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October 1, 2012

Copywriting: Good Content is Rare

Good Copywriting is Rare In January 2012, journalist, Nikita Gomes Achadinha from the now defunct COUP online magazine, interviewed Jacques de Villiers on the art of copywriting.

Nikita managed to squeeze a reasonably good amount of information out of Jacques and turn it into a half decent article because he hadn’t taken his medication that day and was all over the show and found it difficult to keep on point. So, well done to Nikita for turning incoherence into something readable: Good Content is Rare – The Art of Copywriting with Jacques de Villiers. You can find the actual article on Scribd.


Writing. When I hear that word I automatically think of ink, pens, paper, the good ol’ days. In reality, that’s all very much a thing of the past; nowadays we are all so attached to our BlackBerrys, iPads and computer screens that physically picking up a pen and writing something down feels unnatural. However, some traditions need to be kept alive, certain old practices still work today and, in some cases, the methods and theories developed in the dinosaur years are still the most effective ones today.

This is certainly true for copywriting in the marketing and sales industry, or so believes Jacques de Villiers, who says it’s still copy that really drives your sales. I sat down to get a closer look at his reasoning following his address at the Marketing Indaba – if you are starting a business or have a brand that perhaps needs to refresh its marketing strategies, now would be a good time to start paying attention.

[Marketing is Sandton and Sales is Roodepoort]

De Villiers started out in sales but soon realised that generating leads was a huge part of good sales practice and was brought on by marketing, promoting him to enter the marketing arena. “People say, ‘I want a marketer or a copywriter’, no you don’t. You want someone who can generate leads and can help you convert them; that is all you want and that is what this business is about.” Funny how I have always thought of marketing and sales as separate entities, but as de Villiers pointed out, while the sad reality is that they are disconnected, they should be working together. “They don’t have a common vision; they don’t understand that they are actually working towards the same thing.” Humorously, he explains how sales people tend to see marketers as “prima donnas”, while marketers see sales types as being quite “boorish” as they are the ones that attack the sale. “Marketing is Sandton and Sales is Roodepoort.”

De Villiers says, “By default, I became a copywriter because most of my clients required that service.” Realising he had a skill and talent for copywriting and also realising how effective good copy can be, it has now become a big part of his career and he writes for up to four hours a day. He studied public relations at Wits Technikon but wouldn’t say that’s where he learned his skills – in fact, he explained the experience of writing his first press release at his first job, and it didn’t sound pretty. His boss threw it back to him five times and then sent him to journalism school for a month. But de Villiers is not ashamed to admit this and thinks that young people starting out today in copywriting or the marketing industry, need to be humble and learn from the ‘masters’, “That is what I tell the youngsters, up until [the age of] 30 you are just sucking eggs. You are a skivvy, you suck it up and you learn. I’m old school. But [this is how] you have got to learn your craft.”

When he says ‘masters’, he is referring to the likes of John Caples and his famous ‘piano’ advert; or Joe Sugarman and his marketing techniques; or Martin Conroy who wrote the letter that made over 2-billion dollars for The Wall Street Journal – true examples of how effective copywriting can, in fact, be solely responsible for bringing in money. De Villiers explains that it is important to invest in copywriting because while branding your product effectively is important, there is no real way to measure the impact of that branding.

[Visual is vital but good copy converts]

However, with a call to action there is measurability. He laments billboards with beautiful visuals but no call to action or even a website address as pointless. While he concedes that people are more motivated by visuals, he stands firm that while pictures attract, it’s copy that changes that into something more. “I think half of this is all a bit of a waste of money. The best communicators are these agencies that con [brands] into taking all of this stuff. Visual is vital [but] good copy converts”, says de Villiers.

I have written a lot about return on investment this year, from how effective TV adverts are to whether investing in social media is really worth it. With most of the world in economic crisis, brands and companies are not interested in advertising that looks good but, rather, advertising that sells. “Ad agencies make a lot of stuff that wins Loeries but doesn’t convert and that is what people [brands] want”, states de Villiers. The word ‘convert’ popped up a lot in our conversation: copy or a campaign that effectively leads to a sale or a potential client is clearly de Villiers’ focus.

