Little things, big difference. What are you waiting for?
Have you ever told somebody to button their shirt? To move their tie up a tad, so it doesn’t look like it’s a flower drooping in the midday sun? To change that stripy jumper for a plain one?
Often, it’s the little things that make a big difference. Suddenly, everything falls into place. The look makes sense, the colours work, the missing something is no longer missing.
As with fashion, so with copy.
Last week once again, I turned a job away because all it needed was a tie-tuck or a done-up button. I really shouldn’t make a habit of this (it’s bad for business) but on the other hand, I never take on a job where I’m not really needed (which is good for goodwill, so it balances out).
Often, all copy needs is a quick makeover, and you’re done. Not an expensive, plastic-bending splurge. Just a little accessorising to give it that all-important lift.
Try it now. Take any copy you think doesn’t work and apply these simple steps. And marvel at the results.
1. Get over yourself
When you visit a website, what’s the most important thing you’re looking for? Don’t think too hard about it, because the answer is staring you in the face. And if you still can’t work it out, stand in front of the nearest mirror. Now, it’s literally staring you in the face.
It’s you, of course.
And when I go to a website, I want to find out about me. How the smartphone will make me smarter. How the suit will make me sharper. How the car will improve my self-esteem (well that’s a bad example, as I’m not a petrolhead, but you get the idea).
Now take another look at that copy.
How many times does it use the word ‘you’? Divide that by the number of times you see the word ‘I’ or ‘we’. If the result is less than 1, you’ve got a problem. But then, you already know the solution.
2. Be bold (and don’t dodge that bullet)
People naturally gravitate towards what’s easy to read. So make it easy, with bold text, big headings, plenty of bullets and a smattering of underline. Give them some stepping stones, so their eye can be led through the copy.
Is anybody going to read all of this post? Maybe, maybe not. But the chances are increased if they see the bold, numbered headings (they know there’s a start and end point) and are intrigued enough to read the bits in between.
3. Slash and burn
Vast swathes of unbroken copy are daunting. Why do you think Dan Brown writes short snappy chapters with breathless cliffhangers at the end of every one? Why do you think so few people make it through War and Peace or Gone with the Wind (both weighing in at over 1,000 pages)?
If classic books can be summarised in 140 characters, then there’s no excuse for your web copy, brochure, report, article or blog post.
If you don’t know where to start trimming, try a more radical approach: lop off the whole branch. Instead of snipping a word here or there, cut out an entire paragraph. Does it affect the big picture? Is a vital detail missing? Does the copy still flow?
If you can’t see the wood for the trees, keep hacking.
4. Loosen up
You don’t envisage, you plan or imagine. They don’t request or require, they ask or need. It’s not assistance, it’s help. And as for plethora or myriad, if they’re finding their way into your copy, you might
encounter meet lots of problems.
Big words impress nobody when it comes to selling, marketing, promoting or convincing. People are far more easily won over if you let down your guard and talk like a real person.
Here, the golden rule is if in doubt, read it out. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.
So here’s an idea: get your headset, set your PC to record, and do an elevator pitch. Or a sales pitch. Or a marketing presentation. Nobody’s listening, so be yourself. Now play it back. Notice the difference?
If you’re happy with it, transcribe it. Voilà – instant copy.
5. Become an action hero
Never, ever leave people dangling. You’re not Dan Brown, you’re a marketer, so cliffhangers are not your ultimate goal.
Round off every page, every section and every subsection with a call to action. Have boxes, and banners and buttons that tell people what to do. Repeat your call to action (or calls to action: phone, email, download, fill in a form, request a callback) as many times as you need – or dare.
* * *
So there you have it. Not rocket science, I hear you say? Of course not. Any more than straightening your tie, or buttoning your shirt, or combing your hair.
If it’s really that easy, what are you waiting for? Grab some copy and give it a makeover. You can do it – I know you can.
And don’t worry about me. A little goodwill goes a long way.
Selling is like a love story. Make sure yours has a happy ending.
Some years ago, I thought I’d found the one.
Yes, the one garage that truly understood me, and my lack of technical sophistication. The one mechanic who was in tune with what I needed, and didn’t hold out false hopes or far-fetched dreams.
Every time I took my car there, the bill was less than I expected. But that’s not all. There were little touches that made me think he really cared. Extras that I hadn’t asked for, and things fixed that I didn’t even know were broken.
And all at no extra charge.
They were small things, and just a moment’s work for somebody who knew what they were doing, but they made a difference. And truth be told, I’d have paid a lot more than I did, simply for the feeling that I was in a mutually beneficial relationship.
He won, I won. We had a future together.
We shared our problems. In my case, they were mostly mechanical. In his, financial: he mentioned he’d moved house, had another kid and got some unexpected bills. Times were hard, he told me.
I commiserated, but thought no more of it. Until the next time I visited.
(Grease) monkey business
This time, the bill was higher than I expected. Not only that, there were some other things he’d spotted that needed attention. They were serious, he told me, and shouldn’t really be left. So I agreed, and ended up with a bill almost three times what I was used to.
