The little design changes that make a big difference

I recently spoke to somebody who wanted copy for their website. And the good news, they told me, was that the site design was already done and dusted.

On the home page, there were three square boxes in a row, spaced evenly. Underneath, there was a box that took up the entire width of the page, and under that were another two boxes.

The proposed design looked attractive, making good use of white space and complementary colours. It was when I asked what went in the boxes that we ran into trouble.

I’d made the assumption that three boxes meant three distinct offerings. Or three target audiences. Or three offers.

But they didn’t, any more than the one box underneath was destined for anything specific. Or the two boxes below that. In fact, the whole design was chosen on the basis that it looked pleasing, its boxes filled with the ubiquitous mock Latin (Lorem ipsum etc.).

But when we actually looked at the copy that was needed, it didn’t fit neatly into the boxes. Or neatly on the page, for that matter.

So we did the only thing possible: turned the approach on its head, and started with the copy. For at the end of the day, you have a story to tell, and an audience to engage. And the design should support, not dictate, the way that story is told.

I’m not saying copy trumps design. The two have to work hand in hand, so there’s not a disconnect between what you’re saying and the way it’s presented.

I was reminded of this balancing act as I watched a TED video last week.

Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook’s director of product design (and ex-YouTuber) talks about the huge impact that little design changes can make. Like changing the Like button on Facebook. That tiny graphic took the lead designer 280 hours or work (that’s seven weeks at 40 hours a week) to redesign.

She also talks about the Facebook photo take-down request that failed to engage users. Until, that is, the designers tweaked it to include the reason for the request, and how the photo made the requester feel (sad, angry, embarrassed and so on).

From a copy point of view, the take-down story is fascinating, proving that context is everything. If people understand why you’re asking for something, and what a difference it will make, they’re much more likely to comply. In Facebook’s case, usage of the feature jumped from 20% to 60% of those wanting photos (usually embarrassing ones) taken down.

And research showed that 90% of people who’d posted photos wanted to know if and how they’d upset people.

Gould Stewart also talks about knowing who you’re designing for, which in Facebook’s case means a huge number of users who don’t have access to cutting-edge hardware or fast internet. The exact same approach applies to copy: if you don’t know who you’re writing for, you’ll never come up with copy that connects with your target audience.

How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too) has lots of insights into how little things can make a big difference, and may just get you thinking – as it did me – about the importance of getting them right.

And of really thinking about who’s out there, and what matters to them.

[If you're reading this in an email, click here to view the talk on]

Getting up close and personal - and getting results

What’s in a name? The keys to the marketing kingdom, that’s what.

Getting up close and personal   and getting results | marketing  | copywriter

One minute, I was walking down to the post office. The next, I was stopped in my tracks.

For there, on the side of the bus shelter, was my name – together with lots of others, but mine was in pride of place, right at the front of the line of bottles.

Coke became my new best friend. And I don’t even like Coke.

But still – I was glad they made the effort. I even tweeted about it. How’d they do that? I mused jokingly. With a little bit of Coke magic, replied the folks at Coke UK marketing.

The ad made me smile, and the campaign pulled me in. I was even tempted, for a very brief moment, to rush to my local store and see if I could find a real bottle with my name on it.

Me, you and them

There’s no denying it – personalised marketing works. And it doesn’t take very much. Once you’ve got somebody’s first name, you’ve got the keys to the marketing kingdom.

But it’s not just the name that does it; it’s the style too. If you’re on first-name terms with somebody, you have to carry that through with writing that’s engaging and friendly, balancing informality and professionalism.

And that’s not always easy.

If you cross the line into over-familiarity, you very soon reach the point of diminishing returns. The trick is to appear to be somebody’s friend – everybody’s friend, ideally – while maintaining a certain detachment. It’s a delicate balance to achieve, but the rewards are tremendous.

So why does personalised marketing work?

