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Web is a cruelly literal place

3 Jan
core website statement

Many web users will be introduced to your brand through search. They will scan the heavens for an answer to their question or search query and they are expecting a specific answer or at least enough detail that they believe they are in the ‘right place.’

Yes, I highly recommend ‘literal’ core statements for the digital experience. State your case clearly on the homepage (and every page) of your website.

The web is a cruelly literal place. Many people will be introduced to your brand through search. They will look for an answer to their question or search query and they are expecting a specific answer or at least enough detail that they believe they are in the ‘right place.’ I would minimize the marketingese as web users are turned off by overt marketing.

Look at the heat map in this example. Video that is tailored for television is for a passive audience (thinking sitting back and consuming). Video that is optimized for the web is active (think sitting forward and looking for detail). What the heat map is showing is the web user not just playing the video, but scrubbing through it and checking out supporting links and other descriptive detail. Very different from a classic TV experience.

This information focus is something that I constantly coach creative and account people as to how different a print, billboard, brochure or other passive experience is in relation to a digital experience. The user is active, in control and relentless about ‘affirming’ the information that they are researching.

So keep this in mind when you write text that communicates the website’s purpose. You are writing not for your own people, but for the users of your website.

From my favorite usability expert, Jakob NielsenInclude a tag line that explicitly summarizes what the site or company does. Tag lines should be brief, simple, and to the point. For example, Global Sources’ tag line, “Product and Trade Information for Volume Buyers,” is a good, straightforward summary of what the site offers. Vague or jargonistic tag lines only confuse users, or worse, make them mistrust the site, especially if users perceive them as marketing hype. For example, Ford’s tag line, “Striving to Make the World a Better Place,” while pluckily optimistic, doesn’t describe Ford’s automotive business in any way.

It’s OK to be pluckily optimistic, just don’t be cruel to web users.




Streamlining vs. content quality: You know it when you see it

23 Jun

Content mills are like white walls

Content mills are like painting a wall. You might not be building a storytelling mural or adding creative branding with detail and context, but simply painting to cover the wall – one color, one coat.

Summary: Are content mills – companies that provide quick, SEO-rich content in volume to brands – the best solution for your “I need more content on my website,” woes? Probably not.


When we want to create the best content experience possible, just how much do we want to streamline our content production? 

I recently noticed a popular content marketing blog listing several text brokers, also known as content mills, to help brands with content creation.

Content mills and content mill brokers have grown in popularity with the rise of writers seeking self-employment and freelance opportunities as well as clients seeking web content to provide SEO critical mass and opportunities to crosslink. Content mills have sprung up like weeds clogging verdant online pastures.

Long term prospects for content mills

Fortunately the content mill model is destined to fail in the long term because Google, Bing and other search giants no longer reward truly bad content and low quality back links.

Winners going forward in content creation will be brands that create solid, unique content that real people want to read and share. A team of subject matter experts trumps a content mill’s pennies-on-the-dollar, freelance team. An engineer’s passion for their product and processes is shockingly obvious compared with a writer producing 300 words on the same topic.

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it.”

People searching for an answer to their question online know good content when they discover it. Text brokers can fill a topic with the appropriate keywords and word count, but quickly streamline past readability. When content is custom, creative and in context, your reader/customer knows exactly what they’ve found.

White wall content

When your search uncovers mill-generated content that technically answers the question but without any passion, context, or additional detail, you’re disappointed and you continue your search.

Content mills are like painting a wall. You might not be building a storytelling mural or adding creative branding with detail and context, but simply painting to cover the wall – one color, one coat. This can be expertly done, and done quickly and efficiently, but it is simply a clean, white wall. A white wall of content is pleasant, but merely a placeholder for more inspired words.

Find more ideas under #contentmarketing on Twitter.

Look for craggy rocks and cellar doors

3 Jan
Looking for craggy rocks and cellar doors.

Photo credit: Jellaluna

Always loved the quiet of cellar door. It’s a phrase that along with the proper typeface can fill a space on its own. I’m looking to fill less space in the coming year, to fine tune writing and curation.

We need to hear our own ideas and slowly roll them out. Let others scanning at a less-fevered pace enjoy, be inspired and springboard with their best return offering.

I’m full of the scandle whistle, full of the train-wreck pace of the presidential horse race, so full of television punditry, reality and commercial format. I’m looking for quarter notes, very high or low gears, a master’s stroke or gesture in slow-motion.

Looking for craggy rocks and cellar doors.

The power of storytelling: Try this one

30 Nov

Storytelling Bright LightsA crystal clear picture of your storytelling goal is not complete without a sizzling sharp vision. Is it a plant opening or a story?

The workers watched the grainy footage of empty and stilted structures, litter swept streets and a broken and defeated populace sorting through recycle bins.

But on this day, they stood atop the clean, unbroken line of new equipment, haloed by bright lights and steady hum of power that equaled opportunity.

They were alive and plugged in to a new result. Each second that the hum continued was an eternity that soothed the struggle of the proceeding years. Each bright light gave a salute to their new lives. 

