Stuck on a copywriting project? It happens from time to time. Fortunately, you don’t need a miracle or even a flash of brilliance (and I encourage you not to waste your time waiting for either of them). Almost invariably, what you really need is a change of perspective, a fresh look at the subject at hand.
That’s what the following ten suggestions are all about. They’re fast and simple (except the last one, which is a lifetime commitment), and they all work because they help you move out of your rut and into a new groove.
1. Reviewing Customer Letters or Testimonials
What you think the value of a product is and what customers think that value is may be two very different things. Of course, their opinion is more important and may be available to you in the form of letters they sent on their own initiative or as testimonials your organization has actively solicited.
Either way, request these letters and testimonials and read carefully. Keep an eye open for the following:
- Alternative uses: You sold your product as car wax, but the customer loves the way it makes her lamp bases shine. These alternative uses (or recipes or suggested projects) may open your product to new markets or create new angles for your copy.
- Service kudos: If you hear a lot of applause for the quality of your service, consider emphasizing your organization’s personal touch, especially if it’s uncommon or unexpected in your industry.
- Real-life benefits: You knew that your scheduling software makes business easier, but thanks to your customer’s letter, you discovered three ways it saves time, too. Benefits are treasures; the ones customers identify are golden. Always get permission from customers before you use their testimonials in your copy.
2. Talking to Salespeople
When push comes to shove, rubber meets the road, or nose hits grindstone (pick your cliché), salespeople are the ones who close the sale and therefore have the hard-won insights on clinchers — the things that ultimately turn prospects into buyers.
Salespeople have a wealth of insight, yet so many marketers fail to ask them for it. Talk to them to discover the following:
- Key benefits and features: Obviously. But as your product may have many of these, the question here is this: Which are most important to customers? The salespeople should know.
- Path of least resistance: Of all the different roads that lead to a sale (ad to phone call to meeting to contract as one route, or mail invitation to seminar to personal sales call as another), which is most effective? Which is easiest and most convenient for the customer? Your copy should facilitate the path of least resistance.
- Unexpected hooks: Just as customer letters or testimonials can spring surprises, so too can salespeople by alerting you to unexpected connections between customers and features. SUVs, for example, were designed as macho vehicles for men who fantasized about adventure, but they found an unexpected audience among women who liked the extra traction of an all-wheel vehicle that wouldn’t leave them stranded and vulnerable. Bingo — a new direction for positioning, messages, and copy. Salespeople can point you there.
3. Running a Web Search
The Internet puts a vast library of information at your fingertips. Although I don’t recommend making life-or-death decisions based on what you find online (the Web has as much misinformation and disinformation as real information), it can be a wonderfully fast and cheap way to gather insights on your product category, competition, and prospects. Here are some things to look for:
- Competitive intelligence: Run a search for your product or service on any search engine and see what comes up. Who appears in the top ten listings? What appeals and offers are they making? How does your product compare in price, features, quality, and overall value? Most importantly, can you identify special claims about your product that aren’t being made by your competitors?
- Customer intelligence: For just about every interest you can think of, from lace doilies to cold fusion, some Web site forum is dedicated to true believers who swap tips, projects, and opinions. A quick query on any major search engine usually pulls up what you need. You don’t have to believe; you just have to show up and “lurk” (read comments without leaving any of your own). Within a matter of minutes, you’ll gather more than you ever thought possible about current trends, rumors, interests, brand favorites, and collective pet peeves. Lurk and learn.
4. Getting Support Beyond Your Desk
You don’t win extra points (or earn higher fees) for arriving at ideas all by yourself: Ask for input. Solicit ideas from colleagues, friends, and in-laws.
Given that most of them will not be privy to the project’s background requirements (brand, positioning, and so on), they may not deliver the Big Idea, but they almost invariably give you fresh perspectives that can jump-start your imagination.
Here are a couple of questions that can help you understand what prospects are thinking and how you can reach them with your copy:
- What do you think of when you think about this product? Let them free-associate — without your critical judgment — on your product, its name, or even its image in the marketplace. At the very least, you’ll get a set of new words or ideas you can play with, along with new insight on how the public at large may perceive your product.
- What do you expect from this product and the company that makes it? Similar to the preceding question but intended to dig a little deeper, this question helps you tap the emotions your prospects may bring to the sale. Listen carefully for unexpected feelings that may guide the way you think about your product.
