Notes Off the Napkin: Relevant Writing

Notes-Off-the-Napkin-logo1By Andrew Frame

Relevance, by definition is, “pertinence to the matter at hand.”

Using a cartoon of a running cheetah helps to visually reinforce a symbol of how fast my customer’s oil change facility is. Or, for the case of non-visual media, a sound of running feet, or a car zooming through the audio field.

An image of a sequoia can be used to help the imagery of solidity, reliability, lasting presence. A ships horn could drift into a fun cruise. A smooth jazz riff can play into a relaxing, upscale night club.

Relevance isn’t a foreground part of your script. It’s not the words. It’s more part of the theme, and the importance of relevance to the theme is dependent on where you place it – fore-, middle-, or background.

I figure there are two kinds of relevance for the copywriter:

•Making the sales message have relevance to the target audience by addressing their lifestyle,

•Making the message be relevant to itself by using appropriate imagery.

Of course, it helps if your audience thinks the way you think and “gets” the imagery. Apparently, I don’t, and thus our story…

The spark for this essay was a billboard, but the lesson carries to any kind of sales messaging.

A hospital emergency room has a billboard with a picture of a snail labeled “ordinary ER” and a cheetah labeled “extraordinary ER.” They identify themselves with the cheetah.

An emergency room. A snail. And, a cheetah. This hospital is saying their competition -- an “ordinary ER” -- is like a snail, while this hospital’s cheetah-esque ER is “extraordinary.” Visual comparison drawn – it’s all about speed. This hospital is telling me that they’re ER is “extraordinary” because it’s fast.

Fast at what? Getting me in? Getting me out? I suppose if I’m in an ambulance running lights and siren, I’m likely to get “in” to that ER pretty quickly. They get to exceed the speed limit, run red lights and even have a special ambulance-only parking spot and access doors.

Maybe they’re fast at getting me out? I don’t think I want to go to an emergency room that advertises that they are “extraordinary” because of the expediency they can get me off an exam bed and out the exit. Although we’ve tragically become an instant-gratification society, there are times when you really do not want to rush things. Like a physician working to figure out if the elephant sitting on your chest is a myocardial infarction or a bad burrito.

So, where could the “mark” that this ad was trying to hit, be?

Going to the ER is not a choice matter. You get very sick or injured and you go. No discussion. No one wants an ER doctor to take you in and shoot you back out quick, quick. If you go to the ER, something is likely very wrong. Stabilize me. Then take your time, doc. Run some tests. Figure it out so I don’t have to come back here for a long time, at least until I finish paying the bill.

But… there’s another place at most hospitals. A non-emergency walk-in clinic. There you may want a little faster service. If something is life-threatening, they’ll flip your paperwork over to the ER side of the waiting room, but if not, you get seen, you fill out everything in quadruplicate, you agree to hand over your life savings and you’re on your way.

If the billboard had done the snail versus cheetah comparison and said “walk-in clinic” instead of ER, I would have felt the ad contained a much more appropriate relevance.

But not for an ER. Or so I thought.

My Bride said, “It’s for getting you in and out of the ER quickly.”

“I don’t want to get in and out quickly. I want them to find out what’s wrong and stabilize it.”

“No, not serious stuff. Colds, flu, broken arms, things like that.”

“But, that’s not what you go to an ER for. You go to a walk-in clinic for that kind of thing.”

“No, you go to an ER.”

“You don’t go to the ER with a sneeze.”

“A lot of people do.”

“Then why do they have a walk-in clinic?”

Ding.

And there was the fulcrum.

I knew that this hospital, like most, have a non-emergency setup for sniffles and snapped bones. How? They advertised it for quite a while. And, I’d been there. Often, these clinics are in the same physical location as the formal, ambulance-receiving emergency room. So, to many people, when you get a sniffle or twist your wrist, you go to the emergency room. Though, once you get there, you may be shunted to the walk-in clinic.

But, the important thing is, in the mind of so many people (apparently), they are in the ER.

To the target audience, the hospital’s ad agency seems to be counting on the assumption that local residents will think “emergency room” when they have any medical condition, from a stubbed toe to a severed limb. They won’t differentiate between emergency and non-emergency treatment when they think of where to go.

Flatulence? ER.

Sniffles? ER.

Alligator attached to your nether regions? ER.

To me, knowing – and being able to differentiate that there was – a difference, made this billboard incapable of conveying the message to me. For many, though, the ER and walk-in are one and the same, so they get it.

Why would I think this way?

Advertising. They used to advertise their physically separate walk-in clinic. Now, it’s part of the ER department, and is called “Fast Track.” But, there’s no mention of “Fast Track” in the advertising. They play to the assumption (probably correct) that most people will “go to the emergency room.”

As a copywriter, you’re very often the front-man in the creative process. When you’re reviewing your client notes, dig to find out the real mark, the real target to the sales message.

Consider the people just to the left and right of that message whose perceptions may be a little different and how you can reach them as well. Consider the individual while you write for the masses.

Think about what point the client is trying to accomplish, and if your notes don’t support that point, go back and have them clarify:

•Do not be afraid to tell your client that something is not a good idea.

•Help them to understand what they like, and what’s going to be effective may be two different things.

•Encourage them to not allow their personal preferences get in the way of a sales message that will put feet on your sales floor, or calls to the telephone.

You are having them invest a lot of money in their advertising. You have a responsibility to make sure that investment is going to carry with it the best possible sales message for the best possible ROI, whatever it may be. Even a generic or “image” sales message is going to have some kind of point, or mark to hit.

I’ll see a hundred pieces of radio and television ad copy from stations and agencies every week. So many of them have no discernible point, no “mark” to hit. They are a wandering collection of name, phone number, address, clichés, and too many words for a :30 or a :60.

So, if you have to, ask your client: What one thing are you trying to accomplish with this advertising? Do you want to move a particular product? Make your phone ring? Pick something specific to use as your “mark.”

What one point do you want to get across? What one very important point do you want listeners to remember? Can you say it so it strikes your target square in the decision-making part of the noggin – and bring it out wide enough to catch the perceptive strays?

Once you have your “mark” to hit, bring in the “what’s in it for me?” lifestyle factor of the listener. Then, after you add the final information on how the listener can contact this advertiser, your sales message is all but done.

Go back and eliminate clichés, keep your word count to the general 80/16 guideline for draft copy (including spelling out numbers), and you’ll hopefully have a nice piece of work that will give your client relevance to more of your listeners.

Happy writing.

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