Writing Compelling Copy in Times of Crisis


Senior copywriter, content strategist, and SCS instructor Samantha Mehra, explains how to write strategic and sensitive copy in critical times.

Copywriting is an exercise in agility. Especially in light of recent events such as the pandemic, being eternally responsive, and changing messaging as crises unfold, are basic but crucial steps in the copywriter’s day-to-day choreography. 

Since copywriting involves words, let’s go ahead and define the thing: copywriting is all about using powerful lingo to drive action in your audience. The goal is to compel readers to go do a particular thing, such as engage with you, your product, charity, or service. Also, it encourages them to do it now. You come across examples of this kind of motivating language everywhere: in your inboxes, on your social platforms, in your mailbox, and in physical environments like public transit.

But copywriting isn’t just about direct selling and getting leads. Its other function is equally important, especially during times of crisis: building relationships to support your business’ bottom line in the long run. Never has this second function been more important than during COVID times, where audiences are truly taking stock of brands, their promises, their products, and the way they handle themselves during a time of uncertainty and frequent upheaval. 

Good copy helps us tell the powerful story of our product or service, and why an audience should be interested in us. But in light of the global pandemic, our audiences have been impacted, businesses have been impacted, and we have been impacted.

So, in times like these, more scrutiny must be applied to the copy we put into a world that admittedly has more pressing concerns than reading our ads. This is truly our greatest opportunity to be subtle with sales, and double down on building relationships. Here’s how.

Keep your audience top of mind 

Keeping your audience at the forefront should always be your main tactic when writing copy – but it matters even more right now. Whether you are catering to a B2B or B2C audience, your readers have likely experienced pandemic-related impacts on professional and personal levels – whether that is job loss, incurred debt, general anxiety about the goings on, increased scrutiny on spending, and more. For businesses, many have the monumental challenge of surviving social distancing, having to lay off or furlough employees, cut spending, align their businesses with government-mandated health and safety practices, and manage frustrated customers – and they also may have to find ways to move into the ecommerce space. 

The point: right now, there is a seismic shift in your audience's challenges, needs, and pain points. So, we have to respond to these shifts with our copy in order to stay relevant and relatable.

Create empathetic copy

But you’re probably asking yourself: how do we respect my audience’s unique needs (personal, professional, and financial) in times of crisis, and support my bottom line with compelling copy? 

This is a big lesson right now: it is our job as copywriters to constantly shift gears, empathize, and present our pitches in ways that are actually helpful, and not just a hard sell. But for many businesses right now, their goal is to maintain their livelihood – and to keep selling and marketing. By ‘businesses’, I’m not talking just about big brands: I’m also referring to small shops and entrepreneurs. These businesses need to keep advertising with compelling copy to meet their bottom line. But what will help us strike the balance here? A few things:

  • Research –constantly and daily– into your audience and the news of the day is going to be the most important aspect of your copywriting journey; never write without a keen sense of what’s going on around you.
  • Make a list of the reasons that your product or service is especially of help right now.
  • Try to remain tactful with the frequency and tone of your messaging; your audience may be in a sensitive position.
  • Your audience knows full well you have to sell, but it can be done in a subtle way that doesn’t offend.
  • When possible, have others edit your work and weigh in; gain different and diverse perspectives on your copy.

Don’t forget your audience when writing about yourself
It helps to use ‘you’ language, and write copy that speaks to an effortless solution to their problem. Moments where you can personalize can be helpful, and a bit of a break from the canned messaging bombarding your audience every day. Also keep in mind the ethics and various causes that your particular audience values.

Don’t overuse phrases 

Be aware of what terms and phrases you are using; too much repetition is always annoying for audiences, but this is especially true right now. And we’re seeing quite a bit of overuse these days across brands. Arguably, you could say that common phrases or repetition are strong in that they reinforce brands in our memories – but it could also be said that these phrases, when overused in abundance at the same time by different brands, can detract from the meaning. Overuse of phrases can ultimately make your message feel hollow and reduce impact. 

If you’re making claims like “We’re all in this together” – ask yourself, is it true? Are we in this together? How are we in this together, and what concrete actions are we taking to support the audience? This will have more impact than simply using a repetitive phrase. It will also help you differentiate.

Promote the helpful aspects of your business 

This can result in brand loyalty and repeat business in the long run. Are you having an extended free trial promotion? Are you making a catalogue or service free for the foreseeable future? Or, are you offering discounts for frontline workers, parents, teachers, or small business owners? Anything that is true, that helps right now, that values your audience, and gives back to them – put that front and centre. Make it the single message in your campaign. Remember, you want to help and incentivize, not just sell, sell, sell.

Respect your audience’s time 

Especially in a scenario where many are juggling kids, family responsibilities, pets, multiple jobs, and working from home, it’s best to give them a break on the reading. I am a big proponent of cutting down on word count, weeding out what you don’t necessarily need. The faster you get to the point, the more you take into consideration your reader’s attention span or time constraints – and the more likely it is that your copy will have impact. Challenge yourself to cut, first 5%, then 50%, and if you’re feeling dangerous, 75%. See how much you can remove without sacrificing the vital information. Keep in mind what Microsoft found in its 2015 study: you may only have up to around 8 seconds to grab your audience’s attention – and that’s not a lot of copy!

You’re a writer. We all can write. And when you write, you wield a devastating amount of power if you are in control of words being amplified on any public channel. Use this power wisely and compassionately, and try to have fun while doing it.

Samantha Mehra (MA) is a senior copywriter and content strategist in Toronto, and an instructor at The University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. With a diverse background in technology, history, and arts journalism, her writing credits include The Canadian Encyclopedia, Feathertale, Oxford Journals, and Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. She is a National Magazine Award nominee, and enjoys puns. Samantha instructs courses in our Certificate in Strategic Copywriting.

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