Writing insights from a puppy

puppyOn Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife Toni and I drove to nearby Columbus to meet four delightful Shetland Sheepdog puppies (responsibly bred…not from a puppy mill).

Toni had been craving another canine companion in the house for some time, but didn’t think that I would approve. After all, I work from home, am closely attached to the pooch we already have, and she didn’t think I’d want to mess with training a newcomer all day. Much to her surprise, I had already made up my mind before we left home that she’d be getting something more than a box of chocolate and the new Austenland DVD this year.

That evening we drove home with a new family member, who we’ve dubbed “Tilney,” the sweetest little 3.4 pound ball of fur you’ve ever seen. (Okay, maybe I’m slightly biased.) He was just seven weeks old the next day, so everything about his world was fresh and new.

I don’t remember much of anything from the time I was seven weeks old, so I can only imagine what it must be like for Tilney to be seeing the world for the first time. Some things make him anxious, like the vacuum cleaner, while others—notably Bingley, our adult pooch—excite his eager curiosity. But in either case he’s jumping into our lives with only seven weeks of experience to use as a frame of reference. What must the world look like through his eyes?

Tilney’s arrival also means I can’t take anything for granted for a while. I’m used to sharing my office with Bingley, a dog who already knows how to sit, stay, and let me know when he needs to go outside. Adorable as he is, Tilney still has most of that learning curve ahead of him—a fact I need to remember even as his training begins.

So what does all this have to do with writing (apart from blatant nods to characters from Jane Austen novels)?

When you reach out to new prospects—whether you’re promoting your business, introducing a new product, or expanding your audience—it’s a lot like trying to communicate with a newborn puppy. Some will know you by reputation, but many more will know nothing about you. The messaging you use to introduce yourself can excite their interest, turn them away, or (less common in puppies) leave them feeling uncertain about whether or not you’re right for them.

Your approach can be different when you’re dealing with people who already know you—your existing clients, prospects you’ve already had some contact with, or even people who are likely to know about you from high-profile projects. These readers already have a frame of reference that you can draw upon to build a more sophisticated message.

When it comes to totally new readers, though, you need to think like a puppy. You can’t assume that they’ll know the jargon you’ve lived with throughout your career, be familiar with the technology you use, or understand the significance of current events on your business. This doesn’t mean you should talk down to your prospects. Simply think of them as intelligent people who don’t have as much information as you do.

Prospects who are unfamiliar with you also won’t care about behind-the-scenes pressures that affect you, especially deadlines for other clients or your pet peeves about minutiae in your field. (Hint: Many of your long-established clients don’t care about these things either.) Save that stuff for conversations with your industry peers or close friends.

The key to mastering “puppy’s mind” is to ask yourself what’s in it for the puppy. Your message should have a single goal…to encourage the reader to take the next step in your action chain. That can be clicking through to your website, placing an order, or giving you a call. Cut everything else. Focus on what will encourage your prospects to take action, and they’ll be far more likely to join the big dogs on your client list.

  What Tom’s silly icons mean

Creative people love icons. So as a writer who loves working with creative professionals, I decided I needed to have a few. I’m using them to indicate different types of content, both in the home page carousel and throughout the site. Here’s a quick guide to what they stand for:

carousel_lrg_blogThe “Wave” Bullet: This friendly little guy is the WordStreamCopy ambassador, featuring the much-misunderstood squiggly grapheme known as a “tilde” (~). It’s the “wave in the WordStream” if you will. It appears in green and white to identify blog posts and other stuff on the site that’s specifically about me. The green and gold version is a new badge for WordStreamCopy in general, and he occasionally contemplates moonlighting as an avatar.

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The “Sampler” Bullet: Want a preview of coming attractions before you commit? Look for the “Sampler” icon, which identifies some of the great projects I’ve done for others in the past. (Apologies to aficionados of counted cross stitch.) See the whole collection here.

carousel_lrg_cameoThe Spotlight: As much as I appreciate anyone who visits my site to read my stuff, the pieces I write for better-known channels like Marketing Mentor, the Creative Freelancer Blog, and Agency Access attract much larger audiences. This icon identifies my guest appearances on other sites, known here as “Cameos.”

carousel_lrg_testimonialThe Strangely Familiar Organic Pizza with a Slice Missing: Not completely convinced by the sampler? This chatty icon points to testimonials from happy people.

