Archive for October, 2010

Copywriting Research for Beginners – Part Two

Fact Wrangling

It’s not enough merely to understand the difference between primary and secondary research. You then need to decide what to do with it and how to present it.  This is where a lot of newer copywriters feel overwhelmed or bogged down.

It helps to break this process down into four components:

  1. Hard fact
  2. Anecdotal information
  3. Your interpretation of your factual and anecdotal data
  4. Your final evaluation

Any good piece of copy is usually a mix of hard fact and anecdotal information.

  • Facts add authority and invite the reader’s trust
  • Anecdote adds color and human interest, piquing curiosity or empathy
  • Interpretation has you examining probabilities and implications – seeking more proof of the most likely possibilities
  • Final evaluation occurs when you decide on your strongest position and best angle

How It Works in the Real World

A fact is a piece of information that has its own objective life and can be proven.  When you uncover a core fact, it can’t be changed by anything you think or feel.

Example:  “A horse is a quadruped”.  This can be proven.

Anecdotal information is what someone else tells you about a particular horse.

Example:  “I just buried a horse that had a horn stub, right in the center of its forehead.  Part unicorn, it was…”

Interpretation consists of weighing the facts you know about horses versus the anecdote to theorize possible explanations, directions to follow – and angles.

Example:  “Was it a rare species of goat?  Is my source pulling my leg?  Did the animal even exist?  Maybe it had some physical abnormality?  Did anyone else see it?”

kid with kidYou’re close to making a final evaluation here:  You decide on a couple of strong possibilities and go find supporting evidence – photographs of the horse, people who saw it.  You decide you need more primary data.  You locate and interview a vet who once examined the animal.  He tells you in his expert opinion, the `horn’ was simply abnormally granulated, hardened scar tissue from an old injury.

Final evaluation allows you to come up with the position you are going to take:

  • If you are writing for a tabloid, you won’t bother interviewing the vet, but instead will take a sensationalist, 100% anecdotal angle:  “Last Unicorn Unearthed in Wisconsin!
  • If you are writing for a fact-based equine magazine, you will lean heavily on your interview with the vet and write an article entitled:  “Wounds and Granulation – What Vets Say You Should Do”.
  • If you are writing for a children’s pony magazine, you might present a sentimental piece:  “Why Betsy Will Always be My Perfect Unicorn”.

When you keep this system of evaluating your data always in mind – fact, data, anecdote and interpretation – it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a sales letter or a short story: Strong, informed research will show you the way and gain the trust of clients and readers alike.

There’s no mystery about it:  If you’ve never taken a writing course you can become a copywriter fairly quickly – especially with the plethora of basic copywriting guides out there cutting out the esoteric stuff and going straight for the jugular (i.e. what clients want).

How successful or reputable a copywriter you become, however, depends on whether or not you “own” the basics – and there’s no shortcut for that.  So before I deliver those 7 meaty offline research tips I promised in the last post, let’s tackle the often glossed-over subject of basic research…

The first thing any journalist is trained in…

The Difference Between Primary Research and Secondary Research

If you sit down and Google subjects, you’re indulging in Secondary Research.   That’s reading and working from material others have written about a subject.

“Primary research” means getting to the source:

  • Talking to the subject, product creator or certified industry expert (“talking to” sounds so much less intimidating than “interviewing”)
  • Reading the actual, original material that people on the net have never seen but are quoting (and misquoting)
  • Testing or handling physical materials, products and methods yourself

For example, let’s say you wanted to write an article about popular horse “whisperer”, Pat Parelli.  If you contact Parelli yourself and interview him, you’re doing primary research: If you look up articles online about him, you’re dealing  with secondary research.

Which type do you think is more likely to help you to:

  • Make more impact with authenticity and authority?
  • Reveal facts others don’t know?
  • Be truly unique?

Yup.  Primary research.  Every time.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about evaluating what your research uncovers.  That sounds dead dry, I know; but learning how to sift and siphon your research data into four basic categories will help grow your confidence as a copywriter.

(If you have any questions or thoughts on the subject, be sure to leave a comment – I do answer.)

Why Research Shouldn’t be a Copywriting Secret

You’ve heard a lot of talk about content being “king” – but how do you make sure your content stands out from the rest?

You probably already know the standard tips for great online writing:

  • Use active verbs
  • Keep sentences short
  • Eliminate every weak word
  • Avoid adjectives and adverbs
  • Use “power” words in sales copy
  • Break up the text with bullet points and sub-heads

These are all highly relevant, but you need one more thing…

Rock-Solid Research

As someone with a magazine and newspaper background that spans 30 years, I’m constantly amazed at the amount of unoriginal material recycled into product after digital product.  I suspect it has nothing to do with using PLR and everything to do with hastily lifting data from online articles and calling that “research”.

