Lateral thinking, sensory perception and the power of recommendations

Dream holidays and dream clients, and how to find both.

Lateral thinking, sensory perception and the power of recommendations | marketing  | copywriter

Let me take you on a little journey.

You wake up in the morning in a soft bed with fluffy sheets. It’s quiet and peaceful, with just the sound of the birds singing in the distance. You roll up the blinds (on the outside of the windows, on tracks) and the sunlight floods in.

You then head upstairs – for the bedroom is downstairs, as it doesn’t need the view as badly – to the lounge, with its shiny parquet floor. From there, you head to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of rich, heady coffee. You then take it, and yourself, to the balcony, where you sit and contemplate nature.

Spread out before you is a rolling lawn lovingly tended, with shrubs strategically placed here and there. At the end of the lawn, somebody has already climbed to the top of the boathouse, where they’re sharing the view you’re just easing yourself into.

And what a view. A lake as still as a mirror, occasionally rippled by a passing boats, sculled by oarsmen in perfect unison. They glide by, and calm returns.

You savour the coffee and the view, and life feels good.

And yet, all of this is just 30 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Berlin city centre. Through the distant trees, you can see the occasional red blur of an S-Bahn train heading city-wards, with a reassuring clackety-clack.

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Almost too good to be true. And yet it is true – I know, because I stayed there in April, and I’d recommend the holiday apartment without a moment’s hesitation.

And now you’re tempted, aren’t you?

Of course you are. We all want to find that secret hideaway, especially in a vibrant city. The perfect marriage of urban and rural, an oasis of calm that’s still within reach of one of the great capitals of Europe.

You see how powerful a recommendation is? And when the description is laden with lots of sensory input (fluffy sheets, rich coffee, rattling trains) it feels even more real, and you begin to imagine yourself living it.

You too can experience this peaceful idyll first-hand. But there’s just one hitch – and that’s where the inspired idea comes in.

Low-hanging fruit

Let’s say you owned the holiday home. Let’s say that in the beginning you really enjoyed it, but now work commitments mean you’ve got less time to spend there.

So you rent the place out, and it’s a nice little earner. As long as you go through a reputable rental site, get a decent security deposit, and spell out the terms and conditions (in a warm, fuzzy way) things go swimmingly.

And one day, you realise you’re not spending enough time there to justify keeping it on. So you decide to sell it, and list the property with an estate agent.

Do you stop there? Of course you don’t – because you have the ultimate list of qualified prospects.

We all know the power of the try-before-you-buy experience. From tonking with iPads in the Apple store to taking a shiny new hatchback for a spin round the block, we realise just how powerful it is to touch it, feel it, taste it, hear it and see it up close.

And the qualified list is, of course, the people you’ve rented the apartment out to. They’ve all woken up in the bed, brewed the coffee, sat on the terrace and watched the scullers. They’ve enjoyed the rus in urbe (country in the city, a Latin expression that I’ve been wanting to slip into a blog post for years now) of the apartment that has it all.

So unlike potential purchasers, who look at the estate agent’s details and take a quick tour around the property, they’ve actually experienced what it’s like to live there.

It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? And that’s exactly what the owner thought, when he emailed me last week, along with everybody else who’d stayed there (BCC’d, of course).

Now here’s the clever bit, to add to the lateral thinking: instead of doing a crude sales pitch (You liked it so much, why don’t you buy it?) he simply wrote to say that after eight wonderful years, it was time to move on. He thanked everybody who’d stayed there, and let them know that the apartment would no longer be listed on the holiday site.

And that was that. Except, of course, for the attached PDF, with all the details of the property, together with lots of lovely photos and the price.

I was so tempted. But then I remembered that (a) 2014 is the year of downsizing and (b) I don’t speak German, though I’d like to and (c) I don’t want a mortgage and (d) I don’t have that sort of cash (€385,000) lying around.

But maybe you do. In which case, be my guest.

Home sweet home

So there you have it. One story, three lessons.

Recommendations are powerful, and sell better than any salesperson. All it takes is some satisfied clients, and a little encouragement.

Language is even more powerful, especially when used to create a multi-sensory perception that conjures up the feeling (or in marketing speak, the benefits) of a decision well made.

And the next sale is often much closer than you think. In fact, you already know where to find it. You just have to shake the trees a little, and it’ll fall into your lap.

So what are you waiting for? Get shaking, and be sure to ask for referrals. Use language cleverly, and always think laterally.