  • It’s more memorable. Already, I’m talking about Coke and I’m not their biggest fan. I’ve shared the photo with friends, and (sadly) it was one of the highlights of last week.
  • It increases customer engagement. People up and down the country, and right around the world, are rushing out to find a bottle with their name on it. When I sent the photo to a French friend, he told me the campaign is running there too, but he’s yet to find a bouteille with Pierre on it. The whole thing has the feeling of a treasure hunt, which is always exciting.
  • It pushes up conversions. When you get personalised recommendations from Amazon, or personalised vouchers from Tesco, you’re much more likely to sit up and take notice. And to take action.
  • It keeps people coming back. In the same way as you avoid shops where you’re made to feel like just another footfall statistic, you’re attracted to ones where they know your name, remember your usual order, and always greet you with a smile. The exact same rule applies in the virtual world.
  • It’s more fun for you, which means you put more into it, and it becomes a virtuous circle. We may all be marketers, but we’re also ordinary people, just like our customers. Personalised marketing feels like a casual conversation, which is more relaxed and enjoyable. And it’s a karma thing: you get back what you put in, so if you let your guard down and appear a bit more friendly, your customers and prospects will too.

With the advent of Big Data (with its ominous capital letters) the era of personalised marketing is truly upon us. Everybody’s doing it, from Tesco, who’ve just acquired Sociomantic, to Ovo Energy, whose funky, chatty letters and emails I’ve been getting since I switched from one of the bigger, more impersonal energy companies.

In a world were virtual is the norm, it pays to get personal.

And the good news is that it’s never been easier. We have all the technical tools, and exhaustive data, to get up close and personal. So your marketing isn’t just a message in a bottle, it’s a message on a bottle.

A bottle with somebody’s name on it. And we can all drink to that.

Keep it short and simple, focus on benefits, and repeat. Job done.

Marketing is a message in a bottle. Just keep sending the bottles.

Keep it short and simple, focus on benefits, and repeat. Job done. | marketing copywriting  | copywriter

Just last week, this flyer landed on my doormat. It’s simple but very effective. Why?

  • It makes easy look easy. You’d be surprised how many people do the opposite. If you’re telling people you’re making their lives easier, make sure you walk the talk.
  • It has a magic number. It wouldn’t work with two, or four, or six. Three, yes. Five, yes. For some reason (to get geeky for a moment, probably because they’re prime numbers, being divisible only by 1 and themselves) they work. And in this case, five is enough. Any more, and you’re making easy look difficult.
  • It tells a good story, which is what the best copywriting is all about. It solves a problem and seems to have no downside, which is always what people are looking for when they’re wondering why not to buy.

There is one area where it falls down, and it’s common to a lot of copy: it leads with features. The thing is, it starts well with an up-front benefit: why I can make your life easier. It grabs your attention. It certainly grabbed mine.

But it doesn’t follow though. And yet, the step required to change features into benefits is a simple one. All you have to do is flip around the order of the sentence, or add a few words, and you’re there.

So let’s work that feature/benefit magic trick:

  • Get it all in one place. Choose from over 250 daily essentials.
  • Order anytime, anywhere with milk&more mobile.
  • Shop when it suits you. Order up to 9pm the night before your next delivery.
  • Save time and hassle. Avoid those trips to the shops and beat the queues.

And what about Free delivery? I hear you ask. That’s a feature, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

The benefit is that you don’t need to struggle to reach a minimum amount, and can just fire off an order when you feel like it. But this feature has one trump card: the word free. That beats all other cards in your marketing deck.

So feature it is.

And did I sign up for milk&more? Well, no. But not because the flyer isn’t an effective piece of communication. It is: simple and direct, with a friendly tone and funky graphics.

But the milk&more marketing gurus can stop scratching their heads and wondering where they went wrong with me. Because it wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do. It was simply that somebody else got there first. In this case, Tesco, who’ve locked me in with their super-duper midweek delivery-saver programme. For now.

