Words That Zing
Issue № 300

Words that Zing

People use websites to make decisions—from what product to buy to what health treatment to seek. [1][2][3] When someone consults a website, there is a precious opportunity not only to provide useful information but also to influence their decision. To make the most of this opportune moment, web professionals need to understand the rhetorical concept of kairos.

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A definition of kairos#section2

Greek rhetoricians defined kairos as saying or doing the right thing at the right time.  Clues to understanding kairos lie in its dual etymological roots: Weaving and archery. [4] In weaving, kairos occurs in the instant at which the shuttle passes through an opening in the loom’s threads; this is the moment when all the threads come together to create the fabric. Similarly, on the web, the threads of technology, design, content, culture, and user science intertwine to form the fabric—or context—that swathes the opportune moment.

But what seizes the moment? That’s where the other etymological root of kairos, archery, sheds light. Something has to act like an arrow and—ZING!—hit the mark, with enough force to stick. For Greek rhetoricians, that something was spoken language. On the web, that something is written language.

As web professionals, we craft a context for the opportune moment. But we then need to aim at that context with words that zing. To do that, I believe we have much to learn from kairos.

Writing for kairos#section3

At Stanford University, B.J. Fogg studies the intersection of influence and technology. Dubbed “captology,” or the study of computers as persuasive technology, Fogg’s research shows how people are influenced by their relationship with technology. [5] In a modern notion of kairos, he observes the value of getting information to people at the right time.

Similarly, Andrea Lunsford explores writing, technology, and literacy. [6] Lunsford’s recent work analyzed student writing in a range of contexts—from chat sessions to academic papers. She found that students’ use of technology does not damage their writing abilities but, in fact, improves their awareness of kairos.

As Lunsford’s study suggests, social media, such as blogging and microblogging, turns users into writers who can respond to kairos quickly. For example, social media allows companies to respond to an angry or confused customer. Importantly, what social media users write is published publicly for anyone to see, a situation that requires writing quickly yet carefully. [7] Users of social media, therefore, need to know the basics of writing for the opportune moment. At the same time, kairos renews the value of professional web writing. Influential words for planned opportune moments, such as a landing page, are more critical than ever.

Now that we have defined kairos and asserted the importance of writing for it, let’s explore it further with examples.

Examples of words for kairosӬ#section4

To select the right words, take cues from rhetoric and psychology. I do not mean use unctuous sales language or manipulative mind control, nor do I necessarily mean use catchy words. I simply mean add influential weight to web writing based on centuries of rhetorical wisdom and a growing body of scientific knowledge. To illustrate, I offer examples in three different contexts.

Selling a service subscription#section5

A service is not physical like a product. People cannot see it or touch it. To boot, a service usually requires or encourages an obligation for a time period, which can cause people to hesitate. What words help sell a service?

Use words that make the service tangible. Explain how the service works with vivid words. This helps people see it in their lives. Besides being clear, this approach helps avoid a cognitive bias based on the availability heuristic, the tendency to judge probability or frequency based on how easily an example comes to mind. [8] If people can’t effortlessly imagine when they would use the service, they will think they don’t need it. Netflix makes its service easy to envision with small images and the prominent words “Rent, Receive, Watch, Exchange.” Zing.

Netflix Services Description

Fig. 1: Netflix appeals to customers through the use of images and prominent words about their service.

Use words that tap into unifying values. “¨If a service will be someone’s companion for a while, it better match his or her ideals. Take Grasshopper, the voicemail service for entrepreneurs, as an example. When labeling the voicemail plans, Grasshopper could have gone with the de facto “Basic, Premium, Plus” or “Bronze, Silver, Gold.” Instead, someone pondered the values of their entrepreneurial customers and selected “Start, Grow, Max.” Across industry, location, and demographic, what entrepreneur doesn’t fervently aspire to grow? Zing.

Zing's Pick-a-Plan Service

Fig. 2: Grasshopper uses a dose of creative copy to describe their service plans.

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Addressing a customer complaint#section6

Customer service is a growing use for social media. A customer complaining through social media not only wants a problem solved but also is deciding whether to remain loyal. To further complicate the situation, customers criticize companies both about problems with their own experience and about complex problems they perceive with the company or its industry.

