Archive for August, 2008

You: A multiple-hat-wearing, web designing/programming/hosting hotshot.  An ace at getting your client onto the web for the first time, or upgrading their existing web presence for the current millennium. Now, you’re restless. You’re looking to grow, branch out and expand your offering. To pursue and serve new types of business. In short, you’re looking to add more value.

Me: Waiting for your call.

Seriously, I know you…you’re a straight-shooting go-getter with management written all over you.* For too long you’ve gamely tolerated the DIY client who writes his own copy…or who expects you to soil your cutting-edge design and intuitive functionality with their 10 year old old brochure text. Isn’t it time to step up to web copy so targeted, impactful and optimized that it practically leaps from the screen and stings you in the face?

So what are you waiting for…a four-day weekend? Fine. But I’ll be in the office first thing Tuesday with a cup of joe and a head full of ideas. I’m Michael Lively, and I approved this message!

(* Office Space, of course!)

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Marge gets some marketing tips on her first day as a realtor:

Marge: That house is awfully small.
Lionel Hutz: I’d say it’s awfully cozy.
Marge: That one’s dilapidated.
Hutz: No, rustic!
Marge: That house is on fire!
Hutz: Motivated seller!

And that’s pretty much the story when it comes to writing for the real estate client. You do what you have to do when your customer is making the biggest investment of their lives. The agent helps them make the right choice, and then tries to help them feel good about it.

I’ve always been into the aspirational aspect of marketing and advertising. That is, messaging that speaks to us in our daily lives, but also speaks to who we would like to be.  People love to dream big, and there are few dreams more evocative than home ownership. So the realm of real estate copywriting is ripe with potential.

I guess it depends on your market, as well. There are “real estate towns,” and Charleston is one of them. Not lately, of course, but overall. Here, I’ve written video scripts, print material, websites, blogs and SEO articles on:

  • New Home Construction,
  • High-end Residential,
  • FSBO-ing,
  • Flat-fee MLS,
  • Moving and Storage,
  • Mortgage Lending,
  • Homeowners Insurance, and
  • Home Improvement

I’ve also served real estate’s corporate cousins in commercial property development, leasing, property management and facilities management (which is different somehow.)

It’s a fun field because, as long as you are hitting the selling points, you’re pretty much free to paint the picture as eloquently and evocatively as your skills allow. Which also means it’s a great way to give the language muscle a workout. Feel the burn!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite examples: and old industrial laundry building in a dying rustbelt town being transformed into luxury loft condos. Mmmm, ostentatious!

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The art, science and frustration of writing the corporate newsletter is a theme I have visited several times here at the Exchange. Like any regular steady gig, you love it and you tire of it. It’s a little bit of inspiration with a bunch of perspiration. Obviously, the balance tips more towards fun than not, or else I wouldn’t do it.

It helps if you believe what you are doing has a purpose.  I believe it is this: so that the sales rep in Florida and the sales rep in Idaho can hear the same message from headquarters, can learn about each other’s successes, and feel like they are part of a team.

So, before I officially give the topic a rest, let’s take a look back at some of the features and benefits of a corporate newsletter.

The Thing About Corporate Newsletters, el parte uno

It all began with this delicate statement about corporate newsletters: most of them suck. Too many cooks, no executive chef. To many voices, no true editor. The newsletter is proposed by someone in middle management, then immediately passed down, down, down to someone with no authority to make it successful.

The Thing about Corporate Newsletters, el parte dos

Further examination about the low place on the totem pole where the success of the newsletter is supposed to blossom.  Lack of authority forces a more collaborative approach. This tends to leave all the responsibility at just a few, or even a single doorstep where it competes with other priorities and eventually dies.

The FINAL Thing About Corporate Newsletters

Yes, as we all should have guessed, the solution is to turn it over to a contracting ghostwriter!  An outside copywriter can take the raw stories and provide a little polish. Most importantly the writer provides a singular voice.

Corporate Newsletters: Don’t Stop the Presses!

