Mar 5, 2021
In this episode, host Will Francis captures some insights and tips on the world of copywriting from three experts from diverse backgrounds.
Pamela Foley of AOU Creative talks about the magic of writing effective copy for SEO.
Tom Doorley, columnist and writer, offers sage advice on how to improve your writing.
Kerry Harrison of Tiny Giant discusses the impact AI is already having on copywriting.
Will: Welcome to "Ahead of the Game," a podcast brought to you by the Digital Marketing Institute. This episode is dedicated to the art of copywriting in digital marketing. With the help of three very different experts, I'm going to look at how to write effective copy in your marketing and for your brand. We'll also be asking how we can grow into better writers and what does the future hold for the craft of copywriting, as artificial intelligence develops into a more usable technology. First of all, I spoke to Pamela Foley. She's the owner of AOU Creative, a digital agency specializing in SEO copywriting, SEO, and web design. In terms of volume, most of the copy we deal with in marketing tends to be for SEO purposes. This is because it has long been and remains a solid marketing strategy to create useful informational content in the form of blogs and articles for your target audience. So I asked Pam, "How is SEO copywriting any different than writing articles for a newspaper?"
Pamela: The real magic of SEO copywriting is copywriting much like journalism, writing for a newspaper is storytelling. It's the power of story. But to get the power of your story seen in a very crowded online world, there really is magic in SEO. So it becomes this intersection of... I call it the intersection of tech and story. Because you can tell a powerful story, sprinkle magic of SEO on top of it, and not only do your readers see it, but more importantly, search engines see it, and you can move to the top of the rankings. That's the power of it and the magic.
Will: And so what are the components that make up good writing for SEO?
Pamela: Yes, it starts with authentic, well-researched, and valuable content. So the most important element is creating something that your readers actually find value in. And once you check that box, SEO elements would include a searchable URL, a meta description, and tagging. It's important to have links, particularly internal links so that people...think of it as people stay on your website longer because you're linking to other articles and other pages on your website. And high-quality backlinking is not a bad thing as well, as long as you are actually going to high-quality websites and sharing your information.
Will: But that's not just about having your link plastered all over the internet, regardless of the quality of those websites, is it?
Pamela: Not this strategy. No. And then we do also add structured data. So we just help the search engine crawlers know where to go. It's as if you're giving directions around Dublin, that you would take the tube, take the subway, it's the same thing. It's directions for the search engines to find you and learn what you're writing about.
Will: Now, in 2015, Google confirmed the existence of something called RankBrain, which is part of the overall Google search algorithm. But its specific job is to utilize machine learning to gain a more accurate understanding of the search engine users intent based on lots of factors including their specific context, and how users respond to content in search results pages. So I asked Pam, how has RankBrain affected how you present your written content?
Pamela: I think the most important thing, and I actually think it's a very valuable thing is that the concentration has gone from keywords and keyword stuffing to truly valuable content. And you benefit from having information that people want to learn. And that helps you move up the ranks and even get in the highly coveted search snippet. But it's really all about value. In fact, Google calls it EAT. They call it Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. And those are our goals when telling a story in SEO copywriting.
Will: So it sounds to me like the only real SEO hack these days is to just create the best content imaginable, right?
Pamela: Yes, absolutely. Check that box and then talk about technical SEO.
Will: And do you think headlines are more important than ever?
Pamela: Yes. Headlines are extremely important because they do two things. They tell your story. Well, they really do three things. They tell your story, they intrigue a reader enough to click and they tell the search engine what your story is about. And those are three essential elements to getting a piece read.
Will: So in your experience, what are the most common things that people get wrong when writing for SEO?
Pamela: They've been told that they have to choose a keyword and stuff it so that they have to use it again, and again, and again, in order to rank. And the language becomes unnatural because they really are trying to...it's as if my keyword was "SEO copywriting" and I used it 10 times in a 500-word piece. It becomes unnatural, and in the end unreadable because people just won't pay attention to it. That's probably the main thing. The other thing that I see often is that people create content that tells you, doesn't share with you. So they're really selling, they're not informing. And again, those have very low conversion rates. But it's a hard habit for people to break.