And start dreaming of Berlin and that piping-hot coffee.

How to write copy that goes viral

Art or science? Or just a lucky accident?

How to write copy that goes viral  | marketing ideas copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Idea at]

I was recently chatting with a fellow writer who told me a client of his had asked for something that was going to ‘spread like wildfire and light up the world’.

In other words, to go viral.

But the problem is that things that go viral generally tend to do so of their own accord. If there was a sure-fire formula, we’d know about it by now. But there isn’t.

Funny videos flop. Clever ideas disappear without a trace, and killer copy falls flat. Sometimes.

And sometimes, they don’t. But that’s just the point: viral copy doesn’t do command performances, and takes most people by surprise. Including the people who wrote it.

So what are you to do? Leave it to chance? Well yes, ultimately it’s all down to a roll of the digital dice, but you can increase the odds by focusing on the basics:

  • Add value. It’s a trite phrase that everybody uses, but what it really means is be useful. Don’t just write for the sake of writing. Put something out there that makes a difference and gets people excited.
  • Strike a chord. Things go viral when they chime with what people are thinking. So stay in touch with what’s happening in your market. Find out what’s important to your target audience: the problems they have, the solutions they’re looking for, the tips and tricks they need, the niggles they need un-niggled.
  • Say something that’s useful and that people will want to pass on. Everybody likes to be the bringer of good news, the sharer of a top tip, or the solver of a problem. So give them something they just can’t keep to themselves.
  • Write for one person: the ideal reader. Give him or her a name and define their basic characteristics. The more real they feel to you, the more real your copy will feel to them.
  • Be different – and that means being yourself. If it’s true that people do business with people they like, it’s even truer that they connect with people they like.  So pour yourself into the copy, and connect with your reader.
  • Take your light-bulb moment and share it. Whenever you have an aha! experience, get it down in writing. If it lit up your imagination, chances are it’ll do the same for somebody else.
  • Pump up the volume. Instead of focusing endless energy into making one piece of copy go viral, spread it around a bit. Hedge your bets by communicating often through as many channels as possible. If it’s a numbers game – and ultimately all marketing is – then push the numbers up and stack the odds in your favour.

On a practical level, make sure your copy ticks all the usual boxes:

  • Write a great headline that captures people’s imagination.
  • Structure your copy so it’s easy to read for scanners and skimmers (i.e. everybody in our attention-strapped virtual world).
  • Make it easy and obvious what you want them to do next.
  • Ask yourself why am I writing this? What’s the one thing I want it to achieve?
  • Give something away, even if it’s just knowledge. Especially if it’s knowledge.
  • Keep it short and simple. Keep it even shorter if you can.

And what else can you do?

Well you could try downloading and digesting Copyblogger’s viral copy report, subtitled Trading words for traffic. It’s got some great pointers to help you get started with copy that gets noticed. Though it’s been around for quite a while (it came out in 2006) it’s packed full of practical tips and sound advice that still hold true today.

And get writing right now. Crank up the handle and get your copy out there. Because the more you do, the greater the chances of it lighting up the world.

And just one last tip: never, ever aim to write viral copy. Because you can’t. And what makes it viral isn’t the writer, it’s the reader – which is what my friend told his client.

Let’s hope he passes it on.

Notes from the grammar trenches

Magnificent obsession or just attention to detail?

Notes from the grammar trenches | grammar copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Nutdanai at]

Recently, a friend told me I was obsessive about grammar. Which I took, naturally, as a compliment. For one woman’s obsession is another man’s passion. Or attention to detail.

As with most things, it depends on your point of view. And in the case of my friend, her point of view was that she thought that grammar doesn’t really matter. As long as people know more or less what you’re saying, that’s OK.

The trouble is that you might just more or less make the sale depending on what you say.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather more than less. Sales and marketing copy isn’t just throwing words on a page and hoping they’re OK: it’s about getting all the little things right that send out cues to your readers.

Cues that tell them you’re the one they want to do business with.

So in the latest of my occasional series about those little grammar things that make a big difference – and that every writer should know – let’s look at two tweaks you can make to your copy that’ll make it sound more natural and connect with your reader.

Active or passive?

When we write, we often unwittingly slip into business-speak, because we think it sounds more professional. And it does, though that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Remember, your audience are not a class of badly-behaved pupils sitting quietly listening to a lecture. They can (virtually) get up and walk out any time they like.

