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Could the wrong words be costing you money?

Are your words watertight? Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Something good happened to me this week – I had a motoring fine quashed. Yay me.

It didn’t just happen though, I had to appeal to the council that issued the fine, and then the adjudicator. This involved looking at the evidence – you get a photo with the letter and a link to a video – doing research and putting together an appeal, which was uploaded to the council website. Then you wait.

Here’s the background. I was caught on CCTV driving into a what’s known as a bus gate. I’d never heard of these before, but they’re basically a section of road that’s only open to buses, mini-busses and taxis at certain times. I was in a car, so that’s it, offence committed.

There were a few reasons why I appealed, the main one being that the signage isn’t very clear as there’s a cycle lane alongside the affected bit of road, and the red and white ‘no motor vehicles’ sign is next to this. It’s a bit confusing and I hadn’t seen when I drove up the road. It was also a Sunday and there was hardly any other traffic around.

That appeal was knocked back as the council disagreed with me. In their opinion, the sign was correctly sited, and it was up to me to take notice of it. Fair enough. Or so they thought.

So, back to square one. I re-read all the paperwork they’d sent me and started the process again (if you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering what this has got to do with the title. Bear with me – it’s coming).

I then re-read the original letter notifying me of the fine. It said: ‘my vehicle was involved in the following bus lane contravention’ followed by the stretch of road where I’d been photographed. However, the second letter from the council referred to the bit of road as a ‘bus gate’ not a ‘bus lane’ (there was no mention of a bus gate on the first letter – I only knew it was called that after some research).

Feeling confused, I went to the council website to clear up whether it was bus gate or bus lane I’d driven on to, and if it made any difference. It was indeed a bus gate according to their website, so I thought I’d have a look what they say about bus lanes on the site.

Here it is, lifted directly: ‘Bus lanes are marked with a white line and the words “Bus Lane” marked on the road. A section of broken white lines in the bus lane means it is permitted for vehicles to cross the bus lane to turn left or into an adjacent loading bay.’

I looked at the photo they’d supplied again. And the video. There was no ‘Bus Lane’ marked on the road and no white lines. That was it – I could appeal based on the fact I’d not committed the offence.

The council decided not to contest my appeal.

So, here’s where the title of this blog comes in. The words on the letter were very specific about the offence that had been committed, yet the council hadn’t made sure the words on their website were watertight. It cost them money in this case, although I’m sure they won’t be too bothered as I’ve read reports of this particular bus gate raising about £9m a year.

The wrong words can cost you money by not attracting people to try what you’re selling. They might not even be able to understand what that is. If people don’t know what you do, or your words are boring, they’ll go elsewhere. To the place where the right words are.

Should copywriters make design suggestions?

Should copywriters make design suggestions?

As a copywriter, it’s your job to write the words (obviously) on a website. Usually people come to you as the last bit of the jigsaw when they’ve already got the design and structure of the site worked out, so you know what pages need copy. Simple.

But there are times when you’re asked to get involved a little earlier on, even right at the start of a project. If this does happen, should you include design suggestions on your copy document? Websites are perfect for this as when you write for print, you’re far more limited in what you can do.

For example, if you think particular sections would look great in an accordion or a carrousel do you add this in a comment box for the designer to add in? Do you indicate where boxes should be or think an image or video in a particular spot would look great? And if you’ve got an idea of the type of image or video, do they get suggested too?

There’s no clear answer to this. It depends on you, the project and the designer you’re working with. If the circumstances allow, then do it. The designer might appreciate your input and if not, they can always ignore it!

The best projects are where collaboration happens and you work together. Bouncing ideas off each other helps you arrive at the best look and feel for the site. You’re both experienced, creative people so use each other.

One of the best ways to do this as a writer is to study screenplays. Writers of these more often than not include notes for the director. Scenes include individual characters’ point of view, suggestions of what to focus on, and so on. Directors will then decide how to interpret these. They might feel particular shots will benefit from certain angles or lighting or might simply follow the screenwriter’s directions. A great writer and great director can be a great team making great movies.

And it’s the same when a website’s built. The copywriter is the screenwriter and the designer is the director, and together you can build great websites.

 

Apprentice shows why clarity is key with your words

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Here’s a question: have you ever needed help to “plan, climb and summit your very own business growth mountain”?

