The right way to deliver ‘bad news’ to customers

You won’t always have good news for customers. Prices will go up, service inclusions will change, programs will end. It’s a fact of business life.

So when you have to share ‘bad’ news, you need to consider how you’ll do it. Both your copywriting skills, and knowledge of your customer, need to come into play. What is important to your customers? What benefits are you STILL offering? Why is the change being made?

A great example of the right way to deliver bad news is this email message I recently received from bank ING Direct. It was advising me a promotion they’d been running for several years was coming to an end. I’d never taken advantage of this program, so it would have escaped my attention, except for the fact that I thought this was a clever delivery.


It starts by reminding customers of the value of the promotion they’ve delivered for two years. It then points out some other genuine benefits of banking with them that would have to go if the program continued. It gives customers advance notice the promotion coming to an end. It doesn’t talk down to the customer. It makes this bank appear transparent. It’s succinct but clear.

It’s a great little communication piece. And it would have taken quite a lot of work and consideration, despite its brevity. It’s a great reminder of the value of well chosen words – and that there is a right way to deliver bad news.


Ing promotion bad news good news

PS. I should also note ‘bad news’ doesn’t mean ‘mistake’. If there’s been a mistake, it’s best to apologise, quickly and painlessly. Customers will respect you for it and move on. As in life, in business when you try and cover up a mistake, or deny it, that when the problems usually start!

When SEO isn’t about Google and is about people – The marketing value of meta descriptions

Digital marketing can’t really be called digital marketing any longer. For anyone marketing a business, digital is now so core to our work that it’s really just “marketing”.  Which means we need to constantly learn new skills because technology doesn’t stand still (as much as we’d sometimes like it to). And along the way, we also need to be reminded of some older skills and activities – things we know but sometimes forget about. One of these is the marketing value of meta descriptions.

Meta description is a rather ugly and technical sounding name for “the little bit of copy Google displays when showing a search result for your business”.  Which still doesn’t sound that interesting and exciting…until you remember that this little bit of copy can be hugely important on whether people choose to click on your search result, thus visiting your site and spending money with you. Your SEO work often focuses on APPEARING in the search results – your meta descriptions are what help complete that last step of a personal clicking on your search result.

Yet all too often, businesses have default meta descriptions appear, or worse still, have messy code or blocked results show up. Which makes people far less likely to click on your business in a search results page. And this is a missed opportunity: a true ‘zero budget marketing’ opportunity as all it takes to improve your opportunity for clicks – and so visitors – is a little bit of time in copywriting.

How meta descriptions can appear

An example of the marketing value of meta descriptions can be seen in the examples below. This is a search on Google for “little black dress”. The first result for The Iconic isn’t too bad, although it’s largely a default meta description. However, the next three – for the-lbd, asos and Hello Molly – are custom written. And they are persuasive and let people know what they’ll find when they click. The final result, for boohoo, is what happens when you let Google grab something random from your site for a meta description.

search results for little black dress

Using webmaster tools to identify missed opportunities

I recently found myself looking at Google webmaster tools (aka Google search console) for a retail site I work with. If you don’t use Google Search Console, you should. It is an awesome (free) tool that shows what search terms customers are finding you through and for those terms, your clicks, impressions, click through rate (CTR) and position you appear in for various search terms.

So I was checking the search terms we rank for. It struck me that for some of the terms we were not getting the CTR we should be. That is, we were showing up for the right term, on page one of Google, but not enough people were clicking on us.

And this is where meta descriptions and pages titles suddenly become really important.  Because almost the only thing that affects what people click on is what shows up for your search result: your page title and meta description. Now, I say ‘almost only’ because other factors do come into play – they suddenly remember they’ve done business with a competitor that appears, or get enticed by a Google advert instead – but meta description and title the only real factor you can actually control.

A copywriting test & resubmitting your URL.

I decided to test whether changing the meta descriptions, and tweaking page titles, would make enough of a difference to make the effort worthwhile. It does require some effort because there ARE default meta descriptions for the site that weren’t too bad. And manually changing them – particular for a retail site with lots of SKUs – is time consuming. But it’s something that’s free to try, so I

I focused on the keywords that were getting the most impressions first. So I picked fifteen keywords, put them into Google to see what the search results showed. Then I rewrote these meta descriptions (inside my CMS), keeping the old copy on file and adding the new copy or page title.

The final step is re-submitting the page to Google to crawl (which you also do in the search console under the CRAWL site menu and then “fetch as Google”. I found it only took a day or so for Google to recrawl the site and have the new meta descriptions appear.

