Warning: contents may have shifted during the flight…

julian-dufort-I4RKUKWRSC8-unsplash**This blog was originally published as a LinkedIn article**

“So… who are we talking to?”

That’s one of first questions every copywriter will ask you. It’s also the most important… so of course, it’s the hardest to get a clear answer on.

Real responses I’ve had to that question include:

“Everyone with a wallet”

“Women who go to the cinema”

“Men who watch sports”

(Don’t worry, this isn’t another article about how well you need to know your target audience. Well, it is. But not really.)

What I’m trying to say is that, in terms of this COVID-19 thing, there’s both a risk and an opportunity here in terms of knowing who your customer is now.

This virus has pushed the ‘reset’ button and restored us back to factory settings. Those reassuringly glossy customer avatars we’ve put so much faith in; all those needs, values and expectations – they’ve been tossed in the air during transit. And I sense there’s more turbulence to come. (You may want to be careful opening that overhead compartment.)

The risk: businesses may assume that they can continue to market themselves in the same way and to the same group they always have. Sooner or later, regardless of whether your marketing assets were created purely on “I know my customer” assumptions or using research conducted ‘before’, a look at your data may reveal that your messaging just isn’t resonating like it used to.

The opportunity: We’re all floating around in the same lifeboat here. The playing field is still far from level, but a great many businesses, large and small, will be ‘meeting’ their customers again for the first time.

You may emerge from all this, blink, look around and realise that the people you serve are quite changed. Customers may not want or need the same products or services – or may be using them in a new way. They may have adjusted to a new version of you that was created as a “temporary measure”…

Heck, it may even be a completely new group of people lining up at your door.

That’s not to say that where you left off is not a good place to start; a great many things may well have stayed the same. For some industries, any shifts will be subtle. Others will have been more structurally impacted.

Either way, any business’ first move must be to check in with their customers. New insights will need to be gathered and copy assets will need to be tested and reviewed to make sure businesses are still aligned with their customers.

Funny. That’s probably the one thing that has remained “business as usual”.

Becoming a better copywriter all comes down to this one thing…

mona-eendra-NZNFY_g6ong-unsplash(This piece first appeared as a LinkedIn article)

If I only had the chance to dole out a single piece of advice about writing great copy, it would be this:

Do something else. Anything else. As much as possible.

Yeah, I know. We’re meant to write every day. Copy out great sales letters by hand. Read all the business books. Listen to all the podcasts. Find a mentor. Learn all the tips, tricks and headline hacks…

You should absolutely do those things… but at a ratio of something like 3:1. Or is it 1:3? I really dunno.

(And yeah, I made that up, but it feels about right.)

What I mean is, for every hour you spend studying copywriting, marketing or business, spend 3 more hours of your life living it. Don’t crouch in your copywriting cave until you know everything there is about how to say something… but don’t have much to say.

Listen to all kinds of music. Watch really great TV shows and films with subtitles. Make time for some terrible stuff, too. Read books about history, psychology and throw in the odd thing you pickup at the airport. Make TikTok videos.

Fall in love so hard it leaves a mark… and be sure to have your heart stomped on at least once. Try an improv class. Burn a souffle. Look for meaning at the bottom of a bowl (or 3) of frozen margherita. Learn to understand someone (or a group of someones) that you hate, until you can at least respect them.

Spend time out in the field, observing the stuff you read about ‘the humans’ in books. You should also lose yourself in the experience of being out there with them – make yourself available to be observed.

Why? You’ll hear every copy guru, mentor and coach worth their online course conversion funnel say that good copy needs specificity. Now, I may only manage to pronounce that word correctly 6 times outta 10, but this I know: to make your writing specific to your reader, to write something that resonates, you’re going to need references, examples and to be able to predict their ‘random’ thoughts.

You need to know how to be human.

If I’m a half-decent writer, it’s because I’m super interested in how other people live, think, feel, make decisions and rationalise things.

I learned that first by living a curious life…


Is your copywriter a gold digger?

Copywriting goldI had a client a while back who needed some emergency blog surgery – STAT.

He wasn’t happy with the two pieces he had commissioned on an e-lance site, which shall remain nameless… (but let’s just say that it rhymes with ‘Schmeelancer-not-daBomb’).

