The written word’s been getting written off lately. SnapChat, Instagram, Pinterest, infographics, emojis, and video have been stealing the limelight as words, copy, content, whatever you want to call it take a backseat. We’ve become enamored with the idea that showing, rather than telling, provides a better brand experience.
But the backbone of successfully using these newfangled channels starts with a brand vision well-articulated through strong copy. The continuity of a brand, despite the advent of new media, hangs on the tenor of a singular voice.
Note: Some of the examples in this piece have NSFW language.
For the B2C Marketers: Red Bull
At its most basic, Red Bull can’t post this picture on Instagram with a caption like: “Arthur Longo does a cool jump #snowboarding.”
Instead they opt for: “Son, rise. #HippieJump for @arthur_longo #snowboard”
Now I know a good pun when I see one, but what the heck is a #HippieJump (it’s this)? But that’s the whole point. I’m not the audience here. Red Bull knows this. They know their audience. They’re not going to spell it out for some nudnik like me. If you know the term, you’re in the know. You’re an insider. You’re the audience they’re purposely appealing to
And that’s great copywriting: Knowing your audience and making those infinitesimal edits that create loyal fans. Knowing your audience makes risk-taking easier. Companies who don’t know their audience opt for the safe (read: no one gets fired) option and over explain so everyone gets it. The great brands don’t want to appeal to everyone.
You’re a Publisher and a Brand
Smart, progressive brands are starting to see themselves as publishers. And whether it’s an Instagram caption, a tweet, a website, or a blog, great copy (i.e. copy that caters to a specific audience) separates brand winners from losers. As brands embrace publishing, they’re becoming first-movers and capitalizing on the channels that allow them to tell stories with some actual substance, like this recent collaboration between Medium and Marriott hotels.
For the B2B Marketers: Intel
If you’re a CMO of a B2B brand, you’re probably sitting back trying to wrap your head around the idea of “business as publisher.” Sure, it’s easy for a company like Net-A-Porter to think like a publisher or the aforementioned RedBull to publish engaging, visceral content. But what about those companies that don’t have sexy products.
On its face, Intel, a semiconducter chip maker, isn’t sexy. In fact, it’s kinda nerdy. Ah-yes! But sexy products use Intel’s technology. And by thinking a step beyond its core business, Intel has created their content site IQ. IQ is, by all accounts, an online technology magazine. But what makes IQ so engaging isn’t just the technology. It’s the deft way IQ melds technology and culture through content you’d read in Wired. They successfully pull it off without overtly promoting the fact that each article has an Intel tie-in.
Welcome to the New Press Release
Every article on IQ is an artfully crafted case study and press release disguised as a magazine article. Consider IQ’s piece “MICA Intelligent Luxury Fashion Bracelet Stays Alert With Style”. Note the date: right before the holiday shopping season (likely not a coincidence). Ostensibly, this is a press release. But it’s the slight tweaks that turn tired corporate speak into engaging content.
First, the article isn’t written by Intel’s media relations team. It’s “contributed” by Marley Kaplan, the founder and CEO of a consulting agency. The intent being, Kaplan’s an impartial contributor writing about a great new product that she loves. This isn’t some corporatized, sponsored article that would turn off the modern, discerning consumer.
The images aren’t shots of the product, or gasp!, the Intel chip idly sitting on a table with a bunch of product specs. It’s a stark departure from the typical B2B cliche of “We have to just show the product image!” in every ad, article, or promotional piece. The bracelets are worn on beautiful people (representing all races!) enjoying themselves (in front of a white wall!).
It’s an article that has all the hallmarks of a typical press release or sell sheet but artfully repurposed for the “business as publisher” model of marketing. The lines are purposely blurred because readers are savvier. Consumers don’t read press releases for fun. But they do read articles like this.
The brands writing the future of marketing are retooling yesterday’s press release to look like today’s magazine article. They have a corporate, business-y site here and a content-fueled, slice-of-life site there. Even the old-timey annual report read only by investors is a re-conceptualized platform for brand and as in the case of Warby Parker.
For the Guys: Chubbies
It starts with their slogan “Sky’s Out, Thighs Out” and you can only imagine where it goes from there. For bros by bros, Chubbies is a fashion retailer centered around a line of short shorts for guys who like to quote Anchorman, crush beers, steal your girlfriend, and bring their own lawn chairs to BBQs.
