Discovery in the copywriting process.

Whether you call it “discovery” or “research” – consider it an essential part of the copywriting process.

A few months ago I attended the AdAge B2B conference in NYC. One of the attendees, a marketing director at a small or midsized company, asked a question that befuddled the panel of agency luminaries.

She asked why every agency she came in contact with insisted on going through a lengthy discovery process of uncovering the company history, culture, etc., before actually getting to work. It was a fair question—and a familiar one to me as a copywriter. Clients are often surprised by how many questions I ask and the amount of background information I request.

Research or “the discovery process” is such a given on creative projects that the panel didn’t really know how to respond, and I don’t think she ever received a satisfactory response from the group. So I’ve taken it upon myself to answer her, wherever she is. Because the fact is, writing good copy starts with a lot of questions.

You have to dig for gold.

I believe that only through a thorough discovery process can you uncover killer insights and develop angles that will be fresh and interesting to your market. Otherwise you end up playing in the same old superficial, generic territory as everyone else—your competition included. To paraphrase famous designer Bob Gill a couple of weeks ago at HOW, if you want to come up with a great idea for a dry cleaner—you go spend a week at the store. You watch, you listen, you ask questions and learn everything you can.

You have to know the brand to write for the brand.

When you write for a brand, you have to “become that brand.” To do that, it helps to think of the brand as a character you assume. It’s hard to do that authentically without knowing everything about the brand, including its natural way of “speaking,” its values, personality and history. The only way you can do this without coming off as phony, is by reading everything that’s been written about it and talking to the real people behind the brand.

It’s not an indulgent, fact-finding exercise.

It’s important to arm your copywriter with the facts and real insights.  To write effectively, copywriters need to know what they’re talking about. When you’re B.S.’ing, it shows in the jargon and generic, boring copy. Worse yet, it can show in inaccuracies that will turn off prospects. Plus, the more a copywriter knows, the more they are inspired to venture into new territory in developing copy that gets people’s attention, communicates real value and is memorable.

Practical tip #1 – Interview

When people explain themselves verbally, they do it in an honest, natural tone. In a one on one conversation, people take the time to give examples, to speak in understandable terms, they edit less, they don’t overthink, they just answer. I can’t tell you how many times a client will say something once and nail it (and never be able to repeat it the same way).

Practical tip #2 – Ask everything

There are no stupid questions. Ask the basics, like where is this ad going to run and when and what your past advertising efforts looked like. Also ask the not-so-basics. For example, I often ask clients to break down how they provide their service to their clients. Then I listen carefully for interesting and differentiating details about what they do.

Practical tip #3 – Avoid burnout by splitting interviews into sessions.

I’ve found that two hours is about the longest you can go before interviewees start repeating themselves and the one-word answers begin. So I recommend splitting interviews for large projects like complex websites into two or three sessions.

Practical tip #4 – Keep ’em separated.

If you need to talk to more than one person at a company, only interview one person at a time. People will be less inhibited, and you’ll get better answers.

Practical tip #5 – Don’t do a survey.

Interviewing in person is much better than providing clients with a form to fill out. Forms allow cutting and pasting, a rehashing of the same-old same-old. People become self-conscious about how things are written which makes things sound businessy—and they edit out points they think are trivial or too personal. Ironically, this is often the good stuff that differentiates them and prospects will find endearing.

Practical tip #6 – Smile for the recorder.

It’s best to record the interview, but I type notes as I go—just in case there are any technical glitches. My preference is to do interviews over the phone. I use, which gives you a record option (free of course).

Practical tip #7 – dealing with the please-don’t-use-this’s and I-don’t-want-to-go-into-that’s.

Clients often catch themselves during interviews in this way. I understand. And I always assure clients that they’ll have the final word before any of the things they say are published. However, one of my jobs is to push clients out of their comfort zone. Let’s face it, clients don’t hire a creative writer like me to take dictation. My advantage coming from the outside is that I don’t have the biases that prevent clients from seeing themselves as they really are and really could be.

Avis provides a classic example.

I’m sure the executives resisted coming out and telling people “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder.” But that was the tagline that changed everything for them. It was believable, compelling and endearing all at once. Exactly why we dig deep for truths in the discovery process.

Questions are the answer.

It’s very hard for clients to expand or shift their perceptions of themselves. There’s doubt and bias every inch of the way. But I’ve seen it time and time again: if you’re willing to go where the “discovery process” takes you, new ideas will come from it that can lead to unique positioning and copywriting that your prospects will notice.

If you’re up for a little interrogation and want great work, I’m up for helping. No question. Just call 917-664-1768 or email me.