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I want you to try an experiment right now.

Visit your Facebook page and look at all the ads on the right side of the screen. Read the text closely. Then, ask yourself this question:

“Do any of these really stand out? Is there much difference between them in terms of the copy used?”

If you’re like any of the people I’ve asked, then chances are, your answer will be a decisive “no.” Most people don’t even look at the ads on their Facebook page (you can tell this from the CTR numbers), let alone feel compelled to click on them, and it ain’t because the ads aren’t big or prominent enough on the page.  There’s clearly something else at play here, and I want to share my opinion as to what that is.

It’s The Message, Not The Medium

It’s not just Facebook ads that have the low CTR disease. Aside from Google Adwords, most PPC and PPV ad programs perform pretty badly. The question is, why? It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically “wrong” with web advertising as a platform. If anything, it’s much less annoying and more targeted than the TV ads of yesteryear. So, what’s going on?

There are as many answers to this question as there are copywriters.

But I think the best answer is, most copywriters have a subconscious bias for writing in a “marketing” tone, not a tone that’s going to “speak to” the target market. These writers don’t change their approach from project to project, adopting the the tone and vocab of the “tribe” they’re trying to communicate with. They stick to the tone that’s most likely to appeal to… Other copywriters. In other words, they write what they want to hear, not what the people on the receiving end of the ad want to hear.

Here’s a great example.

You know those terrible infomercials show on late night TV? Ever notice how, whether the product is about fitness, or investing in gold, or whatever, they all have basically the same “tone” (loud, tacky, flashy), and use the same words (“act now…” “but wait! there’s more!”)

It’s clear that the language used in these ads isn’t the language spoken by fitness enthusiasts or investors, but by cheesy infomercial script writers. The writers of these ads are so narcissistic, they forget that people belonging to some market generally have their own worldview, their own biases, and their own lexicon, quite separate from the lexicon of TV infomercial writers.

Now, if this problem were limited to late night infomercials, the world would probably be better off for it. But, sadly, the marketing used in mainstream advertising (like, for products that people might actually want to buy) suffers from the same problem. The only difference is, where the infomercial guys have an inherent bias toward writing like a used car salesman, the brand advertisers at top agencies have a bias for writing like a Hollywood screenwriter; i.e., toward ‘artsy’ or ‘creative’ writing. To these copywriters, the best ad is the ad that looks most like a ‘best picture’ candidate, full of tear-jerking ‘cue the violins’ moments, as if customers were film festival judges and sales a product of how many people would watch your ad as stand-alone entertainment. Check out any car commercial on Youtube if you need proof of this.

What’s The Solution?

If the problem with web advertising is a failure to connect with audiences, what’s can we do about it?

The answer, I think, is probably lying right under our noses.

All decent copywriters know that a project starts research. The internet has made this easier than ever before. When you start on, say, a campaign for a new Golf course, you’ll want to check out…

– Golf forums.

– Golf blogs.

– The websites of similar, successful golf courses.

… For key information like…

– Golf terminology.

– Pop culture references and phrases that will appeal to golf players.

– Relevant trends in the golf world.

– Etc.

And I think that most copywriters are smart enough to do their research at this level, making sure that all the ‘terminology’ and jargon used in their advertising is appropriate. The problem is, with most of them, the research stops there. While they do take the time to find out what words they should be using to connect with a given market, they don’t really dig deep and try to understand how these people speak with each other “on the level.” They don’t go in depth to uncover the inside jokes, slang and self-identifying tropes that really define how their market communicates.

The sad part is, doing this isn’t even that hard. It’s just a matter of participating on forums, reading up on trending Twitter hashtags, watching Youtube interviews with major players, etc… of actually engaging with the market, before trying to sell anything to them.

So, if you’re a copywriter, try this out:

The next time you’re hired on a project, try to take your research a step further. Don’t just skim blogs to find out what words the market uses, actually participate in the conversation to find out HOW these words are used. Don’t just look up a survey of the most common fears and insecurities the target market experiences, visit a Facebook page or Forum dedicated to their topic, and actually ask questions, get a feel for the rhythm and cadence of how this market communicates.

Then get back to me and tell me what a difference it made in your campaign. I’ll accept thank you notes or cash donations, too.