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Writing efficient & Effective Copy

By: Avinash Narula

Copy is the life and breath of advertising and promotional material. And copy writing is the art and technique conveying the message to the target audience by putting together words in an interesting and catchy manner. It is wooing your target audience with words and information. There are no hard and fast rules in copy writing in terms of expressing your ideas. However, certain rules and guidelines can help you develop the copy more effectively and efficiently.

Well-written copy is vital to the success of an advertisement or a brochure, radio spot or TV commercial. So write, polish, re-write and polish again. Check not only how the words read, check how they sound. Copy is not only written to be read… it is also meant to be heard.

We will discuss the development of the copy from two aspects – effectiveness and efficiency. It is obvious that the copy has to be effective in terms of getting the attention of the audience and then delivering the message to them so that they are swept away to buy your products and services. The second aspect is not too obvious but my experience suggests that it is very important even in achieving the first objective. I remember when I was working in US, I was sent a note by my advertising agency along with the latest version of the copy for a brochure which said, “Rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite ……..” This note represents the frustration of most advertising agencies as they have to do one rewrite after another. I have noticed that if this process becomes too long, the copywriter as well as the advertising agency loses interest and the final outcome is not the best, adversely affecting the effectiveness of the message. So let us discuss both the aspects of developing a copy in detail.

Efficient Copy

Copy can be just a headline in the case of a poster or text matter of a brochure running into pages. Experience has taught me that arriving at the final copy takes time. Also, it involves repeated changes. Everyone in the hierarchy wants to make sure that the written matter is factually correct and conveys the company’s image appropriately. And quite rightly so. Sometimes in order to get all the facts right, the copy has be wetted by the various departments including legal and technical. This all requires time.

The copy also determines various aspects of design. The illustration, color, size and format are all based on the headline and the copy. As such, it is suggested that as a first step, you should try to get the copy finalized. This is what is most time-consuming.

How can we shorten the time it takes to get the copy approved. Heres what my experience suggests that you need to do:

1. You should first collect all the information about the company and the products involved. Collect all the brochures and other printed material of the company printed previously so that the same can be given to the advertising agency. This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, as far as possible there should be consistency between what was said earlier and what you are going to say now. Second, you will be able to provide the advertising agency will information that can be included in the advertising and promotional material and which has already been wetted before. This is not to say that we cannot change the message or the contents. For the advertising agency to write an effective copy as well as to reduce the number of iterations, the advertising agency needs to be given as complete information as possible.

I have observed that usually clients give information in piecemeal which increases the number of iterations as well as the time taken to develop advertising and promotional material. With complete and accurtae background information, the work can be done faster with fewer interactions between you and the advertising agency in terms of the changes to be made.

In fact a lot of times, you will find that you will be directed to get the desired information from previously printed material by your bosses. Remember, previously printed material serves as an excellent reference material with which all concerned can work with.

2. If you are involved in liaisoning with the advertising agency, give them a note with the following details:
(a) New facts that need to be considered.
(b) Changes that have taken place.
(c) Information that definitely needs to be included in the advertising and promotional material taking the characteristics of the industry and the nature of the business and products into consideration.
(d) Preferences of key people in the organisation. Final approval rests with these people and one has to take their views into consideration while developing any advertising and promotional material. Some of you might disagree and may think that you have better ideas. In such a case, present your ideas separately alongwith with a concept that includes what may be preffered by the powers to be. This approach will not only save you time but may save your job as well.
(e) It is better to give more information than less information at this stage. It is the job of the copywriter to scan the information that he would like to use to best convey the message.

3. Once the copy is ready, ask the advertising agency to give you the copy, preferably on a floppy. You can also have it sent to you by email. Once the ad agency sends you the first draft, you can make changes as well as make suggestions. You can now show it to your boss and get his feedback before sending it back to the advertising agency to revise the same. If there are major changes to be made and you feel that it is not yet ready to show it to your boss, get the copy revised first. You can send the floppy or the email back with the changes so that the copywriter can rework on your changes and suggestions. Using the electronic media saves on typing effort.

