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How to treat and prevent common marketing copy maladies

By Darren Greninger · February 25, 2022

Is your marketing copy in good health? 

As a freelance writer and daily reader of marketing copy, I see a range of marketing copy that suffers from various maladies—some acute, some chronic. Rarely are these conditions fatal to your business, but they keep you from fully flourishing.

Like many ailments, these disorders begin with bad advice or bad habits. The good news: treating—and even preventing—them is easy. 

3 common marketing copy mistakes

Before we talk prescriptions, let's examine these ailments.

1. Vague marketing puffery 

Typical presentation: Acute condition. Most common in homepage copy and services pages; leaves the reader wondering what you actually do.

All too often when I land on a company's homepage, I see cliché-packed, unclear headlines like these: 

  • Delivering real-world results in days, not weeks

  • Helping you solve your toughest management problems

  • Next-generation technology for a competitive edge

  • We help you grow

  • Transforming healthcare with data solutions

These examples are based on actual headlines I've seen in recent weeks, with slight word changes to protect the patient's anonymity.

The problem with these headlines: I have no idea what these companies do. And any subheader copy—which, in theory, could help curb the symptoms—is just as vague. Take a look at what you typically see there:

  • Setting new benchmarks for operational efficiency with AI-powered processes

  • Complete industry-specific software that makes doing business easier

This vague language won't get you any SEO love, and assuming someone does stumble across your site, they'll still have no idea what you offer. That leads to, at best, an eye roll and some serious skepticism and, at worst, high bounce rates.

2. Not making clear who you're talking to

Clinical presentation: Homepage copy that could be for a variety of personas; blog posts that don't address or imply a particular audience. Reader's reaction: are you talking to me?

When you say something like, "Next-generation technology for a competitive edge," are you talking to solopreneurs? Health plans looking for ways to prevent fraud? Or maybe airlines trying to better predict their revenue? The reader has no idea. 

Blog articles can also fail to address a specific reader, especially when a post opens with background information or statistics, like this:

In January, the U.S. Department of Labor promulgated new regulations that govern worker safety.

Your blog opening should instead either directly address the specific, targeted reader or at least signal to the reader the type of person or organization the content is for. For example, imagine if the above hypothetical blog post instead opened this way:

If you're a small business owner, there are new worker safety regulations you'll need to follow.

The reader knows this content is for small business owners. If that's who the reader is, they're going to keep reading, and, if not, they'll leave. That's what you want. 

Here's a different blog post's hypothetical opening that takes a more indirect approach but is no less clear:

You can't effectively treat your patients if they don't take the medicine you prescribe. 

The reader knows this content is for healthcare providers—and for anyone else who might be interested in the work of healthcare providers. 

Addressing a specific reader is especially important in homepage copy. Compare the earlier vague homepage copy examples to UserVoice's homepage content:

Product feedback management software for growing SaaS companies

A single, centralized product feedback solution that gives you everything you need to gather, aggregate, analyze, and follow through on feedback from customers and internal teams. 

The UserVoice homepage

Here we have a clear audience—growing SaaS companies—and there's a clear, detailed service: a product feedback platform. Of course, subsequent pages and sections go into greater detail, but there's enough information here for the reader to understand who this content is for and what the company is offering.

Bottom line: you've likely spent considerable effort defining your addressable market and personas, so make sure your copy is actually talking to these groups.

If your content is meant for multiple potential audiences or industries, there are any number of creative approaches to speak to several audiences at once. Take a look at Tomorrow.io's homepage copy: 

The World's Weather and Climate Security Platform

Powered by weather intelligence software, Tomorrow.io helps teams prepare for the business impact of weather by automating decision-making and enabling climate adaptation at scale. 

Tomorrow.io homepage

The headline makes clear that their solution is potentially for any business in the world. Although I can still find a couple things to quibble with in the subheading copy (read: my confusion over the meaning of climate adaptation), all in all, this copy clues me into the offering and makes me want to read more.

3. Broadcasting rather than mind-reading

Symptomatology: Broadcasting messages, ideas, and opinions you want to get out without any regard to whether your audience cares about them. Talking at, rather than to. A bad form of "thought leadership" content. 

So much content I read fails to answer this question that the reader always has: what's in this for me? Why should the reader spend their time on your article? Why should they care?

This is common in interview-format articles. Often, they open with background information on the interview subject:

Former CTO of [technology company] and owner of [consulting company], [Person's name] has spent nearly two decades in the technology industry. 

While it's important to acknowledge the authority of your sources, make sure you address the reader first—like I did in this article you're reading now. Inviting the reader in is especially important with thought leadership content. You need to read your audience's minds, anticipate what will entice them, and provide whatever that is—rather than broadcasting without any regard to whether anyone cares.

Instead of the above opening, imagine if the article began like this:

Is it better to stick to one narrow career path in technology, deepening your knowledge, or to diversify your experiences? Here's what we learned from [insert bigwig's name and experience].

With this slight change, we've re-framed the interview so that the reader can immediately see what the article is offering them: namely, insight into how they should manage their own careers. It's the same article, but that slight change in copy keeps people reading.

Of course, you don't want to take the mind-reading too far and consistently describe what you think is going through your readers' minds. "Now I know what you're thinking" can feel relatable, but if your reader isn't thinking that thing, it can be off-putting. So understand your readers' pain points and values, but don't put words in their mouths.

A prescription for healthy marketing copy

All of the copy disorders highlighted here have the same root cause: assuming too much about the reader while focusing too much on yourself.

Anticipate that your reader doesn't know anything about you, your business, or who you're addressing. Also assume that your reader is purely self-interested and will only read your content if it benefits them in some way—and you need to tease that benefit as soon as possible.

Picture a reader who's impatient—a natural-born skeptic with a finely tuned B.S. detector. A no-nonsense straight-shooter who isn't going to cut you any slack. This reader—think: every character Mark Wahlberg has ever played—wants content that's precise and clear, as well as useful, entertaining, or otherwise engaging

So, is your marketing content healthy enough to withstand Wahlberg's withering look? And maybe even make him crack a smile?

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