Top 5 Writing Rules for Small Business Marketers

The rules for writing used to be so straightforward. You decided whether to use the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style and you just followed it. Word nerds all over the land had so few grammar and usage worries, we often found ourselves belaboring the question of serial commas. (I know, get a life, right?) Then, in comes the internet, and suddenly we’re in the wild west of communication, with all-caps, emojis, acronyms, and exclamation points being fired in every direction. (Tons and tons of exclamation points.) Now we’re happy if anyone uses a comma at all.

Of course, some business owners may feel totally comfortable just free-stylin’ their way through marketing emails, blog posts, and social media interactions. Maybe they have an incredible gift for embodying their brand voice and writing in a language that truly speaks to their audience.

For all of you other entrepreneurs out there who find writing to be a challenge, I’ve pulled together some general "rules" to help you create communications that not only follow some best marketing practices and writing principles, but also feel right to you on a personal level.

1. Know Your Audience. (Also, don’t be phony.)

When writing your marketing communications, whatever the medium, it’s important to consider to whom you’re speaking and in what context they are receiving your communication. Did the person recently make a purchase? Returning customers appreciate suggestions based on previous behavior and prospects are more likely to appreciate educational material about what you do or sell in order. A little personalization goes a long way, and these days, it’s simply expected. A small first-time buyer discount never hurts, either.

 However, there is a fine line between personalization and over-familiarity, and the latter can undercut your authenticity. Unless you have a well-established brand voice that allows for it, don’t “Dude” or “Hey Girl” people you barely know. Addressing strangers like this might be totally true to your personality, but it can set off people’s phony radar and I’m guessing that’s not the first impression you want to make. So maybe wait until your second or third interaction to get all casual-like with your greetings.

2. Benefits Before Features

One of the big mistakes I’ve seen over and over during my career is the use of the bulleted feature list in lieu of marketing strategy. Here’s the deal: You can describe the hell out of your product or service, but if your customer doesn’t quickly understand how it’s going to change their life for the better, then they’re gone. Tell them what’s in it for them. What problem are you solving for them? What will they be able to do faster, easier, or better if they use your product or service? Is it a fish fry so tasty they’ll never look at Friday night the same way again? Or accessories so versatile, they make it effortless to look chic? Sell them on how it will benefit their life, hook them emotionally, and then list all of those incredible features as reasons to believe you.

3. Words Matter, and Other Controversial Advice

It seems the more ways we have to communicate, the less care we take with our choice of words. Because we are more likely to be texting or emailing or commenting through written words, and usually in hurried fashion, we’re more concerned with inflection than language. While inflection certainly is an important consideration, I think we have relinquished the power of carefully selected words in favor of multiple exclamation points, smiley faces, sad faces, thumbs ups, hearts, flowers and poop emojis—just so as not to inadvertently offend our reader.

Sure, symbols are perfectly acceptable methods of communication on some social platforms and in personal communications, but developing a comfortable and unique manner of speaking that suits your brand can begin to create more opportunities for connection with your followers and customers. So, make it a point at least every once in awhile to crack open that and dig up a word or group of words that can effectively emphasize your level of excitement, anger, passion, commitment—whatever emotion it may be—purely on their own merits. Experiment with some to make sure they still sound like “you.” But try it with no bells, whistles, or exclamation points. Just thoughtfully chosen words placed in just the right order. 

4. Scale Your Sales

Okay, you've got the subject line for your next promotional email: "BEST. SALE. EVER!!!"

Is it really, though? Is 10% off actually the best you’ve got? Look, I totally understand the constant pressure to make every promotion sound like the be-all, end-all. The struggle is real. But, as a reputable brand, setting the right expectations with the customer is everything. Using the right language to set up a communication ensures that they’ll be delighted rather than disappointed by what they get. And keep in mind that while offering even a small discount may cut well into your margin; your audience is inundated by hundreds of offers per day, each discount deeper than the one before. So you want to be sure when you say something’s big, your customer agrees that “Whoa, that’s big!” in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s one exercise for keeping yourself honest about the emphasis you should place on each sale or offer:

1. Make a list of all of the types of promotions you plan to run over the coming year.

2. Rank them from worst to best offer, considering things like:

  • Percentage of discount
  • Length of promotion
  • Quality of goods or services (High-end brands that never go on sale? Yes!)
  • Exclusivity of audience
  • Popularity of items you’re discounting
  • Level of supply left

3. Assign words or phrases to describe each of those promotions, dialing up the emphasis and excitement as you go up in the rankings. Phrases like “Exclusive Offer” and “Limited-Time Only” can be very effective if those things are, in fact, true. The more specific you can be, the better. If it’s a 2-Day Sale, tell them that. If it’s for members only, make sure that’s clear.

This strategy will not only give you go-to language for offer types, it may also help you see where a little creativity could come in handy. For instance, if you’re having trouble making a 10% off sale sound exciting compared to your other events, try giving it a name like “10% Tuesday.” It will make it memorable in a different way than a deep discount would, and is likely to drive traffic to your shop—online or on foot.

5. Avoid Manufactured Excitement!!!!

You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned curbing the use of exclamations a few times throughout this post. As many of my former creative colleagues will attest, I have a tricky relationship with this wonderfully expressive piece of punctuation. I like to use them in my personal life just as much as the next gal, but in the marketing world, I believe the exclamation point has been abused to the point of meaninglessness. I’ve seen one too many a so-so subject line or boresville headline rely on exclamation points to make them sound remotely engaging. Again, certain communication channels like Instagram and Twitter lend themselves more readily to the liberal usage of creative punctuation, emoticons, acronyms, made-up words and the like. But, as a rule, I recommend choosing descriptive—and true—words to evoke a feeling or an image in one’s mind. Does this mean you should load your messaging up with over-the-top superlatives? No. Honest, benefit-oriented language is a powerful way to develop a deeper, more trusting relationship with your audience.