4. Once the copy meets with your and your boss’s approval, you need to make prints of these and circulate it to the executives whose approval is needed to finalize the copy. Try and get everybody’s comments at the same time so that all the necessary changes can be made by the advertising agency. In case there are conflicting views between executives, you should resolve them by discussing the matter with them so that the changes you ask the advertising agency to make have the approval of all desired executives in your organization. If you fail to do this, the finalization of the copy may take a long time. Your costs could also mount resulting in a frustrating experience.

The above steps will make the process of developing the copy a lot efficient.

5. Choice of headline or punchline is very critical when one is developing the creative for press and magazine advertisements. It may be a good idea to ask your advertising agency to send you all the headlines they can come up with so that you can give them feedback as to the ones you like so that they can concentrate on developing the concept around the headlines that you prefer.

Effective Copy

It is not only necessary to develop a copy efficiently but also to make sure it is effective. Here are some ways in which you can make an effective copy to convince the reader to buy your products and services.

Keep it simple and direct

I firmly believe that the copy should be easy to understand and also say what its saying as directly as possible. A lot of times, in our quest to prepare a creative piece of advertising and promotional material, we focus on what looks and sounds good to us without considering the reader. The reader has no time to spare. If he fails to grasp your message quickly, he will lose interest in it.

For instance, Hometrade came out with TV commercials and hired celebrities like Hrithik Roshan, Amitabh Bachan and Sachin Tendulkar and all they said was that they wanted “more.” For a long time, I was not able to figure out what business they were in or what they were trying to sell to me. I have asked my students in MBA classes and not many could tell me with certainty what Hometrade’s advertisement was all about or what their message was. These guys must have spent millions on advertising. Sometimes creative people are more concerned about what sounds creative to them or about making award-winning advertisements. Their objective should be to write copy that their client’s prospective customers will grasp the meaning of the message easily without having to think to deeply about it.

You need to keep the headlines simple and to the point. If your target audience does not understand your headline, he will skip over to other things. He will also ignore your copy if he fails to understand the headline.

The "S" Word
I once had a very interesting experience which has made me coin the phrase “The S Word.” The “S” word basically stands for “story.” After finishing my MBA in U.S., I joined a company which was in the electronic business. I was asked to prepare a presentation by the chairman of the company. I thought the presentation I made was pretty good. However, when the chairman saw the presentation, he didn’t say anything but took me to the conference room, which had a huge conference table. He asked me to lay down the hard copies of my presentation in the sequence that I wanted to present them. Then he asked me to explain what I wanted to say through the presentation. As I did this, I realised that my presentation was not smooth. At some places, I was jumping from one thing to the other without connecting the two together. The link was missing. At others places, there were gaps. I was reaching conclusions without adequately supporting them. In addition, there were some slides and information that were not required as it did not fit into what I was trying to say.

With my chairman’s help I rearranged the sequence of some of the slides, made some more to fill the gaps and eliminated a few. The result was fantastic.

I realised what was wrong with my original presentation. It didn’t have the right sequence. It was not logical. It was not focused. In other words, I didn’t have my story right. This happened a long time back but I don’t think that I will ever forget this experience. In everything that I write, I make sure that my story is right. It is logical, sequential and focused. I can honestly say that this experience assisted me in becoming a better writer. I published newsletters practically writing all the articles on my own. I run an advertising agency and contribute to copywriting and I have also written two books. This is my third book.

