by Mary Jo Finchum/Tree Full of Owls

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
-Mark Twain

In the hopes of learning how to distinguish the right word from the almost right word, I recently attended a copywriter’s workshop. When I hear the word “copywriter,” I automatically think advertising, but actually the practice of copywriting is much more encompassing.

Technically, copywriting is the use of words and ideas to promote a person, business, opinion or idea. Copywriters write copy for a plethora of promotional situations. Over the course of my career I’ve written copy for newsletters, direct mail pieces, award submittals, photo captions, web pages, e-mail, press releases, white papers, brochures, postcards, sales letters and other marketing communications media.

The workshop covered the fundamentals. A good understanding of your audience, your purpose, and your message is the foundation for effective copywriting. As we began to dig deeper into these three areas, it made me realize that when I write promotional material I often have no clear idea of the target audience or the action I want the target audience to take in response to the message.

Know your target audience. Even the most compelling message won’t be effective if it doesn’t meet the needs of your target audience. A good understanding of your target audience will help you to create copy that resonates with them. Some firms spend considerable time and money researching their target audience. They know their age range, income, education, preferences and dislikes. Then they write their copy in a manner that specifically appeals to the target.

Even if you don’t have unlimited resources available for research, you can still learn about your target audience. Identify common characteristics that make them likely customers for your product/service. Find out as much as you can and get as specific as possible.

Your business may have multiple target audiences. As a multi-disciplinary engineering firm, Stanley Consultants’ clients include a wide array of federal, state and local governments and agencies, utilities, private industry and international clients. Their demographics vary greatly. Each has different wants and needs,

Define the purpose of the copy. The purpose of your copy should be to move your readers to take some type of action. What action do you want them to take once they’ve read what you’ve written? Is your goal to educate? Establish an image? Sell? Increase the frequency of use? If you know why you are writing and what you want your reader to do, you’ll be more likely to create compelling, action-inducing copy.

Decide how to convey your purpose with the appropriate tone. Formal or informal? Precise or general? Serious or lighthearted? Also consider how hard of a sell you want in your tone. Is it to a completely objective message with no sell at all, a hard sell with multiple repetition of points, or somewhere in between?

Establish the message. Whether the copy is for a brochure, web site or ad, it’s important to establish the message. Distinguish features from benefits by pretending to be the target audience and asking, “What’s in it for me?”

Sometimes marketers are guilty of promoting features rather than benefits. For example, the features of a new stretch of interstate may include multiple lanes, wide shoulders, and a smooth road surface. While these features are important to a transportation engineer, they mean little to Carl the Commuter, who drives the road to work each day. He wants to know how the new road benefits him. Benefits like reduced congestion and a faster commute, improved safety, and a quiet ride are what’s really important to Carl the Commuter.

The message should also convey a selling point that is the most persuasive in getting your target audience to act. This message may speak to the benefits. It may be what makes your product or service unique in the marketplace or be how it stands out among the competition. Once you establish the unique advantage of your product or service, use it to its fullest advantage in your copy.

To get your readers to believe what you’re saying, combine rational and emotional attractors. Rational attractors are what your product will deliver. Examples are safety, economy, performance and maintenance. Emotional attractors are how the product will make the buyer feel. These include rivalry, laughter, esteem, enlightening, human interest and others.

The copywriting workshop was time well spent. The material included many intriguing ideas to consider and implement. As I write this column I wonder if I am reaching my target audience, which in my mind is small business owners, but I know little of them beyond that. The purpose of my copy is to educate with an informal and sometimes colorful tone with the purpose of softly selling the information. I’m not sure if my past columns usually tout features or benefits. I’ll be considering these issues, and others, as I write future columns.

Mary Jo Finchum is the public relations administrator for Stanley Consultants.