Of 15 rewritten meta descriptions, 12 resulted in significantly more clicks

When I say significantly more clicks, some of the CTRs moved up several percentage points, most at least one percentage point. Extrapolate that out to your top 50 search terms and that can mean a whole more clicks – and a lot more potential business.

So what sort of thing did I change? Ultimately, I focused on putting more about what the customer would find when they clicked. I conveyed breadth of range. I also added location information, so that people would know that this was an Australian site. I tried to make it more compelling and persuasive and clear.

I’ll share one example. The search term was “washi tape” – changing the copy took the CTR from 6.5% to 7.9% – which translates to 91 new prospective customers in a month for this term alone.

Old copy
Notemaker has a wide range of washi tapes, available in different sizes, patterns & colours. Shop online with Australia’s leading stationery store!

New copy
Australia’s widest range of washi tapes. So many sizes, patterns & colours in popular Japanese washi tape. Hundreds available! Many on sale. Buy online today.

So the difference weren’t huge. But it did make a noticeable (positive) difference within a month. A positive test and one that I’ll be continuing to roll out for top keywords.

The reason it’s worth treating this like “a test” is not only to track your successes: it’s to find what didn’t work.  Two terms did noticeably worse when I changed them, even though I thought the copy was better. So I’ll be changing those back!

A work in progress

Gaining real marketing value from meta descriptions isn’t a once off activity. It’s something you’d ideally look at monthly, or every few months, to see where there are gains to be made. It’s something you can do yourself if you don’t have the resources to pay someone too. And it can provide more visitors – and so more potential sales – without a big investment.

So what is the marketing value of meta descriptions? It’s a zero budget marketing tool that’s potentially hugely powerful in bringing you prospective customers, yet one all too easy to forget about! Good luck with your own testing!


Being clear is more important than being clever

Good copywriting is hard work – but it’s worth the effort. It’s one of your most critical marketing tools.

What do I mean by ‘good’? Words that convey meaning succinctly, persuasively and, in many cases, entertainingly. Words that make your business stand out from the crowd.

And it’s not about using big words – often it’s about avoiding them, for maximum clarity.

When we’re learning to writing in primary school we’re given sentence examples where we have to replace a ‘plain’ or boring word with a more interesting alternative. But sometimes the plain words still work the best in copywriting.

Take the example below – from the homepage of, a subscription based service that allows you to store your files online and access them from anywhere if you’re online.

copywriting example

This the key message on their home page, the main selling message ‘above the fold’. It’s a big risk, in a way, using just two copy lines to try and convince you to invest in what is a simple to use but pretty technically oriented service.

Yet it works. It does its job really well. It conveys, in non-technical language, both what the service is, how it works and why you’d want to use it. And it does this job using plain words, like “good” and “stuff”.

Based on experience, I suspect it would have taken a long time, and lots of ‘discussion’ with various ‘stakeholders’, to reach agreement on these simple copy lines. Just because they are so simple.

I’m glad the writer behind them stuck it out, because these copy lines do their marketing job extremely well. It’s a great reminder to keep working at your copy until it’s a clear and persuasive as this example.

Zero budget sign writing – no budget is no excuse

zero budget sign writing

I always maintain that creativity can overcome the challenges of a low – or zero – marketing budget.

This little sign (that I recently spotted at a market) is such a perfect example of this.

It’s compelling, it makes you smile, it makes you stop and notice it – and importantly: it makes you really want to buy that cake.

A hugely powerful marketing tool – that would have cost around 5 cents.

Whilst someone was pretty handy with their black marker, what is really clever about this sign is the copy-writing. “Shipped down from heaven early this morning” is a visual, new and emotive means of saying “baked fresh”.

So what inspiration can you take from this? What copy can you re-write in a more meaningful, clever, funny, intriguing, engaging, smile-educing way?

‘How To’ Tuesday: How to write a great subject line for your email marketing

Source Bottle always has fully descriptive subject lines

So what makes a good subject line for an email? And more importantly – why should you care?

I’m a BIG believer of the power of email, which gets lost these days in the hype of social media. That’s not to say social media isn’t important, but you OWN your email database (or at least the permission to email them whilst they remain subscribed) and so you have much more control over when you speak to them.

So back to subject lines. These little puppies are the MOST IMPORTANT part of your email. Why? Because we are all so busy, all we do is SCAN our emails – and wait for something to grab our attention or we simply delete it. And when it comes to our email inbox, where we routinely get 50+ emails a day, we are very picky about what we read. And how do we decide what to read? The email subject line.