Another client of mine (the one who had referred this unsatisfied customer) mentioned – on the DL – that this guy was now a bit jaded about copywriters. So, I had two jobs to do: save the project and restore this man’s faith in my people. Jinkies!

He emailed over the files ASAP. As I triaged this copy emergency (ok… gave it a quick skim-read), my heart sank. It was breathtakingly bad. And this was after two rounds of edits.

The benefits of this client’s services – which had clearly been plucked from some kind of cliché word-wheel – were being strangled by an over-supply of keywords. It certainly wasn’t written in his customers’ language. It may as well have been written in Klingon; it was so inaccessible.

I couldn’t save this one. It was DOA.

I advised the client to start over. Like a lower-end Bosch washing machine, this broken-down copy would take more work (and more $$) to ‘fix’ than simply buying a new one.

We kicked-off this new project as I always do – with a detailed copy brief. As we talked through the questions, the client’s passion and excitement about his business (and increasingly the project) spilled onto the page.

A few minutes in, he paused. “Wow…” he said quietly. “So, you actually want to know about my business before you write about it? You don’t get that on Free… (I mean) that e-lance site.”

It made me a bit sad. And a bit mad. Yeah – I was smad.

Any effective copywriter will tell you that a good brief is a basic requirement for good copy. And yet, you could have knocked this guy over with a feather that I was even interested in him and his customers. (I am tearing up just thinking about it.)

Is that really what’s going on out there?

I’ve since asked around. It’s apparently a common experience. Clever, rational people are dipping their toes into the outsourcing pool and getting third degree burns – all because they’re making decisions based on price instead of value.

No wonder some business owners are left thinking that hiring a copywriter is a waste of money.

To be clear, I’m not blaming e-lancers. Pricing-wise they’re trapped in a race to the bottom. And when clients ride the copy elevator down to the bargain basement, something’s gotta give.

Writers with cheaper rates obviously can’t take out the ‘words on a page’ part (that’s the product after all). The only sandbag left to throw over the side is the other stuff – the ‘service’ part of a copywriting service.

Problem is, that’s where a lot of the magic happens. Behind the velvet curtain, a good writer is pulling all the levers to make sure that your copy builds a bridge between your business and your customers. They’re linking features to benefits. Baking in your unique selling point (that ‘secret sauce’ that customers can only get with your business). Crafting a call to action that nudges the reader towards ‘yes’.

These things require insight. Insights are uncovered… (da da-da DAAH!) during the brief.

So, if you’re after the Cliff Notes version of this blog, this is it:
the copywriting brief isn’t an ‘extra’, It’s essential. It’s about digging around in your business and uncovering the pure gold that even you didn’t know was there.

By the end of the project, I had won this guy over. And he was a model client. The brief was chockers full of the shiny stuff. His (very few) edits provided clarity. It truly wasn’t him…  his last project was simply doomed by the lack of a good brief.

He’d fallen for the seductively ‘cheap ‘n’ cheerful words on a page’ promise. And it had cost him. Probably less than my hourly rate… but still. That investment wasn’t delivering any kind of return.

He signed off his last email never having mentioned how he felt about my rates. Only the value I’d delivered.

“Thanks, Carolyn. Love your work.”

It’s still kind of my favourite review.

The one thing your copy must do for your customers

fear“I just wanted to let you know that my kids are autistic,” she whispered.

My husband must have looked a bit confused, because she quickly added, “I’m just apologising in advance… in case they disturb you during the film”.

I recognised that look. It was the face of fear.

Fear that we would tut, roll our eyes, mutter under our breath – judge her and her young family. Worst of all, she feared that she would have to look at her kids through our eyes… and wish they were different. Or, rather, that they weren’t.

“Oh, yeah?” My husband reached casually for an oversized handful of popcorn. “Two of our four are on the spectrum, too. Don’t worry – we totally get it.”

She was instantly transformed.

All the fight left her face. Her shoulders fell and she sunk into the plush cinema seat. Even from most of a row away, I could hear a slow, heavy sigh of relief.

She grinned and offered my husband a high-five – which he happily accepted.

“It’s like a secret society isn’t it,” she laughed, turning to smile warmly at her kids.

And, again, I knew exactly how she felt.

