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I’ve watched people wait to launch entire businesses, websites, and blogs until they “get the tagline right.”
And writing a tagline can be a peculiar kind of torment…trying to distill your entire life’s work, your months of planning, your sleepless hours of dedication into six measly words? Have fun!
Yes, a good tagline can be a magic little piece of memory that sticks with a client, but let’s get one thing out of the way first: It’s probably going to be neither the iceberg nor the life preserver to your business.
If you’re a solo entrepreneur, your business and desired client will probably shift quite a bit over time, requiring that you eventually jettison those six words you slaved over anyway. So this is a sandbox, not a sculpture – you can build something, smash it, and rebuild it.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and get it right the first time (geez), but you might want to divorce yourself from the idea of not doing anything until it’s perfect, or you won’t get anything done. Also, sometimes trying a few things out with a live audience is the best way to determine what your audience responds to. Remaining clammed up until you can produce perfection is usually not the best route to perfection.
And unlike a business name, tag lines can come and go at will with relatively low cost. You don’t need to re-register domain names or start new Facebook pages when you make a new tagline – it’s a matter of replacing a jpg.
All this is by way of saying: Before we get started, chill. Relax. This can be fun, I promise.
What’s the point of a good tagline?
Really, it does one of two things (or both):
1) It lets the reader know right away that they’re in the right place for exactly what they need.
You can be clever and cute as the day is long, but if you’re so cute that you don’t communicate what you can do for them, then the tagline probably isn’t doing much for you.
2) It lets the reader see immediately how you are different (assuming that difference matters).
A tagline can help show how you are not the same as the other 23 websites they’ve seen today. But let’s remember that “different” isn’t enough – the difference has to be meaningful to the client. I can be different in that I wear clown makeup to every photoshoot, but if that doesn’t help the client at all, then it doesn’t matter.
I can’t hand you the perfect tagline on a platter, but there are some steps to take that will land you predictably great results.
1) Get out a paper and pen, and brain-dump: What exactly do I do, and who do I do it for?
What do you do for people? Who exactly do you do it for? What kind of a person are they? Your answers can take any shape you want – bullet point, stream-of-conscious writing, word maps – just write down any words and phrases that come to mind. Adjectives that apply to you and your ideal client. Things that make you different from the next photographer.
Why do this? To build something, you need a set of building blocks to play with.
Far too many people write a word or two down and freeze up because they’re not already perfect.
That would be like taking the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle out of the box one at a time and freaking out because the pieces aren’t fitting together already. You have to dump the whole box on the table, see what’s there, and then rearrange the pieces to find what fits.
It’s faster to write your way to the right idea than to think your way to it. Put all kinds of words down in front of you so you can pick them up and rearrange them into the right shape.
2) Now turn your paper over and ask yourself – what exactly do they get out of working with me?
Include both tangible and intangible things. Memories. Together-time. Gifts for mom. Lack of fear about how they’re going to look on camera. Their business headshot done without fuss.
Whereas step #1 encourages you to think in terms of who you and your clients are, this step forces you to think about the direct benefits your clients get from working with you. (If you need help and/or examples, see #2 in this post.)
Whatever they get, tangibly or emotionally, write it down. Yes, even if it doubles up on what you said before – patterns aren’t a waste of time, they show you what’s most important.
3) Check yourself – does my whole website (or ad, or whatever) already reflect what I’ve just written?
A tagline is icing on the cake – not a substitute for a complete brand. This message should already be getting across in your portfolio, the way you arrange your services, the tone of your writing, down to the typeface you’ve chosen.
When clients see incongruence between what you say and what you show, they throw red flags like a cranky referee.
If your tagline claims your client experience is simple, easy, and complete, but your info pages are long and convoluted, your website half-finished, and your typeface hard to read – you’re contradicting yourself.
Straighten that other stuff out before you even get to the tagline. (If you need some help, check out Irresistible Website.)
4) Check yourself again – do I really need a tagline?
The most powerful thing for your client to see might just be a photo of your best work with a one-line testimonial from a past client. (Jamie Swanson shows us a good example over at Lemon Tree Photographers.)
Sometimes the best words aren’t the ones you speak yourself – they’re the ones others speak about you. This provides social proof instead of just you making another claim about your work.
I’m not saying that everyone needs testimonials over taglines, but the first few seconds a potential client spends on your site are important. Consider carefully what the first thing they read will be.
Okay, it’s tagline time:
5) As you craft your message, always include an unexpected word or verb.
Half the time people spend brainstorming tag lines is spent making lateral moves.
If you sit there agonizing over whether you should choose “precious memories” or “lasting memories” – consider whether either one truly tells the client something unique about you that they didn’t already know just by virtue of you being a photographer.