Will: But as marketers, we're just hardwired to promote our business. It's kind of in the job description, you know? It's what our boss or our client is expecting us to do. So it's a big mindset shift to not do that, but instead just be of value to the world, even though you and I know that's the only way to cut through the noise online today, right?
Pamela: It really is. And it's as I said, and as you just said, it really is just a long time habit that we have listed a business resume for lack of a better way to say it, or a personal resume in every piece of content we write. And that is not a way to offer value to your customers to build valuable reputation and to be authentic. And that's what people are looking forward now.
Will: So when you explore the world of copywriting, and the intersection of that with marketing, as I regularly do, I see a lot about this idea of brand storytelling through written content. And indeed, on your website, you talk about telling your brand story. Why exactly do you mean by that?
Pamela: I mean that there is a story for every part of your brand, whether it's an origin story of how your brand came to be, whether it's the why story, à la Simon Sinek, and why you wake up every morning and do the work that you do, or a story of the offer or product that you promote. And it's sharing this to come back to the same words, and I hate to do this again and again, but it really builds this authentic relationship with your customer because your business and your own person become real and they become humanized because there's real power in a story. One story can change the world. Ask the climate change girl Greta Thunberg or, you know, I don't know, ask Donald Trump. But one story can change the world, and tell the story, and people are attracted to it, and they listen to it, and they wanna know more. And when they wanna know more, they become loyal customers and repeat buyers.
Will: So could that include a personal story behind why I set up my business?
Pamela: Potentially. A personal story sort of your origin story, how you became the person that you are in the business that you are in, has value in certain situations. It's not essential that you tell every personal story about yourself or even that you need to tell about your dog, or your kids, or what you had for dinner. That's not really what it is. It's about what drives you to be who you are, offer what you do, and work how you do. It's creating a relationship. So you get to choose how deep you wanna go into that. But it's not essential that we know everything about you. It's just essential that we know who you authentically are.
Will: Okay, so we know it's not about keyword stuffing. But clearly keywords are very important. So what would be your one-minute keyword strategy that works well today?
Pamela: Essentially, a key word or a key phrase is you as a business person trying to understand or on some level, have an educated guess of what your ideal client, your potential customer is searching for. And what you really need to understand first is who they are, your ideal customer, and what they need. So what is the problem that you're solving and it's the problem that they have, not the problem you think they have, and that's a huge distinction. So many people waste a lot of time looking at keywords because they are solving a problem they think they're solving, and it's not the same problem that their ideal client actually has. To find keywords, the easiest ways to do it, there are Google Chrome extensions that you can add, Ubersuggest has one, Keyword Planner has one, SEO Minion has one. You can do free keyword research on that, just start searching words that you think apply to your business and you can get lists from those. You can also do that in Google Keyword Planner, which is now part of Google Ads. Ubersuggest, as I said, has a free tool that you can search keywords for, and I personally use, I still call it SEM Rush. I think now they'd like to be called SEMrush to do keyword research. And that happens quickly, but unfortunately, not free.
Will: So finally, Pam, what are your five top tips for our listeners who want to improve the visibility of their written content in search engines?
Pamela: My five top tips. My first one would be know your audience. It's really fundamental to building a business these days in any case, but truly understanding who your ideal client is to the point of creating a persona will save you time and frustration. Second, create content that provides value and is not selling you but is sharing you and that's a pretty big distinction. Find your keywords, understanding exactly what your ideal client is searching for, and using those keywords in your content. I pick a smaller number of keywords, you can do lists and lists hundreds of keywords. But if you're just wanting to start out, I'd probably pick 10 to maybe 20, even keywords, and use those in all of your content and on all of your web pages. And I would build internal linking. So to keep people on your website gives you credibility with Google. And I would internally link my articles to web pages and other articles to build a reputation for authority in your subject. It's really about thought leadership, and niche domination, they'll help you get to the top of Google.
Will: So in terms of written content and SEO, Pam's advice very much centers around providing genuine value through quality written content. And remember, Google themselves encouraged us to think about EAT, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Having these things as the core pillars of your content means that the Google search algorithm will deem your written content, your blogs, and articles to be more authoritative, and push them up in the rankings, push them towards the top of those search engine results pages. So they're the things that we need to bake into our content. But thinking more broadly about the craft and the work of writing, I thought who better to check in with than a seasoned columnist, author, and broadcaster here in Ireland, Tom Doorley. He's considered by many as the country's leading food writer. And earlier in his career, he worked as a copywriter in an ad agency. And that was back in the pre-internet days of writing copy to fit rigid print ad layouts, and explaining products not through blogs, but things like printed brochures. So first of all, Tom, do you have a process for writing, or do you just get stuck in and start getting words down on the page?