At the top of the corporate newsletter “What NOT to Do” list is kicking back and letting the machine run itself. This is not perpetual motion, folks. You have to nurture this thing if you want it to keep adding value for the client (and your own wallet!)

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Time for This Week in Blogging History…all the randomness of an entire week of blogging crammed into a single post. Now with extra fiber!

Accepting Criticism

They say you need a thick skin in the copywriting business. Somehow, though, no matter how thick you make it, they keep finding a way to make the darts more powerful. In “Accepting Criticism” we take time to bitch and whine consider the difference between giving a constructive critique and being an ass.

Sales, Politics and Copywriting

It’s an art form…wrangling a client, shepherding them away from some ill-considered notion and toward your way of thinking because you know you’re right. Yeah…I don’t do that. It’s not like I’m taking some big ethical stand on the issue, I’m just not good at it. Damn it, Jim…I’m a copywriter! So I tend to let the copy do the persuading. Check out Sales, Politics and Copywriting.

Just Start Writing

The best advice an assistant video editor ever gave a terrified junior copywriter. The funny thing is, I was the editor! Circle of life, man. To feel the warm, glowing, warming glow of failure and redemption, just start reading Just Start Writing.

Happy Fun Time Video #3,100,628

Video production makes a random appearance here in the Exchange. The subject is running and gunning at corporate sales meetings, where the weather is always 72 degrees and fluorescent. Shooting all day, editing all night, and bathing…whenever. It’s all part of the magic of the Happy Fun Time Video!

Enjoy your weekend. Blog on, y’all!

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Many people tell me that they could never be a copywriter because they suck at receiving criticism. That’s okay, I tell them – most people suck at GIVING criticism, too! And man, it’s the truth.

Copywriting is a very subjective endeavor. Until you turn in your draft, it can sometimes be difficult to know if you are on the right track. Fortunately, every writing client is thoughtful, adept at dealing with creative people, and always prepared to give constructive feedback. Helpful, insightful comments to help sharpen your copy, like:

  • Try Again!
  • WRONG!
  • ???????
  • “Two thumbs DOWN. Would that I had more thumbs with which to condemn this atrocity!”

With me, it’s never the content of the critique that offends. Different people have different definitions of quality, or what it means to hit the mark.  And I have a real ability to turn off the pride switch and say, hey, you’re signing the check.

Where I draw the line is with comments like those listed above…idiotic exclamations that basically say, “I don’t know what I’m after, but this ain’t it.”  Unnecessarily harsh criticism that goes way beyond the draft copy, insulting the writer’s intelligence and questioning his talent.  It causes bad blood, and makes the job more difficult.

If you’re like me, your goal is to add value. Naturally, you want the client to be happy with your work.  But in situations like this you will never make him happy. You will merely bring the work to an acceptable level of quality.  In other words, it will  never be GOOD, just good enough. The experienced copywriter sees this and, unfortunately, mentally checks out. It’s just a gig now, one you hope to wrap up as quickly as possible.

I’ll leave you with the words of Dale Carnegie: Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain…and most fools do.

Graphix credit: freedigitalphotos.net/stuart miles

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There’s a difference between sales and politics. To me, selling is a response to an actual need. The client needs a single, simple something. In response, you try to sell him three deluxe somethings and the extended warranty. Underneath the hoopla (and the optional rust-proofing) there’s a need in there somewhere, and it’s usually the client’s.

Politics is about manipulation. It’s about pushing the levers, pressing the buttons, pulling the strings (and exhausting the idioms.)  If there’s a need in there, it’s your need for the client to do something your way, for whatever reason.

How does this relate to copywriting (because it should, right)? Actually, I find myself in this position often.  I get inspired during the writing process and start off in a direction that is not exactly what we agreed to. Pretty close but, in my opinion, better. When it comes time to submit the draft, I start to wonder how am I going to present this? How am I going to couch it? How am I going to slip it over the transom/under the radar/through the keyhole?

