Good writing is crucial, but the biggest driver of copywriting results is the research that guides the writing.

By Ryan Gerhardt

Many people think that quality copy is solely characterized by its ability to grab a reader’s attention or evoke their emotion. In reality, this element alone neither defines high-quality copy nor is sufficient enough to ensure its effectiveness. By itself, all it can really promise is a decent chance at winning an agency award.

The thing that truly defines quality copy is the level to which it achieves measurable results. More than anything, this effectiveness is rooted in the research that bolsters our copy rather than its flashiness. Without research, what might seem on its face to be the best, most engaging copy ever written may miss the mark entirely. Thorough research directs copy; good writing supports the research.

In particular, copy gains a great deal of guidance from research into the client’s target audience and competition. This market analysis dictates who the copy should resonate with, and how that individual is already being spoken to by other companies.

Let’s examine this idea with a copywriting example from an old poster promoting The Economist:

“A poster should contain no more than eight words, which is the maximum the average reader can take in at a single glance. This, however, is a poster for Economist readers.”

It’s undoubtedly clever and well written. It’s also a bit snobby. Imagine for a moment that we went back and repeated the research that guided this copy. Let’s say that on a second pass, the research shows The Economist’s target market has shifted – magazine readership has broadened to include more average Joes and fewer Ivy League intellectuals. In this case, much of the wit and snark regarding reading ability would likely make this poster strategically unsound. Similarly, say our research showed that a rival like The New Yorker, with its larger readership, was already courting elitism to great success. Maybe then The Economist would be better off taking a more inclusive approach to copy. Both of these hypotheticals illustrate that irrespective of quality writing, research that is misguided will invariably lead to ineffective results.

Research allows the agency to adequately gauge the market’s perspective rather than the client’s. This is an important distinction, since an agency’s clients rarely resemble the audiences they’re targeting. For example, where a tech developer speaks in terms of “cloud computing,” the market may speak in terms of “online storage” or “accessibility.” The copywriter’s job is to take the message from the client and repackage it in a way that addresses the market, which necessitates an understanding of how that market thinks, what it knows, and what will capture its attention with regard to the brand being advertised.

Flashy, startling copy alone cannot ensure effectiveness, but it can help. The key is to lay a solid foundation of research in order to guide copywriting strategy. Once the strategic confines determine what will be said, the fun, difficult, and creative part of copywriting comes in choosing just how to say it. When thorough research is paired with quality writing, the resulting copy drives the best results possible.