  Self-promoting? Opt for opt-in.

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We’ve all met “business card collectors” at networking events. They were a mild annoyance before the Internet came along, but now that content marketing is all the rage some of them—the ones that aggressively add the people they meet to their email lists—are becoming a serious nuisance.

Self-promotion is critical to any creative business, and you do need to find ways to build and grow a good mailing list. But you don’t want to be “that guy” (or gal) who signs up everyone they meet before you can even get home from your latest encounter with corporate luminaries over rubber chicken. So how do you attract new readers without coming across as a desperate huckster? The secret is that “opt-in” equals “win-win.”

A good place to start for the answers to what an email marketer can and can’t do is the compliance website for the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act. You’ll note that the act explicitly requires all email marketers to clearly state how to opt out, and to honor opt-out responses promptly (items 5 and 6), with penalties of up to $16,000 for each separate email in violation. This applies to all commercial messages—not just bulk email. These are regulations you need to pay attention to, but don’t let them discourage you from starting that email newsletter. Luckily, most good email services will assist you with compliance by automatically generating all the fine print the government requires.

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you that most reputable bulk email services—if not all of them—have it somewhere in the fine print that everyone who is added to a mailing list must either “opt in” or give explicit permission to be added to the list. Many require a “double” opt-in, which sends the subscriber to a confirmation link in an email that must be clicked before they’re officially added.

This process can often be bypassed by the list owner, but that doesn’t mean you get to bypass responsibility as well. MailChimp, the service I use most, also requires users to check a box for every subscriber they add manually, stating that the list owner has the subscriber’s permission. Any list service that’s still in business probably has similar safeguards to protect themselves from lawsuits.

More to the point, whether or not it’s technically legal to sign someone up with no more pretext than a business card exchange, it’s a bad practice that ultimately hurts the list owner more than the accidental “subscribers.”

First, it feels like an invasion of privacy (which it is), causing instant damage to the sender’s reputation. More insidiously, it weakens the mailing list. The false assumption that borderline spammers work under is that building a successful list is nothing more than a numbers game. They think the more subscribers they sign up, the more opportunities they’ll have to generate business (from people they’ve annoyed by invading their privacy…how’s that again?).

The truth is that successful content marketing is highly targeted to quality prospects with a sincere interest in what the list owner provides. I’ll take a list of 100 well-qualified prospects over one with thousands of random people who’ve been “bumped” at a local chamber meeting every time.

Smart email prospectors go for the opt-in two ways: by being so awesome that people want to read their every word (which can work, though it’s rare if you’re not already a rock star in your niche), or by dangling some kind of carrot in exchange for the opt-in. These are known in the trade as “bait pieces.” Done right, they open the door to future business. Even though your readers know perfectly well that you’re giving something away in order to earn the right to send them email marketing, they’ll sign up if the bait piece is compelling enough. The difference between this and the card collector scheme is that subscribers go in with their eyes open, trusting that they can opt out whenever they like.

Cheers,

Tom

P.S. Like this post? Click here to opt-in to my list!

  Employee to Freelancer: 6 ways to plan for the jump

leap-of-faithContemplating the plunge into freelancing? So were several of the attendees at a Strategies for Creative Freelancers session I attended in January. Many of the questions they asked were familiar because I had asked them myself — or should have — when I was starting my career in 2002.

As I surfed the discussion boards, many lessons from those early years came flooding back. A few were things I did right the first time, but many more had to be learned from repeated trial and error.

Here then, in no particular order, are the things I wish someone had told me before I took the freelancer’s leap of faith.

1. Save your pennies

I highly recommend starting your freelance career with a savings cushion. If you can launch your business with enough saved up to cover six months of expenses or more, you’ll have a lot more peace of mind going in. (I had four when I launched my business.)

