Selling online is a bit of an art.
Before your visitors reach your shopping cart, call your 800 number, or click on that submit button—in fact, from the second most visitors land on your site—they’re probably in a relatively receptive mood. They’ve landed on your site for a reason, but it’s up to you to persuade them to act.
But this isn’t the 1950s. Today, consumers are less gullible. They’re exposed to a daily barrage of the Internet’s “amazing offers”, catchy slogans, and empty promises.
There’s no one “right” way to engage readers in your effort to promote or market online, but there are several wrong ways. Here are some of the more commonly seen ones:
- The passive voice
- Feature-oriented content
- Me-oriented content
- Keyword abuse
There’s loads of this on too many small, medium and even corporate business sites:
- “Welcome to our website, here you will find…” (Help them find it, don’t tell them they’ll find it)
- “SuperWidgets are one of those things that most people (and businesses!) have, but aren’t thought about a lot – until they break, that is!”
- “Once again, thanks for checking out our website. We hope that you enjoy looking around!”
- “SuperWidgets aren’t on the forefront of everyone’s mind, but making sure that your SuperWidget is in top shape is important.”
Visitors know why they’re on your site; they want the info and value without the fluff.
Solution: If it doesn’t add value, remove it. If you can say it in fewer words, do it.
Even when writing copy for a repair company, accentuate your solutions instead of potential problems.
Try “Our patented widget lubrication system will keep your widget in perfect running order in every weather condition“, instead of “Our patented widget lube will prevent your widget from malfunctioning in nasty weather“. The difference is subtle, but the first example creates less stress, and focuses on feel good solutions instead of stressful problems.
Accentuate solutions instead of problems in your copy
Other examples of focusing on problems instead of solutions are:
- “These SuperWidgets are loaded with doodads and gizmos that can easily snap or break, which is why it’s best to let one of our professionals install them”.
- “Since many SuperWidgets are now electronic, shorts and breaks in electricity are often a problem. But we can do so and so to achieve…”
- “As you can see, there are many reasons why a commercial SuperWidget would stop working. We can be there when it does”
- “Make sure to inspect your SuperWidget regularly (once per year), so that you do not wind up with a major problem…”
Wow, SuperWidget problems are numerous and overwhelming. How depressing, maybe I’ll go lie down on the couch and stare at the ceiling instead of taking action!
Solution: Highlight benefits and solutions, not problems. Do not write statements in the negative form. Write statements in the positive form.
3. The Passive voice
Copywriting should subtly–and at times explicitly–persuade. Persuasion works best with the active voice. Think “Content drives traffic“, not “Traffic is driven by content”. Calls to action can be appropriately understated:
- “Let us help you with your xyz” instead of “We can help you with xyz“.
- “Have us repair your SuperWidget so that you don’t have to xyz” instead of “We can repair your SuperWidget so that you don’t have to xyz“.
- “Targeting local consumers can be easy” is less powerful than the direct, active voice of “Target local consumers with ease”.
Notice how the active voice is a great way to shift attention from you to your visitor? This is where the attention should be.’Target’, inspires more action than ‘targeting’ in the example above.
Solution: Use verbs, that instruct, instead of weak adjectives that describe. The passive voice is to be avoided. Avoid the passive voice.
4. Feature-oriented copy
A common copywriting mistake is a focus on features instead of benefits. Copywriting isn’t technical writing, it’s promotional, and the best way to promote is by discussing benefits. “Features tell, but benefits sell”. Corny catchphrase, but accurate.
Benefit-oriented content resonates with readers, and ideally produces a desirable emotional response. Technical writing informs, whereas copywriting persuades. As the famous Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt used to say: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”..
Instead of “Our boots have rubber shell and outsole protection with traction ribbing, and sealed seams that render them waterproof”, go with “Your feet will stay dry in these boots”. Back up your claims with features at the bottom of the page if you have to.
Solution: Emphasize benefits over features.
