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Does Your Marketing Copy Have Earfeel?

September 19th, 2019
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Each line of copy on your websites and in your advertising should have a job. That job may be to help communicate the value proposition. Or it may be to reduce anxiety.

But don’t let the necessity of function blind you to the importance of form in the headline.

At the end of the day, it is communication. And so your copy needs a certain earfeel.

After all, great advertising and branding doesn’t just get a point across. It gets the earfeel just right. Whether it’s a headline (“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”), a tagline (The Ultimate Driving Machine), a credo (Truth Well Told) or an organization name (Wounded Warrior Project).

This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

What is earfeel, and why is it important?

If you’ve never heard the word earfeel before, don’t feel bad. Admittedly, I just made it up. But I think it is the perfect way to express the need for marketing copy to not just be words that literally summarize a thought, but also communicate them in a way that customers will comprehend and viscerally feel them.

I got the idea from mouthfeel, which Wikipedia defines as “the physical sensations in the mouth caused by food or drink, as distinct from taste.”

As an example, the Wikipedia page has a girl enjoying a peach. Something can look like a peach, taste like a peach, and smell like a peach, but if you don’t feel the fuzzy skin when you grab it and the tender flesh when you bite in … well, it’s just not a peach.

We know that intuitively.

Yet, we sometimes build headlines by simply checking off a checklist — trying to communicate four elements of our value prop and stuff them together. But if it doesn’t have earfeel, even though all the words are there, the message is just not getting through to anyone.

Here are some examples when that happens …

The headline isn’t really a headline

Just because there are words at the top of the page doesn’t mean you have a headline. A headline with earfeel should be welcoming and begin a conversation.

Take a look at this “headline”:  Business Dedicated Services Australia (from Copywriting: 5 proven discoveries that strengthen copy).

That lacks earfeel. You would never say that to another human being in a sentence. It reminds me of the old Coneheads sketch on Saturday Night Live, where a family of aliens could speak and understand English, but while everything they said was technically correct, it lacked earfeel …

Prymaat Conehead: I am engaged in preparing your favorite meal, small starch tubes combined with lactate extract of hooved mammals.

Beldar Conehead: Ah. You mean macaroni and cheese. I’m sure we will enjoy it.

The copy is trying to do too much

Headlines should work. They have a purpose. They stop people, pull them in, tell them where they are and what they can do. However, some companies take this perspective too far.

They want each element of copy to do too much. And as a result, it does nothing. It overwhelms the reader.

Hewlett-Packard’s email opt-in page had the headline “Driver, Patch, Security and Support alerts sign-up: create profile.”

A headline like that has all the information you need to know in it. But it’s trying to say it all at once. Like when you get home from work and your four-year-old tries to tell you every detail of the day in 12 seconds. You don’t retain a lot.

OhMyGoshDadYouWouldn’tBelieveItTommyFoundAFrogAndPutItInTheDog’sMouthBut
Roscoe
Didn’tLikeItSoHeBarkedWhichScaredWhiskersTheCatWhoJumpedOn …

As part of an effort that increased conversion rate 186% on an email opt-in page, the team at HP simplified the headline to “Get Connected with Updates from HP” and then sequenced the value to explain on top of the form that subscribers get “… updates on the latest technology, new products and solutions, promotions and events, and driver and support alerts …”

While it had impressive results, I wouldn’t say this is the perfect execution of an opt-in form. But the key lesson is that the team stopped trying to have the headline do everything, and that allowed them to create a line that had earfeel and start a conversation with the customer.

Copy that is too clever

Part of having good earfeel is that the copy flows effortlessly into the reader aiding comprehension. Sometimes when marketers try to write clever lines, they undercut that mission.

For example, when the team at AWeber tested “clever” email subject lines versus clear subject lines, clarity beat cleverness with an average of 541% more response.

Here is a look at some of the clever lines:

  • AWeber’s AWesome Anthony A.
  • Getting Earth-Friendly Beyond Email
  • Threadless’ Frequency Alert: Hot or Not?

None of these lines flows naturally into the reader. The first one overuses alliteration so the reader ends up tripping over the words, and the other two aren’t clear.

Everyone loves a truly clever line. The literal meaning of clever is “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas.” Quick to understand is what we’re going for.

