Robot writers: the potential and perils of AI copywriting

Last year, published this article about how Goldman Sachs is investing in an automated copywriting startup. Naturally, this got all the human copywriters here at HN to wondering whether our jobs were about to be lost to robots.

Although the boss assured us that there were no immediate replacement plans, the question remains – does AI copywriting have a future in B2B marketing?

Come on… really?

Even in an age of VR, where the digital world is inching closer and closer to the physical, the ability of robots to take over creative jobs sounds a little far-fetched.
But it’s definitely being worked on; Google’s AI has written some eerie, haunting short poems, and has beaten a grand master at Go, widely believed to be the most complex game ever devised. And there are the incredible feats that IBM’s Watson is pulling off, from cooking up a storm to saving lives.

So why shouldn’t AI be able to match human writers when it comes to B2B copy?

After all, we can do quite a lot to define the sales funnel or buyer’s journey that we hope to move targets through. Our job is to match solutions and messaging to stated (or assumed) customer needs at various points on their journey, and both halves of this equation (solutions/messaging and needs) seem amenable to being specified for the AI.

We can also point to loads of examples of good B2B copywriting for AI to learn from.

And as I sit here with a cold while my computer perches contentedly on the desk, one of us seems rather obviously to be a far more resilient worker…

The rise of the machines?

But I’m not panicking — yet. Because what is possible in principle is perhaps not so much in practice — yet.

Rarely do we receive a brief that is completely unambiguous in intent and complete in every respect. Because, frankly, composing such a brief is time-consuming and our clients are busy people. So they’re looking for us to connect lots of dots by ourselves, and to clarify where necessary through the faster and more efficient process of having a conversation.

Asking even the cleverest computer to reliably identify gaps and then pick up the phone to ask questions feels like a very tall order right now. Maybe in a few years I’ll have to reassess, but right now I’m feeling pretty secure.

What would be cool is access to an AI copywriter to use as an additional tool in my copywriting toolkit.

I’m thinking of how Watson’s recipes work best when filtered through the judgement of a human cook. And of how machine translation can make the lives of translators easier, but rarely works well enough without human post-editing. I can see how a robot copywriter might help me think of options I’d not have found on my own, and that could help me become a better writer.

So bring on the robot copywriters; I’m not scared… yet.

Weird Words: The Top 5 Yule hear this Christmas

The nights have gotten longer, John Lewis has melted our hearts and your favourite Michael Buble song is probably on repeat. Christmas is just around the corner. To get into the festive spirit, we thought we’d have a bit of fun here at HN HQ, with our love of weird and wonderful words.

Especially those words whose origins are shrouded in mystery — even though everyone uses them. So here are our top 5 festive words, including their definition, origin and where we think you might be able to use them.

5. Yule

Number 5 on our list of weird words is Yule. No doubt we’ll all be tucking into a slice of yule log at some point over the holidays, but what does the actual word ‘Yule’ mean?

Definition – The word Yule is an archaic term that was used to refer to the festival we now know as Christmas.

Origin – The word is attested to a completely pre-Christian, Old Norse context. One of the Norse gods, Odin, was given the name ‘Yule father’, whilst in old Norse poetry the word is regularly used to describe a ‘feast’.

In modern English, the word is a representation of the Old English word ‘geol’, which alluded to a 12-day festival of yule (think 12 Days of Christmas).

How you might use it – “I’m sorry, I just can’t contain my excitement for Yule this year. It’s all too much!”

HN Weirdness Rating – 5/10

4. Myrrh

You might be thinking, ‘I know what myrrh is; it’s one of the presents given to baby Jesus!’ That’s true, but do you know what it actually is? (If you do, then you’re probably a Christmas crossword aficionado.)

Definition – In its original form, myrrh is a resin extracted from a thorny tree species from the genus Commiphora. Throughout history, it has been used as perfume, incense and as medicine.

Origin – The origin of the word actually came from the Arabic for ‘bitter’ and entered the English language from the Hebrew Bible.

How you might use it – “Someone fetch the myrrh. Auntie Ethel’s fainted after that last game of Charades!”

HN Weirdness Rating – 6/10

3. Eggnog

Coming in at number 3 is eggnog. This is another one of those very strange-looking words that we’ve all heard of. Use it outside of Christmas and people will give you an odd stare and a wide berth.