Now, here’s where the true Marketing Communications pros would swoop in and apply their mastery of human nature. “We’ll point them towards X, but they’ll resist and try to pick Y. Then we’ll hit them with Z, which is actually X with just enough Y in it to make them think that it was their idea.’

Manipulative? Absolutely, but I don’t mean it in a bad way…as long as you’re acting in the client’s best interest. I think this kind of scheming is an art form. I wish I had any talent for it whatsoever, but I don’t.

I am just a copywriter, so my writing has to speak for itself. So I submit the draft. I don’t write a preamble “warning” them that this won’t be exactly what we discussed. I don’t ask them to have an open mind. I just present it, hope that it flies, and try to prepare myself for any potential objections.  No tricks, no ploys, no angle.

On the other hand…

It just occurred to me that, as far as managing client expectations, my candid confession of not having an angle is actually an angle…and a really good one! So forget everything I just said.

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When all else fails, just write. This is something I had to learn when I first started writing professionally. I used to think that if it wasn’t perfect on the first draft…I don’t know…that they would see what a FRAUD I was! I have since learned that it’s only a first draft.  It’s not meant to be perfect. You just need to give them something to react to.                                                       LivelyExchange: “Waiting for It”

I wrote that a couple of months ago. The context was what to do while you are waiting for the inspiration to strike on a writing project.

When I wrote it, I was seeing an indelible mental image, almost 20 years old.  I was at my first job out of school, a production house. A young lady (Lauren?) was starting her first day as a copywriter. I was an assistant video editor whose job description was heavy on the “other duties as proscribed by supervisor” so, on this particular day, I was moving her furniture and helping her get settled. Lauren seemed nervous for her first day, almost too nervous, and I tried to chat her up a little to calm her down.

As I was finishing up, the copy director walked in and dropped off a file…her first assignment. I gave her a thumbs-up, a wink, and headed out. I had heard that these writer-types liked to be “left alone” to “think” or something.

An hour later, I walked past Lauren’s office and it seemed quiet. I guess I was expecting to hear typing or something, but did not. So I popped in to say hello.

I found Lauren staring vacantly at her monitor, her face a couple of degrees shy of “ashen.”  She began to speak, though not necessarily to me. “I’m stuck,” she muttered. “Completely stuck. Just…stuck.” I looked at her monitor: a lonely, blinking yellow cursor in a sea of blackness. (Why? Because I am old.)

I was nowhere near becoming a writer at that time, but I knew the people I worked for. So I told her, “Don’t let them come in here and see that monitor. Start writing. Anything. Fill up that space. Hell, maybe something will come to you while you’re doing it!”

So, this was Lauren’s first day, which I am sure she remembers better than I do. First day, first assignment, first cosmic super freakout.

In this business the worst pressure is the pressure you place on yourself.  And that empty screen (which is white now, smartass) can be pretty intimidating. Fortunately, the best bit of advice is also the simplest…just start writing.

Hey, it worked for me. Lauren, however, ended up in sales.

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With my steady corporate newsletter gig, I was hired not only to ghost-write, but to sort of ghost-publish, as well. So I tried to set standards, not to be Mr. Big Boss, but to help them actually get the thing done week to week.

We talked about producing a minimum number of stories per week. We also discussed having an average number of stories. Anything above that number, and we would hold back any “evergreens” (stories that will stay fresh forever) in reserve for the slow weeks.  I was trying to avoid having one (or zero) stories one week, and ten the next. Even out the workflow, in the best Japanese tradition.

To which the journalism gods said  “Foolish mortals!”

The simple fact is there’s only so much news. And it doesn’t happen in nice uniform chunks. And it doesn’t happen evenly across your contributors’ various areas of responsibility.  And your contributors are not all equally adept at (or committed to) digging deeper for news on slow weeks.  And here’s the simplest fact of all: no matter how I try to “lead” I am still just a vendor.

