18 October 2011

Stop the sorry waste of ink

Have you ever read brochures being handed out at booths in exhibitions and conventions? Typcially, they are

  • filled with copy on product features
  • packed with "value propositions" that are nothing more than concatenations of buzzwords
  • plastered with aspirational pictures of happy people at home or at work. Or with exciting, industry-specific stock pictures, say, photos of racks of servers.
I have no idea how effective these brochures are, even though I've even written some of them myself. I do know that a lot of them are left in bins, venue washrooms, and on the exhibition floor. I also don't really know why we continue to produce them. But I do know that our sales forces continue to ask for them.

When I used to work in public affairs, business units sometimes asked me and my colleagues to create content, not because they knew what they need it, but because it was “standard practice”. ("You did brochures for my colleague the last time, didn't you?")

The same phenomena happens in the web content business as well--except we tend to inflict the purposeless creation of content on ourselves.

We often feel compelled to create filler content, simply because the site architecture has many boxes left unfilled. We also feel compelled to write obvious, "click on a link to go there" types of introductions knowing full well that no one's reading. It's just there for "consistency", "best practice" or whatever we call it.

We need to stop writing unnecessary content. We should make up our minds never to write another paragraph that wastes our readers' time, or write another line that does not clarify in our customers' mind what our product can do for them.

Here’s my rules of thumb for saving ink on the web:
  • Speak directly to customer's needs. If you're selling a tool to help businesses manage customers records, don't lede your copy with it's a game-changing product that will revolutionise the productivity of their salesforce. Hackneyed, buzzwordy copy is a sure way to get humans and Googlebot alike to ignore your content. This applies to all media--press release, marketing brochure, web page header, whatever.
  • If I need to explain why my readers might find some information useful, it’s probably not. Only in very few circumstances will readers bookmark for reading later. And that’s only when it’s really specific. If it’s generic, it’s my homepage they’ll bookmark. My two-page instruction comprising a one-page apologia is a waste of space.
  • If I need paint a scenario, I should consider publishing a case study, or telling a story instead. A case study will help users because they want to know in a concrete way if it fits their need, and because they want to know if my competitors are using my products successfully. A story is similar, but the goal is to engender empathy for my organisation’s philosophy, cause, messages.
  • If some branches for static content are very short, it’s telling you it should be trimmed off.  Either consolidate the remaining content, or convert the article into a future article, i.e. make it dynamic content.
  • If it’s branding that I'm after, I don’t use text. I'd use images instead, and use them boldly. I'd reserve text for the absolute essentials: URLs, addresses, contact information, product specifications. Yes, it's much cheaper to produce copy. Quality images take resources and money to buy or produce. But I shouldn't save my budget on this.
  • Keep marketing, sales, and engagement separate. Explaining this point will take a whole book, but this is the gist: even if I'm right in the assumption that people do many things on my site, chances are they don’t do it in the same session.