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Does healthcare copywriting break the rules?

Published on 08/10/03 at 01:34pm

In the heady world of consumer advertising, much has been written about copywriting. Imaginative titles ranging from the unforgettable The Craft of the Copywriter to that ground-breaking nomenclature The Art of Copywriting weigh down many a media studies shelf.

These handbooks set out techniques and rules for would-be copywriters to follow, and for established copywriters to consult for an occasional reality check. All these books are jam-packed with dos and donts, but can they be applied to the specialist world of healthcare? Can healthcare copywriters keep within the rules?

As you may have guessed, the short answer is yes. But much more interestingly for us is finding out just how consumer copywriting rules can be applied to writers who spend their time addressing the healthcare professional. I've just cherry picked a few of them, run them up the flagpole and seen who salutes:

  • don't use clichs(oops)
  • for the love of AIDA
  • grab attention
  • stimulate interest
  • build up desire
  • urge the reader into action!

The rule book suggests that every piece of copy is structured by using Attention, Interest, Desire, Action (AIDA). So obvious when you know how, and as effective a rule in our line of business as any. These guidelines work as well in a sales aid as they do in a mailing.

Talking the talk

"I don't know the rules of grammar... If your'e trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular." - David Ogilvy

Thanks, David. To a certain extent what you say is just as true when your'e writing for the healthcare professional. The difference is, of course, tone of voice. If our communication is from a pharmaceutical company we shouldn't blow our credibility out the water with ungrammatical or unprofessional expressions. But more of this in the next rule.

Your credibility

The textbooks advise that whether you want to write advertising copy, prepare text for a leaflet or prospectus, design a press release or complete an article, your message should aim to communicate your credibility. Although it can take time to build up long-term credibility, at minimum your copy needs to manifest quality. The quality of your written word serves to convince the reader of the quality of your service, your organisation, and to allow them to trust you and what you stand for.

There is advice against too much hype. Over-the-top promises or weasel claims that can swiftly be blown apart and leave you exposed and vulnerable. It takes a long time to re-establish credibility after that. Long-term credibility is earned from doing things well over a period of time. Attention to detail helps. Your words can reflect the quality and experience of the service providers and deliverers. In fact, this rule shows that on the subject of credibility, consumer and healthcare copywriters have much to be wary of.

Write for your reader

This rule is the logical extension to the talking the talk rule. Always keep your reader in mind and consider what will help them to sustain interest in your written message, not forgetting that there might be 101 other things vying for their attention. Be clear about the kind of image you want to project and stick to one style. Writing is more readable when you use short sentences and familiar words. Cut out padding and anything that will complicate your text. In short, make it punchy!

Help your reader get involved by using you. This use of second person appeals to the reader and immediately makes them feel as if the message is designed for them. Acronym time again: WIIFM - What's In It For Me? We are all motivated by self-interest, be it personal or professional, and if the writer can clearly answer the unspoken question (WIIFM?) then youll be providing the reader with the benefits that will motivate action.

Use active language, it works harder and is more involving. Yes, indeed. Ditto healthcare communication.

Know your product, know your customer

The textbooks of copywriting urge writers to really get under the skin of their product. To use the product, to go to the factory where it is made, to put it on their desk, to wear it. In short: You cannot find out too much about your product.

Does this apply to healthcare writing? It certainly does, but sometimes we are faced with too much information and it is the art of knowing what is the most relevant and compelling message to the customer that can help here. Talking to the relevant healthcare professionals as well as sales representatives and product managers often gives the depth of insight needed.

Selling the sizzle not the sausage

Sometimes organisations confuse features and benefits. The semantic change may be small but the readers perception will be greatly influenced by benefit oriented copy. To clarify, benefits tell what a person has to gain but features tell what the organisation has on offer. Benefits sell, features don't. It works in healthcare, too.


You can never over proofread your text. Once printed a simple error becomes an error of huge proportions depending on your press run.

In our business, with its complicated words and heavily detailed graphs, there is plenty of opportunity to make nasty mistakes. Accuracy is vital. But beware - often you can get so caught up checking the minutia that you forget to check simple things like headlines, logos and phone numbers.

It doesn't matter how good a design is if the copy is full of mistakes. There is one deliberate typo in this article  find it and mark it in red.

And last but not least...

As a final tribute to the nature of copywriting I found this gem in an old leather bound volume gathering dust in the bookshop Flourish and Blotts of Diagon Alley: "The copywriter is a curious animal. Thinker, creator, word spinner, debator, logician, businessman, craftsman, humanist. The good copywriter is all of these. His business is selling: his raw material people.

"To function well he must have a healthy knowledge of the product, service or idea he is selling and an equally acute knowledge of people and what makes them buy. He is wise to remember that there is much truth in the old adage, that though hundreds of people buy power drills, not one of them wants a drill - what they want is holes."

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