Being clever does help because it can uncover the profound. Take one of the legendary examples I mentioned above, Truth Well Told. That is a clever line. Because in just three words you viscerally feel what the writer is trying to get across.

Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story is another example, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” There is an entire saga in those words.

But clever isn’t harming earfeel. Too clever is. And that is something else entirely. The definition of “Too clever by half” is “annoyingly proud of one’s intelligence of skill and in danger of overreaching oneself.” And that kills earfeel.

How does it happen? Sometimes, when marketers are attempting good writing, they try to go all out and force the issue too much. Far from elucidate, it irritates and confuses.

If you’re not a skilled copywriter, aim for clarity, not cleverness. The best way to get earfeel is just to have a conversation about your product with a friend and record it. You’ll naturally use very unforced language filled with humanity.

You can test your headlines as well. It’s easy to fall in love with our own creations, but testing them can tell you how the headline performs with customers.

A pro tip to writers and other creatives: When managing corporate creativity, sometimes it helps to have an outlet where your team can push the limits of clever without harming the brand. It might be on social media. Or an April Fool’s Day marketing prank. For my former colleague Pamela Jesseau and I, it was a contest that began with the blog post Millennials Something Snapchat Something Something. It was 80% a relevant marketing promotion, and 20% just a chance to air out our cleverness.

Too dictatorial

No one likes to be pushed around. And bossy language simply lacks earfeel.

Listen to some of the copy in an email opt-in form for Ferguson Enterprises. “Complete Customer Profile.” There is an implied “Though shalt …” in front of those words.

The team changed the language to have better earful and be more approachable — Customize My Preference, Sign Me Up — part of an effort that increased form submissions 120%.

Marketers want to garner an action from a customer to reach their business goals. When we’re too laser-focused on the goal, the knee jerk reaction can be to simply tell people to do it. But keep in mind it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

And that’s the bigger point I’m trying to get across. You can’t just review headlines and other copy in technical terms. Check, check, check, it has all three value points we’re trying to communicate. It tells them to do what we want them to do.

You’ve got to say it out loud. Say it to someone. Swish it around in your mouth some. Let it mellow. Read it out loud and ask your colleagues — does this have earfeel?

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

Related Resources

The Zen of Headline Writing: Learn the easiest way for any marketer to drive a conversion increase

Blandvertising: How you can overcome writing headlines and copy that don’t say anything

Marketing 101: Copywriting vs. Copy Editing vs. Content Writing

 

Effective Landing Pages: 30 powerful headlines that improved marketing results

August 8th, 2019
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There are 21 psychological elements that power effective web design (see infographic). Of those elements, one of the first your customers will experience is the headline.

21 design elements

(You can download a PDF of this infographic here.)

 

A powerful headline is your make-or-break opportunity to connect with the customer and get them to engage with the rest of your page — and ultimately convert.

We’ll provide you oodles of examples of effective headlines in this MarketingSherpa blog post to help spark ideas as you brainstorm your own headlines. And you can delve deeper into all 21 of those psychological elements in the following videos from MarketingSherpa’s sister brand, MarketingExperiments:

The 21 Psychological Elements that Power Effective Web Design (Part 1)

The 21 Psychological Elements that Power Effective Web Design (Part 2)

The 21 Psychological Elements that Power Effective Web Design (Part 3)

(This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.)

 

Now on to the examples …

Like with your own landing pages, in many of these examples the headline wasn’t the only factor that affected performance. However, a different headline is a pretty significant change on a website and is usually a major contributing factor to a change in performance. The best performing headlines below are bolded.

Before: We’re here to help.
After: Simplifying Medicare for You
Results: 638% more leads

You can read more about the above headline in Landing Page Optimization: How Aetna’s HealthSpire startup generated 638% more leads for its call center

Before: About The GLS
After: Two Days of World-Class Leadership Training
Results: 16% increase in attendance

You can read more about the above headline in Customer-First Marketing: How The Global Leadership Summit grew attendance by 16% to 400,000

Read more…

Ask MarketingSherpa: Making a career shift (to B2B copywriting)

June 6th, 2018
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We frequently receive questions from our email subscribers asking marketing advice. Instead of hiding those answers in a one-to-one email communication, we occasionally publish some of them here on the MarketingSherpa blog so they can help other readers as well. If you have any questions, let us know.

