Friday, April 18, 2008

The Young-Edgy-Cool Conundrum

When I was first starting out, I worked for a client who wanted me to write something edgy for them. Something dramatic and cool and hip and so edgy you could shave with it. I did what they asked. They hated it. I shouldn't have been surprised.

The thing is, Edgy is rebellious. Edgy doesn't care who it offends or who doesn't think the product is the right match. Edgy is what it is, and screw the world.

Which is why so many businesses that say they want "edgy" copy actually don't. Most tones targeting certain demographics don't actually offend non-target markets; they just don't draw them in. When you're working with Edgy, you have a very real risk of ticking off people who aren't in your target market. You might think "So what? They're not my target market, so who cares?" A lot of business owners do, actually. They might not be trying to actively target non-edgy consumers, but they don't want to take the heat for offending people, either.

In addition, many of those business owners themselves aren't in that target market--and they don't respond to that edgy copy. What they consider "edgy" might be only slightly more boisterous than usual; actual edgy copy might scare the dickens out of them. As a copywriter, it's a tough call how to handle requests for Edgy. Here's what I do:

Always ask to see an example. Tone is subjective no matter what the client is looking for. When you start asking about tone, you're often going to get vague and difficult adjectives like "sensual" and "hip." Much of the time, when you ask the client to show you an example of writing that has the tone they're looking for, it's very different than what you imagined initially. (For example: I was writing for a client who had a pin-up model website and described the tone she was looking for as "sensual." When I asked her to show me an example, what she actually wanted was something crisp and professional.) With Edgy, it's especially important to ask the client to show you an example of what they're looking for.

Write it up edgy, then tone it down. I often write up the copy as edgy as possible, then go through and tone down the language a notch or two before sending it to the client. In general, it's better to err on the side of less edgy on the first round; something that's less edgy than they're looking for won't cause them to panic and run for the hills, whereas something that's more edgy might. If they want to sharpen the edge, you can always send them your secret first draft.

Consider their market. Some businesses want you to write hip, edgy copy for markets that aren't necessarily geared toward that, just to stand out. If the audience isn't really one that lends itself to edginess--it's not young; it's business-oriented; or it's family-oriented, for example--chances are the client's idea of "edgy" is going to be pretty tame. Consider the client's target market when judging how edgy you think they'll actually want to go.

Edginess is a subjective factor. One person's idea of hip and cool can be another's idea of annoying and offensive. To get the tone exactly right, it's important to be able to read between the lines--and ask for very obvious examples. If you do this, chances are you'll hit the right tone the first time.


Bill said...

Ah, if I had a penny for every client who knew what they wanted, but couldn't quite express it... You're spot-on with your recommendation of asking them to give you an example of what they'd consider "edgy". I can't tell you how many times a client of mine has requested a web design that was "clean" or "flashy". The red flags go up immediately now. For several years, I've been doing exactly what you outlined; turning it around on them and asking for examples of what they mean. It can be a real eye-opener.

On the subject of edgy, it's funny how some perceive it as some sort of totally new concept. Your article brought to mind some edginess from my childhood -- the indelible VW Beetle ads done by Doyle Dane Bernbach. How many advertisers would have the guts to show a picture of their car, with the headline "Lemon" splashed above it, or a simple outline of a Beetle paired with the copy "How long can we keep handing you the same old line?" Genius.

J-Man said...

I enjoy reading your blog. I own a startup of my own and am looking into finding a capital investor and can relate to what you write about.

Unknown said...

Well put, Jen!

I would describe the Apple commercials as somewhat "edgy", which I'm sure is over-the-top for them. :)

Bill, I agree. There are times they only think they know what they want.

Star Lawrence said...

I love this post. I used to use the motto: I won't be boring, no matter how much you pay me. Once, an assn exec said cautiously, "We are little boring here." I said, "I will write it non-boring and tell you it's boring." He laughed and I got the job. Edgy is often humor, though, and in direct response, anyway, humor is tricky. It often doesn't pull. The best edgy head I saw recently was for E!'s "The Soup." It showed host Joel McHale and the head was, "So long as models try to talk, there will be good Soup."