To engage website readers, replace “we” with “you”

To engage website visitors, shift the focus from what your organization is doing for them to what they can do with your products and services.

photo showing people pointing to youWhen I edit a client’s website, the first thing I look at is tone. If the content makes the reader feel passive, powerless, or bored, I spice it up. Sometimes spicing it up involves adding more substantive, useful information. But, oddly, often all it requires is changing a few words. This has become so instinctive for me that I don’t often analyze how I’m doing it.

Recently a woman whose website I was editing asked how she could write copy that wouldn’t need to be edited and recast. This forced me to look at exactly what I was doing to enliven her copy. Here’s what I discovered:

I change sentences that leave the reader in a passive position (relative to the website) to sentences that focus the spotlight on the reader and his or her experience.

Example: “We have arranged for rapid check-in.” becomes “You’ll enjoy rapid check-in when you arrive.”

While this is natural for me, as an outside consultant, it’s difficult for in-house writers. That’s because they are so aware of how hard the organization has worked on a project they can’t resist the temptation to pat themselves or their colleagues on the back. They don’t notice that it comes across as subtly off-putting to the reader — particularly on a website where every topic begins with a description of how admirable the organization (“we”) is .

The cold, hard, fact is that the reader just doesn’t care; the reader wants to know what’s in it for him or her. Organizations like Amazon.com recognize that. They don’t tell you how they’ve been working their tails off to make the site convenient for you. They tell  you about all the things you can now do with their site.

Example: “We have chosen iPad photography as the topic for the next meeting.” focuses on the exclusive little group making decisions. It could be recast to use a genuine, inclusive “we”: “We’ll be discussing iPad photography.” Even better, it could focus on the website visitor:  “Bring your experiences and questions about iPad photography to the next meeting.”

My client recognized the change of tone that resulted, and said she was going to give it a try.

What do you think? Does shifting from the organizational “we” to a customer-focused “you” make a significant difference? Are there downsides to it?

Let people see it all with Vizify

Vizify could become the new standard for professional online identity.

A problem

Website, blogs, LinkedIn bio…the list of online credentials I like to provide to potential clients keeps growing. Recently I’ve begun to view this as a problem. I find myself sending emails full of links, explaining each link with a little tagline, trying to anticipate what each prospect might want to see.

After I hit “Send,” I worry that I’m boring people with Too Much Information. And it certainly does make for ugly-looking emails.

The solution

Last week I received a Google alert about a client. The link in the alert was to something called “Vizify.” I clicked and gaped. There was a fabulous infographic about the client: His picture, quotes, and links to his webpages and blogs. It was colorful, it was fun, it was professional — and it beat my fussy linked-cluttered email by a mile.

Of course, I went right over to Vizify.com and signed up for my own Vizify page. I was impressed with how easy it is to use the online tool, and how great the result looks. You can link to any webpage you want, or let Vizify use algorithms to pull your content directly from LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare or Instagram. Once published, my site was immediately picked up by search engines and appeared high in search results for my professional information.

The story behind Vizify

Shortly after publishing my page, I received an email from Vizify.com inviting me to phone one of the executive team with any questions.

I called, left a message, and got a call-back from CEO Todd Silverstein. We talked about how he, Eli Tucker and Jeff Cutler-Stamm developed the Vizify service and where they hope to go with it.

“Online identity is becoming increasingly important,” Todd said. “We felt that the tools for self-presentation that are available could be much better. Your LinkedIn profile looks the same as everyone else’s — we wanted to open it up, to help people express all facets of themselves.”

What Vizify offers is a striking graphic design, in a retro flavor, that the user can customize by choosing a color palette and then adding content — text, links, and photos. In essence it’s a slide show: The first page is a visual table of contents. A visitor can click through from any element on the contents page to read a quote, see academic history, see online profile links, or find out what you’ve been Tweeting about. Or a visitor can browse through your whole Vizify slide show.

While the choices are, on first glance, limited, Todd said that creative users are already stretching the boundaries of what can be done. They hide types of pages they don’t need, and they make multiples of other types of pages, such as interesting statistics.