Tom: Very good question, Will. I mean, I'm fortunate in that something I do... Well, two things that I do are weekly pieces in national newspapers here. So yeah, there's a formula, it's really like filling in a template. And one of the challenges with that, I would have to say, is keeping it fresh. So what I tend to do is write the copy early. Leave it alone for 24 hours, or at least for the length of a good long walk in the woods. And I'm very fortunate, particularly in the time of a plague like this. I live in the middle of nowhere, so I can do that very easily. And then come back to it with a fresh eye and say...and what I end up doing is actually looking at it and saying, "That reads like an annual report. I've got to think of a better way of saying that. Just make this funny, make this a bit fresher, make this a bit quirky." And I had this is really frustrating experience a couple of weeks ago where I actually, very long story, I won't explain how I did it. But I had written all of my weekly copy for the "Irish Daily Mail." And I managed to delete the whole bloody lot in one fell swoop, which is really hard to do. I mean, these days it's really hard to do that. But somehow I pushed through, and I managed this disaster.
And so I emailed my editor and said, "I'm really sorry. I'm going to be a few hours late, but I've deleted everything. I'm gonna have to start again." She was deeply sympathetic. But the funny thing was when I rewrote the damn thing, I was looking at it sort of saying, "Oh, this is not bad. Oh, it's a lot better. Do you know, that's really good." After having to write it twice, which is something we never want to have to do actually made it much better. But that's a technique I use, if you like, for my template pieces where I have, you know, there's a very clear form, there's a very clear word cut. I've got to make everything fit. So I write it and then I walk away from it and then I come back. I obviously don't rewrite the whole thing. But I will rewrite several sentences just to lift it a bit.
Will: But writing a column, as you do is often about witty observations. And in fact, all writing relies on ideas and inspiration. But these things occur to us at often pretty inconvenient times. So how do you capture ideas for your writing?
Tom: I always carry a notebook. I don't always carry anything I can write with into it, which can get very frustrating. But I manage to have the two together. I will stop literally walking along the pavement and have people crashing into me from behind, which is not a good thing in a time of a pandemic. The thing about the notes that I make is some of them make perfect sense afterwards. Some of them just read as bonkers.
Will: And how important do you think it is to have an editor, you know, to have someone else review and refine your work?
Tom: When it comes to copy, it's very important that it retains a certain freshness and spontaneity, I suppose is the word and the worst thing you can do is have copy written by a committee because it will be unsatisfactory from every point of view, rather than just one or two points of view.
Will: But writers find it so hard to delete those precious words. I've heard it referred to as killing your children. And it's really hard to do because they're things that you've created, these words, these paragraphs, it's just so hard to delete them when editing your own work.
Tom: And this is where the editor is so important because the editor can have that merciless laser-eyed view that we as, as you say, the parent really would find it very, very difficult. Mind you, I have been both. I have edited copy as well. So I kind of understand the need for ruthlessness. Even for the editor, it's quite a painful process, deleting stuff that you know is actually really, really good and would work very well in a different context. But the one thing most bloggers need is an absolutely ruthless editor, and they're not gonna get that because they're not gonna kill their children, to use that phrase you mentioned. I look at blogs quite a lot because I work as a brand ambassador for a supermarket over here, and consumer blogs are quite significant to what we do. And I just think, "Oh, for God's sake, this is 1800 words. It could be done in 300 words." But the other side of that coin is that if you have the quality and if you have the depth of analysis, for which there is definitely an appetite, you need the freedom to do that long piece and not to be afraid of it. But there's a sort of tension between...received wisdom amongst publishers and platform providers that they're gonna, "You have to keep it very, very tight, very, very tight, very tight," because people are too easily distracted. But I think it's perfectly clear that actually an awful lot of people, maybe particularly in the strange times in which we live at the moment, are actually really looking to spend time getting into something in depth. And I think that's wonderful because, you know, what, two or three years ago, was anyone really saying that? I think it was only beginning to happen.
