Justin Rubner

Posts Tagged ‘bad copywriting’

Can I Get Some A1 With That In-house Copy?

In business communications, copywriting on 09/10/2009 at 7:50 pm

You’ve spent thousands making your website look pretty…and “sophisticated.” You wanted that sophisticated look after all. End result–sure looks sophisticated.

But when it came to Web copy–the thing everybody sees first when trying to figure your company out–you’ve decided to “save some money and do it in-house.”

Your homepage has slick graphics, that’s for sure. Possibly Flash. When first-time readers go to your site, they do see a cool, sophisticated design.

What they do not see is sophisticated messaging.

They first try to decode what it is you do, then how you’re better, then why they should purchase what you’re selling. (They, secretly, want to be inspired.)

The copy they read is professional-sounding and it’s not horrible. It’s just written by a non professional writer.

After reading, they know what you do…but they have to work (pretty hard) at it. They see you wrote you were better…but they don’t believe it. They read your call to action to contact a salesperson…but haven’t been convinced why they should purchase what you’re selling.

They’re certainly not inspired.

Having good design but bad copy is worse than A1 sauce on bad food.

Good design + bad copy = A1 sauce on bad food.

The homepage, midst the sophisticated Flash, has some vague message laden with keywords, like A1 sauce on a poor cut of meat.

So they go to the About section. It reads something like this:

“Company ABC is a leading nationwide provider of robust and scalable <insert mind-numbing acronyms here> that is second to none when it comes to customer service. Our myriad of <insert jargon here> services serve the (super-long boiling-the-ocean list) industries. Our company is led by industry leaders that (sic) know…”

Off to the News section. One press release only. From five months ago. It talks about some award and tells nothing. Boilerplate reads like a Securities and Exchange Commission report.

No recent news. No whitepaper or case study either. Not even some good information, really, when you get down to it.

No real differentiation. No inspiration.

No sale.

In a previous post, I lament the fact that copywriters are too often brought in as simple implementers–at the 11th hour–when they should be the core part of all marketing, advertising and PR programs. In this post,  I lament the fact that some companies don’t bring them in at all.

The trenches are important. So is an aerial view.

The trenches are important. So is an aerial view.

I’m going to resist cliches like “The money you save in not hiring a professional copywriter will end up costing you more in the long-run.” Well, I really didn’t resist it. But here are other reasons why you should seriously consider hiring a professional:

  • Good writers aren’t stuck in the trenches of your company. As a result, they’ll have an aerial view of your value proposition…and will deliver messaging that connects to people not in the know.
  • Good writers are good at explaining complicated things to anyone…not just your systems architect or venture capitalist.
  • Good writers are adept at analogies and other forms of communications that get your point across in a simple way.
  • Good writers know it’s better to show than to tell. Better writers can actually do this.
  • Good writers, are, well, good writers. They know what words work and what don’t. Their copy flows.
  • Good writers–this should go without saying–don’t make grammatical mistakes. At least the ones 99 percent of readers care about.
  • Good writers, good business writers at least, know business. Make sure your writer is more than just a frustrated novelist.
  • Good writers make their living informing and inspiring.
  • Good writers deploy basic search engine optimization in their Web content.
  • Good writers have a designer’s eye. They work with your design team to make sure everything gels from both a content and an aesthetical point of view. They’ll also have graphics suggestions to go along with their brilliant copy.
  • Good writers spend a lot of time on subheads, bold text, bullets, short sentences, and other things that give readers’ eyes the break they deserve.
  • Good writers know that many times, less is more.

-Justin Rubner

Why Acronyms are FUBAR, part II

In copywriting on 06/14/2009 at 8:45 pm

When I was in the Air Force, we loved acronyms. We even had acronyms for acronyms. I’m not kidding.

I was an ACWS specialist and had a lot of experience working with AWACS and CTAPS, which was the core system working toward the DOD‘s then new TMS. Oh, did I mention–and I don’t say I’m an expert at much–but I would have considered myself an expert on the CAFMS back in 1998.

So, what did I really do? I programmed live air missions, called sorties, into a collective database…so military pilots knew where to fly and perform their missions. But unless you’re in the C4ISR business, or something equivalent, you likely had no idea.

