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SEO copywriting is not the whole storytelling ball game

April 6, 2015

Copywriting for SEO isn’t always easy. It can feel restrictive.

Ever felt like SEO copywriting is akin to a cage? That sometimes, it sucks all the fun out of things? Copywriting for SEO makes you think about placements above creativity and rankings above feeling connected to your products and services.

Frankly, sometimes copywriting for SEO as opposed to letting it all hang out gets in the way.

For example, when people are trying to name products and the conventions only give a crap about the placement of SEO searches and what people would put into Google. Or when you click through an article due to a click bait headline is irresistible, and the substances of the article is about as interesting as gum on a shoe.

We talk in search and how important it is to be found online. There is a certain amount of formula to the delivery that people come to expect. That the search bots like. And yet, the storytelling is lacking. The context is dry and almost chaffing. But you persist because if people can’t find you using search times, where then?

Well, two recent observations have lead me to critically look at the role SEO copywriting plays, and just how far down the devotee rabbit hole I have gone. And I’ve chosen to share them with you to see if anyone else agrees with me.

Observation One: The advertisers that break the rules make the rules

So I’m eagerly devouring the story of “The Real Mad Men”- a book that parallels the TV series with the Madison Avenue advertising cats of the 1960s and 70s. And one thing becomes abundantly clear. The early stages of DDB (yes, the big advertising firm) was all about breaking away from convention, and that is what lead them to be successful.

If you’ve ever watched ‘Art and Copy’ (a great documentary about the early advertisers), they talk about grammatically incorrect slogans such as “Got milk?” and pithy advertising campaigns about VW beetles being ugly, small and ‘lemon’ cars. It’s powerful because it talks about quite a few things that are lost in this day and age- like the relationship between art (design) and copy (marketing messages).

Today’s world sees designers wanting minimal copy that makes the SEO copywriter cringe. Copywriters similarly cause designers issue by insisting to pander (or should that be Panda?) to the Google Gods about copy length and choice of phrasing.  Campaigns are difficult because there is the desire for a certain skill set to save the day as opposed to working together to build the best damn campaign. But I digress…

The Real Mad Men covers the same territory.

VW-ads-1It talks about the days of old where DDB and agencies like it broke through, raised sales and kicked some serious sand in the eye of other agencies. It did this by treating customers as allies instead of targets. By breaking the conventions that said X amount of copy should be on the page with a design of Y style.

DDB positioned its VW ads without props and scenery, a completely unheard of tactic. And it used real people instead of idealised models to show customer interaction. They set off to respect the intelligence of their audience, to provide story, and to a certain extent, entertain while telling the truth. It was about selling, definitely. But also admiring the choice the customer had made to choose the product at hand.

The copywriting was conversational. The design stopped using the templates. And the sales figures on products like Levy Bread and VW cars increased.

You could describe the mentality as “Screw the mechanics of it, just find the damn story.”

Would we have ended up with such great advertising if copywriting for SEO was the norm back then? Levy's Bread advertising ditched the standard pretty model, owned their Jewish heritage and invited the customer to jump on board.

Levy’s Bread advertising ditched the standard pretty model, owned their Jewish heritage and invited the customer to jump on board.

It makes me think of the two singing teachers I had in my life.

One of them got me to sing a few different songs with them on the piano, asked me a few questions about what I liked to do in my spare time, and asked me what music I listened to.

When I worked with the first singing teacher, it was about bringing out some of the jazz standards, mucking about with blues, and mixing that with Fleetwood Mac and Melissa Etheridge songs. Sweet!

Needless to say, the only time I missed a lesson I was unbelievably sick with flu.

My second singing teacher was after I had moved to Sydney. I turned up, we did scales for the entire hour, she gave me some exercises and when I asked her if I should bring a song next lesson, she told me I wasn’t ready for that.

I was sent home with a heap of scales exercises, came back the following week to repeat those same boring exercises, and never went again. That was despite having paid for 5 lessons.

What the first singing teacher had inspired m to do was take ownership of my singing lessons and feel like I was a big part of the story. The second teacher wanted to teach me “the way it was always done” and left me bored and disinterested.

This is the same risk you take with SEO copywriting. Yet most businesses choose to follow the pattern of towing the line because it seems safer than breaking away.

But it’s actually safer to break away than be the conservative, boring bastard who thinks customers come to a web page to learn how to suck eggs.

I’m not excited by “Hi, I am Candice and I am about to tell you about your wonderful future by choosing me and my product” style marketing. It smacks of a template a mile wide and an imagination that could fit on a pin.

Kneeling at the feet of the Google Gods finding 6 fun and special ways to say the same damn thing over and over again so you rank well means squat. If I read your website and have no clue why I should trust you, you can outrank Matt Cutts for all the sales department cares.

And that brings me to…

Observation Two: How you find what you need is relative

Wollongong is barely online. When I first moved down here, I thought “sweet, all I have to do is have maybe 2 blog posts saying Wollongong copywriter in them and I’ll rank the heck out of this town”. Maybe I will by sharing this in this blog post. You can see old habits are seriously hard to break.

But just like asking about trees falling in forests and whether they actually make a sound, you have to wonder if there is any point in ranking for SEO copywriting in a town that is barely online? I mean, if the small businesses aren’t online and the big businesses don’t really care beyond the online directory listings, won’t the customers be unaccustomed to using online to find what they need?

The mind boggles.

Before we hung the NO JUNK MAIL sign on our letterbox, we got enough junk mail to wallpaper a small lounge each week. Fliers, pamphlets and catalogues, newsletters and notices- the local mail carriers probably have their fair share of back problems as a result of the amount of print gets dropped in Wollongong.

This however is not a town of luddites. In addition to print, Wollongong loves groups on Facebook and Instagram feeds. People participate online in conversation in groups. They just aren’t that keen on hanging up the small business online business shingle that is a website quite yet.

You also won’t see the hipster styling of the small or no sign around this town. All businesses are clearly marked with signage and have their obligatory print catalogue or menu out front for everyone to see. It’s usually next to the ‘Like us on Facebook’ sticker.

Businesses aren’t going broke, festivals still happen, and I sometimes suspect if I mentioned I did a lot of blogging people may offer me a number of their plumber or doctor in order to get that unfortunately problem fixed.

This isn’t small town mentality or a lack of decent places, either. It’s simply that the marketing channels are different.

So where does that leave things?

Is there a need for SEO copywriting when you consider the life is being somewhat sucked out of decent writers and entire cities seem to bypass the idea completely? There’s always a need for things eventually. And maybe it’s better to ride the first wave in an online frontier than be the dude still wondering what all the fun is about, peeing in the dumpster in the back.

But I say no. Well, at least not to the detriment of the marketing idea that you may use that is better. Or not to the point where it crushes the joy out of the things you do.

And not if your customers don’t get an enjoyable, drawcard style story that draws them to you and makes you feel as though you should be a part of their world.

We’re humans. We love story. And if we’re going to take anything at all from our Paleozoic ancestors, let it not be that they ate road-kill. Let it be the process of storytelling to inform. Make your businesses marketing cave paintings interesting. Let the stories you tell about the campfire allow people to experience what they want to know right from the first sentence that falls from your mouth.

And let’s stop being tied up in conventions and knots to the point where playing by the rules and satiating mechanics robs you of a decent conversation with your customer.

Because if you’ve read to the end of this blog piece as opposed to skimming it for the headlines, you’ve just proved it’s point. Copywriting for SEO isn’t necessary. it can help, but it’s hardly the whole ball game.

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