It’s bro kitsch written by a guy on his fifth Monster Energy drink. To wit, this email subject line for a line of swim trunks that change colors when wet (called the GOBs), “Moisture is the essence of wetness.” If you’re scoring at home, that’s two cultural touchstones in one email. Copy continues in all caps: “"SNAAAAAP, those trunks just CHANGED COLORS BEFORE MY EYES. MY BRAIN IS ATTEMPTING TO UNDERSTAND THIS INNOVATIVE SHORTSNOLOGY BUT IT SIMPLY CANNNNNN'T. HELLP MEEEE."
Cultural references and snark pop up around every corner. Their product names don’t relent and stay on brand with names like “The Trophy Husbands” and “The Pregames.”
Because Chubbies has a very specific customer in mind, they can make obtuse cultural references, use all caps in copy (without it being construed as yelling), and add little elements that reinforce their personality.
Incredibly, the “Join our Mailing List” placeholder copy is surprisingly tame, but sure enough, there’s that video game’s catchphrase replacing the typical “Submit” button. These little surprises are a welcome upgrade from the prosaic copy of traditional e-commerce sites.
All jokes aside, Chubbies is doing serious business. Co-founder, Preston Rutherford (incredibly, his real name), told BuzzFeed “that in the first seven months of 2013, the company more than doubled its 2012 revenues (an increase of 220%). Similarly, the first half of 2013 saw an 804% revenue growth over the same period in 2012.”
For the Gals: Nasty Gal
If Chubbies had a kid sister, it would be Nasty Gal. Self-proclaimed as “The online style destination for bad-ass girls,” it’s become a $100-million dollar diva in a crowded women’s fashion market.
The copy reads like lyrics from an Iggy Azalea song. Examples include this swimwear call to action: “IF YOU GOT IT, FLAUNT IT. IT'S TIME TO GET WET AND WILD IN SCORCHING ONE-PIECES AND BARELY-THERE BIKINIS.” Because I was on my work computer, I was afraid to click.
Every Product Name and Description is An Opportunity to Get Creative
Like Chubbies, the product names are a stiff cocktail of brand elements that combine to serve up a high-ball of bad-ass girliness (any fathers reading this, now would be a good time to avert your eyes): “Love or Desire Pleated Dress,” “Stuns n’ Roses Bustier Dress,” and “Cold Hearted Snake Bodycon.” I don’t know what any of these are, but again, Nasty Gal don’t care.
Little bursts of copy purposely read like a girl gushing to another about fashion (for example: the “Can’t Live Without” header as a specific callout on the site’s dropdown menu).
Nasty Gal’s founder, Sophia Amoruso, published a book entitled (and naturally all-caps’d and hashtagged) “#GIRLBOSS”. In it, she dishes on the secrets of the company’s success, notably in social media: “Social media is built on sharing, and Nasty Gal was giving girls something amazing to share each and every day.
Whether it was a crazy vintage piece, a quote, or a behind-the-scenes photo, we have always worked hard to create the best and most compelling images, words, and content for our customers.”
#ThisOutfitThough - Bringing The Thunder to Social
Nasty Gal carries its personality to social by speaking directly to a very specific audience of young girls. Note the tweet’s hashtag, #ThisOutfitThough, mirroring the lexicon of its audience.
Out of sheer curiosity, there was a live chat feature on their site. I wanted to see if their “agents” talk like their brand. So I changed my name to “Patty” (because, Nasty Gal!) and this conversation transpired with Nasty Gal’s “Heidi”.
Heidi: Hi Patty
Heidi: How can I help you?
Patty: Heidi, I'm looking for a hot number that I could wear at work (I'm in advertising) but then take out on the town on Friday night without having to go home and change
Patty: Any ideas?
Heidi: Sure thing!
Heidi: One moment please.
Patty: Nice, so that's two "going out"-fits and I should just wear a sweater over either one?
Heidi: I would do that... wear a sweater or blazer during the day.
Heidi: I am looking for dresses for you.
Patty: Thanks these are super helpful
Patty: That bag!
Patty: do you sell that?
Heidi: With what item?
Patty: the boss around tuxedo dress, she's holding a clutch
Heidi: let me check on this for you.
Patty: Loves it! Thank you for the help
Heidi: You're welcome.
Heidi: Is there anything else I can help you with?
Patty: That should do it, thanks so much, Heidi!
Heidi: You're welcome.
