Have you ever read a product description and still knew nothing about the product?

I recently audited 30 marketing pieces for a Fortune 100 company. The company’s copywriters and marketers had attended classes on writing relevant content; my job was to examine ten “before class” and twenty “after class” pieces.

They asked me to do this work because I spend a lot of time interviewing customers for my clients, I had deep knowledge of their product line, and they knew I could play the role of a “secret shopper,” even though the shopper was typically an IT manager or C-Level executive. And, they knew I train marketers and copywriters as part of my work.

On a scale of 1 to 5, graded on five criteria, the “before” pieces averaged 1.36, and the “after” pieces averaged 2.63. Out of the 30 pieces, there were only three that earned a “5.” At the other end of the spectrum, seventeen of the pieces earned a one-point-something.

Pretty pathetic, when you consider that the training effort was a multi-million-dollar, worldwide affair. And it wasn’t because I was a tough grader. Even the 5’s could have stood some improvements, from the customer’s perspective.

No wonder customers tend to ignore marketing copy these days, relying instead on information they can get from other customers.

Why were the pieces so bad?


For one simple reason: the writers never have conversations with real customers. In the largest companies, like this one, they aren’t even “allowed” to talk to customers. The product managers give the copywriters a list of features, and the copywriters then string those features together with clichéd superlatives. An example:

These powerful configuration and change management capabilities can help the organization improve operational efficiencies for multivendor devices, prevent outages, reduce mean time to repair, maximize security, provide greater standardization and ensure adherence to organization policies and best practices.”

What’s being sold? You can’t tell. The whole piece was like this.

How are all these sweeping promises kept? You can’t tell. Nowhere in this piece does the writer help the customer visualize “what’s going to happen to me after I buy?” which is the question that all copywriters must answer. Most never do.

How many other vendors make these same promises? All of them. This copy does nothing to distinguish this vendor from the competition.

This kind of copy should be outlawed. It’s not doing our economy any good; it’s not helping buyers make decisions; it’s not helping companies sell more; it’s giving marketing yet another black eye in the minds of C-level executives, most of whom have decided that marketing will never be as professional a contributor as product development, finance or even HR. Sadly, this kind of copy is not the exception, it is the norm.

Most copywriters and marketers don’t know who they’re writing to, or what those customers care about. The outcome is inevitable. A potential customer starts reading the first few sentences and thinks, “Nothing here for me. They don’t know me, they don’t know what I care about, and they certainly aren’t going to answer the questions I have at this stage in my buying process. I’ll look elsewhere.”

How can you escape from this common trap?

The solution to this problem is simple. Your marketers and copywriters need to get on the phone with customers, NOW. Forget online or email surveys; no one will tell you what they’re really thinking in a “written” document, and if you’re just asking multiple-choice questions, you’ll be asking for them to confirm what you already believe, not what they are really thinking. Forget focus groups; they are awkward group environments where people will not reveal the beliefs that drive their behavior, one person will dominate, and the most interesting people won’t even show up.

Phone interviews with current customers, scheduled ahead of time, where the interviewer asks open-ended questions, are the best possible way to extract the most relevant information. Record them (with the customer’s permission). Tell the customer you’ll anonymize their comments and break the conversation up into a report, so that your top managers get the truth without the source. Given that promise (a promise that you will keep), the customer will open up.

Interview about ten customers of a given type, and you will see the big picture trends emerging by the fifth conversation. Not surprisingly, your customers are a demographic onto themselves. They think alike. The greatest news of all is that your prospects -- the people most likely to buy from you -- think just like your current customers. So if you understand your current customers, you will be able to write relevant copy for your future customers.

It only takes a few weeks to arrange and make these calls and prepare a report. Now that they are no longer in “negotiation” mode, your customers will be happy to talk openly with you. The report you generate can then be used by any copywriter or marketer in your company (not to mention your product managers, product developers, salespeople and top managers) to make customer-centric decisions, to build products that will appeal, and provide services that delight your customers.

Within a month or two, your customers will be reading copy that they want to read, that they find interesting and relevant, that answers all their questions and addresses their concerns, and causes them to choose you over your competition.

Image courtesy of Andy Dean Photography (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Looking for more suggestions on Content Marketing? Check out @carlajohnson's article Content Marketing: Start With Your Story