Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

Writing advertisements

Business advertisements fall into two main categories:

  • those designed to sell products or services
  • those designed to recruit people into the business.

Sales advertising

The objective of a sales advert is to attract and hold the favourable attention of the maximum number of prospects, while the selling story is told and a desired action or reaction is induced.

On average, we spend only 10 seconds on a printed page, and only 2 seconds on an advert. So:

  • broadcast the message immediately and
  • use a picture whenever you can.

Most adverts are spoiled by:

  • weak headlines that fail to get the message across and
  • uninteresting, unenthusiastic and incomplete copy.

Headlines

  • Five times as many people read headlines as read body copy.
  • 75 to 90 per cent of the effectiveness of the advert depends on the headline.
  • Get the brand name into the headline if you can.
  • Avoid ALL CAPITALS (people read shapes).
  • Do not split a headline with a picture or a full stop.
  • If you have a good price, get it in the headline.
  • Put the headline below any illustration.

Body copy

  • The message must be clear and precise.
  • It must look interesting or it will not get read.
  • It must be persuasive or it will not fulfil its selling function.
  • It must communicate instantly, with clarity and without effort for the reader.

It is commonly believed that right-hand pages are more desirable for advertising. This is such a widely held belief that many publications could sell their right-hand pages many times over. Surprisingly, research shows that fractionally more readers look or glance at a left-hand page first.

Four ways to make your sales advert work

  1. Give the prospect good reasons and excuses for buying.
  2. Make choosing and buying easy by telling how, where, when the offer can be obtained.
  3. Make the advert sell for you alone and not for every other business in your field.
  4. Sell now as the time – make a bid for action and business.

Use the acronym AIDA. Seek to get the reader to go through these stages – Attention, Interest, Decision, Action.

These phrases are familiar because they are effective in headlines:

  • A breakthrough formula...
  • Here at last...
  • Closely guarded secrets...
  • The truth about...
  • 12 proven steps to...
  • Never have to worry again...

And the stock of effective words includes:

  • Easy, amazing, successful, delicious, powerful, achieve, you, money, results, revealing, important, strong, limited, miracle, safety, bargain, famous, confidential, lifetime, professional...

Recruitment advertising

The objective of a recruitment advert is to attract the attention of prospective candidates who meet your business requirements, and to get them to take action by contacting you.

Most people scanning your recruitment advert will be actively looking for opportunities. But if you are competing for people who are in short supply, the advert has a selling function and needs to be persuasive. Even if you are not in a competitive market, you still want to attract a good selection of the best quality respondents.

In terms of the copy and effectiveness there are parallels with sales advertising:

  • Make the advert look interesting and attractive
  • Ensure the message is clear and precise
  • Give the prospective candidate good reasons for responding
  • Make applying easy, with a clear call to action
  • Make the advert work for you; not for every other business in your field.

Content

The advert needs to specify the salary or grade, the hours, whether the job is part-time, the location, how to get further information, how to apply, the job title, a description of the role, the main personal qualities needed, and the job skills or knowledge required.

Decide whether qualifications need to be included in the advert: to avoid wasted applications make it very clear what is required in the supporting information.

Job titles

Where there is flexibility, ensure that the title accurately describes the job, bearing in mind that it can be a sensitive issue. How will people react differently to being called assistant, administrator, co-ordinator, or officer? What is the difference between manager and team leader? Titles are important to people because of the differences in perceived status, and may make the difference to whether or not they apply for the job. Resist the temptation to upgrade everything with silly titles or over-used words such as ‘executive’.

Tip

Job titles matter: as well as affecting motivation, an inspiring job title can increase confidence. If people feel valued by their employer, they will be more positive about their work and believe in their potential to develop further.

A recent survey of 1,500 office workers found that 70 per cent would choose a more motivational role or job title over a pay rise. According to the report, Filing Clerks would prefer to be known as Data Storage Specialists. Post Persons, given the choice, would describe themselves as Office Logistics Co-ordinators.

How much to say

Recruitment advertising is expensive. It needs careful planning and execution to work effectively. The advert needs to say enough to convey the essential facts and main message, but no more.

Save words by supplying a website address where people can find out more about your organisation, the job requirements and the application process.

The advantages of drawing people into a website include:

  • it performs a selling function for your company
  • candidates can find all the background information they need
  • there are fewer wasted applications and a saving of time and money.

Note: this strategy is only effective if you have a high quality website that:

  • presents your organisation in a good light
  • provides all the relevant information
  • is constantly maintained and up to date.
Tip

If you rely on your website, check it frequently to ensure that all links are working and that all information is current, accurate and complete.

If you don’t use a website – or for people who do not have internet access – you will need to be ready to mail out information on paper.

Choosing the words

Emphasise your strengths as an employer, especially if people perceive you as being in an expensive or inaccessible area. Anticipate objections, such as difficulties with accommodation, travel, or parking, and say how you’ve overcome them. Anticipate the impact of a negative image or poor publicity and counteract it with suitable phrases:

‘you will be part of our 5-year plan...’

‘you will join an experienced and established team...’

‘part of an exciting new enterprise...’

Avoid clichés such as ‘ground-floor opportunity’, and meaningless phrases such as ‘self-starter’. If you use common words like ‘creative’ and ‘flexible’, be sure you are clear about what you mean. Use words that precisely describe people’s qualities or values, such as ‘brave’ or ‘innovative’. These words perform a self-selecting function by resonating with the kind of people you want to attract.

Think carefully about what kind of person you want. Be as specific as possible and ensure it is consistent throughout all job-related material (the advert must relate to the job description: any shorthand used in the advert must be expanded in the job description or on the website).

Example

If you use the word ‘innovative’ in the advert but the job description is simply a list of established tasks, there’s an apparent contradiction. Instead, show how the innovation is required – such as setting up a new team, or re-launching a tired product or service.

Tip

Research other job adverts in your sector. What would also work for you?

Don’t ask for too much: avoid specifying ‘high-powered’ or ‘ambitious’ if these qualities are not needed for the job or your new employees will become frustrated and leave. Beware of legal issues, taking particular care to avoid discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or age.

Responses

If an established HR department is handling responses, then you need to understand the system and work within it. Otherwise there are questions to consider: how do you want people to respond? What volume of replies are you expecting and who will handle them? How will you want to follow them up? (For example, will you notify unsuccessful applicants?)

If you give the phone number of an individual for information, do ensure that the person will be available (and not on holiday!) at the time the advert appears. If the number has to be diverted to voicemail, give an alternative contact person so that enquirers are not left in the dark.

Final check

Always get a third party to check the finished product. When you have worked closely on something it is so easy to overlook simple errors or omissions which someone else can quickly pick up. This is particularly important with a recruitment advert, which is a prime interface between your organisation and the outside world. Mistakes can be very costly in terms of damaged perceptions as well as wasted time, money and effort.

Further information

More about issues relating to recruitment advertising – such as employment law, writing job descriptions and person specifications – can be found in the topic on Recruitment.