 

Dear MarketingSherpa: I came across your organization because I was searching for data showing which/what kinds of companies and industries care most about well-written marketing copy, in all forms.

I am taking on a career shift from many years of Software Engineering and Project Management, and I am targeting B2B copywriting, with a niche somewhere in the high-tech sector. I know that is too general, as just about every company today is facing high-tech challenges whether or not they know it, and I need to go much narrower.

Admittedly I am in the early stages of this transition, but I am trying to focus my efforts as much as possible. My thoughts are to eventually produce materials such as white papers, case studies, explainer video scripts, but those require more expertise and track record than blogs, short articles, etc., which is where I feel I could start. At this point I’m very open to any start.  I’m planning to get a website up and start posting some blogs on it, but I’m researching how I want to do that, too.

But back to Marketing Sherpa — As I make a wide scan of potential clients it occurs to me there will be many people who just don’t care and don’t need clean, coherent, well-organized copy. I don’t need to expend my efforts there. At the other end of the spectrum there should be people in industries where the slightest misstatement or grammatical error can sabotage one’s attempts. That’s where I want to work.

I would welcome any suggestions you might have on this point, and since I am still such a green twig in this new field, any other counsel would be great. Do the ideas I have laid out above sound sound?

Thanks in advance!

Rob Tompkins, PMP, CSM, LSSGB
Allen, Texas

Dear Rob: Thanks for your question. If you’re looking to break into B2B copywriting, the number one skill set you must prove is that you can write effective copy. And the clearest way I know to do that is to write effective copy. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Start blogging

You’re on the right track with your idea to start a website and begin blogging on it. You’d be amazed how many aspiring writers I interview who don’t do this.

When I was just starting out, you had to work hard to build your book (portfolio). Try to find an internship or nonprofit or anyone who would let you write for them. Sure, you could do spec work. But that wasn’t nearly as valuable as having real published work for an actual client.

Today, you can publish to the entire world with the push of a button. Yes, in some ways it’s still spec work. But unlike a dot matrix printout hidden in my giant black portfolio, your blog gets exposure to the world. You can share it on social media. You can look at the analytics to see who’s reading it. You can solicit comments. You can attempt to interview people on your blog.

So, by all means, do it. Start that website. Start that blog. Get yourself out there.

Read more…

Copywriting: Listen to customers so you can speak their language

December 1st, 2017
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Words matter. Both for their denotation (to ensure prospective customers understand your advertising) as well as for their connotation.

(Words are subtle indicators to tell a potential customer “we understand you specifically” and “this offer is meant for people like you.”)

To truly speak our customers’ language, we must listen to them because our customers may be very different from us.

No easy task. As Don Peppers and Martha Rogers say in Managing Customer Experience and Relationships, “‘Listening’ has never been part of most mass marketers’ primary skill set.” (I’m reading the book as a student of the University of Florida/MECLABS Institute Communicating Value and Web Conversion graduate certificate program.)

Read more…

Ask MarketingSherpa: Copywriting for non-native English speakers

September 8th, 2017
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We frequently receive questions about marketing advice from our email subscribers. Instead of hiding those answers in a one-to-one email communication, we’re going to start publishing some of them here on the MarketingSherpa blog since they may be able to help many other readers. And if you have any questions, let us know.

Dear MarketingSherpa: I wanted to ask you what would be the biggest advice you would give to a non-native English speaker who wants to develop outstanding copy writing.

Dear Reader: We’re all non-native in some way, right? When I started working as a contracted consultant to IBM, I didn’t speak their language either. It was my first tech job, and that industry (like every industry) has a language all its own.

So the best advice I can give you is to immerse yourself in English, especially its use in whatever industries you want to write for. Subscribe to respectable English-language newspapers and consumer and industry magazines and read them daily. Read not just the content but the advertising. Do the same with English-language blogs, websites, forums, social media, etc.

Also, run tests on your writing whenever you can to help understand what language most resonates with the ideal prospect.

Here’s an example — Test Your Marketing Intuition: Which PPC Ad Produced More Conversions?

When we ran that test, we didn’t know if the term “AccuraScope” would resonate with the ideal prospect. So we tested to discover the best words to use.

