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Is Self-Centered Web Copy Hurting Your Websites?

Business, Web Design | Apr 15, 2009

Web developers frequently launch websites with self-absorbed web copy, which turns off visitors and kills conversions.

Who’s to blame? Self-absorbed copywriters and business owners.

To engage prospects and turn them into customers, web copy needs to appeal to the visitor’s self-interest.

Most would say that’s brain-dead obvious. Yet, it seems 90% of websites miss the mark completely.

Who is your clients’ web copy written for – the target audience, the business, or the writer?

 

The Ugly: The Ego-Driven Web Copy

This is where you or your client hires a copywriter for a website and the pages overflow with cleverly crafted, delightfully delectable prose that oh-so-playfully sing and dance.

An example from a training company’s website: “When You succeed we succeed with You. When You dazzle Your CLIENTS, we dazzle ours.” The writer is screaming: “Look at me! I’m brilliant!” The online visitor is screaming: “What the hell do these guys do? Can they help me!?”

Another snippet from a florist’s website: “Pinkly pulchritudinous and amazingly delightful, infinitely charming and sensationally fascinating.” They’re selling pink roses, and it’s probably safe to say words like “pulchritudinous” alienate most of their market. Beautiful or lovely would work just fine, forget about the fact that freshness isn’t even mentioned, likely one of the consumer’s key concerns.

Web content riddled with abstract language and clichés might inflate a writer’s pride or score a marketing agency some awards, but it’ll do little for your client’s business.

Even if the copywriter does induce a few “ooohs” and “ahhhs,” a website that doesn’t convey the right key messages provides you little or no value. Consider those witty TV commercials that get discussed the next day at the office – but no one has any idea what the costly 30-second spot was promoting.

 

The Bad: The Company-Centric Web Copy

Company-centric content is rampant on the Web. Whether a copywriter is forced down this path, or a business owner prefers to focus on what he or she wants to say versus what the audience needs to know, the results are the same: low engagement and poor conversion rates.

An example of company-centric content from an IT website: “There are about a million IT companies floating around, then why us? Reasonable question! The answer is simple…  because, WE ARE THE BEST! Best in Quality, Service and Post Service Relations…”

Self-absorbed and indistinguishable. Web writing would be easy if prospects and customers thought the way business owners do. But that’s not the case. Consumers are not necessarily interested in your client’s business. They are, however, extremely interested in what your client’s business can do for them.

Common issues with internally developed web content also include:

Expert Paralysis: When a business owner gains considerable knowledge and experience on a specific area, it’s difficult to recreate a prospect’s less informed state of mind. Consequently, it makes it difficult to effectively introduce this knowledge to others.

Information Overload: Business owners have a knack for wanting to share everything. But just because they’re passionate about something, it doesn’t mean their audience is. The website ends up with information creep, where the web content gets progressively complicated, to the point the important and relevant information gets lost in the mix. Three compelling, relevant points are better than 10 that prospects don’t actually care about.

 

The Good: Web Copy that’s Written for the Audience

Properly developed web copy entices audiences to take desired actions. But to get online visitors to request quotes or invest in your client’s offerings, someone needs to assess the target audience’s motivational appeals, and get their self-interest working for your client.

So what makes people care? Not a 20,000-square-foot X3TC data storage facility, or a ultra-slim-line dental x-ray machine. It’s about the safety of critical business data in the event of an earthquake, and the fact that the new x-ray technology reduces radiation exposure by 90%. It comes down to benefits.

Take a page from psychologist Abraham Maslow, who spent his life researching and compiling the human hierarchy of needs. Here’s a breakdown of the needs and desires people try to fulfill, as compiled neatly in the New York Times bestseller Made to Stick:


  • Transcendence: help others realize their potential
  • Self-actualization: realize your own potential, self-fulfillment, peak experiences
  • Aesthetic: symmetry, order, beauty, balance
  • Learning: know, understand, mentally connect
  • Esteem: achieve, be competent, gain approval, independence, status
  • Belonging: love, family, friends, affection
  • Security: protection, safety, stability
  • Physical: hunger, thirst, bodily comfort


To engage visitors and turn them into customers, your client’s web content must tap into these basic human needs and appeal to people’s emotions. Benefits can do that.