What I am saying is that every written piece whether it is for an advertisement or a brochure, a book or a report should have a story. The moment the sequence of the text is proper, the same words sound so much better. I sometimes relate the importance of a story by giving the example of Hindi films where the storyboard is almost always missing. Let’s take the example of Salman Khan movies. If you watch Salman Khan’s movies, there is one scene which is common in all his movies. Whether it’s a action movie, love story, drama or a comedy, you will always find a scene in which Salman Khan will all of sudden land up on a exotic beach tearing his shirt with a beautiful girl in his arms. It doesn’t matter what the movie is all about but Salman Khan has to land up on a beach tearing shirt with a gorgeous girl in his arms. You see him in a desert dying from thirst and all of a sudden he is jumping up and down and tearing his shirt away at an exotic beach with a beautiful girl in his arms. And you ask, “Hey, how did this happen?” “Where did the beach come from? Where did the girl come from?” You are not able to understand the logic or sequence. You don’t understand the story.

The director has a few choices to make the story more logical and believable. If the director of the movie wanted Salman to move to a beach from a desert all he had to do was add a dream sequence in between so that the story sounds logical. Its becomes understandable and believable. Or the director could avoid the beaches completely.

This happens a lot in the advertising world. You will come across advertisements where there is no connection between the headline and the copy. If there is no connection, there is no story. If there is no story, the reader will not think of buying your product.

You need to make sure that in whatever advertising and promotional material that you are developing should have a copy that conveys a story that is logical, sequential and focused. Sometimes it will just involve shifting the sequence of paragraphs. Other times it may requires that you add some information and delete some.

Any item of advertising and promotional material like a brochure is a story about your company, product and services. You want your target market to read your story and be convinced to buy your products and services.

What can we do to get the story right. First, the very fact that you are conscious about this issue will make to look for gaps in your story. Is your story logical? Are you progreessing from one point to another in a logical manner? I feel that most of us can spot illogical sequence but we have been not giving it the importance that this deserves. We don’t conciously look for gaps? I hope after reading this book you will think of the “S” word always.

Second, make sure that there are no “beaches.” What do I mean by this? Well when Salman Khan is in the desert, where do beaches fit in? By “beaches” I mean irrelevant information. Information that does not fit in the story. Our story becomes fuzzy and unbelievable when we add information in our story that has no relevance. Irrelevant information also makes it difficult for the reader to get the message.

Another way to check if your story is correct is to answer the questions: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN and WHY. The WHO tells the reader who you are, who your buyer is or for whom your product and services are ideally suited. The WHAT describes your product and services in terms of the features of your product and services. The WHEN answers the question when your product and services will be available. The WHERE tells the reader the location where he can buy your products and services as well as where the reader can write or call for more information or order your product. The WHY is the most important part. This tells the reader why he should buy your products and services. Usually this is where you concentrate on telling the reader about the benefits of your products and services.

It doesn’t matter where you start your story. Wherever you start, make sure that from that point onwards your story is logical, sequential and focused. Sometimes you start your story about your company with the history of the company and sometimes you talk about is at the end. It doesn’t matter so long as your story is right, that is, it logical, sequential and focused.

Three stages of a good composition
One should keep in mind the three stages of a good composition – introduction, body and conclusion. This is another concept that I follow strictly while writing or editing copy. In fact, if you adopt this concept, the story takes care of itself. In the introduction, you get the reader’s attention by telling him what you are going to tell him. In the body you actually tell him what you told him in the introduction that you will tell him. You simply elaborate on what you had promised in the introduction. The body includes the information and logic to support your introduction. For instance, if you are talking about the desert then you cannot talk about the beaches. You conclude by telling the reader the whole thing in a summarized form. That is you tell the reader what you have already told him. In an advertisement, the headline and sub headline could take the place of introduction. The body copy gives facts and logic to support the headline. Finally the conclusion in an advertisement refers to the clinching line emphasizing the action you desire the reader to take.

Short sentences
Another trick of making your copy more effective is by using short sentences. When I was in the US , I used to edit and publish a magazine. I also had to do most of the writing as there was no one else. I did get the support of a lady who used to review my writing. She taught me a thing or two about written English. She told me that “If a sentence can be broken into two, break it.” A sentence which expresses two thoughts is known as a run-on sentence and is usually long. The shorter the sentence, the better and clearer it is. Also, one sentence should express one thought or point. So when you are finalising the copy, make sure there are no run-on or long sentences (give examples). If you see some long sentences or have doubts about some, point out the same to your advertising agency so that necessary changes can be made.