Definition – A rich, chilled, dairy-based drink that is made with milk, cream, sugar, whipped eggs and distilled spirits such as brandy, rum or bourbon.

Origin – The  dictionary links eggnog to the word ‘nog’, which referred to a strong beer brewed in East Anglia. Alternatively, it has also been attributed to the Middle English term ‘noggin’, which referred to a small, carved wooden mug that was used to serve alcohol.

How you might use it – “Could you make me another eggnog, please?”

“Really? How many have you had?”

“It’s Christmas, who’s counting?!”

HN Weirdness Rating – 8/10

2. Krampus

Definition – A horned, anthropomorphic figure that is often described as being “half goat, half demon”.

People often cited the creature as an antithesis to St Nicholas and it is said that he punishes children who behaved badly in the previous year. December the 5th is known as Krampus Day in some parts of Austria.

On this day, adults and children will gather in the village square to throw snowballs in an attempt to ward off the demon. (It seems only natural that snowballs are the last line of defence against a horned, devil-esque monster.)

Origin – This word has both Austrian and German heritage and, as mentioned above, refers to a devil-type creature.

It is recorded as first being used in Germanic folklore somewhere in the early 17th Century.

How you might use it – “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but, if you don’t start throwing more snowballs, then Krampus is going to get us all.”

HN Weirdness Rating – 9/10

1. Mumming

Our most weird and wonderful word this Christmas is Mumming.

If, like me, you had absolutely no idea what this was, then don’t worry. All will be revealed.

Definition – Mumming typically refers to a type of folk play that combines music, dance and sword fighting. It is often performed at Christmas time, when men will dress up as women and vice versa.

People will put on masks and go out into the street to perform a humorous play for their neighbours. The celebration is still continued in certain parts of the UK, Canada and USA, including a 6-hour parade on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia!

Origin – The word itself is sometimes considered to have stemmed from the word ‘mummer’, which is thought to have been derived from the Middle English term, mum (“silent”) or the Greek, mommo (“mask”).

However, it appears it is much more likely to have come from the New High German use of the word ‘mummer’, which meant a “disguised person”.

How you might use it – “Quick! Grab the elf ears. Let’s go mumming and annoy the neighbours!”

HN Weirdness Rating – 10/10

So, there you have it. The HN guide to the weird and wonderful words that you might hear this Christmas. Stay tuned for a business edition of our weird words in 2017. For now, enjoy the holidays!

Abridging quotes – how to do it properly

A great quote can give a piece of writing impact and emotional context, making it more compelling for the reader (as this case study demonstrates). But many people struggle to give you a quote that packs a punch in just a few words. If you don’t want your brochure, case study or presentation to lag, you may want to shorten a wordy customer quote. Sounds straightforward enough, but people get nervous about how to do it properly. So let’s take a look at abridging quotes.

Deleting words: the ellipsis

If you’re removing some words from your quote, simply replace them with an ellipsis (…).
For example:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic because it’s so fast-paced and the clients are so varied; you’re always working on something new and exciting.”


Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic… you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Adding or replacing words: the square brackets

If you need to add words for clarification, you put square brackets around the words you’re adding. They can even replace the words you’re clarifying, like so:

Jon at HN says, “It’s fantastic because it’s so fast-paced and the clients are so varied; you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Could become:

Jon at HN says, “It [agency life]’s fantastic … you’re always working on something new and exciting.”


Jon at HN says, “[Agency life]’s fantastic … you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

See also: The importance of punctuation

Use with caution
Simple as it may be to abridge quotes from a formatting perspective, it’s important to remember that your abridged quote needs to still carry the same meaning as the full quote. Sometimes including or excluding one word too many can change the meaning of your quote. Revisiting our example above, changing:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic but challenging, because it’s so fast-paced and you’re always working on something new.”


Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic … you’re always working on something new.”

Isn’t right – you’ve changed the meaning of the original sentence from a qualified endorsement of agency life to a wholehearted one, somewhat distorting Jon’s views in the process.

Clarifications also need to be treated with caution to preserve the meaning of the sentence. Changing “Agency life is fantastic.” to “[HN] is fantastic” would, sadly, be straying too far semantically to be an acceptable reflection of what Jon said (though working at HN, of course, IS fantastic; the sentence is perfectly true).

Should you bother?