Consider, for instance, web content promoting law enforcement binoculars. A web writer could focus on certain technical features, such as oversized lenses, rubber coating and ergonomic design.

That can score points with consumers in terms of credibility, but the web content must call attention to the benefits: low-light performance; bright, crisp and clear images from dusk until dawn; and toughness and easy handling. We’re now addressing the prospect’s fundamental needs, including safety and security.

For consumers to take action, they need to care. Benefits tell online visitors why they should care. Benefits engage. Benefits inspire. Benefits get people to act.

Benefits appeal to the audience’s self-interest. So should your client’s web content.


Written exclusively for WDD by Rick Sloboda. He is a Web Copywriter at Webcopyplus, which helps businesses increase online traffic and sales with optimized web copy. He speaks frequently at Web-related forums and seminars, and conducts website content studies with organizations in Europe and the U.S., including Yale University.

Do you apply these principles in your website copy? What other principles do you follow?


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  • http://www.truenorthe.com Courtney

    In short, features tell, benefits sell.

    • http://www.daandelange.com/ Daan

      Wow, nicely said man !

  • http://www.sleepyhero.com Eli Penner

    This was really refreshing. Posts like these will help webdesignerdepot.com find a happy medium between the viewership of smashingmagazine.com and the content depth of alistapart.com.

    • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com Walter

      Looking for the perfect balance :)

  • http://www.daandelange.com/ Daan

    Niice article, but some examples would have been great….

  • http://www.twitter.com/MattVisser Matt

    Great post – I wish I could write copy for the audience exclusively, but the audience don’t pay me to write for them. They pay the clients, who in turn pay us, so ultimately they do pay us, but that cycle doesn’t help the client understand that although they know their brand better than us, we know how to talk about it better than them.

    We try to educate clients, we really do. But how far do you push education when you begin to run the risk of alienating your client? Would you, if faced with the choice, write only for the audience and not your clients ego (everybody will at some stage be asked to), but go hungry (or at least not as fat) as a result of it?

    Again, great post. – thanks.

    • http://www.webcopyplus.com Rick Sloboda

      Thanks for your feedback, Matt! Indeed, clients often need to be educated. After all, they’re investing in a web writer or designer for a reason, and they sometimes need to be reminded they need to respect, trust and embrace what their consultant or specialist brings to the table.

      Our web writing firm diplomatically tells clients that when visitors arrive to their website, the people don’t necessarily care about their business. But visitors are definitely interested in what the business can do for them. It’s human nature. As part of our primal makeup, we tend to be selfish (in a bid to survive).

      Another angle is to convey the fact that what business owners want to say can be very different from what consumers want to hear.

      If your client is not receptive and doesn’t allow you to do your job properly, you can move forward knowing you warned them. But most quality clients will heed sound advice.

  • http://www.livemyresume.com ManiVannan.M

    Good i too had the same hurt

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewflick Andrew Flick

    Good post. It is always better for a writer to leave his ego out of it when producing content for any medium.

  • http://www.affordablesharedhosting.com Mike

    Good post. Agree that benefits are what sell the product, but in some cases having features their as well is necessary. You should give them the option of viewing the features, as I know I look for that at times.

    Should the benefits be written in a creative way or straight to the point?

    • http://www.webcopyplus.com/content/view/164/62/ Rick Sloboda

      Thanks, Mike. Features certainly have a role in generating conversions on the Web. Benefits engage, and the features help people rationalize their decisions logically. For instance, a business associate was looking at a high-end BMW. He was seeking status. But to justify it to himself (not to mention his wife), he started talking about the advanced brake system, safety ratings and so forth. In some cases, like when you’re pitching electronics, you need dimensions and memory capacity right up front.

