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Content Marketing Minds: Nail the Copy or Get Hammered


“No one has time to read anymore.”

I read this little pile of nonsense so often it’s gotten under my skin. You’re reading right now. Don’t you have something better to do? 

You don’t. You read to learn, grow, make informed decisions, and get inspired. These strike me as important.  You may read for pleasure, but it’s important too. The more seriously you take a subject, the more time you put into reading about it. You read this column because content marketing is important to you. 

Still, based on the success of Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and the gads of image and video-centered sites, trusted content marketers are hailing the power of visuals and minimizing the significance of writing. 

Don’t buy it.  

This is not a cage match between visuals and copy. 

The mountains of “it’s a visual world now” articles often make it sound like this love affair for pictures (or moving pictures) came about by way of the web. Hello? Remember magazines, newspapers, and television? I’m pretty sure they feature pictures.

The same articles usually cite statistics from research indicating visual content is noticed, processed, shared and remembered some 49-thousand times (speeds may vary) faster than written content.

No argument here. You absolutely should create great images and use them in your content and social media. But you absolutely should not discount the power of written content for any reason under any circumstance—regardless of who publishes the next big story on our attention deficit plagued world.

Content marketing is not hosting the fight of the century between D’Macho Imageman and Killer the Copywriter. The two powerhouses are going to play nice and work together. And while images definitely will factor into your content in many important ways, the people interested in investing their dollars in your brand are going to read about it.

Understand: Writing is the most important tool in marketing. 

You need to nail the copy.

I’ve been writing marketing communications content for 25 years with an emphasis on digital marketing since America Online caught on. For the remainder of this article, I’m going to give you what I feel are some of my most useful writing tips including:

  • A “you can do this” pep talk
  • A “how to get started” lesson
  • A lesson on the fundamentals of copywriting
  • Common mistakes found in bad writing

If you have 30-minutes for a video tutorial—or want to bookmark it for later—here’s a webinar I give often titled, “Nail It and the Reader Shall Respond.


Rather speed through the presentation without narration? Here’s the content on SlideShare. 

If you think you can’t write, you’re wrong.

I’m guessing you say, or at some point have said, “I can’t write.” You can. Say it please. Now let’s terminate that tall tale. Say it twice more. Good. Onward. 

You learned how to write when you were itty-bitty: essays, poems, and stories. If your penmanship was legible and your thoughts landed on the paper, you were encouraged at school and home. You probably enjoyed writing.

Then teachers, professors and maybe professional workshops came along and started stabbing at your writing with red pen. It bled the passion right out of your prose. 

In high school you learned how to write for college. In college you learned how to write for business. Right-brained or not, you learned writing has rules. Proper sentence structure (pardon me). Grammar. The more rules you were taught, the less able you were to express yourself.

Still, each new step in your career involved mastering more meaningful forms of writing… How to write a resume, thesis, business plan, sales letter, proposal, press release, white paper.

But you didn’t get better at writing. You got better at conforming to convention. It’s time to unlearn all the stuff that now paralyzes your pen. 

Three keys to writing in 2014.

1. Take a chill pill

How many rules have I bent or broken so far in this blog post? I don’t care. Nor do you. The best writing is generally friendly, personal, conversational and casual. It feels so relaxed and real, as a reader, you don’t think at all about the writing process. You’re seduced by the experience.

Great writers have been blowing off writing rules forever. Given the immense proliferation of new media—with its innumerous forms of abbreviation and slang—writing rules have laxed to the point where they’re nearly nonexistent.

The point is to create and communicate. Want to use more periods than you need? More. Power. To ya.’

One-word sentences? Whatever. Need a compound word or new word that’s never dictionarialized? Goforit.

In 2014, the best copywriters chill on the rules and the best copy kicks off a conversation.      

2. Barfing is encouraged

ImageThat’s not a monster you’re looking at.  It might make you sweat. It might invoke feelings of helplessness, but it can’t harm you.  

