Great copy doesn’t just pop out of thin air. It’s born from having a solid foundation; from knowing what you want to say before figuring out how to say it.
It’s born from research.
If you’ve ever read absolutely anything at all about copywriting, you probably know this already, but it’s worth repeating:
You should not write copy about a product without knowing what it is.
And yes, I wrote should not on purpose. Because you technically can. Copywriting is a creative process, and the better you get at it, the more you’ll be able to wing it.
But if you want to have any measure of success, you need to do research.
Consider this: great copy takes a product’s strongest points and presents them to your audience in a clear way that catches your audience’s attention and makes them want that product.
How are you supposed to do that if you don’t know what your product’s strongest points are?
Who your audience is? What excites your audience?
The Right Questions to Ask
Like I said, practically everyone knows that research is important.
How to do that research, though, is another matter.
What are you trying to find out? Who are you supposed to ask? What questions will best get you the answers?
Let’s start with that last question—which questions to ask.
See, I’ve found that getting the results you need comes from learning to ask the right question.
As an example, let’s talk about a commonly asked question that I never get much of a response from.
The Wrong Question: Why Does this Product Exist?
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great question.
It’s got everything in it: who it speaks to, how it fits in the market, what its USP (unique selling point) is, and what it’s emotional pull is.
But whenever I ask it, I usually get this answer:
“Not sure what to tell you. It exists to help us make money.”
Which really isn’t very helpful. I mean, I can’t write on a brand’s homepage: “We want your money. Hand it over.”
There are two reasons I feel this question never gets me far.
Companies are surprisingly guilty about the fact that their brand exists to make money, and when you force them to confront that fact, they can’t look past it. They stop being able to talk about their product’s exciting features because they feel that the bottom line is it’s all about the money.
Perhaps more importantly, the question simply contains too much. Like I said at the beginning, it’s got at least four questions contained within it. The thing is, most people won’t give you four answers to one question. They’ll give you a one-liner that won’t get you far.
I’ve therefore found that the key to successful research is to steer the conversation away from this morbid fascination with money and ask specific, detailed questions geared towards getting specific, detailed answers.
So here are the right questions to ask.
Detailed and Specific
Start with the basics. What is it? What does it do?
Now for the next step. Ask: Where does it fit in the market?Does it compete against other products or is it the only one of its kind? If it competes, who does it compete against?
Continuing with the previous question, if it competes, ask how. In what ways is it similar and in what ways is it different to the competition? What does it do better and what does it do worse?
And then ask for the story behind it. If a similar product already exists, why did we feel ours needed to exist? At this point, you might be told that it’s to make money. But that’s OK. You’ll have enough info from question 3 to write about.
And if it doesn’t compete, ask for more details. What made us feel we should develop this unique product? It’s also a good idea to press them to make sure that it really doesn’t compete. A lot of people like to claim that their product is unique due to a specific feature, but customers don’t tend to see it that way.
Does it have a unique selling point or anything that makes it special? If not (and it might not) what is it’s strongest selling point?
Now shift focus to the customer: Who is the targeted audience? What do they do? Are they professionals or everyday people? If professionals, what level of professionalism?
Carrying on from that: Why is this product appealing to them?What do they specifically want to do with it?
Now make it emotional. What pain does it solve? What are they struggling to do right now that it can solve for them?
Where are your customers now? Are they looking for a product like this or are they completely unaware that something like this could exist? These last questions will also help you guide your marketing strategy. Knowing if your customers are coming to you or if you’re going to have to look for them is going to make a big difference.
How to Get Those Answers
A lot of that depends on where you are and who you’re working for. Depending on the product and the industry, you’ll have various ways of getting those answers.
The best way is to ask real people. The product developer who made the product. Failing that, the client who hired you. But also don’t overlook people who are not directly involved in the product. You can get a lot of insights into your audience by asking other, unrelated experts in the field (such as professional salespeople).
If you can’t ask someone real, you’re going to have to ask the sage and fountain of all knowledge: Google.
The key is to make sure you understand what your product does, who your customer is, what they want, and how your product will achieve that for them.
And if at any point you feel you don’t know something, go back and ask again.
What If the Answers are Unsatisfactory
This happens. You go ask what your product does and who it speaks to, and you get answers like this.
“Our product has no innate value. It’s a knockoff of countless similar products. We compete for low prices in trusted stores and that’s how we sell.”
You usually find answers like this from Private-Label companies. It’s because, more often that not, that’s what they are. They’re a way for a bigger company like Target or Walmart or Amazon to make money on products that already exist on the market.
But here’s the thing.
These companies exist because they make money. They make money because people buy them.
And people buy them because they want them.
A product doesn’t have to be Elon Musk’s latest invention to be worth spending money on.
Picture this: You’re shopping in Target for new dinnerware. You see a brand-name product for $19.99 and another product you don’t recognize for $14.99.
You’re an intelligent person. You realize this is a private-label product.
But you look at the specs; you pick up the product and feel it; and you realize the quality is about the same. Who cares who made it? Why should you spend five more dollars for a brand name?
That, right there, is something you can build copy on.
You do not need to invent a backstory to a brand to make it interesting. You do not need to pull off some magic trick and discover how your been there, done that product is revolutionary.
You simply need to take the answers you were given and ask yourself: “who would want that and why?”
The trick, in other words, is to find the right spin on that gloomy, despondent response you were given.
A lot of beginner copywriters—and I used to be like this, too—believe that they must become an expert in a product before they can write about it.
That belief stems from a good place. There’s no such thing as too much research, and putting value on understanding your product is a healthy attitude.
But while there may not be such a thing as too much research, there is such a thing as time constraints.
You’re a copywriter after all. You’re not here to do research. You’re never going to know as much about the product as the product developer who spent the past three years developing it does.
You’re here to actually write.
That’s gotta happen eventually.
Research, for copywriters, means knowing what your product does, who your customer is, what they want, and how your product will achieve that for them.
And once you know that, move on.
Summing it all up
The key to successful research is asking specific, detailed questions geared towards getting answers.
There are ten questions that will help you get those answers, which are . . . well, go back and read them. This is a summary, after all.
The best answers come from people, both those related to the product and those unrelated to it. If that’s unavailable, Google and tools like Google Analytics are your next step. But don’t forget that customers can also provide answers.
Once you have your answers, make sure you understand them. If you don’t, go back and ask.
A brand doesn’t have to be revolutionary for you to write about it. The key is just finding the right spin on the content.
And finally, once you understand your product, move on to the next project.