Less copy is better copy
Arguments about the length of copy occur time and again. Nobody has the patience to read long and tedious copy. Our tendency is always to say more about ourselves. This stems from our belief that the more we say, the more amenable the reader will be towards our product and services. Logically this may be correct. But the customer does not have the time to read endless text matter.

Copy can be long or short, depending upon the requirement. It should be long enough to tell your story and short enough to make an impact. The length of copy also depends upon the space allotted. If you have much to say, buy a bigger space. If you can’t afford that, your copy needs a trimming.

Also, most of us believe that the more reasons we can give our prospective customer to buy our products and services the better it. Again sounds logical. But such an approach can also confuse the prospective customer. Since the prospective customer is already overloaded with information, what he needs is help in making quick decisions. As such, the focus should be on the main points which you think will clinch the deal.

While making leaflets and brochures, advertisers are sorely tempted to overwrite. Since they know more about the product than anybody else, they denude the reader with information. Refrain from doing so for three reasons: you’ll bore the reader; you’d push up your print costs and you’ll have a high postal cost.

Benefits vs features
Another important point to remember to make your copy effective and convincing is to concentrate on convincing the customer regarding the benefits that he will derive by using your products and services rather than listing all the features for her. We need to tell the prospective buyers what’s in it for them? People buy the products for the benefits they offer rather than the products themselves. People buys cars not because their being cars but because they derive the benefit of travelling from one place to another.

Unless the copy spells out a tangible benefit, people will ignore the advertising and promotional material that you have prepared. Dangling a benefit helps in getting customers. Of course, the benefit that you dangle in front of them has to be valued by them. If you can pinpoint what’s in it for them, you have got it made. If you don’t, you are dead. Let’s understand this from a simple example of the cell phone operators in India. Initially when cell phones were introduced in India, the benefit they touted was as a status symbol. Well only so many people wanted to buy the cell phones as a status symbol. Not enough to let cell phone companies make money and all of them were in trouble. They changed their story. Now they tell their customers that the benefit of cell phones is that they can improve their productivity as well as business profits. Now the cell phone companies are growing at a fast rate. This is the magic of talking about benefits, the right ones in your copy.

Of course pinpointing the exact benefit that will click with your target market is a highly creative task because it cannot always be a mere straightforward listing of the advantages of a product or service. This also relates to the positioning of the product which we have already discussed in the previous chapter.

When the copy has been written, read it out loud to yourself. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and ask questions. Does it sound convincing? Does it sound interesting? Does it flow? If not, analyze why. Where is the weakness?

It should be remembered that once something is printed, it cannot be corrected. If an advertisement gets released with an error, nothing can be done about it. Thus, reviewing and editing is an indivisible part of ensuring that you have an effective copy. Do not depend on the advertising agency alone. They don’t know your business better than you. I have noticed that a person who is very closely involved with developing advertising and marketing material has difficulty in catching all the errors in a copy. You have become so used to seeing it that you don’t notice the mistake. As such, it might be a good idea to get someone who has not been involved to look at it. Believe me you need to take all the steps you can because it is worth the peace of mind that comes with the surety that the printed piece will be free of errors and therefore not be a source of embarrassment.

Also, the chances of error increase with the increase in the number of iteration of changes the copy goes through. There is a fatigue factor involved. One tends to pay less attention to detail while repeated changes are being made. People assume that it’ll go through other revisions and they will make the final check when the copy gets final approval. But usually it happens that by the time the copy gets finalised its usually at the last minute. Very little time is available to ensure that all the “ts” have been crossed and “is” dotted because of deadlines. You don’t get the time to do the final check. Get to grips with the copy by minimizing the number of iteration and making changes one go rather than making changes in what seems like a never ending cycle.