So should milk&more give up? Absolutely not. One day, I may be ready to buy what they’re selling, so they need to stay top of mind in the meantime.

Marketing is a message in a bottle, and timing is everything. So keep the bottles coming, and one day somebody will pick it up, read it and buy.

Zen and the art of marketing mastery

One book, five lessons learned and a goal finally reached

Zen and the art of marketing mastery | philosophy marketing ideas  | copywriterZen and the art of marketing mastery | philosophy marketing ideas  | copywriter

I’ve finally done it. It’s been on my list of things to do forever, and now I can tick it off. No, it’s not climbing Everest, or appearing on Britain’s Got Talent, or running a marathon.

It’s reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

It’s 40 years since this quirky blend of mechanics and ideas first hit the headlines, and became the bible of the cool generation. Four decades and five million copies later it’s still going strong.

As I’ve been working my way slowly through it (it’s 400+ pages, and gets very heavy sometimes) I’ve realised some of the things that have have made it successful, and how they’re directly applicable to marketing. And I’ve also learned a few lessons about human nature, and why we do what we do.

  1. Motivation is important.  If you want people to take action, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. In my case, I persevered with Zen because I’m part of a book club that meets monthly over Sunday lunch and discusses a book we’ve all read. You don’t have to have read the book, but if you haven’t, you’re automatically on the sidelines of the discussion. So it’s peer pressure, plus a sense of involvement, plus a deadline – if I don’t finish it by this weekend, I’ve missed an opportunity.
  2. Headlines matter. Undoubtedly one of the reasons I’ve had this book on my reading list for so long is that it’s got a crazy, catchy, memorable title. Just the other day, I struggled to remember the name of a book I’d really enjoyed when I was chatting with a friend. Though the book was memorable, the title wasn’t. Zen, on the other hand, I hadn’t yet read, but had no difficulty recalling its title. It’s funky and playful, and trips off the tongue.
  3. Testimonials are worth their weight in gold. The first person who mentioned the book to me, years and years ago, was a biker friend who was doing a PhD in philosophy – no surprise he liked it, then. And since I liked him, I trusted his judgement. You’ve got to read it, he said over and over. Every time I saw him, he asked me whether I’d got round to it yet. And every time, I said no. Now, that’s about to change – and in no small part because of his recommendation. And several other recommendations I’ve had in the meantime.
  4. Telling a story is critical. There’s lots of heavy stuff in Zen. Not least Zen, but also Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, Hume and a slew of other philosophers. At times, it gets quite deep, and you really have to slow down and concentrate – otherwise, you realise you’ve read several pages and taken in nothing. The process, appropriately enough, is Zen-like. But what makes it easier is that Pirsig alternates between the heavy philosophical musings and the road trip that the first-person narrator takes with his son Chris. That variation lightens the intellectual load, and provides a narrative that readers can latch onto.
  5. First impressions count. The edition I’m reading is a special 25th anniversary one that came out in 1999 (see above). It’s got a bright-blue cover with chunky Austin Powers-like lettering in red. It’s like the visual equivalent of an acid trip. It adds to the fun and funkiness of it all, and makes me want to be one of the cool people who’ve read the book and are in the know.

So what are you getting right on your marketing road trip?

  • Are you giving your readers a reason to read what you’ve written? To care about your content? To engage with you?
  • Are you grabbing them with a headline that keeps them reading?
  • Are you following up with satisfied clients to get testimonial quotes and asking them to recommend your products and services to friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances?
  • Is your copy tightly structured with a beginning, middle and end?  Do you tell a good story?
  • And when people land on your site or see your brochure for the first time, are they instantly captivated?

We may not all be interested in motorcycle maintenance (count me out) or philosophy (I think I’m getting hooked) but we can all learn something from Pirsig’s left-of-field take on life, that’s as applicable now as when it first appeared 40 years ago.

I certainly have. And now, I can finally tick Zen off my to-do list.

