If reading makes you a better writer, then lurking makes you a better copywriter.
A lifetime ago when I moved into the dorms at the University of Nebraska, I found myself smack dab in a corner room on Smith 3 among an inordinate number of music majors and marching band members.
A piano-player myself (I’d never go so far as to call myself a pianist), I liked music, but not with the critical ear of these kids. You bloom where you’re planted, though. So I hung out and studied with them after class.
What a tribe. From my outsider’s perch, I watched. These people who were scathingly dismissive if one of their kind couldn’t detect a flat note, were also genuinely moved by the passion and chronological intensity of Beethoven’s work as he went increasingly deaf. Some marveled at the ability to identify a rare piece of music in one or two measures. All appreciated virtuosity and technique. A few possessed some sort of inner drive to convene on the football field at 5 am to march in any weather. Crazy.
Over time I grew fond of the music department and learned to recognize the types of characters who populated it. I went to their parties, started to get their jokes and feel their pain, though I never got out of bed before 8 am that entire first year, I’m sure of that.
What was I doing that entire time? Reading literature. Writing about reading literature. Reading about writing literature. You could say I wasted a lot of time learning how to put words together…still learning.
One stimulating byproduct of a writing career is living as a stranger in a strange land. Bookish people are great at holding down a sofa and calling it an adventure. Sometimes the adventure is physical, as in travel or live journalism. Sometimes it’s virtual; we hover quietly online and absorb information like well wrung sponges.
Because I was an active lurker, all these years later I could probably write copy that would move young music students. It’s hard to forget total immersion.
See, a related perk of a writing career is knowing a little about a lot of different subjects. And if you know where to look (lurk) you’re always entertained.
A word of warning: this job will bore you to death if you aren’t sincerely curious about why people do what they do. You can crank out words all day long and if you don’t have an interest in making a connection with people, your writing is just saltless soup. That’s why you need to find the hangouts where people are getting real…the party in the basement.
In the next few weeks I’m going to be writing some email and landing pages targeted to a group of professionals I’ve not written to before. After getting a handle on my client’s offering (essentially a way to save money), what’s the next thing I did? I started skulking around the internet watching their chat boards and listening to their conversations. Do they talk about money and what do they say about it? And then, forget money. What do they talk about, need to know, want to know? What’s funny? What’s heart wrenching? What gets under their skin?
Want to be a good copywriter? Learn how to write words that sell. Want to be a great copywriter? Watch what your audience says and thinks about. Lurking is how you find out.
I’m specifically talking about forums today, although you could apply these tips to Facebook comments, business reviews (as on Yelp or Angie’s List), blog comments, Amazon reviews…anywhere people can pile on and add their two cents.
A first rule of thumb: Don’t you jump in with questions. Forums are for insiders. Ask a discomfiting question and they will sniff you out as an outsider, and you probably won’t start the candid discussion that you’re looking for.
Discretion is key. While you might pride yourself on being curious, save the investigative reporter bit for another day. You are incognito here.
[Side note: THE #1 place to ask anything online — including those bald personal questions you’d never ask anyone in person — is Quora, another excellent resource for writers. More on that another time.]
Regardless of the audience or market your are researching/lurking on, pay close attention to a few things:
The questions they ask of each other
You will find that they ask and answer questions very differently depending on the source of the question and the person to whom they respond — or to whom they think they are responding. (Remember, “espionage.”) Experience, background, and locality all play a part in a discussion, but forums operate under the assumption that everyone’s there under one big umbrella. A topic, profession, lifestyle, hobby, sports team, demographic, etc. unites the forum.
When you turn words and information into copy, your understanding of your audience’s problems percolates from under that umbrella. Your job is to present a solution that’s fresh and new…from beyond the umbrella.
Stories and vignettes
You’ve found a golden thread on a forum if participants share stories. Why do people tell stories in the first place? To illustrate what naked explanations never can. In a story, the reader gets the main idea, but is forced to fill in the details based on their own experience and lexicon of knowledge. Sometimes the teller of the story will draw out details that they believe are important. You as a writer must watch for this because those spoken and unspoken details are where you make subtle connections.
For example, say the story is about a doctor. Now, I “know” doctors based on my own experience, you “know” doctors based on yours. When you tell me your doctor story, my understanding of doctors increases a little, but my understanding of YOU increases a lot. That’s what copywriters find so juicy about stories people tell on forums.
Social interaction and “Groupthink”
Don’t just read the content. Make a note of who’s saying what and how the conversation flows. Watch the social interaction.
Forums can be tricky to follow. People cut and paste previous sections they want to comment on, so you often end up reading the same sentences many times throughout a popular thread, especially in a heated discussion.
As you follow, pay attention to the players. If the thread twists into a new subject and more new people jump in, take note. That means the topic is a cauldron of passions.
Sometimes you’ll see a parting of camps, an expression of universal sentiment or even a group attack. Even within niches or professions you regard as thoughtful and/or wholesome, there are jerks. And while forum participants assert their individualism, they also reveal a collective disposition. Keep an eye out for generalities. Vegetable farmers, downhill skiers and teachers each have their own unique vibe. Learn what makes your audience different from everyone else.
When you write, don’t just regurgitate the words. Along with those words bring something unforgettable…
Copy that is shaped by your audience’s outlook is easily digested by it’s members; they’ve already consumed it. Your copy mirrors it and holds out a better way. Next time you write an article, speech or PPC ad, hop on a forum and hang on. You’ll be amazed at what you find out.
Please tell me how it goes, won’t you?
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, chatblanc1