A big part of business-speak is the use of the passive voice. So you end up with sentences like:

  • Steps will be taken to reduce waste.
  • You’ll be contacted by a customer service representative.
  • Your order will be delivered by 5pm the next working day.

To turn passive into active, and cold into warm and friendly, simply flip it around. So this:

Steps will be taken to reduce waste.

Becomes this:

We’ll take steps to reduce waste.

Similarly, you wave your magic wand and you have:

  • A customer service representative will contact you.
  • We’ll deliver your order by 5pm the next working day.

The resulting sentence sounds immediately more conversational – because it is. In real life, we use the active much more than the passive.

If you want to write like you speak, active it is.

Would have liked to have done

If active beats passive, then simple beats complicated.

If you’re talking about a situation that could have happened, but didn’t, then you simply say something like this:

I would have liked to attend the conference.

Or this:

I’d like to have attended the conference.

Strictly speaking, they mean slightly different things, but to all intents and purposes, they’re they same.

The point here is that you only need the conditional past (as it’s called) once. And yet you increasingly hear:

I would have liked to have attended the conference.

It’s not wrong (as is often the case with grammar, there’s no right and wrong) but it sounds clumsy and inelegant. It also makes the possibility of attending the conference a very remote one, as if it never really mattered in the first place.

So if in doubt, leave the second ‘have’ out. It sounds more natural, and makes more sense. And more importantly, it makes you sound like somebody who cuts to the chase and says what they mean.


As you can see, neither of these is actually incorrect. It’s more a question of the impression you create. In a world where perception is reality, you want to control and manage that perception.

With the passive voice, you sound distant and remote. With the second construction, you sound as if you’re unnecessarily complicating a sentence that should be simple. Or that you’re trying to sound more formal and ‘correct’.

With sales and marketing copy, simplicity is king. Cut it back, pare it down, take it out and make it short. Result? Copy that sounds more human – and that connects with other humans.

Which is exactly what you want.

Five simple ways to improve your copy

Getting the basics right means avoiding those hindsight moments

Five simple ways to improve your copy | copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of patrisyu at]

As part of a (very late) spring clean of my PC, I’ve just been reviewing some copy I wrote quite a few years ago.

And I have to say, I’ve felt my toes curl more than once. Not because the copy is bad, but because there are so many small tweaks I’ve noticed that I could have made, but didn’t.

Hindsight is always perfect, and berating yourself after the fact serves no useful purpose. Life is a constant learning process, and with learning comes improvement. So it makes complete sense that previous work should seem less than perfect.

In any case, no copy is ever perfect. Or ever finished.

Just like a painting, you can always add a final touch, a little highlight, or an extra shadow. And unlike paintings, you can keep many versions, so you can roll back at will. But at some point, you simply have to stop typing and move on.

Not that you shouldn’t do the best job you can. And for that, some basic things should be on your checklist. Once you’ve ticked them off, you should put the copy to bed and tackle the next project.

So here’s my checklist to avoid those toe-curling moments in years to come:

1.  Get the tone right

As a rule of thumb, most sales and marketing copy should be conversational. If you find yourself talking down to your readers, or preaching, or worse still, broadcasting to them, it’s time to stop and take a step back.

Language can always be simplified, and long words rarely impress. So shake off the business speak and connect with your readers – but be careful to not cross the line into inappropriate informality.

Other points that my trip down memory lane brought to mind:

  • Sales copy can be too ‘salesy’, and it’s easy to lay it on too thick. If in doubt, try reading it aloud. If you’re happy that you’d say it in front of a real person, then it’s OK. If not, you need to modify it.
  • Jargon and buzzwords should be avoided for a general readership, or at the very least, fully explained. The only exception is if if you’re talking to a closed community of insiders: often, they’re expecting to see those terms, and may even judge your competence and reliability by the presence of them.

2. Remember your audience

Who are you writing for? Are they motivated by price or by making the right business decision? Or both? What stage are they at in the buying process?

Why would they not choose you? It’s easy to discard the negatives, but it’s only by acknowledging them that you can address and neutralise them.

A great way to test your copy is to pretend you have a prospect in front of you. Think what you’d say to them: the language you’d use, the sales tactics you’d employ, the balance between talking and listening.

That balance is crucial, by the way, when it comes to copy. If your we-to-you ratio is 1:1 or more, you need to change it. Most readers are selfish, and ask what’s in it for me? The copy should always be more about them than you.

