Sunday, June 6, 2010

To Be Interesting, Be Interested First: How Asking Questions Sets Up Effective Copywriting

In a recent ASAE listserv, a staffer asked the basic question "What words do you use for 'networking' or 'education' in your copy?" I was glad to see it because so often we use a kind of shorthand with the outside world—members and non-customers—without really thinking them through. This often reflects the fact that if we're not careful, we can easily prepare our communications in a monklike isolation from the real voice of our customer. 

There are a number of terms that we all happily plop into our copy, but we often don't realize how people in our target audience actually process these terms … or the overall message we're trying to get across. When I write copy, I always ask for permission to contact a few members and schedule phone interviews with them. For most of us in associations, it should be an easier, regular, less formal process.

Some of the actual questions I'll ask a member or customer include:
* "Do you encourage other peers to consider membership? If you have, what kinds of reactions do you get from them?:
* "Pretend that I'm a peer who doesn't hold an ___ membership. How would you describe the organization to them/me?"
* "Thank you for the description. There were a few things I didn't hear ... tell me about ______ (often networking, education, advocacy, and information)." or alternatively...
* "You mentioned networking. That's a great buzzword that seems to mean different things to different people in different fields. Tell me more about what YOU regard as networking." (Ditto for education)
* "How valuable is (networking, education) to you? Why? If you don't mind, give me an illustration of some recent (networking, etc) that you've done."
* (If necessary) "Of course, we're speaking today to help us communicate more effectively. We're talked what you think and do. How similar are you to your peers? How might they think differently about ________?"

In a few short questions this allows me to have a long conversation that helps me "get inside the market's head." The member or customer won't mind--after all, nobody has ever had a bad conversation about themselves! It can help any of us figure out how to convey the benefits we offer, far beyond just using a single word that may mean different things to different readers, and to make it more compelling and understandable with the right words or examples.

I know the answers I get through this process DO vary by field, but often 'networking' entails idea exchange, commiseration when times are tough, 'brain-picking' on very sensitive issues they won't bring up in listservs or roundtables, checking in with old friends to see how they are doing, making new friends, basic business development, gauging reactions to what a speaker/guru just said, validating their current course of action, or living vicariously through others who do things differently from that person, or who have changed their practices. Depending on the season/year/person, the focus may be on survival, success, or just human interaction with like-minded people who share similar goals and operate in the same market/environment.

In any event, I'd encourage anyone writing copy for prospects to go through the exercise of speaking directly to their audience now and again, to find out how your audience thinks about these terms: I know many of us have staff specialists who see these functions in terms of their technical training and experience who serve as our SMEs, but they provide only half the story and that half may be very different from how your audience actually thinks. Often they can have tunnel vision regarding the issue and may emphasize literal truth over the words that are more likely to truly speak to the prospect's needs, to get their attention and be memorable. (I personally think advocacy is more limited than other benefits, as the copy often reads as if it's written by lawyers!) It's not easy, but going 'straight to the horse's mouth' and using what you learn will help you pick ... and defend ... the right words, examples, or concepts that will help prospects understand what you really mean by 'networking' ... or 'education,' or 'advocacy.'