Start your own small business, especially online, and you’ll quickly need to develop a range of brand new skills: a little bit of HTML; a touch of Web design; some knowledge of usability; a grounding in marketing channels. But the skill you’re likely to be drawing on most is a version of a technique you’ve known since you were a child: the ability to write. Whether you’re creating sales copy, writing a blog or even just sending an email, you’ll need to do more than just put one letter after another. You’ll need to craft copy that persuades.
That’s a very different kind of writing skill and it’s one that depends entirely on context. Writing headlines is different from writing email subject lines and crafting a newsletter demands a different approach from that used when keeping a blog up to date. Even if you’re planning to outsource the writing to a professional at some point, you should still have enough basic knowledge to know what to ask for and to judge the work you’re buying.
Copywriting experts will tell you that the headline is the most important aspect of any piece of marketing copy. They’re not wrong. The headline is always the first thing that the reader sees and it determines whether he reads on or looks away. But the role of headlines has changed. Sales letters, ruined by hard-pushing, online, long-form versions are giving way to softer versions, free even of sub-headings, such as those promoted by Darren Rowse’s Third Tribe Marketing, and to video marketing. The most important use of an online headline is fading away while its traditional use, in billboards and ads, isn’t relevant on the Web.
Where headlines do remain important though is on Web copy. Even here though, the semi-pro business owner has one advantage over a professional copywriter: non-professional writers just want to get to the point; professional copywriters can be tempted to want to show how clever they can be, as though they’re writing as much for their portfolio as for their client’s bottom line. When Robert Bly reminds readers in The Copywriter’s Handbook that “The goal of advertising is not to be liked, to entertain, or to win advertising awards; it is to sell products,” he’s telling copywriters something that clients already need know.
That simple approach is always the best, especially on current website designs which use a large headline and an equally bold button to bring readers in.
Best approach: Don’t use Web copy headlines to persuade; use them to inform.
Email Subject lines
You can think of email subject lines as a kind of subset of headlines. They serve the same purpose, turning readers into curious leads. But unlike headlines, email subject lines reach readers unsolicited — they come to the user — so they have to work harder. And they do that by being simple, friendly and often non-salesy. According to email marketing expert Stephanie Miller, the best subject lines are deceptively simple. Like a good headline, they tell readers what to expect inside the message. That usually means keeping the text short but relevant, and avoiding spam words such as “free” and “buy now” while still keeping the value of the content clear. Numbers, like list posts, have been shown to improve read rates, she argues together with co-authors Matt Blumberg and Tami Forman in Sign Me Up!: A Marketer’s Guide to Email Newsletters that Build Relationships and Boost Sales.
One important difference between subject lines and headlines though is that email marketers can draw on knowledge of the subscriber gained at sign-up to send targeted messages to different readers. By segmenting lists, a business can send one subject line to a subscriber who provided an email address in return for a booklet of dessert recipes, for example, and another to someone who downloaded soup recipes.
Best approach: Send different subject lines to different subscribers. Keep the writing simple and personal, and avoid messages with subject lines that contain offer words such as “free” and “download now.”
Where your writing skills are going to be most in demand is in keeping your business blog up to date. That’s more crucial than it sounds. Google weighs dynamic sites, those with frequently refreshed content, more heavily than sites with static content, forcing serious business owners to keep adding new pages if they want to stay visible in search results.
According to Matt Cutts though, Google’s SEO expert best known for enforcing Webmaster guidelines, frequency of posts is less important than quality of posts. Frequent posting might bring in traffic by giving readers a reason to return each day but it’s the discussions and back links generated on high quality posts that attract the search engine’s interest. Cutts cites Mike Masnick of Techdirt, a technology blog, as an example of a blogger who maintains a high search engine ranking despite infrequent posting because his posts generate discussion, comments and links.
In terms of style and the content itself, blogs are flexible enough to provide room for a variety of different approaches, and the type of content they contain will depend on the kind of business they’re trying to promote. Photographers’ blogs can load up on images with just enough text to keep the search engines happy; blogs written to support software firms aimed at developers might contain plenty of jargon to keep its readership happy.
The length of posts can vary too. A quick update can be as short as a couple of hundred words. A long exploratory post can run into a few thousand. Which of those you use depends as much on your relationship with your audience, as your own writing preferences. The more valuable and usable your content, the more likely readers are to continue investing their time in reading it.
Best approach: Think before you write and blog when you have something valuable to say. Short posts might keep regular readers checking in but long posts that promote discussions will attract the search engines. Write naturally and clearly, but drop unnecessary colloquial interjections such as “okay” and sentences that start with “Well…” The key is to write as though you’re writing to a friend but not as though you’re talking to one.