A scan of your own inbox will show you that a LOT of email subject lines tell you nothing about what’s in the email – the fatal flaw, in my opinion. The are either overly promotional, boring or completely uninformative.

A GOOD subject line is:

– Descriptive
– Enticing or intriguing
– Long enough to tell you something
– One that is appealing to YOUR target market

There is this odd perception with many people that “short is always good” in marketing – but in email subject lines, it can go either way. Some research says “the longer the better” and other research says “no difference“.

I have found that it’s much more about being relevant and interesting rather than long or short for the sake of it.

A good thing to remember is that an email subject line is your HEADLINE – so to help work out what works, consider what makes YOU read a news article…what “sucks you in” to read more?

A quick look at today’s Herald Sun (which has the highest readership in Victoria) has the following headlines:

‘Lance admits “tour drug use” to Oprah’

‘Scam takes punters on $800 ride’

‘Mum on drugs killed son, court told’

These headlines give you a lot of information in just a few words – and make you want to know more. You need to apply the same thinking to your email marketing.

Often you have more than one story to share – but don’t feel you can only mention one. Why? Because different stories appeal to different people.

A fantastic example of this is the SourceBottle emails that come out twice daily, matching marketers and business people with call outs from journalists and writers.

Here’s an example from a recent one:

“Personality types and health | New products to feature within TrailerBoat Magazine | How has motherhood changed you? | Small Business Pinterest Lovers | Unusual proposals, themed weddings, bizarre hook-ups | Back to school | Homework – agree/disagree”

A subject line this length – without knowing the context – would scare the pants off most marketers. Yet it’s perfect for this market. I ALWAYS check the subject line to see if there’s something relevant to me, and I must be one of many as their subscribers numbers are constantly growing.

A hard working subject line is worth the hard work it takes in coming up with it – don’t just write anything and hope for the best. You have likely spent many HOURS (or dollars) on your email content – so don’t throw it away with a barely considered subject line.

Put in the effort, test the results – and watch your email marketing performance improve.

Why making your written communication clear will save you money

A large element of Zero Budget Marketing is ensuring that any marketing you’re already doing, you’re doing as well as you can. Written communication is a key part of marketing that can have a huge impact – but is often “forgotten” once it is written.

I’ve come across several business in the past few weeks who are literally costing themselves money due to poorly considered written communications.

The worst offender was a conveyancer (legal representative who helps in the transfer of title when you buy a house). They charge a fixed fee for their conveyancing service, so it’s in their interest to speak to their clients as few times as possible during the process. Calls to them represents time, and they don’t charge by the call or their time. Yet every written letter and email from the conveyancer was extremely unclear. It didn’t outline what we needed to do, or what would happen next. So I always had to call or email to check.

None of the answers were something that couldn’t have been provided BEFORE I had to ask by including a “step by step” guide or an FAQ. Each one of those 8-9 calls or emails represented time wasted for that company.

So how can you avoid this?

It’s not that you never want to talk to clients or prospects, it’s that you only want to talk to them if you have to – otherwise you’re wasting their time too. The best way to “sanity check” your existing communications (website, email, standard letter) for clarity is to have someone that knows NOTHING about your field, or your business. Any questions they ask, any difficulty they have in understanding, will be a question someone else will have – so build it into your communications before they have to ask.

When I worked with Flexicar, which had thousands of members but a VERY small team, we had to take every opportunity to better educate “members” so that they wouldn’t need to call unless absolutely necessary. One little initiative was instituting an Invoice FAQ and a “How to understand your invoice” video. These two things cut calls to the accounts person in HALF.

So, just to take my own advice, here are the clear steps to checking your written communications aren’t costing your business money:

1. Identify a list of “public” written communications for new or existing customers (website, letters, invoices, statements, presentations, etc).

2. Have someone OUTSIDE your industry or business read them and note their questions. Or for a month, make a note of any questions you get asked by customers or prospects.

3. Make adjustments to these existing comms or create NEW comms to address the questions.

4. Track for improvements (reduced call volumes, for example).

5. Go and spend the time you save on other marketing initiatives!

The art of letter writing in business and fundraising

Copywriting is growing in importance daily, thanks to the proliferation of “online”. One area that’s been relying on copywriting for much longer than the age of the Internet is fundraising. A good appeal letter can make or break a charity fundraising drive. So there’s lots to learn from the space.

