How to avoid generic content and answer your customers’ real problems

Prior to his upcoming 2019 training session with us, David McGuire dives into his wealth of copywriting expertise to bring us some pearls of wisdom

What is the value of good copywriting?

David: Good copywriting helps you move more people along at every stage of the marketing funnel. It really is a golden thread that runs right through from introducing yourself to people to adding business value. It’s being able to explain to your prospect why they should become your customer.

There are many other benefits to good copywriting, but to get them you must differentiate. There’s so much content out there at the moment. You must write copy that is easy to read and share, and ultimately likely to prompt people to take more action.

Do you think copywriting has changed to fit with digital?

I think it’s getting there. How far depends on the brand and the particular piece of writing you’re talking about. Marketing is going deeper into the funnel now and people are doing more research, so the way that you write has to change. Marketers are appreciating that they can get more response if they engage with somebody directly. If they add value and make an impact, if they deliver easy-to-read content, then more people will find the time to digest it.

Has digital caused new content types to emerge?

I think some content types have become more important. Five or six years ago a blog post was not as important for your company as it is now. Back then it was a bit of company news, a bit of a diary, if you had one at all. And now for quite a lot of content strategies, it’s absolutely central. It’s where you deliver all of your other content assets such as thought-leadership, and where you begin to build a relationship with your audience.

What are the five key content types your course will cover?

I’ve picked ones that cover the important parts of the marketing funnel and have applicable lessons for everything; these are web pages, blog posts, case studies, e-books and video scripts. Video scripts are where writing bumps into more visual content. Case studies are sometimes unfashionable but if you look at all of the surveys they’re the content type that delivers value, particularly at the bottom-end of the funnel. To my mind, they are absolutely indispensable and probably the most powerful kind of content there is.

David’s step-by-step process to copywriting

Understand your brief. Assemble a really detailed idea of:

  • What you have to say
  • Who your audience are
  • What your audience cares about
  • What the context is
  • Your preferred voice
  • The objectives for the piece
  • The channel it will be delivered through.

Your opening paragraph can make or break your piece. This should demonstrate what you’re talking about, why the reader should care and what they’ll get out of reading your content. You should be able to say this in five seconds (20 words). If you can’t, you don’t have a strong enough proposition.

What are the biggest misconceptions about copywriting?

The biggest fallacy is that we’re mainly grammar pedants who proof. People also think we’re about spin; that somehow we put a phoney marketing sheen on products and services that maybe aren’t that great or exciting. Neither of those things are primarily true.

What people don’t appreciate is that it’s really about getting into the audience’s head and understanding the message they need to hear. It’s not just technical writing skills, there’s psychology and behavioural economics in it – it’s about working out the idea, and then delivering it in a way that has impact.

What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen?

At the moment a lot of people are trying to push concepts rather than answers, which I think is a mistake. You get a lot of brands that talk about digital transformation and all of those abstract things, but they’re addressing people who want to buy something concrete, or have a particular problem. People want to buy something that’s an answer to their problem or enables them to do something better.

The other thing we see a lot is fairly vague headlines that sound impressive but don’t mean anything. A marketer will come up with something like ‘connecting tomorrow’ and that just doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t deliver any value. When they’re writing like that they’re not writing for their audience, they’re writing for their stakeholders or to make themselves look clever. They could do with taking and step back and wondering who their customer is and what their customer will think.

What challenges will you be helping marketers with on your course?

I want to give people confidence in their writing because it’s so subjective. I want to bring a level of objectivity for the way that marketers write and the way that they judge writing, so they have a clear structure to work with. Of course, there will also be a fistful of writing tips and hacks so marketers can go back to their desk and make little changes to suddenly make content a lot better.

Apart from school, writing isn’t something you’re taught. Unless you do training like this, you won’t necessarily have those skills. The thing that I enjoy most about training is the smiles on people’s faces when the sense of tension around writing just goes away; they begin to feel comfortable with it.

Is it hard to differentiate content?

I don’t think it’s hard to achieve if you’re willing to put in the effort. I think a lot of undifferentiated content is essentially lazy. You have to be willing to do your research and focus on a very tight niche of customer to deliver real value.

One way is to be really hyper-relevant to a very small audience group and talk about the thing that they really care about rather than casting your net too wide. That can be quite painful because your stakeholder is likely to want to talk to everyone.

Speak in a language that’s different to your competitors to engage people in a more direct way and present things in a way that hasn’t been done before. None of that on a technical level is hard to achieve, it’s just an investment in time and will, and a lot of the time it’s fighting internal stakeholders to make it happen.

B2B can be seen as boring. Can it be interesting to write about?

Nothing that is worth saying in B2B is boring. It’s just the field it’s relevant to might be a bit niche. A piece on forklift trucks or accountancy software may seem dull. That’s because you’re not the person using it, but if the person who is using it can suddenly transform their job, they’ll be very interested.

Part of this is also down to an old-fashioned view of B2B that you have to be more rational and nobody buys on emotion because the decision-making unit is different to B2C. What we’re seeing now is that it’s not the case. Obviously you have to build an internal business case, but there’s a lot of gut feel in there as well.

What are your tips on creating interesting B2B content?

Keep asking ‘who cares’, and ‘so what’? If you keep asking those really big questions it will get you back to the purpose of the content. Why is something better than what you had before? What does it do? It’s being brave enough to ask those big dumb questions that will lead you to the difference your product or service is actually making in someone’s world.

Is there a difference between content that’s readable and content that’s sharable?

There’s certainly a big overlap there. People share content when there is an element of value, when they think it will benefit their network or to make them look good. Readability makes it much easier to see what that value is.

However, something can be sharable but really hard to read and vice versa. The value might be it that it helps people do their job, it’s funny, it’s entertaining, surprising, inspiring or just really useful.

How can we know if something is really easy to read?

There are some pretty simple tricks that you can do. Stuff like reading it out loud to yourself, or better yet, loading it onto a mobile phone and reading out loud from that. You’re putting barriers in the way of yourself, if you can still read it out loud on a mobile phone you know that you’re certainly getting there.

Can you have SEO-friendly content without sacrificing the quality of the copy?

There’s a big misconception about what SEO copy looks like. People still think it’s about stuffing a page full of key words but really that hasn’t been the case for some time and with every passing Google update it gets further and further away.

What you need to do is look at your key words at the starting point and get an idea of who the person is. These keywords don’t just come from nowhere; people put them into the search box. So ask yourself who put them into Google and what are they looking for? Understand what they want and the language they use to search for it. Set about writing the best possible answer to their query, using the language they’ve used. There are technical aspects, but that’s at the heart of good copywriting.

How can you offer constructive feedback on content?

The important thing is to be really objective and specific about the things you want to change and also the things you do like. Otherwise you feel you have to say something about the writing so you’ll say something like ‘this reads well’ – which is nice to hear but doesn’t really help anybody.

If you’re a copywriter something that ‘reads well’ is the lowest possible bar to get over, we’re trying to engage people, we’re trying to deliver value and unpack sales arguments in a way that’s interesting and sometimes surprising.

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