Right Tools for the Job—The Right Words for the Copy

We have a blurb on our website that says "words have a job to do." There it is, on the right. When you're a copywriter that's the long and short of it . No trademark flourishes. No "do you see what I did there and wasn't it clever?" But make no mistake. It's not a matter of being utilitarian and tied to convention either.

This post is a build on what Bob wrote last month.

Good copywriting has a lot more to do with thoughtful, elegant editing than it does being cute or brandishing your flaming thesaurus at the world. Although I know a lot of cute copywriters … c'mon. I love you guys.

Also, I love the way the phrase "flaming thesaurus" sounds, but that's not exactly relevant here. (See what I did there?)

We've been talking about this around the office a lot lately. Here are some M&C tips for making sure the words in your copy get the job done.

  • Because you can doesn't mean you should. We had a detail for a story in a fundraising newsletter recently that was heartbreaking, weird and certainly memorable. But it was also uncomfortable, had the potential to trigger terrible memories for our intended audience and was right on the border of salacious. It got left out because it didn't serve the ultimate goal of the newsletter.

  • What is my job? If your copy could talk (and it wasn't a slacker) it would ask you this question every time you sat down. And because you're a good boss, you should be able to answer this question before you put your talented little fingers on the keyboard. Your answer to this question will quickly decide what goes and what stays as you write.

  • Sit down, data. The truth is, experience and intuition matter a lot with copywriting and creative. It's the dirty little secret that sends your data people shrieking into the night. You'll have to have many a subjective conversation with yourself as you're writing: does this matter? does this add credibility? does this make a donor feel closer to my organization and build trust (even if it's not 100% flattering, but it's true and human)? Get comfy with this exchange and have it often.

Aren’t Words Wonderful?

Spear Phishing.

What a colorful and attention-getting combination of old and new. And a great way to make a fairly complex concept (highly targeted fraudulent emails) concrete and credible.

It was attributed to David Jevans, chairman and founder of the non-profit

Anti-Phishing Working Group

in a recent article about a security breach at Epsilon. (We'll have to deal with the images that conjures up in a different post!)

Phrases that create a visual image carry a wealth of added meaning and impact.

Think housing bubble. Population explosion. Raising the bar.

Unfortunately, imagery can also be used to camouflage instead of clarify.

Doesn’t a

rolling brownout

include a complete loss of power for some people at some point in time? Will

surgical strike

capabilities eliminate c

ollateral damage

? And don’t even get me started on

right sizing


Wait a minute – isn't there an applicable adage here? "Writers don't create confusion; words do."

Or, maybe I've got that backwards ...

Side Note:

If you’re a fan of the art of euphemism, you'll want to know that nominations for the National Council of Teachers of English

Doublespeak Award

are due September 15. This dubious distinction recognizes “a glaring example of deceptive language by a public spokesperson.”

In a competition like that, how can you lose?

A Marketing Discipline

A friend and periodic (okay, maybe sporadic is more accurate) client manages a niche division of a much larger, international company.

We began talking nearly a year ago about how email marketing could help his sales efforts. Late last fall, after a few false starts, an inaugural product alert went out. He was pleasantly surprised with the results.

Our next communication – this one a postcard intended to build his file of email addresses – has been languishing in the months since, somewhere between initial copy and layout.

I think it’s a great example of how a marketing effort can benefit from a healthy dose of discipline.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “discipline” as:

1. Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.

2. Controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training; self-control.

3. Control obtained by enforcing compliance or order.

4. Punishment intended to correct or train.

5. A set of rules or methods, as those regulating the practice of a church or monastic order.

6. A branch of knowledge or teaching.

Consider marketing from that perspective …

1. Marketing is a mindset; a mental predisposition that sees relationships as a pattern of behavior. Mutual exchange. Communication. Information sent and feedback received. In the process, those relationships can improve from prospect to customer (or donor) to advocate.

2. Self-control is imperative. Focus. Commitment to the end goal. New opportunities do arise, but that grass isn’t always greener … especially if launching your next initiative means abandoning the current one.

3. There are rules to live by. CAN-SPAM compliance, for example. Some marketers grew up on mail's spray-and-pray; in the online world that may well become spray-and-pay. If list integrity is important to you, or you’ve considered data synchronization, you know that order isn't left to chance!

4. Have you ever uploaded a shoddy list into mailchimp or some similar email service? You can get your message out. Once. But brush up against their threshold of bad addresses - or worse, recipient complaints - and your service is over. Promptly!

5. Clients and prospects have certain expectations of your brand. The more entrenched the relationship, the more those expectations are like rules. Live by the rules and you reinforce the relationship; violate them and you risk undermining it. Of course, if you never establish a pattern to begin with, there are no rules to live by!

6. I was at a KCDMA conference this past week. And the AFP 2011 International Conference is just around the corner. There are numerous opportunities to expand your knowledge (sharpen the saw). Capitalize on them!

Marketing is a discipline. And, if you're going to be successful, you'd better be, too!