My prescription for your self-induced paranoia is simple. Write on it. Right now. I don’t care if it’s a 7-layer stink sandwich and neither should you.

Stuck? Okay, put the pen down. What are you trying to say? Just say it. Have a smart phone handy? Say it again and record it. Now write down what you said. Have more thoughts? Repeat the process.

You hate it? I love it because I just got you started on the hardest part: starting.

The thing is, when a blank piece of paper or a screen creeps you out it’s because you’re going about the writing process in the wrong order. That torturous state of stagnancy is you editing in your head. Editing doesn’t go first. Writing works like this. 

1)   Write

2)   Edit

3)   Edit again

4)   Publish

You are free to write skanky first drafts. The world’s best writers have a healthy habit of barfing all over the page. Think you’re reading the first draft of this piece? Nope. 

 “The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway

3. Clean it up 

Writing is an iterative process. First you overwrite. Then you cut. Fix. Polish. It’s takes practice just like everything else. But when you finally get to writing first and editing after, it’s so damn freeing. You’ll become a writer. Iteration is liberation.

When you edit your first draft, here are 10 things to look for and improve. 

1. This and that

Avoid the repetitive and unnecessary use of “this,” “that,” and “these,” especially when used as the first word of a sentence. Remove every instance of these (that) you can. See what I mean?

2. Long sentences

Long sentences confuse and bore your reader. Short sentences sound more confident. Find the long, comma-heavy sentences and break them up.

3. Redundancy, redundancy

Avoid redundancies such as “violent explosion” or “new beginner.”

4. Nothing phrases

“In order to…” and “it goes without saying” are two examples of common phrases that add nothing to your story. Axe them. 

5. Adverbs

Adverbs such as “very” and “really” are really very useless words.

6. Passive voice

Passive phrases such as “it became known to me” are dreadful. Use an active voice. “I discovered…”

7. Wimpy verbs

Replace common verbs such as “get” with more powerful words such as “seize” or “command.”

8. The today stamp

Starting off with “Today” or “In today’s…” or “Currently” or any other time stamps are meaningless throw-aways.

9. -ing

Whenever you find an “ing” in your copy, you can probably improve the line. “We started” is a more exciting way to start than “We are starting to...” Note you’re also disposing of a passive form of be.

10. Formalities

Contractions make your writing more friendly and familiar. Don’t write, “Let us become friends.” “Let’s become friends” is better. “Let’s get friendly” is better still.  

Your beginner’s writing guide.

If you fear writing, I hope the tips I’ll offer you now will help get you started.

The advice won’t magically transform you into a legendary writer, but if you apply yourself, you can make meaningful contributions to your company’s content marketing efforts.

Belief is the first thing you’ll need, so check your attitude. If you don’t believe you can write, it traces to an unwarranted inferiority complex. You don’t need to be the best. You need to start. Every journey begins with the first step.

1. Write to a friend

A large part of your fright probably comes from worrying about addressing a large audience. Instead, imagine you’re writing to just one person, a good friend.

2. Understand your reader

To write persuasively, you need to understand you’re addressing an emotional being with wants and desires. Identify one (or more) target personas and speak to him/her/them. Push emotional buttons. People buy (or take action) to increase their pleasure or avoid pain. You need to know what keeps them up at night.

3. Keep it simple

Your goal with every sentence you write is to get your reader to read the next one. Confusion sabotages your success. Assume your reader doesn’t know what you know. Take care to explain your ideas. Avoid jargon. Use simple terms.

4. Hit verbs hard.

Notice my word choice? Hit. It’s action-oriented and dramatic. Focus on putting your ideas in motion and energizing your copy with verbs. Don’t overindulge with adjectives. Use adjectives where they add color and intrigue. Avoid them when they simply take up space and mean little.

5. Prove it

“Social proof” is an important principle of persuasion. It comes in many forms: testimonials, statistics, accolades, endorsements, customers lists or examples, reviews and so forth. Weave social proof into your copy to build credibility. It need not be heavy handed or forced. Just play a card that works for your company and, of course, is true. 

