My very first copywriting job was at a real estate agency in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I joined an in-house marketing department of several writers and some admin staff. We worked closely with outsourced photographers and designers.
The company’s owner would tell an anecdote about how this team came about:
One Saturday morning in the early 1990s, he was perusing the real estate pages of the paper, as he always did, when something struck him. Every one of the ads for homes listed by his company began in precisely the same way:
“This stunning 2/3/4-bedroom home in [Suburb Name]…”
Two would have been a coincidence. Three would have been annoying. Every single one demanded action.
Up until that point it was the salespeople who were writing the copy. These agents fueled the business’s engine with their interpersonal and negotiation skills; they didn’t need to be burdened by tasks they had no interest or training in. The owner saw an opportunity to eliminate the proverbial two birds. While removing an unwanted task from his agents’ daily schedules he could make a significant change to the way his company presented itself to the public.
That was the foundation story of the marketing team and, in a way, a foundation stone for the way I thought about professional writing from that moment on.
Until that point I’d known writing was something I wanted to supply, but naively never really considered why it might be something organisations might demand.
This story gave one answer: every facet of a company that it presents to the world can and likely will be judged. (At the very least it says something about that company.) Its use of language is one of those facets.
“I’m not writing copy to sell your home”
One of my main jobs working in real estate was to write copy about the homes listed by the salespeople. I’d visit the residence, speak to the owner and then return to the office to put together ads based on what I observed and what we chatted about.
Repetition and cliches had brought about the need for a marketing team, so we were given a good amount of creative freedom, but some elements in the process were prescribed. One of those elements was the friendly verbal NB that we gave to owners just before we left. It went something like this:
“Keep in mind that what I write won’t be there to sell your home. Nor will it be a list of every single feature. My job is to get potential buyers curious, to emphasise some – but not all – of the most attractive characteristics and benefits of the home, and then to let the salesperson do their job…”
It went on. The point was there were clear and sensible expectations about what the words were there to do. My skills with language were complementary to the “closing” abilities of the agents, as well as the expertise of the photographer, and several other factors.
A decade later, working as a freelancer, these two original lessons – (a) that a good writer will positively influence an organisation’s reputation (albeit unobtrusively) and (b) that copy can be persuasive, informative and even provocative, without directly leading to a sale – seem more salient than ever.
“You’re not adding any value”
At the beginning of this year I worked with a new client who asked me to look at the copy on a relatively small website. They asked me to make suggestions on how to improve the language.
What I found on the site was what I see a lot of: some decent overall concepts and strong visual elements let down by poor spelling, peculiar grammar, muddled tone and tenor, as well as an abundance of corporate buzzwords and management platitudes.
I went to work on what I now think of as one of the two or three essential jobs of the writer/editor: protecting the company’s reputation. In this instance that involved removing the elements that certain readers would consider careless or incomprehensible.
Out came the misspellings, the awkward syntax, the misapplied apostrophes and more.
Next I attempted to shave away some of the management speak, the verbiage that makes most readers’ eyes glaze over but is familiar and comfortable to so many office workers and business owners.
And finally I made some changes specific to the brief.
I submitted the revised document.
The meeting to discuss my work did not go well.
The person in charge said two things in particular that are relevant in the context of this post:
The first – “I haven’t read the whole thing but from what I can see you’ve made changes for the sake of change.”
The second – “I just don’t think you’re adding any value here.”
I could have worked with the change for the sake of change criticism. Any competent writer and editor knows exactly why they choose a word or phrase, or why they change one. I would have gladly gone through each alteration one by one.
But “adding value” was my cue to to cut my losses.
There’s no simple equation
The term “adding value” is a term co-opted by business from economics, chewed up, spat out and now used with merry abandon. In its current, most common use it’s as nebulous a concept as there is. Without context or qualification, it’s the ultimate corporate inanity, a bit like Dennis Denuto talking about “the vibe of the thing” in The Castle.
If I had to guess, what I think the business owner was really getting at was “how are these changes going to make me more money?”
