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Writing Content that Works for a Living

Issue № 271

Writing Content that Works for a Living

by Published in Content Strategy, Writing, Business45 Comments

Web copy is still, for the most part, being written in much-less-than-ideal circumstances by people who aren’t writers and don’t have any time. That’s a problem, but it’s not one we’re likely to solve in the next few years—particularly not with a recession forcing many people to do ever more with ever less.

The good news, though, is that anyone who touches copy can make a difference by insisting that every chunk of text on the site is doing something concrete. And alas, “selling product!” doesn’t count: “selling” is a muzzy, undefined process, so you can’t tell if you’re doing it properly just by looking. Copy needs specific goals to accomplish. For the moment, let’s take the product page—that is, a page designed to sell a product—as an example.

I’m in grad school, and I’m not a naturally organized person, so last week, I started looking around online for reviews of academic productivity and citation management applications that could help me manage my research materials. An ad for academictoolkit.com topped my first page of Google results, and the URL sounded about right—an academic toolkit was pretty much exactly what I was hoping to find. When the page finally finished loading, though, it took me several seconds to figure out how I’d gotten there, and quite a few more to parse enough of the copy to realize that the site appeared to have nothing to offer me.

This wasn’t the worst-case scenario, since it turns out that I wasn’t in the target audience, as far as I can tell. But if I had been, the copy might have been frustrating or just plain baffling enough to drive me away before I found what I was looking for. In that case, the company would have lost a sale and I would have missed out on a potentially useful tool. Still, what really happened was bad enough: the company wasted money on a too-vague Google ad and the site’s unclear copy wasted enough of my time to make my inner editor squeak in irritation.

Solutioning your academias

In case the page changes, here are the first two paragraphs that greeted me at academictoolkit.com, once I’d scrolled past the extraneous Flash-video-headline thing at the top of the page:

Academia Solutions

GeoAge mobility solutions allow researchers to gain insight by providing access to real-time inspection information. The ability to capture data and mobile devices, transmit and instantly report provides a strong advantage.

And that’s where FAST can be a valuable asset … turning data into intelligence in near real-time. Capturing and reporting in real-time can improve operational intelligence and provide insight that enables more effective strategic, tactical and effective decision-making. With GeoAge mobility software, research is FASTER.

I should have closed the page as soon as I saw the words “academia solutions.” “Solutions” is vague enough on its own, and the “academia solutions” construction bespeaks a mindset in which “verticals” square dance with “industry matrices.” It’s the language of marketing briefs, not that of academics or researchers or human beings.

This is not where I whine about jargon

There’s a time for professional jargon: when you know you’re speaking to an audience that understands you, and you need the extra specificity and precision that jargon can provide. If you’re using it outside of that situation, you’re probably not communicating clearly, honestly, or effectively.

Jargon isn’t really the problem here, though. The problem with the copy on this page—and so many others that promote information products—is that it’s not saying anything. Misplaced jargon, buzzwords, and other kinds of fluff rush in because the lack of conveyable meaning creates a vacuum.

What’s wrong?

If you come to the page, as I did, by Googling “academic research software,” you may well be befuddled by the complete lack of information that might explain who this “solution” is intended for. The third paragraph of copy does finally suggest that the activity it supports is “mobile academic research,” which presumably tells the target audience that they’re in the right place, but there’s no information about what academic disciplines, specifically, the software (hardware?) is intended to serve—or whether they’re targeting individual academics, research labs, or departmental IT leads.

Moreover, the copy doesn’t say what the product is. Two different brand names, “GeoAge” and “FAST,” appear, as does “mobility solutions,” which tells us the whatever-it-is is small and probably wireless. Is it software? Is it hardware? Is it a hosted service? Is GeoAge the name of the company? What’s FAST? If you don’t already know, you’re not going to find out here.

But that’s okay, right, as long as you provide useful information to people who come to the site already knowing the brand name and nature of the product? I suppose it is, if you’re willing to alienate everyone else (and pay someone to field customer service inquiries from the people who can’t tell what’s going on). But is this text serving even the already-informed reader? Let’s take another look.

GeoAge mobility solutions allow researchers to gain insight by providing access to real-time inspection information.

So these “solutions” let people gain “insight” by letting them see a particular kind of information in “real-time.” Presumably, competing products don’t let you do that—but this page doesn’t say that.

The ability to capture data and mobile devices, transmit and instantly report provides a strong advantage.

Now we see that the “ability” to do various things “provides a strong advantage.” Is this the solution’s ability? The researcher’s ability, gained by using the solution? What kind of advantage, and over what?

Perhaps the next paragraph will explain.

And that’s where FAST can be a valuable asset … turning data into intelligence in near real-time.

Leaving aside the question of what “that’s” refers to (the ability? the advantage?), didn’t you say I’d get insight in “real-time” two sentences ago? Is “insight” different from “intelligence”? Does “intelligence” take longer to bake, and that’s why it only comes in “near real time”?

This sentence tells us nothing. Moving on.

Capturing and reporting in real-time can improve operational intelligence and provide insight that enables more effective strategic, tactical and effective decision-making.

Intelligence and insight will be improved! By capturing and reporting! That enables, among other things, tactical decision-making! Glorious spider monkeys of the dawn, I’ll take a dozen!

No matter that I still don’t know what this thing is, except that it’s mobile and researchy.

With GeoAge mobility software, research is FASTER.

...and we end with a tagline.

There’s a third paragraph, but it’s not much help, either.

This is what happens when you need to fill a webpage with copy and have no goals more specific than “sell.” It’s easy to hate on the prose, but the real problem is a lack of direction—and of a sense that there’s a problem to be solved by the copy. (The same thing that on the visual design side leads to pretty, useless page designs.) The content isn’t doing anything but taking up space.

Make it simple

Most product pages need to answer these questions:

  1. Who is the product for?
  2. What is the product?
  3. What does the product do for its target user?
  4. Why is the product better than the available alternatives?

Stupidly simple, right? But the lack of answers to these questions is what leads to thousands upon thousands of wasted hours (and more money than I want to think about) spent writing, serving, and reading meaningless dreck that doesn’t inform users, promote products, or help anyone.

Let’s break the questions down a little.

  1. Who is the product for?
    Ask yourself: Can the target audience tell from this copy that we’re speaking to them? Can other people outside our audience tell that we’re NOT speaking to them?
  2. What is the product?
    Ask yourself: Have we spelled out, clearly and in simple language, what the product is? Are the nouns as concrete as we can make them?
  3. What does the product do for its target user?
    Ask yourself: Have we laid out the product’s primary features and benefits in a clear, concrete way?
  4. Why is the product better than the available alternatives?
    Ask yourself: What evidence do we have for those claims? Are we presenting that evidence clearly and without fluffy, empty language that makes us look like we’re boasting?

Do those things and then get the text shined by someone who writes well, and you’ll communicate more clearly and efficiently than the horde of companies who’ve filled their product pages with the prose equivalent of cotton candy.

Doing it right

Oh, and my search for a great research tool? It ended happily, when I found Zotero. Not coincidentally, the Zotero people know how to write web copy.

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work — in the web browser itself.

That’s how you do it.

Words with jobs

In the second half of this series, I’ll look at how you can use content templates to make sure your copy does its job, no matter how many pages (and writers) you’re working with.

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