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Do you actually need some office supplies? Odds on if you do you’d not be rushing to call Office-Kwik today. The above copy is pretty poor because it tells you nothing. Mostly this is down to its reliance on expressions that feel like marketing language but which are actually clichéd bundles of linguistic fluff. They’re either meaningless in this context (proactive, cutting-edge) or condense genuine marketing benefits into a phrase that’s so hackneyed it actually sucks the impact out (one-stop shop).
Copywriting is all about making things sound appealing. To do that your writing needs to be fresh and original because if your expression is all too familiar then it stands less chance of cutting through a consumer’s indifference. It’s surprising, therefore, that you can still find so much of it in marketing copy, though if you read on you’ll see there’s one context in which using cliché could be to your advantage…
Why is Cliché so Common?
Forget copywriting for a moment. Cliché runs throughout language because it serves as convenient and familiar shorthand. Human expression is so often about economy and clichéd expressions save us the effort of thinking about how to convey something.
A difficult situation where there’s been setback and misfortune but it’s not over yet and there’s still time to make a difference? It’s a game of two halves.
Taking time and effort in an attempt to bring about a positive resolution in an ultimately futile situation? You’re flogging a dead horse.
Indeed, we’re so keen to economise we even shorten the clichés themselves to the point where we’ve forgotten the original meaning. How often do you hear “the proof’s in the pudding”? What sort of proof do you find in a pudding? Do Poirot and Columbo head straight for the dessert trolley when they’re on a case?
…Well, Poirot might, but he wouldn’t expect to find any clues there.
The actual saying is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” i.e. you don’t know for sure if something is successful until you actually try it. Over the years, though, the linguistic economy drive has pared the saying down to an expression that’s literally nonsense but which still conveys the intended meaning.
So this is why cliché is so common generally, but what about copywriting, where professionals are being paid to use language creatively and compellingly?
You’ll find clichéd expression in copy for two main reasons.
Firstly, because the copywriter isn’t very good. Let’s face it, anyone can call themselves a copywriter and many do so without any real understanding or experience. Tragically, many companies are not sure about what makes good copy – that’s why they’re hiring a copywriter in the first place. Consequently, ropey copy makes it through. Alternatively, companies try to produce copy for themselves and end up with something alarmingly like the spoof at the beginning.
Secondly, because good copy should be economical. Conveying ideas in as few words as possible is a primary goal for copywriters because people aren’t willing to plough through thick slabs of writing. Cliché can feel like an effective way to do this because people instantly know the idea encapsulated in that handy phrase.
In reality, though, whilst the meaning may be fairly clear it has lost its potency through over-use. Like well-chewed gum, the jaws are moving mechanically but the flavour’s long gone.
So the copywriter’s art is to create punchy copy that gets the message across economically without surrounding their marketing message in the airy, cloying candy floss of cliché.
The Power of Search Engines
When writing online copy the rules aren’t quite the same. In this very different environment it’s not just your words communicating with potential customers, it’s the customers’ words ‘communicating’ with you!
Before anyone reads your online copy they have to find it. In most cases this will be through an online search, which is why search engine optimisation (SEO) is such a key part of successful online copy. Incorporating the right keywords for the business is crucial in making sure it comes high on search engine results pages.
And here’s where it gets interesting, because we’ve already established how common cliché is in day-to-day expression, so it’s no surprise that you can find some of these clichés in popular search terms.
Take another example from the opening spoof: ‘solutions’. This has become one of the most over-used terms in modern copy and it’s easy to see why. Customers are generally searching for services because they have a problem or requirement which needs solving, so in the mantra of good copywriting you offer what the customer wants: solutions. Except of course that’s so generalised it’s really saying nothing, but as an all-encompassing shorthand it’s become part of a vast swathe of copy – and language in general.
Let’s take, for example, website copy you’re writing for an IT support company in London. One of the keyword phrases you might choose to incorporate into your copy is “London IT support services”. Last month there were 1,900 local searches for that term – real people putting in those exact words to find a company to provide services for them.
What if you’d use the keyword phrase “London IT solutions”? Well, you’d have done a lot better since 9,900 people searched locally using those keywords.
So, you could focus on keywords which lack any clichés and just present clear information about the business, or you could add more clichéd terms and get five times the hits.
This is where the copywriter has to balance professional pride with actually getting the job done effectively. We don’t like using cliché but at the end of the day (*hem*) successful copywriting is about understanding the customer. If enough customers are using clichéd terms to find businesses then it would be unwise to lose them because you don’t want to sound clichéd.
You don’t have to pollute the entire site with such clichés, just a landing page which can take people to the meat of the site. Expunging useful clichés just for the sake of it is like… well, like tossing the baby out with the bathwater.
Mmmmmm. Feeling peckish after all this work. I need a pudding solution. One that does exactly what it says on the tin.