Most marketers are utterly clueless about this essential skill.

Here’s wise advice for you from a guy who really knows what he’s talking about…

10 Things you should get right when writing for social media, but probably don’t.

I first began to ply my trade as a copywriter over 35 years ago. And much of what I learned back then is still central to my craft today.

In that regard, copywriters are lucky. Most professions have changed almost beyond recognition in that time. Many of today’s careers didn’t even exist back then.

So yes, I count myself fortunate that almost everything I learned back then is still of value to me today.

That said… the media landscape has changed dramatically. The web didn’t even exist back then. And with those changes in media I have had to adjust my approach to copywriting. In particular, I have had to recognise the difference between copywriting for old-school, one-way broadcast media and writing for newer, two-way, social media.

My core copywriting skills may still be of value, but I have had to change how I use them.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at 10 aspects of social media marketing that call for some shifts in how we use our writing skills.

  1. Write compelling headlines

Yes, we have always strived to write compelling headlines, across all media. But with social media it’s more important than ever.

In addition to worrying abut whether our headline will keep people reading the body of our copy, we also have to give thought to how shareable that headline is. Will it drive readers to share our content through Facebook, Twitter and other channels?

And here’s the crazy part… More often than not people will decide on whether to share your content based on the headline alone. They won’t even read the content that follows at all.

According to a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. A lot of people appear to retweet news, posts and other content without even reading it.

So yes, you need to adjust your traditional copywriting skills. Your task is no longer just to get people to keep reading. It’s also to get people to share that post or page, based solely on your headline.

  1. But… don’t write clickbait.

The drive to write headlines that maximize sharing is what led us to the explosion of “clickbait”. Clickbait is when a headline overpromises, misleads or outright lies about the content of the page.

I might write a headline that says, “It’s a fact! 87% of Washington lobbyists are in the pay of Russian spies!”  Not true, but I’d get a lot of shares.

This is all well and good for media sites that are all about maximizing ad exposures. But if you are writing for a business, then you clearly need to find a balance. Your task is to write headlines that are compelling and shareable, but don’t overstep the mark and damage the company’s reputation and brand.

  1. Engage with your readers.

If you’d asked me to write in a way that engaged my readers back in the 1980s I wouldn’t have understand what you were talking about.

My job back then, working with broadcast media, was to write to or at my audience. Genuine engagement had nothing to do with it.

With social media, that changes completely. You absolutely have to adjust your writing style and you voice in order to engage with your readers and encourage them to engage with you as well.

This is a very different and more social and conversational way to write.

  1. Match your platform and language to your demographic.

What you say and how you say it also changes according to the social media platforms you are using.

If you’re writing text for updates in Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat your audience is far more likely to be under the age of 20 than over the age of 40. Different age groups are drawn to different platforms, and the language that resonates with them will shift accordingly.

  1. Leverage the rise of video

Writing text or scripts for videos was never part of my skillset as a copywriter for traditional media. Maybe over the course of 20 years I wrote a script for a corporate video or two.

Today, I’m scripting and creating short-form videos all the time… for myself and for others. I’d be foolish not to have learned that skill.

Videos are big and growing in their influence. It’s not just YouTube anymore. Short-form videos are now beginning to dominate across the board… on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and even on Twitter.

One reason for this is the impact different media formats have on purchase decisions. Data from eMarketer gives us an insight into how buyers rate different  formats as being influential in their buying decision.

86% say they were influenced by videos they had watched, 78% by images they had seen, and just 44% by text they had read.

  1. Don’t forget to write those #hashtags

Here’s something else for old-school copywriters to learn.

Help people find stuff by including hashtags within the text of your social media updates. It all started on Twitter, but today you can use hashtags on pretty much every social media platform.

So if I’m writing a tweet or update about social media, I’d likely add the hashtag #socialmedia. It’s now easier for others to find my tweet. People can find it by searching with the #socialmedia hashtag.

Clear as mud? Spend some time on and you’ll soon catch up.

  1. Listen to the aggregate

Consumer research in the old days really sucked. I lost chunks of my life listening in on focus groups, which seemed to be populated with really annoying people who loved the sound of their own voices. Makes me shudder just to think about it.

Fast forward to now and things are much better.

For social media research I go to Wonderful place. The site aggregates all kinds of social media data from across the web. It’s a great place to find trends and to figure out what is shareable and what isn’t.

Poke around and I’m sure you’ll come to love it too.

  1. Don’t lie, even a teeny weeny bit.

Back in the old days, when copywriting for my clients, did I lie at all? Maybe, a bit, here and there. White lies mostly. A few lies of omission.

Back then you could get away with it. Media were one-way. And if one person figured you were fibbing a bit, what was he going to do? Write a letter to the editor?

Online things are different. Consumers have a voice. Lie to them and they can jump on social media and have your lie go viral overnight. You can probably think of some examples of where companies were exposed for either lying or behaving badly.

According to research by – another useful site – 92% of consumers said they would speak up and spread the word if they caught a brand posting something dishonest or inappropriate on social media.

The opaque has given way to transparency. Be good, be open and be honest in your work as a social media writer.

  1. Be responsive.

This is the next step forward once you start to engage with your audience on social media.

To truly engage, you need to take part. And to do that you must be responsive, replying to people who comment on your posts, tweets and updates.

This may sound like something that falls outside your regular job description. But think about it… by being responsive, and taking part in conversations with your client’s prospects and customers, you’re gaining incredible insights into what’s most important to them, and the language they use when they write.

This is a huge shift for many copywriters… moving from being the person who writs AT an audience to being the person who interacts WITH an audience.

  1. Use conversational language.

Most of the content published on social media isn’t published by brands, it’s published by people… your customers and prospects.

Madison Avenue doesn’t get to shape the language of social media. It is shaped by its users. And the language of social media is conversational. People use conversational language that is close to the spoken works… albeit somewhat abbreviated.

Your task as a copywriter is to find a conversational voice for your clients that matches the language of the people they are trying to reach and engage with.

You can’t engage people with a sales pitch or with business jargon. But you can engage them through conversation.

Fun times ahead…

I love the fact that stuff I learned as a copywriter 35 years ago is still relevant today.

But I also love that writing online, and writing for social media in particular, calls for some new and often unfamiliar skills.

As copywriters we live in exciting and fast-moving times. And I guess we all have to decide what to do about that.

We can be left behind. Or we can strap in and enjoy the ride.

Who is Nick Usborne? Well, after an award-winning career writing for print and direct mail, he has now been writing exclusively for online media for over 20 years.

He is a fierce advocate of the power of conversational copywriting. You can read his posts on the topic in his Conversational Copywriting blog.

About the Author


In 2003, the Chartered Institute of Marketing named Drayton one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.

He has worked in 55 countries with many of the world’s greatest brands. These include American Express, Audi, Bentley, British Airways, Cisco, Columbia Business School, Deutsche Post, Ford, IBM, McKinsey, Mercedes, Microsoft, Nestle, Philips, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Unilever, Visa and Volkswagen.

Drayton has helped sell everything from Airbus planes to Peppa Pig. His book, Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, out in 17 languages, has been the UK’s best seller on the subject every year since 1982. He has also run his own businesses in the U.K., Portugal and Malaysia.

He was a main board member of the Ogilvy Group, a founding member of the Superbrands Organisation, one of the first eight Honorary Fellows of the Institute of Direct Marketing and one of the first three people named to the Hall of Fame of the Direct Marketing Association of India. He has also been given Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Caples Organisation in New York and Early To Rise in Florida.

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