copywriting tips and techniques
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Copywriting Tips and Techniques for Academic Marketers

How do you refine your messaging to reach your prospective students?

Communication is one of the most difficult challenges facing organizations and individuals alike. As obvious as it may seem to get a message across, in practice, doing so well can be very challenging. This difficulty is only compounded when that message has to fit into the varying constraints of print and digital mediums. Writing styles that work well for a billboard simply won’t be effective in an email subject line—even though both take up the same space and have about as much time to attract the reader’s attention.

That said, there are a few good copywriting techniques that can get you past these early hurdles and help you reach the right audiences. Good copywriting is about more than good writing. It’s about being willing and able to conform your writing to the needs of your audience, the constraints of your space, and the requirements of your medium. Here’s where to start.

1. Learn about your audience.

The first rule of all good copywriting is to know who you are writing for. Is your audience young or old? What is their level of education? What value are you offering them, and why do they want it? What are their greatest aspirations, and what are their greatest fears?

If these questions sound both big and basic at the same time, it’s because they are. Some of the biggest copywriting mistakes out there come from tone-deaf messaging that fails to speak to the true needs of an audience in words they can understand.

2. Research your target keywords.

One you understand your audience better, identify the keywords you should be using in your copy to reach them. Remember, keywords shouldn’t just be the words you use to describe yourself—they’re also the words a prospective student might use when searching on Google.

For online publications, keywords are important for search engine optimization (SEO), as they are how search engines like Google understand content. But they’re also important in print applications for catching a student’s eye and helping them connect your writing to something they want or need.

It may sound counterintuitive, but you don’t want to get too clever with your copy. If a student can’t tell from the headline what your ad, article, or email is about, they’re more likely to ignore it than be intrigued.

3. Write in accessible language—avoid sounding academic!

You may be a college, but that doesn’t mean you should write in stiff language. This is partly because overly formal language may sound condescending and off-putting to your audience, but it’s also because awkward writing is bad writing. It doesn’t matter how grammatically correct your writing is, or how many ten dollar words you cram in, if it isn’t enjoyable to read it’s not doing its job.

A few things to keep in mind to be sure you’re not overdoing it:

  • Tone. If you’re running an ad on TikTok, and you’re comfortable with the slang kids are using these days, go for it. If you’re appealing to an older community who will be put off by hashtags or online neologisms, avoid them. In either case, if you feel like you’re pandering, stop. Almost everyone will prefer receiving an email that sounds like it’s coming from an authentic person than one that’s trying too hard to appeal to them.
  • Jargon. There’s a fine line to draw between the keywords that will draw your audience in and the jargon that will turn them off. Be aware of what your audience can follow, and don’t hesitate to throw in a quick explanation of a term if you need to.
  • Readability. Avoid long sentences. Substitute fancy words for simpler ones. By measures of vocabulary and sentence complexity, Ernest Hemingway—a Nobelist for literature—wrote at a 4th grade reading level. He made each sentence about one tiny idea. Then he lets the next sentence build on that idea. His story unfolds in tiny, logical steps.
  • Technical writing. You may sometimes have to write more technical copy that will be harder to follow, but when you do so, take extra care to simplify it wherever possible.

Writing clearly is an exercise in thinking deeply. It’s about finding the essence of your idea and communicating it in simple words. Hemingway likened his famous prose style to an iceberg, with most of its bulk under the surface. Translating that concept into marketing means producing compelling content that is concise but actively shows your school’s deeper, overall content marketing strategy and goals.

4. Fit your copy to its application.

Many copywriters run into conflict with their design team if they don’t carefully check the needs of the space against the length of their writing. If you’re writing copy for a billboard, you only have six to eight words to get your point across. If you’re writing a subject line for an email, you have about 50 characters. If you’re writing a tweet, you have 240.

Not all copy is that short, though, and when you have more space, you should fill it. Your blog content can easily run over 1000 words. Instagram posts with several paragraphs of copy perform very well. Emails can be long or short depending on your audience and the design of your templates.

The key is to pay attention to your space and be willing to be concise or expansive as needed.

5. Use headers and other stylization to break up long content blocks.

As we said, there’s nothing wrong with long copy. If a student has come to you for information, you should take as much time as you need to answer their questions thoroughly. However, long copy can be exhausting when it comes in one giant block.

Use headers, bullet points, and bold text to neatly organize your writing. Your readers should be able to scan any piece of content to assess its importance at a glance. Headings should communicate key ideas, bullet points and numbered lists should group items together, and bold text should be used to highlight important details, such as dates, contact information, or costs.

Also, use these spaces to incorporate keywords effectively. Your blog titles and email subject lines especially should have keywords, and your headings should include them wherever it feels natural.

6. Use descriptive text in links and buttons.

Spare a moment for your most functional copy as well. Anchor text (which is the text that you click on in a hyperlink) should describe what it is linking to. You should never use the words “click here” as anchor text.

Similarly, buttons should be labeled with words that describe what will happen when someone clicks them. An easy rule of thumb is that they should complete the sentence “I want to…”

No one wants to “click here.” But they do want to “enroll today,” or “learn more.”

7. Provide complete information and give your readers next steps.

This isn’t so much a rule as a reminder. In some cases, the purpose of your copy will be to hint and tease. That’s fine. But always know what you want your writing to do, and then be sure it does it.

This will come back to the basic questions of who, what, where, when, and why. How many of those questions you need to answer will vary. But at all costs, make sure you don’t leave a vital question hanging.

Speak to the needs of your audience, and avoid excessive self-promotion.

Finally, while it may sound strange to say, dial back on any language that sounds overly sales-oriented. Pressuring students into enrollment will most likely backfire by creating a bad feeling in your prospective students—especially because enrollment will represent a significant financial expenditure for them.

Instead, focus on what they need and how you can help them. If they feel supported by your college after reading your copy, then they will walk away feeling hopeful about the possibilities education at your institution can open for them. That’s how you know your copy has done its job.

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