Storytelling (and social media) is about humans. It’s about emotional response. The good news about social media and storytelling is that it has made it possible for anyone to have a unique voice when telling their own story on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or blogs. Three paragraphs accomplished this in the above story.

A story is what defines your place as an individual in this world. It’s what sets you apart and makes you unique. This is no different when you are talking about telling a story about your business.


4 reasons that make me open your email

22 Sep

Email strategy and web writing strategyWe all want others to like us. People like us when we provide something useful and something unique.

Most people have an average of 3.1 email accounts (2.9 billion email accounts worldwide) so you are probably part of the group that sends out 188 billion messages each day.

Each day we’re subjected to a firehose of information, but what people really want is content that is clear, concise and delivers value. Since email is the primary touchpoint for most people each day make yours more effective.
Don’t make readers struggle through dense, cluttered and unorganized writing. Users can delete or ignore your email exactly like search mode when users click the back button. Every reader who comes across new email content asks these questions:
  • Can this information solve a problem or answer a question for me?
  • Is this information good enough to share with others?
  • Can I quickly understand, react and process this request?

4 keys to email

Regardless of your desired outcome each of these email messages must have:
  • Clear, accurate and “non-spammy” subject line: Most mail servers use third party software to scan the subject lines. Make certain that your subject line accurately describes the content.
  • Summary message: Email is not long-form. Resist the urge to produce every detail. Keep your message short and on-point. In fact, repeat and boldface the subject in the first line.
  • Complete email signature: Add appropriate URLs for your website, blog, portfolio or product. Verify that the links are functional so that the reader can connect to you in one click.
  • Clear formats and fonts: Use standard capitalization and spelling; avoid odd typefaces; use 10 or 12 point text (Arial, Verdana and Tahoma are solid, easy-to-read fonts).

Email Subject Lines: Your starting point

Don’t begin with odd, cheesy or spammy phrases. These will invariably result in your email being ignored. Keep your subject lines simple and to the point.
MailChimp prepared a study that analyzed the open rates for over 200 million emails. Open rates ranged from 93% to 0.5%. Personal messages top interest, followed by affiliations and timely news. Stale newsletters, requests for money and offers too good to be true bring up the rear.
  • Avoid these words: Help, Percent off, Reminder and Free. Trigger spam filters.
  • Be Local: Personalization, such as including a recipient’s first name or last name, doesn’t significantly improve open rates. Providing localization, such as including a city name, does help.
  • Newsletters: Newsletters tend to start with high open rates, but all experience some reduction in time. The challenge to the newsletter writer is to keep the content fresh. Repeating the same subject line for each newsletter accelerates the drop in open rates.
  • Subject Line Length: The general rule of thumb in email marketing is to keep your subject line to 50 characters or less.
  • Promotional Emails: Keep the message straightforward and avoid using splashy promotional phrases, CAPS, or exclamation marks in your subject lines. Subject lines framed as questions can often perform better.
Summary: Be consistent and build all your digital copy for maximum readability and usability. Start with email.

Good web writing protects the narrative

19 Aug

Chalice by Joelk75

Photo by Joelk75

It was a meeting of old school/new school when I suggested to my friend Rod how to improve his music review on John Mellencamp with better web writing.

I love his writing and understand his style and pace, but attention deficit-driven listeners might ping-pong right past (I noted the 0 comments and only 8 tweets that the review produced).

Let’s keep the narrative in the chalice. I love the part about Mellencamp’s travel studios and retro recording, but let’s add elements to the top and bottom to satisfy the scan readers and web writing best practices.

Summary paragraph

You can think of it as a deck head. It tells the reader what’s coming. Jakob Neilsen is a web usability guru who has done wonderful research on how people use  websites and how they read on websites.

Subheads every six paragraphs

Search robots and spiders scan web content for H1 heads, H2 heads, copy, links, etc. So when you build subheads you not only give the page better readability but make it more searchable.

Layered links

Build pop-up hyperlinks into your story? When people scan content they might come across an idea or reference that they want to explore. Old school thinking was that it was dumb to give people the opportunity to leave the page. New school is that you become a trusted reference source and people will scan a pop-up box and return to your content, satisfied and convinced that you are a credible source.

Bottom call to action

After your brilliant closing thought, you ask a question or reference more information. Don’t exit softly into the night, leave me wanting more.

Don’t bruise a great narrative by stuffing it into rigid format. Keep the narrative in the chalice (keep it pure), but liberate the content for web search and readability.

Read Rod Lockwood’s review and let us know what you think.

4 questions on website experience

7 Jun
4 simple usability questions

4 usability questions + 4 usability answers = 1 thin mint

One little survey monkey is asking four questions about your basic experience in finding information on a website.

Improving usability and improving content is your goal during the design process as well as after your website’s debut.

Don’t stop advancing toward the best experience possible. Use different tools.

  • Usability testing: asking and then watching people complete basic tasks on your website
  • Surveys/polls: collecting opinions on prompted questions
  • A/B testing: Tracking results of different options

Answer four quick questions now that might result in four fewer clicks for you in the future.