Avoid These Poor Copywriting Practices That Can Drag Your Brand Down
By Jim Vivirito, Senior Writer
Writing, they say, is an art form. However, it’s one with many distinct disciplines under its umbrella. There’s journalism, novel writing, poetry, scriptwriting, songwriting, grant writing, PR writing, and the list goes on. At the same time, writing is somewhat of a science, based on specific rules of grammar and structure. Now, while having talent and skills helps, just because you’re proficient in one type of writing, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be as proficient in another.
Take marketing writing, for instance. Like P.T. Barnum, a marketing writer must be part showman, part salesman, able to capture consumers’ attention with clever, insightful, or emotional copy and persuade them to action, mostly the buying of a product or service. As its own unique discipline, marketing writing has its most effective, time-proven practices. On the other hand, it also has its poor practices or “bad habits” that should be broken if one is to be successful in the medium.
As a seasoned (salted and peppered) copywriter myself, you’d think that I’d have kicked all such bad habits long ago, but when writing for multiple different pieces for the plethora of channels that exist today, I still have slip ups from time to time. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re prone to some yourself. Marketing writing is a craft with tools that require constant sharpening and avoiding the many haphazards that can adversely affect your success.
What can you do to be a better marketing writer? To start, you should always be reading, especially other marketing content that’s out there. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” said Stephen King. “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” This applies to all types of writing.
You should also always keep in mind the 4 C’s of copywriting and make sure your writing is clear, credible, concise, and compelling. Another thing you can do is reflect on the following 12 bad habits and, if you’re guilty of having them, work on breaking them. Otherwise your writing bad habits will lead to you…losing customers.
1. Not Writing to Your Target Audience
Whether you’re a business owner, musician, comedian, or politician, you should know your crowd before you put yourself in front of them, lest you get boos and yawns rather than cheers and smiles. Knowing exactly who your audience is, what they want to hear (or read), and how best to speak to them is essential to effective communication and, ultimately, persuasion. When marketing writing, you must study, research, and work to understand their needs, motivations, and frustrations in order to write compelling content.
And it’s not just about giving them what they want; it’s also about not losing them with writing that doesn’t appeal to them. You have to get out of the habit of writing what you like reading. In order to connect with potential and existing customers, write to them, not you.
If you’re not quite sure who your target audience should be, then you should consider market research and other areas of insight gathering before moving forward with any lofty marketing efforts.
2. Using the Wrong Voice or Tone
Breeding familiarity and loyalty, your brand’s “voice” reflects the essence of your business and the values, attitude, and personality that you want associated with your brand. Tailored to your audience, your voice should remain consistent across all messaging.
There are a number of types of voices a brand can adopt, be it inspirational, formal, light-hearted, serious, confident, altruistic, and so forth. Meanwhile, your business should have brand guidelines or a style guide defining that voice to which all communications should adhere.
When it comes to specific deliverables, your tone can shift depending on the type of content. For instance, a brand with a humorous voice may use a more serious tone in a late-bill email or informative blog. Similarly, a more formal brand may choose to be more conversational in social media posts.
Now, if your writing doesn’t match your brand’s set voice or uses the wrong tone (e.g. being flippant in a Memorial Day post), you can confuse your audience, lose their attention, or alienate them.
3. Writing Too Much or Too Little
When writing for different marketing channels like blogs, ads, and social media, it isn’t easy to adjust from one to the other and that’s especially true when it comes to length of copy.
Different social channels have not only different maximum character counts but also different optimal copy lengths due to their unique audiences. For some, like Instagram and X (formerly Twitter), shorter copy works best, while others like Facebook and LinkedIn tolerate a bit more copy as their readers are more prone to read it.
In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the golden-haired girl didn’t want the porridge that was too hot, or too cold, she wanted the bowl that was just right. Think of your writing the same way. Respective of the channel you’re using, try to stay in between the two extremes, right in the middle where it should be most effective.
Granted, the “most-effective” numbers are hard to nail down with so many online sources and shifting guidelines. Taking a look at competitors and other businesses who you feel do the job well should be a good barometer for how much copy to use.
While SEO and different channels have their preferred lengths, when you’re still not sure, a good rule of thumb to write by is to keep it short and sweet as long as you’re getting your message across.
4. Crafting Weak Lines
From taglines to headlines, the “lines” you write are typically the first messaging a potential customer may see when seeing your ad or reading your blog. That makes it your first and often only chance to impress and draw them in.
Whether clever, persuasive, humorous, emotional, or edgy, your lines should be memorable, quick-hitting attention-grabbers. Short, precise, and relevant taglines, headlines, and subheaders are the welcoming messages to the content to come. While you can elaborate and further persuade in the copy that follows, it won’t matter if the opening lines don’t evoke enough curiosity to cause the reader to go further.
Again, you need to know your channels. For instance, blog readers tend to prefer titles featuring numbered lists, emotional ties, and DIY advice such as How to’s. Meanwhile, a tagline that’s more than say 5-6 words is probably too long, so the few words you choose really matter.
Maybe your blog titles and subtitles aren’t always the strongest; that’s forgivable and fixable. What isn’t is a poorly written tagline or slogan, mainly because of how much you have invested in it, usually with entire campaigns or brand identities tied to it.
5. Being Befuddling or Misleading
A greater writing sin than writing weak lines is copy that doesn’t make sense or jive with what follows. A weak yet clear, honest headline or tagline can at least get the point across and maybe draw some people in, but a confusing one is practically useless.