The solution is communication, as usual. I nag gently prod as the weekly deadline approaches. I nag gently remind a contributor that he has not contributed in a while. And I nag gently offer assistance to help determine if a lead has potential.

The point is to keep the big wheel turning at all costs.  I have done my best to “institutionalize” this newsletter. It makes terrific sense as an information channel and as a team-builder for a sales force that is widely spread across the continent. And, I am not ashamed to admit that it’s a steady paycheck.

But it’s WORK. And as soon the gang figures out how much easier their lives would be without this little newsletter, then it’s back to Kost Kutter brand cat food for me…and I don’t have a cat!

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Extra Postage Required

Spent all day yesterday exercising my modest Final Cut editing skills, putting together Happy Fun Time Video #3,100,628. Like its 3,100,627 predecessors, this video is a quick cut music video meant to recognize, inspire, motivate, appreciate and, if we have any time left, entertain.

It’s been awhile since I did one of these, but it used to be my favorite part of the stifling corporate gig. We would spend months writing and producing videos for the big company sales meeting in a) Scottsdale, b) Orlando or c) Scottsdale. Typical subject matter included:

  • Merchandising videos to excite salesmen about a new product,
  • Incentive and commission videos to totally piss them off, or
  • Rousing daily show openers to assault their hung over brains.

Eventually, after all of that preparation, the week of the meeting arrived. The last semi-truck pulled out of parking lot, we’d breathe a sigh of relief…and we’d jump on a plane to Scottsdale and/or Orlando.  Our work had just begun.

Producing the Happy Fun Time Video, also known as the Candids Module or the People Show, is the way we spent the next five days. While everyone else conferred, ate and played golf we shot video of people conferring, eating and playing golf. And also of salespeople getting busy behind the cabana after hours. This was in addition to executing tape cues and advancing slides during the presentations. Yes, I said slides.

At night, we would retire to the room and commence editing. This was in the days before the iBook, when the rented editing system took up as much space in the hotel room as a 1930’s gravity furnace, and had all the editing capability of a 1930’s gravity furnace.  So, you had to get creative with your graphics and transitions, as well as doing as much in-camera effect work as you could conjure. Note to editors: simply using each of your system’s 40 crazy wipe patterns in a row is not creativity. Because I said so.

Finally, the moment arrives at 10:55am Sunday, right before the final gavel. The lights dim, the video plays, and the laughter ensues. Suddenly the long nights, the lame sight gags and that damn song that will never leave your brain are worth it. That is, until the lights come up and you see that half the crowd has slipped out to grab an early cab to the airport.

By the way, what happens in Scottsdale stays in Scottsdale. So forget that part about getting busy behind the cabana.

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Heads up, word-jockeys…it’s the weekly wrap!

For too many websites, their design is stunning. Their programming is seamless. And the writing…is an afterthought. If anyone has put any effort into the copy, it is in the area of Optimization. But shouldn’t the copy speak to the members of the audience who aren’t search engines? Read the familiar writer’s lament, Copywriting for the Web.

Niche Week concluded with a look at one of my odder concentrations…the world of printing and packaging known as Graphic Arts. It’s a good example of maturing in the writing game…the ability to motivate yourself to do quality work on a topic that doesn’t particularly rock your world.  Breathe deep the inky smell of Copywriting for Graphic Arts… but don’t smudge it!

Speaking of copywriting niches, here’s the one I don’t joke about…health care. This is how my bread gets buttered. It’s light, creamy, and full of GOOD cholesterol. Pass me the jelly, and check out HealthCare Communications.

I’ve said it before: copywriting is a business where the only thanks you can expect is to be paid…and you have to wait six weeks for that. Once in a while, however, a client will surprise you. And, it figures, he used to be a copywriter! So, check out this bit of self-indulgent self-indulgence, Unexpected Praise.

Clients, when you telephone your copywriter at 10am, you should know he is still in his pajamas. If that makes you think less of him, then forget that I said that. Consider the modern convenience of the long-distance professional relationship in Writers Without Borders.

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