Also consider whether those words will actually differentiate you from every other business out there.
Photographers use words like capture, moment, memory, sweet, modern, fresh with predictable regularity. They’re practically the ABCs of photography. If you’re going to sing that tune, you better pull a Ray Charles and do your own original remix, because otherwise you’re going to sound exactly like everyone else.*
If your tagline could be ripped from your site and reapplied to another site with no resulting confusion, you have to ask yourself whether the tagline is doing its job.
Adding your own twist need not be complex, you just need to use at least one word the client is unused to seeing on a photography website.
A rather bold example comes from 5 West Studios, who says “Weddings Schmeddings” right on the front page. It’s both an unexpected word and an unexpected thing for a wedding photographer to say, so you can bet that would get attention and embed itself in a client’s memory, particularly given the way go on to work it into their overall studio mission.
A more subtle example comes from EpicDanger Photography – “Be real. Be rad. Be remembered.” “Real” might come up a lot, but “rad” is comparatively rarer for a banner word on a photography site, and since it’s consistent with her overall brand and her writing voice, it helps distinguish the kind of work she does.
The minute a client feels like they’re seeing something they’ve seen before, they’re going to stop looking closely.
Throw in a word they haven’t seen on every other site.
6) Steal from The Hunger Games (maybe): Try repetition.
Have you seen Catching Fire? Remember when she says “Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever?” Well, other than the fact that she’s being forced to support an oppressive totalitarian dictatorship (uh yeah, there’s that) – that has the fixings of a pretty decent tagline.
First, repetition is one of the oldest rhetorical and persuasive tricks in the book. Shakespeare, Byron, Lincoln, Franklin, Churchill, King…all masters and users of repetition. Repetition makes things easier to remember, and repetition can make an idea feel more powerful.
Repetitions of three are particularly agreeable to the eye and ear.
There are a number of things to repeat:
You can repeat the same word at the beginning of each clause – Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever. (And just in case you have an English test coming up, the fancy schmantzy literary word for that is anaphorism.)
A better, non-totalitarian example of this is blogger Sophistimom’s tagline – “Well-read, well-bred, well-fed.” But rather than being merely catchy and rhyme-y, this tagline tells Sophistimom’s target reader – a mom who is interested in the finer ways of literature, good recipes, and manners – that she’s in the right place. Rhyme doesn’t help you unless it helps you communicate what you can do for them, and what makes you different.
You can also repeat the same word at the end of each clause, like Lincoln’s old gem “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” (And for extra credit, this is known as epistrophe….who comes up with these things?)
Or you could parallel the type of word you use, too – like “singing, running, laughing” – all -ing words. You can put a twist on that and make the final one the opposite of or otherwise not like the others: “singing, laughing, together-ing.”
If there is more than one theme you need to work into your tagline, see if you can use repetition to help you keep it short.
7) Repetition not your thing? Try: “______ for ________”
If you find yourself sorting and re-sorting words to no avail, try playing with this format: “what I do/deliver” for “the exact person I’d deeply love to do it for.”
The best part about this format is that you can work in unexpected words and maybe even be a bit humorous or tongue in cheek:
Pet photography for crazy cat ladies (who aren’t afraid to admit it).
(Seriously, I know a bunch of fun people who love to call themselves crazy cat ladies. If I were targeting them as my client, I’d make them laugh this way.)
The idea is to say what you do for the specific kind of person you want to target. So when they land on your site they go “yep, that’s me.”
Even if your first try is kinda rubbish:
Photos for busy moms with fabulous families and not enough hours in the day
You might find a nugget in there that’s closer to what you’re looking for:
Busy Moms & Fabulous Families
hmm…Serving Busy Moms & Fabulous Families? Photographing WonderMoms & Strong Families?
And it starts you on a path to the eventual tagline.
A good tagline can tell a client what makes you unique, but it can also tell a client “yes, I get exactly who you are, and you’re in the right place.” This format encourages client-focused taglines that can stand out to someone who strongly identifies with who you say you serve.
The test of a good tagline is whether or not it gets someone to either say “ah, that’s me,” or “now that’s different, that’s what I’ve been looking for.”
When you have a few candidate taglines, it doesn’t hurt to run it by a few target clients or past clients (not your husband, not your mom, not your best friend – the people who are actually going to need to see this and give you money) to get reactions. Not because you should be dictated by the mob, but because what sounds jazzy in a brainstorm session doesn’t always resonate in real life.
If you show it to a target client and say either “does this sound like you” or “would this make you look closer at this photographer over others?” and they grin, then you’ve struck gold.
P.S. *Kaylene Fister double dog dared me on Facebook to work Ray Charles into this post. Challenge accepted.
P.P.S. If you need more help with writing hard-to-write things, check out Irresistible Words.