I once listened to a podcast interview featuring a war journalist. The host asked this journalist about writer’s block. Specifically, how does he deal with it?
The journalist said that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block. If he sits down to write, and can’t find the words, then that means he went to work without “ammo.”
A writer’s ammo, the journalist explained, is their research. If you’re out of words or ideas, it’s time to learn.
I believe the same is true in marketing. The best copy stands upon a mountain of tedious research. A good research process isn't flashy or fast. But when it’s done right, the results can become the substance that gives your campaign its edge.
So, here are three research methods I use to write with impact and creative flair.
1. Turn every page of the technical documentation
What you’re looking for is big ideas buried in the boring minutiae. One of David Ogilvy’s most famous ads came from this exact method. When he was writing copy for an ad for Rolls-Royce, Ogilvy read through the technical manuals and product documentation.
Buried deep in these pages, Ogilvy found a peculiar fact that he spun into a highly successful headline. “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”
A simple technical fact about the luxury vehicle became the copy for a successful campaign.
The takeaway: Facts are marketing substance. Never underestimate what’s buried deep in boring product documentation—where other copywriters aren’t willing to excavate.
2. Listen carefully to how real customers use the product
There are so many ways to do this. You can interview customers, read online reviews, cull through case studies, and run user tests. The point isn’t how you perform customer research. What matters is that you do it.
My preferred method is simply to get on a Zoom call with customers. When I’m working on website copy, for example, I’ll insist that my clients connect me with a few of their best clients. A call gives me the freedom to ask precise questions, and then hear their answers and see their facial expressions within context.
I’m usually looking for stories about the customer's turning point: What caused them to choose this product when they did? I’ll also try to understand what they use within the product: What are the features they can’t live without?
You can sort customer research into roughly three categories:
Customer language: I’ve pulled some of my favorite headlines straight from conversations I’ve had with customers. Their words can cut straight through industry jargon to help me clearly capture the value of a product in a way that future customers relate to.
Customer perspective: Why did the customer buy your product? Why now? How did they choose your product over that of your competitors? Customer interviews are a window into buying motivations.
Feature priority: When I interview customers, and they all show enthusiasm about the same few features, it helps me know what selling points to put front and center in the campaign.
3. Immerse yourself in the larger cultural conversation
I regularly read books, blog posts, advertisements, press releases, and news related to my clients' industries. This allows me to know what competitors are doing (so that we can produce something better). It also introduces me to the language of the industry I’m writing about.
Plus, I can understand the general mood within my client’s industry. For example, I’ll often seek out articles in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times that contain comments sections. (Reddit is also great for this.)
When a story breaks in my client’s industry, I’ll dig deep into the comments below these stories to gauge how people in the industry feel. I'll take note of some of their most sensitive pain points, such as their fears or what's angering them.
When you’ve done your research, stand back
I tend to store my research in Google Docs and Google Sheets. When it’s time to write copy, I don’t just stare at the documents waiting for inspiration to strike. And I don’t recommend that you do that either.
Instead, take a moment to glance through the documentation to refresh your memory. Then, step away. Go for a walk. Bring a notebook and lie beside a pool. Sit at a desk without your phone or computer. In a phrase: Let your mind wander by giving it the necessary space for boredom.
In the silence, your mind begins to connect the dots. You noodle with the facts (your writerly ammo) from your research. And those facts and quotes turn steadily into ideas, which you jot into your notebook in the form of headlines, stories, and a campaign structure.
After a while, once you’ve filled several pages with scribbles and ideas, you can return to your computer. Compare your ideas against your research. More ideas will fall into your lap and you can begin typing the copy into Google Docs, Figma, or wherever.
Now, for the fun part: revise, revise, revise.