If you are trying to choose a good copywriter to write for your business, a great tip is to look at their approach to research. The skill of a good copywriter extends far beyond writing.
How research helps me tell your story
In order to tell your story, whether creating content for your website, white paper, PR or print, I need to know your story. That means conducting research, immersing myself in your business or a subject area so my content is credible, well informed and interesting.
Research is not as easy as just Googling a few keywords and tapping out an article from there. There’s much more involved. The trick of a good copywriter is knowing how to approach research and when to stop. The more you read, the more you realise how much you still don’t know, and it’s easy to waste a whole day searching and reading with nothing to show for it.
20 years on Fleet Street, as well as many years running a successful copywriting business, have taught me how to research effectively for my writing and I’m going to share with you my three-stage approach:
1. Background research
The homework phase. In today’s digital world it can be easy to forget there are other sources of information beyond the internet. I use a multi-resource approach where possible, doing background research through:
- Documents and publications. It’s good to venture out from behind my computer screen and consult other sources; articles, press clippings, annual reports, books, magazines, journals and documentaries. A trip to the good old-fashioned library may be called for.
- My client’s materials.I’ll ask for articles, press clippings and annual reports.
- Online resources.The good news about online research is the wealth of information you can get. The bad news about online research is the wealth of information you can get. And don’t always believe everything you read! Anyone can post anything online these days and the internet is littered with unreliable information.
How do I know what’s high-quality information and what’s not?
Verify your sources
If you do any online research yourself, take one piece of advice from this article – always verify the sources you use. Be sure they’re reliable, accurate and trustworthy. As a general guideline, I look for sources that have the following qualities:
- Recently published. Be wary of outdated information. It’s often best to stick to the more recent stuff, especially online.
- Reputable author, publisher or platform.Look carefully at the origin of the source. Is it a website, publisher or ‘expert’ you’ve never heard of? If so, it’s worth doing a little extra research to ensure the source is reputable. You’ll usually be safe with government and educational sources, but others such as online news sites and blogs might require more thorough vetting.
- Can be corroborated with other sources.If you’ve found the same information in multiple sources, that’s generally a good indicator that it’s reliable, provided it adheres to the qualities above as well.
I include references or links to my verified sources throughout or at the end of the articles.
Here’s an example.
2. Conduct interviews
Most copywriting I do is about my clients or on their behalf, so interviewing them is a critical part of my research process. Where possible I prefer face-to-face interviews because I pick up so much more – body language, speech patterns and the surroundings, observations that add colour to the story.
The interview turns my background research into a story. This is when I fill in the dry data with quotes, personal anecdotes and other human-interest elements.
Before I head to the interview, I do my homework and review the background research. It helps to avoid stupid questions and not waste my interviewee’s time on the basics.
My interview process is to:
- Prepare adequately.I draw up a specific list of questions to keep the conversation on track. At the end of the discussion, I’ll ask if there’s anything I haven’t touched on that they’d like to share.
- Focus on listening rather than talking. Copywriters need to be good listeners. The best interviews are conversations so I try to keep it as natural as possible and let the chat flow without interrupting them.
- Record the interview (with permission). As a former journalist I’m adept at taking notes but I will record the interview if appropriate. It can help me to stay more focused during the conversation. I’ll listen back later and jot down the most important insights, as well as direct quotes.
3. Conduct observational research
Being there gives my copy insight that I can’t get any other way. It enables me to recreate the experience for my readers. I’ve spent time watching master craftsmen create beautiful pieces, immersing myself in the luxury surroundings of a wedding venue and in the hectic world of an award-winning hair salon. It’s one of the aspects of my job that I love.
To conduct observational research I:
- Spend time with my subject as they go about their regular business. I watch them do their job and ask questions afterward.
- I’ll ask for a demonstration and / or take a tour.
- If they provide a service or do something unusual, I will try to experience that situation with them. For example, watching a change expert facilitate a meeting or a customer-service guru observe the restaurant service.
Armed with all that research, now comes the writing part. But I never forget research is critical. No matter how accomplished a writer you are, your story will be no better than your material.
If you are in the process of choosing a copywriter to research and write your story, please get in touch.