If you’re finding it hard to make a quote fit your purpose, one option is simply to rewrite it – as long as you make sure the person you’re attributing the quote to approves it. It’s common practice in B2B copy to convey the sentiment and meaning of what someone originally said, but using language that is perhaps plainer, or more specific, or more emotional than originally expressed — then get them to approve the new form of words. We generally find that those we talk to are happy to have their sentiments expressed more concisely and clearly, to make their point more effectively.

For more advice on tweaking your language to give it more impact, check out our blog on straight-talking (and discover why Simon Cowell and President Obama are more similar than you might think). Or get in touch and let us see if we can help you convert your lengthy prose into converting content.

Two cautions about the positive shift in B2B tone of voice

There’s a growing trend in B2B marketing that is often expressed in brand guidelines as ‘write the way you speak’ or ‘use a conversational style’. This signals a big shift in B2B tone of voice that I think is great news (for reasons given below). But I also think it’s worth keeping two things in mind as we embrace this change:

1. Context is everything.

2. A friendly tone of voice is no substitute for having nothing to say.

Why ‘write the way you speak’?
The traditional B2B voice — serious, formal, often long-winded — was all about building trust through institutional authority and heritage. But as marketing has moved online and become entangled with blogging, tweeting and other social trends, the old voice no longer does its job.

In a more social context, trust doesn’t derive from stiff, cold authority. It comes from openness, honesty and warmth. And this is why businesses increasingly want to be associated with a more plain-spoken, friendly tone of voice – even when speaking to other businesses. Most of our clients have been moving in this direction for some years, and the trend is picking up pace.

This is great news for B2B marketers and writers because, at long last, we have permission to treat our audience as human beings who respond to human qualities in writing. We can leave dull, convoluted language behind and tell stories that use a more varied range of tools to engage, educate and sell.

Be careful of context
My first caveat about ‘write the way you speak’ is perhaps too obvious to state, but for the sake of completeness, here it is. Clearly, people speak in different ways in different contexts. So which ‘way that I speak’ should I be using when I write a piece of B2B content?

What I should be doing, surely, is writing the way my audience speaks; or, more specifically, the way they want me to speak in the context in which I’m addressing them. A CIO may be quite sweary when he’s down the pub and be perfectly happy for his friends to swear at him. That doesn’t mean he’s happy for his bank manager to swear during a business conversation, or for an IT service provider to do so in a blog.

As shorthand for ‘be human, be genuine’, the advice to write the way we speak is just fine. But obviously brands need to provide more complete, specific guidance to avoid forms of communication that are inappropriate to the context and the audience.

Don’t forget the message
The second, more serious, point that I want to make about the shift in B2B tone of voice is this. We need to be careful not to become so caught up in an exciting new style that the marketing focus becomes all about tone rather than the message or content being conveyed.

However well we ‘write the way we speak’, if there’s not a worthwhile, interesting and valid message beneath the words, our audience will see right through us. After all, the whole shift in voice is driven by a more canny audience, looking for an honest and open connection. Content that dresses up marketing hype in language carefully crafted to sound friendly and transparent is the opposite of what they’re looking for.

But as long as we have something of substance and value to say, ‘write as you speak’ should help us to sound like human beings rather than faceless organisations when we say it. Which is a very good thing indeed.

How straight-talking can make your B2B messages more powerful

They’re an unlikely pairing we know, but Barack Obama and Simon Cowell have at least one thing in common — their straight talking. Barack Obama’s perception as honest, trustworthy and intelligent may have been crucial in his presidential campaigns, while Simon Cowell is both revered and reviled for his no-nonsense feedback to musical wannabes.

Their direct, confident approach plays a big part in building public confidence, as does their avoidance of rhetoric. An ancient art that was considered a noble accomplishment for many centuries, rhetoric is used to persuade and inspire. Unfortunately, nowadays it is frequently prefaced by ‘empty’ and is associated more with politicians and spin doctors than with compelling argument.

Although rhetorical flourishes can be useful in persuading someone to see things in a particular way, when they’re used on weak messages, they can appear disingenuous or even nonsensical — especially in B2B marketing. This example is from a software company advertising a seminar:

“…gathering leading minds in business intelligence and the analyst community for expert consensus on the answer. Industry experts will highlight how you can leverage business intelligence to provide visibility into business critical information.”

If you consider the message, all it actually promises is information about how to use information to get… information.

