Matt Alexander on Brilliant Copy Writing
We're going to be talking about writing copy. When you go to write something, do you have a process that you go through like it’s a science or is it different every time?
It's not even remotely a science for me. Actually, to be honest, I find that I'm best at my writing my copy when I'm hungover — that would be the closest thing to something repeatable in my process.
On the Imprint side, we put out several major collections of clothing per month for which I write all copy. Each collection is probably over 2,000 words each and I write it all about two or three hours before we release.
So, the focus is always to have the copy very fresh and happen in the moment. On occasion, I'll have to run our social channels and I'll pre-write some of the product tweets. Then throughout the day I'll keep Twitter open on my Mac and occasionally tweet something ridiculous from the company account.
For me, I self-identify a little bit more as a writer than a business-person, so it's a welcome break to get back to writing from time-to-time. In fact, the original idea was to build a curated retailer and publication hybrid. That remains at the core of our future plans, but it stemmed from a desire to keep writing but find a sustainable way of monetizing it.
So, that's where it comes from, honestly. There's no real rhythm to it. It's just whenever I have a moment, which just happens to be the immediate minutes before we release something.
How has your copy changed from when you were just starting out compared to where you are now?
I’m involved in a few different Slack groups. In one of them recently, someone surfaced an article I wrote in 2012.
At the time I would've just been leaving my corporate job. Back then, my copy and tone of voice was very formal. I went to extraordinary lengths to use complex, floral language. It’s a style I enjoy leveraging — and comes quite naturally to me, for whatever reason — but the most prevalent criticism was that I had this borderline annoying, condescending tone in my writing.
When you start writing, it’s crucial to have a sense of sophistication, but it’s equally crucial to find a way to marry that with a conversational tone. It’s hard to do.
That was a big shift for me.
If you look at my stylistic arc from 2010, when I graduated University, to now, my tone has shifted to be much more conversational. It's much less serious, I joke a lot more, and do my best to break the fourth wall.
"We chose to be ourselves as individual people rather than a faceless company."
I'd definitely agree. When I read the copy from your website or emails, it doesn’t sound like a sales pitch but yet I still feel like pulling out my credit card ready to purchase. What’s your secret?
It's personality, really. That's ultimately all it takes. That’s not to say it's my personality, necessarily, but it's just personality in general.
On the internet these days, you see all sorts of clickbait headlines and ridiculous subject-lines. Every marketing article seems to be about how to effectively trick people into opening your email, get them to your website, and fool them into buying from you. I feel like not enough people are thinking about how to encourage people to actually feel like they want to buy from you, and how to have a really positive experience.
I think that approach is always going to end up benefitting the company. If you treat people with dignity and do something with quality, people will invariably come back.
There's no real secret to it.
We chose to be ourselves as individual people rather than a faceless company.
I was just out on my honeymoon and, while I was out, our CFO wrote all of our copy for the site. It was hilarious and he's been doing Twitter recently as well. We've had different members of the team also giving it a go, too.
So, put succinctly, we've got this great little community where people have bought into the tone of voice and it’s been working really well.
Having someone in finance take over the copy while you're away seems like an odd decision, what made you go with that choice?
We have a lot of people that could have taken over, which is a testament to our team.
About six weeks before I went away, I was still building a lot of the copy for the collections, the emails, and so on. I sat down with the COO to discuss what would happen when I went away. The core concern was around the copy. The idea of guest editors came up, but then I threw out the idea of having Vince (CFO) do it. We had him take over for a few tweets and a few other things and he did a great job.
Similarly, in the early days, when I was talking to investors, they all saw the value in the editorial approach. Through the conversational tone of the copy, they felt a connection to me. Which is both a good and bad thing.
The problem is how you could scale that sense of person.
This experiment with Vince was an opportunity for us to say "Alright, let's grow!" and our team has handled it so well. We were growing at such an extent that we had to rebrand the company. As a result it was a unique opportunity for us to start acting like a "big boy" company and have other people start handling some responsibilities that I'd been handling from the beginning.