2. Know thy customer

Know who your target market is going to be and get to know them well before you start. Learn what they need and what challenges you are best suited to solve for them. Beware the temptation to market yourself as someone who can do any type of work for anyone. Even if that’s a business reality for you at first, your self-promotion will be far more effective if you nail down some specifics about what it is you do.

3. Crank up the marketing machine

Freelance work can be sporadic, especially when you’re getting started. Regular self-promotion will be critical to your survival. Many new freelancers fear and loathe this task, but here’s a message from the other side: there is no better way to protect yourself from the dreaded “feast or famine” cycle. Conquer your fear by mastering the skill.

Some of the best resources out there are the marketing plans from Marketing Mentor. They’re among the few resources that will tell you exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to make sure that it doesn’t take a lot of time. Your “marketing machine” will take some time to get up to speed, but you’ll be very glad to have it once it’s humming along.

Two final points about self-promotion:

  1. The most important time to do self-promotion is when you have plenty of business coming in. Think of your marketing machine as the tool that generates the work you’ll do six months to a year from now.
  2. You don’t have to do it alone. One of the best deals I’ve ever made was a trade with a graphic designer — I ended up with an awesome redesign of my website in exchange for helping him launch an awesome newsletter campaign. Which leads us to…

4. Build a partner network

Make connections with other freelancers whose skills complement your own. Freelancer networks offer multiple benefits: you can team up on jobs, refer one another to clients, hold each another accountable for business tasks, trade ideas, and more. One of the best places I forge connections is the annual HOW Design Live conference. Closer to home I’m also a fan of Creative Mornings events, which feel like local gatherings of my tribe. Look for similar events where you can find people who match your own needs or fill gaps in your skill set.

5. Consider a specialization

Specialization is great because it makes it easier for buyers to understand what you do. It also enables you to justify higher rates in your specialty field.

You can define a specialization “vertically” (i.e. by industry, such as healthcare, finance, nonprofits, etc.) or “horizontally” (categories of work every business needs, like annual reports, websites, packaging, and so on).

You can start with a type of work you have deep experience with, choose a field that gives you a lot of satisfaction, or pursue a niche where you’re already well-connected with potential clients. I became a specialist in financial copy practically by accident. I just happened to land a lot of that type of work early in my career.

Specializations don’t have to limit the type of work you accept, especially if you need cash flow to pay the rent early on. And remember that specialization doesn’t mean forever. You can add additional specializations or let them lapse as your business grows and changes.

6. Pay yourself a living wage…or better

When setting your rates, remember you’re paying for all of your business expenses, from equipment to taxes to insurance, etc. In his book Secrets of a Freelance Copywriter, Bob Bly offers the rough calculation that freelancers should charge about 2.5 times what they would make working as someone else’s employee to make a comparable wage as a freelancer.

If you think you’ll lose business if you don’t charge rock-bottom prices, you’re right. You won’t get business from cheapskates who want to take advantage of the lowest bidder. The clients you want to work for understand they get what they pay for. There are plenty of them out there. Do yourself and the rest of the freelance community a big favor by charging what you’re worth.

Above all, do your best-quality work for everyone, and remember that what you do has a value many businesses and organizations are desperately looking for. You’ll need that for the days you feel like a fraud for having one of the best jobs in the world.

Good luck!

  Creative Fire

hibachiIf you create content regularly, it can be tempting to sit on good ideas. You might worry that you won’t have any cool stuff left if you act on all your great ideas now.

Resist the urge.

Some ideas need time to percolate, but many become stale over time if you don’t write them down. Unused ideas that have value also have a tendency to get “stuck,” blocking fresh inspiration.

If you’re hoarding your visions because you fear scarcity, it’s time to cut loose and let go. Creativity behaves much like fire. The more ideas you set going, the faster new inspiration comes.