[Engage and listen … may result in me pulling my hair out]

Another ‘hype’ or trend that has come up a lot this year is, you guessed it, social media and de Villiers weighs in with a refreshing take. All we have heard this year, or since brands realised they too could be on social media, are the words ‘engage’ and ‘listen’ and, right now, I feel as if hearing those words again may result in me pulling my hair out. This advice has resulted in brands opening Twitter and Facebook accounts, some successfully and others quite disastrously.

[Some brands have no need to be in the social media space]

De Villiers believes some brands really have no need to be in the social media space. “Social media is just there to build a brand and to build trust. That’s it. So that is how you get people in the conversation and get them to trust you. Social media, personally, I think works better for business-to-consumer and not for business-to-business.” He explains that business-to-consumer brands should definitely be in the social media space, but some brands would just be clogging the already bursting social media networks. “I am not talking about a pair of jeans or lollipops that [will] sell [on social media]. I am talking about business-to-business, a million rand solution. That you are not going to sell over an email, a phone; that has to be face-to-face.” Face-to-face, now isn’t that something that seems as outdated as writing? We live in a society where, all too often, the closest you get to face-to-face is Facebook. This is where good copy comes in, as de Villiers points out, “All of this stuff is great but people still want to connect face-to-face and if they can’t get face-to-face then at least the copy must have an emotional appeal.” And even though de Villiers believes that not all brands need to be on social media, he does believe that the networking sites have a tremendous effect on reputation. “Word spreads a lot quicker now, so instead of telling 10 people, you can tell 10 000 people. Crisis managers and PR people need to be very aware of what is going on. They need to tap into the social media sites that give you insight into stats and trends. People need to take their reputation more seriously than they did in the past.”

[Research is too much like hard work]

When it comes to the actual writing, de Villiers’ first word of warning is that it matters hugely who you are writing for. “Writing for a 60-year-old is totally different to writing for a 20-year-old,” he offers as a perhaps obvious, but often forgotten example. “You need to adapt your writing. So females are different to males, and a 20-year-old female is different to a 40-year-old female. This is the challenge many companies face because it is too much hard work. It really is.” What is hard work? Well, doing the relevant and thorough research that it takes to truly understand your target audience to know who they are and then be able to develop copy that will relate directly to them. Your first tip: know your target audience.

[Tell stories for goodness sake]

“Drop a story into the heart and not in the head,” continues de Villiers. He speaks of how companies are not really speaking to real people and that the copy they develop for their websites is made for search engine optimisation (SEO). “They write an article with a lot of key words to push the search engine ranking but the problem is that they forget that real people read it as well. Content is an extension of the brand.” So not just anyone can develop this copy then? “They need to either use professionals or hire a professional writer; they should not try and write it themselves. Most companies think the secretary can write it.” He also emphasises that storytelling is powerful yet people are not using it enough to make good content – in fact, in the array of content out there, storytelling is rare.

[It’s just neuroscience – keep it simple stupid]

If this all sounds overwhelming, de Villiers reassures me that writing is really just about being human. “I suppose, good content writing is being a student of human nature. I mean, if you look at yourself and your own feelings, how do you respond to certain things? Ask your own staff to look at your ads, how do they resonate [with them]?” He emphasises that marketers think that if they use jargon their audience will take them more seriously but that is not the case, something de Villiers says is simple neuroscience: “The brain uses a lot of energy so it always looks for simplicity. Don’t make me think. I want to click here and I want to get the answer. Your writing has got be zen-like.”

As a writer myself, who churns out articles and copy on a daily basis, speaking to de Villiers made me feel like I still have a lot of work to do. On the other hand, I am human and so is the audience I write for, so perhaps instead of distancing myself from them when writing for them, I should try become more in tune with who they are. How about all you marketers out there? If you are unsure whether your copy is effective or not, take this into consideration: “You will know you are writing good copy when the telephone is ringing, when you are generating leads. If you are not generating leads off your copy then you are doing something wrong.”

Are you still reading, or have you gone to get the phone?

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