Got an email recently from a budding copywriter with a big worry. She wrote:
What is the language of marketing? What kinds of jargon can I expect when I talk to marketing execs? I am concerned that in meetings or conference calls, I might find myself up against a foreign language of sorts because I never worked in a corporate marketing environment.
My first inclination was to simply say, “Not really a big issue in freelance copywriting. It’s not really like a different language, so don’t worry too much about it.”
But then, I got to thinking about it and realized that, when you’ve been in the middle of a particular world for 20 years (this month, in fact…), it’s easy to imagine that it’s not all that complex. And bottom line, it really isn’t that terribly complex, but it’s not completely transparent, either.
And right about the time I got that question, I received an email from a new commercial freelancing client, with the background information on a new project he wanted me to quote. And in that email, he told me what files he’d attached, which included “the wires.” Commence head-scratching. Huh? Wires? What are the wires?
He was with a marketing/design firm, and after clicking through the source material, I realized that one of the documents was a line-drawing mockup of the website they’re creating for their client, and for which they need new copy. That six-page mockup with all the little boxes, arrows and greeking*—is known as the “wires.”
*(Oh, that’s placeholder copy a designer inserts in spaces where copy is needed, but hasn’t been written yet. It usually reads, “Lorum ipsum dolor sit amet…” and a bunch of other, well, Latin, actually. So, the name’s a misnomer, but it’s still “greeking.” And two Latin-to-English translation sites are telling me that the five-word phrase above means…well, “Thong team…” Hmmmm. No clue. Remember, it’s placeholder copy.)
So, “wires.” Learn something new every day. So, maybe there’s a little more to the jargon in the commercial copywriting business than I’d like to believe. Of course, a couple of standard phrases come to mind: collateral, for instance: the term for various and sundry marketing communications pieces beyond ad copy that are part of a larger campaign—things like brochures, sales sheets, case studies, etc.
Then there’s the “creative brief.” Meaning, the document you’ll receive from clients (i.e., an agency, design firm, or the marketing department of the end-user themselves) describing the scope of the project in question, what the objective is, what the deliverables are (there’s another word: “deliverables,” meaning the final end products that need to be created, and which you’ve been entrusted to write), the timetable, contact people (a.k.a. “subject matter experts”—a.k.a. SME’s, and yes, actually pronounced “Smee’s”—yet another term!), etc.
All that said, I still maintain that, even if you come from a background completely different from commercial writing, that it won’t be anywhere near the same as, say, visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.
Over time, I learned all these (and many other) words by osmosis, but my overriding recollection is definitely not of one embarrassing moment after another as clients exchanged looks, loosely translated as, “Where did this guy come from?” Not so.
So, that’s a few that occurred to me off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a ton of others I’m missing right now. So let’s help out this nervous newbie, and share some of the jargon you’ve come across in your freelance commercial writing travels.
And, for the record, I’m not talking about the silly jargon that’s the brunt of jokes about “corporate-speak”—things like mission-critical, value-added, at the end of the day, outside the box, leverage, etc.
Yes, our fledgling freelancer should familiarize herself with those as well (here’s a pretty good list), but I’m talking about the useful terms native to this field of ours.
What are some of the terms, phrases, jargon, that you’ve encountered in the course of your copywriting practice?
In your opinion, how hard is it for a newbie to get a handle on all the vernacular? Did you feel at all confused or out of your depth when you first started out in the business?
Are you aware of any resources/glossaries listing a lot of these terms (I know, I should know some…)?
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Okay, possibly just a “mental gymnastics” piece, but you be the judge…;)
Read an interesting book recently: Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink (author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind). While some of the stuff was a bit obvious (e.g.; money/prestige/titles doesn’t motivate everyone…no kidding), Pink does have a way of spawning mini-epiphanies.
Not to mention that a few things he shared had me exclaim (in the immortal words of Johnny Carson), “I did NOT know that!” Allow me a quick digression…
Most of us are aware that Wikipedia is an “open-source” undertaking, meaning it’s built, updated and revised solely by volunteers – just regular folks like you and me, when the mood strikes us, and, needless to say, for no pay.
But did you know that the browser Firefox (150 million users); the server software platform Linux (running 25% of all corporate servers); and the web-server program Apache (used by 52% of all corporate web servers), are all open-source as well? All volunteer efforts, with no money changing hands? Who knew? (everyone but me, perhaps?)
Pink shared this to illustrate that “intrinsic motivation” – doing something just for the challenge, creative expression, and reward of solving problems – can be a powerful driver for humans, and far more effective, after a certain point, than money, prestige or awards.
