What is commercial copywriting?

fountain pen with ink bottleThis is a question I get asked a lot when I’m out networking and the simple answer is ‘writing to persuade people to take action’.  However, there is a bit more to it than that.

  • Accurate English – grammar, spelling and punctuation – is essential, but isn’t enough on its own.
  • A journalism qualification or experience adds plenty of useful skills that can be transferred, but doesn’t cover everything.
  • An understanding of marketing is critical, but won’t make a copywriter in isolation.
  • A knowledge of business across a range of industries is important, particularly for a writer who plans to freelance or work for an agency.
  • First class communication skills – spoken as well as written – are invaluable.
  • Sales skills and the understanding of how a sale is constructed are also essential.

So a good copywriter can write excellent English, to engage the audience, that has been researched and understood; he/she knows how to present a business effectively and can ask the right questions to establish the key benefits of any business then present them in writing in a way that creates ‘want’ in the reader.

There are are many copywriters who can tick some of the boxes, but few who really manage to tick every one of these.

Commercial copy has to connect powerfully with the reader to get them to take action; articles in newspapers and magazines are usually to inform or to entertain.  Of course, some of them engage the reader emotionally too, but they’re not usually selling anything in particular.  In fact, most publications, defend their right to be impartial and write the facts as they see them.

Writing commercial copy is all about creating an image that the reader can relate to – that’s why a really good copywriter uses ‘you’ much, much more than ‘we’.  The aim is to get the reader to imagine themselves in the situation where they have the product or are experiencing the service that they’re reading about.

Of course, we are all potential customers and we’re not idiots.  We know that a commercial website or marketing flyer is going to try and present their products or services in a way that attracts us, but, if we’re already visiting that website or looking at that brochure or picking up that flyer that means we have an interest.  Now it’s just a matter of saying the things that get us to say ‘I want this – now; and I want THIS one!’

That’s no easy task, but that’s what a commercial copywriter sets out to do.

Anyone can write, but not everyone can do that.

What to write and when to stop

What's in it for meThere are some really good copywriters out there – and some writers who think that being able to write good English is all you need to get paid as a commercial copywriter.  I’ve read some absolutely fantastic, compelling and interesting copy on commercial websites – and some copy that doesn’t help the site owner in any way at all.

If you’re writing commercially it’s all about purpose.  What do you want people to do when they’ve read what you have to say?

Then you have to take into account that people are busy, impatient and lazy.  Yes, that applies to you and me too.  We want to find what will benefit us quickly and without too much effort, so if you’re looking at a website, a flyer or a brochure you need to get the message quickly and without having to work too hard.  Online this means that people won’t read much, they just scan over what’s there looking for key words.

The universal keyword is YOU!

To be honest, most of us are not very interested in what a potential supplier does, no matter how good they claim to be.  What we want to know is ‘what do I get?’  As soon as you write about your reader they are much more engaged.

In order to do this you really need to know what your reader wants, what their problems are, what is irritating them, what they dream of and what will get them to pick up the phone.  No easy task, but nobody said that copywriting was easy – although some people seem to think it is.

How many words is the right amount of copy?

This is a ‘how long is a piece of string?’ question; there is no single right answer.  On a marketing flyer, fewer words with a powerful headline on the front is essential and there needs to be plenty of white space to encourage people to engage – solid text puts people off.  On a website it varies.

  • A long sales page can have up to 1500 words – but it’s written to a very specific formula and only works for certain types of product.  It’s predominantly focused on business to consumer, rather than business to business.
  • A brochure-style website really only needs enough content to persuade people to want to know more and get in touch – that can be anything from 150-250 words, any longer and your reader will start disengaging.
  • An online store will need a short description of each product and, ideally, a longer benefits-based narrative – but not too long.

Search engine optimisation specialists may ask you to deliver much more copy.  However, search engines are more sophisticated and don’t need those longer landing pages of 400-600 words they used to.  As long as each page is focused on a single product or service and the content is around that, you shouldn’t need to worry.

When to stop

Say what you have to say and then shut up!  A good rule of thumb to follow.  Ensure everything you have to say is about how your reader will benefit in some way and then ask them to take action.  This may be to visit another page on your website, to ring you, to read your blog, to sign up to your list or something else.

Make the call to action clear and easy to follow and then don’t add any more copy.  The fewer distractions the more likely they will be to take action.

If you follow these tips you’ll find your commercial copy will improve out of all recognition.


Put two writers together …

Same luxury less lorriesI have a number of writing friends – other copywriters, advertising copywriters, book editors, journalists – and, when we get together, the conversation almost always visits the incorrect use of some word or another.  Maybe we are pedantic, perhaps boring (to others, but never to each other) – and I know English is a challenging language with so many inconsistent spellings, sounds and irregular verbs – but sometimes we just can’t see why people get even the simplest things wrong.

I met a new writer last week and she has an additional challenge to get over; English is not her first language – but she writes it exceptionally well (better than many native speakers).  Of course, we got onto the inaccuracies of other people’s writing.  She exclaimed “‘I hope your well’!”

“Oh yes” I agreed, “I hate that – and when I get emails that start with that I always want to reply ‘You hope my well is what?’” That started a what-people-get-wrong fest.

Advice – or advise?  At least they do actually sound different, but what about practice and practise, or licence and license?  One is a noun, the other a verb (unless you’re American, in which case you just use the ‘c’ version for everything).

Complimentary or complementary?

Lose or loose?  This is so common and they are two completely different words.

Then we got into they’re, there, their and more.

We had a lovely time pinging the errors of English to and fro.  Then I left to pick up some groceries and discovered on the shelves of Tesco a pack of magnolia loo rolls that had the slogan:

Same luxury

Less lorries

Noooo!  Not ‘less lorries’; it should be ‘fewer lorries’.  When numbers are involved, it’s fewer.  Fewer people, less ice cream; fewer books, less work.  Get it?

Why am I so fussy about this?  I’m not alone in my fussiness, there are plenty of people out there who like English to be used with flair and care, not trampled upon indiscriminately.  They could be that dream client you have been hoping to attract, but if they read inaccurate English on your website or marketing materials – or even in the email you sent to them – what do they think of you?  Attention to detail?   Hmmmm.  Basic knowledge of English not great; what does that say about your overall expertise?

I know that this is not necessarily the case, but people make judgments – sometimes without realising it – and it can be a long uphill struggle to regain ground you’ve lost – if you get the chance at all.  Brush up your English grammar, spelling and punctuation – or get an expert on board to help.

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