Copywriters in web agencies need to get their act together

August 2011

When I started my business nearly 10 years ago copywriting wasn’t part of the deal. In fact I’d barely given it a thought, even though I knew I was none-too-bad at the written word. However, what was certainly part of my offer was brand strategy and a specific output of that is tone of voice – the language of the brand.

Back then tone of voice was an area of branding which particularly interested me (and still does today), with this interest originally sparked by working with Interbrand when I headed up the brand review for Argos in the late 90s. Working with Interbrand, and them being a global giant of branding, was something I saw as a privilege and indeed was the very start of my passion for all things brand.

So early brand strategy projects I took on in the first few years of my business venture saw tone of voice figuring high as a component part of the brand’s identity. I set guidelines for copywriters to follow and provided them with a chunk of the strategy which sat behind the guidelines to aid understanding. Did that work? Not really: most copywriters I encountered seemed to have a one-size-fits-all style and struggled to even grasp the concept that a brand could have its own unique way of speaking to the world, and one, crucially, that should be treated as sacred in the same way the logo was. So I largely gave up and started writing the copy myself.

But writing successful copy, as I have, for clients whose product is as diverse as automated industrial sliding entrance gates, imported Indian sandstone, luxury holiday properties, roast and ground coffee, B2B incentive and reward vouchers, also requires other things to be firstly understood, which include accurate product and market information, plus where the brand sits in its market (e.g. lower or top end). Then on top of that, there’s the media it will be used in, which, since the ever-growing importance of digital and specifically search within this, gives us a whole new set of rules entirely (e.g. key word density).

So for me, what started off as a relatively small part of my business and one I fell somewhat accidently into, has actually become quite a big part of it. However, to maximise the success of what I do with web copy I always go to digital experts to partner me. Why? Because, for one, they keep up with the micro-detail around Google’s ever-developing algorithm and I don’t.

What about, though, those digital experts in web agencies doing the whole job – surely they have copywriters? Well many do, and indeed many do a fine job. However, there are also many who don’t do a fine job because a) they make their only research focus SEO, and b) like the copywriters I encountered 10 years ago, write in a one-size-fits-all style. Which, from my recent experience, is increasingly around a sort of ‘social media crazed happy, jokey world’ and written by a graduate who’s probably dead techy but spent too much time in the student’s bar to fully grasp the depths of the English language.

So please, to all the copywriters in web agencies wanting to do their best for clients, do two things before you write a word of copy (and having done your key phrase research and analysis first of course):

Research your client, their business, their product, their customers, the market they operate in and, importantly, where they sit in that market.

Ask the client for information on their brand – e.g. what the strategy is, what the tone of voice guidelines are. And, if there aren’t any guidelines, suggest to them that some basic rules are agreed up front (perhaps you could even help them with that task…).

And if you don’t and you’re working for one of my clients, expect a visit from me with a grumpy hat on.

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