The Scariest Thing About Being A Copywriter

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It’s not a dangerous job, per se. There’s a certain level of safety and comfort the two feet in front of open laptop can provide. Any job that can feasibly be done in stretchy pants and wool socks with anti-slip texturing on the bottom ranks pretty low in terms of fear.

I’ve been writing subject lines since 2010. I’ve seen them evolve from afterthought to KPI. And it’s not that evolution that scares me. It’s the seemingly incongruous reality that if you want people to open your email, simply tell them what’s inside it–nothing more. No voice, wit, personality, or talent. Why incongruous? Because the digital marketing devourers of presentyear (I will not genericize everyone younger than 33 into the millennial bucket), love to be marketed to without being marketed to–except here. I’ll explain.

Read any article on digital marketing and you’ll find that successful strategies market to these people about…not much at all. Nothing is direct or pointed toward objective, it’s smoke and mirrors push notifications containing motivational messages and memes that, without the consumer realizing it, build attachment to a brand. It’s trickery. It’s genius, but it’s trickery.

Once upon a marketing email, subject lines were meant to catch the eye, to entice, to charm with wit. You really had to earn it, and subject line writing was an art. Now, imagine the most plainspoken assessment of the contents of your email–that’s your winning subject line. I spent years building this muscle, and now you’re telling me it’s as useful as mustard on chocolate cake? This is a horror.

If I want you to use, if not become dependent on, my app, product, or service, I’m supposed to send you a video of a puppy doing the Macarena (wait, no one knows what that is, sorry. A video of a puppy vaping.) But if I want you to open the email I just sent you, I should just say: There are sweaters in here with faux fur on the sleeves.

So why is this scary? Why do I shudder every time I open my laptop? Is it the creepy organ music I’ve programmed it to play when it wakes up? No, that’s just my personal preference. I’m scared because the more subject line success slides down the halfpipe of basic, direct, and boring, the closer subject lines come to being written by bots, not by me.

I am a writer. It is who I am in my cold, dark, rattling-dungeon-chain soul. I want to be able to write, to communicate with people, and to have that be value I bring to my team. Communication is changing, and that’s fine. There isn’t an industry on the planet that hasn’t evolved in one way or another. But the notion that irrelevant memes, blurbs, quotes, and fluff are the new marketing mirepoix is terrifying.

Don’t market to anyone, market around them. That’s the path we’ve been machete-clearing through the digital jungle for awhile. But subject lines are the exception, an unsettling one.

I want to keep my job, and I want it to continue to challenge me. In a way, I suppose it is. Changing how I do what I’m good at to fit the times isn’t a comfortable notion, but I’ll do it, because the rent is too damn high. I just don’t want to let go of the depth and difficulty of communication. I like those things, those challenges, both for myself and for the consumer. I don’t want us to dumb absolutely everything down.

So that’s the scary part. The oversimplification of a skill set that used to be really damn hard. It has changed, and looking down the path of where things are going, I want a flashlight, a security blanket, and my mommy. I don’t do well with dumb, or with easy, and at the end of the day, when I look back on the work I’ve done and the way I’ve communicated with an audience, I want to have done it by being wicked smart.

Written by

NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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