Like me, you probably can’t answer as you haven’t a clue what it means.

This was a statement from one of the BBC Apprentice’s contestant’s business plans on last night’s (16/12/15) show, who also claimed it was a ‘unique proposition’. Yet no-one – including a number of the UK’s keenest business minds – knew what they were talking about. Indeed one interviewer went so far as to call his claims as ‘bulls***’. When questioned further, digital marketing owner Richard Woods, revealed his grand plan was to be an outsourced marketing department for SMEs and spend the whole of their marketing budget to get them the sales they need.

So why didn’t he just say that?

Like a lot of business owners, he probably feels the need to fluff up his language to make it sound more grandiose and meaningful than it actually is. But the problem is with this approach, is that people can’t grasp what you’re talking about. And if those people are potential investors like Lord Sugar or potential customers, they’re not going to give you any of their hard-earned pennies.

The internet is stuffed with websites full of these weasel words and statements you can’t make head or tail of no matter how many times you read them. Customers won’t read them more the once – they’ll just move on and find someone else.

I’d like to see a world where we don’t see horrible phrases like ‘we empower your brand to always inspire’ or my personal pet hates ‘low-hanging fruit’ and ‘synergy’ anywhere. Keeping things simple gets better results and makes the world a much nicer place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t insist on your copy being too formal

 

Formal words

As a copywriter, I really hate it when a client wants their copy to be formal. There’s nothing wrong with copy being formal –it’s peoples’ perceptions of what formal is that’s usually wrong. What they call formal, I call boring.

Copy like this will hold very little appeal to consumers. It’ll be stodgy and dull. And it probably won’t get read.

Great copy captures the essence of your brand and offers readers a connection. It should grab their attention, appeal to their dreams, and tell them what you can do for them. Formal copy doesn’t usually do this.

It’s all about tone. You can be playful, quirky and edgy but still be professional. Your target market will love you because you’re different. Disrupt the market. Make people talk about you. Many industries are dominated by companies that rejoice in having woolly websites, tedious tweets and bland brochures. If yours sticks out, you’ll be noticed.

Remember people read your website, not robots. Emotional beings who’ll make an instant decision whether or not to read on and buy from you. Instead of being formal and telling them all about your business in a way that’s not very interesting, try writing it from your readers’ point of view. Make them feel special for choosing you or that they’re in your club. Research how they speak and what phrases they use. Know your market and what they like. Appeal to them.

The key is balancing the professional with your personality. Be friendly but not their friend. Be informative but not patronising. Be edgy but not offensive. You need to communicate what you do but find the right style to suit.

That’s why you shouldn’t insist on your copy being too formal.

The Shape of Copywriting in 2014

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Copywriting in 2014 is shaping up very nicely. Last year saw the emergence of content marketing and, thanks to Google’s various releases, online copy became more important than ever.

Many websites were whacked by the Hummingbird algorithm in 2013, and had to be completely rewritten as Google looked to punish poorly-written, spammy websites. Blogging became big business as regularly updated content became one of the best ways to keep your website’s ranking, and copywriters saw blogging become their bread and butter.

So far in 2014 then, it’s been business as usual for the profession. Businesses are grasping the concept of content marketing and starting to engage with it. And as the economic outlook begins to brighten, so too does the amount of money being spent on marketing. More and more smaller companies, as well as larger organisations, are starting to embrace blogging, social media and regular PR as a serious way to increase their profile. Some are employing writers directly or looking to outsource it to freelancers.

There are more jobs out there for copywriters too. Many of them are advertised as content writers but when you read the job description, it’s basically what copywriters have been doing for years. And in an interesting twist, several newspapers have posted vacancies for online writers without recognised journalistic qualifications. They’re beginning to recognise writing for the web can be a slightly different skill to writing for a newspaper and are recruiting people with relevant skills and experience to write lots of smaller articles reacting to breaking news stories.

Social media looks set to maintain its upward trajectory and play its part, along with copywriting, as a vital part of SEO. The major search engines are focussing on engagement and social value, both of which are simple to achieve with Twitter and Facebook. It’s easy to distribute content on social media too, so the coming year will continue to see blogs, articles, photos, press releases and videos shared this way.