Take Comcast, a large cable provider, as an example. Frank Eliason responds to customers on Twitter as @comcastcares. What words help Frank address complaints?Ӭ

Use words that concede. Reciprocity is the social norm of treating others the way they treat you—especially repaying someone when he or she gives you something. [9] Frank uses this approach to address a complex criticism of the cable and communications industry, as shown in this exchange sparked by Graham Hill about net neutrality.

Comcast Twitter Feed

Fig. 3: Comcast addresses customer issues in a Twitter exchange.

Notice that Frank is not giving an obsequious “I’m sorry” or an insincere “You’re right.” He listens to the customer’s viewpoint, concedes to some aspects of it, and offers more information to refine the viewpoint. In the process, the customer gives him, and Comcast, some slack. Zing.

Influencing a health behavior#section7

Some health problems are annoying. Some are scary. Still others are embarrassing. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be all three. Entangled in a web of social and moral issues, STDs are not part of most dinner conversations. That makes the web a haven where people at high risk of STDs, sexually active teenagers, can obtain credible information anonymously and quickly.

One important choice these teenagers face is whether to be tested. The stakes in this choice for the teenagers and for society are high. If adolescents with an STD fail to seek testing and early treatment, they may spread the disease to others and suffer complications ranging from infertility to death. So, in this situation, what words help teenagers decide?

Copy from CDC Fact Sheet of Chlamydia

Fig. 4: Using words that strike the right tone draws readers in.

Use words that strike the right tone. Words that read like an angry parent wagging his or her finger will not fly. The CDC website, high on search rankings for any STD-related term, states the facts without passing judgment. See this example for chlamydia, a popular fact sheet.Ӭ

While this neutral tone likely will not drive teens away, will it prompt them to act? Compare it to another example, GYT (Get Yourself Tested) on It’s YOUR (Sex) Life, a campaign sponsored by MTV and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Mobile and web slang is a centerpiece of the campaign. I wondered with Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon.com whether using this vernacular is trying too hard, like a middle-aged mom who wears her teen daughter’s clothes. For example, read this text from the main GYT page.

Copy from a Health Related Site

Fig. 5: Use words that frame the option to act to help readers relate to your content.

The tone makes my eyes roll, but I am not the target audience. The question is does the tone resonate with teens? Based on the compelling results of this campaign so far, the answer appears to be yes. Zing.Ӭ

Use words that frame the option to act. Framing is a psychological and rhetorical heuristic of how people respond to information. Simply put, people react differently to the same choice stated differently. When a best choice exists, framing can make it clear. Framing also overcomes the weaknesses of human judgment. One weakness, optimism and overconfidence, is magnified during teen years. [10] This weakness shows in very risky choices such as driving extremely fast or while under the influence. You might recognize this phenomenon as the “I’m invincible” syndrome.”¨Let’s see how words on the web frame the option to get tested for STDs. The CDC website hints at action in its explanation of diagnosing an STD, as shown in this example for chlamydia.

Copy from the CDC Website

Fig. 6: The CDC hints at a call to action in their description of an STD.

If the disease is diagnosed with a test, then the implication is the teenager should get tested. I venture that this approach is too subtle for our situation.

The Mayo Clinic succinctly explains the option to get tested and why. However, as a resource for a general audience, it does not directly address a teen’s indomitable state-of-mind.

Copy from the Mayo Clinic Website

Fig. 7: The Mayo Clinic uses straight-forward reasons to get tested which addresses a wide audience.

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Copy from the GYT Website

Fig. 8: GYT uses a very direct and upfront approach to reaching readers.

In contrast, GYT bluntly states that young adults are far from immune to STDs, so they need testing. And what rebellious teen doesn’t aspire to take control of life rather than obey an order? Zing.”¨

More than an opportunity#section8

These examples are only a small sample. People make innumerable decisions using websites. Our websites, then, offer countless possibilities to influence. We can turn these possibilities into realities by understanding and writing for kairos—but we often do not.

