Know thy customer

“But how do I know what my reader is like?” I hear you ask.

Simple. You have to think your way into their head. And their heart. What drives them? What motivates them? What excites them? These are the things you have to know before you start writing.

Understand your reader and you’ll find it a lot easier to sell to them. Here’s an example of how even a superficially simple mistake ruins the effect you’re striving for.

I received a letter recently from my business bank. The name and address showing through the window of the envelope were fine. But when I scanned down to the start of the letter, what was the greeting? Not “Dear Mr Maslen”, not, “Dear Andy”, but “Dear Customer”.

How can they get it so wrong? This is a covering letter from the head of business banking introducing the winter edition of their customer newsletter. So the whole point of the letter—the whole campaign—is to build rapport with their business banking clients. Is this a training issue? Does the author not know about mailmerging? More likely, they just couldn’t be bothered to THINK.

Instead of feeling, “this bank knows me and cares about me”. I thought, “more mass-produced garbage”. And I would have thought that had I not been a professional copywriter.

What makes your customer tick?

Just as novelists have to understand their characters’ inner lives, so business copywriters need to understand their readers in the same way. We must be able to call to mind their feelings, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears if we are to stand a chance of engaging their attention and getting the response we’re looking for.

We need to remember that they are not just data on a mailing list or a demographic segment. They are living, breathing human beings with at least as many feelings as us. Because, after all, they are us. To paraphrase David Ogilvy the founder of Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s most successful advertising agencies, “the reader’s not an idiot, he’s your husband”.

In my line of work, I have to be able to sell to widely varying groups of people (sometimes in the same week). Here are just some of the people I have had to get to know, understand and reach out to:

Sleep-deprived, middle-class parents

Professional historians

Nursery nurses

Corporate lawyers


Lovers of Indian food

Chief executives

Human resources managers

Lonely posh people


Computer geeks

Aspiring athletes

Stressed head teachers

Merchant bankers

Small investors

Sales and marketing directors

Savvy 21st-century women

Road transport engineers

Media studies students

In each case, before I worked out what to say to them, I had to get inside their heads. I had to figure out what they were looking for, what their pain was … and how to make it go away.

Copywriter’s toolkit: The 3AM question

If you want to zero in on the prime motivation driving your reader, ask them this simple question: “What keeps you awake at 3am?”

Your product may not be able to put them back to sleep, but you’re missing a trick if you don’t at the very least TRY.

And how do you find out?

How do you get your knowledge of your customers? Here are some channels many people rely on:

Database reports Market research surveys

Transcripts of focus groups

Analysis from mailing or fulfillment houses What their advertising agencies tell them

Now, these are all very useful sources. IF you want to rely on second- or third-hand information. AND you only want aggregated data about your customers as a group. But what do they tell you about individual customers? About people? Here’s what I suggest instead.

Get down to the engine room

I’m willing to bet you work in an office, cubicle or open-plan desk-desert. Any customers up there? I thought not. So, put your phone on divert, leave an “out of office” message on your email and go …

to one of your shops to your call center

to your customer service department to an exhibition

to a conference

to a client’s office

… and when you get there, start talking to your customers. (If you write for internal customers, find out where they work and go to meet them. That could be a factory, for example, or another department. DON’T rely on email.)

Observe them. Meet them. Speak to them. Figure out (or simply ask them) what they want from your products, your company, even you personally. Then, next time you sit down to write some copy to one of them, you’ll have a HUGE advantage.

Now there are no more leaps of the imagination as you try to adopt the right tone of voice. No more wondering if you’re pressing the right buttons.

No more lackluster letters filled with stuff your reader doesn’t care about.

Instead, all you have to do is write down what you’d be saying to them if you were back in the shop, on the phone or at the trade show.

Keep it real for your customer

I recently finished the copy for a mailshot for a new women’s magazine. My research was easy. I asked my wife and my other women friends to write the copy for me. (Well, OK, I did the keyboard bashing, but they told me what to write.)

And because these are real people, I could see them and hear how they talk. I know what they wear, how old they are, what their concerns are and what’s likely to make them subscribe.

I also got to sit outside my favorite cafe in the Market Square with a cappuccino reading a pile of women’s magazines and watching the girls go by (all in the name of empathizing with my reader, naturally).

Talk to your salespeople

Salespeople are one of your greatest resources as a copywriter. Unlike those of us who spend the greater part of our time chained to a desk, salespeople (or the good ones, anyway) spend the greater part of theirs in front of clients.

So salespeople KNOW what makes customers tick. Buy them a beer and they might even tell you. (And if you’re a salesperson, buy yourself a beer!)

Now maybe this sounds impractical or too time-consuming. Maybe you don’t have sales people or your customers all do business with you online. (Hey ever heard of chatrooms?) But the more you know about your reader, the easier it is to write for them. And if you can’t find out the answers, then you need to use another tool in the copywriter’s toolkit. Your imagination.

Even if a client doesn’t supply a written brief, I can gain huge insights into their target customers just by thinking about them and using my imagination. You can too.

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Ron C

Helping digital brands, in India and around the world, with stellar copywriting and content marketing services for better lead generation, enhanced sales, and better customer retention. Reach me at +1 (518) 400 9081.
Ron C
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About Ron C 20 Articles
Helping digital brands, in India and around the world, with stellar copywriting and content marketing services for better lead generation, enhanced sales, and better customer retention. Reach me at +1 (518) 400 9081.