Even if you’re not ready to share your latest bit of wisdom with the world, get it down—on paper or pixels—and out of your head. If nothing else, you can write your next newsletter well ahead of the deadline and schedule it to drop while you move on.

Cheers,

Tom

  Copy tips designers love

Antique-penOr, how a good writer can save time for the design team

A good copywriter is the lyricist to the designer’s visual “music,” but things can quickly get out of tune when writers commit common mistakes—most of which are easily avoided. This is a secret of the writer’s art that most designers understand better than many writers.

Things were less of an issue before computers came along. So long as the writer had legible handwriting or was competent with a typewriter, the opportunities to create mayhem for the design team were fairly limited. As progress marched on, however, both arts became dominated by software, where what’s below the surface can easily interfere with what you ultimately want to see on the printed page or the screen.

The difference between a writer who plays well with designers and one who does not largely depends on how well the former understands the latter’s workflow. So here, in no particular order, is a quick list of stuff any wordsmith can do to save his design counterparts a great deal of time and frustration:

  • Talk to the design team as early as possible. This is especially important if you’re working on a tight deadline, which is much of the time. It’s critical if the timing is so short that the design team is building the visual pieces at the same time the writer is creating the copy. If the writer is doing footnotes and sidebars for a page that’s intended to be viewed on smartphones, you’ll probably have some editing to do. Will the designers want text that will appear in pull quotes? Frequent headlines? Images or infographics with captions? Share as much information as possible up front.
  • Who’s on first? Does the copy need to fit an existing design or template, or will the design be shaped by the copy? How much wiggle room does the workflow permit if someone has an out-of-the-box idea? Your mileage may vary, but I find that the most effective process is for the design team to start with a wireframe, grayscreen prototype, or other mockup which gives the writer guidance on how the copy will be experienced visually. This allows the writer to craft copy that fits the concept before the design team does their heavy lifting, which in turn can be shaped by the style and tone of the copy. Sometimes the design team looks to the writer to suggest a direction in the initial draft or two, which is also fine as long as you don’t have a specific outcome in mind right away.
  • Use style sheets. Designers love writers who understand style sheets and loathe those who do not. Whether the end product will appear in print, on the web, or both, using style sheets correctly will give the design team the freedom to try out options and make changes very quickly. Your copy doesn’t need to be in the same typefaces that the designers will use—in fact it doesn’t have to look anything like the finished product. As long as you use them consistently, your designers can map your styles to theirs. Better yet, if you learn how your team likes to use styles and create copy files that follow the same practices, you’ll unleash them to focus on the more creative side of their work. Design teams who know how to play well with writers often provide Microsoft Word or other word-processor templates with the styles they want writers to use pre-created. It may take a little effort to build the template and train your writers, but it pays everyone back very quickly.
  • Agree on as much other formatting as possible before writing starts. Does the writer need to use Chicago style, AP style, Grammar Girl style, or the CEO’s style? Will typesetter’s quotes be converted automatically or should the writer make sure they appear in the source file? Which side of the great comma-series debate do you fall on? (It’s a brutal battle that rages on, even today.) Are there certain words that must never, ever, EVER, be used to describe the product? If you’ll be doing a lot of work together, consider creating a style guide.
  • Don’t create stuff the designer will have to un-create. The two most classic examples of this behavior are typing a zillion periods to create dotted lines for a table of contents, or a zillion spaces to create manual columns. Both are guaranteed to make designers roll their eyes at best, and incite them to violence at worst. There are many more sins like this, too numerous to name here, but any time you think you’re making your document “press ready” by doing a bunch of keyboard gymnastics, check with the design team first to find out if they’d prefer it done differently. Just trust me on this one.
  • One space after sentences. Once upon a time, there was a marvelous new invention called a typewriter. Everyone who worked on a typewriter learned to put two spaces between sentences. That’s because typewriters used characters that were all the same width, and the extra space made it easier to read typewritten text. Technology has moved on. Now designers use software that not only allows letterforms of different widths, but automatically calculates the correct amount of kerning (designer-speak for the optimum space between any given character pair) and sentence spacing, adjusting it to the nth degree. When you type the old-fashioned way, you throw a wrench into all this high-tech assistance, making the copy look strange in a way that disturbs readers, even though they may not know why. Designers will curse your name as they hunt down all these extra spaces with the Find-and-Replace command, which can be especially vexing if they do so before they notice all those columns you shouldn’t have created with manual spaces.
  • Extra returns between paragraphs? Paragraph breaks are often easier on the eyes if there’s some space in between blocks of text, but don’t assume that the design team wants you to create that space by hitting the Return key twice after every paragraph. A single return gives the designer more control over the exact amount of space, which may need to be less than a full line break. Ask ahead of time which format your designer prefers.
  • Know your team’s policy on soft returns too. “Soft” returns are forced line breaks created with the key combination Shift + Return. Web designers also call them “breaks.” Typically, they force the copy to start on a new line after the soft return, but without kicking in any options that occur at the end of a paragraph. Designers often use them to control undesirable copy breaks, but it’s hazardous for writers to do so because they can create hidden land mines for the layout artist. Depending on the type of project you’re working on, the designers may want soft returns in certain places—to keep long URLs on a single line or to prevent a product name from being hyphenated, for example. A good best practice for writers, however, is to treat these like prescription medication: “use only as directed.”
  • Edit as much as possible before you submit to the design team. No matter how good you are at prepping files for designers, there may be parts of your copy they have to do some work with to get the look the client wants. Once the layout process is underway in earnest, it can be a big hassle to receive a new manuscript file with the instructions to “just replace all the old copy with the new file.” Get it as polished as you can before they go to work. That way your changes are more likely to be minor, which leads us to…
  • Learn the PDF commenting tools. Once a file is in layout form, you’ll probably see the proof in PDF format. Knowing how to mark up a PDF with any editing changes you need will make the designer’s life much easier in several ways. First, it keeps the changes in a digital format that’s easy to send electronically and protect with passwords. Second, the designer can cut and paste changes directly from many types of comments, and can track all of the changes with a checklist view. Both of these tools reduce the chances of mistakes or missed corrections.

