Serving selfish readers: insights from Copywriting Masterclass

I really enjoy being a content writer. I couldn't imagine doing anything else. But let's face it: when you're bogged down in projects and client demands are taxing your creativity, you can temporarily lose sight of your love of language.

Sometimes, it's nice to be reminded of the importance and power of words.

I recently returned from a Copywriting Masterclass run by Richard Spencer from A Thousand Monkeys, which provided plenty of on-point insights, advice and examples that have got me thinking and questioning. Here are just a few of the topics we covered.

What's in a name? Plenty, actually

Pilchards (stay with me on this one).

There was a time when they played an integral role in Cornish industry, providing thousands of jobs. But by the late 90's, the price of pilchards had plummeted to 1.5 pence a kilo, and only six tons a year were being hauled in.

But, as of 2003, they've shot up to £1 a kilo, and the fishing community is thriving again. Why? Because they changed the name to 'Cornish Sardines'. That simple.

Volunteers at London 2012 weren't simply called 'volunteers'; they were called 'Games Makers' (though whether the decision to name the 2014 Commonwealth Games volunteers 'Clyde-siders' was such a wise move is up for debate...).

The point Richard was trying to make was: change the name and you can vastly change perceptions.

While we don't often get the opportunity to advice clients on their actual brand title here at Code, these examples served to remind me that the decisions you make around word use -- whether it's a strapline of a blog header -- can have wide-reaching consequences.

Readers are selfish (but writers can't be)

Modern consumers are inundated with hundreds of thousands of marketing messages every day, particularly online. This naturally means that creatives need to work harder to get and then hold their attention.

Content writers can't be precious about five-syllable words and 50-word-long sentences when writing for a digital audience. There's no room for waffle; you need to express yourself quickly, effectively and, hopefully, memorably. This means going especially easy on the adjectives, and avoiding clichés at all costs; terms like 'committed' and world-class' are bandied about so much that they've lost their impact.

So it is that we face the intimidating but tempting challenge of finding new and better ways to say what's been said a million times before, while also submitting to the fact that those selfish readers aren't prepared to hang around.

Tone of voice guidelines = vital

As a content writer, it's sometimes frustrating to flick through a set of brand guidelines -- past all the pages and pages of info on colour use and fonts -- to find a measly, vaguely written half page on tone of voice (an opinion shared by The Drum columnist Andrew Boulton). Or, even worse, sometimes there's nothing at all to go off. For once, I'm actually jealous of designers; they have a solid foundation to build their work on, and all I've got is a pile of bricks.

Establishing an effective and relevant tone of voice is even more important now that brands are communicating across more channels than ever before. It's often the case that the person writing your website blog isn't the same person who's moderating your Facebook page; let them loose without thorough guidance and the result will most likely be mess of inconsistency that could confuse and alienate your audience. I've already worked with a couple of clients to pull together some detailed tone of voice guidelines, and, I have to say, it's made a noticeable difference to the quality and effectiveness of their communications.

Richard cited a couple of brilliant examples where tone plays a vital role: two brands selling soap to very different audiences in very different ways. Dove's 'Real Beauty' campaign and its supporting and inclusive message is something we're probably all familiar with by now, but ever heard of super-manly American brand Duke Cannon? The language use and style they adopt is just (if not more) distinctive; the 'no nonsense' message that pervades both their website and social media pages gives a sense of strong brand identity and clearly and directly appeals to their target audience.

OK, not every brand is going to want to break the mould when it comes to how they talk. But it doesn't have to be about revolution or reinvention -- just clear definition.

Oculus Rift