Issue № 222

Your About Page Is a Robot

Like the rest of your website, your About page is a robot. You load it up with information, give it directives, and send it out to represent you in the world. Although forums, blogs, and other two-way forms of online communication help bring humans back into the equation, you’re pretty much stuck with the robot model for relatively static essentials like the About page—but you do get to decide what kind of robot you want to use.

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Why the About page matters#section2

The About page exists to:

  • provide visitors with essential facts they need to interact with your company,
  • give visitors context for the information they find elsewhere on the site,
  • differentiate your organization from others like it, and
  • give visitors a reason (several reasons, ideally) for doing whatever it is you want them to do: contact a sales lead, join a campaign, send money, buy a widget.

Important stuff, and not too tricky, but while most organizations now recognize this page as an important opportunity to communicate, many still don’t. But why not?

Because they’re using the wrong kind of robot.

Meet our heroine, Ms. Patience. She’s selecting service companies to send an RFP to; as part of her prep work, she needs to get a little information about the Knock-Doodle Corporation. Little does she know that her quest will lead her through the gallery of useless machinery. First up: a bucket of bolts we like to call Dumb-bot.

Dumb-bot#section3

Dumb-bot meets information requests with a frozen metal smile and a blank-eyed stare. Dumb-bots can be a little unnerving, and certainly don’t serve anyone’s marketing goals. Let’s take a look.

Ms. Patience: Excuse me, I’m looking for a little information about your company.

Dumb-bot: [Stares straight ahead]

Ms. Patience: For starters, I need to know what you do.

Dumb-bot: The Knock-Doodle Corporation is a global services and solutions provider.

Ms. Patience: All right… But what, exactly, do you do?

Dumb-bot: [Falls over]

Ms. Patience: [Blinks]

Dumb-bot in action#section4

Ask.com has a friendly enough About page. The copy is a little vague, but it’s useful—until you select the Company Overview link and get shunted to what looks like a different website (new logo in the corner, new company name, same domain…) with only the following to guide you:

IAC Search and Media delivers world-class information retrieval products through a diverse portfolio of Web sites, portals and downloadable applications. IAC Search and Media’s search and search-based portal brands include: [list of companies]

We know you’re in there, Dumb-bot. The blandness of the copy is even more jolting when you’ve just come from Ask.com’s warm, friendly bubble, but the real killer is that it provides nothing like the “company overview” we were promised.

You may also have run into the Dumb-bot 2000, a more sophisticated model that holds up a sign reading “over there” before returning to its mechanical stupor. This advanced version is visible on pages like Continental Airlines’ About page, where the company apparently has room to link to resume-writing tips, but not to include even a brief description of who Continental is, what it does, and what makes it different from other companies. Contrast it with Delta’s About page, which provides a concise overview and a more judicious selection of links.

So what’s the story? Does Dumb-bot’s menacingly bland exterior hide a malicious intelligence dedicated to world domination? Is it the result of someone (or a committee of someones) failing to recognize the importance of serving user needs? Perhaps… but I believe I’ve discovered the secret: these bots are actually Roombas that have been accidentally “repurposed” into a marketing role. Given that, I think they’re doing a reasonably good job.

The Sales-o-matic#section5

Not so with our next mechanical menace. If you’ve ever had the educational experience of ordering service from a U.S. cable or telephone company, you’ve probably run into one of these. Sometime in the last five years, a bright-eyed business prodigy realized that long hold-times on customer service lines provided a captive audience—the perfect chance for cheesy recorded sales pitches that drone on and on while your neck cramps from holding the phone with your shoulder and an hour of your life drizzles into the slime-encrusted maw of the telecommunications beast. Ew.

Less egregious, but still irritating, are the answering systems that require you to wait through a ten-second recording of the company’s tagline before explaining how you can get the information you need. An About page cluttered with subjective superlatives and self-congratulatory descriptions is just about as effective: your visitor asks for real information and you delay them with marketing fluff instead.

Let’s test it on Ms. Patience.

Sales-o-matic: Good afternoon! You’ve reached the global headquarters of the Knock-Doodle Corporation, where world-class business solutions create real-time advantages! We are committed to providing you with the best possible service by living our mission of the best possible service!

Ms. Patience: Ahh, hi.

Sales-o-matic: Do you like to save money? If your answer is yes, I’d like to tell you more about our—

Ms. Patience: Actually, can just you tell me how many employees you have?

