Nick Usborne’s Rejoinder to Anti-Copywriting Prospects. . .

In a recent AWAI webinar, Montreal copywriting great, Nick Usborne, reminded listeners that online, with social media and in other arenas of “marcom” activity, often the more things change, the more they stay the same (“la plus ca change . . . ”–apt, given his geographical location in Quebec ☺ ). He commented that the latest development in “content marketing” in 2014 is nothing new, when marketers in the 1990s often proclaimed that “Content is King.” It’s the practice of writing online copy that should matter, Nick says, not the apparently revolutionary fad of the moment. “Copywriters today need to be sensitive to the voice and tone that they use to persuade prospects,” he says. Writing remains the bottom line.

In his classic study, Net Words: Creating High Impact Online Copy (McGraw Hill, 2002), Nick writes that “the Internet is not a marketing channel or an advertising medium in any traditional sense. [And] the audience you are writing to is [now] composed of active participants and co-owners of the same environment through which you are trying to market your goods and services” (2). Before the web, communication was a “one-way street” from one’s community or the media (e.g. TV, newspapers, radio, direct mail, etc.) by which companies persuaded consumers with repeated messages that told us what to buy. Since the development of the internet, the consumer “has become a participant in the creation and dissemination of advertising messages. And . . . most connected consumers will find the opinions of their online peers more trustworthy than the promises of the manufacturers” (6).

The copy must connect to the culture in which the consumer operates: copy needs to be rewritten with the correct tone for each new context and the consumer has “more control and power online” (11). But he (and most online marketers) are hasty to add that online marketers, such as copywriters, do have something to offer that is “of real value” (11),  so that “if you approach and address your audience with respect for their time and attention, they’ll likely welcome your messages” (11). Being personal, specific, keeping the message simple (without unnecessary acronyms or highbrow language) are all ingredients for earning your prospect’s attention and interest.

Thinking about Nick’s foundational arguments in Net Words, I also found some hearty bolstering recently against the occasional cynicism of some of the prospects whom I call. A few weeks ago, I encountered a marcom executive who evidently didn’t view cold-calling, even when centred on a message about the service of copywriting, as a respectable and accepted method of prospecting. More seriously yet, she said she had no time or use for freelance online (and B2B) copywriters. She had “in-house web design and programmers,” who could handle the writing themselves.

Although it’s more rare to find such disregard for copywriting in 2014, there are still marcom or web-based professionals who view online writing of marketing and communications materials to be evil or degenerate. And here I’m not even referring to the hype that often characterizes direct mail, but to content-rich, relationship-centred, B2B writing. Copywriting that is as much or more about informing the prospect by content as it is involved in (subsequently) selling a service or product.

Since the late 1990s, Nick Usborne has been saying that copywriting is a valuable part of the web-development process, but that historically the power of words was not one of the “fundamental pillars” used to build and hold up commercial websites “in the way that design, usability and information architecture were,” from the beginning days of internet development (22). Nick observes that as the internet took off, copywriters weren’t prepared and tended to treat the 10 percent of their word processing software as “just a fancy replacement for a typewriter that allows you to correct . . . mistakes without . . .correction fluid” (25). So we weren’t present, when programmers and designers were congregating to take on a whole new way of writing.

I recognize that these specialists have sometimes been burned by fly-by-night writers who see online marketing as just another advertising medium. Like any other, the profession of copywriting has some bad apples, who can’t be bothered to study and craft online copy well. But in 2014, when marcom executives (and not only their telephone gatekeepers) view brief, content-centred calls from freelancers like me with open disrespect (that they imply is due to the nature of what I do and not to the terrible day that they’re having), one should think of the profession’s history and how, once again, such a reaction is not new, but repeats the past:

Nick writes:

It’s unfortunate that content managers, designers, and usability engineers appear to have arrived at their low opinion of copywriters by looking at the work of bad copywriters. There is a view that copywriters are all at the same level as the crass, rude salesperson at your local car dealership. Or that being a copywriter is somehow synonymous with the worst junk mail or those irritating phone calls from telemarketers. Good copywriters hate bad copy as much as anyone else including those same content managers, designers and engineers” (27).

Nick published these lines in 2002, when he said that countering such disrespect will “take some time.” Twelve years later, more credence is usually given to copywriters. But I occasionally find a marcom executive who still assumes that copywriters are “used car salesmen” (disclaimer: I intend to express no disrespect intended towards such actual sales personnel).

When clients allow copywriters to do great work, many of us will. Give us no respect and authority by which to contribute and we’ll all be miserable, as will be the fate of our clients’ online efforts.  Are you a marcom or creative exec? Do Nick Usborne’s arguments here earn more respect for online copywriters like him and me?

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