Designers: Don’t see your favorite copy peeve here? Tell your writer.

Of course, if you’d like me to be your writer, feel free to tell me all about it.

Cheers,

Tom

  Is great content enough?

symbols_splayedLast month’s newsletter, “What makes perfect customers call,” caused quite a stir among my readers.

Within minutes, several people had sent me some variation of the same question: “Is it enough to publish content each month, or is there more you have to do to get calls like this?”

The not-so-simple answer is “it depends.”

While regular content marketing will rarely be the only factor involved when you make a new client conversion, it reinforces everything else you do to promote your business. A good marketing machine has many components, including face-to-face networking, referrals from existing clients, public speaking gigs, and other channels depending on who you’re trying to connect with.

Sometimes your machine will bring you a pre-sold prospect like the one who called me last month. More often, new contacts aren’t ready to act the first time you meet them. This is where your content strategy comes into play. Stay in touch with these folks regularly through your mailing list and you’ll benefit in several ways:

  1. People you’ve met will receive a regular reminder that you’re out there, which encourages them to act sooner or to prefer you to another provider when they’re ready to buy.
  2. Like the prospect in last month’s story, some of your readers will already feel a sense of connection with you when you’re first introduced. At a recent conference for example, many of the people I met were more relaxed and friendly because they had read my articles.
  3. Prospects who are turned off by your style won’t call you, saving both of you a lot of hassle.