Enough “gee-whiz” facts…
One point he made had something click in place for me, and had me realize something about this commercial writing field of ours, as well as other arenas of so-called “writing” (that may not really be writing at all). He notes that jobs/tasks fall into two categories: algorithmic and heuristic, explaining:
An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution. Working as a grocery checkout clerk is mostly algorithmic. You pretty much do the same thing over and over in a certain way. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new.
Think about jobs/tasks that get “offshored” reasonably successfully: computer programming, software development, database management, accounting, other technical processes, etc. All algorithmic tasks that follow a set path. Heuristic tasks – with no fixed set of instructions or set processes – are far harder to outsource to offshore practitioners. And writing is one of those things.
Most writing. Certainly the kind of writing we do – projects that entail original and critical thinking, not to mention facility with English as a native tongue – isn’t leaving our shores anytime soon for some sweatshop garret in Bangalore, Karachi or Manila.
But, there is one arena of writing that has been offshored, though, to a large extent, without ever actually leaving our shores. Of course, I’m talking about writing for content mills (e.g.; Demand Studios, eHow, Suite101, etc.): 500-700-word keyword-rich articles cranked out by legions of “writers” for rates hovering around $5-$10 a pop (or less; keep reading…).
Why does it pay so poorly? Because there are countless people with the same minimal skills necessary to produce such pieces (making it “commoditized” writing). And why is that? Because writing these pieces entails an easy-to-follow formula, making it one of the few algorithmic writing tasks out there.
Why is it formulaic? Because the quality of the writing doesn’t matter. The articles are just a framework to hold keywords, which are there to engage the search engines and drive traffic to the site, where, in turn, the goal is to have visitors click other links on the page. So, when the writing doesn’t matter, it can indeed get offshored for peanuts.
Exhibit A: I just got an email from a frustrated writer who’d gotten an email promo from this outfit. Their home page trumpets: “Get articles written for as low as $2.00 an article.” Can you say algorithmic? I rest my case.
Heck, given that, let’s not even call it writing. How about word-arranging? Definitely a more accurate description. Or as my frustrated writer friend enlightened me, the term to describe the process is actually called “spinning,” and in many cases, is actually done by computer (and scarily well in some cases). So, yes, there is definitely skill involved. As she put it, “You try writing a 400-word article with the phrase ‘mesothelioma diagnosis’ at a density of 6.25%.” I get it, and…
Given that its practitioners approach their task in terms of “How many pieces can I crank out in a day?” if that isn’t a piecework mentality – part and parcel of many algorithmic tasks – I’m not sure what would be.
No doubt, having what they do be called “word-arranging” will make me pretty unpopular with those folks working in the content mill realm, and truly believing that what they’re doing is, in fact, writing. Well, tough. If you think you’re a true writer, then quit screwing around in that algorithmic writing sub-basement and move up to more heuristic writing tasks – where your creative fulfillment and earnings can only rise, if for no other reason than you’ve got less competition for what you’re able to do.
After all, how could you offshore what we do? Certainly with projects where the goal is a specific, measurable response, and hence, must be crafted just so (e.g.; direct mail, landing-page copy, direct response, sale promotions, etc.), offshoring won’t work. When the bottom line is on the line, you can’t afford to do it on the cheap.
But even projects with softer metrics (e.g.; case studies, white papers, sales sheets, brochures, etc). where the goal is educating, brand awareness, image-building, impressions, etc., I’m still not seeing how offshoring would work. Yes, budget constraints could have a company seek out lower-priced resources, but the stronger and more focused your skills, the less likely they’ll be able to get what they need from cheaper writers (i.e., they may be able to write, but often run screaming from even the whiff of “marketing.” All the better for us…).
Of course, my foundational assumption is that, for most of the good clients we work with, or want to work with, the writing itself matters very much. If we get to a point where it doesn’t, all bets are off. Though, if that happens, I suspect that’ll be the least of our problems.
So, the more heuristic the writing task (i.e., the more creativity and original thinking involved), the less likely that task can be offshored (to a foreign or domestic shore…), the more in demand competent practitioners will be, and the higher rates they’ll command. Not saying it’s easy (it’s not), but if the alternative is slaving away for peanuts, then I say, taking the time to hone your skills in order to set yourself apart is worth the investment.
Was this just a useless mental exercise or am I on to something here? 😉
Have you thought about writing in these terms (algorithmic vs. heuristic) before?
Have you successfully transitioned from a more algorithmic writing career to a more heuristic one, and if so, can you share a bit of your story?
Any epiphanies of your own from this discussion?
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.
His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”
How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).
Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.
Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.
Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…
In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:
It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?
Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).
Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.
Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.
How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?
What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?
Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?
What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?