A few of the squadrons I worked with had dictionaries for the myriad acronyms we had. How much time, tax dollars and mental energy was wasted on this?



Sadly, much of our business culture is as addicted to this nonsense as the military is. Go to the websites of many businesses, especially technology-centric ones, and you’ll be bombarded by capital letters. Which, are often more complicated than the concepts they’re actually representing!

Which brings me to a silly debate I recently had with a technology entrepreneur. FAQ to me always meant “frequently asked questions.” I frequently see FAQ written as FAQs, though. So…if my previous belief is correct…then the “s” is redundant. I tweeted about it. The entrepreneur, Paul Freet, then tweeted that FAQs were, in fact, fine. To him, though, FAQ stood for “frequently asked question.” A singular question, that is.

So, adding an s, based on his belief, is correct. Who, by the way, only has one question on those pages? But that’s moot. We’re both right. And we’re both wrong.

So, the point of the nonsensical debate is that if two educated people can’t even agree on what one of the most famous acronyms in the English language stands for, verbatim, then how are we ever going to have fluidity in the minds of prospects and readers with “BI“? (Which can mean business improvement, brand identity or business intelligence.)

Just say “brand identity” already!

Does this mean you shouldn’t use FAQ? No. It’s one of those acronyms that have become part of our lexicon. Kind of like NASA. We all know what NASA is. But how many of us can actually spit out verbatim what it stands for?

And it also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t completely avoid acronyms common in your industry. I would make these rules part of your messaging DNA (that’s another NASA-like acronym.):

  • If the concept is used extensively throughout your copy, or if it is your core offering, then you should probably keep the acronym.
  • If your customers frequently use the acronym, then you should definitely keep it.
  • If you only use the concept once or even a few times, then there is no reason to muddy up your copy with an acronym. Why use an acronym if you don’t repeat it again?
  • A good rule of thumb should be no more than two different acronyms for every page of copy. They really are distracting, as I lay out in my previous post on why acronyms are FUBAR.

Pick and choose wisely. Use acronyms because they’re essential. Don’t use them just because your competitors do. You want to be different from your competitors, not the same! Stand out. For the better.

Readers—hopefully soon-to-be customers—will thank you for it.

Are You Going to Quote Me On This?

In copywriting on 04/14/2009 at 1:15 am

quotation-markI have a plea to marketing, PR and news writers everywhere. It isn’t my first. It won’t be my last.

End your mindless love affair with quotes.

What do I mean by this?

Take this quote from a random press release I saw today on PR Newswire:

‘ “(Company X) is the premier distributor of sports and news content for the world’s top broadcast and media platforms,” according to (hot shot exec).’

This quote breaks so many rules–real rules, the kinds that make sense–I can’t even mention them all. But the most important rule will do:

Quote feeling, not fact.

The premier part of the sentence, you could argue, is feeling. No. It’s puffery. Mushy puffery at that. Puffery shouldn’t be used, even in a press release. You’re not fooling anyone by saying you are THE premier anything. If you are, prove it. And if you can prove it, you don’t need to say it.

Let’s look at some more examples. I’ve taken out company names and some other particulars to protect the guilty. And note, these quotes truly are random and have been selected from the most recent submissions. I didn’t spend much time at all searching for badly-written releases. I didn’t have to; the majority of them are some of the worst copywriting around.

How about this one:

“We are delighted to have (Mr. X) as an independent member of our Board of Directors and as Chairman of our Audit Committee,” said (Mr. Y,) the Company’s CEO, “The Company’s product is an emerging and creative brand in China, with innovative product concepts and sales models. Further, the Company was developed with well-trained dynamic personnel with innovative thinking. I strongly believe that (Mr. X) will bring something innovative and fresh to the Company. His previous experience in the financial field and business operations will definitely support the Company, while we are working as a team.” (Mr. Y) continued, “(Mr. X) also serves as the chair of the Company’s Audit Committee. Together with our increasingly strengthened corporate governance, I am confident that we will meet the standards and requirements of a senior U.S. exchange in the future.”