A better strategy in B2B copywriting is to get straight to the point in understandable plain English — talk about your product or service simply and clearly and you’ll be on the right track. Best of all, plain speaking for B2B messages is easy to achieve. Just follow these simple rules:

  • Use short sentences containing only one main idea
  • Never use a long word when a short one will get your message across more powerfully
  • Avoid jargon, clichés, acronyms and management buzzwords whenever possible
  • Favour Germanic words over Latin — say ‘each year’ instead of ‘per annum’
  • Be active — say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done’: active verbs bring a document to life and are a lot easier to understand
  • Be definite — if at all possible, use ‘will’ not ‘can’
  • Be brief — your readers will appreciate it, and there will be more of them

We’d love to know what you think. Share your ideas or jargon horror stories in the comments below, on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Shakespeare was a content marketer: 3 pieces of evidence

At this time of year, we know we aren’t the only ones bending the bard to our own devices— especially as this year marks the 400th anniversary of the great playwright’s death. But bear with us, because we genuinely believe that Shakespeare was… a content marketer. Content marketing may not have been ‘a thing’ back in the 1600s, but Shakespeare employed techniques that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s B2B marketing world. For your consideration, here are three pieces of evidence:

1: He made the complex comprehensible

There’s no disputing that Shakespeare was a master of illuminating the depths of human emotion and interpreting complex social situations for the audience. While B2B marketers rarely have to include cross-dressing princesses or matters of kinghood in their content, the heart of our work is no less about taking complex propositions and rendering them intelligible for our audience.

2: He was an entertainer

He may be a literary figure today, but Shakespeare wrote primarily to make money through entertainment. His prolific creativity was driven by a need to keep a steady income — so he was after the summer blockbuster, not the arthouse film. Our business audience might be more niche than mass-market, but the challenge of attracting and holding their attention is as pressing for us today as it was for Shakespeare back in the day. Nobody wants to plough through content that “will last out a night in Russia, when nights are longest there” (Measure for Measure, Act II scene i).

3: He spoke to multiple stakeholders

Shakespeare’s audience comprised newcomers and loyal followers, just as we have prospects and customers. And just as we have multiple targets with different needs (in tech marketing, for example, the CIO, the IT manager, and the end user), so Shakespeare wrote for both the general public and the nobility (even the royal family). He succeeded brilliantly in catering to their differing tastes – and also in flattering the rich so that they’d continue to patronise him (which was a good thing back in those days). Learning how to please multiple audiences is surely a task worthy of William himself.

Shakespeare for marketers

We’re continuing the fun with Shakespeare on our Twitter feed, where we’re asking you to identify the play that we’ve taken a popular quote from – with the quote altered to reflect the world of B2B content. So if you’ve got some time on your hands, why not head over to @hnmarketing and take a look?

Listicle or Missticle? How to write engaging listicles

Listicles — bulleted lists of information presented as an article — are a great way to engage today’s time-poor readers. But have you ever stumbled on one that feels like it’s missed the point?

You know the kind: “Top 250 PR stunts” or “61 social media tips you don’t know about”. Listicles are designed to make the information they contain accessible, but there’s a fine line between achieving that and turning your readers off – sometimes before they’ve even clicked the link.

So how can you keep your listicle on the straight and narrow? We’ve come up with a few ideas to help your listicle avoid being a “missticle” (pardon the pun). To help, we’ve even arranged them in a list…

1: Get the numbers right
The best listicles keep to low numbers. Ten would be an absolute maximum, but five or three would be better. Though numbers like 13 or 9 stand out, they do risk giving people the impression you couldn’t decide which ideas to use so just chucked them all in. Even numbers are fine – as this listicle from hubspot shows.

2: Watch your language
If you have 30 points, are they all “top”, “significant” or “best”? It’s important not to over-hype your article. Your readers will see it a mile off and likely vote with their feet. Take this CMI article , for example – no hype; just a promise to list some useful tools that’s then delivered on.

3: Find the thread
This is the one that can make the difference between a good and a great listicle. Even though you’re writing a list, it’s still important to find an arc that draws your reader in and gives them a reason to read the whole thing. In a list of top social media tools, for example, you might start with tools that focus on curation and finding content and move through to those that are more geared towards analytics and review. Or, as we did in this listicle on barriers to social in business, start with a surface issue and then dig deeper with each successive point.

It does take a careful bit of planning to write engaging listicles – short and accessible as they are, they aren’t necessarily quick things to write. But once you’ve got the format working for you, your content will shine.

