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 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?