To push for quick word choices by playing down their consequences, I’ve watched more than one web professional shrug and say “We’re not saving lives here.” Sometimes, I even nodded in agreement. Not anymore. Our websites could help people help themselves—and the people around them—by guiding them into good decisions. In that respect, our websites could save lives.

When I think about that potential, I’m convinced that we have more than an opportunity to say the right words at the right time. We have a responsibility to do so. Let’s embrace the responsibility, not shirk it, by investing in words that zing.

References#section9

[1] Horrigan, John. 2008.  HYPERLINK “http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Online-Shopping.aspx” Online shopping. Pew internet and American life project. February 13.

[2] Fox, Sussanah and Jones, Sydney. 2009.  HYPERLINK “http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information.aspx” The social life of health information. Pew internet and American life project, June 11.

[3] Smith, Aaron. 2009.  HYPERLINK “http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/6—The-Internets-Role-in-Campaign-2008.aspx” The internet’s role in campaign 2008. Pew internet and American life project, April 15.

[4] Stephenson, Hunter W. 2005. Forecasting opportunity: Kairos, production, and writing. Lanham: University Press of America.

[5] Fogg, B.J. 2003. Persuasive technology: Using computers to change what we think and do. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufman.

[6] Thompson, Clive. 2009. Clive Thompson on the new literacy. Wired. August 24.

[7] Halvorson, Kristina. 2009. Content strategy for the web. Berkeley: New Riders.

[8] Schwarz, N. et al. 1991 Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic. Journal of personality and social psychology. 61 (2)195-202.

[9] Cialdini, Robert. 2001. Influence: Science and practice. Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon.

[10] Thaler, Richard and Sunstein, Cass R. 2008. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

26 Reader Comments

  1. It’s amazing how little thought people put into some of the biggest decisions on their site.

    Really makes you think about the details that need to go into each “call to action.”

  2. Your post really drives home the importance of well crafted language in marketing, and elsewhere of course. Job 1 in marketing is getting noticed, so it’s tempting to be controversial and inflammatory, but Job 2 is building relationships. Do you really want people coming to your website who think you are a firebrand? If you’re a political blogger, yes of course. But if you’re a company selling products or services, no way. The art is crafting content that strikes a balance between interest and true value for the reader’s time.

  3. Using Comcast as an example of good customer service made me check to see if it was April 1st. I can only assume that this must be some sort of twisted humor.

    Note that Neflix uses “exchange” rather than “return”. Probably as returning dvd to a mailbox is not quite as exciting as “exchanging” them for new ones.

  4. First, Leen thanks for writing this article, and for leveraging kairos to explain the importance of timeliness in web writing. It’s the first time I’ve seen classical rhetoric explicitly employed outside of my program of study in rhetoric and professional communication, and it’s refreshing to see the concept applied to real-world scenarios.

    Second, I might be reading Figure 3 incorrectly, but it appears @comcastcares is quoted as tweeting the same message twice, and in context, it doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, the timeline of the exchange between @GrahamHill and @comcastcares is confusing. If the exchange is supposed to be linear, it’s not presented that way, with the tweets coming in at 7 hours, 4 hours, 7 hours, 4 hours, and 6 hours.

  5. Thanks for this wonderful case study in persuasion! Like Stewart, I appreciate seeing contemporary applications of lessons in classical rhetoric. It’s incredibly relevant: too often, marketers forget the main goal of most websites is to forge a relationship between their company and audience–and then to use that relationship as the basis of persuasion about their brand, service, or product. As you point out, when they lose sight of that goal, they open the floodgates for lifeless copy, endless feature lists, pointless design. What’s another casualty, along with the zing? Active voice. You just can’t persuade someone to trust your brand or buy your service if no one drives the action.

  6. Firstly, great article. It never ceases to make me happy when i see people that appreciates the importance of web sites and the marketing opportunity in them.