Best of luck with your copywriting career.

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content, MarketingSherpa, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

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Copywriting Research Chart: What do customers want from your copy?

Copywriting: 5 Proven Discoveries That Strengthen Copy

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Optimizing Copy: The 7 Most Common Copywriting Mistakes We See Marketers Make

Copywriting: A 5-step guide to a well-defined copy editing process

October 13th, 2015
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In my four years at MECLABS Institute, the parent company of MarketingSherpa, I’ve held a few different roles on the Editorial Content team.

However, my very first role was junior copy editor. Having been there and done that, it provides me a unique perspective to manage our current copy editor, Shelby Dorsey.

It’s a unique role. No one seems to know you’re there until you mess up. I can still remember that first email forwarded to me after a director in the company found a small mistake I overlooked in a newsletter send. It was horrifying.

Recently, Shelby and I have set out to help improve some of the processes around the copy editing role, and I know we aren’t the only ones who need help streamlining this area of marketing.

First on the list was increasing the turnaround times for the various content pieces.

To start the presentation, I wanted to find a quote that embodied what a copy editor is. In my search, I found the copy editor description Merrill Perlman wrote in her CNN article, “Why ‘America’ needs copy editors.”

Copy Editor Quote

 

It’s with this quote that I started a simple, but detailed internal PowerPoint deck outlining the copy editing process, requirements and timelines. To help you implement or improve your own copy editing process and procedures, we’re giving you an inside look at that deck.

Read more…

Creating Engaging Content: A five-step method for busting writer’s block

July 7th, 2015
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Ah … the ambience of a blank white computer screen. I am staring at one right now. There are the days when this glow speaks freedom and fresh opportunity and I take it. But then, there are those days, like right now, where the glow feels more like an impenetrable force field.

1

Although I’m not a great author, it’s a comfort to know that I am not alone in suffering from terrible writer’s block. Dorothy Parker, who wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, sent this note about it to her editor in 1945.

 

So what do I do when I know I have something to say, but I just can’t get it into words? Should I start scouring the Web to find something interesting to comment on? Or should I just rehash something that I have thought about or written about before? Or, the most tempting, do I just give up and hope my muse shows up tomorrow?

I’m not going to lie — all those methods can work, and have worked for me in the past.

However, there is one particularly useful approach that I have learned over the years for dealing with content writer’s block, particularly when you are on a deadline. Because — face it — as much as we would like to let creativity gently come to us, sometimes we have to go and take it by force.

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Designing Slides That Don’t Suck: 20 questions to ask before you present

March 24th, 2015
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When I first started at MarketingSherpa, I was hired under the title of “Visual Storyteller.” Although that title is ambiguous, I learned that I was hired to address a pain point that many professionals face: using PowerPoint efficiently.

My title has since changed, but I remain an advocate for fluent visual expression in the same way that editors are keen on using words efficiently.

As part of my position, I’ve consulted with many speakers over the past few years on creating effective presentations.

Time and time again, I find that confusion lies in how to treat PowerPoint. Many think of PowerPoint as a presentation buddy — that content is on the slides and coming out of the speaker’s mouth and bullet points are simply needed to reinforce the speaker’s message.

This is not true. A person can only process about 1.6 conversations at a time. He can choose to either listen to you or read your slides. The other .6 gets split between emails, texts and interior monologue, to name just a few other channels.

The dictators of any presentation include: audience, context, purpose and design.

audience content purpose design

Read more…

Copywriting: What software startup YNAB knows about creating compelling copy for a new product

January 2nd, 2015
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New products make it incredibly difficult to write effective copy. Most of the time the customer coming to the page has no idea what the product is or how it works, but more importantly, they also have no idea why it matters for them.

To really help your customers understand why a product or service is relevant to them, your copy has to build a “problem.” Take this video for YNAB product that helps you budget in a new way:

 

I don’t know if you caught it or not, but they spend a full 43 seconds of their 1:52 second video building to the problem. Out of all the problems built in copywriting, video or otherwise, this one is one of the best.

So what do they do to build their problem?

 

1. They have a clear objective.

You can’t begin to build a problem without a map to the overall objective. The objective of this video is to introduce the product and get people poking around on the website.

Without an objective, you might just be building a problem that you’ll never be able to help your customers out of.

