-deficit or not-up-for-it?

Family-first or Netflix thirst?

Risk averse or glut of guts?

discuses
Distractions or excuses?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first post on this blog was on 3rd January 2010, it was called the Accidental Ad-man. In that post – just shy of 10 full years ago, yikes! – I prophesied how this blog could be an accident in the making. That’s just me being the pseudo-pessimistic, ultra-realist person I sometimes am.

Well now, at this very juncture, I feel that that playful premonition has come back to haunt me. I have become a victim of my own self doubt and analysis paralysis, which has resulted in this blog being dormant for the last few years or so.

And honestly, I have ran out of excuses.

There is nothing more I can say here to justify my lack of efforts. 10 freaking years has just dissipated into memories. A decade of the good, bad and ugly; all irrecoverable, un-editable, immutable.

It’s especially painful when I re-read my musings here, seems like I enjoyed the process of writing – just plain writing. Thoughts, ideas, observations and commentary forming out of nothingness, only accompanied by the sound of key strokes.

What a beautiful feeling.

I started this post with a few questions. Yes, they are questions for me by me, and the answers are meant to shed some light why I stopped writing. While I can easily attribute the fact that I started a family as one of the contributing factors, I feel that becomes just another excuse.

In fact, I should have more solid material for my writings with all the insanity of having 2 kids in quick succession. And believe me I do.

So why have I reduced myself to this? Maybe god knows, but I think our friend is equally perplexed. This is solely on me.

And if someone is actually reading this attempt of me trying to make sense of things, then congrats! You now know more about my inner feelings that the average person does.

Last thing, writing this was an absolute pleasure.

 

Life Took Control

Well hey, it’s been a 3-year hiatus since my last post.

I blame myself to be honest, for not keeping this sorry excuse for a copywriting blog up-to-date. You see, I really, really meant to continue writing, but circumstances of my own doing somewhat halted my drive and determination to keep the posts coming. My bad, to say the least.

Yet everything has a reason (or many reasons), and mine are very much to do with family and everything that goes along with it. In addition, I’ve had a full-time J.O.B over the last couple of years or so, which meant penning my thoughts was not high up my priority list. I slacked for a few weeks, which became months and eventually years… so here I am, ashamed of my lack of effort and motivation to, just, write.

SEO Writer
I chill for a few years and this is what happens to copywriting… damn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But let’s let bygones be bygones shall we?

Essentially, life took control. And now I am in the midst of setting in motion the plans of what I hope will culminate in regular thoughts, insights, observations, advise, and the usual nonsense (or sense) from yours truly.

This is not a false start and I am determined not to falter. But as with all things that is being reconstructed, it may be a while before you hear from me again. It has been a whirlwind past 3 years, and I hope the trend continues in this domain, positively of course.

Before I end, it is only fitting for me to apologise to all those whom have enquired for my services in the past few years and got turned down. I must say I was very busy and would not have done justice to your company, brand or marketing plans had I taken up your project.

Hopefully soon, I will be available again to assist in achieving your marketing aims and aspirations.

Cheers!

 

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.

Different

I’m one of those weird kind of copywriters. I don’t really read.

Well I do read a bit of non-fiction; but nothing specific, just what I happen to fancy when I’m in a bookstore or while browsing Amazon. When it comes to fiction though, I’m hopeless. The last novel I finished was probably a John Grisham in my teens.

… and sometimes I read what I say and don’t like what I’m thinking…

Even watching my sister go through almost a dozen books a month when growing up didn’t rub-off on me. I’d rather sit on the rooftop of the house I grew up in listening to Tupac’s Me Against the World while admiring the surrounding greenery.

Ahhh… the simpler times.

Despite my lack of reading, I ended up in the writing business. Most copywriters are or ought to be avid readers, and I’m pretty sure it helps them to become better wordsmiths. But me, I’m different, I tend to read the world that’s in front of me as opposed to blocking my view with a book.

There are beautiful stories playing out right in front of our eyes, no matter how inconspicuous.

I constantly take in the sights, sounds, atmosphere, ambiance and nuances of my surroundings, which in its own way has helped me become a better copywriter over the years.

How you ask? Some examples, if you will:

People watching > Analyzing consumer behavior
Watching TV > Errr… competitive analysis of other ads, provided I’ve not recorded the show
Noticing a gecko on the ceiling > Aspire to greater heights / there’s always (gecko) shit to clean up
Watching the sun go down > Holy crap, there’s a deadline tomorrow!
Hearing birds chirping > Holy crap, the deadline is today!

Well, I’m just… different.