The emphasis on quality will remain in 2014. Google’s Penguin and Panda updates last year ranked websites with well-written and properly punctuated copy higher than those without. It also loved brand-focussed copy which addresses the reader directly and tells a story. Which brings me to my next point; story telling was big in 2013 and will be even bigger this year. Websites with stories and informative, friendly copy will see great results when compared to those that don’t.

Long-tail copy will be everywhere this year too, as Hummingbird exerts its influence. Instead of isolating keywords and short phrases, it will look to prioritise longer sentences and phrases so web pages written as How To guides or addressing specific problems will rank well.

Copywriting is in great shape for 2014. Business owners are seeing the benefits of it more than ever, and web designers, developers and SEO companies are working closer with copywriters to combat Google’s updates. No longer is copywriting seen as just putting any old words on a website to match the pretty pictures. It’s being taken seriously as a necessity now.

Hopefully the industry is in for a very profitable year as a result.

 

10 Points to Help Choose the Right Company to Write a Press Release

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If you’re a business owner, the chances are you’ll need a press release writing at some point. So how do you choose the right company to write it for you? There are lots of PR companies, marketing businesses and freelancers who offer this service. With so much choice, what should you look for when engaging someone to do it for you?

These 10-points will hopefully help your choice become a bit easier.

  1. Ask For Recommendations. Someone you know will have had a press release written at some point or will know someone who can do it. Word of mouth recommendations are the best type there is. 
  2. Get Several Quotes. Just as you would with any service, don’t settle on one quote.  Ask for a full-breakdown of what the quotes include. Is it just to write the press release or is submission included? Is the company or individual charging for meetings? When you have like-for-like quotes you can start making your choice.
  3. Ask To See Previous Press Releases. Seeing a provider’s previous work is a must. Have they written about your industry before? Do you like their style? Where have they had work published? These are all pertinent questions to ask before signing the contract.
  4. What Links Do They Have With Editors And Journalists? There’s no point writing a press release if no-one will publish it. Your provider must have established relationships with editors and journalists. If they don’t, it’s much harder for your press release to get into the publications you want them to. Ask them who they know and what relationships they have with the press.
  5. Has Anything Happened As a Result Of Any Press Releases They Have Written? Well-written press releases often lead to other things happening. The paper or magazine it’s been sent to may decide to offer you an interview or write a feature on you after receiving your press release.  Occasionally, the national press may pick up on it, particularly if it’s posted online somewhere.
  6. Will You Get Regular Updates On Where And When Your Press Release Has Been Published? This is really important. There’s no point having press releases sent off to loads of press outlets and not knowing who’s printed them. You need to ask if your provider will follow up with the publications to see if they’ve printed your story, and get you copies if possible.
  7. Are Photos Included? Many press release providers include photos in their prices. Getting a good quality photo to accompany your release is vital. If photos aren’t included, ask them if they know someone who can take one for you or find a good commercial photographer yourself. Try to avoid taking shots on a smartphone if you can as they’re rarely of the quality needed.
  8. Do They Have An Online Press Room? Press releases play a big part in content marketing. Good press release providers should have an online press room with at least one of the major press release sites. Most are free and work well with social media and can be as effective as getting the release in print.
  9. Are They Easy To Contact? You need to engage a company or freelancer you can get in touch with whenever you need to. Sometimes, you might need to add another aspect to your story or make a last minute amendment. If you can’t phone or email them easily, this may lead to problems.
  10. Don’t Just Choose Based On Price! This is the most important thing to take away from this blog. Too often, price is seen as the most important factor when making a business decision. If the price seems too cheap, it probably is and the chances are it won’t include many of the points above. Your ideal provider is one who gives you a value-for-money service and your press release gets the results you want.

Getting good news stories into the local, national and industry press should be a major part of marketing strategy. Doing it right will mean great results for your business and give you a bank of articles and news cuttings you can show to prospective clients and suppliers. When you need to get a press release written, use these 10-points to make sure you choose the right provider for you.

If a football player can be worth £85m, how can you place a value on copywriting?

Even if you’re not interested in football and didn’t stay up watching the live news on the annual transfer window deadline, you’ll probably still have seen the Gareth Bale transfer story. The winger has moved from north London to the Spanish capital to play for Real Madrid. But the biggest talking point of this saga is the fee involved. The Spanish champions will be parting with a world-record £85m for the services of Mr Bale and will be paying him a staggering £300,000 a week.

