Copy that

Copy that

A bowl of satsuma peelings

Ah, memories.

The latest episode of the podcast I do is about writing – specifically, writing for Twitter. Do listen, it is excellent, in no small part thanks to the wondrous production and editing skills of Herr Biddle, and the excellent Captain Pilling‘s red trousers.

Our guest is a guy called Dave Levin, who was the first person I ever sat next to in a professional capacity, previous jobs having either a) not involved chairs or b) required me to sit on my own in the photocopying room like some kind of temp leper. Teper.

I had sat next to other people, but never professionally. This was different.

The job was at MTV UK Interactive, writing editorial and updates for the channels’ websites, newsletter and red button platforms. I was the intern, and Dave, as copywriter, was gracious enough not to stub out too many cigarettes in my hair (Russell Brand had just got the sack from our offices, after all).

Dave’s job meant he called on for ideas and words all the time – anything really, from news stories or the live text that showed up on digital stations, to one-liners punning on Brian from Westlife’s predilection for chicken wings. And once, during one of our daily team competitions (an institution that nowadays would warrant a #hashtag), he was responsible during a round of best “curry pop songs” for an entry so good that I still sit back and think about it, and expect to do so for the rest of my days, until I am old and fat and sitting on the porch of my Jamaican plantation, musing over my misspent life.

Poppadom Preach.

What I am saying is, Dave is an excellent writer.

There weren’t many copywriting jobs out there for web (this was 2004), so when my internship came to an end I jumped ship and ended up as a producer at the BBC, doing a little bit of everything.

Digital went from being the province of geeks to top of the list on everyone’s latest strategy. It was even one of the last things Michael Jackson wrote down. It had come of age, and, as more people got in on the action, our roles changed.

The first time I realised it was a couple of years ago, when a designer asked me how I found and commissioned copywriters. I reeled off a number of sources and rates she might find useful, but no, she wasn’t after a journalist or a specialist who could write articles (so far my only experience of needing a “writer” beyond what I could muster in the way of website promos and labelling). She wanted someone to work with them on the words and copy of a new product.

This was new. At the BBC, at least. Suddenly a single arrow in my quiver was a whole job, that some people did really, really well. Other web roles were maturing too: front-end devs became Flash or iOS specialists, designers became usability or interaction experts, software engineers developed into information architects and product managers, interns were social media consultants and producers like me cried into their jack-of-all-trades cups of tea. Staring down the barrel of an Agile gun we stood up, every day, for no more than 10 minutes, and scurried back to our desks to do whatever it is we did.

NOW. Don’t get me wrong. There is a producer role, and it’s very important. But what’s exciting is that it’s starting to specialise. Producers must be able to self-produce, either wield a camera and microphone or some heavy-duty code, or, as in the case of myself and Dave, copy.

There seems to be a surge in interest in people with editorial skills in the digital sector at the moment. I left my job to go freelance as a producer with a specialism in web copywriting because of it. Content is king. And after years of an emphasis on video and audio*, the physical constraints and convenience of mobile coupled with the punchiness and brevity of social media is bringing an emphasis on the word.

In the podcast (go on, give it a listen), Dave explains how he runs successful Twitter accounts – one informally, for a legendary Hackney institution (@The_Dolphin_Pub) and one professionally, for the BBC’s The Voice (@bbcthevoiceuk).

What’s crucial in creating a distinctive voice for both brands, he argues, is that his background is as a writer, not a social media guru. Or, as he puts it:

Hiring a social media person to do your Twitter is like hiring a cameraman to present Blockbusters.

I’ve always had reservations about the oft-repeated dictum that doing well at social media is about being in “the conversation”. Brands must learn not to “broadcast”. Well, sometimes I want a broadcast, thank you very much. I follow some brands much like I use RSS (in fact, my use of Twitter has all but replaced my feedreader). I would like Channel 4 to tell me when their programmes are on, not get cosy on my sofa with me while I watch them. I follow some people (celebrities like @SimonPegg and @CaitlinMoran, or just funny people like @MeganAmram) for the larks. I don’t want to talk to them. But I follow them and chuckle at what they say, and *do everything they ask*.

Running a successful Twitter account or any form of digital engagement isn’t about furiously @replying and ingratiating yourself with the Twitter “community”, or setting daft competitions like “who’s the most important veteran in your life?“, “what’s the best Christmas card you’ve received so far” or “what’s been your best satsuma“, as spotted by my colleague Barry Pilling. (It didn’t stop Barry remembering a few choice satsuma memories, though.)

It’s about standing out from the crowd and setting an agenda, making people want to follow you not for your chat, but for what you’ve got to say and how funny you say it.