I just received one of the best THANK YOU letters (well, an email) I’ve ever received for a donation. Online made it simple to send, thanks to automation, but the content is what’s great.

The first line is brilliant. It subtly recognises that much of “giving” is really about making the GIVER feel good.

It then goes to to give you a little bit of knowledge, followed by a big deal of inspiration.

So it made me smile. And feel like I’m a good person. And that’s I’m part of something.

When was the last time you got all that for $20?

Great letter.

Dear Kimberly,

You are amazing, thank you so much for donating to the Wikimedia Foundation!

This is how we pay our bills — it’s people like you, giving five dollars, twenty dollars, a hundred dollars. My favourite donation last year was five pounds from a little girl in England, who had persuaded her parents to let her donate her allowance. It’s people like you, joining with that girl, who make it possible for Wikipedia to continue providing free, easy access to unbiased information, for everyone around the world. For everyone who helps pay for it, and for those who can’t afford to help. Thank you so much.

I know it’s easy to ignore our appeals, and I’m glad that you didn’t. From me, and from the tens of thousands of volunteers who write Wikipedia: thank you for helping us make the world a better place. We will use your money carefully, and I thank you for your trust in us.


Sue Gardner
Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director

Lessons & insight from copywriting legends

I came across a treasure recently at a fave spot – the Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park. It’s called “The Copy Book. How some of the best advertising writers in the world write their advertising.”

Whilst there’s little room for “traditional” advertising in a blog about zero budget marketing the insights of good copy writing translate to other mediums.

Around 50 legends share some of their insight on writing, and some of their best ads. (Even if you’re not interested in the craft of copywriting, it’s a great book.) I thought I’d share some of the gems from these admen, who’ve all had 30+ years in the game. These are edited extracts, their actual inclusions are much longer.

Oh, and if you only take away one thing, David Abbott’s point 5 is the one to adhere to.

David Abbott

I’ve never been much of a theoriser about copywriting, but here are five things that I think are more of less true:

1. Put yourself in your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else, too.

2. Think visually. Ask someone to describe a spiral staircase and they’ll use their hands as well as words. Sometimes the best copy is no copy.

3. If you believe that facts persuade (as I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so that it doesn’t read like a list.

4. Confession is good for the soul and for copy, too. Bill Bernbach used to say “a small admission gains a large acceptance”. I still think he was right.

5. Don’t be boring.

Tony Brignull

My own copy improved when it occurred to me that we relate to a company as we do a person. Unless we’re investors, we don’t ask how many employees a company has, what its financial fearing is, where it exports. We as; is it honest, reliable, modest, amusing, trustworthuy. If ti is, that company may eventually become our friend. I have come to think that helping companies turn into friends is the greatest thing we advertising people can do for our clients.

Sean Doyle

– Don’t think, just do, and thoughts will definitely happen along the way.

– Always be collecting

– Wake up early

– Beware of the committee

– Less isn’t always more

– Pick a side

– Avoid brainstorms (if you want to)

Paul Fishlock

– We are not in the entertainment business, we’re in the influence business

– Copywriting is more science than you may think

– Creative prizes are false God

– We influence some of the least important decisions in people’s lives

– Beware (becoming) management

Steve Harrison

It was probably my grounding in direct mail that taught me my obligations to the reader, I was usually entering their homes uninvited and because of that I always felt that my first responsibility was to them – and not the client. I wasn’t there to foist a product or service on the prospect. I twas my job to show how the think I was writing about could solve the reader’s problems.

Are you sick to death of boring copy?

With an estimated quarter of a million words in the English language, why is it that certain words are so overused in marketing copy. I have had a serious bee in my bonnet about the HUGE overuse of the word “solution“. And thank goodness I’m not the only one.

When you’re on a tight budget, every word written for your marketing should count. So how do you make your copy sound better? A few thoughts…

  • Detective-fiction writer Elmore Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, re-write it.” So write as you speak in business letters. Really, who says “don’t hesitate to contact me” in real life? Apart from the whole double-negative thing, just skip to saying “give me a call”.
  • Don’t write long, unwieldy sentences. Short and sharp is easier for people to read.
  • Use lots of headings. People are busy, make it simply for them to scan and decide what they want to read.
  • Use emotive words where possible to conjour up images.
  • Don’t you find that when you see a question written, you can’t help but answer it mentally? Did you just answer that question? Ok, I’ll stop now. In summary – start copy with questions to engage people with your writing. It works.

And if you’re finding yourself lacking in writing inspiration, visit my friends and