Holy Mother of Lazy Writing!

A third of the release was filled with this declaration of nothingness. I hope the Company didn’t pay anyone to write this. (The word “company,” by the way, despite what your lawyer says, should not be capitalized. And yes, even if there’s a “the” before it).

Which brings me to the second most important rule of quotations:

Quote diamonds, not rocks.

Rocks are everywhere. The diamonds are harder to find. And well worth the search.

When it comes to stupid quotes, news reporters are also not exempt. Take this example from a newspaper in metro Atlanta, the Marietta Daily Journal:

‘ “(Sunday) night, we had a report of a bear hanging around Blood Mountain shelter,” said Ryan Davis, an employee at the Mountain Crossings hiking store.’

Not exactly a riveting quote, is it? Just paraphrase this already. There is absolutely no reason why the reporter should have quoted that statement.

So not to pick on this paper, a former employer of mine in another life, here’s a fine quote from another piece. The story, which caught my attention from lead to last sentence, was about a Georgia millionaire whose will was in dispute.

“The very thing that made this man great in the end killed him,” he said. “There were no rules with Harvey. He built car dealerships on Highway 41 when everyone else told him not to. But he was battling a demon that he couldn’t beat.”

Yes! This is how humans–real humans–speak. It reads like a novel. I want to read more about this Harvey fellow…

And yes. You can make CEOs sound like humans. Even real humans.

Here’s an example of an OK quote from PR Newswire:

“These stories are a wake-up call for distributors and users of illegal software,” said Robert Holleyman, BSA’s President and CEO. “Don’t take our word for it; just listen to these software pirates explain how they made money by duping thousands of people into purchasing or downloading illegal software from the Internet…”

Note that it does seem Robert is talking directly to you, not through a corporate-speak filter.

I’m sad to say, though, that after searching through an entire day’s worth of PR Newswire releases on the technology industry, I didn’t find one exemplary quote.

But that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit.

Here’s what you can do today to make your copy, and your quotes, pop:

  • Don’t write using a template. Ever. If you see “Insert quote here”, run the other way. Every situation, every release, every e-mail, every sales pitch, is different. If you have to write using a template, you probably shouldn’t be writing external copy for your company. You should hire somebody to do it for you.
  • Quotes, despite what you’ve heard, don’t have to be two sentences. (Like “Bla, bla, blah,” said Joe Smoe. “Bla, bla, blah.”) You can use partial quotes. Or just one sentence. Or three. Actually, if every quote you write has two sentences, your writing becomes boring.  Just one word of caution: Don’t make it too long. You will lose the reader. See the “Holy Mother of Lazy Writing” example.
  • Quote the subject’s actual words. This should go without saying. But the PR and marketing industries have made it a habit–a bad habit–of making up quotes. I know that many times the person doesn’t have time to be interviewed. But try to schedule 10 minutes. That’s only one-sixth of an hour.
  • Let me preface this by saying I believe making up quotes is cheesy at best, borderline unethical at worst. Yes, I’ve done it. And I felt weird doing it. If you must make up quotes, and I know you won’t have access to everyone, try to make the quoted content sound like the person. If you don’t know how your subject talks, you should try to spend some time, on the phone at least, with the person. At least once. Basic nuance is all we’re talking here.
  • Reporters, of course, are held to higher standards. But most reporters, in my mind, still take too many liberties with “polishing” quotes. I’m not saying you have to put in the “uh”s and “uhm”s. But if you’re going to quote somebody, quote them! If what your source says isn’t quotable, paraphrase. When you polish, you sanitize. Sanitization is good in the operating room. Not in the newsroom.

Last but not least:

If you can’t find any diamonds, don’t use any quotes. That’s right. Who made it a rule that you had to put a quote in a press release, e-mail announcement or news story? If your marketing manager or editor says you need a quote, regardless of the situation, he or she is misguided. There are plenty of circumstances when quoting is just silly. Bad quotes–long ones, fake ones, mushy ones, lawyer-speak ones, jargon-filled ones–trip up readers.

Unless your goal is to have readers quotes22not read your copy, no quotes are better than bad quotes.

You can quote me on that.


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