Category Archives: Online Copywriting

If Strunk and White worked in adjoining cubicles

My dusty but beloved writing stylebook by William Strunk and E.B. White urges the reader to use active voice, not passive voice. The AP Stylebook agrees, adding: Write in an inverted pyramid, with key information in the first sentences, and supporting but less vital facts trailing behind.

All of this conforms to how people consume information found in printed magazines and newspapers. Do these rules hold up to web reading habits?

According to web usability demigod Jakob Nielsen, the answer is yes and no.

Initially in his recent post, he asserts, “Active voice is best for most Web content.” But he concedes that the web has introduced a new concept to consider. It’s called the information scent.

This refers to “the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” He continues as follows:

Using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and SEO [search engine optimization] effectiveness.

It also breaks several sacrosanct rules of conventional writing.

Neilsen defends his points well. He says that users scan content so quickly that they “often read only the first 2 words of a paragraph.” [Emphasis mine.] Therefore, he contends, this summary statement is acceptable by all measures except scannability and SEO effectiveness:

Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

To fix this, here is his proposed solution:

13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

Much better! Why, you ask? He explains it this way:

Because “13” is sufficiently short, users will likely fixate on the first 3 words, not just the first 2, when they initially scan the blurb. Also, numerals beat words when referring to specifics, so starting with “13” is even better at attracting the scanning eye.

I’m sure Mr. Strunk and Mr. White are spinning in their graves like a pair of synchronized swimmers. But in fairness, they never faced the challenge of an audience so awash in information. It’s a challenge that I, for one, find exciting. But I still will occasionally dip into this duo’s eloquent love letter to clear writing. I’ve probably reread it 20 times.

What’s more — and this is quite sincere:

I feel sorry for writers who did not fall in love with writing back when active voice reigned supreme.

Scratch that. How about:

Writers raised on passive voice, necessitated by information scents, are a target of my pity.

When is a Site Map also an FAQ page?

When is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page the same as a page containing a map of the site? The answer is they’re always both FAQ pages.

No one visits a site out of random curiosity. Everyone has an agenda. And ideally, both the navigation of a site (as manifested in the site map) and the FAQ page address these user agendas.

Every link of a site map promises an answer. Every section of a site is another category of frequently asked questions.

The Takeaway:

Ideally, an information architect is responsible for designing a site’s map. Conversely, content managers working closest to the customer should be responsible for maintaining the FAQ page, and the answers provided. These two functions should be talking to each other regularly to make both of their contributions the best that they can be.

What playwrights can teach about strong ad copy

Playwrights listen to the way people talk. The best of them turn this spoken music into something more than the merely authentic. They use it to convey a higher truth (even if the play simply makes us laugh; or maybe especially if it does). So what about ad copy — be it online, on a printed page or whatever?

Must jarring authenticity go out the window as the “polish” of professionalism is applied to an ad? This week, Roy Williams made an eloquent case for sparing some of the polish that can water down an ad and sap its power.

Williams even makes reference to a wonderful statement in the first chapter of a book of his — a book I’d recommend to anyone who is looking for a fresh perspective on advertising and marketing. Right there on Page 12 of The Wizard of Ads are these “Nine Secret Words”:

The risk of insult is the price of clarity.

Think of this the next time you review a proposed ad that is a little too jarring for your comfort. It could be bad, or unwise. This is always possible. BUT, it might instead be the most effective marketing investment you make this year.

Advertising legend David Oglivy once wrote that the ideal copywriter is “half killer and half poet.” I don’t know any professional killers, but I do have my favorite poets. Most of them, from what I’ve read about them, would be about as welcome in “polite company” as a paid assassin. Or a brilliant playwright, for that matter.

Could it be that this untamed, feral quality in art is something you should be looking for in commerce — in your next online ad, perhaps?

Why the best landing page is no landing page at all

If the term “devil’s advocate” didn’t already exist, it would need to be invented to describe Ron, my esteemed — and admittedly cranky — colleague to the east. In my last post I wrote that a landing page is an extension of the ad(s) pointing to it. He called me on it, and in doing so reminded me that not everyone shares this perception. Here’s my clarification, Ron. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

I’ll explain why it is true that a land page is an extension of its referring ad, but also, the landing page should ideally be planned well before any type of ad is ever constructed.