3. Be different

Don’t say what everybody else says – even if you’re in a market where there’s little to differentiate one player from the other. If you’re selling goods and they’re commoditised, focus on something else instead (customer service, free delivery, great support).

If you’re selling services, identify what it is that makes you different: the little things that people always praise you for, or the ones that cause the light-bulb moment for your prospects.

Remember also that sometimes, you will need to say what everybody else says. The trick is to put your own spin on it.

4. Make it long enough (but not too long)

Good copy should get to the point fast. Your readers read just like you do: skimming, hovering, darting from one thing to another. If your copy is one long sea of unbroken text, they’ll move on pretty sharpish.

So how much detail is enough?

It’s enough if it tells them the basics: who you are, what you do, why they should deal with you, how they’ll benefit and what to do next. And the fewer words the better.

That said, there’s always a small, but significant, minority of  people who want to delve into the detail. But that’s not a problem: simply include all the highlights up front, in bulleted lists, boxes, headlines and summaries, and the detail further down (or a click away) for people who really want to understand the nuts and bolts.

But as a general rule, brevity is king. For everything you write, ask yourself ‘if I took this out, would it be missed?’

5. Remember why you wrote it

You didn’t write it to win a literary prize, or to hone your creative writing skills.

You wrote it to sell, inform, raise the company profile, educate, market or push people along the sales cycle. To differentiate yourself from the competition, to make yourself the go-to company for your product or service.

So focus on that goal, and always bring your copy to a close with a call to action. Do you want people to phone? Email? Book an appointment? Fill in a form? Register for a webinar? Or just click through to your online store and buy?

When it comes to copy, you should be absolutely single-minded. What’s the one thing that you want your audience to do? Not two, or three, but one. Everything should point relentlessly in that direction.

And one last thing: when you’ve said what you wanted to say, stop. Then move on, and never look back.

Not even when you’re spring cleaning.

The little design changes that make a big difference

I recently spoke to somebody who wanted copy for their website. And the good news, they told me, was that the site design was already done and dusted.

On the home page, there were three square boxes in a row, spaced evenly. Underneath, there was a box that took up the entire width of the page, and under that were another two boxes.

The proposed design looked attractive, making good use of white space and complementary colours. It was when I asked what went in the boxes that we ran into trouble.

I’d made the assumption that three boxes meant three distinct offerings. Or three target audiences. Or three offers.

But they didn’t, any more than the one box underneath was destined for anything specific. Or the two boxes below that. In fact, the whole design was chosen on the basis that it looked pleasing, its boxes filled with the ubiquitous mock Latin (Lorem ipsum etc.).

But when we actually looked at the copy that was needed, it didn’t fit neatly into the boxes. Or neatly on the page, for that matter.

So we did the only thing possible: turned the approach on its head, and started with the copy. For at the end of the day, you have a story to tell, and an audience to engage. And the design should support, not dictate, the way that story is told.

I’m not saying copy trumps design. The two have to work hand in hand, so there’s not a disconnect between what you’re saying and the way it’s presented.

I was reminded of this balancing act as I watched a TED video last week.

Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook’s director of product design (and ex-YouTuber) talks about the huge impact that little design changes can make. Like changing the Like button on Facebook. That tiny graphic took the lead designer 280 hours or work (that’s seven weeks at 40 hours a week) to redesign.

She also talks about the Facebook photo take-down request that failed to engage users. Until, that is, the designers tweaked it to include the reason for the request, and how the photo made the requester feel (sad, angry, embarrassed and so on).

From a copy point of view, the take-down story is fascinating, proving that context is everything. If people understand why you’re asking for something, and what a difference it will make, they’re much more likely to comply. In Facebook’s case, usage of the feature jumped from 20% to 60% of those wanting photos (usually embarrassing ones) taken down.

And research showed that 90% of people who’d posted photos wanted to know if and how they’d upset people.

Gould Stewart also talks about knowing who you’re designing for, which in Facebook’s case means a huge number of users who don’t have access to cutting-edge hardware or fast internet. The exact same approach applies to copy: if you don’t know who you’re writing for, you’ll never come up with copy that connects with your target audience.

How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too) has lots of insights into how little things can make a big difference, and may just get you thinking – as it did me – about the importance of getting them right.

And of really thinking about who’s out there, and what matters to them.

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