How I (try to) make sense of all the mish-mashed ideas
“How do you research?” asked the copywriter in training.
All I could splutter in reply was, “Well, reading and Google I guess?”
That was a shit answer. Claiming I was caught off-guard is no excuse.
After a decade of working as a professional writer I should have coughed up something more useful, but I struggled to answer because how I research depends on the project.
Now I’ve had time to think about it properly, this is my attempt at sharing the copywriting research techniques I’ve come to rely on so much that I don’t even notice I’m doing them anymore.
Let’s start by tackling what the trainee copywriter was actually trying to ask me…
Does researching simply mean reading what Google throws up?
Googling isn’t the only research technique copywriters should rely on.
By all means, start your research here. I encourage this whole-heartedly as a first port of call, but as I’ll explain later if you want to turn out high quality copy, Goggling isn’t the only resource you should rely on.
So, where else should you look?
Copywriting research depends on your project
The methods and sources you need relies on the project scope and resources available.
For example, how I research a blog article is different to the research needed for a website rewrite.
Sometimes, your copywriter brief may be, well, very brief. When this is the case you have to either:
a) be prepared to ask your client for more detail and resources
b) pull on your research waders and get waist-deep into finding your own sources.
Being a writer and doing your research means digging as deep as possible. Your goal is finding out as much relevant detail as you can from useful and reliable sources. Without the research phase you can’t do your job and write the thing.
What my research process looks like
As you can see from this brilliant image, created by illustrator and brand designer Hello I’m Nik, my research process has four parts with many WTF moments and twists.
But let me explain each part, what I do and why I do it. For the most part I’ll be discussing my research process when creating a blog article, but there is some crossover.
Part 1: Confusion, terror and imposter syndrome
All common feelings at the start of a project. So this is a moment of WTF-where-do-I-start?
To put a lid on that unwanted background noise I remind myself that it’s OK that I know very little about my subject. After all, if I knew everything already I wouldn’t need to research. I’d just write it.
Rather than let panic or procrastination take over, I think ‘I am not afraid to feel stupid’ (sage advice given to me by a journalism lecturer at uni) and I start researching.
Part 2: Into the research rabbit hole
Depending on the brief and complexity of the topic I spend hours, sometimes days, gathering up everything I need.
My first research port of call?
Like I said, I have to start somewhere and Google is right there, so of course I’m going to use it.
In this early research phase I’m looking for four different things:
- The right language and keywords, especially when writing for an unfamiliar industry. I’m testing to see what search terms deliver relevant results.
- What’s already been written about this topic by competitors.
- Any interesting studies or research papers that I need to follow up.
- What questions are answered and (more importantly) what questions aren’t.
So these are all things I’m keeping an eye out for, making notes on and book marking.
Part 3: OMG! There’s so much to learn!
The third phase is hectic and where most of my research time is spent. It’s where I start making connections between what I’ve got so far and find any gaps in my research, which are likely to be gaps in my knowledge.
Using the information I found on Google, I sift through everything looking for threads and leads that need following up.
For example, let’s say I read a Vice article. The article mentions a survey and the results seem interesting and are sort of relevant but not exactly what I’m looking for. My next move is finding the original survey where, hopefully, I’ll find information that’s more relevant to my article.
To get my hands on this I might need to contact a PR, the author, an institution, research organisation or media office.
I look up the contact details of whoever owns the research and drop them a quick email. Most of the time it’s a case of requesting the information I need and they flick what I’ve asked for right back.
Sometimes the person or company your contacting wants to know who I’m writing for, where it’ll be appearing and how I’ll credit them.
Always be honest. Give the person the information they want.
It’s usually fine to do all this under my own steam. The only circumstance when it becomes tricky as a copywriter is if a client Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) is involved. When this is the case clients should really provide all the research needed, or be prepared to follow up leads on my behalf.
Relying on clients to help with my research isn’t ideal. It can slow things down. So, even if there is an NDA I usually still ask the client if they’re happy for me to go ahead request the research sources I need directly from the media outlet.
Some clients say go ahead. Other times they’d rather I didn’t. But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
Top tip: Contacting companies in this way can result in a backlink and extra promo for your client, too. The owner of the research could be keen to share the fact they’ve been quoted and featured somewhere.
Dead ends and bad sources
Sometimes threads come to nothing. A perfect example is when I think I’ve found the perfect stat, but after a bit of digging the original source turns out to be crap.
Always scrutinise research sources. There’s a lot of spammy shit on Google. Not all of it is true. Or it was true once, but it’s gone through several rounds of internet misinterpretations and has morphed into a Bullshit Beast.
My advice: if you can’t find the original source, don’t use it. If you find the original source and it looks or sounds like baloney, don’t use it.
Do use Google scholar. Do look up books on Amazon — some of them have that view inside feature, making it possible to scrape just enough information without having to buy the book.
That said, if the book is really relevant and I’m likely to use it again in the future for other client projects, I order a copy, download it to my Kindle or see if my local library has it.
Top tip: University libraries sometimes have day passes you can apply or pay for.
Or if you have a friend who teaches, works or lectures at a uni use them ask them politely if they’ll check a book out for you.
Set up interviews with subject experts
If the piece allows it, I always do this.
“Geez Rose, that means talking to people and I’m just a copywriter. Are you crazy?”
Nope. I’m thorough. And you should be too.
Reading existing articles, competitor sites or B2B industry garb isn’t enough. Copy that includes original quotes and language that I’ve heard the audience use is more powerful than copy without these qualities.
Speaking with someone who knows the topic inside out also gives me an opportunity to find angles and ideas I hadn’t thought of. Plus, as long as the person I’m interviewing consents to being on the record I get heaps of quotes. Quotes that none of my competitors have. So that makes my piece completely original.
Where I find these people and how I approach them is a whole article in itself, but in a nutshell get onto social media and find relevant accounts, then contact those people. Look up official bodies and organisations, then contact those people.
Top tip: Use the hashtag #journorequest and you’ll get PRs and experts who are available for comment coming to you. This can save you time.
When writing web copy I’ll interview the business owner, company employees and customers. For this, I’m listening out for the words and phrases they use to describe the service or product I’ve got to write about.
This part of the research process is where all the fun stuff happens, so to recap the copywriting research techniques you should use.
- Start with Google
- Dig out essays, articles and books from trusted sources
- If working on web copy, look at competitors (and then try to do something different)
- Find experts and people you can talk to, contact them and interview them.
Step 4: I know all the things!
There comes time when my brain screams, “I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE!” And that’s when I know it’s time to write the copy.
I have everything I need.
- Stats and surveys from reliable sources.
- Original quotes from industry experts.
- Cited quotes lifted from relevant texts.
- I’ve listened to the language subject experts and consumers use so I know what words should be included.
Now it’s a case of pulling it all together to create something amazing.
(Or just really good, interesting and readable.)
Need a hand?
How to complete the research needed for a copywriting project is a big subject. I’ve covered a lot of the research techniques, but I understand that a lack of confidence can hold back good research.
How do you know you’re moving in the right direction? Where do you find people to talk to? How should you contact them? What if you can’t find anything useful on your subject? (It happens.)
Whether you’re a copywriter or a business owner, if you want to chat over research techniques or have more questions, sing out.
You can leave a comment below and I’ll answer it.
I’m super active on Twitter, so you can tweet or DM me there.
Or you can use my contact form here to ask me.