Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t

My first real job was mostly in writing direct mail. I worked as a Marketer for a software company (this is pre-Internet days) that sold mostly through good old-fashioned DM. In fact, we sent about 3 million pieces of it a quarter across 11 countries and in multiple languages. I also wrote all the copy for our catalogues, press releases and ads. I sat and churned out sales copy 8 hours per day for several years – and I learned a lot about what sells, what engages and what different audiences respond to. It’s where my fascination in thoroughly understanding people and their buying habits started.

A person’s first job inevitably shapes who you’ll become. If your first graduate outing is in journalism, your brain gets tattooed (in a good way) with who-what-where-when-why, fact-check-everything, never-bury-the-lead. If you start out as a photographer’s assistant, you learn other stuff. If you plunge into business on your own, the education is about self-discipline, self-motivation and self-validation.

DM teaches its own lessons. For starters, everyone hates it. They get annoyed with the stuff dropping on their doormat or their desk every day trying to sell them things they never asked for. It’s intrusive advertising – and advertising lies. Advertising misleads. It’s evil, phony; it’s trying to sell us crap we don’t need. I can’t argue with any of that, except to observe that for a rookie wordsmith, such obstacles can be a supreme positive. Why? Because you have to sweat blood to overcome them–and in that gruelling process, you learn your craft.

And here’s the first, ego-trampling lesson you learn working in DM (and this has stuck with me, to my advantage, my whole working life):

Nobody wants to read your shit.

Let me repeat that. Nobody – not your dog, spouse or mother – has even the slightest interest in your masterpiece for a bank, a new bit of software or the new haemorrhoids cream to hit the market. Nor does anybody really care about your one-act play, your opinion on the latest movie or your Facebook page ‘cutely’ describing every bowel movement of your new baby.

It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. They have their own lives and don’t really have the time or headspace to care about yours too.

Marketer’s Disease

There’s an epidemic in our industry called Marketer’s Disease. Every marketer is in love with his/ her own product. The mistake they make is in believing that just because they love it, everyone else will too. They won’t. The market doesn’t know what you’re selling and doesn’t care. Your potential customers are so busy dealing with the rest of their lives, they haven’t got a spare second to give to your product/ service/ work of art/ business – no matter how worthy you think it is or how much you love it.

What I Learned To Do About That

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/ reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, the writer must give that reader something worthy of his/ her gift to you.

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you also develop empathy. You acquire that skill which is indispensable as an effective marketer: the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view to the point of view of your imagined reader/ customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is this answering their questions? Am I giving the reader enough? Are they bored? Are they following where I want to lead them in the journey?

As I got better at writing copy that sells, this mindset proved indispensable. It steered me away from Marketer’s Disease. It warned me not to fall in love with my own shit just because it was my own shit. Don’t be lazy, Phil. Look at every word through the eye of the busy, impatient, sceptical reader. Give them something worthy of the time and attention they’re giving you.

That’s why, less than 12 months into my first job I had tripled their conversion rates from DM. I don’t say it to brag. I say it because it can be that simple to seriously ramp up your profits and all the things on this website outline what I learned back then and have developed further over the last 20 years so you can do it too.

Cutting Through The Clutter

All marketers know that before they can do anything else, they must overcome the natural resistance to advertising within their audience. They must find a way to cut through the clutter.

How, you ask?

By remembering that your prospective customers are task oriented – they have lives and they are not on your website because they are interested in you, or your company, or how you’d like to “position” yourselves within the industry.  Your online visitors have a problem/ want/ need/ fear and they are really only interested in whether or not you have a viable solution.

Once you understand that, you can move away from wee-wee copy (copy that likes to talk about what ‘we’ do and what ‘we’ stand for) in order to focus on your visitors and customers, with:

  • On-going copy and UX assurances that they’ve come to the right place to find the solution to their questions/ wants/ needs/ fears
  • Copy that speaks to them about what matters to them.  Establish empathy with WHY they need your solution.  Figure out what has driven them to need your product or service, and make sure you address those felt emotional needs as well as ALL of their lingering, sales-killing questions and doubts.
  • The right CTA’s and persuasive journey for each Persona type that allow each visitor to choose their own path. Some may take the express train to grabbing what they need and converting, and others will want to drill down to richer content on those elements where they need to assure themselves that you are, in fact, selling a real solution to fix their specific problem.

Now we’ve got this far, I can apologise for the rather crass use of attention-grabbing headlines.

What I’m saying is that nobody wants to actually be reading your copy but rather they just want to be fulfilling their need. They are prepared to read your copy only if it looks like it might offer them a solution to their task at hand.

The difficult part is often the task of separating out the copy that’s actually needed to address visitors’ concerns and the copy that is not necessary, but you think it kind of sounds good and want to keep it in. Generally, asking people that you trust to be honest (rather than just nice to you) is the easiest way to make sure of that. Of course, creating Personas is the best way to give you that level of focus.

Focus – cut your copy – read it again – then cut some more…. until it almost wouldn’t make sense if you removed any more words.

And then go kick some online marketing ass (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Let me know if you think you fall into the old trap or what you try and do to cut the sh*t from your copy in the comments below.


Phil Cave is the founder of People Shaped Marketing. He helps companies like Samsung, BBC, Ricoh, RBS, Virgin, Lloyds, Stagecoach and Ferrari grow their profits through his unique methodologies. He has been repeatedly labelled as one of the “Top Digital Experts in Europe” and “One of the World’s leading minds in Persona-driven Marketing”. He has worked at some of the biggest agencies in London before owning, running and eventually selling his own successful digital marketing consultancy.