Copywriting, the Internet and Infotainment

2013-07-18 14:33

Take a long, hard look at your company’s copywriting - is it simple enough for anyone to understand and is it entertaining enough to keep you reading all the way through?

We live in a digital world driven by content. Everywhere you go, from Facebook to Cracked, News24 to bizcommunity, the written word has become our entertainment – and our means of gathering information.

Whether we’re researching purchases on the Internet before we even decide which shopping mall we’re going to go to, to the many boards of motivational quotes posted on Pinterest, the very nature of the Internet demands written content, as more and more of us log and demand our daily doses of infotainment.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

From the marketing guidelines set out by the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) to the New Engineering Contract (NEC), business around the world is adopting a de facto policy of using plain, simple English that anyone can understand.

This decision makes a lot of sense, especially in the South African context where the majority of people speak English as their second language.

I don’t know if you remember back to your school days, studying Afrikaans or French or Zulu? Even if you achieved a level of fluency in that language, your vocabulary and application of that language was limited, nowhere near the effortless ease with which you used your mother tongue. Well that’s what it’s like for the majority of South Africans.

Even scarier than that, I once heard a stat that says the average person has a vocabulary of about 800-900 words; a well-spoken person has a vocabulary of around 2,500-3,000 words. Pretty scary when you consider that English has a vocabulary in excess of 42,000 words – and new words are officially added every day.

One of the ways you can test this for yourself is to buy a couple of books: choose something written recently and then go trawl through Amazon for a secondhand book written in the early 70s.

When I did this experiment myself, I was surprised to find that a book I thought would take around 4 hours to go through actually took 2 weeks of dedicated reading to complete.

This comes back to the vocabulary thing – most modern books are written using a limited range of around 800-900 words, making them easier to get through – and forcing you to buy more often.

Brevity is key

Even though I relished every minute of that information-packed two-week read, I have nowhere near the same amount of patience with digital media today.

From five-minute news broadcasts to posts on your Facebook wall – we live in a world of sound bytes. Everything is taken in at a quick glance, and before you know it you’ve flitted off to the next thing.

It’s possibly a sign of our times; I mean when last did you actually hear someone say they weren’t rushed off their feet, or they had more than enough time to get to everything they need to do?

So isn’t it absolutely frustrating when you’re watching a video clip to understand something (because no one bothered to do a written version that you could skim through until you got to the bullet points), and the first ten minutes of the video are a boring waste of time that just irritates and irks you, before it finally gets to the point you were trying to get to all along? To be honest, in that situation, I usually don’t even get to the end of the video or the piece.

During that long and arduous ten minutes, I’ve skipped part of the video, paused it three times to answer my phone or respond to an urgent email, and the entire thread of the theme is gone.

When you’re copywriting for web, you have to throw all the old rules out the window.

Gone are the days of long introductions, bodies and closings: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you’re telling them, and tell them what you’ve told them.

The formula for web now is: tell them what you’re telling them in the very first sentence, and then reiterate and reinforce the benefits in case the reader wants more information.

Basically, with web, everything should be reduced to a one-sentence elevator speech.

Seeing is believing

Finally, you need to state the obvious.

When you’re in an industry, the jargon and terminology you use become second nature to you – in fact, when you study any degree, all you’re effectively learning is a series of complicated definitions that allow you to speak on the same level as others in your field. This eliminates the need to have to explain simple concepts every time you present a thought or idea; the shared understanding gives you base from which to explore more complicated ideas.

Too often though, people assume that those reading their collateral have the same understanding of basic concepts that they do, so we land up using terms like dividends instead explaining a cash value that gets paid back.

Even more often, the terminology gets so vague that the average reader completely misses the point you are trying to make. So for example, if you pay out a cash value to your clients for a loyalty reward, then you need to state exactly that, telling them when and how it gets paid out.

If you force people to interpret your message, chances are good they’ll come back with the wrong interpretation. Think of it as an expensive game of broken telephone.

Likewise, people will believe what they see in front of them.

So, if your group or community has a set of rules or guidelines for entry, and you only publish those, without stating the available exceptions, chances are you’ll chase away droves of people who could actually qualify to belong to what you are offering, simply because your information presentation makes them believe that they do not qualify to participate.

If digital marketing has taught me anything over the last decade, it’s that you really never have any idea who your target market is.

You can try and refine it, or get focused on a specific job title or age group where you believe the majority of interest lies, but when you’re on the receiving end of the email replies and Facebook messages, you’re going to see that replies very often come from people you would never have expected.

The world is changing every day, and the intense penetration of things like social media has pulled even the most backward, traditional and conservative of populations kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, largely because young people are not prepared to be left behind – or even take the risk of possibly missing out.

Our values, hopes and desires have changed, and the wide range of access to information has opened up our awareness to products, services and ideas that would never have been considered before, igniting unusual desires and goals in people you would never have considered as being your target.

Effectively this means that your target market could be anyone, anywhere in the world – and the pervasiveness of digital media means that your message can reach even the remotest of corners.

So when it does, is your message going to ignite excitement – or simply fly over the head of your future biggest raving fan?

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