For once, she was safe.

Here, in a ‘sensory friendly’ session at our local cinema, she was with her tribe. People who understood her challenges, her hopes and (most of all) her fears.

That moment – that sigh of relief. That feeling of safety

That’s the experience that your copy can (and must) create for your customers. Every. Single. Time.

Why is feeling safe so important?

Ever heard the phrase ‘fight, flight or freeze’? That’s the range of responses people have in the face of fear. If your copy doesn’t deal with your customers’ anxieties, that’s when they’ll talk themselves out of the purchase (fight), abandon their cart or click away (flight) or leave your site open in their tabbed browser for weeks, paralysed by indecision (freeze).

I know I’ve said it before (it is kinda my whole schtick) but connection is the pre-requisite for conversion. And since emotional safety is a pre-requisite for connection, creating that feeling for your customers should be a priority when writing copy for your business.

Three ways you can craft copy with ‘safety’ in mind

Anxiety busting benefits

Your copy should always include benefits that tackle your customers’ fears. This could be an ego-based fear (such as failure) or a fear of uncertainty, loss or even physical pain. By reducing your customers’ anxieties, you kick away the obstacles blocking their path, moving them closer towards clicking the ‘buy’ button.

Use your ‘safe’ words

There are a couple of ways the words you choose can help your customers feel more secure:

  1. Point to the ‘proof’
    ‘Backed by’, ‘certified’, ‘tested’, ‘proven’, ‘best-seller’, ‘official’ – all these proof-based words and phrases are very comforting. If someone else has given your business their stamp of approval, then it makes your customers feel safer to buy from you.
  2. Talk to your customers using their language
    Pay attention to the way your customers speak: the rhythm (the length of their words and sentences) and any slang (or even jargon) they commonly use. When your customers recognise their own voice in your copy, they’ll have that “ah, yes… these are my people” feeling.

Include social proof

Sprinkling testimonials throughout your copy is a sure-fire way (spot the proof-based phrase) to demonstrate that your product or service is the answer to your customers’ prayers. If people just like them have had a great experience with your business, your customers will feel reassured that they will too.

Tip: A great way to structure this is to highlight a benefit, then include a testimonial that backs it up.

A guarantee is another way to reduce risk for your customers. ‘No questions asked’, ‘money-back’, ‘full refund’ – these kinds of promises can often be just the thing to get an anxious buyer across the line.

How’s the serenity?

Trying new brands, products and services can be a scary experience for your customers – almost as scary as taking 4 kids under 8 to see Lego Movie 2. Almost.

But when you infuse your copy with safety – using fear-busting benefits, familiar language and risk-reducing social proof – your customers are far more likely to connect with your brand.

And that’s what’ll earn you the high-fives.

What jazz has taught me about life… and running a copywriting business

512px-Louisiana_Five_Jazz_Band_famous_publicity_photoLife (and business) lessons often arrive in the most unlikely disguises.

I once went to see a guy play trumpet in a Dixieland band. I don’t love that style of jazz (as a pianist, I’ve always been more of a Dave Brubeck kinda gal) but they were minor-league famous, so I hovered by the stage, ready to clap in the right places.

Their guitarist busted a string just as the group were about to begin. He quickly replaced it but the damn thing just wouldn’t stay in tune. He slid over to the mic, shrugged and drawled, ‘It’s good enough for jaaaaazz’.

The band played a great set to roaring applause – even I didn’t have to fake it.

As a 17-year-old, I had no idea that this phrase was a “thing”. To me they were the wisest words I’d ever heard and it’s still my go-to mantra for when I can feel my perfectionist streak turning into a super-highway.

Jazz: a code to live (and work) by

Doing away with perfectionism isn’t the only wisdom the world of jazz has to offer. Those cats have got chops that would make them unbeatable small business owners. Their craft demands expertise, flexibility, collaboration and innovation – only they’d never use that kind of ‘establishment’ talk.

It took me exactly five-and-a-half jazz clarinet lessons to realise that my classically-trained fingers just couldn’t let go of ‘notes on a page’. Luckily, I’ve been more successful applying the ‘jazz code’ to my copywriting business (and life more generally).

