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The Future of Copywriting – by Chris Smith

Winner Letterpress
Here is the winning entry in our 2014 Blogging Competition – “The Future of Copywriting”. Among a strong field, Chris Smith triumphed. According to the judges:

“A tightly structured and newsworthy article. This piece has a strong and original tone of voice that draws the reader into the challenges faced by copywriters today. The author highlights the lack of time given to reading any particular piece of writing as a result of digital media and a fragmented global audience.

With a strong structure, clear paragraphs and well-crafted arguments this work conveys a solid portrait of the fast-moving world we live in. And of the skills that writers will need to stay ahead in terms of engaging and persuading their audience.

Mentions of iconic advertising campaigns from the past display a breadth and depth of research and knowledge. This writer knows his Ogilvy from his Mather. In mentioning the new Apple watch and wearable devices a nod is given to the future. What words will work best to persuade and influence consumers when screen space is at such a premium?

The growth of YouTube and online video is a major driving force in the way the millennial generation consumes information. Will copywriters need to add screenwriting to their talents by necessity?

A well written, well researched article with a strong and engaging voice. Informative, relevant – and very well done.”

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Ask me what the future of copywriting is and I’ll reply with a question. Does copywriting even have a future?

I’m not saying this just to be provocative. I mean take a look around you – we live in an age where people’s attention spans are now measured in seconds rather than minutes. Online copy is not so much read as scanned. And it’s compressed; look at how news, ideas and opinions are shoe-horned into 140 characters or less on Twitter. Does it really take a copywriter to craft a bullet point or tweet that someone will devour in seconds?

Offline, printed media are in decline; sales brochures are an endangered species. Newspapers and magazines face shrinking readerships. The days of the iconic ‘Think Small’ and ‘Lemon’ Volkswagen press ads are long gone as audiences fragment more and more. High quality copywriting for ads is no longer cost-effective if only a handful of people will see them.

Then there’s the fact that audiences are now often global. Today, it’s as easy to communicate with someone on the other side of the planet as it is to talk to a person on the opposite side of the room. Of course not everyone has the same language ability so the temptation for marketers in particular, is to ‘dumb down’ the copy. Language nuances and cultural references get left out in favour of ‘one size fits all’ text.

Another characteristic of online content is its exponential growth. Search engines such as Google are responsible for much of this increase. Many businesses create content with the primary goal of appearing high in the search results. But, volume of copy often takes precedence over quality. Why pay a professional copywriter when you can find someone online to churn out a page of text with your keywords in it for just a few pennies.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, ‘machine-generated content’ is now a reality. Computer programs seek out information online and combine and repurpose it to create new content. As the technology improves and gains traction, no doubt more and more content will be written by machines.

Just as technology can create content it is also responsible for reducing it. New devices such as the Apple Watch and other ‘wearables’ with small screens means that space for words is at a premium. Copy for display on such devices will by necessity have to be stripped down to its basics.

This reduction of text to a minimum is also seen in the way that teenagers in particular communicate. So called ‘text-speak’ does away with unnecessary characters to deliver a message in the least number of words. Plus, smartphones’ predictive text feature minimises the need to be able to spell correctly.

But why write anything at all when there is video? This is a fast-growing medium – among younger age-groups in particular. YouTube is now the world’s second largest search engine as people seek information in a visual format. Advertisers have been quick to seize the opportunity that video presents. New formats such as 6-second long Vines and Instagram videos are more and more popular. Could this spell the end of the written word?

Of course not, because today everyone is a copywriter. Anyone can write pretty much anything and publish it online. Tweet, blog post, product review, comment – the opportunities are endless. But if everyone can do it, where does that leave the art of copywriting? Does it have a future? Is there even a need for it anymore?

Before we answer those questions let’s pause for a moment to examine what copywriting is.  At its most basic you could call it the craft of writing the text for advertisements or marketing and publicity material.  The key word here is ‘craft’, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘an activity involving skill in making things by hand’. It takes skill to write good copy (and experienced copywriters would no doubt add that it takes training and practice too).

The skill in copywriting is the writer’s ability to create copy that captures attention and elicits a response. The copywriter’s goal in doing so is to inform or persuade the reader of something or to influence their beliefs.

So a copywriter creates powerful messages for his or her target audience. They use the right words in the right form and the right length of text. At the heart of their work is the audience; they are writing for their audience and not for themselves. And not to just fill a page with words for a hungry search engine spider.

A skilled copywriter builds their copy word by word, sentence by sentence. They consider the environment where their text will appear. They know which words and phrases are likely to persuade or influence and which are appropriate for their audience.

There is just as much skill in copywriting a tweet as a long-form landing page, a press ad or a glossy brochure. It’s about knowing the words that persuade or influence. And it’s about knowing what to leave in and what to leave out. Good copywriting makes readers click the link in a tweet. It encourages them read right to the end of a long-form landing page and sign up to the offer. It entices people to call the number in the press ad or pop into their local retail outlet. And it makes the reader desire the item in the glossy brochure.

The copywriter’s craft isn’t limited to visible words on a page or device screen, however. It applies just as much to video too. It takes good copywriting as well good cinematography to make a video that is persuasive and not pants. With just about anyone with a smartphone able to make a video, copywriting often gets overlooked.

So, it’s clear that there is still a need for copywriting but how will it look in ten years time?

Content marketing and social media are set to continue to flood the internet with words. Most of them will be banal or at best mediocre. Good copywriting, by its nature, will float to the top and gain in prominence and value.

Machines will get smarter and machine-generated text will improve. If anything, this will increase the demand for copy written by a skilled human copywriter. That’s because companies will demand content that stands out from their competitors’.

Globalisation is sure to increase over the next decade but audiences will become ever more fragmented. Marketing to the individual will grow in importance and persuasive personalised messages will be the key. Instead of ‘dumbed down’ copy, web visitors will expect dynamic pages with copy tailored to their needs and interests – wherever they are in the world.

Moreover, globalisation means that a copywriter’s market is global too. It will be easier than ever to get business from the other side of the planet. The flipside of this is, of course, that there’ll be more competition but what’s life without a challenge or two!

We’re living in an era when anyone can write ‘copy’ with no training and little effort. Soon machines will be able to do so too. Yet the craft of copywriting is not dying. Instead, the opportunities are greater than ever before. Why? Because copywriting is a craft that produces words that persuade and influence – not ones that just fill a tweet or a page. And there’ll always be a demand for that.

Categories: Advertising copywriting, Business-to-business, Content marketing, Corporate copywriting, and Web copywriting.

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