401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

Two Secrets to writing copy for today’s customers


Marketing copy really is dead. There, I’ve said it.

That stiff, professional, say-nothing copy used to be all customers had to choose from when they were trying to get answers about a product they were thinking of buying. Now, they can zip past all that marketing fluff and go right to the reviews, or they can post a question in one of their discussion groups and get first-hand, unbiased information from people who have already had experience with the product. They don’t need that marketing copy anymore.

Marketers still need to write copy for customers, though, so what’s the answer?

A friend of mine recently interviewed at an audio book company. As she was auditioning, reading a fiction book, the guy interviewing her gave her a tip:

Talk as if you are sitting next to someone on the beach.

That is the first secret to writing copy in this age of customer conversations. You’re there together, you’re friends, you’re looking at the scene in front of you, and you’re talking about stuff that matters.

It’s personal. It’s relevant. It’s trustworthy. It’s a conversation.

It can’t be any of these things, though, if you don’t know who you are writing to. Guessing who that person is just doesn’t work. They can see your big fat assumptions about them from a mile away. They know that you are actually clueless about what really matters to them. So they ignore you.

They get to a product page on Amazon.com, zip right past your unhelpful copy, and start digging into the reviews. They completely ignore the FAQs on your website because they know you won’t answer their real questions – questions that other customers willingly answer: “What can go wrong? And what happens when something does go wrong?”

The only way to avoid this terrible fate is to interview customers who have already bought from you. Personally. If you are the head of a company or involved in any way in the revenue-generation process, interviewing current customers is as essential to your job as a computer-aided design program is to a product engineer. You simply can’t be successful without knowing these folks, yourself.

Websites are filled with marketing copy – bought and paid for – that customers ignore. Not only does it not address their specific needs, or speak to them personally, but it is also recognized as biased.

Worse, it doesn’t help customers do what they’re doing when they’re buying, which is weighing tradeoffs.

This brings us to secret #2.

Help your customer weigh the tradeoffs.

Weighing tradeoffs dominates the buying process.

If I get this one, I get all the functions I need, but it’s awfully large. It won’t fit into my pocket.”

This is gorgeous, but it will be out of style by next month. I need a less-radical version of this.”

“I could pay more and get all these functions, but how many of them will I actually use? And I know that other company has better support, but they don’t have as much  functionality.”

Typical marketing copy doesn’t support this thought process. It doesn’t help the buyer weigh the tradeoffs.

Comments and reviews from customers – and especially friends – do help. When one customer posts a question on a discussion board, and other customers answer, the potential customer posting gets help weighing tradeoffs, just like two friends talking on the beach. “It’s true, that one is more expensive. But I’ve had mine for 5 years and it hasn’t given me a single problem.”

How can manufacturers get more involved in these tradeoff conversations? At the very least, they must know the tradeoffs the customer is weighing.

There are two reliable ways to find this out: Read what people are saying in discussion groups, and interview customers after they have made the purchase, to find out what their tradeoffs were.

As you do, you will see that tradeoffs are always a combination of “desired attributes” and “critical concerns.” The attributes keep people interested, while the concerns make them hesitate.

Once the copywriter knows what the tradeoffs are, he can and should address them as a friend would, not as a “formal” copywriter. An example:

“There are programs with more functions, offered by larger companies. We’ve spent a lot of time analyzing them. But we didn’t like the way the data was hidden – you had to know the secret combination of menu choices before you could find that little piece of data you were looking for. So we laid out all the functions that business owners do – most of the time – and put those ‘on top,’ so to speak, in the top menu bar. Then we tested and refined the interface with real users. Yes, they shattered some of our assumptions, but that was the whole point. We wanted to do it your way. When you look at these screen shots, the functions you use every day should be obvious.”

Compare this to what the copywriter would have written using the old, tired, formal method:

“Everything you need is at your fingertips. All of the functions you do every day, right there, in the top menu bar. Extensive analysis and testing has resulted in the most efficient, cost-effective program in its category.”

Now think about what you just read. When you read the first one, mental images came to mind. You could picture real, likable people creating a product and testing it, and even being a little humbled by some smart users. That makes you feel good. As Guy Kawasaki would say, that’s “enchanting.”

When you read the second one, you imagine some puffed-up salesperson reciting sales clichés, or some overworked marketing copywriter cranking out copy as fast as he can. The first version makes you like the people and want to do business with them. The second doesn’t endear you to anyone, because it doesn’t sound like someone you’d trust.

The copy that will work now, with today’s customers, has to be as personal and comfortable as two people talking on the beach, and it has to help the customer weigh the tradeoffs.


