Words on Fleek: 12 Writing Rules for Digital

Just like the word “fleek,” some of what you’re about to read might be obsolete tomorrow. The digital landscape is ever-changing. Channels switch, communication evolves to fit different platforms, and culture adds new words, symbols, and even images to the language we used to know. As copywriters, we have never had so many tools at our fingertips.

While trends online move at quicksilver speed, the fundamentals of digital storytelling are essentially the same as writing for other media but the magic lies in matching voice to channel. And the great news is that as writers we have more chances to practice our craft—on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Medium, Tumblr, YouTube, WordPress, LinkedIn (and even on paper, why not?). We also have unprecedented access to the world’s best writers — and normal people, who are just as important.

Here are a few things I learned over the last 20 years of tapping the keyboard for clients:

1. Find the Story

Before you put one word on the page, get the story right. Identify something amazing about the product, the people who love it, or the world it lives in, then make that story sing. HTC discovered that people who choose its phones share the same characteristics as the device itself: they’re musical, visual, stylish, innovative, and fiercely independent. The #Creatography campaign showcases influencers who embody all those things, and allows HTC to help them tell their stories better.

2. Know Your Audience

Who are you talking to? Even the most beautifully crafted poem will likely tank if you’re talking to, say, fishermen who are looking for details on tackle boxes. Spend time on the channels your audience loves and keep them top-of-mind when trying to reach them.

3. Write Like You Talk

Conversational copy wins—especially on social. Consider how the consumer might say something and imagine them retweeting or re-posting it on their own channels. Make it easy for them and when in doubt, read your copy out loud to ensure that it sounds natural. I whisper at my desk all day.

Innocent Drinks are an excellent example of one such brand on Twitter.  The drinks company was launched by students so their writing always feels naturally youthful and “real.” They have a canny knack for digesting web content, so you don’t have to, delivering the best jokes, pics or the next big meme.

4. Keep It Snappy…

Just because Twitter gives you a generous 140 characters doesn’t mean you should use them all. As a matter of fact, the highest performing tweets are usually under 100 characters—and the Facebook sweet spot is half that. Always find ways to get your point across quickly.

5. …Unless You Need to Go Deep

That being said, mid-form and long-form copywriting is on the rise (again). Yay for blogs. Blog platforms like Medium are finding audiences interested in deeper storytelling. Brands are also effectively using these channels to talk about topics that are important to them. Scripts still need to be written for digital videos and preroll as well, so the traditional screenwriting fundamentals apply, but at lengths from :06 to :90—and rarely over 2:00.

6. Avoid See-Say

Almost every social post has an image or a video associated with it. On a mobile device, where most people consume digital content, the visual is what people see first. If a picture is worth a thousand words, your copy should only add as many as necessary to pay off the image. It should never simply restate the obvious.

7. Surf a Lot / Use the Media Yourself

Allow yourself to be inspired by people and brands that write well. Spend time on the channels you’ll be working in. Use them personally. If you’re going to write a blog for a brand, write one for yourself and get involved in those communities. Learn the language. Same goes for Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

8. Be Funny (But Not Too Punny)

Fundamental rule of marketing? Bring something of value to consumers. Same goes for brand communications. Is the story you’re telling worthwhile? Are you actually giving your audience something? I tell writers that there’s legitimate value in providing a smile to a consumer. Humor is a form of currency on social. But pun-lovers beware: Overreliance on puns can come off gimicky and stunt your ability to create subtle humor with words. I call it a “pun-hole.”

9. Get Serious

I think it’s actually easier to write humorous copy than it is to write something that touches people on a deeper level. But in my experience, people share stories that give them goose bumps as much as those that make them LOL. Identifying and telling a heartfelt story adds necessary dimension to a brand’s personality. In 2014, Starbucks challenged us to think of Valentine’s Day differently. We broadened the lens to show the form love takes inside their doors every day. Our #ShareLove reportage-style posts elegantly disrupted the pink heart bubbles that flood social feeds on Feb. 14, reminding followers that Starbucks is about more than coffee.

10. Don’t Patronize

There’s a fine line between adapting your voice to that of your audience and coming off as a moron. Think: dad trying to talk like the cool kids. Be very judicious in the slang and colloquialisms you employ. And yes, “on fleek” probably crosses that line…

11. Edit Your Copy in a Different Document

No copy editor? No problem. I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes it helps to take whatever you’re writing and paste it into another document, to read it with “fresh eyes.” Something about the change of formatting and fonts actually tricks you into experiencing it differently and catching something you may have missed.

12. Be Ready for Change

The Digital Age is still in its infancy. Facebook used to be a brand’s essential social platform, but has fallen back recently. Apps like Color promised a revolution, but are no longer breathing. People have insatiable appetites for content, and adapt to new platforms faster than ever before. Be like them. Play in the social ecosystem, publish things yourself. So when a brand asks you to start Snapping, you’ll be able to put your fingers to work quickly, writing stories people want.

Born in LA, raised in Southern Oregon, Rick Albano was the creator of trailblazing surfing blog, Sissyfish, an A&R associate at Warner Brothers Records, part of the legitimate Napster.com team and a copywriter for Nike before becoming Executive Creative Director at Swift

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