How to evaluate copy (Part 1)
Freelance designers are increasingly called upon to evaluate copy. Your clients may ask you to 'polish up' copy for their brochure or website during the design process. At other times, you may look to take on entire projects and outsource the copywriting yourself.
If you agree to outsource the concept and copy, you take full responsibility for its quality. It’s therefore vital you oversee the copy process effectively.
We have already discussed how to brief a copywriter for the best possible 1st draft. To help you evaluate whether that 1st draft is working, I have developed 5 pointers for helping you evaluate copy and give insightful feedback. They are:
1. Ensuring the copy responds to the brief
2. Ensuring the copy is on-message
3. Ensuring the copy sells the product
4. Ensuring the copy is engaging and easy to read
5. Ensuring the copy inspires an eye-catching design
Over the next few weeks we’ll look at each of these pointers individually. This week, we’ll start with the 1st pointer:
1. Ensuring the copy responds to the brief
- Does the concept communicate the client’s key selling message?
Did you agree with your client one positioning statement to describe the product’s key selling point, as explained in How to brief a copywriter? If you didn’t, you won’t have a frame of reference to evaluate your copywriter’s concept and copy—so you will need to contact your client again, and establish the key selling message together.
If you did, ask yourself if the lead sales message comes across strongly in the item’s format, suggested visuals, headlines, overall copy tone, and copy structure.
- Is the concept of the item simple and transparent?
Is there just one idea behind the item? Does the idea come across strongly? Or is it buried, disguised, or competing with other ideas?
If the idea comes across immediately, it works. If there are lots of images or components to the concept, they must all support one unifying idea. If they don’t, the item will confuse readers, and confusion quickly leads to loss of interest.
Make sure people will ‘get it’ when they skim over the copy. If you have to read carefully to understand the concept behind it, the item will lose readers. Remember, people aren’t patient when it comes to reading publicity. Marketing collateral should never ask the reader to think, unless it poses a provocative question or sets an intriguing challenge.
- Does the copy address the needs of the target audience?
Based on the information you took from your client at the initial meeting—and the brief you gave your copywriter—try to build a mental picture of a typical target reader. Give your reader a name to help you empathize with him or her. Pretend to be the reader. What kind of problems do you have? What motivates you? What do you strive for? What do you fear?
Then read the copy whilst pretending to be your typical reader. Is the copy relevant? Does it solve your problems? Does it address your desires? Does it show you how the product makes your life easier, happier, more exciting?
- Can the information be presented in a more dynamic way?
Sometimes the copy will be just plain boring. This might be because it’s clunky to read, passive in tone, or not reader-centered enough. But before you dissect the specifics, evaluate the copy in its entirety. Ask yourself if you could communicate the messages in a more engaging way by changing the format, or if you could break up the copy to make it more interesting.
One of the rules of good copy is that each sentence should encourage people to read the next. The same is true with format. A brochure should have ‘flick-factor’ for readers who only skim through. Likewise, an advertisement headline should motivate the reader to continue reading the sales message in the body copy. And a website page should seduce visitors into clicking for more information.
You may be able to identify changes in format that help to keep readers hooked. Changes may include improving headlines, adding ideas for visuals, enhancing the item’s concept, or asking your copywriter to tie-in an interesting theme to the format and copy (a theme that links to the key sales message).
- Is it necessary to have so much copy?
Oscar Wilde once wrote to a friend: “I’m sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Similarly, if your copywriter submits copy that is unnecessarily long, he or she obviously hasn’t allowed sufficient time to edit it down into a more salient draft.
How do you know if the copy is too long? First, remind yourself of the aims of the copy (the call to action). Then ask yourself: is this copy sufficient to motivate the reader to take the required action? As a rough rule of thumb, copy that aims to sell a product direct should be longer than copy that asks the reader to take a free trial.
For example, if the copy is offering something of value to the reader, such as a free product sample, the copy should do just enough to give a flavor of the product, and motivate a (risk-free) response.
If the copy asks for a direct purchase, it must first respond to every potential objection in the readers’ mind that inhibits the sale, leaving the reader with no choice but to click on the ‘buy’ button or complete the coupon. Inevitably this will be longer copy.
But remember, long copy only works if it is succinct and filled with vivid benefit claims to hold the reader’s interest. If the copy feels woolly or shallow, the reader will soon switch off.
Read through the copy and highlight any facts and examples of what the product will do for the reader. If you see sections of copy that don’t include specific information, you can probably do without them.
Also look out for hackneyed adjectives—descriptive words like ‘exciting’, ‘thought-provoking’, or ‘innovative’. These sorts of words are over-used and mean nothing to the reader unless backed up with facts. Quite often, whole paragraphs of copy are built around clichéd descriptors. Either insist your copywriter reinforces claims with facts, or insist on losing them.
If you feel the copy is too long for the stage it appears in the selling process, give your copywriter a specific word target to write to. I often say to copywriters: “The messages are right – can you halve the copy AND keep the essence of the messages?” Copywriters often see this as a challenge, and they usually meet it.
© Shaun Crowley 2007
Shaun Crowley has worked as a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant. He currently works as a communications manager for a major UK publishing company and is the author of The Freelance Designer's Self-Marketing Handbook and 100 Copywriting Tips for Designers and Other Freelance Artists.