Sadly, Heidi was all business despite my best efforts (fair, considering she was working on a Saturday night and may or may not be working out of a customer service center in a different country). But the product descriptions for each recommendation did the heavy lifting for her.
Note the description on the “Boss Around Tuxedo Dress”:
“You're a boss b*tch, now all you need is the dress to match. The Boss Around Dress is made in a black twill and features wrap design, plunging neckline, wide satin lapel, and wide quilted belt. Unlined, front button and hook/eye closure. Kills it with chunky heels, hundred dollar bills, and that corner office.” (Again, the bold is my emphasis for peak sassiness).
Take the brand personality, the share-worthy social tidbits, the Iggy Azalea-esque product descriptions and you have one of the fastest-growing private companies in the world with over $100M in sales in 2013.
For the Home: Squatty Potty
(Author confession: I am a user of this product)
There’s content that’s crap. Then there’s crap content. For a taboo subject like proper toilet posture, Squatty Potty has made excrement their bread and butter. Their content’s sole focus and proof points are based around the notion of better health.
Squatty Potty nails copy that explains fairly complex scientific proof in an approachable, understandable way without falling into the trap of using groan-worthy, low-hanging puns (like the ones I’ll happily use here).
Keep It Simple
Consider the complexity of selling a product like Squatty Potty. If you’ve been doing nature’s call of doodie the “norm core” way, Squatty Potty has to make an old habit die hard in a way that doesn’t confuse, over-communicate, and embarrass you.
Infographics, like the one below, and videos (all consistently branded with insanely clear and simple copy) comprise to not only sell customers on the product but make them unabashed advocates.
With Squatty, Sharing is Caring!
Getting customers to gleefully share their Squatty Potty anecdotes (#TopSquats anyone?) on social media shows the affinity for the product and its ability to get people excited about a typically awkward topic. Because Squatty Potty offers a friendly, approachable, and enthusiastic tone to its copy, customers feel empowered to do the same.
Squatty Potty has over 21,000 likes on Facebook and 4.5 out 5 stars on Amazon (with 375 5-star customer reviews). Over the holiday period, when I tried to order a couple for family, Squatty Potty was on back order for 2-3 weeks.
My first brush with Squatty Potty’s existence was Howard Stern’s live reads during his radio show. The live reads are the best I’ve ever heard. Howard’s genuinely giddy about his Squatty Potty experience. It’s a bit more graphic than the corporate copy, but the enthusiasm is no different. And then a close friend of mine happily endorsed the product. In both cases, I took Howard’s and my friend’s recommendation with a grain of salt.
Typically, I ignore Howard’s reads as most of the products shilled are the kind of dreck found in “Made for TV ads”: gimmicky products, cheaply made, that promise big results. After visiting their site, their straight talk completely disarmed me and I had one in the shopping cart and have been giving them out as gifts to friends ever since.
If Your Message Isn’t Resonating, Be Ready to Change It
The proof of Squatty Potty’s success is in the chocolate pudding (sorry). Their entire approach to developing copy about its health benefits stemmed from a rejection by ABC’s “Shark Tank” in Season 5. “Shark Tank” didn’t want a bathroom product on their show. So Squatty Potty reframed their pitch. Inventor Robert Edwards explained their new direction: “In our second auction tape we really nailed down that Squatty Potty is a health tool, a solution available to help people suffering from elimination issues and not just a novelty.
We were told this helped us change their minds and allowed us to get on.” In the 100th episode of Shark Tank, they successfully secured investment from one of the Sharks ($350,000 investment for 10% of the company).
The power of answering the question “So what?” when talking about a product has reframed Squatty Potty’s positioning. And this tweak has made them #1 in talking about #2.
For the Gear Junkie: Huckberry
Can Ye Olde General Store flourish within the digital firmament of the Internet? That’s precisely what e-commerce startup Huckberry is trying to do. Huckberry describes themselves as “your favorite store, your grandpa’s favorite store, and your favorite magazine all rolled into one.”
Make It a Passion Project
Huckberry showcases products that their employees like, use, or want. Because their employees are, in effect, their own target audience, male, white-collared, modern, urbanite sophisticates hitting the trails and campgrounds on the weekends, the tone comes naturally.
Their goal is “to bring you the coolest new gear at the best prices.” But how is Huckberry differentiating themselves from the other gear and clothing sites out there? How are they answering the question “So what?” that makes them memorable?
They put their mission right there on their website.
