May 23, 2017

Web copy: The false choice of brand vs. response

web-copy-brand-vs-responseBeware the hype about hype copy. It can take you off strategy.

Case in point is an article I saw recently titled The epic face-off in copywriting: hype vs. no-hype. It is a frontal attack on direct response copywriting masked as a critique of hype. I am surprised a commentary on the evils of hype copy would use so much of it to make its point. The introduction could just as well have opened like this:

Let’s get ready to r-u-u-u-mble.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is it. The main event: A twelve-round epic face-off for the Copywriting Title of the Web.

In this corner, wearing black trunks and a menacing grin we have the challenger:

  • He is a veteran of aggressive salesmanship and outsized attention-getting claims …
  • He incites frenzied desire in prospects …
  • He’s a low-class, empty showman who appeals to the worst in human nature …

The hype-meister himself … DIRECT RESPONSE

(Boo, hiss)

And in this corner, wearing white trunks, blowing kisses and shining like the Morning Star, we have the champion of the Web:

  • He is dependable, ethical and never embarrassing …
  • He gives prospects the substance to make up their own minds …
  • He lives only to help you reach a cherished goal …

The no-hype ‘man of the people’ … BRAND CHAMPION

(Streamers fall, crowd cheers; band strikes up “God Bless America”)

Those are all descriptors the article used to define the two sides. I added the fight scene details, but it does accurately portray the tone and thesis of the article.

The wrong conversation leads to wrong assumptions

I think we can all agree hype copy is bad for your brand and can be bad for your business. It hurts your credibility with the people you are trying to turn into customers. The article rightfully points out the need to build trust by helping customers find answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.

Then it takes a wrong turn.

By trying to draw a sharp contrast between hype and no-hype copy, which is shorthand for brand versus response, it loses sight of context and strategy. It drifts into the territory of branded content, which is an apples-to-oranges comparison. And a different conversation.

As defined by Forrester, branded content is designed to build brand consideration and affinity, and not to sell a product or service. That is not the same thing as Web copy.

Web copy, by definition, is the words you use to cause readers to take action, i.e. to pick up the phone, register, subscribe or buy. That’s why it’s troubling to see a definition of hype copy as ‘appealing to the worst in human nature’ by using guilt, envy and fear whenever relevant. The suggestion being it is never appropriate to use these fundamental human motivators in Web content. That’s a wrong assumption.

Web copy must be relevant to the audience. In the context of your strategic objectives, your audience, market and product, it is wholly appropriate to use these motivators in copy. It can even be done without hype or damage to your brand personality. Here’s what I mean.

web-copy-emotional-appealFear and no loathing

Identity theft protection is a case where the proper use of fear is in context with product, market and target audience – if your objective is to make a sale or generate a lead.

The two examples here are real headlines used by companies competing in this market. Both appeals speak directly to the reader.

The example on top appeals to keeping your unique identity. The second example appeals to your fear of loss, and the financial implications of having your identity stolen. Given that you only have eight seconds to get someone’s attention on the Web, I would argue it has more emotional stopping power to get a response. Our human nature is that fear of loss is greater than the desire for gain. This blatantly taps into that fear.

Is it hype?

You can’t answer that without seeing the full context of the remaining copy. The first rule of using fear as a motivator is that the reader must always know that you have a solution to her problem. That comes down to execution.

It’s what separates the copywriting professional from the amateur.

There is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation. In the wrong hands, using fear or guilt or envy in Web copy is like handing a shotgun to a monkey. But it’s how the copywriter crafts the message and uses tone of voice that determines whether it is hype or off-brand, not the appeal itself.

The bottom line is you need both response-drivers and brand personality in your Web copy to succeed at content marketing. The conversation needs to focus on how to do this in the context of your business objectives. Dividing the two into opposing camps is a false choice that can lead you astray. That’s hype you don’t need.

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