“People are hacking the design,” he said. “We’ve had people put up, instead of photos, QR codes. People are using screen captures of longer pieces of text.”

While working on the Vizify design, the team discovered the people like seeing bits of information, each representing key areas about an individual. Todd calls it “the cocktail party effect.”

“At a party, you go from topic to topic until you find something, some shared interest that activates a conversation,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to do with the Vizify design is bring those interesting aspects to the top to promote that moment of interaction.”

Less than a month old, Vizify has attracted notice from Mashable, TechCrunch, and from mainstream media such as CBS MoneyWatch. It’s been called a “personal landing page,” an “online business card,” and a “graphical bio.”

The next steps, according to Todd, include the rollout of tools to enable the display of more complex portfolios of content — capabilities that will enable Vizify to sell premium plans (the current service is free).

If less is more, will bigger be better?

I’m a big fan of Vizify and look forward to experimenting with the current capabilities. It will be interesting to see how it fares as it adds more features.

What makes it particularly wonderful now is that it pretty much forces people to lead with interesting high points (facts, quotes, hot topics) while discouraging the sort of jargon-clogged, mission-statement banalities that deaden so many online resumes and Linkedin profiles.

If given the chance to use more features, will people be able to resist the temptation to turn their Vizify profiles from intriguing introductions to boring brag books? I sure hope so. Vizify is solving a lot of communications problems for me, and I’m hoping it will become the new standard for professional online identity.

Is your web writer stealing content? Are you encouraging plagiarism?

Do you patronize a business that steals content?

image says "copy paste steal"Last week I visited the website of a local business and was astonished to see that the keyworded webpage describing one of their services had the name of a rival business on it — in a big, bold subhead.

Curious, I went to the website of the rival, and there was the exact same content and photo.

The writer for the first business had simply copied and pasted the content (which appears to be original to the second business) onto the client’s site.

I sent email to the manager of Business #1, alerting her to the situation and explaining that the writer she’d paid to develop original content was instead using the content that Business #2 had paid their own writer, and a stock photography house, to provide. I noted that what her writer had done was plagiarism, and her writer had put them into a situation where they could be sued by the content owner.

The manager wrote back, expressing astonishment. She thanked me for letting her know, and said she’d deal with it.

Out of casual curiosity, I went back the following day to see if she had removed the page. My jaw dropped.

The content was still there. All that the manager of Business #1 had done to deal with the situation was to remove the name of the rightful owner of the content, Business #2, from the page and substitute the name of her business in the big, bold subhead. The unlicensed image was still there.

I called and spoke to the manager. She clearly thought that the error I was pointing out was that she had failed to remove the clue pointing back to the source of her stolen web content. I pressed the point, and her utterly unflappable response was that, hey, the content writer was a friend who had done the work for her for free.

Which shows that you really do get what you pay for.

Interestingly, Business #2 is an extremely competitive chain known for aggressive business practices. I predict it won’t take long for them to find the purloined web content.

I flirted with the idea that the writer who left the name of Business #2 in the stolen copy was making a stab at doing “black hat” SEO*, but decided not to attribute malice (or competence) to what’s clearly several layers of small-time thievery and laziness.

*”Black hat SEO” is the industry term for unethical search engine optimization. One of its milder (“gray hat”) tactics involves mentioning your rival’s name on your webpage so that search engines will lead people looking for your rival’s services to your page, where you can talk them into using your services  instead.

Quick fixes for commercial websites: How to diagnose customer pain points

Five ways to diagnose (and address) customer pain points on commercial websites.

Garry Przyklenk, writing for Search Engine Watch, has a great article for marketing professionals about improving our ability to turn online visitors into customers, clients, and prospects. (The technical name for this process is “conversion optimization.”) The  first step he covers in the article is the one I’m going to talk about here: diagnosing customer pain points.

doctor with patient in painThe truth is that very few marketing teams know if their websites are making life painful for visitors — and that’s because the customer complaints don’t get back to us. In large organizations, or even in mid-size ones, the person responsible for the marketing aspects of the website is often insulated from customer frustration. Chances are that users are squawking to customer service, to sales people in the field, even to tech support — in other words, to people in other departments who roll their eyes and grumble under their breath about “those idiots in marketing.”