How you craft your content also plays a big part in your success. It’s not enough to post 2,000 words on the Internet each month if you’re simply writing fluff. Here are four extra tips to add to last month’s list to help you get the most from your content:

  1. Your content must be relevant. If what you write has value to your readers, they’ll keep reading. It’s that simple.
  2. Post your content where it will be seen. In addition to this newsletter, I write for several sites that regularly attract the interest of my ideal clients. Much as I love the folks on my house list, the reality is that my business is still getting known. As a result, the majority of my new business currently comes from other sites with more-established reputations. In addition to attracting more eyeballs, you can build credibility by writing for sites or publications that appeal to your best prospects.
  3. Make it easy for prospects to sign up. Whenever you meet someone you want to stay in touch with, ask them if they’d like to be added to your newsletter list. Make it as easy as possible by offering to sign them up yourself, and do it promptly. This small effort on your part will increase your signup rate, and it’s worth doing to get new prospects into your system so that you can stay connected automatically in the future.
  4. Offer an incentive. One way to beat the “good grief, not another newsletter!” response is to give your subscribers something of value right away. Whether it’s a digital download, a free 30-minute consultation, or some other offer, make sure there’s some obvious benefit for your subscribers so that it’s not just about you.

Thanks for reading Currents in 2013—watch for some exciting new changes in 2014! In the meantime, here’s wishing each and every one of you a truly meaningful holiday, no matter what you celebrate.

Cheers,

-Tom

  “I feel like I already know you.”

phone_cordThe voice on the phone gave me all the proof I’ll ever need that content marketing really works:

“I know we’ve never met,” she said, “but I’ve been reading your online articles for a while and I feel like I already know you.”

What followed was easily one of the most relaxed and effortless conversations I’ve ever had with a new client. Before we hung up she said “send me a contract.”

In short, a perfect client had practically fallen into my lap merely because I made a commitment a while back to write a free article once a month. No cold calling. No elevator speech. No sales pitch. And I didn’t spend anything but a bit of time writing.

Ultimately, all I had to do was close the sale…because 95 percent of my marketing work had been done for me. She was already familiar with my samples, my writing style, and my offbeat sense of humor. A colleague she trusted had recommended me. And she matched one of my “preferred client” profiles so closely that I could have written it simply by using the cut-and-paste command to copy her life story.

The call validated five key truths that apply to any content marketing strategy:

  1. Content marketing takes time to get results. Don’t start a newsletter, blog, or podcast and expect the phone to start ringing overnight. Soft-selling vehicles like these build trust slowly, wearing away resistance like water eroding stone. Think of the content you publish today as opening the door to the work you’ll do in six months to a year.
  2. Be yourself. If the personality you put out there isn’t authentic, the people who eventually respond will be attracted to a “you” that isn’t you. This is especially true for freelancers who try to play the “pseudofirm” game or any organization trying to sell an image it doesn’t really embrace.
  3. Write for your ideal customer. My mother reads this newsletter faithfully (love ya mom!), but I don’t write it for her. I have three carefully-researched customer profiles that I’ve developed by interviewing my best clients and other people I’d like to work for. The topics I cover in my free columns are selected to address their needs and interests. Some of my readers don’t match these profiles, but they have friends and colleagues who do and I’ve received some valuable referrals as a result. (Want to develop customer profiles for your own business? One of the best resources out there is Mark O’Brien’s book A Website That Works. While you’re at it, read the whole book.)
  4. Publish on schedule. No matter how great your material is, you’ll be forgotten if you disappear before your perfect buyer is ready. Show up in their inbox at least once a month, preferably at about the same time.
  5. It’s totally worth the effort. You may have to stand firm against the impatience of your boss, your colleagues, your spouse, and even yourself. But if you’re doing it right, all of these objections will be silenced when true believers who’ve already done your selling for you start calling.

Cheers,

-Tom

  Are you writing for humans?

tangled-cablesOne of the gaps in my education is my inability to speak a second language. At various times I’ve worked to learn French, Japanese, and Italian. I had a bit of success with all three, but time pressures from other parts of my life have prevented me from getting beyond “good day”, “which way to the cathedral?”, and “where is the bathroom?”

Nevertheless, as a copywriter I often find that I’m playing the role of “translator” between clients and their target audience.

Professional jargon is sometimes the main thing that needs to be untangled, but more often it’s the age-old problem of gobbledegook. These terms and phrases are the product of fear, spin, or misguided attempts to impress the largest-possible audience.

