new product writing: back to basics

wow. i’ve had a crazy few weeks doing some freelance writing for a new social/productivity app that’s about to launch. i haven’t officially been NDAed, but feel like it’s not appropriate to give details right now. what i will do, though, is give the details of what this project has helped me remember. because there’s a lot.

but first. since i have been thinking about all this, i realized how many product launches i’ve helped facilitate over the years. back in the day, i wrote all the digital components to launch Burt’s Bees’ Natural Acne Solutions line, which was to compete with ProActive. i also launched their competitor to Tom’s Toothpaste. (launch copy isn’t necessarily still live for either of these.) and, on a much different note, i pitched, won and then helped set initial tone and descriptive voice for  AT&T’s (then new) Digital Life.

so, i’ve done this a couple times. what’s interesting/different with the products i just mentioned is that they’re concepts people get. an anti-acne regimen. natural toothpaste. home security. got it. they can be compared to something else (not that you should necissarily go there, see below.)

but what happens when you have to describe a product that gives users something completely new? (fuck. should totally have asked for stock options, instead of hourly fee.)

well, a lot of things happen, including thousand-email conversations where everyone involved debates the meaning of “is”. and you know what, that’s okay. because when non-advertising people create something the world can actually benefit from, yes, that is a thing of beauty. and it takes a lot of debate, discussion and rounds of edits to get it just right. (and that’s when that hourly fee is a happy thing.)

so here’s what i’ve learned/remembered. super copywriting 101 stuff, but it’s always good to get a refresher.

get out of your client’s head.

your client is definitely too close to this baby they’ve conceived, pitched, landed backing for, painstakingly developed and are now about to set loose on the world. it’s not new to them anymore. you’ve pored over every deck they’ve created and have drunk the juice, their way of describing this thing being the only one you’ve seen. and just maybe that way of describing doesn’t really resonate with—or even make sense to—real people in the real world who haven’t been along for the whole ride.

so take a step back. think about what it would be like to see, hear about it or use it for the very first time and what that would feel and sound like and what is important from that perspective. then write about it. those initial words on paper may be right. but just maybe your fresh perspective can give those words a twist that helps them ring truer.

KISS that copy.

i can hardly think of a better time to keep it simple. when you’re describing something that is brand new, keeping the idea crystal clear is absolutely key. save the flowery, the cute, the lofty for something else. as something people have not yet heard of, you don’t have the luxury of assuming they’ll be captivated by your pretty words. they want to know quickly what’s in it for them.

but don’t try to say all the wonderful things the product does in one positioning statement. focus on the one unique, amazing thing you want the world to know about and write that. bullets and body copy are where you can round out the entire set of features and benefits. (and sometimes, it’s up to you to help your client understand what that one thing is, because they are in love with all their baby’s parts.)

don’t get lazy.

i always think comparisons to competitors are lazy. it’s one reason why i particularly hate election season, when 90% of ads talk about all the stuff the other guy does and you’re left not even knowing the name of the guy they do want you to vote for. so, for real. you can definitely find a better way to say what you are than by saying you’re like something else, only better.

and speaking of better, don’t leave readers hanging with vagueness. why is your product better, easy, fast or whatever. unless you are going to provide more detail on how or why, it doesn’t mean a thing.

have fun.

part of the beauty of writing about something brand-spanking new is that you get to become part of the invention process. you suddenly have a stake in this thing’s success or failure. and since, like me, you probably weren’t smart enough to ask for stock options up front, the least you can do is come up with one killer book piece you can lay claim to in a few months when everybody is talking about this thing.

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