The Secret

The secret to become a successful copywriter? Write less.

Yes, it means being able to get a message across in the shortest, most concise and most engaging manner possible.

But that’s not all.

Writing less is also about, well, actually having less writing to do. Think of it from the context of ‘Quality over Quantity’. Having attention divided by five different projects will invariably result in inferior work compared to when if I just had two projects. And if I could just focus on just one project at any one time, I think the work delivered will only get better.

writer@work
This writer is at home, so how would I work? Hmmm…

“But hey… you’ve been doing this for donkey years, shouldn’t you be able to work faster and maintain consistent quality at the same time?” Asked an asshole.

Yes, of course. If it’s the usual marketing drivel laden with mindless superlatives and catchy buzzwords, then yeah, I could whip something out with relative ease.

The thing is I’m fed up actually; fed up with writing junk, tired of BS layered over more BS and often feel sick reading stuff that I’ve written in a rush just to meet a deadline.

If only I had more time. Truth be told, these days, I do.

This is my fourth year of being a fulltime freelance copywriter, and I feel that I’m writing less, but delivering more value to my clients that I ever had in my career.

Firstly, I’m fortunate enough to work with clients that allow for the critical incubation period. And secondly, I have made a conscious choice to take in less work.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, it might sound downright counter-productive. But do my existing clients appreciate my dedication, incisiveness and insights? I sure hope they do.

I could be wrong though, some writers let-fingers-fly on intensive and continuous word-spill, and only then go on to pick what’s good and relevant to be included in a piece of work. I guess I’m just more deliberate and patient with my approach.

And to be honest, there’s no secret really. It just takes time, provided you’ve already done a bit of hard time in the industry to start with.

The Call-ing

I got a call recently confirming a fact I discovered some time ago, something I knew about around the time I set off as a freelance copywriter.

The call I received was from one of the creative talent agencies. Yes, I was being headhunted, even though I have no idea how they have my details in their database.

Anyway, to have a talent agency contact someone who’s not been actively looking for a job for the last 4 years or so means either one of two things:

  1. They have absolutely no idea who they are calling, which from a talent agency specializing in advertising talents is in my book an epic fail
  2. The ad industry is really, really desperate for copywriters and have instructed their recruiters to go all out in search of candidates

To confirm the situation, I prodded the person on the other end of the call. “How’s the market for copywriters these days?” I asked. She replied, and I quote “agencies are looking left, right and centre for copywriters”.

The reply made me feel I had prophetic powers. I knew it, I knew it all along!

Copybox
So many things to write, so little copywriters left…

Yes, the lack of copywriters in Malaysia, especially good ones, has been one of the contributing factors in my relative success a freelancer for the last 3 years or so.

It is a trend that I noticed even when I was employed, gentle winds of change that has now culminated in an imperfect storm.  Imperfect for agencies, perfect for me… I’m actually in demand.

So let’s celebrate, yes? No.

I believe the Malaysian ad industry truly had this situation coming. In fact, a lot of people in the higher-ups knew about the scarcity of good writers, but just didn’t do anything about it.

Here’s some advise ala gratis to all agencies out there. Hey, I’m a 16-year veteran who has written for everything from TVCs to T&Cs, so listen up:

  1. Don’t treat our work as fillers to art. We are not just caption writers spoiling nice images with those ugly words. Yes, nice images attract attention, but solid and sometimes lengthy copy retains interest and helps convert.
  2. We may make it look easy, but it isn’t. While the demands of advertising have evolved, we copywriters still work with the basics; our thoughts and a keyboard. There are no apps, software or tools for us. Give us time, and respect.
  3. Don’t let us fly solo all the time. While there could be an art director and two designers in a team, copywriters are often left to fend for themselves. Dedicate more hands for copy development, two copy heads are better than one… right?

I feel copywriting has always been second fiddle to art direction, at least in the Malaysian context. Much emphasis is given to art; with art directors and designers enjoying better career prospects compared to copywriters.

Then there’s no wonder why the influx of copywriters have stagnated over recent years. Not many people can handle the merciless, under-appreciated and often underpaid nature of the profession.

But no disrespect to the art-based players in the industry. I’ve worked with many exceptional ones and truly believe they are creative wizards given the constraints, deadlines and demands of a fast-evolving ad scene.

I just wish – now that the year is drawing to a close – the decisions makers pay more attention to the development of great copywriting talents.

A rather cerebral New Year wish, but for the good of the game, I hope it becomes a reality.

Cheers to all the copywriters out there – employed or otherwise – you do it because it is your calling.

Happy New Year!