There are writers who are willing to go to great lengths to answer just this question. There are thousands of blog posts dedicated to copywriting not as an art or even a science, but a commercial activity with precisely measurable ‘outputs’.
These are either written by people who have extraordinary amounts of time to run the most sophisticated statistical analysis possible, or by charlatans.
Yes, if I’m writing for websites I can find scientific data gathered by reputable companies like Nielson Norman that help me understand how people read online.
Yes, if I’m writing digital newsletters or emails or landing pages, I can do all sorts of A/B testing with subjects, headings, sub-headings, copy length, language and more.
Yes, if you’re hiring a copywriter you want to get more than “some nice words”.
But no, the vast majority of work a copywriter does (certainly in the case of revising a website), cannot be reduced to a simple equation that ends with “which equals, to the cent, this amount of extra revenue per month”.
Even the copy that ends with “ADD TO CART” is invariably accompanied by images, photos, other design elements and possibly preceded by conversations or interactions (discussions with friends, chats with salespeople, research on the internet).
This is not to discount the importance of the words; only to underline that lesson I learned ten years ago in my real estate days: that they are one part of a marketing whole. As such, separating them from the other elements and determining how they contribute to the bottom line from transaction to transaction is an almost futile exercise.
So what’s the point of hiring a copywriter?
You might ask, “If a copywriter can’t demonstrate an exact ‘return on investment’ what’s the point of hiring one?”
To that I would ask “What’s the point of hiring a professional painter to paint your house?” or “What’s the point of hiring a professional graphic designer to create your logo?” or “What’s the point of drafting a young footballer to your club?”
It’s extremely difficult to put dollar figures on all sorts of activities, but that doesn’t mean the world has turned its back on them forever.
The graphic designer makes the logo look crisper, more contemporary, more sophisticated than if you’d done it yourself. People associate your logo, and so your company, with elegance and professionalism. They take notice of you. They take you seriously. They like being associated with you.
There is no quantitative way of measuring how much that logo is worth.
The gun footballer makes others around her play better. Her kicking makes life easier for the forwards. Her defensive pressure gives more time to the defenders. She brings fans to the game with her skill and poise.
There is no quantitative way of measuring what her ability is worth.
But perhaps the painter is most like the copywriter. Everyone can hold a brush, just like everyone can tap a keyboard. It’s easy to glance at a wall and think “That looks pretty good, I s’pose”. In the same way, it’s easy to scan a chunk of copy and say “Yeah, that’ll do, I guess”. But anyone who’s painted their own home or written with a fastidious reader in mind will tell you, it’s not a matter of wiping some white stuff on a surface or chucking some pixels on a page.
Whether we like it or not, not everyone is charitable or uninterested enough to shrug off a third-rate paint job. The professional painter gives us the perfect lines and pristine texture that allows us to be confident in and proud of the final result.
Equally, many of the people we want to buy our stuff, to be influenced by our marketing or simply to be moved by our stories are the same people who notice bad spelling, who click away from illogical syntax and who can’t be bothered wading through corporate sludge to find what they’re looking for.
Trust your judgement
I could tell you about how many homes the real estate agency I worked at sold while I wrote copy for that company. And although I’m proud my copy piqued people’s interest and helped potential buyers work out whether a place was or wasn’t for them, ultimately my copy directly sold zero homes.
The indirect number is impossible to determine. How can we possibly be sure how many eventual buyers called an agent having only looked at the photos for a home? How do we know how many of them disliked the writing but came along to an open-for-inspection anyway? How can we be certain how many of them bought having never seen an ad at all?
Although it seems unfashionable to say these days, I tend to believe what the famous adman Bill Bernbach said is true:
“Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”
Of course, seeking “value” is important, but that value can’t always have a number attached to it. Evidence is also important. So is testing hypotheses, running experiments, rejecting industry ‘superstitions’.
But, sometimes, you have to trust your judgement, make a subjective call. Will my homemade logo make us look amateurish? Will the same old footballers improve our team? Will guests notice my unskilled paintjob?
What does our use of language really say about our company?