Will: So what would be your top tips for our listeners who just want to improve the quality of their writing?
Tom: They'd be a few things I'd say. One of them is embrace conciseness. Is there a word concision, I don't know, but be concise. If you write 30 words, see if you can do it in 20, see if you can do it in 15. Always look at your copy and pick out the redundant words that don't need to be there. Because I guarantee you, for most people, they will be there, there are words you don't need. And there are words that make your copy fuzzy and lacking in focus. Also, I hesitate to say this, because obviously, if you're writing copy for advertising and what have you, you have to be cognizant of so many issues, but essentially write to please yourself. When you read back what you've written, and you aren't saying, "Oh, yeah, that's good. Yeah, I like that." You can't really expect anyone else to have that reaction to what you've written.
So actually pleasing yourself, I think, up to a point and within, you know, terms and conditions apply. I think that's really quite important, because it has to come some extent from the heart, and it has to be yours. Having said that, writing advertising features, oh, crikey, I love the idea of not putting my name to stuff. And that's the funny thing about being a journalist and a copywriter is that a lot of what I write has my name on it, and people can blame me for it or praise me for it or whatever. It's quite refreshing to write stuff that you don't have to take immediate responsibility for. So you've got a certain freedom there. And maybe embracing that is another thing that people who want to hone their writing skills should embrace and concentrate on, that liberation.
Will: And just one last question, do you think it's important to consume lots of written content yourself in order to become a better writer?
Tom: Oh, yeah, voraciously. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I'm looking around my study at the moment, and I think I have 3,000 books in here, and that's out of a total of about 12,000 in the house. And that's only the printed version, it leaves aside all the newspapers and magazines and so forth, and all the stuff I read online. So yeah, if I'm not reading stuff in volume pretty well every day, I don't feel physically or mentally right. But one thing that does strike me about that is that depending on the fiction or the literature that I'm reading at the time, I'm reading a lot of Barbara Pym and John McCrary at the moment, which is an extraordinary contrast of writers. I sometimes find their styles creeping into...even into my emails, which I find rather alarming. But I love the idea of having that dry wit and economy of language of Barbara Pym. And if I can, yeah, if I can benefit from that, I probably am getting something out of consuming the written word.
Will: Thanks to Tom there for that insight into the life and work of a professional writer. Tom's advice to any aspiring writer who's listening essentially boils down to have a system for capturing ideas whenever and wherever you are. Write first drafts, leave them and then come back to them later for a fresh perspective. Get an editor, even if that's just a friend or a colleague to read your work, as this will show up any lack of clarity or awkward flow in the writing, and then be ruthless in deleting anything that doesn't work. Don't be afraid of depth and length in your pieces, but at the same time, remain economic and concise with your language to keep it easy to read and free from unnecessary padding. And write to please yourself, write what you would love to read. And finally, read lots of other writers' work in various forms, whether articles, books, magazines, or blogs?
Well, I think we've heard some invaluable advice to help improve our writing there. But it's important to acknowledge the role that technology is increasingly playing in the creation of written work. I am of course referring to artificial intelligence, which in recent years has made significant leaps in its ability to compose music, create visual art, direct movies, and of course, write copy. So, my final guest is someone who I think can help us understand this. Carrie Harrison is a writer, and she's also a professional AI experiment and artist. She works with brands and media to create showcase pieces of innovation based on artificial intelligence. The most recent major leap in AI-driven copywriting is something called GPT-3. This is a language model, which is kind of like a type of AI, which caused a real splash last year when it was released because its specialism is writing like a human and it does this eerily well. So having used GPT-3 in some of her more high-profile work, I asked Carrie, where are we at with copying AI, and how is GPT-3 moving that forward?