Przyklenk notes that if we want to remove the barriers to converting website visitors to website customers, we must seek out the people in the organization who are hearing the moaning and groaning. The means getting the bad news — and good ideas — from:

• The call center. Ask them what they’re hearing from website visitors — and how they’re dealing with it. You’re likely to find you can help them in the short run, and that they can provide valuable input for your longterm website fixes.

• Your IT web team. Are they collecting data on website issues such as abandoned sign-up pages or abandoned shopping carts? If not, ask them to work with you to begin tracking this — it may involve installing third-party software.

• Sales reps. They want to make sales, so chances are they’re coaching prospects and customers on how to deal with your less-than-optimal web pages. Again, find out what they’re telling customers — it could be the basis for a tip or FAQ for the site.

• Customer support. Find out if they use web-based information to assist customers — and what could be done to make that information more helpful and easier for customers to find on their own.

• Fulfillment. Are orders, sign-ups, or donations coming through with inadequate information, leading to errors or re-work on the part of the fulfillment team? Ask them what’s missing from the web-based processes.

Przyklenk advises online marketing folks to try playing the role of the customer. I loved his suggestion that we should try signing up for an account (from a home computer outside the company network) and ordering one of our company’s products — and giving ourselves just 5 minutes in which to do it.

Theft by headline — and the $6 mouse that roared

Illustrations have become increasingly important as people find blog content through image-friendly links on Facebook or online periodicals like Seattle Women Daily.

It’s ironic that today’s issue of Kathy Gill’s Seattle Women Daily leads off with a story about importance of great headline writing. That story (a blog post by Nick O’Neill) explains how a New York Times’ article with a run-of-the-mill headline was ignored while the Forbes summary of the same story garnered 680,000 page views. The difference, notes O’Neill, was that the Forbes headline writer “cut out the crap and got to the real shocker of the story.” (You’ll have to read O’Neill’s post to see how that was done.)

The irony was that the same issue of Seattle Women Daily also has a story I wrote, reporting on another site’s reporting of a subscribers-only Nature article about a breakthrough discovery of the mechanism by which exercise may increase longevity. What distinguished my summary from the pack, and won it a place leading the Health section, was not the headline I wrote, but the photo I used —  of a lab mouse who appears to be doing yoga.

The $6 iStock yoga mouse

I’m a firm believer in the value of photos for enhancing the readability and linkability of a blog post. Illustrations have become increasingly important as people find blog content less through search engines or news readers and more through image-friendly links on Facebook or online periodicals like Seattle Women Daily.

This low-res mouse photo, from iStock, was more expensive than the usual photos I buy to illustrate my blog posts — $6 instead of $2. But, oh, so totally worth it!

Welcome to my Macworld | iWorld 2012 friends

Greetings to all the folks I met at Macworld | iWorld 2012 in San Francisco last week!

Greetings to all the folks I met at Macworld | iWorld 2012 in San Francisco last week!

You’ll find my writing about the iPhone (and Macworld) at iPhone4Tips.wordpress.com and my writing about social media and web content here on the Writer Way blog.

5 essentials for an effective event homepage

Why do websites for major community and commercial events fail the basic effectiveness criteria set by the flyer for a community center rummage sale?

I sit down to write this blog post in a mood that fluctuates between righteous indignation and profound discouragement.

We’re well into the second decade of online communication and yet we still have homepages for major community and commercial events that fail the basic effectiveness criteria established by a paper flyer for a community center rummage sale.

Unless yours is a limited-attendance, exclusive event that wants to discourage inquiries from the riff-raff, it’s essential that the homepage of your event website contain some basic information to assist potential attendees. That’s because your online visitor is busy, busy, busy and his or her decision to attend your event may well be made based on a 10-second scan of your homepage. Why do so many event homepages make that 10-second visit an exercise in hair-ripping frustration?