Sales-o-matic: Knock-Doodle Corporation is the first solutions provider to truly embrace the global economy. 46,874 subject-matter experts strong, Knock-Doodle Corporation offers a deep pool of intellectual capital grounded in our worldwide—

Ms. Patience: [Drowns the sales bot in a pool of its own intellectual capital]

Web users are not a captive audience. Don’t treat them like one.

The lawbot#section6

And now, the opposite of the sales bot. This one shows up almost exclusively on the internet, possibly because anyone who tried it offline would get kidney-punched. In response to requests for general information, the lawbot spits out the legal equivalent of machine language, overwhelming the reader with information that’s irrelevant or unimportant to the vast majority of visitors.

I’ve been picking on relying on Deloitte for examples since the days when their About page included portraits straight out of a funeral parlor. Here’s the way the first paragraph of their About page begins:

Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, a Swiss Verein, its member firms, and their respective subsidiaries and affiliates.

Not really a rip-roaring start, but it gets better, right? Well, they do offer a few chunks of useful information in the next sentence, but here’s how that same paragraph ends:

Services are not provided by the Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Verein, and, for regulatory and other reasons, certain member firms do not provide services in all four professional areas.

And the next two paragraphs:

As a Swiss Verein (association), neither Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu nor any of its member firms has any liability for each other’s acts or omissions. Each of the member firms is a separate and independent legal entity operating under the names “Deloitte,” “Deloitte & Touche,” “Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu,” or other related names.

In the U.S., Deloitte & Touche USA LLP is the member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, and services are provided by the subsidiaries of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP (Deloitte & Touche LLP, Deloitte Consulting LLP, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP, Deloitte Tax LLP and their subsidiaries) and not by Deloitte & Touche USA LLP.

That’s the whole page. As you can see, they can barely contain their own enthusiasm. Let’s just let Ms. Patience lie on the divan with a cool cloth over her eyes, shall we?

The funny thing is, back in 1999, Deloitte’s About page copy wasn’t so bad (and had a better URL, too). They used quotes from real people and talked about concrete achievements; an updated version of that copy (with better photography) would be worlds better than their current trance-inducing legal litany.

An About page should provide context and necessary facts, but should also give the reader compelling reasons to do what you want them to do. Legal text doesn’t do that. It can go on its own page—or at least get shoved down to a place where it can be safely ignored.

Taking stock#section7

Now that you’ve been introduced to the most irritating of web-bots, have another look at your About page. Does it achieve all the goals outlined above—without making any distressing noises or turning your visitors away screaming? If not, let us consider the qualities that will make your About page something useful to you and to the visitor:

Intelligence and consideration#section8

In each of these above examples, the real problem is a lack of attention to the user’s needs and the way that the organization’s communication goals can be met while serving those needs. The first and most important way to improve your About page is to think very carefully about what your visitors—members, clients, potential employees, members of the press, investors, current employees, donors, or fans—need and want from your About page. Personas are a useful tool for this sort of thing, but even a quick brainstorming session should produce results better than the ones we’ve seen above.

Once you know what your visitors want, make it easy to find. Want to keep your “press room” in its own section? Fine, but link to it from your About page anyway. Don’t hide things or force users to respect your internal organizational divisions. Give them what they need.

Distinct personality#section9

Resist the temptation to be bland. You need to convey important facts clearly and concisely, but make sure you also talk about the actual humans who make up both your organization and the group it serves. Quotes are great and good photos are helpful. A natural, friendly, confident writing voice does much to humanize your site, and the About page is an ideal place to demonstrate great writing skills, even if the rest of your site needs to be quite technical.

On the other hand, resist the urge to be irritating. Imagine yourself using the text of your About page in a conversation with a sharp colleague from another company. Would you really say it that way? Puffed-up language that would be out of place in an intelligent, one-on-one conversation probably doesn’t belong on your About page—or really, anywhere else on your site. (But let’s dream small for now.)

A laser gun#section10

Instead of clogging your About page with subjective fluff, use verifiable accomplishments to make your case. Don’t say that your company is a leader—show it leading, via recognized awards, case studies, or useful statistics. Instead of saying that your non-profit helps people, point to concrete accomplishments and recognition.

But what if you don’t have evidence? If your organization is relatively new or if it operates in a sector in which concrete accomplishments are hard to define, you have a trickier job, but the theory still holds. Real leaders don’t need to wrap themselves in banners proclaiming their leadership; clear, confident, user-focused communication goes a long way toward establishing credibility. Incomplete, ill-considered communication does the opposite.

And the winner is…#section11

So now we have a smart, considerate, well-armed robot with a distinct personality. Oh, and great language skills are crucial… think less Data, more Bishop. Select the right robot and tune it up a little, and your About page will seem a lot more, well, human.

