How Copywriting will save the soul of the Semantic Web.


I am a Copywriter. That’s why I find it ironic that so many people in ‘cyberspace’ refer to themselves as copywriters when they are, in fact, not copywriters at all.

It’s not their fault. I blame the advertising industry and its tendency to hang on to outmoded terms and techniques. The term ‘copywriter’ stems from the very origins of printing technology, and so has a long history.

‘Copy’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the original writing, work of art, etc., from which a copy is made’. Even today, many of our FMCG clients quite rightly refer to an entire television commercial edit as ‘the copy’. Back in the early days of the moveable type printing press, those whose job it was to write the text of an advertisement before it was typeset and ‘laid up’ with art, then taken by the ‘copy boy’ to the press, were known as copywriters in order to distinguish them from journalists or news writers. The name stuck.

This early period in print advertising, which evolved with technology to include radio, television and more, corresponds to a much more recent period in the emergence of the web. In 2001, McIlraith, Son and Zeng of Stanford University wrote a paper titled ‘Semantic Web Services’ in which they predicted “The Web, once solely a repository for text and images , is evolving into a provider of services – information-providing services, such as flight-booking programs, sensor controllers, and a variety of e-commerce and business-to-business applications… In the next decade, computers will most likely be ubiquitous, and most devices will have some sort of computer inside them.”

As this prediction fulfilled itself, a new generation of ‘content creators’ emerged to harness what was not only an evolving Internet of Things, but extremely powerful, data-driven vehicles for advertising and direct marketing. With the birth of the ‘digital agency’ came a new approach to creating ‘copy’ along with the wholesale appropriation of terms that had been the exclusive province of the traditional ad’ industry. These include ‘banner ad’, ‘above the fold’ where folding is physically impossible, ‘pre-rolls’ where no tape or film is involved and ‘copywriter’, taken at face value to mean a person who ‘writes words’.

Copywriters are much more than wordsmiths.

Copywriters are multi-disciplined creative business brains in the advertising world, (along with their ‘siamese twins’ the art directors). They solve advertising and marketing problems, they invent new ways to do things – and they name those things. They invent new words. New ideas. They champion differentiation and competitiveness. They cross the boundaries of management, strategy, conceptualisation and execution. They are Ogilvy, Abbot, Droga and Hegarty.

So, why is it problematic to have a whole bunch of digital writers calling themselves ‘copywriters’? Digital writers have been obsessed with SEO and keywords, ontology and the structure of meaningful content to contribute to a ‘Semantic Web’ that allows users to find exactly what they are looking for – its underlying, functional raison d’etre. Thanks to this elevation of function over form, the meaning of the word ‘copywriter’ has been redacted to a new type of journalism that seeks to incorporate search optimisation as its ultimate goal.

Schemas aren’t neutral and copywriters aren’t either.

As Cory Doctorow pointed out in his ‘Metacrap’ missive (also from 2001), there’s ‘more than one way to describe something’. His unattainable ‘meta-utopia’ is dependent on people agreeing on standardised definitions of terms. As he says “Reasonable people can disagree forever on how to describe something. Arguably, your Self is the collection of associations and descriptors you ascribe to ideas. Requiring everyone to use the same vocabulary to describe their material denudes the cognitive landscape, enforces homogeneity in ideas.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Does the writing function exist to serve search functionality in the Semantic Web – making it more of a Pedantic Web – or does it exist to serve the function of differentiation and the creation of ‘new’ ideas for our clients?

In our role as architects and creators of web sites, e-commerce platforms, brand messaging, social media campaigns and ‘whatever works’ for our clients, we sit astride these functions but are still coming to terms with rationalising the split.

Pre-coordinate indexing will remain incredibly important, and requires all the discipline that taxonomy can bring to bear. On the other hand, cloud sourcing of content identification, microformats and the advent of social tagging applications to enable post-coordinate identifiers have gone a long way towards freeing up our ability to differentiate content.

Thus, the writing function exists – as far as we as a company are concerned – to optimise search, taxonomically support best practice in information architecture and provide ‘content’, but it also exists to create new ways of looking at the world and to differentiate brands for our clients. So, why don’t writers exist who do both? Because we’ve been coming at it from completely different directions.

Blending disciplines to give data a ‘soul’.

Tim Berners-Lee said it so eloquently, “Human endeavor is caught in an eternal tension between the effectiveness of small groups acting independently and the need to mesh with the wider community. A small group can innovate rapidly and efficiently, but this produces a subculture whose concepts are not understood by others. Coordinating actions across a large group, however, is painfully slow and takes an enormous amount of communication. The world works across the spectrum between these extremes, with a tendency to start small – from the personal idea – and move toward a wider understanding over time.”

Having spent so much of my career learning to write differently, remarkably, suprisingly and – in terms of selling – effectively, I found there was a counter-intuitive element to incorporating the ‘sameness’ required of effective SEO. The trick was to strike a balance and, of course, remember that it’s as much about the overall idea and the visual content as it is about the words themselves.

As the Semantic Web develops further, the challenge of writing for search will become less and less of a problem. What will be more of a problem is ensuring that the content writers who have not learned the multiple discplines required of traditional copywriters can develop the skills necessary to think and write strategically and creatively – or that we have enough copywriters learning to work within agile teams.

Why? Because we need to start putting the content first, and investing more time in making it conceptually viable.

The new creative department.

The business thinkers and creative experts still exist in copywriter/art director teams: a legacy of Bill Bernbach who changed the upstairs/downstairs approach to creative thinking in the late 50s and unleashed a powerhouse of new thinking on the industry.

What we have been doing is taking those teams and mixing them up with front-end devs, IAs, social media writers and UX designers to find new approaches to creativity that will not only connect with people in a technological sense, in physical space, but in an emotional sense through creative ideas.

As Phyllis K. Robinson, founding Copy Chief of Doyle Dane Bernbach, says in the film ‘Art & Copy’, “If you want to move someone to do something, you have to connect with them. You can’t just slap them in the face with it or explain it or make a joke about it.”

In terms of the Semantic Web, that comes down to generating ideas that not only inform the tone, style and literal content of the text, but the actual behaviour of the user experience we are creating.

Copywriters (and Art Directors) can drive this approach, because it is already part of their DNA. Sharing this skill with others – while learning new digital skills from them – is the key to developing a new creative department that consistently create great work in the digital space.

‘Great work’ for some of us may mean streamlined project management and best practice in delivering a particular functional spec’ – and that is true. There is, however, an even greater goal that goes way beyond function and is far more powerful. It is the kind of work that moves people, emotionally.

It is driven by great ideas.

It is the soul of the Semantic Web, where data driven by imagination will allow our clients, their brands and their customers to discover experiences they never before imagined, because we imagined them first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s