The inevitable result is copy that sounds like it was written by and for machines. Trouble is, even if you’re a business-to-business guru chasing Fortune 500 companies, you’re ultimately writing for people.

To help you avoid these communication-killers, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more recent dehumanizing buzzwords and what they really mean. Scratch them from any communication intended for human beings.

  • Stakeholders People. (Sometimes “the people working on this project,” but more commonly “the people who sign our paychecks.”)
  • Space A term for “home” or “office” that isn’t hip anymore because too many of your friends are also using it.
  • Core Competency 1) The stuff you’re good at. 2) The stuff you’d rather be doing besides marketing, accounting, and cleaning your office.
  • Deliverables Items on your to-do list.
  • Mainstream “Wow, people are actually buying this stuff!”
  • Solution A product or service. (Yes, Mike Bosworth could be a genius, but most people who read his book don’t seem to get beyond this simple word substitution.)
  • Scaleable Solution A product or service that might still work if we attract new customers.
  • Low-Hanging Fruit Easy sales we should have been closing two years ago.
  • Next-Generation Please buy a new gadget to replace the one you bought last year. Please?
  • “For all your _________________ needs!” We haven’t done any market research.
  • Post-PC Office Environment Our receptionist has an iPad.
  • “We’re the best-kept secret in _________________.” Our marketing sucks.

Best regards,

-Tom

  The perils of “canned” copy

Insurance_MailingsEarlier this month, I received a familiar-looking letter in the mail. No slick sales message—just my name and address printed in understated, professional grey designed to entice me to open the envelope.

“Dear Thomas,” the letter inside began with formal pomp, going on to tell me how I could “bring home $825* in savings” (note the trust-building asterisk, which lead to fine print that essentially said: “well, maybe not, but that’s our best guess”) just by switching all my insurance business over to a Ms. J_________ whom I’ve never met or talked to.

The pitch was lackluster on its own, but two more things made it an even bigger loser—the two other envelopes that arrived the same day from Mr. M_________ and Miss R_________, representatives of the same company who had clearly bought the same package from their corporate masters, complete with the same Mad Libs copy and the same mailing list, helpfully mailed for them on the same day.

These unlucky three are just a few of the latest victims of “canned” copy. As the name implies, it’s kind of like prepackaged food…and about as appetizing. Imagine reading the print equivalent of Muzak from the 1970s and you’ll have a pretty good idea.

Worst of all, they’re not alone. I also get duplicate promotions from printing companies, accountants, realtors, and more. Each has a different rep’s name and address, but they land in my mailbox or inbox at the same time on the same day with surprising regularity.

But sending the same love letter your competitors are sending isn’t the biggest risk you face when you use canned copy. Here are 5 more reasons to shy away from it:

  1. You’ll be boring. Even if your prospects don’t see it anywhere else, the one-size-fits-all approach used by canned copywriters is designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. This “lowest common denominator” approach will make your company sound lackluster and generic.
  2. You’ll sacrifice control. With canned copy, you often don’t get to choose the content. That can lead to problems if your mailing suggests an expertise you don’t have or fails to pick up on hot opportunities you’ve identified in your field.
  3. You can’t react quickly to market trends. Companies that control their own marketing copy can react swiftly to consumer trends. If a particular topic attracts interest and sparks sales, they can shift focus quickly to take advantage of it. With canned copy, you can’t just pick up the phone and ask for a quick change in strategy. Even if your copy provider is responsive to your insights, it could be months before they catch up with your market, costing you valuable time.
  4. You won’t sound like you. Successful brands have a unique “voice” that distinguishes them from competitors. When you publish copy that’s written for multiple users, you don’t stand out—you become part of the background.
  5. Customers can smell it. Copy isn’t just the padding you put between pretty pictures. If it’s not relevant or valuable to your audience, you run the risk of having your entire message ignored no matter how amazing the design looks. Since canned copy is typically designed to appeal to a wider (and vaguer) audience, its chance of being on target for your readers is usually far less likely than if you address what you know your customers are thinking, asking, and worrying about.

Cheers,

-Tom