Let’s take it from the top…

You have to know the rules to break ‘em
First there’s the expertise. Jazz musos might look like they’re just playing whack-a-mole with the notes but they know every scale up, down and sideways. They learn all the chord structures, every inversion – every rule. Then they let it all go. Instinct takes over and it becomes about communicating. That’s why jazz is often referred to as a ‘language’ rather than simply a ‘form’.

My ‘take-it-away’: technical knowledge is important but so is feel. You must be across the ‘rules’ but if you write by numbers, your copy will be robotic and blah. For an audience to really dig your writing, you have to nail their ‘language’ – that might mean starting the odd sentence with “And”.

You’ve gotta have a plan
Chord progressions are a jazz player’s strategy. Knowing where they are headed anchors their improvisation. Sure, you can use any notes you like, but your jam has to link back to the ‘plan’ at some point. Otherwise the music becomes ‘organised noise’ and the audience walks out.

My ‘take-it-away’: Copywriting is the blue-collar worker of the writing profession; it has a job to do. If your copy isn’t contributing to your marketing strategy, then it has failed. Every piece of content needs to connect with and progress your plan in some tangible way.

You gotta learn from the greats
Mentoring is an important part of jazz tradition. It would be easy to paint a portrait of success and rub out all the pencil markings but that’s all myth. Legends aren’t born, they are painstakingly carved from a chunk of potential. Every awesome jazz guitarist starts out playing along to recordings of Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. For hours. Later they take every opportunity to play live with people who play better than they do – the best education anyone can get.

Once they’ve ‘made it’, it is customary to pass on their wisdom to the next generation. There’s very little ‘rivalry’ in the jazz universe. The whole artform revolves around standing upon the shoulders of giants.

My ‘take-it-away’: Find your ‘giants’. We are so lucky in the digital age to have unfettered access to a free or inexpensive education. Blogs, podcasts, e-courses and webinars – no matter what your industry, you’ll find generous experts willing to knowledge-share. Even better, you can often personally connect with those experts through social media. Twitter and LinkedIn offer some serious opportunities to connect with potential mentors – regardless of their notoriety or location.

Infuse everything you do with your lived experience
My old jazz teacher tells a story about seeing his hero play live. The sax player was mid-solo when he suddenly broke out the theme from Sesame Street. He later confessed that he’d been hanging out with his young son before he left for that night’s set – that tune is one heck of an earworm. The result was pure genius and the audience whooped with delight.

This grand tradition is not exclusive to jazz music. Even Classical composers, like Mozart and Beethoven are known to have ‘borrowed’ themes for their famous symphonies from popular music of the time. It would have given their music relevance and a familiar ‘flavour’.

My ‘take-it-away’: your copy will always be stronger when you combine information with experience. That is what builds authenticity and authority in your storytelling.

Freedom to give stuff a go
Much of jazz music happens ‘in the moment’. This provides the artists with the perfect test-kitchen for some mad experimentation. Despite a lot of pieces becoming ‘standards’, you’re unlikely to hear a jazz solo done the same way twice. Artists constantly audition ideas, respond to the audience’s feedback and ‘sky-scraper’ older versions of the song.

My ‘take-it-away’: this attitude of innovation is easy to apply to the business world. It takes courage and support to take a ‘suck and see’ approach. When it does work, the risk pays off big-time. If not… there’s always the next gig.

Everyone gets their day in the sun
Jazz is a team sport. Unlike rock bands (where people often have no idea what the drummer’s name is), there is no real ‘lead’. Everyone gets their turns to offer up a slick, face-melting solo and bask in the glow of audience appreciation, while the rest of the group takes a supporting role. What a way for a team to work – leveraging everyone’s strengths for the sake of the song. That is real collaboration.

My ‘take-it-away’: The copy, design and tech elements of a project should ideally inform each other… BUT… each should know when to step back and allow ‘spotlight’ moments to happen. Placing the audience (and not your ego) at the centre is how you create showstopping work for your clients.

Take 5
‘Jazz’ and ‘business’ seem like strange bedfellows but it the artform offers more than just untouchable licks – it’s a way of life. I think my man, Brubeck, summed it up nicely: “Get out there & improvise & take chances & don’t be a perfectionist.”

I’m hip to that!



(Image: ‘Louisiana Five jazz band’, 1919, courtesy of Nunez family collection)