Many papers and news reports have filled their pages and broadcasts with stories about how obscene these amounts are. How can someone that plays a sport for a living possibly be paid so much?

Of course, football has never lived in the real world like the rest of us, and shelling out huge amounts of cash on players has never been an issue. The clubs with the most money pay the most and players are simply viewed as assets. If a football was a normal business and that business paid so much for a new asset or acquisition, not many people would blink. It’s the fact that we’re talking about a person that makes it difficult to comprehend such vast sums. Placing a real value is difficult.

The same thing applies to copywriting and many of the other creative services. Knowing how to place a value on it is probably the hardest part of the job. Too expensive and people won’t be willing to pay. Too cheap and people will think you’re not much cop. The key lies in education and explaining why you charge what you do and, much like a footballer, what return on investment you can offer.

What Gareth Bale will bring to his new club is an increase in shirt sales, a bigger global audience and may just be the difference between them winning and losing the Champions’ League, thereby earning them more money. They’ll be paying for him in instalments too, so over three-years you could argue the revenue he will bring will pay for his transfer and wages.

That’s how copywriting works. It can help attract more customers, draw attention to your brand and get you found on Google. It will pay for itself. A press release printed in the local paper, for example, could get your business in front of thousands of readers for a relatively small fee. Running an advert in the same paper could cost you ten-times more than the press release but people will be less inclined to read it. And paying a copywriter to write the words on your website will ensure it’s engaging, compelling and search engine optimised. The amount spent will be more than worth it in the long run, and you’ll receive a healthy return on your investment.

As a copywriter, I can’t promise better shirt sales or that you’ll win the biggest prize in domestic football. But I can promise you’ll see real value in your investment and it won’t cost you £85m (unless you want to pay me that much).

Keep cheese and waffles confined to your plate, not your newsletters

I recently received a newsletter from a marketing company in my inbox. Not an unusual experience for most of you I’m sure, and it’s not for me either. I must get hundreds over the course of a year from businesses of all sizes and types whether I’ve subscribed to them or not. Sometimes I read them if I’m curious, need a break or because, as a copywriter, I write newsletters regularly for clients and have a natural interest in how others write them.

This occasion was one of the times I was curious about the newsletter, so I started to read. The first thing I noticed – for the wrong reasons – was the introduction. It had 5-lines of text and no-less than 4-exclamation marks in the opening paragraph. There was no need for any of them. The newsletter had begun by trying to make a witty comment and had emphasised it by inserting exclamation marks after every couple of words. The result came across as cheesy and unprofessional. It didn’t make me want to carry on as an interested reader but I did so simply to see how the rest of the document was written.

The newsletter continued in much the same manner. There was mixing of tenses, too many exclamation marks, bad grammar, homophone miss-use and lots and lots of waffle.  Most of the articles and items inside contained serious marketing tips that could probably work for most businesses but their message was lost because of the way they were written. The company concerned was trying to portray a less-corporate side through its newsletter and injecting a bit of humour and personality into it. There’s nothing wrong with that but filling the page with sentences and paragraphs that aren’t needed and writing in such a light-hearted way just turned me off. Ending nearly every statement with an exclamation mark made most of the content read like a kids’ comic or magazine, and not a respectable, serious business newsletter.

Newsletters, printed or online, remain a great way to engage with your clients. You can show a less corporate side and personality that’s often lacking on your website or brochure. But it has to stay professional and reflect your brand. If the newsletter’s tone is too informal and it contains spelling and grammatical errors, your customers won’t be impressed. Will they want to be featured in it or want to receive it in the future if they feel that’s what your company represents? A good newsletter should be relevant, interesting and have a mix of serious and fun items in it. Think about your favourite magazine or newspaper. Why do you like them? It’s probably because the articles are well-written, are of interest to you and give you information that’s useful. A business newsletter should do the same.

Cheese and waffle make a tasty meal on your plate. Keep them there, not in your newsletters.

 

 

Crown Office Typo Highlights Need for Proofreading Press Releases

A howler of a spelling mistake by the Scottish Crown Office has shown for the need for employing professional help when writing press releases, as it spelt the word “illegal” incorrectly twice on its website, and on the release issued to the media

The mistake appeared on the subject line of the press release and in its opening line, where it was written as “illgeal” in both cases. It has since been corrected on the organisation’s website. The story, concerning a trader prosecuted for the illegal storing of waste, has received very little media focus compared to the spelling mistake on the press release.