      As to whether the benefits should be written creatively or matter-of-factly, it depends on the product, service or business you’re selling, as well as the audience you’re targeting. For example, we’re working on web copy for an IT company, which targets engineers. This content should be to the point: protect your data; save money; reduce labour, etc. But we’re also working on a luxury adventure website that has an opportunity to grab visitors through vibrant stories, which is a very effective way to ignite senses.

  • http://www.rethinkseo.com Sean

    Enjoyed this post because I can honestly admit that some of my older and current writings fall under the bad category but this was a great reminder of how I should be connecting with my readers. Thanks!

  • http://www.bioinfiz.com bs kishore

    Something refreshing and essential to ponder about.

  • http://www.freshivore.net Vincent Franco

    Brilliant! Now if I could just sell my boss on this (My on going struggle)

  • http://www.ethanandjamie.com/ Ethan GArdner

    This is an excellent post. I have seen many people fail to realize is that good design goes beyond individual specialties. Websites are just a means of communication and the message needs to be conveyed by a combination of all disciplines in order to maximize potential.

  • http://www.merricktowle.com Jason Miller

    Rick,
    Terrific article. I couldn’t help notice your bio indicates that you [help] businesses increase online traffic and sales with optimized web copy.

    Any suggestions or advice for writing good audience-friendly and SEO copy?

    Writing web page copy that includes targeted keyword phrases in certain frequencies and densities that also appeals to the audience can be tricky balance. Since having keyword combinations appear throughout the page copy generally helps search engines further identify the relevancy of the page (and website) it makes sense to include these terms and phrases. Good SEO copywriting seamlessly integrates keywords in a way that doesn’t offend the reader. Not easily done if you’re in a competitive environment where exact matches to searched phrases can position your pages above the competition. It’s the awkward phrases that people search for, say “binoculars law enforcement”, that tend to trip up even the most skilled copywriters.

    ~ jason

    • http://blog.webcopyplus.com/ Rick Sloboda

      I hear you loud and clear, Jason! Getting the keyword density to, say, 3% and making it engaging is no easy feat. It just takes skill, time and patience.

      We’re finishing up a project for a university’s conference and accommodations website. They previously hired an SEO company, which gained them lots of traffic; however, the web copy reads so poorly, their conversions are virtually non-existent.

      We often gauge a client’s desire on a few fronts, including rankings and branding. If a business is in a very competitive industry and demands top rankings, we’ll push the limits on the SEO front. However, the most effective web copy balances SEO and branding, as this is the potent combination that leads to the almighty conversion.

      Getting to the nitty-gritty, you ask about optimizing for an awkward term like “binoculars law enforcement.” Here’s one of many SEO copywriting tactics we employ. Google and friends generally don’t take punctuation into account. Hence, you could write something like: “…Looking for invincible binoculars? Law enforcement officials throughout the US get at least 10-years’ use from our commercial line of…”

      Notice the keywords are strung together. Hope that helps!

  • http://theredheadsaid.com charlene jaszewski

    I would LOVE to see some Before and After copy examples. Before self-centered copy, after, altruistic copy.

    • Sue

      Me too, would love to see examples of GOOD copy… and some makeovers would be great to.

    • http://blog.webcopyplus.com/ Rick Sloboda

      Sure; here’s one sample:

      Before

      I start by listening. Welcome to Jill Pennefather’s website and thank you for stopping by. Please feel free to send me an email if you have any questions or concerns about the Vancouver real estate market. Buying or selling your home is an extremely important decision. I promise to take the time to fully understand your needs in finding or selling a home and will spare no effort in bringing my expertise, organizational skills and exceptional energy to bear in fulfilling these goals…

      After

      “I start by listening”

      Jill Pennefather’s award-winning Vancouver real estate career spans 20 years.