And then Ms. Patience can finally send you that RFP and take a well-deserved vacation.

29 Reader Comments

  1. Good article.

    Althought, in my humble opinion, the _about_ page should not exists in first place. Instead, you should provide – right away, on the *front page* –

    bq. visitors with essential facts about your site, differentiate your organization from others like it, […] and give visitors several reasons for doing whatever it is you want them to do: contact a sales lead, join a campaign, send money, buy a widget.

    If all this is not obvious just by looking at your front page, you are missing the point of doing a Web site.

    For a moment, imagine your Web site to be a real brick-and-mortar store. Would it make sense to require potential customers passing by on the street to go inside, all the way in the back, up to the manager’s office before knowing what your business is all about, why you are unique and why they should do business with you? Of course, not.

  2. Sounds like the about bots could do with reading your Zombie Copy article, Erin. It all boils down to one thing: people visit a website to try and get the information *they* want, ideally in Plain English (or language of their choice). If you try instead to tell them what you want them to know, they’ll look elsewhere. The internet is not a medium particularly suited for puff-pieces: certainly if I feel I’m reading promotional literature I’ll stop and look elsewhere for the *facts*. It’s just a shame more people don’t listen to you…

  3. bq. If all this is not obvious just by looking at your front page, you are missing the point of doing a Web site.

    Yes, the home page should clearly identify key areas of the website – but the about page needs to be much more detailed. Compare Dell’s “home page”:http://www.dell.com/ and their “about page”:http://www1.euro.dell.com/content/topics/global.aspx/corp/emea/home . The home page provides gateways to the main areas of the site that visitors are likely to want. The about page gives more detailed background information behind the company – contact details, company history, office locations, etc.

    The home page _enables_ people to buy the services or products of your company – the about page might give them a _reason_ to, eg because you are well-established, local, sponsor their local team, etc.

  4. Very interesting article, Erin. It really gets you thinking more about the content itself and the different types of delivery to take when writing. I’ve always found the About pages the hardest to write effectively, especially when your unfamiliar with your target audience.

  5. My two biggest pet peeves when visiting a web site are an about page that gives me nothing, and contact info that is either useless or buried so far into the site by the time I find it I forgot why I was looking for it (of course the cynical side of me things that is by design).

    I must say I’m a little disappointed with ALA though, this comment page shows up with validation warnings via Tidy. It’s the first time I’ve seen anything bug the happy little green check mark from this site. Maybe I don’t visit the comments enough. The problem seems to be the use of a number as the first character in the name attribute of the a tags. ‘name’ is depreciated and should be replaced with ‘id’. The first character to an ‘id’ attribute must be [a-zA-Z].

    The comment preview thing is really cool though. I’ve never seen that before.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Very interesting. I like how this ties in with “Zombie Copy” and the grand senselessness that permeates the Web. On that note, I searched (googled) the Web for “Editorial Strategist” (ALAs description of your job) and this is from the very first link (it’s a job posting):

    [quote]
    Editorial Strategist

    Mission
    The position of Editorial Strategist will span across marketing, business, and creative platforms. The Strategist will be responsible for original content and interacting with various teams to develop, schedule, and produce projects through completion. This person will set a high-level editorial vision, working with multiple internal stakeholders to create content that maps to their strategic objectives and tactical goals. In addition, the Editorial Strategist will define an appropriate editorial voice to communicate optimally with key product user groups.

    [end quote]

    Is that really what you do?

    Thanks for another interesting read.
    Matt

  7. Your article remembers me, that I have something to do. Especially for smaller business you can convice and interest visitors for your products with personality. The visitor of websites from larger companies is not intersted in personality. Those visitors wants to see facts.

  8. bq. I must say I’m a little disappointed with ALA though, this comment page shows up with validation warnings via Tidy.

    You trust Tidy too much. It misses a lot of errors and shows warnings where it shouldn’t. Try validating with W3C Validator instead; you’ll be surprised.

    bq. The visitor of websites from larger companies is not intersted in personality. Those visitors wants to see facts.

    Why?

    Do you really think Coca Cola, Apple, Levis, BMW, Disney, Hello Kitty, Hollywood, … seduce consumers with cold facts?

    Powerful brands are nothing but clear qualities and traits, in other words distinctive personalities. Marketing is all about making beleive one can acquire those subjective traits.

  9. I suspect the assumption that customers don’t look for personality in the companies (of whatever size) they do business with is one of the worst marketing mistakes anyone could make. One of the primary goals of branding is to make an emotional connection with customers. Whether that’s done through writing, design or other means, establishing a personality is a critial maneuver for most any successful business.

