Why you should always put your audience first
By Matt Press
It was the afternoon of Monday 4 June, 2001.
It was my first day as a junior copywriter at Sky, the huge satellite TV company based in the UK.
I was asked to write an EPG for a movie. In case you don't know, EPG is TV-speak for 'electronic programme guide'. It's basically the little synopsis that shows up when you press the 'i' button on your remote control:
We're only talking about 190 characters, but these EPGs are very important, especially where movies are concerned. They're often the difference between someone tuning into something or not.
As this was my first effort, I used all the flowery language I could muster. I wanted to make a big impression.
I beavered away for an hour and emailed the copy over to my sub-editor. I peeked over my monitor to try and gauge his reaction. Did he smirk or was that my imagination?
I wasn't sure, but he passed the copy nonetheless.Anyway, a few days passed and it soon transpired that Sky is able to track viewing figures and measure how effective our EPGs are.
And yup, you guessed it...
... my effort had totally tanked.
Luckily, I had only been given a somewhat trashy straight-to-TV thriller to write about [with hindsight, this was surely intentional].
Soon after, I was handed some really important advice from a seasoned writer:
"Summarising and selling a 2-hour film in 190 characters is really tough, so don't overthink things. Forget about impressing people. Just always focus on the viewer and find the hook," he said.
It was an embarrassing start to my copywriting career.
I felt completely out of my depth. The confidence I had previously felt in my writing ability fell out of me quicker than a dodgy chicken tikka masala.
In seconds, the English degree that I spent so long studying for seemed completely worthless.
And, to be honest, it was.
The problem was very apparent. At university, my words weren’t accountable for anything. With EPGs, I had to deliver a tangible result in roughly 1.5 sentences.
I'll always remember that first day at Sky. It forced me to completely change the way I thought about writing and to reflect on what a copywriter is meant to do.
I didn't know it at the time, but focusing on my audience would become my mantra for every kind of writing job.
You see, good copywriters put their egos to one side. They always start with their target audience and work backwards. Always.
My academic studies had distorted my perspective on what effective writing really was. I had been inadvertently trained to write whatever I wanted. In addition to that, I was still following archaic, arbitrary writing rules. Rules that aren't effective in business copy.
You can't start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'?
You must avoid contractions?
You can't use slang, double negatives or split infinitives? Or end a point with a proposition?
Hmm, try telling that to Apple.
I assumed that my academic studies had given me the experience I needed, but I was wrong. When it comes to copywriting, your opinion doesn’t matter and nor do the clichéd boundaries… the reader should be the only thing that you care about.
Guidelines and checkpoints can be useful, but there are no rules with copywriting... except that the reader is your priority.
But look, ignoring your audience an easy trap to fall into.
Even big brands make the same mistake.
Remember Hewlett Packard's Touchpad from 2011? Me neither. But this was the gadget that was supposed to rival Apple's iPad.
Despite powerful video capability and fast processing speeds, the Touchpad was a complete and utter failure:
The fatal error that Hewlett Packard made was not giving its target audience enough attention.
It was only armed with a handful of assumptions and a bunch of fairly uninspiring features, which meant that it totally failed to communicate the value of this product in an inspiring and relevant way.
This was professional naivety at its worst. Even a heavy PR budget and sustained press coverage couldn't save the day.
Compare this approach to how Apple conducts business. Apple always seems to put its target audience front and center.
Whilst Apple continued to do its thing in the background, HP discontinued the Touchpad almost immediately after launch, forcing it to write off $885 million in assets. It even incurred an additional $775 million in costs when faced with winding down its webOS operations.
In total then, we’re talking about a strategic mistake worth approximately $1.6 billion.
How different would things have been if HP had done a deep dive into the market and created emotionally-driven ad campaigns that struck a real chord with its ideal customer [like Apple does with every product it launches].
Failure, it seems, happens to the best of us.
But look, things are different for you.
You’re now one step ahead of the rest.
You know that being able to listen and look outwards is way more important than whatever lurks on your resume.
Having this awareness is all you need to get started. And so, since you now know that absolutely anyone can become a copywriter, it’s time to talk about money.
Can you earn much as a copywriter?
The average wage for an in-house copywriter is fairly modest, whilst most freelancers are completely broke...
... yet this makes absolutely no sense.
Copywriting is crucial in business. Words are often the difference between a business flourishing or failing.
Legendary wordsmith Ray Edwards even describes copywriting as "the world's most valuable skill", so what gives?
Well, the truth is that you can earn lots of money as a copywriter. The trick is to position yourself carefully.