      But despite her vast knowledge and experience in Vancouver real estate, she always starts by listening.

      It’s a skill she developed in her previous career as a registered nurse at Vancouver General Hospital, which helps her determine your true needs and desires.

      This compassion, along with her vast knowledge and experience of buying and selling in the Vancouver real estate market, will get you the results you want.

      Learn more about Jill or contact her today!

      Find out what clients say about Jill.

      Note: The rewritten web copy contains several strategically placed links, which are not visible in this post. More before and after web copy samples can be seen at: http://www.webcopyplus.com/content/view/22/48/

  • http://www.josefrichter.com Pepa

    Only 13 comments under such a crucial topic?? That only shows how web designers underestimate copywritting! It is actually much more important than the design itself. I have seen far too many beautiful designs that massively failed in delivering the message correctly. But nevermind, I will gracefully keep it as my competitive advantage :-)

  • Cel

    Excellent article. This lays out some key principles of copywriting clearly and effortlessly. ^^

  • http://www.hostsg.com Kevin

    As it has always been known that content is king, having the right content that attracts and educate visitors instead of ‘screaming we’re good, choose us!’ always win.

  • http://AlchemyUnited.com Mark @ Alchemy United

    Three things…

    1) As the saying goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” (from Luntz’s “Words That Work” – Chapter 1 is a must read for anyone who uses words).

    2) But it’s not just self-centered copy… What about over the top, self-centered design?

    3) Pardon me if this is a bit off topic but IMHO there are far too many portfolios that don’t define the objective / goal of the project. Good / great design exist within context, and just looking “cool” doesn’t mean boo.

  • Greg K

    Having worked with a web writer who just wanted to look brilliant, I can appreciate what a good web writer can bring to a project. In fact I think the best web writers completely put their egos aside to cater to what the customer really needs. The same goes for web designers…we should be more concerned about a customer’s needs rather than what our web design peers will think is cool. Great article!

  • http://marybaum.com Mary Baum

    I could go on and on about this – as I’m sure you could, too.

    Re the question of the client who wants the ego-driven copy — what I call Little Piggy copy because it goes We, We, We all the way home — you need to start the project with a clear understanding: is the site you’re developing supposed to sell stuff or not? And if it is, every decision you make – including and especially the copy – must support that objective. So you write the copy to sell the products from the beginning, and when the client starts putting the we-crap in, you ask: now, what’s the true benefit of that? And draw the client out about how much his/her customer’s business or life improves because of that feature. If the client can start to see for him/herself that the real selling points fo the products or services -the real concerns of the target audience – don’t have much to do with the bells and whistles, they’ll start to leave them out.

    There is, furthermore, a second set of benefits you want your client to focus on. And that’s the big-picture result that his/her client is going to get from using the product or service. If they save money by buying your client’s solution instead of the competition, what happens after that? Does their team think they’re a hero? Do they get a raise? If your organic weed-control solution gives them a nicer lawn in half the time, do they then have more of their weekend to spend with their significant other -and thus a better relationship?

    Notice that that second set of benefits gets the customer higher up on that list of human needs quoted from the Times review of Made To Stick (though it’s also a precise summary of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, a basic principle of human behavior). And the higher you get on that pyramid, the easier the sale.

  • Steve James

    Sweet article on web content. Any designer, programmer, writer or SEO person can gain a lot from this. VERY informative. Keep the great content coming!

  • Brice

    Why are web writers so egotistical when it comes to writing for the web? Maybe its because their jealous web designers get all the attention and credit.

  • James Hall

    @Mark

    “But it’s not just self-centered copy… What about over the top, self-centered design?”

    Bang on!! Web designers, like web writers, need to revisit what they’re trying to achieve! It’s not about cool designs, it’s about connecting with the market. Kudos for publishing this insightful article.

