Did you feel the earth rumbling?
Turns out my Why Copywriting Peer Reviews Suck email yesterday set off a few earthquakes in the industry. And while I’m not going to reveal specifically who it was that reached out to me — both in agreement and disagreement — I’ll simply tell you that I have some pretty influential folks reading these emails.
And so rather than talking about web marketing, which is my normal Wednesday topic, I wanted to dive in a little deeper into the whole topic of peer reviews.
Specifically, a perspective I didn’t have space to address yesterday, that I think provides a lot of context for this whole discussion. (The “power dynamics” bit below is really important.)
As I concluded yesterday, peer reviews have an important place in copy departments.
In general, they’re really good at making sure copy is up to a baseline level of “good” before it goes public.
I attributed it to the mathematical concept called “regression toward the mean.” That’s where outliers are pulled toward the average. That’s really good for below-average copy. Because it brings it up to average.
But when that “regression toward the mean” is applied to positive outliers — copy (or ideas) that are above average or outside of normal in a way that would result in more sales — it risks pulling them down.
I didn’t propose throwing out peer reviews… Not by a long shot.
They do too much good. And some of the feedback I got really emphasized how much good they do — and how much some really big and successful direct marketing companies now rely on them (including their best copywriters).
Having a good peer review process in place, like Copy Logic! (the one I linked to yesterday) will help ensure you have pretty good copy going out the door.
But what do you do when you have a copywriter who disagrees with the consensus of the peer review?
Well, my recommendation was to make it part of your process to give that copywriter a panel in the test — the opportunity to test their different approach and let it succeed or fail on its own terms. (While on paper, copywriters are supposed to have this power in peer reviews, it’s extremely rare to see a business that really gives their copywriters this flexibility.)
The longer you spend in direct marketing, the more you realize that even the best marketers often can’t predict which version will win a test.
My friend and client Brian Kurtz uses this joke way too much (sorry Brian!) but it’s relevant: “I can predict with 100% accuracy the winner of a marketing test… Once I’ve seen the results.”
While homogenizing copy will lead to steady performers, usually breakthroughs are achieved by going against what everybody else is doing.
My general experience of peer reviews — along with many readers who shared their feedback — is that they tend to force copy into the box of “best practices” that everyone in the group agrees on. Which is the antithesis of “going against what everybody else is doing.”
And I don’t believe the root of the problem is in the process itself…
On paper, the peer review process is okay. The devil is in the details of bringing an on-paper model into everyday use in the real world.
Let’s talk power dynamics.
The idea of a well-run peer review is that it will take emotion out of the process, and just focus on how to make the copy better.
There’s a little problem there. Emotions are never removed. They may be suppressed (which is worse!), but not removed.
And so everyone brings their head trash and emotional baggage to the peer review. Among the most important of which is their perception of power. (They won’t admit they’re bringing it — but it’s there.)
Every single person in a peer review sees themselves as having more or less power than the others…
If you’re doing a peer review with a new group, you’ll find there’s quickly a sorting out.
Who is a leader? Who has authority? Who’s the crackpot who talks a lot but whose opinion doesn’t matter? Who may provide feedback, but it’s up to you to consider it or not?
The questions go on…
And the answers are different for each person in the group.
If you’re doing a peer review with a bunch of writers you already know, you’ve already asked and answered the questions. But they still apply.
Now let’s say you’re the copy chief — the head honcho — and you’re throwing your copy into this mix.
Because of your relationship and power with the group, you have total dominion over whose feedback you take. Sure, you may weigh consensus more heavily, but largely you’re immune from the negative emotion associated with peer review by everyone else under you. You get the group’s opinion, change what you want, then move on.
Compare that to someone at the bottom.
The peer review is a place where you come to get instructions on how to improve your copy. And your copy chief or copy supervisor will probably emphasize the value of the peer review, and your need to take it into account (which you understand as follow it) when making your revisions. You get the group’s opinion, implement it, and move on.
And then there’s everyone in the middle.
You ultimately have a boss to report to, and you don’t want to get in hot water. So you might bring bold ideas to the peer review, but you don’t tie yourself to them. If the group throws them out, you eat crow, and yield to the will of the collective. After all, if you take a risk and fail, the risk is that you’ll lose your gig. If you follow the group and fail, the responsibility isn’t yours. So, rather than running with a bold idea that might work, you get the group’s opinion, implement most of it, and move on.
(You can see this same behavior in the investment world, where fund managers all invest in the same hot stocks because if everybody was doing it, they can’t be blamed for following the crowd when the stock tanks. Take a contrarian stance and lose a little bit of money though, and you’re outta there in a New York Minute.)
This power differential is what significantly colors the potential of peer reviews.
It’s exaggerated if you’re a freelancer, where you’re not a part of the “in” group. Everybody else has their internal group dynamics, and you’re not a part of them.
And so you have an extra layer of emotional baggage, where you’ll tend to do things because you believe it will make you part of the in group, not because it will lead to better sales.
I should note… All of this is happening at a subconscious level…
You’re not necessarily thinking these things.
This conversation that we’re having here is attempting to bring them to a more conscious level of awareness. Because by making them conscious, you may be able to lose some of the head trash and baggage that’s keeping you from having the best possible experience in peer reviews.
I think, in general, copywriters who’ve gone through this experience agree with me…
Peer reviews are messy business.
They should work, in theory. And they often do.
I definitely improved in peer reviews with writers who were better than me. I still get great ideas in peer reviews.
But particularly if I’m working with a newer client and the power differential is strongly on their side, I often don’t have much choice in what is implemented.
Sure, I can dissent. And I can strongly dissent, if I choose.
But ultimately if an influential member of the group doesn’t agree, copy that may be more high-risk/high-reward gets cut. The copy that makes it through is homogenized, even neutered.
A friend of mine who hires copywriters wrote me after yesterday’s article and told me that I hit the nail on the head. That most copywriters who come to him lack the je ne sais quoi of great copy. That they all write to this script of what “good copy” should be. And no doubt part of that is because they’ve spent so much time and energy focusing on what copy they have to write to get it out the door, and not so much what will capture their readers’ imaginations.
I think this stance I’ve taken on peer reviews is polarizing.
I don’t think it needs to be.
The truth is, peer reviews are good, in context.
Taking risks with your copy is good, in context.
An ideal situation is one where copywriters are ENCOURAGED to do both, and each resultant piece of copy is tested against the other.
Luckily, the internet makes that easy and affordable.
It just has to become part of the bigger peer review process.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
Editor, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets