If you’re an advertising copywriter, you’re part of a tradition that dates back as long as people have wanted to sell commodities, services and ideas. Consider an ad from 1650s London, which makes these promises for a new miracle drug called coffee:
“It quickens the spirits and makes the heart lightsome… prevents drowsiness and makes one fit for business… and is a most excellent remedy against the spleen, hypochondriac winds and the like.”
Your role as a copywriter hasn’t changed much in 400 years – but technology, a changing consumer landscape, and an evolving legal environment mean that the way you do your job today is markedly different to how we used to write just 20 years ago.
Here are a few ways copywriting has evolved in recent years.
1. Consumer laws that bite
The writer of our ad for coffee and cigarette advertisers in the Mad Men era could get away with making wild claims and promises about their products. They could claim health benefits that were not only unverified, but completely false. And they could downplay, ignore or outright lie about any dangers and flaws inherent in the goods and services they were selling.
Now, we are living in an era of rampant litigation and strict consumer protection. In South Africa, laws such as the Consumer Protection Act and bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority protect consumers from misleading and fraudulent advertising. Every copywriter needs to know and understand these regulatory frameworks, as well as have the creativity to tell a compelling story without leaning on little falsehoods that have become advertising clichés over the years.
2. Tight character counts
Copywriters have always understood the value of brevity, especially those that worked in formats like radio and billboards. But the fragmented attention of today’s busy digital consumer—coupled with the character limits imposed by Twitter, SEO and so on—means that it’s more important than ever to get to the point. Compressing as much meaning into a few words and avoiding the dangers of ambiguity are challenges that most copywriters face every day.
3. Everyone’s an expert
If you were writing about coffee in the 17th century, you could be fairly sure that your reader would not know much about the product. The same goes for cigarette ads in the 1960s, when copywriters could gloss over concerns such as the health risks or the danger of addiction.
Now, however, you’ll be writing for audiences that are more informed and discerning. Their ears are always pricked for falsehoods; if they don’t know something, they’ll ask Google or their social networks rather than taking your word for it.
Thus, it’s important for copywriters to intimately understand products they sell and be able to anticipate the concerns and questions of an informed reader or listener. If they don’t, their copy won’t have much credibility with the target audience.
4. The rapid feedback loop
The digital era has compressed time, making the distance between an ad going live and audience feedback incredibly short. If you’ve offended someone, made a claim that rings false, or simply failed to connect with the audience, you’ll know in days, if not hours.
You’ll also know quickly if you have a hit on your hands.
That means that copywriters need to be able to move quickly in response to real-time feedback about, and measurements of, the effectiveness of their campaigns. Good, fast tactical execution is as important these days as long-term strategic thinking.
5. Technology is the medium
Good copywriters have always understood the nature of the medium they work in – how writing for TV is different from writing for a newspaper, how layout affects copy, and so on. In the digital era, understanding the medium demands a basic command of the technology beneath the Web interface.
To be a successful copywriter in today’s world, you need to have some understanding of how search engine algorithms work; of tagging and metadata; of how Web pages are laid out; of the device interfaces people use to access your content; and more.
6. Writing for the reader
Consumers in the digital era have come to view their time as a commodity for which you are competing with your content. In exchange for their attention, they want to receive real value, be it a compelling offer or some worthwhile information.
The consequence is that bad digital practices such as keyword stuffing for SEO and click-baiting headlines are rapidly going out of favour. (Even Facebook is looking at weeding click-bait headlines from your timeline).
Now, whether you’re writing for print, TV, or digital, your focus must always be on delighting and engaging the reader—not merely on gaming algorithms or generating clicks.
Lyndi Lawson-Smith is head of Red & Yellow Joburg
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