Simple or Sophisticated Copy? Master Copywriter & Author Bob Bly Shares His Insights

Throughout my career, I devote as much time to analyzing the outcome of a marketing campaign as the strategy and creative that went into it.

Of course, the biggest factor always comes down to the message. Is it the right message? Will it resonate with the target audience? And will that audience respond to that message’s call to action?

There is no doubt about it- how you craft your marketing message can mean the difference between success, mediocre results or a disappointing failure.

One of the biggest challenges B2B marketers face is trying to determine the right tone for the copy- simple and conversational or highly technical and sophisticated. For instance, at SAP, we have worked extensively on “humanizing” the SAP brand and looked for ways to put our copy on a “jargon diet” to make our message simpler and easier for audiences to understand.

To gain insights on the simple vs. sophisticated copy debate, I turned to Bob Bly, one of the most successful copywriters and direct marketing lead-generation in the industry (his work has been praised by advertising legend David Ogilvy).

For over 30 years, Bob’s B2B copywriting and direct-marketing strategies have produced results for Fortune 500 clients in just about every major industry. He is also a prolific author, with 80 marketing books to his credit, including The Copywriter’s Handbook, How to Create Irresistible Offers, Bly on Direct Marketing and The Lead Generation Handbook.

Bob took time from his busy schedule to share his thoughts on creating copy that really connects with an audience. The Q&A we conducted is below.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend his website at www.bly.com. It is a rich source of advice and articles on copywriting, marketing and lead generation.

From a copywriting perspective, what is the biggest mistake that marketers make when trying to engage decision-makers?

BOB BLY: One of the biggest misconceptions about writing to CEOs, CFOs, and other senior executives is that they speak some alien language that has only a passing resemblance to the conversational or written English you and I use every day … and that, to sell to this special audience, you have to emulate or copy this special language.

But the reality is: C-level executives put their pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. They read the same blogs you do … go to the same movies … listen to the same radio stations … watch the same TV shows.

Yes, it’s smart marketing to understand your audience and then write copy that speaks to their specific needs, fears, concerns, problems, and desires.

And you want to tailor the tone and style of your language to your audience to a reasonable degree. But chemists, accountants, engineers, computer programmers, while they all may speak the specialized language of their trade, also speak a common language: the English language. And that’s the language you should use when writing your copy.

Most marketers believe that when you target senior executives that the copy has to be sophisticated. Is that a valid assumption?

BOB BLY: I once interviewed more than a hundred CEOs, including those at many Fortune 500 companies, to ghostwrite a book Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs. Without exception, they were all plain-speaking men and women, using direct, straightforward, conversational language in their written and oral communication – even those in computers and IT.

A common theme through your books is the need for copy that is clear and conversational. What happens when marketers make the message and/or the copy too formal and too technical?

BOB BLY: Readership and response decline because, as David Ogilvy said, you can’t bore people into buying your product.

Copywriter, Author & Lead-Gen Expert Bob Bly

Copywriter, Author & Lead-Gen Expert Bob Bly

How can marketers resist the temptation to bulk up their copy with acronyms, technical jargon and overly complicated language?

BOB BLY: Determine the metric that would mean success for the communication (e.g., conversion rate) and then measure it to prove their copy works. Also, when marketing to a technical audience, it’s important to note the difference between technical terms and jargon.

Technical terms are words that precisely describe the technology, process or idea we want to convey. “Operating system” is a technical term, as is “broadband network.” We should use them. They are familiar to readers. To avoid them would require lengthy and unnecessary descriptions.

Jargon, on the other hand, is language that is unnecessarily complex- more so than the idea it is meant to convey. The advantage of using jargon is that with some audiences (e.g., IT professionals), it creates an affinity with the reader. The disadvantage of jargon is that, aside from sounding pompous, it is not as clear or direct as simpler substitutes. And therefore, your reader may wonder what you really mean.

Have you ever done testing to see whether “plain English” or “high-falutin” copy pulls a better response rate?

BOB BLY: I have tested “plain English” copy against “high-falutin” copy numerous times over the span of my 34-year career in direct marketing … and 99 times out of 100, the same language that works for “ordinary folks” sells just as effectively to CEOs, Ph.D.s, and yes, even rocket scientists. Simple writing beats puffed-up prose almost every time.

Can a copywriter ever make their copy “too simple” to read?

BOB BLY: I have never in 34 years of writing copy had ANYONE complain, “This copy is too easy to read.” If you have to make the choice between making your copy too simple or too sophisticated, err on the side of making it too simple.

Some B2B marketers believe that if you make the copy too simple and conversational that the audience will believe you are talking down to them and will feel insulted. Is this a valid concern?

BOB BLY: Not if the copy is simple and conversational, no. But they might feel you are missing the mark if you do not convey the technical details they require.

How can marketers and communicators break their dependence on leading with “the features” instead of “the benefits”?

BOB BLY: Both features and benefits are important in B2B marketing. It is necessary to describe features clearly and in detail.

You’re a trained engineer, so you have that technical perspective. When targeting a technical audience or marketing a technical product, what do the best campaigns share in common?

BOB BLY: They address a big problem the prospect is eager or even desperate to get rid of that your product can solve.  In other words, they focus on a prospect’s pain.

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