Writing in the Internet Age 


By Robert W. Bly




            A while back I got an e-mail from Matthew Budman, who is the Managing Editor of Across the Board – a magazine published by the Conference Board for senior-level executives at large corporations.

            Mr. Budman asked me to comment on an article on business writing two authors had submitted for publication in the magazine. The simple premise of the article was that, even in our technological era, writing skills are more important than ever.

            I’m not sure why he chose me as someone from whom he wanted commentary on business writing. It may be that I’ve written a couple of books on business writing including The Elements of Business Writing (Alyn & Bacon).

            But whatever the reason for my selection, the lead line of the Across the Board article (actually the subhead) caught my eye, and generated an immediate and visceral reaction from me.

            Here was the reply I gave him:

            “Dear Mr. Budman:

            “I’d like to believe your article subhead, ‘In an age of technology, writing skills are more important than ever.’ But I’m not convinced.

            “My theory is that the Internet has and will continue to diminish the importance of writing skills and the quality of writing over time.

            “The reason: Pre-Internet, documents were printed, with considerable expense invested in the design and reproduction.

            “Therefore, publishers and other content producers would take pains to ‘get it right.’

            “After all, once the piece was printed, correcting a typo, grammatical error, or awkward sentence meant going back to press – again at considerable expense.

            “In the Internet era, documents are increasingly electronic files posted on a Web site.

            “Making corrections is easy, and in fact a whole new category of software – content management systems (CMS) – has evolved to manage these changes.

            “Now that content producers realize mistakes are quick, easy, and inexpensive to correct, they are not as concerned with getting it right the first time.

            “As a result, they are not as particular about the quality of the writing, editing, and even thinking their organizations publish.

            “So it seems to me that, if anything, writing skills are less important in an age of technology, rather than more important.

            “Also, the Internet has sped up the pace of business and society. The primary attribute valued today in writing or any other product or service is speed, and it is an attribute to which quality often takes a back seat.”

            Does this mean that in direct marketing, copy is no longer king?

            No, because direct marketing is the one remaining communications method where good writing is more important than ever.

            With postage, printing, and list costs continually climbing, and response rates down across the board, it is more difficult than ever to get a strong control in the mail – one generating a good ROI and likely to last a year, two years, or longer.

            Worse, our prospects are bombarded by more communications than ever. There are literally millions of Web sites they can visit, and over 800 channels of television they can watch. Not to mention all the pop-up ads and spam they receive each day.

            With all that information competing for the prospect’s attention, you have to work extra hard to make your mailing – whether print or online – stand out and grab the prospect’s attention.

            And of course that means one thing primarily: strong copy. Though of course, graphics can help.

            Lists and offers are tremendously important. But you can identify, fairly quickly and easily, those lists and offers that work best for your product.

            Once you’ve found the right lists and offers, then the only additional leverage you have for boosting response is through – you guessed it – copy.

            Ironically, while I believe the Internet may have diminished the importance of most kinds of writing, our type of writing – direct response copywriting – has grown in importance – not only offline but online as well.

                As Nick Usborne points out in his book Net Words, “Go to your favorite Web site, strip away the glamour of the design and technology, and you’re left with words – your last, best way to differentiate yourself online.”

The value society places on writing may be cyclical. When I was a youth in the 1960s, for instance, novels were an important art form as well as a vehicle for social change.

Today we live in a different world. “We do live in a non-book age,” says James Mustich Jr., owner of The Common Reader, a mail order book catalog. “TV, the Internet, and other media now play a much greater role than books in determining the conversation of our culture, so much so that they threaten to overpower and drown out the more contemplative modes of experience, including book reading.”

            Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way again. But one thing is certain: any writing that can generate an ROI for the publisher or marketer who buys the words can command a premium price from the author.

            And whether you’re online or offline, if you’re selling something directly – off the page or off the screen -- those words are your copy.

            So in direct marketing, copy is still king.

 About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha). His e-mail address is rwbly@bly.com and his Web site address is www.bly.com.