  • Sam NY

    Never thought this was about web content, but it makes complete sense. Thanks for the eye-opener…ALL web design clients should read this article…would make the web design world a better place. :)

  • Gag

    Writers are great to work with to build up your portfolio with quality material, however, they often babble on about nothing and seem to miss the important elements, like why the visitor should make a purchase. I’m going on myself, but I guess that’s why you hire a web writer, right?

  • Trevor

    @Pepa
    I agree that the topic of web copy is critical to good web content and websites in general. Yet, there’s so little discussion. Ironically, it might be that designers are too “self-centric” to really value what a web copywriter or writer in general brings to the table. If a web copywriter disregarded what good design and development brought to a project, it would have devastating effects to the client. The same goes for designers that disregard what good copywriters can do for a website. Consider how beneficial it would be for any designer to have quality web copy on their websites and portfolios. It could make the difference between getting low grade customers and big well to do companies that are willing to fork out nice big budgets for good designs and websites overall.

  • Frank Rodriguez

    I agree with Trevor. If there were more designers that leaned on professional web copy writers, everyone would win=the client, consumer, designer and writer!!

  • http://www.visual-blade.com Daquan Wright

    I love to see articles on writing…as writing is very important whether it be offline or otherwise. It’s nice to see people thinking about writing from other perspective as well. It’s always vital to speak through your audiences eyes. When they come to a website, they expect to find information that they can analyze and digest for their needs or wants. So simply try to speak with your audience always at the forefront of your mind.

  • Webboy

    A well written article that shows just how important a website copywriter is to the success of a website. I never really thought of web copy this way. Now as I surf the web, I see exactly the different typoes of web copy styles at work – some web content is self-filled jargon, and some is written with the website’s visitor in mind. Thanks, WDD, for the useful web content insight.

  • http://www.cmswire.com/ Tash

    Breaking web copy down like that is cool. Unfortunately, it seems almost every website copywriter must naturally (or get forced to) write self centered web copy. There’s so much evidence – the Internet is full of it!

  • http://www.nypl.org/ David

    For website designers and developers serious about their websites, they can’t achieve optimal success on the Web without help on the web copy front. A web copy writer can not just help with web copy, but smooth out information architecture and even navigation with the right labels. Great article!

  • Grace Lin

    I agree with the view that truly professional designers push clients to use professional copywriters to stay away from the boring, poorly written web copy that’s so common on the internet. While a good copywriter can make a difference to any marketing material, a website copywriter, one who specializes in web copy, would probably be best. Same with designers – the ones who work on the Web would be better than one that generally works in print.

  • http://www.chotrul.com/skills/seo-marketing.html Chotrul Web Design

    This is ‘right on the money’! So much copy on the web is ready by the company and for the company. But actually, you aren’t the ones using the website, and you aren’t the ones that needs addressing.

    There’s a tool out there which checks this .. a rough measure, but don’t have the URL to hand. Uses pronoun checking, keywords etc I believe ….

    Copywriting really does have to know what it is trying to achieve, and who it is trying to achieve it with.

  • http://www.kaplang.com/blog Kaplang

    I think a lot of people learn this the hard way and some do not even learn at all.

  • Miguel

    Awesome article on web copy! When it comes to web copy, I think designers should respect what copywriters have to say (at least professional copywriters), as it can significantly impact design and even functionality. I’m going to save this article for my clients. :)

  • Dale Lamothe

    Makes total sense! Good web copy isn’t about the company, it’s about the visitor. I guess companies and weak copywriters don’t get it, and good copywriters do. Thanks for the article.

  • Heather Grave

    @Dale Problems a designer faces seems the same a copywriter might face, that clients forget they are their to appeal to and cater to the customer.

  • http://www.bloggs74.com/ James

    wonderful post…..keep up the good work

  • Carlos

    I agree with all the points about web copy, especially making it about the visitor’s needs, not the business. A great resource for any copywriter, even if you’re not doing content for the web.