Huckberry started without any venture capital so marketing and advertising money was scarce. By starting from a simple premise, “to be the most interesting email in your inbox each week,” Huckberry built a loyal and engaged following.
What Makes Their Newsletters So Successful?
Sticking to the fundamentals.
Short subject lines. Just check out the last 1.5 months of email subject lines in my inbox: not one is over six words.
The tone of each email is conversational. A recent email intro for a line of athletic shoes reads: “Remember when PF Flyers guaranteed bright-eyed little leaguers a shoe that would make them "run faster and jump higher?" No? Well, grandpa does.” It closes with a non-threatening call to action: “Naturally, we ordered a few pairs--y’know, for science. Shop now.”
And each featured product gets the same conversational treatment. A tone that’s understated (no exclamation points or bold, font types all over the place), as if a sensible friend were recommending the product to you.
They create a sense of urgency. Huckberry always includes a section within their newsletter entitled “Sales Ending Soon” that revisits products that are no longer being offered.
They deliver customer value and reinforce their brand through shrewd content creation and curation. Within each newsletter, Huckberry includes sections called “The Journal” and “Distractions”. The Journal is Huckberry’s blog with a comprehensive amount of content from adventure to their own Spotify playlists. The section called “Distractions” pulls interesting stories relevant to their audience from around the web giving readers a little inspiration with every newsletter.
Every piece within their newsletter conspires to reaffirm the mission and purpose of Huckberry’s brand for guys who work their day job during the week to get outside and as far away from the city on the weekend.
Consider Huckberry’s subscriber growth from June 2012 - August 2013.
And then check out their newsletter click rate vs. average retailers.
Unlike other retailers who send newsletters to simply promote a new piece of clothing or a sale, Huckberry gives you a reason to open their newsletter to find something interesting, informative, or inspiring every time.
For the Foodie: Eat24
Eat24, a company that’s making food delivery easier, is a shining example about the success that can come by taking risks, doing things they find fun, and not overthinking it. Eat24 came across my radar after reading their post about breaking up with Facebook.
The Next Post May Be That “Lightning-in-a-Bottle” Post You’ve Always Wanted
For a company blog that gets admirable, but by no means voluminous, shares and interaction, the Facebook post went Wonka-elevator-through-the-glass-ceiling viral
Consider the other blog traction before and after the Facebook post.
Facebook Breakup post:
After Facebook Breakup post:
That’s a ridiculous 29,000 shares on Facebook, over 5,000 shares on Twitter, 1,400 shares on Google+ (which is incredible considering no one is on Google+), and 1,400 shares on LinkedIn.
It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what makes Eat24’s blog so compelling is its authenticity. There’s trying to be amusing and casual (which can quickly become grating) and then there’s actually being amusing and interesting (which reads authentic and stays fresh).
I wrote that previous paragraph before I had a chance to correspond directly with Eat24’s Creative Director Patty Jordan. Here she explains their approach to brand voice:
“We put 15 cats, puppies, and sloths in a room until one of them wrote something amazing. OK, not really. There was never a discussion about what our brand voice should be. Our goal is just to be ourselves. The way we talk on all of our communication channels is the same way we all talk in real life, including our founders & CEO.
Everything we do uses this voice, no matter if it’s a blog post, an email, a tweet about chimichangas; even a notification in our app. The thing that's great about being yourself is you don't need a style guide for it.”
The voice isn’t just on the blog, as Jordan notes. Consider their home page copy:
And their call to action for the Eat24 app.
“Authentic” is such a tired word (just like “organic” or “synergies”) when talking about brand, so I didn’t want to use it unless a company really, truly sounded authentic. Authentic is one of those things you can’t quite pinpoint, but you know it when you see it.
Regarding the aforementioned Facebook post, Jordan explains the impact a post like that has on their readership and engagement.
“We got a lot of attention for our post about How to Advertise on Porn (author’s note: SFW, BTW) before our Facebook post, so we already had a bunch of people visiting us. When those two posts blew up, people started poking around in our older posts and leaving comments, which was great. We like to keep the conversation going, even if it's on a 2-year old post about which foods would make the best sleeping bags.”
Can A Blog Post Drive Business?
So where’s the beef when it comes to bottom line business goals? Let’s talk METRICS! Data points. Hockey-stick traffic growth! The things that ensure job security...right? Well, Jordan took a side that many companies forget about when business goals take precedence over the blog itself.