It doesn’t always have to be related to your brand either. Accounts like @BetfairPoker and @Arenaflowers have demonstrated that getting a following doesn’t always require being on-message. Interestingly, the former is run by a company called Big Carlos, not a social media start-up but a group of – wait for it – writers. Big Carlos began in 2009 “as a way of bringing together brands and comedy/drama writers”, their blurb says.

As more and more writers used Twitter on a daily basis as a means of expression and communication, brands at the same time where looking for a voice in the new medium that would attract followers, push sales and engender a warm resonance and recognition by outsourcing Twitter accounts.

“Warm resonance” is all well and good, I hear you say. But isn’t it as fluffy a concept as “engagement”? What about sales? Well, no – and here’s the difference between this and the satsuma hunters above.

People like the guy behind @BetfairPoker. He’s funny. He’s actually four people, as this interview with Betfair Poker’s Head of Global PR lets on. He says things tongue in cheek and out of context, like their mate Dave down the pub, or like David Mitchell on telly. He’s funny. He’s got good lines. He’s worth being around. Making your brand interactive on platforms like Twitter, linking it up with the latest hashtag craze or news is like being the guy down the pub selling DVDs – you put up with him on the off-chance he has a film you want, but no-one likes him.

A similar phenomenon is happening with email marketing. Signing up is one thing, but how do you make sure people read your newsletter rather than deleting it as soon as it lands in their inbox?

The copywriting style of daily deals bete noir Groupon has long been noticed, with the New York Times writing a story last year about the writers, comedians, actors and poets among their ranks.

A big part of their success has been their editorial voice (here supposedly is their style guide from a few years ago). Valeria Maltoni has noted its key points:

  • respect for busy readers — give people credit for being smart; don’t talk down to them; write real editorial, not ad copy
  • independence from the merchants with whom the deals are made — the reason why Groupon hires so many writers to develop copy
  • accuracy — yes, they do have fact checkers (this was good to hear)
  • transparency — never overdo a deal, make sure it’s a fair representation
  • editorial and not advertising copy — he was extra careful to highlight how they really work on making the content pop through “show, don’t tell” techniques

As Valeria points out, this is the “secret sauce of email newsletters”. They have invested heavily in copywriters (their creative manager said last year they employed 425 writers around the world), and employ a wacky, offbeat house style that sometimes even pokes fun at the products they’re selling.

Full disclosure here: I write for one of Groupon’s competitors in the UK. That lack of brand allegiance is striking, however – here are a few examples picked randomly from recent deals:

“Often used for toting memorable subpoenas or slices of deli meat, books also make for handy spots to place noteworthy photos while ensuring minimal mould growth. “

On describing three free-hanging wall jewellery organisers (wall what?):

“Jewellery was invented after people realised covering themselves in glitter wasn’t a long term solution to adding sparkle to their skin…”

And a wet shave with a 30% saving?

“In the days when strongmen ruled the earth, a moustache was considered both a blessing and a napkin.”

These lines introduce the deal, but they are also the copy pulled automatically into each newsletter promo. I asked a few friends who receive Groupon emails (or those who admitted they did) what they thought of the deals they received, and they all mentioned the style. More telling, they remembered receiving the newsletter in the first place. “I give it a quick scan, just to see what funny stuff they say, but I don’t click on anything”, said one. Chances are, this person is a big fat liar.

How many newsletters receive even the most cursory of scans? Whether individual deals are for them, Groupon have succeeded in selling their platform using a distinctive style and tongue-in-cheek tone of voice – it’s a bit of fun. A laugh. Ooh ooh, espadrilles for only a fiver.

The hope, according to the New York Times, is that Groupon’s users will eventually perceive it as an impartial guide to a city or a neighbourhood, like a listings magazine or newspaper’s weekend section. Their funny and knowledgeable mate Dave in the pub, not the dodgy bloke with the DVDs.

Saatchi & Saatchi ad for Silk Cut cigarettes, featuring a loaf of sliced bread covered in purple silk.

Cigarettes: very like a loaf of bread.

It’s a long way from “Click here for more information”. I’d say something waffley here about indirectness of ads like the increasingly obscure Saatchi & Saatchi ads for Benson & Hedges from the 1980s, when, hemmed in by legislation, they sought to mystify a generation of nascent smokers and convince them of the habit’s allure and sophistication.

But I’ll leave that for a day I’m feeling more confident in it as an opinion / less interested in what you think of me as a person.

What do you think? And what is your favourite satsuma?
* I am deliberately avoiding games here – I don’t know enough about them. If you are someone who does, please comment! You could win a prize!**

** There is no prize.