It is also important to make sure that your copy does not have more information than is necessary. Take the cost of your space in the paper or magazine, radio or TV spot. Divide it by the number of words in your advertisement. That’s roughly how much each word is costing. Make sure that all the words used are worth it?

Don’t try to tell everything with the headline / title

Developing a headline is also part of copy. In fact, the copy has to related to the headline. Headline is also important because it is the headline which attracts the reader to read the rest of your advertising and promotional material. Sometimes we want to say everything in a headline. We have to avoid doing this. Long headlines which say too much confuses the customer. We need to think of what’s important for the customer and focus on that while developing the headline. This does not mean that you cannot talk about the various other benefits of the products and services. You can certainly tackle these in the rest of the copy.

The headline is supposed to tell your story in a nutshell. You can consider it your introduction. Since the reader usually skims through the copy – not read it word for word, it is important to use arresting headings which conveys your whole story.

Developing headlines basically involves playing with words. Rhyming with word association and using creativity will get you the best of headlines. As in everything else, keeping the headlines simple and direct is the best approach. Some simple and standard ways of coming up with headlines are as follows:

1. “For people who_______.” heading helps your reader decide if your advertising and promotional material will be of interest to them. For instance, if you have a drug that cures cancer. Your best headline will be “For people who have cancer.” You will immediately get the attention of people who have cancer and that is what you need.

2. “How to_________” headline is quite often used to offer solution to a problem. This is quite an effective headline to use is evident from the fact that there are so many “how-to” books there are in the market.

3. “Introducing___________” or “So-and-so introduces …………” or “new” or “Announcing the launch…… are some of the common headlines to introduce something new in the market. Even though these headlines have been used very frequently but they still get the attention of the target audience.

4. We all like to get things free. As such, an headline starting with the word “Free” has always been an attention grabber. Of course to use this headline, you have to have something that you can give free.

5. “10 reasons why you should__________” or “Five Steps to achieving__________” are effective headlines. These type of headlines are easy to write copy for. All you have to do is list the number of reasons or the steps mentioned in the headline. These type of heading are quite often used as titles for books.

6. Open-ended questions can also be used as headlines. In fact, they are often used. “Do you __________?” or “Have you ever___________?” are headlines that are quite interesting and pique the interest of the target audience.

7. Sometimes headlines are used as a teaser. Such headlines arouse the curiosity of the reader. Sometimes half a headline is better than a complete one. By giving only half the message on the cover, it motivates the reader to look inside inside and read the rest.

Remember that its not always important to have a creative punchy headline. The kind of headline you develop also depends on the target audience. For instance, when writing a brochure directed towards a corporate audience, a more subdued approach may be called for. Therefore, you might want to avoid clever, punchy headlines and use more simple and direct title instead.

Make your copy readable

We would be discussing this more when we talk about text formatting but its importance makes its necessary for us to discuss it here also. It is not only important to ensure that good effective copy is written but also that it is presented in a manner that it is easy to read. One of the best way to make your copy more readable is to use paragraphs, headings and sub-headings as changes in thought needs separation. Paragraphs, headings and sub-headings break the copy down into understandable chunks of words.

Providing appropriate amount of white space around the copy is a good way of creating emphasis on important points of your copy.

In press and print copy, punctuation is to the writer what musical notation is to musician. It tells the reader the sound, volume, pace and tone of the text. The three dot leader, the colon and semi colon, the italic, even the over-used exclamation mark . . . these make the reader hear the words in his head, with the rhythm and emphasis the writer intended.

Developing slogans is also part of copywriting. A slogan is a creative way of using words and/or visuals that symbolises a brand or service in a unique memorable way. Slogans can even become a part of the people’s everyday language. Over time, slogans becomes inseparable from a product or service, helping it to differentiate from its competition. “Just do it” for Nike is a good example.

So remember its important to get your copy right. A lot depends on it.

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