"All good stories usually start with a question," said one of my writing professors when I was in grad school. It sounds like a throw-away sentence, something said in passing, but it was incredibly helpful to me, both as a magazine writer and marketing writer.
I start all of my stories with a list of questions.
For more narrative stories, I usually start with questions that interest me. A quick example, I was visiting the Roosevelt Monument in Washington, DC years ago and saw coins shining up from the bottom of one of the fountains. What happens to those coins? I wondered and the answer to that question was the beginning of a quick piece about the homeless people who visited the monument at night and dredged the coins from the water.
Starting with a question also works for marketing writing, but it's a little bit more structured. I think of this as kind of a preliminary interview to organize my thinking as well as the client's. It is very helpful and has saved me hours of frustration.
The beauty of the 6 questions is that if your client answers them thoroughly, the rough notes from your discussion will provide a rich source of core material to work with -- you won't be starting from scratch. (And don't feel constrained by this list -- it's just the starting frame. I often add questions or adjust the focus depending on the client. Non-profits, for instance, don't have the same needs as a financial services company.)
The 6 Foundation Questions.
1. What is the profile of your ideal client (or donor)?
[This is the define the audience question]. Get as many specifics as possible -- age range, wealth range, location, typical hobbies, interests, where do they get their information, what are their affiliations, any other defining details that might be relevant to understanding their needs and values?
2. How will they learn of of your company (or organization)?
Primarily word of mouth? in-person meetings, relationship-based? Friends of friends? Events? News stories? Direct mail? Web site?
3. What problem(s) do they have that you will solve for them? [or for non-profits -- what need are you addressing? Conservation? Poverty? Disaster Relief?]
What potential dissatisfiers can you help them resolve? Why would they want to give to your organization? What would motivate their interest in your company?
4. How will you solve their problem, or address their concern?
What advantages/features/benefits does your company provide. Why would someone buy your service or become a member or donate to your group?
5. What happens if they let their problems go? (ie: they don't manage their financial planning? or no one addresses problems like conservation or poverty or disaster relief?)
In marketing-speak, this is the "agitation" phase. It can be a very soft sell, but there always needs to be a little bit of subtle push here to make people act. What do they stand to lose? What's potentially at stake? If it's their financial future, for instance, what does that mean? Try to put it in specific terms: will they be able to retire when they want to? Afford to travel like they've always dreamed? Have peace of mind at night that their finances are in safe hands?
Note: People generally respond more readily to positive messages not sky is falling threats. You don't want to paralyze your audience with fear and apathy, but rather help them see that there are ways to solve their problems, whether it's concern about their finances or supporting organizations that address climate change. This section is important to help you -- as the writer -- understand what's at stake for the audience.
5. What do you want them to do?
I know, contact you, donate, buy the product or service.....but try to put this in specific terms as well. How much do you want them to donate? What specifically do you want them to support? Do you want them to become members? How do you want them to contact you? Email? Do you want to drive traffic to a Web site or do you want to capture phone numbers so sales reps can call them?
6. And what will they get when they call or email? What should they expect?
Even if the answers to this question don't end up in the collateral, it's still good information. If nothing else, to understand how your client plans to convert interest to action (donation or sale). I've occasionally found that my client actually hasn't thought this through -- will interested people be given over to relationship managers? Will they receive an information packet? Will someone contact them? Or does the prospect need to take the first step with a phone call or email?
And don't forget the first rule of marketing, people buy benefits, not features. The more you can help your client articulate the benefits, the stronger and more persuasive your copy will be.
Photocredit to Laura K. Gibbs