And finally, I’ll explain why, as the title of this states, the best landing page is no page whatsoever.

So what do I mean when I say the landing page should be built first? Frankly, the entire process should be built backwards. It should start with the objective — namely, the action you want your audience to take. Desired actions can include the following:

  • Subscribe to an e-newsletter
  • Register to download a whitepaper
  • Commit to a purchase

Thus, each landing page should have a call to action. What’s the ideal number of calls-to-action per landing page? Exactly one. Any more can diffuse the power of the page.

All efforts should focus on qualifying the prospect and leading that person to a speedy “close.” Although you won’t be able to close every interaction — or even most interactions — your goal is always to maximize the close rate.

My friend Ron used the analogy of a car dealership that serves customers who arrive thanks to an ad. As a way to test my assertion, he said this makes the dealership “an extension of the ad.”

Not quite, because, as he muses later in the comment, entering the dealership “marks the transition from advertising to selling.” The dealership is not an extension of the newspaper ad (let’s say) because the ad already elicited the desired commitment. It brought in the consumer. Mission accomplished.

But this got me thinking: What if the car dealership ad appeared on a web page instead of on newsprint, or in the pages of a magazine? Actually, little changes. If its objective is to simply get someone to come into a dealership (not usually the case in online automotive ads), I could imagine an interstitial or rich-media web ad that provides enough information to get a commitment without ever clicking through to a landing page.

Here’s what I mean by a rich media ad. It’s a fun ad for the Nissan Quest. This one, like most, sends folks to a microsite. But if all you want is to cause a visit to a dealership, I could see a rich media ad that asks for a zip code and returns the nearest dealership information — perhaps even offering a map and driving instructions. This would all be done within the ad, on the web page where the ad appears.

In this way, like its print counterpart, the online ad gets the commitment with the least amount of “friction” by never referring to a landing page at all.

In a perfect world, all banner ads would work this hard. But because most calls-to-action need more information delivered before a commitment can be generated, the friction of landing pages (and yes, also microsites) are necessary. They are essential extensions of online ads.

Testing uncovers 6 keys to landing page success

Landing pages are expansions of ads. Every banner, email offer or sponsored listing worth its salt points to a single, hard working page. What sort of work do these pages perform? Selling, plain and simple. But to succeed, the approach to designing these pages is neither plain nor simple. Tools like Google Website Optimizer allow you to test for yourself. These automated systems help you discover exactly what combination of components works best at converting your page’s visitors into customers or qualified leads.

But what components do you start testing? And what factors should you be paying attention to as you get started?

Luckily, a lot of testing has already been done, and their findings tell you a lot about the complexities of the human mind. Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful report from Marketing Experiments:

Landing Page Performance Elements

Through extensive research, Marketing Experiments has identified six essential elements that affect landing page performance:

Friction — [This is] caused by elements of the page that require a prospect to do extra work and increase the likelihood of abandoning the page due to fatigue or irritation. Incentives such as bonus gifts or special offers can make the offer feel more worthwhile and encourage the visitor to continue.

Visitor Motivation Level and Type— [These] are factors that influence how many will remain on the site or bounce off. The nature and level of visitor motivation is essential to what landing page attributes will prove to be the “stickiest.” If people really want something, they’ll put up with more friction.

Value Proposition — How quickly, clearly, and effectively the landing page conveys the site’s value affects its ability to move visitors to the next step and not abandon the site. [The authors call this level of abandonment the “bounce rate.”]

Anxiety — All visitors arrive at a site with an initial level of anxiety caused by their perceptions of the relative risks associated with the site, the company, and the product.

Credibility Indicators — You can improve click-through and conversion by including page elements that convey trustworthiness through credibility indicators such as awards, privacy policies, certifications, testimonials, and longevity statements such as “serving the needs of ___ for more than 15 years.”

This report also has an excellent exploration of when to use short versus long copy. Happy testing!