6. Get specific

Specificity helps you achieve credibility. Specific facts, examples, stories and such are more interesting and easier for readers to relate to. I could tell you I love my dog. It’s true, but boring. Now, if I tell you my 11-pound miniature poodle Rio doesn’t just love swimming, but is also an amazing diver, I suspect you’ll be more engaged. (BTW, this example is 100% true.)

7. Write rhythmically

Though readers won’t often notice, when your writing has a nice rhythm, it’s far more entertaining. Mix up the length of your sentences and paragraphs. When you write a long sentence, follow up with a short one. Use punchy staccato phrases. Zingers.

8. Lead the way

In one way or another, your objective is to get your readers to take action. They’re far more likely to do so when you say exactly what to do next, where to go, how to order, and when to act (which tends to be NOW!).

  • Include urgency—Limited time frames, deadlines, reasons to be prompt.
  • Make an offer—Discount, bonus, free information.
  • Highlight value—Get your informative report, join our exclusive community.
  • Overcome objections—Eliminate or reduce risks with free trials or money back guarantees.

9. Write irresistible headlines

Obviously, your headline will be read first. And if it’s boring or cliché, it’ll be the last thing read too. Your headline needs pulling power. A few great headline tactics include:

  • The useful headline—Often a “how to.”
  • A curiosity builder—This tactic has a teaser element that capitalizes on suspense and mystery.
  • The urgent headline—Why? Why not? Why now?
  • The list headline—Proven winners such as (X) secrets, tips, ways, shortcuts, etc.
  • The news hack—Attach your piece to something topical or someone famous.
  • The contrarian—Mistakes, dangers, lies. I find negatives positively irresistible.

It’s a big and vital topic. Gather some of my best headline writing tips in this infographic and read articles regarding headline writing from top bloggers and copywriters.

10. Just write

The way to become a writer is simply to write. Yes, it’s work. Yes, you’ll need to practice. You’ll want to try to find the flaws. Read your work aloud. Run it by someone for an opinion. Share it with an accomplished writer. 

An expanded version of the tips above are available here.

Common mistakes in bad writing.

You’re still with me? Awesome. Of course, you know the best learning tool for writing (or anything) is learning from your mistakes or simply studying the difference between effective and ineffective work. So, I want to mention a great  guest post from KISSmetrics by CosetteJarrett“10 Things You Can Learn from Bad Copy.”

Cosette echoes many of the points I’ve made previously and speaks to how to steer clear of some universal blunders, including:

  1. Avoiding lecturing by capitalizing on the power of storytelling.
  2. Using short powerful sentences instead of long, boring ones.
  3. Using meaningless adjectives.
  4. Understanding your audience’s real needs.
  5. Why you must avoid copying content (and the penalties you could suffer).
  6. How to better structure your posts for readability and skimmability.
  7. How to use visuals to add appeal and interest.
  8. The importance of thorough proofreading.
  9. Pitfalls of hyperboles and clichés.
  10. Lack of flow and consistency.

 Cosette concludes her piece by writing:

Seek out information from other writers and take every opportunity to expand your skill set and learn what you can. Writing your own copy isn’t easy, but it can be done well if you put a little effort into building your writing skill and optimizing the process.


Want to keep reading about improving your online writing? Here is a six-pack of posts I believe you’ll find helpful: 

Join The Conversation

  • Jun 19 Posted 3 years ago Kanefire

    Barry, what an amazing article. I read and read articles that discuss content writing and usually skim the bold headlines and move on. I probably read, with full attention, about 90%... got half-way through and ran out of time so emailed the link to myself to finish later.

    I felt so grateful that I took the time to register to leave this comment. Thanks again, and I hope to read more from you!

  • Steve Baldwin's picture
    Jun 19 Posted 3 years ago Steve Baldwin

    Terrific article that's as fun to read as it's fun to learn from. Bookmark it, share it, print it out, tack it to your wall. One of the best articles I've read on Social Media Today.



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