Research Tips for Web Writers
You’re sitting down to your computer staring at a blank screen wondering what in the world you’re going to write.
Your deadline is looming … maybe not right on the horizon, but it’s out there …
Your stomach starts to knot up and you start to panic a little. You know you need to get started, but you just can’t find the words.
Nine times out of ten when this happens, it’s because you haven’t done enough research. Okay, I made that statistic up; but still, slim research does lead to writer’s block. I know this from experience.
As a web writer, research is a critical part of what you do. The good news is if you do enough research, the words flow much easier and have the potential for a much bigger impact. AND with a little practice, you can get your research done pretty darn quickly.
The faster and more thorough you are at research, the quicker and easier you’ll finish your projects, your end results will be stronger, and you’ll get paid more. It’s hard not to think that’s a good idea.
There’s no single right way to do research, so I recommend you experiment a little and come up with a process that works for you. What I’m going to share with you here is the process I use and that works well for me.
So, let’s get started.
I start with product research. When you’re writing a promotion, a good solid understanding of the product — of its features and the benefits that grow out of them, of its history and development, and of its position within the industry — is going to lay the foundation for all the other research you gather. So, it’s pretty important.
Fortunately, product research is usually easy.
First, request a sample of the product. If it’s a physical product, handle it. Use it. Get a feel for it. Take notes on your impressions. If it’s a service, test it out if at all possible. If you can’t test it, ask for data about its track record.
Next, ask your client for any literature they have on the product. Specify that you don’t just want sales literature. If there’s an instruction manual, you want to see that. If the developer has any notes to share, you want those, too.
Then, if it’s an established product, schedule an interview with a customer service rep and a salesperson. The customer service rep can let you know about the most common reasons why a product is returned — objections for you to overcome. The salesperson can let you know the reasons why people buy the product — priceless information for a copywriter.
If the product is a new launch, talk with someone from the development team and dig for all the product’s features and expected benefits.
Finally, if it’s appropriate, look for studies that are relevant to the product. A study published in a reputable journal or newspaper can make a strong case in just a sentence or two where you might otherwise have to write paragraphs!
As you do this research, either take notes in a document in your computer — I usually write bullets or sentences with a quick attribution and position them in the major area of the document where I think they’ll end up — or use 3x5 cards to capture each point and where you got it from.
I use both methods depending on my mood. If I seem to be having a hard time focusing or organizing, I usually use the old-fashioned card method because it gives me the freedom to quickly, physically reorganize my thoughts and ideas.
After you finish getting to know your product, it’s time to broaden the picture a bit …
Next, I move to the industry. Now, if you specialize in an industry, you might be able to skip this step, but I’ve found that even in an industry I write a lot for like alternative health, it’s useful to check in on industry news and trends.
The reason to do this is that when you get a feel for current trends in the industry, you can often find a hook for your Big Idea that will really resonate with your audience because it’s at the fore of their minds.
When you can connect your sales package to what’s happening right now, it’s much easier to get people’s attention and keep it.
When researching an industry, also look for any facts, figures, images, or statistics that relate to your product and that can help you build a strong case for a purchase. These facts and figures, when sprinkled throughout your promotion, build your credibility, and can help to overcome objections.
Again, make sure you write down anything you might use and include where you found it in your notes.
Industry research shouldn’t take you too long — a couple of hours at the outside. Once that’s done, it’s time to get into the really fun stuff … your audience.
Your audience is more than just a demographic. It’s important to know that the people who tend to buy your product are in their 30s, affluent, female, and have a college education, but it’s also important not to stop there.
You need to find out your audience’s values. If you understand their values, you can connect with them more easily — very important for a successful promotion — and you can help them see more clearly why it will cost them more not to buy your product than if they do buy it. If you can make your audience see that, then you’ll succeed every time.
So, how do you get inside your audience’s head?
Well, the best way I’ve found is to find someone from your target audience and talk to them. It’s always better to write like you’re talking to an individual than to write like you’re talking to a group. So, find an individual and talk to them.
Ask them about the product, the industry, the benefits they would realize from the product, and why they would value such a thing. Talk to them about the problems they face that the product you’re representing can help to solve. Dig deep here. Don’t just look at the surface symptoms of the problem — look for longer-lasting negative impacts, too. Talk to them about what solutions they’ve tried that haven’t worked and why they didn’t work. Ask them about what it would be like to find a solution that really does work — find out what change they would experience.
And then, ask them about where they go to find more information about these things — you want to find books, forums, chat rooms, websites, newletters, articles, and magazines. Make a list of the places they say, and then visit those places. Read. Take notes. On websites, follow links to other sites. Read some more. Take more notes.
You do have to be careful in this stage. It’s super-easy to fall down a rabbit hole and not come out again for days. The information you’ll find is just so interesting and there’s so much of it … so set a stopping point. You can do this by setting a time limit or by starting with a list of questions about your audience and concluding your research when those questions are answered. The important thing is to have a clear stopping point.
For more ideas on getting to know your audience, check out Roy Furr’s article Would You Like to Get to Know Me?
Once you’ve researched your product, the industry, and your audience, it’s time to start making connections between your audience and the other research you’ve gathered.
Most of these will come pretty naturally from the process you’ve already completed, but this is a good time to look for any you missed. What you’re looking for here is things like product features or benefits that answer a need among your audience, or industry statistics that speak to your audience’s values or worries.
Basically, what you do in this step is review your research and look at how it goes together. Once again, I find 3x5 cards useful for this. Being able to move the ideas around and see how they go together is helpful. You want to find ways your research weaves together to make a strong, cohesive picture that argues for the value of buying the product you’re selling. Remember, you want your audience to come away knowing that if they choose not to buy, it will cost them more than if they choose to buy. Look for connections in your research that will help you make that case.
Research is a critically important step in the success of any promotion that you write. Learn more about doing research with ease — or even becoming a professional researcher who works with copywriters on this important phase of the writing process — by checking out AWAI’s Secrets of Becoming an Internet Research Specialist: How to Surf the Web for Freedom and Profit, which has just been re-released due to overwhelming demand.
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