And that’s a shame because, despite the popularity of Twitter as a news gathering source, press releases are still a reliable way to get stories into the media, whether printed, broadcast or online . But, as this case shows, you have to do it properly. Starting with the basics of spelling and grammar.

There’s a few things you do to help eliminate spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in your press releases, and other forms of the written word. The first thing to do is simply spell check your work once you’ve finished. Make sure you set your spellchecker to the right region though, and select UK rather than American English. If you find any mistakes, don’t add them to the spellchecker’s dictionary or it won’t spot them next time!

Spell checking isn’t enough on its own though, as many words in the English Language sound the same but are spelt differently, like luck and look. It’s important you get these right in your press release as they’ll pass through a spellchecker without being flagged as wrong.

Read your words over and over again and edit where needed. Don’t just look out for typos. Think about paragraph construction and their order. Would one paragraph sound better at the beginning rather that the end or could you do away with it altogether? Read your press release aloud and print it out if this helps too, as mistakes are often easier to spot like this.  And don’t be afraid to ask someone else for their opinion or to proofread it for you. They will offer you an opinion you hadn’t thought of and find things you’ve missed.

There are loads of programmes available on the Internet too if you don’t want to use a friend or colleague or simply want another pair of virtual eyes to be cast over your words. Try www.checkyourtext.com or www.grammarly.com as these will point out where you’ve gone wrong. Be careful to use the right country again though as, like spellcheck, it gives you the choice of several different areas with differing ways of using language.

A final option is to use professional help.  Employing a freelance professional copywriter will guarantee your press release is written correctly, and is in the format the media likes. That way, your business story will be the news, not its poorly written press release.

It’s Not English, so it doesn’t Matter

This was the response I got from my fifteen-year old son when I glanced at his homework recently, and pointed out that he should be using capitals on proper nouns.  As we continued talking about it, he revealed that his teachers simply correct spelling and grammar mistakes in his work, unless it’s English, and marks aren’t deducted.

This made me think back to when I was at school, and I know it wasn’t the case then. I was born in the Seventies and attended high-school in the Eighties. Proper use of punctuation and spelling was seen as vitally important back then, and I can distinctly remember being pulled up on mistakes. I certainly dropped marks for making them, which helped give me a good grasp of language that I carried forward with me in to adulthood.

My son does well at school and is in the top set for English, so he does know how to do it correctly. But, being from the text generation, he’s used to not doing things properly as, in his own words, it doesn’t matter. I think he’s wrong though; it does matter. Not using proper nouns, commas and full-stops every time you write makes you like you don’t know how to write correctly, and is a terrible habit to develop after you leave school, and enter the world of work.

I used to be employed in the corporate world, and I’d receive hundreds of badly-written emails every day from people around the business. Most of them were full of incorrectly spelled words, mis-used apostrophes and the wrong homophone. They used to drive me mad. Most of them were from management, who I always assumed should have known better. The senders of these emails probably thought it didn’t matter to send grammatically incorrect emails as long as they got their point across. And perhaps they were right. Maybe the majority of people didn’t care about either.

They’d be wrong though. In the long term, it could be disastrous for business. Back in 2011, the BBC published an article about poor spelling on websites costing millions of pounds in lost revenue to the British economy. Misspellings put consumers off as they feel the company can’t be trusted, and have concerns about its credibility.  The Yorkshire Building Society also hired several Editors around the same time to correct customer letters written by newly-employed Graduates before they were posted out.

Using our own wonderful language correctly is something we should all do. Whatever we’re doing. English is a brilliant, diverse language full of thousands of different words and rules.  Grammar’s used for a reason. It helps clarify meaning, shows us where the natural breaks are in a sentence and helps things flow. Not using it properly has the opposite effect. Text becomes confusing and jumbled when we read it, and often we give up trying to.

So, to everyone who thinks it doesn’t matter; I say you’re wrong. A focus on the basics of literacy and reading and writing is vital in every aspect of life. To me, language is a joy and nothing gives me more pleasure than reading a great book bursting with wonderful prose. And nothing gets my goat more than poorly written literature of any sort. 

It’s simple, it does matter.

 

Nick Pagan