Read more…

Copywriting: 7 more copy editing tactics to improve your content

January 24th, 2014
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In copy editing, there’s always something new to learn.

In the past few months since writing my first post on editing, “Content Marketing: 7 copy editing tips to improve any content piece,” I’ve had the chance to sit down with members of the Content Team at MECLABS and develop an updated company style guide.

Also, I was given the opportunity to move into the role of editorial analyst and have had the privilege of reviewing candidates for a new copy editor (we’re still looking if you’re interested).

All of these changes in my current role have made me reflect on practices and techniques I naturally developed over the past year. I’ve taken lessons learned from mistakes, tips from colleagues and from my own experiences in editing and found that you never really stop learning when it comes to perfecting your content.

 

Tip #1. Make a checklist

Sometimes, editing can seem overwhelming when there are so many things to check for accuracy:

  • Individual names
  • Company names
  • Job titles
  • Headlines
  • Links
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Bulleted lists
  • Images

Ultimately, anything used to create content needs to be vetted in the editing process.

To help keep your mind focused on the things you need to be looking out for, make checklists for yourself to ensure your editing covers all of the key elements in the piece.

Write them down and pin them to your cubicle wall or set reminders to refer back to while you’re editing, especially if you’re editing content that is particularly lengthy.

Checklists are also helpful when you’re implementing something new in your process. This can help you start remembering to include it in your daily routine.

 

Tip #2. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

As an editor, you have the power to change content as you see fit. The tone, context, word choices and everything else is in your hands.

But with great power comes great responsibility.

You should respect and consider two different groups of needs in order to improve your editing beyond simple grammar and punctuation changes:

  • The author’s need for a distinct voice.
  • The audience’s need for content that’s relevant to their interests and useful to their needs.

Respecting the author’s voice involves keeping it intact throughout. Good editors can spot who wrote an article without looking at a byline. Everyone has their own style of writing in the same way everyone has their own way of speaking.

While there may be changes for clarity or if something is just plain incorrect, editors should not go out of their way to remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.

This could mean removing an opinion if the article is not a subjective piece, but their style of writing should not be completely muted if it is not interfering with your editorial guidelines.

The second group you must respect is your audience, and the way to do this is to know them.

One way to do this is by reading the feedback you receive in your comments section. If people are expressing confusion or want to know more about a topic, address their needs by working those concerns into your next article or blog post.

As I’ve learned, one of the fastest ways to lose an audience is when using jargon. You may have a cozy understanding of it, but your audience doesn’t.

Do not include acronyms, terms or phrases that readers could be unfamiliar with. Instead, use a brief explanation and hyperlink to content that will help them gain a deeper understanding of the concepts.

 

Tip #3. Search engines are your best friend

Run into terms not in your stylebook?

Author using a phrase you’re not familiar with? Don’t just guess – search!

In marketing, there are quite a number of terms that don’t have standard spelling or punctuation.

Words like e-commerce, website, webpage, e-book and other Web terms (even the word “Web” itself) have different ways of being referenced.

You can set style standards for these, however, once in a blue moon, you will encounter something new that you need to make a decision on.

To help keep our decisions consistent, my team just wrapped up a revised version of our company style guide. In its 32 pages, we attempted to cover our usage of words that differ from how other companies typically use them.

We added some things and threw some things out.

For anything not covered in our style guide, we default to the Associated Press Stylebook to cover our bases.

My point here is instead of just picking guidelines at random, think of how your company uses certain words or phrases and search for those terms online to see how others are using them.

 

Tip #4. Make your bulleted lists consistent

Bulleted lists are great when you have a list of items too long for a sentence, or just need to separate thoughts to get your point across.

When making lists, be sure to keep your style in those lists consistent. This could mean choosing whether to make your lists complete sentences or not, ending them in punctuation or not, or maybe choosing a tense to stay in.

For example, I wanted to start by showing you one way not to do a list:

The top four goals our team has this year are:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Making sure the website is updated
  • We should be holding conference calls every week.
  • Email marketing

Here’s a way I would edit this list to be more uniform in style, grammar and punctuation:

The top four goals our team has this year are to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Update the website as needed
  • Hold conference calls every week
  • Improve our email marketing efforts

Read more…