  1. You have made some excellent points on how one should engage in marketing conversations, not didactic advertising copy, when participating on the internet which continues to expand exponentially; and, your writing is in itself engaging! However, your opening lead. i.e. marketing copy is dead, fails to recognize that internet marketing still accounts for less than 25% of all advertising expenditures and that television advertising is still growing in both absolute dollars and as a percent of the total. Your readers need to recognize this as well. Furthermore, I suspect that tv advertising will work much more quickly than social media will although search ads should be fastest. I don’t have any figures on that and would love to see them if you do. Thanks!

  2. Hi, Wilder. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I was focusing on Internet copy here – mostly in my examples. But everything I said applies to TV also, regardless of the current state of TV versus Internet. Positive examples include the current State Farm campaign using easy-to-watch, friendly spokespoeople and the Geico ads, again using a low-key, helpful characater.

    As for what will “work faster,” I’m assuming you mean in terms of conversion? Logical that search would work fastest, given that the person is already that far along in their quest to buy something, whereas a “direct” TV ad is often advertising something that you didn’t really know or think you needed until you saw the ad. As for social media, I think the jury is still out – in my mind, it is still a very important piece of the overall marketing effort – but it also depends completely on what you are selling and who you’re selling it to. Justin Beiber fans may spend hours on Twitter each day, but I am sure that is not the case for the typical B2B customer.

  3. Kristin,
    You are so on point with this post!

    In a world of sameness, whoever stands out will ultimately win. I’ve always had a hard time reading copy that sounds like a lecture, rather than a discussion, written as if I am there. I’ve been criticized in the past for my writing style being too ‘friendly’ but what would you rather read? Sterile words with no personality, or as you point out, a conversation in a beach chair? The latter rules by far!

    I am going to use the ‘ask your customers’ idea this week!

    One very important point – as you write copy for your website, be sure to sprinkle your keywords throughout your text as this will help the search engines find your site more easily.

    Great work Kristin!

    Cheers, Lou Altman

  4. Lou,

    You cannot bore your readers to death. The secret to search engine optimization can be boiled down to four points:

    Write compelling copy using real words that appear as and when they should.

    Write metadata so the search engines can index your site.

    Write clean code, using Li and header tags.

    Register your site with Yahoo! etc.

    But for goodness sake DON’T just sprinkle keywords. This is the absolute best way to get readers to bounce off your page.

  5. Eric,

    The term sprinkle keywords means to include them in your copy.

    We do the four things you mention – good list.

    People who are interested in what we sell are not going to be bored because we strategically use keywords that reinforce the product’s use or merit. We use one keyword per three or four sentences because search engines penalize for using too many.



  6. Ms. Zhivago:

    Excellent. You’ve succeeded in again upending preconceived notions about marketing that were so entrenched I didn’t see them.

    Have you had the opportunity to read the “Fearless Flyer” an occasional publication put out by Trader Joe’s Markets? The copy is so well presented it pulls you into their stores repeatedly. I’ve never been disappointed, have been a fan for over 25 years. I thought of them when reading this for the 3rd time. I think my marketing materials will never be the same.

    Thank you, very much appreciated.

    Steve Manuel

  7. Marketing is all about communicating effectively with your target audience. It’s gotten a lot less formal with social media. I like the “talk as if you are sitting next to someone on the beach” idea. People pay attention to what is presented to them in a tone that they can understand.

  8. This is really an excellent review. But it’s also the way good writers of offline materials have tackled their work for decades. That web readers are subjected to so many bad writers is not the fault of marketing.

    Did Jakob Nielsen invent user research? No. Claude Hopkins did. His book, Scientific Advertising, from 1930 is a classic.

    Did B.J.Fogg of Stanford invent persuasive methodology for the web? No. Read John Caples’ classic, Tested Advertising Methods, from 1932.

    Should we use conversational language? Yes, according to David Ogilvy in his 1983 best-seller, Ogilvy on Advertising.

    The web has changed the way we read (it’s as though the whole world has ADHD): we scan (for trigger words), we skim (for keywords), and finally we read (for in-depth knowledge). Brochures are being read this way, too. And as Nick just pointed out, social media has made informal, natural language acceptable – even to marketing execs whose ties are too tight.

    What IS new is the willingness on the part of educated offline clients to accept natural writing. Alas, far too many still think that “value words” such as “rethink” “delight” and “innovation” are going to move market share.

    Anyway, I hope this article gets wide readership. If you can move clients from buzzwords to buzz, you’ve made a great contribution to our industry – which exists both online and off.


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