Writing believable marketing copy

Have you ever stopped to question what makes for believable marketing copy? Are you conscious that, as a writer, you use particular strategies to make your copy believable? And, as a reader, do you notice that some organisations produce more believable copy that others? It’s one thing to spin a great sales pitch about your product or service; it’s quite another thing to write copy that is believable to your customer base.

As a writer, I’m often conscious about the believability of my copy. I try to write in a way that is concrete and specific. I try to include detail that explains the product or service. I try to avoid broad generalisations and selling messages.

But I’ve recently realised that, as a reader, I’m a marketing sceptic. I simply don’t believe most information that organisations write about their products and services. My reading of marketing text is coloured by my understanding of the writer’s intent: I know that they want to portray the product or service in the best light possible, and they want to persuade me to buy. Because of this, I rarely give much attention to marketing copy, and I rarely believe what I read until it’s endorsed by either my experience or a recommendation.

My family and I recently went on holiday to Western Queensland. It was a big trip for us, and we spent some time trying to plan our route and activities. I used websites and brochures to learn about what was on offer. Most of my information came from materials produced by regional tourism authorities or by the various attractions we hoped to visit. (I usually avoid customer rating and feedback sites – I don’t think they’re particularly reliable, and I can’t be bothered wading through the excessive content.)

I’m a typical busy reader: I scan information rapidly, rarely read all of the text, and quickly give up if I can’t find what I’m looking for. As I was reading the marketing materials about our trip, I noticed that it was difficult to get a clear picture of each visitor attraction or understand how worthwhile a visit might be. I also noticed something that influenced my conclusions: the more glowing and sales-like the marketing copy, the more I expected the attraction to be a waste of time.

The marketing techniques most likely to discourage me from visiting included:

  • Websites with wonderful design but poorly written copy
  • Websites without any dating information (making it impossible to tell whether the material was out of date)
  • Few or no photographs showing the attraction
  • Broad, descriptive words and any hint of hard-sell – words like ‘first’, ‘biggest’, ‘newest’, ‘exciting’, ‘mind-blowing’, ‘premier’, and ‘innovative’ were particular problems for me
  • Broad description not supported by examples or concrete evidence
  • No information about opening hours and entry fees.

Marketing students are usually taught to write about benefits not features – to focus on what their product or service will do for a customer, rather than simply explain what the product or service includes. I’m not completely sure that this is good advice. In my holiday research, I definitely wanted to know about features. I wanted some information about the attraction’s theme and content, what we would do while we were there, how much time to allocate for a visit, and whether they’d have anything to keep the children busy. The benefits for me (entertainment and learning) would naturally follow if the features were up to scratch.

A big problem for copy writers is that readers usually skim quickly over material. Writers need to find a way to anticipate readers’ questions and then answer those questions quickly – before readers lose interest. I don’t think there’s a reliable way to stop readers from quickly skimming through your carefully crafted copy. But here are a few suggestions that may help:

  • Consider explaining features before you explain benefits. Let your readers understand what you have on offer first, and then explain how it will benefit them. If this goes against your standard approach for writing marketing copy, try writing with features first and testing it with potential readers
  • Make extensive use of clear, content-based headings; use these headings to summarise your key content
  • Include photographs wherever possible (and on a website, make sure that the photographs are stationary, so that readers have a chance to look at the image and read your copy without the constant distraction of movement)
  • Include as much concrete detail as possible about your product or service and support that detail with images
  • Include clear information about the questions your customers will need to have answered. For tourist attractions, this includes opening hours, costs, and exact location. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it!
  • Minimise general copy that describes your product in glowing terms
  • On a website, make sure that the home page is an introduction to your product or service for new readers, not a news page. People who are interested in your news (and who therefore know about your site) will find the relevant material; new visitors may never find your introductory text if it’s not on the home page
  • Where relevant, try to be included in marketing materials produced by an independent third party. For example, we used the copy written by regional tourist authorities as our most reliable source of information, and used the attractions’ websites and brochures as back-up
  • Think carefully before including general testimonials that describe your product or service in glowing terms; they’re rarely believable
  • Write from the assumption that your readers will not believe you. And assume that the harder you try to be believable, the less believable you will be.

I went on holidays expecting to be disappointed by tin-pot attractions that didn’t live up to the promises of their websites. I’m pleased to report that I was almost universally wrong. With only two exceptions, the attractions that we visited exceeded my expectations. Maybe I need to learn to be less of a marketing sceptic.