You’ve probably come across a variety of listicles. Why not share the best – and the worst – in the comments below, LinkedIn or Twitter?

Say it. Say it again. Then repeat.

Cast your mind back to your school days: do you remember, as you slaved away over essays, being told to avoid repetition — as if you were a contestant on BBC Radio 4’s Just a Minute? I certainly do. But repetition in B2B marketing is looked at in a whole different light. There’s almost a mantra to follow: tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell it to them; then tell them what you’ve just told them. So why do we repeat ourselves so much?

Busy readers can be distracted readers
Although your teacher was paid to read what you’d written, your busy business audience isn’t. Juggling a whole raft of things in their day, they might not be able to give your text their full attention. Using summary boxouts is a great way of repeating your message in a succinct way if your reader gets distracted, scans the document, or jumps around the text like Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout.

Reinforcing your message
You don’t want your reader to forget the key takeaways from your copy: repeating them in a number of places will help get the message to stick. Do you want them to give you a call? Invite them several times to do so. Do you want them to remember the name of the new product or concept you’re introducing? Include it in multiple places in the document.

Watch out for the risks
Knowing how to repeat is as important as knowing what to repeat: don’t just go copying and pasting entire chunks of your document. Repeating things word for word will quickly cause your audience to lose interest. Too much repetition will make your piece longer, reducing the likelihood that it will be read in its entirety. And repeating statistics can give the impression that your argument isn’t based on thorough research.

To avoid the risks, try using different arguments to lead back to the same conclusion, or phrase your key message in slightly different ways to make it sound fresh each time you mention it. There’s an art to getting it right but, once you master it, you’ll find that your messages penetrate further and stick in the minds of your audience for longer.

The importance of punctuation

Here at HN we’re crazy about words (which you might have guessed if you’ve worked with us before). We’re firm believers in proper grammar and the importance of punctuation – even if mistakes can make sentences much more amusing than they were originally intended…

The dangers of ambiguity

“Grandmother of eight makes hole in one”

Without the correct punctuation and grammar, it can be hard for your meaning to shine through, and a charming story about grandparental golf can turn into something very different.

Apostrophes avoid catastrophes
Sometimes it only takes one wrong apostrophe to change a sentence: “The butler stood by the door and called the guests’ names” is a perfectly acceptable happening at a fancy ball, but if you forget that apostrophe then your butler suddenly becomes much ruder: “The butler stood by the door and called the guests names.”

The comma – a real lifesaver
Don’t believe us? “Let’s eat, Grandma!” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, but take away that comma and suddenly the menu takes a turn for the worse: “Let’s eat Grandma!”

Don’t forget the context
Sadly, punctuation can’t always save you from eating people. Ambiguous sentences such as “the average American consumes more than 400 Africans” need to be used carefully so that your readers don’t misinterpret what you’re saying.

Don’t compound the problem – use a hyphen
Hyphenating compound adjectives is tricky business: “At the beach, I saw a man-eating shark” would be a very handy holiday warning, but if you miss out that hyphen then your warning to nearby swimmers could be misinterpreted as a commentary on seaside cuisine: “I saw a man eating shark”.

Have you got any amusing howlers to share with us? Tweet us or leave a comment – we’ll share the best ones.

Writing succinctly – lessons from 1863

So much of the content written today must be succinct. Blogs, eDMs, social media posts — their length is measured in hundreds, not thousands, of words. It can be a challenge to boil something complex down to a few hundred compelling words — but if Abraham Lincoln could summarise his view of the American Civil War in just 270, then writing succinctly should be possible!

That speech, given by Lincoln on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, is considered one of the greatest in history. His remarks were supposed to be secondary to the main oration by former congressman Edward Everett. But it’s Lincoln’s 270 words that are remembered today as the Gettysburg Address, not Everett’s 13,000.

Impressed by Lincoln’s concise speech, Everett wrote to him: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

It’s that ability to capture the central idea in the fewest and clearest words possible that made Lincoln’s words so powerful that day, and so memorable since. He used plain, crisp, familiar vocabulary — around two-thirds of the words have only one syllable. But he also knew when to vary his style: using, for example, repetitive triplets to add weight and memorability to key concepts — one of which, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, even forms part of the current French Constitution.

Perhaps the only mistake Lincoln made during his speech was when he said: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”

What do you think? How do you try and make your writing as succinct as possible? Share your ideas and strategies with us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or just by leaving a comment on this blog.