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.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing."

Maya Angelou summed it up nicely in her remarks at the 2013 National Book Award dinner. Dr. Angelou received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

And she makes a great point. The more naturally words seem to flow, the less likely it is they just came together naturally.

I have three questions I ask myself while writing.

1) Would I say that out loud?

Easy reading is conversational. It's not at all uncommon to find me talking to my computer screen. Reading a sentence aloud so I can hear what it sounds like when spoken.

Why would anyone think that a sentence too cumbersome for conversation will somehow magically flow when read?

2) Is that the best verb/adverb/adjective?

Easy reading communicates quickly. Powerfully. And the power words on the page are likely to be verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Choose carefully. Challenge your choices regularly.

But, before you flex your thesaurus, think back to question one: just because you know a word doesn't mean you should use it.

3) Can I still "see the forest" here?

Easy reading is easily understood. Perhaps you've heard the saying, "can't see the forest for the trees?" Meaning someone is so caught up in details they lose sight of the overview.

Writing's a bit like that. Choosing the right words is important. Then you string them together in a sentence. Combine sentences to make a paragraph. And paragraphs to make a point.

Or is it the words that make the point? Regardless, you get my point.

No doubt there are other worthy questions, too.

What do you ask yourself? I'd love to know!

Print Newsletters: Too Tired for a Wired World?

With all the information that’s available online, does it still make sense to pay printing and postage to send a paper newsletter?

It depends on your content, obviously. But for several of our nonprofit clients, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

As we look at the numbers, two favorable trends stand out.

1. Relatively consistent performance.

Newsletters produce a fairly predictable stream of revenue. It can vary slightly issue-to-issue, depending on the season or the strength of a story. But as the chart below shows, for this client – who has been mailing the same four-page newsletter format once a quarter for the past 10-plus years – the return is relatively stable.

In fact, it has gone up over the past few months, while per-piece revenue from every other format is on the decline. What's not to love about that?

2. Stronger results from strongest supporters.

We recently suggested another client expand their two-page biennial publication to a four-page format. We were concerned less about telling more stories, but wanted to be able to tell more of the stories we shared.

Overall, the test version won by a slight margin. Looking more closely, we discovered some interesting differences, as the chart below illustrates. Among donors with cumulative annual giving of $100 or less (the majority of this file), the rate of response was actually down a bit, but that was offset by a slightly higher average gift; the test package produced just over 1¢ more per piece mailed (not a breakeven proposition, by the way).

The test package produced far greater results among those donors with cumulative annual giving of $100 or more … with double-digit increases in both rate of response and average gift ... and a whopping 92¢ higher return per piece. Our better donors appreciate more information even more!

Why does print work?

I’m not sure. A print newsletter offers a unique chance to provide tangible evidence of the work you do. To tell donors what their support helps you accomplish. To educate supporters. To explain your mission. To deepen the relationship.

Sure, an enewsletter can help accomplish those goals, too. But not in the same way.
  • A physical package can break through the clutter (think of sorting your mail vs. scanning your in box).
  • It may add longevity (yesterday’s mail is still on the counter; yesterday’s email is well past the preview pane).
  • It can reach people who can’t – or won’t – go online (there still are that stubborn few).
  • Maybe people are just more used to giving in response to print (we're seeing enews donations trend up, but not yet close to print).
Granted, the print advantage may not last forever.

But the beauty of watching your metrics is that you’ll know when your print newsletter is truly too tired.