Just as content shouldn’t lack persuasiveness, it can easily be over the top as well. Cheesy stock imagery (handshakes, jigsaw puzzle pieces lightbulbs, etc) aren’t the only marketing clichés that can suck the life out of your message; copywriting itself has its own share of notoriously overused fallbacks:
- Best in the West: ‘Best’, ‘greatest’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbeatable’. (Usually preceded with the 6th copywriting sin; ‘We‘. Don’t tell people you’re the best. Give them your pitch and let them make up their own minds.
- Buzzwords: Don’t leverage if you can use. Don’t synergize if you can combine. Keep it simple instead of using wordy abstractions that only double copy length and detract from readability.
Solution: There’s a fine line between avoiding hype and being boring. Find that line.
6. Me-oriented copy
Don’t focus on the ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘us’. Instead, construct sentences using ‘you’ and ‘your’. You-oriented copy attracts readers, keeps them interested, and cues them for action. It’s not about you, it’s about them, so focus on what your readers want, rather than what services you offer.
Solution: Put the emphasis on your readers instead of on you.
7. Keyword abuse
Copywriters sometimes take it into their own hands to please you with “keyword rich” content, or “SEO copywriting”. Search visibility isn’t about repeating keywords. If keywords aren’t naturally appearing where you’d like them to, rethink your content strategy and/or information architecture, and move on to more technical and social aspects of SEO.
Solution: Think content strategy before last minute tactics.
These are the usual suspects of sub-par copywriting. Remember them to keep you on the road to writing content that’s both useful to visitors and persuasive, and you should achieve better results.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my popular 10 steps to writing better web content.
Your Web content is in a constant battle against a number of variables competing for your readers’ attention: A link to another website, the back button, their task at hand, the size of their monitor, the number of hours in the day. For those reasons and many others, it’s crucial to give your readers easy access to the information they want, without making them think, and without getting in their way with marketese and fluff.
Here are some of the most useful guidelines I’ve come to appreciate in my quest to continually improve my content writing.
- Create personas
- Write your headline first
- Keep your headings and lists parallel
- Write how you talk
- Write drunk, edit sober
- Use the active voice
- Write in inverted pyramid style
- Think of writing as revising drafts
- Let go of the words
- Stop when you are going good
1. Create personas
We all know how important it is to focus on our audiences when writing for the Web, but without a method, that advice can be somewhat abstract. Personas are fictitious users you create to ensure that you keep your different audiences’ perspectives in mind as you write content. Here are the basic steps involved:
- List your major audiences: Think of which groups of people (not departments or institutions) that might be using your site.
- Gather information on your audiences: Don’t assume you know what your different audiences are like; instead, compile information from various points of interaction with them to better understand who they are, and what their needs and questions might be. Potential sources of information include contact form emails, interviews, your past consultations, your customer service department, and even questionnaires.
List major characteristics for each audience: Each of your site’s user groups may have identifiable characteristics. For example, a poison control website will surely attract a large number of anxious visitors that need information very quickly, whereas an airline site will have a wider range of visitors with varying levels of travel experience. Plan for your visitors’ terminology, demographics, cultural backgrounds, potential emotions, and experience with your website’s subject matter.
- Use your information to create personas: Once you’ve compiled information on your different audiences, you’ll want to bring all that data to life with a few personas that represent the typical visitors to your website.
Each persona should be given a name, picture (stock photos are good), and characteristics.
- Use your information to write scenarios for your site: Once you’ve identified some goals that each of your personas are likely to have, come up with some tasks they’ll want to accomplish on your site. This is a great way to organize your content according your visitors’ needs.
Refer to your personas by name when strategizing content instead of calling them “users”. Creating personas will greatly improve the focus of your Web content writing as well as the user-experience of your website. Dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of creating user personas:
- Using Personas During Design and Documentation – UXmatters.com.
- Personas – the definitive guide – WebCredible.co.uk.
2. Write your headline first
Writing your headline, aka primary heading, before diving into the content forces you to stay focused on the purpose of your article. Your headline makes a promise to your readers, and writing with that in mind is a good way to keep your content structured and to the point.
