Out of all of the millions of things that humans have written over the millennia, very few can be described as ‘timeless’. And those typically falling into that category tend to be literary or philosophical – think Shakespeare’s plays, Plato’s dialogues, the Bhagavad Gita – rather than marketing materials.
On the flip side, when we think about marketing materials from times past, we often find them comically quaint or embarrassingly retrograde. Think, for example, about all those famously awful sexist and racist ads from the 20th century. (And, yes, you can still find far too many examples of both today.)
While marketing content is written with very different goals in mind than are, say, philosophical treatises or epic scriptures, there are ways to help make it more enduring. And, hopefully, less cringeworthy to current and future audiences. Here’s how:
- Use specifics, not generalisations – The strongest content features information that’s focused, well-researched and well-substantiated, rather than leaning on stereotypes, clichés, tropes and other writing crutches. Consider the following two examples, and think about which one better grabs your interest:
‘People are using mobile devices more than ever to work, play and live…’
‘More than three-quarters of US adults today own smartphones, and nearly half also own tablets…’ (Source: Pew Research Center)
- Zero in on your audience’s needs – Consider this ad for sewing needles: “[W]e buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles to be ready for use at home in no time.” Sounds pretty good, right? It also sounds amazingly modern, considering it was written on a copper-plate ad sometime during China’s Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). What makes this copy timeless is the fact that it speaks to a specific market with a specific need, telling them what the business can do for them.
- Write with the long view in mind – Social conventions, attitudes and beliefs evolve over time. So tread lightly in your references to current trends, memes and ‘common knowledge’ that might prove to be neither common nor correct. This is especially important in a time of ‘fake news’ accusations, social media manipulation and targeted messaging by actors with ulterior motives.
- Most of all, be as transparent as possible – Transparency is one of the best ways to build trust today, writes media critic and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. While Rosen’s list of transparency-supporting strategies is aimed primarily at journalists, his advice applies to anyone producing content for an audience.
Whatever your business and whatever your brand, your audience expects you to be thinking about their needs, not yours. And that’s as well as the words you use need to reflect that, as BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti recently noted:
“In the past, consumers were loyal to brands – brands created distant, aspirational images and we strived for them,” Peretti wrote. “Increasingly, the balance of power has shifted and consumers have more control. Today, brands need to be loyal to consumers.”