Ogilvy on web advertising

My alternate headline for this post is: Winning web headlines can be long, but watch your column widths. Here’s why …

Ogilvy On AdvertisingThe book that first inspired me to get into direct response — a move that led directly to my love of interactive marketing — was written by a famous ad man. Remarkably, David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising is still in print. More remarkable is how much of his advice on successful direct marketing, print and television ads is still relevant. And directly transferable to the web.

I was thinking of him again today when I was in a design meeting where one of our web designers was counseling against an overly wide column of text. He said, “We don’t want this column to span more that 400 characters. More than that fatigues the reader.” Wow, I thought. This advice is almost verbatim from a book that predates the web as we know it by at least 10 years.

Headlines are another source of attention — and often misunderstanding. Although headlines linking to web pages can be short and still be effective, they should be long enough to get the job done. Abe Lincoln, when asked how long a soldier’s legs should be, was said to have answered, “Long enough to reach the ground.”

I’ve learned a lot by following the advice of the excellent Brian Clark, in his CopyBlogger. He periodically singles out strong headlines, based on his experience in the business. (And thanks again, Brian, for citing one of mine). His criteria remind me a great deal of Ogilvy’s, which was based on some of the deepest readership research done at the time for advertising. Here is Ogilvy’s take on the headline:

[Our research] reports that [print] headlines with more than 10 words get less readership than short headlines. On the other hand, a study of retail ads found that headlines of 10 words sell more than short headlines. Conclusion: If you need a long headline, go ahead and write one.

Other tidbits of his that apply to online headlines and links include the following:

  • Headlines containing news are “surefire” — they are recalled by 22% more people than ads without news (and lots of pay-per-click research shows that they generate more clicks)
  • Never use all capital letters — they’re less readable in both print and online. And with the web, people may think you’re shouting, to cite the classic email netiquette tip
  • Whenever possible, promise a benefit

So what is the longest character count we counsel for headlines? Keep them to 75. It’s the standard set by Digg for their listing’s headlines. And this number is just a few characters greater than the number that is indexed by Google (according to lore and legend) when Google’s spiders read a page’s Title tag.

Which brings up an argument in favor of the longer headline that Ogilvy couldn’t have anticipated. Length improves the chances of including a keyword that will move your page higher in search engine results pages. That’s the sort of down-and-dirty selling tactic that the late Mr. Ogilvy would have loved.

Get out your yellow highlighter to emphasize your most important web copy

Two of my favorite sites use a technique to make their short, punchy web copy even stronger.

  • 37signals is a smart, irreverent Web 2.0 developer of web-based collaboration and development solutions. I’ve praised one of their products in this blog: Basecamp, an ASP alternative to MS Project. They market their products through a web site and attached blog that aren’t afraid to break with convention. That includes the way they draw your attention to important sales copy.
  • Very Short List (VSL) does the same. It’s a fun, free subscription email and web site that delivers a list of exactly one interesting product, service or web site every single day. The copy they employ to describe each “VSL” is always short and clever. To further aid in scanning, VSL highlights important points in their message.

VSL Thumbnail - Click to enlargeBoth use the technique you see in the sample graphic (click to enlarge). They use a text highlighting technique that any web site could adopt but few do. It’s a clean if somewhat “cute” alternative to bold and italics.

Is this new formatting based on science? In other words, do metrics exist to show that this technique improves readership, or helps convert readers into customers?

No. Josh Fried of 37signals admits in, “We don’t have metrics [to support our design changes]. It’s all gut.” (I agree wholeheartedly by the way, with Brian Clark, author of He cautions in this post that listening to designers and one’s instincts can be a dangerous practice when the outcome could be a major decline in the bottom line of your business.)

So right now web marketers appear to be flying blind when they are using this technique to showcase important copy. This could be remedied.

I’ve made a point to talk to anyone I know who conducts eye tracking heatmaps to see if they’ve ever seen any evidence that this hinders or helps a reader through the thicket of online copy. And if they haven’t, would they like to give it a try?

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on whether this hip spin on copy formatting will prove to be more than a novelty.