Oh well, I thought. These things happen. It’s just the once.
Except it wasn’t. The next time, it was other small niggles that couldn’t be left unrepaired. There was much sucking of air through teeth, and standing back to get a better view of the impending disaster that was my car.
The free extras had stopped. The paid extras had kicked in. I went from a feeling of being in safe hands to one of being exploited. And then one day I left the abusive relationship, and found a mechanic who understood me.
If my story sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve got one just like it.
The nice coffee shop that turned nasty. The hairdresser who hiked her prices with no warning. The gym that refused to offer you the same deal as new members. The list goes on and on.
Trust takes a long time to earn, but is very quick to lose. Change the service, push your prices up, behave out of character and your clients get twitchy.
Buying – just like dating – is difficult and stressful when you’re faced with with a stranger, which is why people stick with what they know. Until that changes. Until you change it:
- You raise your prices because you need more revenue. (Hint: find new customers instead.)
- You change your offer because it’s been too popular. Or you discontinue it for the same reason.
- Your response is ‘you should have read the small print’ when somebody complains.
- You stop being flexible and bending rules when you know you could (or should).
- You forget that clients are humans just like you, and that you can hurt their feelings (which hurts your bottom line).
- You behave unpredictably or unreliably, and they realise they can no longer trust you to be predictable or reliable.
- You take them for granted.
Spanner in the works
It takes a lot to win a client, and not very much to keep them (do what you do well, keep up your standards, and make them happy). But it takes very little indeed to lose them, when you lose sight of what matters.
Selling is like dating – you’re looking for a long-term relationship. But when it’s over, it’s over, and they’re not coming back – so make sure you keep them, by getting all the little things right.
If you don’t, there’s always another mechanic with a cheeky grin and a winning way.
And those all-important extras.
Content, search engines and the never-ending quest for readers.
There was a seismic shift recently in the world of search-engine optimisation (SEO). The strange thing is that nobody felt it when it actually happened.
Google’s Hummingbird update to its search algorithm is one of the biggest in years. But by the time it was announced in late September, it had already been in place for over a month. It’s just that nobody noticed. So is it a major change or a minor one? A complete overhaul, or just some fine-tuning?
It’s both. And neither. Everything changes, and nothing does.
Let me explain.
Tail wagging the dog?
Back in 2004, Chris Anderson popularised the term ‘long tail’ in Wired magazine. Long-tail queries were simply ones that were more detailed and explicit. So you didn’t search for ‘copywriter’ but ‘technology copywriter in Cambridge’ (as a random example).
Specific searches meant specific results, so everybody got to work creating content that matched these long-tail queries. ‘Gateway pages’ abounded: ones whose names matched the queries that people were typing into search engines. And some marketers created faster than others, and reaped the rewards.
But it was still all based on keywords.
Keywords are still important. But at the end of August they became just a little less important to Google. For that’s when they started looking at what people are really searching for, and trying to ‘intuit’ (yes, I hate that word too) what they really want.
Hummingbird focuses on the meaning behind the words, which is especially important with the rise of the mobile internet. When more and more people are speaking – rather than typing – their searches, it’s essential to look beyond the keywords and see what they actually mean.
The phrase on everybody’s lips is ‘conversational search’.
Google just last week stepped this up a gear, with the announcement of Android 4.4 (codename Kitkat) which will allow users to simply say ‘OK Google’ from any screen to bring up Google Now, and let them speak a search.
So what changes?
Well everything on the back end, but not that much on the front end. For website creators and editors (and copywriters, of course) quality content is as important as it’s ever been. The sort of content that delivers value, educates and informs people, gives them what they’re looking for, and that they’ll link to. And like (as in Facebook Like).
Keywords are still important, though their individual power is diminished. Instead, it’s the combination of keywords – into key phrases, and meaning beyond the phrases – that counts.
A fine line
SEO is, and has always been, a delicate balancing act. Too many keywords, and you’ll attract the search engines but put off readers. Push it a bit further, and you’ll put off both (and be blacklisted by the former).
Longer is better, some say, when it comes to search-engine copy.
And it it is, but only when you have something interesting to say. You can ruin perfectly good copy by padding it out, or by repeating the same thing in the hope of getting some SEO brownie points. But it rarely works that way. Copy should be as long as it needs to be, and be relevant. Longer doesn’t mean more relevant.
So what’s my advice? Well I’m still saying what I’ve always said:
- Don’t stuff it with keywords.
- Stop when you’ve said what you have to say.
- Use specific key phrases rather than keywords.
- Put key phrases in your H1, H2 etc. headings.
- Make sure you use your meta tags (title, description, keywords etc.) and again, keep them specific and relevant.
- Come to that, make everything specific and relevant.
The art of good copy – and good SEO copy – is that it gets the message across as clearly as possible, as quickly as possible. Use headings, sub-headings, boxes and bullet points to ‘chunk’ the copy. Don’t overload any one page, but let people branch off for the in-depth stuff.
In brief, think like a reader and write like a reader. And above all, give people what they want – or better still, think one step ahead and anticipate what they want.