5. Reading the Copywriting Classics
Just steps away from my desk (okay, okay, in a big messy pile on the floor), I keep a short stack of reference books on copywriting and marketing, such as Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples (Prentice Hall), Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy (Vintage Books), and Successful Direct Marketing Methods by Bob Stone (NTC Business Books).
When I’m at a loss, I pick one up and skim. Though I’ve read these books before (perhaps many times over), I’m often struck by something that I’d failed to remember earlier. These reminders — about perspective, value, word choice, and more — are frequently just what I need to reinvigorate my writing.
These books can work for you, too. Get them, read them, and then keep them by your side. You never know when they’ll come to your rescue.
6. Experiencing the Product or Service
Take it for a spin; play with it; wear it on your back. Sometimes the only way to appreciate the value of something is to experience it yourself. When you do, ask yourself a few questions that can lead to valuable copy angles:
- How is this useful? If the item is a means to an end, such as a tool or a service, think about what it did for you. Did it make your life easier? More convenient? Did it allow you to do things you couldn’t do before? Or in a better way?
- How did it appeal to your senses? For those things, like food or collectible plates, that are to be enjoyed in and of themselves, examine the sensual appeal: flavors, touch, look, craftsmanship, and so on. Can you play up these sensual appeals in your copy?
- How did it make you feel? When people buy products from Victoria’s Secret or Harley-Davidson, they buy more than underwear and noisy motorcycles; they buy a magic mirror that reflects what they want to see. Does the product make you feel sexy, powerful, or youthful? Look “under the hood” for the special identities your product might confer on a customer.
7. Pretending You’re the Prospect
Give yourself a few minutes to close your eyes and become your prospect. Of course, you want to dig into hopes and fears — the emotional core at the heart of the purchase. But to make your insights relevant to your particular copy project, remember these questions:
- How would I buy this? After you understand how a prospect may buy (whether it be an impulse purchase at a cash register or a decision discussed among close friends), you may be able to adjust your copy to address anxieties (guarantees, “millions sold” claims) and create a path of least resistance (buying or ordering options suitable for your customers).
- What might stop me from buying this? Try to anticipate all the obstacles to the sale: price, lack of familiarity, or fear of ridicule or failure. You may not be able to address all of them, but you can tackle the most important ones. If the issue is price, emphasize value; familiarity, use endorsements; fear, counter with facts and information.
8. Playing a Free-Association Game
Media personality Barbara Walters will always be remembered for two things: her lisp and her infamous question, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” The stuff of late-night-comedy cheap shots? Yes — but a clue for writers, too. When you’re stuck, play free-association games that help you gain deeper insights into your product’s character. You can begin by asking some questions:
- If your product were a car, what kind of car would it be? This is a question about category to help you understand your market position. Is your product a value option like a Hyundai, a luxury item like a BMW, or a novelty statement like a Mini Cooper? You may be able to exploit your product’s position — the place it occupies in your prospects’ minds — to give your copy focus and credibility.
- What can you compare owning this product to? Having a reliable friend? A helpful road map? A get-out-of-jail-free card? Thinking of this analogy helps you find the most attractive product benefit.
9. Immersing Yourself — Then Taking a Break
Go over all the input material you have. Reread the product descriptions, creative briefs (marketing input documents), customer endorsements, and whatever else you have. Then walk away. Don’t think about your product. Don’t mull over any ideas. Just get away from your desk, cubicle, or office, and get some fresh air. My preference is to simply walk. Others may choose to go for a drive or buy a cup of coffee. Do whatever floats your boat — as long as it puts time and distance between you and your project.
When you’ve felt some tension dissolve, return to the task. I don’t know why this advice works, but it does. Sometimes the ideas come flying fast and furiously. And even when they don’t, your little breather helps you continue your search for ideas in a more relaxed (and usually more productive) way.
10. Opening Your Mind
Finally, a parting thought for lasting inspiration: Indulge your appetite for art, literature, music, and any other form of culture that excites you. No, reading Tolstoy or listening to Charlie Parker doesn’t instantly transform your writing.
But over time, the good stuff you digest subtly reasserts itself when you need it most. It prompts the apt metaphor that suddenly pops into your head, or it beats the steady rhythm that carries readers from the beginning of your copy to its end. With a nod to Lewis Carroll’s dormouse and Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick: Feed your head.