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Four Tips for Customer-Centric Copywriting

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When you sit down to start writing a new marketing piece, are you intimidated by the blank page on the screen?

Maybe that's why people often ask me for the best way to get started. They think my copywriter's bag of tricks might hold the key to jumpstarting that project, so they ask: Is an outline best? A rough draft? A brain dump?

The answer is "none of the above." In fact, the best way to start writing has nothing to do with writing at all.

The best way to start is by getting into your customer's head.

Customer-Centric Copywriting

In my copywriting business, the message that most resonates with potential clients is how customer-focused we are: Not on our clients as customers, but on our clients' customers.

We want first to know about the client's customers, their pain points, what they're really buying and their worldview. We want to know whether those customers are even aware whether they need out client's product or service. We want to know who actually buys the product vs. who gets the marketing message. Not until we understand the customer do we ask our clients to tell us how they help those customers with whatever it is that they're selling.

It sounds simple, right? But, in reality, when we talk to our clients about this approach, they inevitably have an "ah-ha" moment.

This customer-focused approach to marketing communications applies whether you're a property manager renting out high-end vacation homes in Maine to wealthy residents of NYC, or an international high-tech company providing support to clients who rely on an enterprisewide accounting software.

No matter what you sell or to whom, by framing your marketing message from the customer's point of view first—not yours—you'll craft much more targeted copy: customer-centric copy.

How to Put the Customer First

Taking this approach means understanding the customer's mindset before your own (or your boss's), so you can keep your focus on the customer and how to best talk to them.

Granted, this is probably easier for copywriters than for you—the one who is so close to the material it's hard to be objective.

So here are some suggestions on making the switch from company-focused to customer-focused.

1. You're great, but stop being you!

To write effective marketing copy, whether for online or print, you have to stop thinking like you, the one inside the business, and start thinking like them, the potential customers outside the business. Without knowing what your prospects want and how they think, how can you...

  • Speak directly to them, about them?
  • Empathize and earn their trust?
  • Create a compelling offer?

So forget what you want to tell the customer, forget everything you know about what makes your wizbangball so fabulous... and focus on the customer.

2. Do they know they have a problem?

You can't sell your solution until your prospect recognizes that she has a problem that needs solving. So ask yourself: Are your customers even aware that they have a problem? And if they do realize they have a problem, how do they think about it? Maybe the problem is they don't sleep well. So what they want is a good night's sleep, yet they aren't aware that a new mattress will fix that problem for them.

This is a critical part of understanding your customer's mindset. It means you have a two-staged message to craft. First, you address the problem they do know they have, then you show them how your product or service fixes that problem by connecting the dots for them.

In this case, you first relate to how awful it is to go through the day tired, to lack the energy for everything you want to accomplish. Then you enlighten them that many sleep problems are caused by bad mattresses. And then you get to segue into your good mattress.

You don't start off selling the mattress. You start off empathizing and offering a solution to the problem—as perceived by your customer.

3. Talk their talk

Being customer-centric also means using the words they are using. An office furniture manufacturer might sell "panel systems," but their customers buy "cubicles." Or consider the landscape company that insists on using the term "enhancement services," whereas prospects shopped for "landscaping."

If you're not using your customer's words, you don't just have an SEO keyword problem and won't rank well in Google, you have a communication problem, too. It doesn't matter if you prefer one word over another, you have to use customers' words, or risk not communicating.

Salespeople are usually the most in tune with the vocabulary that customers use to describe your products and services. If you can't learn the words from your customers, ask your salespeople.

4. Know your ideal customer

Just because someone is a customer doesn't necessarily mean that you want that person to be one. It's better to figure out who your ideal customer is and market specifically to that person. You also must know whether you're communicating with the person who makes the buying decision. Are you marketing to a decision-maker or an end-user? Is that end-user someone who influences the decision maker? Then, you can craft your message accordingly.

If those tips aren't enough to get your mind to switch gears from company to customer, try asking yourself these questions:

  • What are your customer's pains and challenges?
  • What keeps her awake at night?
  • What does she want to do better?
  • What is she really buying from you? A product, or a solution? A saw, or a way to cut wood?
  • Has she heard of you?
  • How much does she already know about your company, and your products and services?

It Sounds Simple, but Are You Doing It?

Most companies are really good about explaining what their product or service does, but really bad at knowing why the customer should care.

As simple as the customer-centric approach might be, as much it might seem like a no-brainer, not enough companies and marketers use it.

But when you take this customer-centric approach to copywriting, you take your marketing to the next level: It's more relevant, more targeted, and more focused on what your customer wants to hear.

So if you have your pen or keyboard fired up and you're ready to start writing that next marketing masterpiece, stop! Spend some time focusing on the customer first.

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Sharon Ernst is marketing maven for We Know Words, a Seattle-area agency focused on customer-centric copywriting.

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  • by Chris H. Tue Oct 21, 2008 via web

    Great advice, difficult for some to put into practice and even more difficult to determine when you've made it customer-centric enough. Often, there is a need to speak to multiple personas within the same copy.

  • by Tammy L. Tue Oct 21, 2008 via web

    I agree that it is incredibly important to get to know your prospect. If you need help understanding this and other copywriting techniques that will help you boost your response rates and the effectiveness of your promotions, I highly recommend American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI) Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. It's a home study program with lessons and exercises so you get to actually practice the methods and the writing. For more info, go to Or if you don't have time to learn the techniques for yourself, you can find a copywriter at It's a free jobs board where copywriters and marketers meet.

  • by Desiree Duffie Tue Oct 21, 2008 via web

    As a manufacturer we constantly have to change our message from a voice that speaks to our direct customer (distributors), to one that speaks to trade press, to one that speaks to retailers, to one that speaks to the end consumer.

    I disagree, Chris H. If you think the same copy can speak to everyone then you are not communicating as effectivley as you should.

    You have to understand your core demographic and speak to them directly. The copy you use should be different on your sales collateral from the materials you put at the point of purchase. The package copy needs to speak differently from your catalog copy. You should not draft one neat little message and expect it to cover everyone.

    Nice article. Small typo in the second paragraph under the Consumer-Centric Copywriting headline, though. "Out" should be "our". (:

  • by Anish S. Tue Oct 21, 2008 via web

    Thanks a lot for the wonderful article! This really changed my perspective. These are great tips, I suddenly feel copywriting is so simple! and being a student of creative brand management, I am sure to practice this approach in my daily life. (

  • by Hamish Gilbertson Fri Oct 24, 2008 via web

    Good advice here.

    Really hear you when it comes to clients having "'ah-ha' moments" when you get them to adopt their target audience's perspective.

    As an web copywriter and website optimiser, that moment often comes in the context of a conversation about "speaking your customers language," keywords and keyword research...

    I ask clients to think about what people looking for the benefits their product/service offers would type into their favorite search engine. This immediately gets a client thinking from their prospective customers' perspective.

    It also provides context for the importance of keyword research. Knowing what people search for around your service/product area offers immediate insight into the language you should use in describing those products.

    And, in my experience, that doesn't always align with the way a client is describing a product/service.

    Indeed, keyword research can be a great help when trying to convince a client that the language they're using isn't right. Why? Because it gives you numbers to support your argument.

    Common conversation (with names changed for the purposes of illustration) with companies I work with: "Well, yes. I understand you call your product 'H2O' but people will search for 'water' and that's the way they'll think of it. If you want to talk your customers' language..."

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