I’d better start training for that marathon.

Find out more:

Marketing may be an art, but you can always apply a little science

Change one thing at a time. Monitor. Measure. Repeat.

Marketing may be  an art, but you can always apply a little science | marketing  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Pong at]

Just recently, I spoke to somebody who wanted to increase her conversion rate online. She was getting visitors, and they were buying. Just not as enthusiastically as she was hoping.

She’d just changed her pricing, which followed hot on the heels of a website redesign and restructure (with a knock-on effect on search-engine rankings).

Now, for good measure, she decided to change her copy as well. It was the sort of belt-and-braces approach she thought would create that quantum leap she was looking for.

She’s not a client. Or at least, not yet.

The copy isn’t perfect – no copy is – but it’s good enough for the moment, I told her. And if she changes that on top of the structure (more streamlined) and the pricing (lower) how will she know what to attribute success to, if and when it comes?

So she’s letting it all settle down while she tracks, analyses and draws conclusions.

Conversely, I’ve also recently spoken to somebody who’s been having great success with his site.

Why? He’s not sure.

The copy is something that was ‘thrown together’ when the site launched, and he’s always thought it could be better (see above). Once again, he’s not entirely certain how, but it’s one of those niggling little things that keep him awake at night.

Monitor, measure, tweak

Both of these examples demonstrate the infuriating un-pindownability of marketing. Is it an art? Or a science? Can you easily identify cause and effect? Can success (or failure) be attributed to a specific action or actions?

The whole discipline is shrouded in uncertainty, but three things are clear.

First, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, so you need to measure relentlessly. Hits, sales, calls, ad responses, conversions, effectiveness of calls to action, click-through rates. Not to mention price points and seasonal fluctuations. Headlines that work, and tweets that are retweeted. Keywords that set sales alight, and offers that hit the sweet spot.

The second thing that’s clear is that you shouldn’t change everything at once. Instead, you should tweak and measure. Tweak and measure. Perhaps tweak back in the other direction and measure.

And that leads to the last thing: sometimes, you may never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Every little doesn’t help

Consider Tesco, once the UK’s favourite supermarket chain. They were growing like topsy, with stores popping up right across the country. They had better prices, better service and better coverage (there are four big stores in Cambridge alone, plus a slew of little ones) than the other chains. Everything was going their way.

And then suddenly it wasn’t.

Earlier this month, Tesco revealed its worst results in decades. It’s the latest in a series of lacklustre figures, and the decline seems unstoppable.

Partly, it’s down to positioning. They’re taking a hammering from cut-price rivals (Lidl and Aldi) at the lower end, and are not perceived to be as upmarket as Sainsbury’s and the reassuringly expensive Waitrose at the top of the food chain. They’re stuck in the middle, and are as squeezed as we’re being constantly told that middle is.

And yet they’ve made a big effort to win – or win back – customers.

In times of crisis, changing one thing at a time is not always the best approach, so you throw everything you’ve got at the problem. As a Tesco customer, I can see that they’re pulling out all the stops: lower minimum purchase for online groceries, cheaper delivery slots, endless promotions, £5 off vouchers.

Tesco is love-bombing the market. In fact, it’s been doing so since its poor performance over the Christmas period. But the results just aren’t there. I’m feeling all loved up, but there’s a limit to what I can do – or anybody else for that matter. People are voting with their feet, and Tesco is having a hard time seeing why.

But don’t feel too sorry for them. They have bags of money, decades of experience and some of the best marketing brains in the business. They’ll figure it out sooner or later.

In the meantime, we should all just make a note to self: change one thing at a time, monitor and measure, and tweak. Get all the little things right, but avoid the trap of perfectionism. Control what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Stuff happens, and what matters is how you react.

Accept that marketing is an art, but remember that a little dash of science never goes amiss. And last but not least, tell a good story, which is an art in itself. Or if you can’t, get somebody in who can.

You get my drift.