Brian Clark’s Copyblogger.com is the place to start for tips on writing compelling headlines:
- 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work – Copyblogger.com
- 9 Proven Headline Formulas That Sell Like Crazy – Copyblogger.com
3. Keep your headings and lists parallel
People are very pattern oriented. Headings and lists with consistent grammatical structure help your readers remember and compare successive portions of content.
Compare these 2 problem solving checklists, one written with an inconsistent style, and the other using parallel grammatical structure:
|Inconsistent grammatical structure||Parallel grammatical structure|
|1. The problem Must be defined||1. Define the problem|
|2. Analyzing the problem||2. Analyze the problem|
|3. What are the possible solutions?||3. Generate possible Solutions|
|4. Solutions analysis||4. Analyze the Solutions|
|5. Planning the next course of action||5. Plan the next course of action|
Table 1 shows how a list or group of subheadings with parallel grammatical structure clarifies their meanings and relationships between them.
|Complex words||Simple words|
4. Write how you talk
When you’re writing about complex concepts it’s easy to get carried away with complex words as well.
If you have performance anxieties associated with writing, resist overcompensating with big, important-sounding words. Write for your readers, not your ego.
Trying to sound eloquent can have the reverse effect. It’s better to write clearly and sound authentic than it is to risk coming across as being pretentious.
5. Write drunk, edit sober
Before you pick up that bottle of Jack…
You don’t need to be quite as devoted to this piece of advice as the man who originally offered it. This nugget of wisdom from the late Ernest Hemingway simply reminds us to write without inhibition—especially your first draft.
It’s better to write with a bit too much passion, editing some of it out later, than it is to deny your readers of your personality, or voice.
Enthusiasm makes for compelling reading; dry, self-conscious writing doesn’t.
6. Use the active voice
Create a clear and engaging tone by using the active voice with direct sentences such as “Content drives traffic”, instead of wordier sentences like “Traffic is driven by content”.
In the active voice, the object receives the action of the verb:
In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:
|Traffic||is driven||by content|
In tables 3 & 4, notice how with the active voice, the action is in a verb, whereas with the passive voice it’s in an adjective. Action verbs and the active voice add intent to sentences, giving your words clear meaning.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t ever use the passive voice; in fact, in scientific writing, the passive voice is usually preferred, as the object (result) of the action is more important than the subject (scientist). Politicians also often use the passive voice to put emphasis on events rather than on those responsible.
Unless you’re writing a paper on your recent findings in the lab, or if you’re trying to use weasel words to hide blame, keep your tone assertive with the active voice.
7. Write in inverted pyramid style
Inverted pyramid structure is a fancy way of saying ‘write the important stuff first’.
Don’t make your readers scroll through a full page of content to get your key points and conclusion. Start with the who, what, where, when, why and how, and then get to the details.
8. Think of writing as revising drafts
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? Unless you’re one of the fortunate minority, the answer is probably a resounding well duh!
When you’re having difficulty getting the ball rolling with your Web content, remember that you’ll likely be editing much of it once you’ve stepped away from it for a few hours and sometimes days. Returning to what you’ve written after a break gives you a fresh and objective perspective of your work, and this fact alone should help you relax a bit and get into your writing without worrying about it being perfect on the first pass.
9. Let go of the words
Janice (Ginny) Redish named her book Letting Go of the Words after one of my favorite pieces of advice on writing for the Web. Whatever you’ve written, you can probably edit out at least half of the words without losing important meaning.
Busy Web users should be able to grab the information they need quickly and efficiently without having to endure any kind of fluff, to slow them down. The more you focus on the goals and needs of your readers, the less content you’ll find you need on each page of your site to satisfy them. Efficient and focused content allows people to and grab the information they need and go on to whatever they need to do next.
If you are worried about the search visibility implications halving your content, don’t be; if the fluff you are chopping out has anywhere near the amount of keywords that your focused content does, you’re probably spamming.
10. Stop when you are going good
This final piece of advice is another rule that Hemingway applied to his writing process. It might seem counterintuitive, but give it a try, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
- Letting go of the words – Writing Web Content that Works by Ginny Redish
- Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern
- Clout – The Art & Science of Influential Web Content by Colleen Jones
- Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
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