Carrie: I think GPT-3 has changed a lot, it's sort of changed the landscape, really. The quality of the copy that it produces is pretty surprising. So I got beta access to GPT-3 when it came out, which is amazing. So I had a really nice play with it, and I was really surprised at what came out. You type in a sentence or you type in a little bit of poetry, and it will then follow with something that's pretty well structured, quite nicely written. Syntax-wise, it's also pretty impressive. And, yeah, so it's been used to create code, poetry, Q&As, even bits of articles, all sorts of things. So it is a really impressive piece. And it's interesting as well, because GPT-2, which was out not that...it wasn't a big gap between GPT-2 and GPT-3, and the difference was quite significant. I think outside of GPT-3, so that's been used a lot in the gaming world, I think it's being used also for things like chatbots. So you can see how that would really support that kind of copy.
And then outside of that, there's copywriting tools. So there's a couple which you may have heard of one called Persado and one called Phrasee. And they are very much used in the advertising world. So those two, initially, when they started out, were concentrating on email subject lines, the lines that you get that come through on your email that you decide whether to click on it or not. And those kind of tools have been really successful. So AI I think, from a copy point of view, is very good at doing short pieces of writing. So subject lines, it's great. And people like J. P Morgan, Chase, and Virgin, have signed up to those copywriting tools. And from what I've read, they beat humans over 90% of the time in terms of click-throughs. So it's pretty impressive. And also AI is being used in newsrooms as well. So think people like "Forbes" and "The Washington Post" and "Bloomberg News" are using AI in some form in terms of creating articles or supporting their journalists.
So it's quite a big space and it is developing all the time. And there's a lot it can do. But you know, it has also got its limitations. But yeah, it's fascinating watching it change, and just how quickly its changing.
Will: And what are the main limitations of AI in terms of copywriting?
Carrie: From the things that I've done personally, I would say that it's not great at doing like a narrative. So it's brilliant with short things like I was saying about subject lines, maybe some short social posts, perhaps Q&A, or very...shortest conversation, which why it would work really well for chatbots. But when it comes to storytelling, I feel like it's not so strong. So back in December, I did an article with "Wired Magazine." And there was a few of us that were set projects to create the Queen's speech using AI, which is a really brilliant project. And we could all use whatever tools we wanted. And I used a recurrent neural network. So I trained a neural network on every single Queen speech since 1952. And WIRED also gave me quite a few articles around COVID because I thought the Queen couldn't do a speech in 2020 without mentioning COVID.
So that's the kind of data that I put in. And then what came out was really interesting. There was some really interesting paragraphs and pieces that came out, but then I did have to shape the copy and put a narrative through it because it was quite disjointed. And I think that is where, from my point of view and experience I've been through that it's sort of lacking especially in long copy. And I think there was an article in "The Guardian," I think it was September last year where it was one of those headlines that is slightly scaremongering. It was something like, "This Article Has Been Written By a Robot. Are You Scared Yet Human?" And I thought that it's an interesting title. And the article was very good, it was written by AI. But when you went down to the bottom and looked at the process that they had to go through to create that article, it had been generated several times. They'd also used humans to piece the best bits together. And I feel like wherever you see any AI copy that is really good, or has a nice narrative structure, I would say that that's where there's a human being involved somewhere in the process. So yeah, I'd say that's the limitations.
Will: Okay. So from what you're saying, it sounds like AI is currently pretty good at shorter copy, particularly copy which drives action because of course, there's a very specific metric, i.e. clicks, that the AI is optimizing for there. Whereas with longer pieces, where the objective is just simply to make it enjoyable to read, AI struggles with that because that's not quite such a clear machine readable brief, right?
Carrie: No. I think you're right. I think it will be a while, if at all. People are trying and I love seeing all the stuff that's happening in this space. So it was a while ago now, but someone created a Harry Potter chapter. There's a guy called Ross Goodwin, who is a sort of artist and AI Explorer. And he created a film called "Sun Spring." So he trained an AI model with hundreds and hundreds of sci-fi scripts, and then generated a script. And I don't think he did play around with it too much from a human writing point of view. But he got actors then to take the output and act it out. And the film is really interesting. It's totally bonkers but also a very cool experiment. And so there are things happening, but I feel like you don't look at it and go, "Oh, my gosh, that is just so beautifully constructed." You go, "That is really cool and very interesting." There was also the Lexus ad which was done, I think that was last year or the year before where they used AI to generate the TV script. And then they got an award-winning director to actually turn it into an ad. So it is being used, but I do feel we've got a way to go before we're getting anything that's very equivalent to a human.
