What it takes to be a digital copywriter 30 Apr 2014

Samantha Corbett on what it takes to be a digital copywriter…

I never imagined I would get into digital copywriting – I’ve always been more of a mahogany desk, library loving, and calligraphy pen kind of gal, with a penchant for quoting Lewis Carroll and a passion for all things traditional. I studied English at UCT and I envisioned a glorious future for myself as the Ernest Hemingway bad-girl of the Mother City. I sort of drifted into digital by accident, and we’ve become rather fond of each other.

Copywriter cartoon

I’m by no means an expert, but I certainly have picked up some tricks of the trade over the last few years and, by virtue of my position in the company, I have to know what to look for in the digital copywriters I employ. Finding the right people is actually not very easy – a digital content producer has to have an incredibly diverse range of skills and interests and the ability to write words that are the magical unicorns of content – strings of thought that people want to read. Often, you’ll find writers who aren’t at all familiar with SEO or the world of digital, or social nuts who are incredibly adept at seeding content to influencers, but not so much at generating the content themselves. That’s OK – our content department includes both writers and social sharers – but ideally, a writer should be social media savvy too.

The world is drifting into digital at a frightening speed – actually drifting is the wrong word – it’s more an image of a speeding freight train with no brakes. It’s happening. Jump on board or get run-over. The train’s left the station and there’s no going back.

So what does it take? If we had to extract essence of digital copywriter what would the critical ingredients be? It would probably smell like sweaty brows, clenched jaws, coffee and pies (that’s a fragrance everyone would want to buy) with a bit of energy drink and eau de sock thrown in for good measure. The critical ingredients for me would primarily be a love of conversation and an intrinsic curiosity about the world and everything in it.

Part of the reason I love digital is because it challenges me to learn something new every day. It’s never stagnant – I’ve had to educate myself about almost every topic under the sun – some more interesting than others. For example, did you know the world’s largest organism is a fungus that’s some 2,384 acres in size? I learnt that writing for a guest house that specialises in mycology. Or that more people are killed by vending machines than by sharks each year. Or that almost every drop of water you drink passed through a dinosaur at some stage. Yes, ‘tis fascinating indeed. So if you want to be a digital copywriter you need to be a complete fact nerd – knowing ants don’t have tongues needs to be a prospect that excites you.  You have to love spending hours on the Internet doing research – it’s a rabbit hole you need to hop into frequently. Remember, content needs to be fresh and new – you can recycle ideas, but if you do so, make sure you’re adding a new spin.

You also need to love communication in general. You’re never writing for yourself. You’re writing for a specific target audience. That carries its own set of challenges as you have to tailor your tonality to fit your brand. We write for 145 different brands – that’s a lot of unique voices. Brand familiarity is another core part of the life of a digital copywriter. You have to love your brand, speak your brand and become your brand. When you speak about the companies you produce Lovemarks for, your eyes need to light up like a kid who’s just been given a puppy. It has to be that same insane excitement and level of love.

The art of conversation is difficult to master. How do you produce content that people want to read? What is the formula for shareable articles? There’s no easy answer to this question. If you fancy you’ve cracked the code, come and see me for an interview. For me, it’s about tapping into emotions and being evocative. It’s about finding out what people are interested in and giving them this information in a way that’s a pleasure to digest. Fundamentally, it’s about telling stories. If you look at humankind in general, something that ties us all together is our love of story-telling. It’s a way of preserving culture, history, art, nostalgia, beauty, sadness and memory, and it’s one of the most powerful tools a writer can wield.

Part of generating conversation includes using social media platforms to their full potential in order to build up a niche following and share your work effectively. Social also encapsulates the immediacy of digital – it allows you to reach out to and engage with your followers and to build up a real relationship with them that inspires loyalty and respect. Today, writers need to harness the power of social media and use these channels to their advantage, and also utilise social to keep abreast with current affairs and newsworthy, trending topics.

An interest in SEO and Analytics will also assist your digital copywriting journey greatly – Saatchi Synergize places great emphasis on transparency and results. It’s all very well writing beautiful content, but how can you be sure it’s engaging your intended audience and getting your brand the ROI it needs? This is why Big Love and Big Data are a perfect union – because they support each other so beautifully – you can’t have one without the other. Data gives us knowledge and ammunition for our storytelling and it shows us what works and what can be improved upon.

For any writer, a love of words lies at our core. If the word pulchritudinous doesn’t excite you, you’re in the wrong profession. ‘Chatoyant’ should send shivers down your spine. Language is everything.

So is grammar. Just because you’re in digital does not mean you get to slack on your concord. If you don’t know how to use a semi-colon; don’t.

A sense of humour also helps. You’re going to be dealing with difficult clients who won’t always agree with your vision – having a thick skin and being able to laugh at tough situations is an extremely important skill to develop. You also need a certain degree of humility – the client is always right even when they’re not. Clench your fists, swallow your pride and make the requested changes then go and punch a pillow or something. Although having said that, sometimes it is necessary to stand up for yourself and your vision – if you really believe you’re right, then fight to make others see your point of view.

These are just some of the qualities I look for. Of course, passion is a major factor as well. Passion, love and a desire to learn. If you can demonstrate these qualities, you’re well on your way.