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Write to a person, not a persona

05/10/2010

What’s in a Name? A Lot, as It Turns Out (NY Times.com, 5.09.2010) describes the bittersweet triumph of a young man who only received his legal identity at age 19. What an elegant selection he made — Maximus Julius Pauson. The story of how he grew up, unnamed by his mother, is tragic. It reminded me, oddly, of how I learned to personalize my copywriting early on.

IBM Selectric typewriter elements

Flickr. Uploaded on August 24, 2006 by Cosmonauta.

As a junk mail writer, working on the IBM Electronic Typewriter 50 (boy was I high-tech!) I was assigned to write circulation promotion letters to cardiologists one day and firefighters the next. Just when I got in my groove, the director would come in and ask for copy pitching mining equipment professionals. These were good times for learning flexibility. It helped me understand about pulse points. Yes, these were all business-to-business publications. So, naturally, some pulse points were shared by all. Yet, each tracked to unique drivers that would generate response. And that called for a unique tone.

What would a cardiologist want? What made a cardiologist different from a firefighter, and so on? My early mentors suggested creating a picture. This would pack more punch into my openers and set a better tone for salutations that began meekly, “Dear Doctor,” or “Dear Firefighting Professional.”  What more could I do?

Finding people who matched the target audience was relatively easy. With my new BA in American English literature and coming from an extended and extroverted family, I thought I was set. There was almost always an uncle, cousin or neighbor who worked in the field, like my firefighting brother. I could conveniently brainstorm and “write” to him/her. I learned to envision a target audience of one and add as much detail as possible. For example, what kind of chair would the cardiologist sit in when reading the journal? What type of car would the firefighter drive on the way to and from the station house? I even made up names. This didn’t call for a great investment of time. In fact, the inspiration would come during a lunch-hour break. But I’d find a name and then build my letter not to Dear Doctor but Dear Doctor so and so. (A professional muse, so to speak)

Personalizing the content and setting the proper tone then became organic.

Looking up at a totem pole

Flickr. Uploaded on October 10, 2007 by gdraskoy

Once, too organic. I posted a teaser about risks of not learning. For firefighters, the copy was spot on and generated a significant lift compared to other mailings. They were voracious readers and always wanting to learn about the next best tip that would help them save lives.

Since cardiologists were equally dedicated to saving lives, I surmised, a similar opener might work. One cardiologist, however, found the tone so bold that he wrote a harsh letter to the publisher about junk mail.  In this case he was right. What a valuable lesson it taught me about speaking to your audience as you would be spoken to. While they also perform life-saving tasks, they expect to be addressed as peers seeking to refine their knowledge and learn of advancements.  Funny I don’t remember the cardiologist’s name but I do remember his words and the lesson it taught me.

So, thank you Mr. Pauson, for reminding me of the value of placing a conversation in context with a real person, fully named. That’s social and media.

What’s your experience of writing to a person, not a persona in marketing?

  • What techniques do you apply to make your copy as engaging and contextual as it can be?
  • With social media, have you developed new techniques?
  • Are research and behavioral statistics sufficient for engaging a community and generating response?

Please post your comments and share with friends.

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