“Honestly we just like having another communication channel with people. We have fun with our blog. And when we have fun, we don't usually subject that fun to business impact analysis. That being said, when a blog post blows up, we do see more app downloads and orders.”
And what about their blog name? Where did “Bacon Sriracha Unicorn Diaries” come from? While some companies would market test the bejeezus out of the right name making sure to hit the right tone and create “brand continuity” blah blah blah, Jordan divulged Eat24’s secret sauce: “What are your three favorite things of all time? Boom. Instant blog name.”
For the News Junkie: The Skimm
For businesses that don’t have a huge marketing budget and want to create buzz within their industry, The Skimm is a fantastic example of what a simple layout, strong and succinct copy, clever headlines, and a big personality can do for buzz.
Today it seems like every media outlet churns out a daily newsletter highlighting top stories for their subscribers, but The Skimm’s brand of newsletter has become a standout for its approach. For an example of what The Skimm’s daily newsletter looks like, go here.
The Skimm works because it’s a healthy dose of sass and information that’s written concisely and clearly. Consider this recent news item concerning the hacking of Centcom.
With allusions to Scandal’s Kerry Washington, The Skimm sprinkles in pop culture references to keep the occasional drudgery of reading daily news interesting. They ask questions in a way that doesn’t condescend to provide further information and context to a story. They’re giving you just enough information to be informed and conversational.
Be Consistent Where It Matters
The setup for every email doesn’t change. Consistency is comforting, especially when you’re rolling up your sleeves to read the news (UGH!). Each newsletter opens with a feature story (or two or three) that uses a similar approach as the Centcom story. The next section, called “Repeat After Me,” includes news stories that start with a consistent prompt: “What to say…” and then they pay it off. For example, this header for Honda’s negligence to report people getting injured and dying in their cars:
Along with the big news items of the day, The Skimm also includes occasional stories of general interest that are a fun mention.
And for each news item, they make it easy to share.
The Skimm creates community with subscriber birthdays and the “Skimm’bassadors” program: A name for those enthusiastic subscribers who promote The Skimm to their friends. These community building nuggets go a long way in creating and maintaining a loyal fan base.
And that loyalty has paid off. With over 500,000 subscribers, an endorsement from Oprah and $6.25M in Series A funding round, they’re looking to expand their media products and hire more staff.
For the Ad Men and Women: R/GA’s Twitter Feed
Great content doesn’t just have to live on a company’s website. As some of the examples above show, you can deliver great content through newsletters, live chat, and even social media.
R/GA’s Twitter feed stands out in a crowded space of agency social feeds trying to have the coolest takes, share the coolest things, and pat themselves on the back for winning a local BMA award.
“Don’t Be Boring”
Here’s what makes R/GA’s Twitter feed so unique:
- It’s managed by one man where many agency and corporate social feeds are handled by some faceless entity or entities (check out this great article about Chapin Clark, the man behind the account)
- Chapin Clark is the SVP, Managing Director at R/GA. In a world where so many companies delegate social media to an entry-level employee with little experience, Clark’s seniority packs a punch. Strangely, yes, it’s still innovative to have a corporate social media account handled by someone who actually has some influence and experience in the industry
- It’s a brand unto itself. R/GA is a hugely successful agency, but the snark and sarcasm found on their Twitter feed isn’t nearly at the same level on their corporate site.
- Clark’s messaging platform for his Twitter account? “Don’t be boring.”
It’s a potpourri of industry-related articles where you can actually learn something, along with the absurd, and Chapin Clark’s musings, like this one:
What’s the benefit of having a social account managed by a muckety muck who isn’t boring? A direct line to some of the most influential thought leaders in the advertising industry (as well as the underlings who work for them).
Sheer follower count doesn’t really matter if they’re comprised of bots and eggs. The sphere of influence is considerable when you have 105,000 followers, and it’s even sweeter when many of them are your envious competition.
You Can’t Make Everyone Happy
Some people will get the reference. Some people won’t. Trying to catering to those who don’t get it will inevitably dilute the personality of your social media and brand.
“Don’t be boring” is impossible when companies, websites, social feeds, and newsletters try to appeal to everyone. And the only way to avoid that? Know your audience. I mean, really, REALLY know your audience... and take risks!
Did we miss any companies whose copy you admire? Tell us about them in the comments!
Originally published Feb 19, 2015 11:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017