Which is just what Hummingbird does.
Find out more:
Good service costs nothing. Bad service costs you sales.
I’ve just returned from a holiday in France. Wall-to-wall sunshine, a stunning view of the Pyrenees, baguettes and cheap plonk.
Oh no, that must be a false memory, since I don’t drink any more. But who says you can’t have fun without alcohol? Of course you can. Trust me.
And though the holiday itself was amazing, the journey was the usual low-cost obstacle course. Ryanair, that is. Like millions of others, I fly them because they’re cheap, have an extensive network and did I mention they’re cheap?
But price isn’t everything.
I’d happily pay twice as much just to have a stress-free experience. But with low cost goes low expectations, and they were right on the money. The scramble for seats, the street-market in the sky (Panini? Scratch card? Train tickets? Over-priced sandwich, anyone?) and the confusion over the priority and normal queue at the gate.
To be fair, the flights both ways were on time, so the possibility for frustration was limited. Unlike earlier in the year, when my flight was delayed for four hours. No drinks, snacks, access to the toilets, or announcements. Corralled in a stuffy departure lounge at Gatwick Airport, with rising temperatures and fraying nerves.
Followed by the discovery in online forums that though Ryanair charges a premium to cover EU delayed-departure compensation rights, they refuse payment in over 95% of cases, citing aircraft safety concerns.
How low can you go?
But all is forgiven if the price is right, isn’t it? People hold their nose, avert their eyes, take a deep breath, and lie back and think of wherever – don’t they?
Mostly. And then, one day, they crack.
Which is what happened to Ryanair recently. Their numbers are down, and it looks like it’s because of their offhand treatment of their customers. Shareholders at the AGM in Dublin weren’t happy with the results or the forecasts. And so Ryanair’s cheeky CEO, Michael O’Leary, said they’d start being nicer to customers.
As he’ll no doubt discover, it’s a virtuous circle. Treat your customers well, and they treat you well. Smile, and they smile back. Assume they’re telling the truth and they’ll do the same for you. Look like you care, and they’ll return the sentiment.
So now, they’re changing their tune. And I think I did actually notice it. Gone was the nasty woman at Perpignan airport with the roll of €50 stickers, gleefully punishing people for an excess kilo here and there. Staff seemed a little more human, and less willing to assume that every passenger was a potential troublemaker.
The airline even had a personal message from ‘Da Boss’ on its website, asking how they could improve their service. Could it be that he’d seen the light?
O’Leary was my new best friend. I clicked on the link and poured my heart out. Lying back on the virtual couch, I told Dr Michael everything that was on my mind. All my gripes, my simmering resentments, and my suggestions for a better relationship.
And then I clicked Submit.
Please enter a valid suggestion, it said. Maximum 500 characters. Mine, when I cut and pasted it into Word to check it, weighed in at 2,500 words. So to the 10 kilos, and the 55 x 40 x 20cm, and the 100ml, we need to add the new restriction of 500 words.
You really couldn’t make it up.
Ryanair will get there one day with their customer service (they have no choice, if the shareholders have anything to do with it). They’re on the right track, but they need to adjust their course.
At the end of the day, it’s not all about the numbers. Quality is just as important as quantity. Which is a lesson they’re taking on board, one flight at a time.
The fragility of memory – and the power of confidence, detail and emotion
If, like me, you woke up one day and discovered you liked peas, you should take 17 minutes out of your busy schedule, get comfortable and listen to Elizabeth Loftus.
And even if you didn’t, you still should.
Loftus is a psychologist who studies memory. Or more precisely, false memories. The sort of memories that we’re absolutely, definitely convinced are real. The sort of memories that get somebody picked out of a police line-up and put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Not because the witness lied, but because they thought they were telling the truth.
Except they weren’t.
Loftus’s TED talk, The Fiction of Memory, also raises considerations about the power of language. And they’re ones you should always bear in mind when you’re telling your story and connecting with people. What you say matters. But how you say it matters more.
The more confidence, detail and emotion you put into your writing, the more convincing it is. Now I’m not suggesting you brainwash your audience, or that you say something that’s patently not true (watch the video to find out more).
What I am suggesting is that you should dig deep and try to create an experience that engages people and makes them visualise what it’ll be like to work with you and buy from you, to trust you and recommend you.
Or, put another way, how will they pick you out of a marketing line-up? How can you convince them that you’re the one?
Or convince them that they like (or don’t like) peas?
The pea story, by the way, is an enlightening one. For years, I thought I hated peas. I think I must have left them on my plate once when I was a kid. Convinced that I didn’t like them, my parents didn’t insist (I liked almost every other type of vegetable) and the pea-aversion story gained traction and credibility. To the point where I never touched them.
Until I did, years later. And when I did, I discovered they were really rather tasty. Years of false memory and the power of language (“You don’t like peas, Kevin”) had convinced me that they were the vegetable equivalent of Marmite.
Which really is untouchable (and that’s definitely not a false memory).
Enjoy the talk.
[If you're reading in an email, click here to see the video on the TED website.]