Topical copywriting

by Tom Albrighton 19 May 2011 Copywriting, Copywriting reviews

On 3 May, I received the following email (which I’ve anonymised):

Accurate data killed Osama bin Laden (helped by US Special Forces)

The US ‘Most Wanted List’ has seen a bit of a shake-up.

Accurate information enabled the US to target their attention on a walled compound in Abbottabad. As a direct result, the small group of people called US Navy Seal Team Six have changed the shape of the international terrorist threat. It may yet prove to be an illusion, but many people will feel safer as a result. Yet despite their evident skill and years of experience, the troops would have been powerless to act without good information.

But Al-Qaeda is still in business, and you need to be too!

Accurate information is just as vital for your marketing. You need to target the

  • right people with the
  • right authority in the
  • right organisations

Company X offers you the most accurate B2B marketing data in the UK, that’s a fact!

With average data age of just 94 days, and 13 decision makers at each site, you can target the correct decision maker for your campaign.

To ensure your marketing is as effective as US Navy Seal Team Six, call us now on 00000 000000.

Company X – Always up to date

Osama was killed on May 2 2011, so this campaign was written and sent within 24 hours. While that certainly attests to a quick-thinking marketing department at Company X, I’m not sure they directed their energies particularly well with this campaign. Here are my problems with this piece of topical copywriting, or topicopy, if you will. (You won’t? Suit yourself.)

Poor taste

If you’re going to hitch your wagon to a current event, it’s probably best to choose something inoffensive – like the Royal Wedding. While relatively few recipients of this email are likely to have shed any tears over Osama’s death, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be up for glorifying it.

But Al-Qaeda is still in business, and you need to be too!

I’m sure I don’t need to point out the folly of comparing your reader’s organisation to a pan-global terrorist network. That aside, this line muddies the waters because we’re being encouraged to identify with the special forces’ use of information, not Al-Qaeda’s. This is one of those snippets that has to be got out of the writer’s system, but should be cut before the copy ships.

Event fatigue

Of course, selling on the back of the Royal Wedding would also have backfired, because everyone (well, nearly everyone) was heartily fed up of hearing about it by the time it finally came to pass. Adding to the torrent of information and comment on a high-profile event risks alienating the reader with the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Enough already!


My images are never on topic

This is a B2B campaign. While B2B marketing can and should be creative, it’s not about fun. Aligning the communication with non-work watercooler conversation puts this email in the province of ‘not work/wasting time’, which is risky. Would even an interested buyer feel comfortable forwarding this email to their FD or MD?

Hostage to fortune

As time wore on, the US began to look more and more fallible over events in Abbottabad, making their reluctance to act triumphalist entirely appropriate. By dropping this email so soon after the event, Company X risk looking a bit silly as the deeper meaning of events unfolds.


The only thing that will sustain the attention of a B2B buyer is hard, provable benefits. Including them 100 words in, in the penultimate paragraph (and omitting them from the subject line) runs the risk that the reader will have given up before they even see them. Entertainment’s great, but only as long as it’s entertaining – and relevant.

When the benefits do come, they read pretty weakly: ‘you can target the correct decision maker for your campaign’. For my money, that’s not a compelling B2B outcome – I normally try to boil it down to ‘make money’, ‘save money’ or ‘save time’. For middle managers, we could also add ‘look good to boss’.

It’s as if the writer ran out of steam, having put all their effort into working the Osama analogy. But that’s fatal, because it’s only when the reader asks ‘what’s in this for me?’ that they’ll show any real interest. When that question gets asked, the copy has to be there with the answers.

The key is to bring the benefits without being boring – not trying to piggyback them on to something else that’s deemed more interesting. The underlying value proposition of this email (as opposed to the product it’s selling) is:

  1. You’re interested in Osama being killed.
  2. Accurate information played a part.
  3. We also offer accurate information.
  4. Therefore, you might like our product.

Clearly, the link between points 2 and 3 is tenuous, while the logical leap from 3 to 4 is a complete non sequitur – it’s here that all the effort should have gone, linking features to customer outcomes.

Laid bare like this, the mechanics of the piece are transparently shonky. In truth, there’s only the slimmest thematic bridge between the purported and actual subjects, and a correspondingly slim likelihood that the reader will follow the author across it. Only relevant interest converts.

If the benefits themselves will not carry interest, then you are in one of two situations. It may be that the benefits simply aren’t compelling, in which case marketing won’t fix the problem. Or it may just be that you haven’t found the right way to dramatise or illustrate the benefits, in which case it’s back to the drawing board – with the understanding that a winning creative idea isn’t likely to be found in the daily news.