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.
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
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:
“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.
is that the Internet has and will continue to diminish the importance of
writing skills and the quality of writing over time.
Pre-Internet, documents were printed, with considerable expense invested in the
design and reproduction.
publishers and other content producers would take pains to ‘get it right.’
once the piece was printed, correcting a typo, grammatical error, or awkward
sentence meant going back to press – again at considerable expense.
Internet era, documents are increasingly electronic files posted on a Web site.
corrections is easy, and in fact a whole new category of software – content
management systems (CMS) – has evolved to manage these changes.
content producers realize mistakes are quick, easy, and inexpensive to correct,
they are not as concerned with getting it right the first time.
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.
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.”
mean that in direct marketing, copy is no longer king?
direct marketing is the one remaining communications method where good writing is more important than ever.
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
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.
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
course that means one thing primarily: strong copy. Though of course, graphics
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.”
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.
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:
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 email@example.com and his Web site
address is www.bly.com.