If you want to be kind to your potential attendees, here are five things your homepage needs to tell them:

Who?

People need to know who is hosting your event because they want to know if it’s being put together by a reputable organization or some fly-by-night franchise.

What?

They need to know what it is (beyond the cutesy, artsy, or edgy name you’ve given it, such as “Frolic in the Park”). It’s tough for event organizers, who’ve been up to their ears in planning for months, to grasp that not everyone knows the event is “all-day” or “for kids and their parents” or “free.” Yet descriptors like these are essential for the homepage, particularly if you want people to be able to describe it to third parties (aka, “word of mouth advertising”). So is cost. I’ve come to the conclusion that an organization that puts the admission price of the event on their homepage instead of burying it somewhere on a “Registration” page deserves the sainthood.

When?

People need to know when your event is. You might think that putting the dates on the homepage (“December 8 and 9”) is enough, but that’s barely a “2” on the scale of effective communication. That’s because it doesn’t include the year, and think how many times you’ve reached an event’s homepage only to discover it’s for last year’s event. How about “Thursday, Dec. 8, and Friday, Dec. 9, 2011”? You’re getting warmer.

Times are important, too. Can people go there with kids after school? Is it a late-evening event? Does it include dinner? Give the potential attendee a break, right there on the homepage. Get rid of some blathering marketing copy they aren’t going to read anyway and put in the times: “Thursday, Dec. 8, 3 – 10 p.m. and Friday, Dec. 9, noon to 11 p.m.” Whew! That wasn’t so hard to do, was it?

Where?

Particularly when people are trying to decide if they are going to attend your event, they need to know where it is. Is it convenient? Is it familiar? Or are they going to spend 30 minutes driving up and down some main drag peering at address numbers? Oddly, the “where” is the area in which most event websites rate a big zero.

Amazingly — astonishingly — many of them give no indication on the homepage of where they are — not just in town, but in the world. No, they think they are the only “Frolic in the Park” in the universe. Is your event in Vancouver? In Everett? In Portland? Do people have to hunt around for your Contact page to find out? (And then discover it consists of somebody’s email address?) If you are having an event, you need to put the location right up there on the homepage.

And just the address (including the city) is not sufficient. There needs to be lots of additional information, including the name of the building (“Town Hall” or “Mary Foster’s house”), the neighborhood (“in North Cedar Heights”), and some landmark directions (“just around the corner from Safeway” or “five minutes north of the fairgrounds”).

A picture of your location is surprising helpful if people need to identify a building when they arrive. If your location is obscure, it’s just about essential to have a link to an interactive map, such as Google Maps. If you’ve checked out maps on other websites, you’ll know that some mapping services are pretty much useless while others are helpful. Take the extra time to figure out how to link to a helpful one.

Why?

You’re all excited about your event, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is. And that’s generally because they don’t know what the benefits of attending your event are. Is it relaxing? Educational? Useful? Will they be able to meet people they couldn’t meet other places? It can’t hurt to put in a sentence to let them know. Right there on the homepage.

Looks aren’t everything

One final remark. The design of your homepage — its aesthetic — tells people quite a bit about your event. Most organizations put a lot of time any money into graphic design — beautiful backgrounds, distinctive typefaces, and eye-catching photography. Oddly, this often detracts profoundly from how well the homepage communicates vital information — the sort of information that enables visitors to decide if they are going to attend. Perhaps the most fatal design mistake is a dark or black background with all the information in white type. Many visitors like to copy and paste information (particularly that address information) into their calendars or into an email to friends they’d like to attend with. If your website type is white, and people paste it into an application, it’s going to be invisible. Sure, they could go to all the trouble of figuring out what on earth went wrong and then figuring out how to apply color in that app. But they’re not going to bother. Oops.

If you simply must have white-on-dark design, make sure you have widgets at the top of your homepage that will allow visitors to email a link to your site, post a link to it on Facebook, or tweet it on Twitter.