    Different people are going to want different things. Some of your customers might only want facts. Some of your customers will want more personality than others. The difficulty writers and designers alike face is satisfying different kinds of people in one shot. And that’s what you’ve got to do on an About page–satsify those various differents kids of visitors. It’s a big job.

  10. I thought of a way to split up the About-Page in two Divisions: The first one with the given robots, mainly the lawbot which IS mostlikely necessary for companies. Although, you might use some section like ‘general terms and conditions’ for this.
    The other part should be the personal. Include Photos, Biographies, etc. As desired.
    I don’t think that one division could survive without the other one.

    By the way: Same with German cable and telephone companies, in some cases so much the worse.

  11. >The visitor of websites from larger companies is not intersted in personality. Those >visitors wants to see facts.
    >
    >Why?

    You can connect personality with products, but it´s difficult to have the same effect with the company.

  12. I think that it can be extemely effective to brand your company with a personality.

    Think about Google, which (still) holds a tender spot in the hearts of most of Internet users. Or Volkswagen, which has built an image of quirky quality. Contrast that with General Motors which has the image of a huge corporation with no character whatsoever.

    Companies which have the intelligence to brand their own image, in addition to their products, have a huge emotional advantage over their competitors — and since people buy on emotion, that has to help their bottom line.

    So I definitely agree, the About Page needs to give more than just a few boring facts… it needs to show some passion too!

  13. bq. You can connect personality with products, but it´s difficult to have the same effect with the company.

    Yes, some compagnies tend to neglect or fail to connect emotionally with consumers. It’s not part of their business culture, so it’s absent from their marketing efforts. It doesn’t make their clients some kind of _consumaris insensibilis_.

    In any business relation, psychological aspects are very important. And your Web site is where you have business meetings with your future clients. You need to shake hands, to smile and have a pleasant personnality.

  14. This was one of the more entertaining articles in ALA history. And many of the entertaining articles have less to offer in the way of practical information (“Oz”:http://www.alistapart.com/articles/oz/ , “Soopa”:http://www.alistapart.com/articles/soopa/ , etc). Thank you for re-establishing my faith in the existance of a web design community with real culture.

    bq. One of the primary goals of branding is to make an emotional connection with customers. Whether that’s done through writing, design or other means, establishing a personality is a critial maneuver for most any successful business.

    I read this and thought, “Oh, someone’s read Amber’s article”. Then I got to the end and saw that, no, someone IS Amber. Dammit.

  15. This was a nice article. I’d like to see Erin submit examples of well done “About Pages.” Seeing the ones that are not so well done is helpful, but goes only half way illustrating/supporting the problem.
    The article text helps give inspiration for what they could be, but real life examples of nicely done pages supports the opinion with illustration.

  16. My about me page needs some serious attenttion and after reading this I am glad to have picked up some knowledge on how to better it, love the Laser gun bit.

  17. bq. Target’s site is an accessibility disaster, but their About page is dead on for their brand: friendly, stylish, and helpful.

    You’d also better accept their cookie; I didn’t and my Firefox browser got caught in a redirection loop.

  18. I write copy for small businesses and find that start-ups are some of the worst offenders when it comes to self-congratulatory, superlative fluff because they are short on verifiable accomplishments. They try to emulate the big guys (who are also botching the About Us page) and do themselves a disservice. I’m going to send this link to my clients and link to it in my blog!

  19. To amplify on comment #25, I think a good model for an about page would be the five w’s taught in any good writing class: who, what, where, when, why. Tell us who you are, what you do, when you started, etc… Concrete examples of your work or contribution to the world(show not tell) would helpful as well. And write it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know anything about your company or industry. That seems like the most common mistake about use pages make – assuming that the reader knows industry jargon or acronyms.

  20. Stimulating content that suppossed to bring users back to your website is what the Internet should be about. This article elaborates on the essentials to make the Internet more human and I think that’s exaclty what we need.

  21. I appreciate the article’s constructive criticism of ‘about’ pages. On my blog, I have done minor work on it but have noticed that it’s always in my top 10 of content hits on my site. With that, I’d really appreciate some examples of some great ‘about’ pages.

    Thanks!
    Doug

  22. Nice article. An “About” page is one area where a small business website really has the edge over the bigger guns. With a small staff – or even just one person – you can introduce the people behind the business and really build your credibility. I often go to the About page first to get a feel for the business. It’s not the place for mission statements, however.

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