For me, I love writing, but it was increasingly unsustainable for me to be doing more of it. So having Vince do some — even though he's our CFO — is a fun experiment.
"We're not hiring writers, we're hiring people that fit with our environment."
So it just comes down to having someone who understands the brand personality and is able to communicate that to your audience...
True story: back in the day, Vince was a model for us. So, he's known the company for a long time.
In that sense, it could be anyone on our team. There's a lot of different ways we can approach the copy question and that's a testament to the team we’re developing.
We're not trying to hire writers, necessarily. We're hiring people that fit with our environment.
It sounds like having that personality at the core of your copy helps build a trust level between you and your audience that you can then build a relationship from...
People want to be treated nicely. It’s a simple idea.
We try to think about it a lot when it comes to email, specifically. (And we're still trying to get it right.) We try to only send an email when it's absolutely necessary for us to do so. We're not trying to have different flows running everyday so you're receiving multiple emails a week. Instead we're just saying “Here's what we have to say. Read it. Don't read it. We don't really care.”
Our emails have a very simple subject line. If we introduce a new volume at Imprint it will say “Introducing Volume 3.7” and, inside, you'll be able to click through to view the volume.
It's not rocket science. And it results in high open and click rates, because it's just so honest and easy.
"Having the agility to make quick changes informed and influenced by data, is huge for us."
You mentioned open and click rates… is there any other conversations rates that you pay particular attention to?
We look at time spent on the site — that's an interesting one to look at — insofar as we want to know how much people actually want to read the copy. We look at heat maps to understand if people are pausing on a particular product or page. We look at lost revenue, capturing moments when people try to add a certain size of a product to their cart when it's sold out. And so on.
Personally, I keep a Google Sheet called my ‘Master Document.’ It holds our traffic, number of visits, bounce rate, new sessions, revenue, conversion rates, and lost revenue all in one row for each month. I go there every Monday and update it for the prior week. It’s a simple way to track whether we're growing and what might or might not be working.
Honestly, it doesn't impact our decision-making too much, though.
The only time that it's ever been really informative is midway through 2015 when we were seeing great performance on the site, but didn't have enough data to know how we were doing. We’d developed a proprietary platform — which is amazing! — but didn’t give us enough knowledge about our customers.
So, I quickly built a similar version of the site on Shopify and we formally made the switch in November 2015. The result was much more visibility and data friendliness.
Our conversion rates went through the roof. Our bounce rates dropped. Engagement lengthened.
Having that agility to make quick changes — informed by data and influenced by instinct — was an enormous moment for us.
We talked earlier about you passing off some of the responsibility of copy writing, has that had an impact on any key metrics?
No, not really.
That's probably a good thing...
When I was on my honeymoon, I saw a lot of people emailing me and saying how much they enjoyed the copy. It was an encouraging moment, seeing proof that we could scale this voice, as I’d professed to investors years ago.
"They’re the first enterprise company to have a truly tireless focus on remaining human."
Who is the person that you look up to when it comes to writing beautifully crafted copy?
That's an interesting question. I honestly don’t know.
When we have new social employee join the team, I always point to Slack, as a company, as a source of inspiration.
They’re the first enterprise company, in my mind, that have had a truly tireless focus on remaining human and accessible.
So, I use them as a benchmark standard for what we produce.
Hope this one doesn’t catch you off-guard. What is your favorite 90’s dance song?
Ha, I don't even know. Oh! Wait... let me double-check if it's in the 90's. Yes. 1997!
There's a song by Run DMC - It's Like That, which came out in the 80's. It was then remixed by a DJ in the 90's, and it was huge in England. That is definitely my favourite, I love that song. It was one of the first songs I purchased on CD, I was probably 10 years old.
I'll have to check that one out. Thanks for taking the time today Matt.