Bless their hearts

Here are a few links to events whose plain, simple homepages are doin’ it right when it comes to communication:

Twitter as paperboy: The role of distribution in online publishing

Jason Preston, VP of strategy for Parnassus Group and instigator at several Seattle online publishing startups, posted some interesting observations about the need for distribution in online publishing.

Jason Preston, VP of strategy for Parnassus Group and instigator at several Seattle online publishing startups, posted some interesting observations today about the need for distribution in online publishing.

A blog platform like WordPress, or a proprietary website, is a tool for publishing; Twitter is a tool for distribution. Using Twitter for distribution takes the published message a lot further.

This is a useful paradigm, but its limits got me thinking about the powerful role of subscription in the online world. You can subscribe to have Twitter deliver information from a blog just as you once had a paperboy deliver The Seattle Post-Intelligencer — but now you can also go directly to the publisher (blog) and subscribe by email (or newsreader), eliminating the middleman.

Whether I notice something as the teaser for it scrolls by me in the Twitter stream is pretty haphazard. However, when a post from a blog I’ve subscribed to via email appears in my inbox, I’m likely to read much of it.

Increasingly, I’m subscribing directly to the publisher and bypassing Twitter altogether.

I’ve noticed that groups like XYDO and paper.li have figured out the value of email subscriptions and allow you to subscribe to read a newsletter that displays teasers to your online friends’ favorite links. The XYDO and paper.li algorithms don’t always get it right, but, even so, I’m finding myself paying a lot more attention to the content in those emails than to tweets.

A few words about WordPress

I know quite a few bloggers who are thinking of switching over to WordPress. My advice is: Do it.

After listening to Andru Edwards of GearLive Media making gentle fun of people whose blogs are hosted on their blogging software sites (“Blogname.typepad.com”) I took the plunge and got a WordPress blog. (This one.)

I like it.

But I soon discovered that a lot of the cool things you can do with WordPress, such as running ads, are for blogs that are self hosted. My blog is hosted on WordPress.org, and they don’t allow ads (except for on special VIP accounts for blogs “on par with the Wall Street Journal.”)

If you have a web hosting service you trust (and I do) getting your blog moved over or set up on that outside host is easy. But once you’ve moved it, you are now responsible for updating your version of WordPress yourself. (If you’re hosted at WordPress.com, they do it automatically.) And, if you want to install a new WordPress theme, or simply change a template image, you’ll be on your own. That means dealing with FTP uploads or using some host’s arcane, proprietary file manager software to rummage around in a server hierarchy. (WordPress.com provides an easy interface for these.)

Maintaining your own software is not a big deal? Don’t be so sure. Just about every small company I’ve assisted with blogging has a message on their WordPress admin panel saying that their WordPress software needs to be updated. And they never seem to know how to get it updated. (In one instance, the software was so woefully out of date that I attempted to figure out how to get it updated for them. And ended up utterly baffled.)

ataI’ve just assisted a client in setting up a self-hosted WordPress blog, and in this case was asked to select and install a theme. (“Just make it happen!”)

Writer Way uses a particularly user-friendly theme (PressRow, by Chris Pearson) and I’d found it a breeze to customize. Turns out that not all WordPress themes are so simple to handle. The theme I selected for my client was Atahualpa (by Bytes for All). It’s named after the last Incan emperor of Peru. My experience was, shall we say, an exotic adventure.

Atahualpa turns out to be supremely configurable, with so many complex options that my head began to swim. The code might as well have been written in Quecha, for all I could understand it.

The client was in a hurry, and I was in over my head. But, somehow, I got a customized header image installed (thank you, iStock) and disabled the default floral images (so not my client’s style!).

The final product? Gorgeous.

I know quite a few bloggers who are thinking of switching over to WordPress. My advice is: Do it.

But host the site on a server where you can get a fair amount of hand-holding in terms of setup and updates — this is definitely the time to go with a small, local web hosting service instead of gowhacky.com. And spend some time evaluating WordPress templates before you select one: you’ll be getting to know it very, very well.

Gotta go. I think they just released a new version of Atahualpa.

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