The same goes for all marketing copy that takes too long to understand or, potentially worse, is downright unintelligible or misleading. Again, clarity and simplicity are essential to speaking to the masses across a wide range of IQs and backgrounds. And, while click bait will most definitely get you some more clicks, it’s likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of clickers and lose their trust.
6. Causing Yawns or Yikes
Two sides of the same problematic coin, overly boring or overly edgy, can cause problems, especially if it’s off brand. Monotonous, uninteresting, or unoriginal copy is ineffective at drawing in others and persuading action. Meanwhile, messaging that’s too provocative may not only turn away readers but also end up going viral for all the wrong reasons, and in today’s environment, that can be devastating to your brand.
Now, some industries are inherently serious, e.g. finance, medicine, and manufacturing. That still doesn’t mean you can’t make your copy compelling. A talented copywriter can and should breathe new insights and life into even the most mundane subjects. Likewise, some brands are naturally edgy, which is fine, as long as that marketing doesn’t go too far and alienate prospective customers.
7. Coming Off as Overly Clever, Stuffy, or Salesy
Great storytellers have a knack for colorful, compelling writing. As a writer, you’re no stranger to the many tools of compelling writing, such as alliteration, rhyme, metaphors, and idioms. While you should be using all of these and more in your writing, you don’t want to come off as trying to be too clever or stuffy, sounding more like a Dr. Seuss book or school essay. You don’t have to impress as much as communicate effectively.
At the same time, you don’t want to be aggressively selling in all your writing, especially in collateral pieces such as blogs and social media. Keep your informative blogs just that, informative, without pushing your product or service in every paragraph. The best course of action is to be as conversational and authentic as possible.
8. Sounding Tragically Unhip or Obscure
Making a reference to the Canadian band The Tragically Hip, whose heyday was the 80s and 90s, when speaking to a 2020s American audience is likely both unhip and obscure. Now if you’re talking to an older or niche audience, this might be fine or even appropriate, but for most audiences, it’s wise to keep things topical and more accessible when possible. This goes back to knowing who your audience is and what they want to hear, and then speaking the language to which they respond best.
Now, trying too hard to appear cool and overdoing it on buzzwords and current slang can be just as bad. Younger audiences can spot an old man telling dad jokes from behind his keyboard a mile away. Do your research and due diligence to remain relevant but keep your writing as organic and natural-sounding as possible.
9. Providing Little to No Direction
With marketing writing, one of your top priorities should be persuading your audience to take some sort of action, whether it’s checking out your product selection, making a purchase, or subscribing to a newsletter. This is why calls-to-action are so essential.
A weak or nonexistent CTA can sink your ad, post, blog, email, commercial, or homepage, while a good CTA gives clear direction as to what action the user should take next, gives them a compelling reason to do so, and creates a sense of urgency. While directing visitors to click links are the most common online CTAs, non-digital marketing CTAs include calling customers to visit website URLs, scan QR codes, and come to the store for a sale or to use a coupon.
Don’t be afraid to veer from the cliche Click Here or Buy Now CTAs and get a little creative online, keeping in mind that you should be creating an easy path toward the next part of the sales funnel.
10. Focusing on Features Rather Than Benefits
Customers don’t care as much about the size, appearance, or other features of your project as much as they care about what that means to them. For instance, the key feature of a cooler may be its large size. That’s great, but what problem does it solve or benefit does it provide? Making it easier for a fan to bring more cold beverages to the epic tailgate party.
Rather than just throwing measurements, colors, and other features out there, addressing your audience’s real-life pain points and how your product will improve their lives is much more likely to convince them to buy.
11. Using Pour Grammer
If you fancy yourself a writer, this should be obvious, but it’s nevertheless an important bad habit to kick. Nothing ruins a reader’s experience and turns them away like sloppy, lazy grammar. From typos to ungrammatical sentences, poor writing fundamentals reflect a lack of seriousness, professionalism, and desire to communicate properly.
To maintain credibility and keep a reader’s attention, take time to proofread an ad or blog and get more than one set of eyes on it before publishing it. And don’t be overly reliant on spell check; it doesn’t always get things right (e.g missing the use of a wrong homophone such as poor and pour).
12. Ignoring SEO
Twenty-some years ago, Search Engine Optimization wasn’t even a thing. Today, it’s a key aspect of effective online writing, and it’s changed the rules for marketing writers. SEO influences the way search engines view your site, and more importantly, how high they rank it. Remember, the higher your site ranks, the more likely a prospect will click on it.
More science than art, it does take some artistic flair and finesse to incorporate keywords and phrases organically into your website copy without sounding odd or forced. SEO writing requires you to strike the right balance without overdoing it, while creating quality internal links and external links to reliable sources.
If you write for digital channels, you have to understand SEO basics. And if you’re like most writers (me included), SEO writing can be stifling and frustrating at times. However, if you ignore SEO, you could write Pulitzer-prize winning stuff, but who cares if know one reads it?
Remember, as a writer, you’re never going to be perfect; you’re going to have the occasional typo, sentence fragment, weak headline, wrong tone, or overly long post slip by. All you can do is work hard at getting better at your craft to reduce those mistakes while also relying on others to help point out when you’ve got wrong. Healthy feedback is key to getting better as a writer. By the way, this blog post is probably longer than it should be. 😉
At M:7 Agency, we carefully craft our clients’ copy whether it be for a website, social media, commercial, or ad. In fact, we can handle all of your creative, communications, and grant writing needs to help grow your business. Contact us today for help taking your writing to the next level.