B-to-B Insights: Sometimes Old-School Is Better
The search engine Google is a boon to freelance copywriters, giving us fast access to much more information than we could ever dig up at those old-fashioned data depositories we used to call "libraries." As a result, it's easier to write stronger copy today, because specifics sell, and Google gives us all the specifics we need.
For instance, I recently wrote a promotion for a brand of omega-3 fish oil that advertised how the oil was harvested only from wild-caught, and not farmed, fish. So, in my copy I had to make the case that oil from farmed fish is less healthy. To support my effort, I found a fascinating fact on Google that I used in my copy to good effect: Farm-raised salmon are dyed pink to fool the consumer into thinking they were wild-caught, and the dye can damage the human retina. Strong stuff.
Writing the Same Old, Tired Copy
However, great as Google is, I think it also has made many writers lazy and lowered the quality of many articles being written today. "How so," you ask.
Twenty-first century writers are lazy. Give them an article assignment on topic X to write. They Google X, lift stuff from half a dozen articles they find on X, and cobble them together into a new article on X. But the new article contains no new information. It's just warmed-over Internet research, repackaged.
6 Examples of Research Done Right
I started writing as an amateur in the 1960s, and professionally in the late 1970s. And back then, writers and copywriters did research on a much deeper level that gave us an in-depth understanding of the topic you cannot get just from reading articles online.
For instance, in 1979 I wrote a feature article for the Baltimore City Paper on stock car racing. To research the article, I went to the track, sat in the bleachers, and watched the races for an evening.
Then I went deeper: I interviewed the track manager who had the important job of keeping the track surface in optimal condition for racing. I interviewed fans, drivers and mechanics. The top driver let me sit in the passenger seat after the races and took me around the track fast, so I could feel and understand the bumps and bruises the drivers were subjected to. This is something you can't get from Googling "stock car racing."
Another time, I visited a plant that made reverse osmosis filtration systems for water treatment. I watched the engineer pour dirty water in one end and hold a glass in front of the exit pipe, which produced clear, clean water. He drank it. So did I. And I knew firsthand how sweet the water tasted.
For Westinghouse, I had to write a brochure about the TPS-43 radar, sold primarily to airports for air traffic control. I suspect many copywriters today would just ask the client for specs and other documentation.
I drove to the nearby BWI airport, which had a TPS-43 installed and got permission to climb inside the small room atop the air traffic control tour where it was housed, and watched the gear spin the radar dish. To get some interesting shots, the Westinghouse photographer and I stood on the runway as planes landed to the left and right of us with the spinning radar in front of us. I had a Westinghouse engineer open the panel of a unit on the shop floor and explain to me all the major components.
In the 1980s, when I wrote a lot of copy for PC software, the software came with warranty cards the users had to fill out to activate their warranties. On the cards, the software publishers left space and asked for comments about the product. I wrote many successful software ads and mailings using comments taken from these warranty cards.
When we were selling the annual drug directory Physician's Desk Reference, we discovered by talking with customers that they kept their PDR for many years to avoid paying for a new one, figuring that most of the information in it was current. But it was not.
We convinced them their PDR was in fact dangerously out of date and they should not use it to make prescribing decisions by sending them a mailer saying so. This was so successful it pulled triple the orders of all previous PDR mailings.
For a recent project on an anti-wrinkle face cream, I spoke to the marketing director as most copywriters would do, but I also spoke to the scientist who created the formulation. In that conversation, he revealed that a special encapsulation technology, used to deliver the anti-wrinkle ingredients to the interior of skin cells, was the same one used to ensure chemotherapy drugs were delivered into the interior of tumors. This gave me the idea for a promotion on how advanced life-saving technology could now make your face smooth, supple and wrinkle-free.
2 More Examples of Research Leading to Writing Top Copy
Joe Sacco, a Madison Avenue copywriter in the 1960s, got the assignment to write ads for needles diabetics used to inject insulin. Not being a diabetic, he interviewed customers to find out what was important. The diabetics told him they liked his client's brand of needle because it was sharp.
This surprised Joe. He asked the diabetics, "Wouldn't that hurt?" But in fact, the sharper a needle, the easier it goes in and the more painless it is. And Joe wrote a successful campaign around his client having the sharpest needle.
David Ogilvy, looking for an idea to advertise Rolls Royce, was reading through an automotive technical journal when he found an article saying that the Rolls ran so quiet, the loudest noise at 60 mph was the electric clock. He used this practically verbatim as the headline in one of the most famous car ads of all time.
Going to the library is superior to Google in one way: While browsing books and flipping through magazines, you often stumble upon treasures you weren't even looking for. Google searches are so specific that the problem is, we only find exactly what we were looking for, and nothing else.
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter who has written copy for more than 100 clients including IBM, AT&T, Praxair, Intuit, Forbes, and Ingersoll-Rand. McGraw-Hill calls Bob “America’s top copywriter” and he is the author of 90 books, including “The Copywriter's Handbook.” Find him online at www.bly.com or call (973) 263-0562.