Copywriting for finance in 2020: This meme’s war

Copywriting for finance in 2020: This meme’s war

Rory Stobo, Chief Copywriter at Sookio, discusses the tricks of the copywriter's trade which readers can immediately put into practice.

Copywriting for finance in 2020: This meme’s war

You’re stealing from yourself every time you sit down at a keyboard, and you’re not alone. The swag-bagging burglar called professionalism stalks from Ilford to Inverness, helping himself to a cut of your hard work whenever you make a sales pitch.

But there’s a new sheriff in town. He knows that professionalism is a façade — behind the mask twirls the villainous moustache of pedantry. In a world where a stuffed meerkat props up the most recognisable financial services brand in the UK, pedantic no longer cuts the mustard.

The dialectic between digital culture and industry has produced a new breed of consumer. Brits spend 24 hours online each week, 62% of which happens on a smartphone. The speed at which culture disseminates and evolves makes the traditional finance spiel completely obsolete.

We’ve moved way beyond the old ‘plain language’ argument, although many firms never even engaged with this. If you want your fair cut of a creative, tech-savvy economy raising billions each year, it’s time to change the way you communicate.

Changing the record

Talking about what you do, in a way which resonates with those outside the finance bubble, can be torturous. You’re asking yourself to unlearn all the lingo, to let go of what you had to grasp before you could take a respected place among your peers.

Those peers can also throw a spanner in the works. Internal resistance to adopting a less technical tone in communications can be tremendous. In fairness, these objections aren’t entirely codswallop.

Linguists themselves accept, for example, that language is inseparable from context. Kim Garwood of the University of Waterloo has much to say here. Garwood is a plain language advocate, but the beauty of her work lies in engaging with criticism, not just waving it away.

She’s upfront about language’s inherent bias. Language is not simply “a neutral container for communicating ideas.” It is itself an object of study; the writer is a subject of language as much as he is an agent of it.

Financial jargon has not arisen from some sadistic desire to bamboozle the layman. It evolved from necessity so that, when two journeymen meet, there’s no need to preamble for hours defining terms. It’s as much about what you don’t have to say as it is about the words you use.

So yes, the boomer plain language-averse aren’t completely incorrect. ‘Dumbing down’ does risk sacrificing accuracy for clarity. But all that means precisely goose egg to the average person; the UK has famously had enough of experts.

Why use plain language in marketing?

Christopher R Trudeau’s celebrated work on plain language gives us a better insight into the needs and desires of the consumer. It comes as a shock to the industry that readers with higher levels of literacy and subject matter expertise actually have the greatest desire for plain language.

Wait, what? Surely those initiated into the upper echelons of our profession are au fait with the most arcane of vernacular? Surely, they chomp at the veritable bit to engage with big fancy words?

Does that sound like you? No, me neither. Intelligent, educated people are likely to be very busy. They’re not reading to feel good about how clever they are — they’re reading to absorb information and act on it as soon as possible.

These people are also everywhere. The UK population is better educated and more highly skilled than ever. We lead the world in fintech, with investment hitting £4.5bn between 2015 and 2018.

This means more people with greater comprehension, demanding a sales argument which resonates without taking up too much of their valuable time.

So on the one hand, we’ve got the looming monolith of industry context; what you claim has to be correct and show authority. On the other hand, communication has to travel in a vessel of plain, unpretentious language.

Reconciling these two heads of the copywriting hydra means accepting ‘plain language’ isn’t plain at all, it’s simply rooted in a culture other than that of industry and academia.

Indeed, there’s no such thing as ‘plain language.’ Anything which might legitimately fit that description would be an absolute pain in the neck to write and even worse to read.

Context is inescapable. Your only choice is which contextual framework your sales-focused copy occupies: the ‘expert’ tone of the finance industry, or that of your audience’s daily lives, one which captures the zeitgeist.

And this would be a pretty vexing article if I didn’t tell you how to do the latter.

Copywriting tips from the pros

Professional-standard copywriting balances accuracy and clarity by:

  • Developing better-targeted strategy
  • Defining clearer audience profiles
  • Repurposing content for different audiences

Developing strategy

It sounds like one afternoon’s job looking at Google Analytics, but in practice it can stretch to weeks depending on how deep you want to dive.

Hardest of all is freeing yourself from assumptions about who wants your product and who could benefit from it most. Startups and scaleups have it easier here than established firms; these might still be targeting a consumer who no longer exists.

What is the goal of your current communications project? Is it sales? Awareness? Education? One project should have one clear goal or your message is going to get muddled.

Where are your actual audience consuming your current communications? A lot of firms come to me having poured big money into a video that now sits on three views. Be brutally honest about what’s a nice idea and what’s effective.

I also advise steering clear of sweeping, perpetual comms strategies designed to dictate things until the end of time. They get entrenched, become hard to change, and lead to big arguments before people realise they’re obsolete.

Strategise on a project basis. Giving yourself a clear beginning and end makes it easier to assess the data and see what’s working, before pivoting into a new project. A simple tone of voice and visual style guide for your brand is enough to handle the big picture.

Defining audience profiles

This comes after you’ve worked out the what, where, and when of your audience. Now comes the who.

This is where you decide which cultural context each profile inhabits, and it’s easy to get it wrong. A major high street bank promised something like ‘the coolest ISAs in the hood’ a few years ago and fell flat on their faces. Classic ‘just pitch it at millennials’ Friday afternoon job if ever I saw one.

Your audience profiles keep you clear of such folly. Rob is your life insurance customer; he’s 57, he tinkers with his car on the weekends, he knows he should go vegetarian but he won’t. Every sales communication you write is a love letter directly to Rob and nobody else.

Different products, or different use cases for the same product, must each have their own audience profile and these must be as sacred to your communications as your company’s name. Don’t ask what the CEO thinks of your latest ad, ask what Rob thinks. That’s how you get your meerkat moment.

Repurposing content

Repurposing content comes naturally once you’ve sorted your strategy and audience. That blog you wrote last year, the one that did ok but nothing special? Those same messages can be repackaged as a LinkedIn post for Rob, an Instagram graphic for Jenny, a YouTube interview for Ashleigh, whatever your audiences will respond to.

Realising how little your audience is invested in your brand can be a tremendous mental hurdle. What feels like repetition to you is actually a reasonable, proportionate approach to getting your message out there.

Besides, repetition isn’t that grievous a sin. A simple message, meticulously researched and directed endlessly at the right audience works. Just ask the current ‘lock her up, drain the swamp’ president of the USA.

Write better, sell more

The actual act of writing sales copy is subordinate to these three pillars: strategy, audience, and coverage. Everything else is practice, trial, and bags of error. The best salesmen working in finance today are bold; they get their hands dirty, and their leaders trust them to refine what works.

Departing from the traditional finance pitch will be hard. You’ll stumble on the road to finding a voice which is not plain, but engaging; not pedantic, but resonant.

However, it’s a journey you’ve got to take, or you’ll get left in the dust.


Rory Stobo is Chief Copywriter at digital marketing agency, Sookio.

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