Will: Now, the Turing test, famously, is a test of any machine's ability to convincingly act intelligently and indistinguishable from a human. Is there some equivalent of that for testing creative work and assessing whether it was created by AI or a human?
Carrie: There is actually a tool created by MIT, Harvard, and IBM, that aims to spot text that is generated by AI. So it's an AI model that spots text that has been generated by AI, so it's slightly better. So what it does, it can tell you if the words that you're reading are almost too predictable to have been written by a human. So obviously, AI works by predicting what letter or word will come next in light of everything it has learned before in a way that a human wouldn't. So our writing is more unpredictable. But what the AI does is says, "Hang on, this is very, very predictable, therefore, it's likely to be AI-generated."
And I think what they were saying from the report that I read was that when they were asked...you know, they got students to analyze some pieces of text that were AI generated, and some that weren't to try and decipher which is which. And they said when there was a human combined with this tool that they developed, which is called the "Giant Language Model Test Room," when they combined a human with that tool, they could decipher AI-generated text 75% of the time. So it is being done, and it is proving effective. I think those kind of models are gonna be really important going forward because AI generated copy is getting stronger like GPT-3, and the fact that things coming out of these models could or often look very human like in the way that they're constructed, that we will need that to fight off things like fake news and fake reporting, and all the rest of it. So I should imagine those models will be really important going forward.
Will: Yeah, indeed, the rise of synthetic media like videos, images, text, has already got some people really worried about how we'll ever be able to trust what we see online again, and that horizon is approaching pretty fast. So it's definitely something to keep an eye on. So what do you think the future holds for copywriting and AI? And more importantly, as a writer, do you think I'll still have a job in 10 years' time?
Carrie: It's a good question. I get asked that all the time and I'm a copywriter as well. So I have my own fears, but I think a decade is almost too difficult to predict, because things are changing so quickly. And just the technologies that we've been talking about have all been developed in the last few years really But I think in the next five years, and probably 10 years, I think they'll just be more...collaboration is not the right word, but more of a kind of humans and AI working alongside each other. So where human writers will use AI to do some of the base work, some of those shorter things we've been talking about like product descriptions and subject lines, which would then give human writers more time to do the things that we're really good at that AI isn't so good at, you know, things like storytelling and critical thinking and judgment.
I've read a little bit about "Forbes," for example, they've got an AI tool called Bertie, which helps with rough drafts and story templates for journalists. So I think it'll be more like that. Although there is always that fear that we might get replaced, I think it'll be more us saying, "Well, if I use it for that," there are cases where an AI will be better than us in writing. And like you were saying earlier about the data, because it can access data, because it can analyze data and make predictions very quickly, there's gonna be times when in terms of subject lines, for example, it will be better than us. And so I think it's just accepting that when it's better than us, that's fine. We'll leave the AI to do that. But then we're really going to concentrate on the things that we're really, really good at alongside that. And I think that combination will mean that we can do some really great writing and have more time to do some really beautiful storytelling and things that we might not necessarily have had time to do before.
Will: That's a great point, actually. And this fear of being replaced by technology is as old as time itself. With every technological advance from the plow to the factory production line, we've feared not being needed. But what we've actually found is we've been freed up to do more to be more ambitious and more productive in our work. So hopefully, AI plays that role.
Carrie: Yeah. That's a nice way of looking at it. But yeah, I think so. And I think there's a lot of fear. And I think the headlines don't always necessarily help. They're quite scaremongering and the Guardian one I mentioned about that, "Are you scared yet human?" Those kind of things don't help us. But I think people will start to realize that it is a really great tool, and we can work collaboratively with it to do some really, really great stuff.
Will: Well, thanks very much, Carrie. And thanks to Pam, and Tom, too, for their unique insights. That's all from me. I hope you enjoyed that. And if so, don't forget to subscribe in your podcast app of choice. And leave us a review too, if you can, it would really help us. And as a big thanks to our listeners, if you go to digitalmarketinginstitute.com/aheadofthegame, not only can you sign up for free and get an unlimited free membership, but you can also claim three months’ power membership trial, and that gives you access to a whole host of incredible stuff. So like I say, head to digitalmarketinginstitute.com/aheadofthegame to claim that and thank you very much for listening. Goodbye.
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