It’s not.

If you truly want your articles to be original, make use of the 3 cardinal rules of writer’s research taught in journalism courses at every university:

  1. Keep a note of all sources – Even if your client isn’t interested in citations, you need to be able to back up your facts. Besides, you may wish to contact that particular expert or consult that particular government department for a future project.
  2. Be meticulous in your quotes and attributions.   Don’t change one word of a subject’s quote, be sure to cross-check spelling on names, and verify titles and dates. (Triple-check your spelling, while you’re at it…)
  3. Triple check your facts.  Where you are giving factual data, make sure it’s accurate.  Then make sure again.  And again.  (Assumption is the enemy of authoritative writing.)

To that I’d add my own # 4:  Learn to question every fact you dig up online.  Is this the originator’s post?  Is this the source?  Can this fact be cross-checked?  Disproven?  Is there any hidden twist to it no one else has uncovered yet?

I can’t stress this enough:  If you come across a fact on the net, don’t just lift it from the site – go back to the source.  Find the originator and get your facts from the horse’s mouth.

“But Online Copywriting is Different

You’ll always find those in online copywriting who scoff at being thorough:  They’ll tell you that online copywriting is “different”, and that grabbing a quick fact and pumping it out is okay – even necessary – in order to satisfy clients.

I won’t kid you:  Some of this fraternity make a lot of money.  Some are “successful”:  But if you care about your reputation as a copywriter, you won’t go for the easy buck.

It may surprise you to know that lack of quality is not exclusive to the world of online copywriting.  In offline journalism, those who are sloppy researchers are usually called “hacks”.

Making a Living vs. Ethics

There has always been a war between deadlines forcing people to “pump it out” and make a living, and the ethical duty of responsible, truthful writing.

After 30 years in publishing, both behind the scenes and on the scene, all I can tell you is this…

If your research is not original — if you don’t schedule time into your projects to go the extra mile — you won’t stand out.  Your copy will be exactly the same as 90% of all other copy on the net and you’ll drown amid the sea of competition.

And sloppy research always comes back to bite you in the patoosh, in the end.

Next post, we’ll cover 7 meaty offline sources of research material.

And if there’s anything else on copywriting you’d like discussed, just leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to schedule a post.

Bing Keywords Secret

Within the wonderful world of internet marketing, traditional Google keyword research is dying.  And I’ve got good reason for saying that:  I’ve discovered the Bing keywords secret.

I’d noticed lately that search results on Google were become sparse for certain topics. (I suspect it might have something to do with Google’s peculiar abhorrence for anyone who might make a dollar online except themselves.)

I decided to see what was happening on Bing, and was stunned by the meaty results I got.

I put these Bing keywords to use, and my article clients quickly reported back that they were getting noticeably higher results using articles written with my Bing keywords.

Facebook and Bing Integration

It shouldn’t be surprising. Facebook is conjoined with Bing — not Google. Just the other day, Mashable reported that Facebook and Bing were rumored to be planning integration of Facebook-like data into search. As you no doubt know, Facebook seems to have taken over the globe this year — they’ve even made a movie about it (which reportedly spiked Facebook’s popularity by a ridiculous degree, within days of its opening).

Facebook comparison in QuantcastA look at data on analytics sites such as Quantcast and Alexa show a rapidly-ascending rise in Facebook’s use since August 2010. Alexa lists Facebook in the #2 spot, snapping at Google’s heels.  Considering Google has traditionally controlled and ruled the net since its birth, that’s truly something to think about.

Bing is also clean and streamlined.  And — unlike Google lately — doesn’t crash twice or more daily. But that’s a minor point, compared to the heady fact that, thanks to its Facebook connection, it’s setting itself up as a true “social search” engine.

Has Google Suggest Migrated to Bing?

Bing also provides you with a juicy list of searches that drop down the instant you enter your keyword (exactly like the old “Google Suggest” function I’ve been missing).

Will I abandon Google?  Certainly not.  True `Research’ means covering your subject thoroughly and squeezing out every last drop, looking for the diamonds among the dewdrops.  And considering Google does still sit in #1 spot, it would be plain foolhardy to throw the baby out with Google’s murky bathwater.

But while my clients are reporting noticeably positive results, Bing is going to be a vital part of my online research protocol.