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Are You “Working Blue” With Your Marketing Copy?

May 16, 2012|Megan Heuer

It shouldn’t shock anyone when I describe a lot of marketing copy as not just dull, but deadly dull. Even worse, this marketing copy fails its readers because it doesn’t say anything. It’s like a comedy routine greeted with silence. When readers find no value, it kills marketing results – and don’t expect another opportunity to do better next time.

Many moons ago I took a college course on how women use humor. For anyone reading my current research, it’s clear that this class did not lead me to pursue a career in comedy writing. However, something the professor said did stay with me. To paraphrase her badly, comedians who frequently “work blue” (use profanities) during their stand-up acts often do so because they’re not sure what other words to use to trigger an audience reaction. It’s the lazy way out because it doesn’t rely on accurate word choice to get a laugh.

What does this have to do with b-to-b writing, which presumably is going to be profanity free? It shouldn’t shock anyone when I describe a lot of marketing copy as not just dull, but deadly dull. Even worse, this marketing copy fails its readers because it doesn’t say anything. It’s like a comedy routine greeted with silence. When readers find no value, it kills marketing results – and don’t expect another opportunity to do better next time. Let’s be clear: By readers, I mean your customers, prospects and influencers, and in one click they can look elsewhere for more useful (if not entertaining) information.

I see a clear “taking the easy way out” parallel between comedians who resort to profanity instead of carefully honed monologues, and b-to-b writers who use the crutch of profound-sounding “filler” words or phrases. These let us use complete sentences even if we haven’t mastered a topic enough to explain it clearly. They also lull us into thinking we sound reasonable because it’s no different than all the other copy out there. Examples of filler: Pretty much any word that ends with “-ize” or “-ation” (e.g. globalize, optimize, actualization, familiarization). Filler also extends to the tendency to overuse phrases like “best in class” or “solution.”

Full disclosure: I find myself using filler without even realizing it, so this post is meant to be encouraging, not accusatory. It’s hard to write simply and clearly. A marketer’s goal must be to help readers understand the information and to see themselves as benefiting from it. That takes writers who come across as human and understand the world from the reader’s point of view, but who can also effectively communicate their own views.

It can be done. Remember, from Bob Hope to Jerry Seinfeld, some of our funniest comedians never needed profanity because they shared common experiences from a fresh perspective. Take a lesson from this style. Try to be more human and specific in writing. Use words that mean something without a bunch of qualifiers in front of them that don’t. Yes, this takes more work, but the end result will be worth the effort.

Here’s a quick way to get started. Ever see a buzzword bingo table? (Here are two to take a look at: One from Vertical Response, and one from Business Buzzword Bingo.) Take this challenge: Next time you write something, find one and go through your copy to see which buzzwords are there. When you see one, find another way to say the same thing with a more specific word. Do this, and your audience may stick around for the second show.

Megan Heuer

Megan Heuer is Vice President of Research at SiriusDecisions. With more than 20 years of industry and professional services experience, she has worked both in – and for – organizations to build a wide variety of collaborative sales and marketing deliverables that drive systematic, predictable growth. Follow Megan on Twitter @megheuer.

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