    But in fact, it’s one of the greatest ways to get yourself “known” at all or get yourself heard by other people if you have a point to make. Oh and for those who say that “There is no bad advertising”, The way you design your website and mention your keypoints are more essential than people think…

    Anyway again, Great article!
    Dena Tasarım

  7. I fully agree with your comments and support your concept of kairos in effective communications. For similar reasons, I used the word “kairos” in my own company name (BlueKairos), to drive home the need for the right action at the right time to truly capitalize on new opportunities. Keep up the good work!

  8. The concept of kairos can be extended not just to the written word, but impromptu videos posted with a face and a name to give a person a connection to a corporate message. Mythic Entertainment did these brief promo videos for months prior to rolling out Warhammer MMORPG. They did a great job of turning some negatives into positives, not just in written word, but in visual media as well.

  9. Great article, I love that you’ve related such classic rhetoric as “kairos” to our content writing mission of the day… web design! You’re right that it is so important to present the content of any website to the visitor in the right tone at the right time, with the right balance of information/pursuasion along with that all important, perfectly placed, call to action! And so there was action…

  10. Thanks for the smart comments! What I love about the concept of kairos is it requires knowing the “big picture”–ideally having a content strategy–AND paying attention to the words in that opportune moment. We tend to focus on either the big picture or the details, but we need to focus on how they both work together.

  11. I think it’s doubly important in this day and age of the interweb to use words that really do drive the readers into trusting your brand. So many people slap up copy without thinking about how it really represents them as a company. I’ll be putting the concept Kairos to good use on my own site in future! Clever article.

  12. ANY writing matters, but most people don’t seem to agree, those that write for the web, anyway. No matter what people think, incorrect spelling and grammar make an impression. If I were going to purchase a product, and the web page was full of spelling errors and bad grammar, I’d go elsewhere to buy it.

  13. I agree with Colleen Jones that all textual content must be treated carefully in order to get this “˜zing-effect’. As she explains in her though-provoking article the selected words have really significance among users. Nice and positive attitude leaves a good and purposeful impression.

    As we know, it’s common that web texts, microcopies and other textual materials haven’t been finalized on Web Services. Perhaps those materials have been copied and pasted quickly without paying attention to them.

    When writing good “˜kairos’ I would put also all good journalistic practices in use. Texts and materials need the good structure.

    In my small article “˜”How to write a minimalist content”:http://anttihaverinen.net/thoughideas/write-minimalist-content/“‘ I tell the benefits, why the content can be extremely persuading when the idea of the inverted pyramid has been taken into account.

    -Antti Haverinen

  14. The article is completely on track, well done. Spending enough time focusing to wordsmith the right zing for your online presence is as critical as it is regional, demo-graphical, and industry-centric. With people spending less than two minutes on your site, on average, the message needs to hook and land your visitors in a quick and snappy manner.

  15. This is a good article but with some of the sites I have designed accuracy of information comes first with marketing second. While both are important sometimes it is difficult to produce a webpage that encompasses both.

  16. When I first read this article, I wasn’t nearly as well-read on the five canons of classical rhetoric. Now having a stronger on core rhetorical principles, I think I’ve a different understanding of the nature of kairos and how it applies to the web.

    Colleen, I understand you to be defining kairos on the web as: how to use words with the right tone in the right context to persuasively appeal to a given audience. However, putting emphasis on kairos being about the *right moment*, I don’t think you’re discussing kairos in this article, but rather the rhetorical principles of invention (what to say) and style (how to say it).

    Kairos is really about *when* you communicate a message. So kairos is more concerned with interactions such as those encountered during an e-commerce checkout, a tutorial, subscription process, a search, or while using an online office suite.

    An example of what I mean is when a new user logs into Google Docs for the first time and they are presented with a pop-up box offering an optional tour. That first login is a kairotic moment where Google can educate its new users about how they’ll benefit from using the application.

    Another example would be when a user is buying flowers on FTD.com and during the checkout process is presented the option of adding a gift card or a box of chocolates to their order before submitting their payment information.

    Both of these are examples of kairotic moments in web design and exemplify messaging at the *right time*, although the principles of invention and style would still apply.

  17. There is so much garbage out there on the web today. So, it was really refreshing to read your article and be able to nod in agreement all the way through.

    The quality of content and the quality of the writing is critical to the success of any website.

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