Are You Making These Three Web Writing Mistakes?
George Lois, the great art director, was once asked how he could tell if an ad was bad.
"Easy," he said. "I pick up the ad, take a look at it, and if I vomit, I know it's bad."
I can relate to what George was talking about. So many Web sites out there are so awful that they often make me want to drop my cookie -- and not the one in my System Folder!
As you may have noticed, it's the ugly graphics that jump out at you first. I'm talking about . . . Web pages filled with disgusting purple type reversed out of a black background . . . home pages so dense with text, you feel discouraged before you even start reading . . . stilted stock photos of attractive "executives" sitting around conference tables looking distressingly eager and upbeat. (I have never been to a meeting in Silicon Valley where anyone ever looked remotely like these people.)
Of course, the Web (as it exists today) isn't about graphics. It's about words. And because I'm a copywriter who writes for the Web on a daily basis, I pay close attention to how companies handle their cybercopy. Here's what I've discovered.
Some companies do a wonderful job, but all too many settle for very mediocre writing indeed. Let me offer a few extremely representative examples of weak writing, followed by some comments that may prove helpful. I'm using fictitious company names, but the words are pulled right off the Web:
"Welcome to XYZ Software's online home. If this is your first visit, or if you are a return visitor, please tell us a little about yourself and how we can make your next visit more useful."
COMMENT: Immediately after welcoming the visitor to the Web site, XYZ Software grills the visitor for personal information so that his next visit will be "more useful." What XYZ needs to understand is that there won't BE a "next visit." You see, you can't expect someone to return to your Web site unless you give them something of real value now! Asking them to provide personal information up front is a guaranteed way to turn people off.
THE MORAL: Don't be pushy on your home page.
"Welcome to ABC Software: ABC Software publishes award-winning consumer software products for health, diet, nutrition and recipes. Our mission, since 1987, is to educate consumers about healthy diets and provide information about optimum eating patterns. We are committed to improving public health."
COMMENT: ABC Software may provide you with a healthy diet, but their copy is larded with clichés. "Our mission, since 1987 . . ." Puh-leeeeze. Unless you're writing for the United Nations, let's drop these pompous mission statements. A mission statement can hang out in an annual report, or at the back of a capabilities brochure if you insist, but it doesn't belong on your home page! It's so stuffy, self-important, and overblown. Lose it!
THE MORAL: Avoid mission statements. Keep your rhetoric, tone and voice contemporary and lively.
"ABC Software has been helping innovative companies provide world-class customer service via e-mail and online transactions for more than 12 years. We know your time is valuable, and we know all too well how much time it takes to define and solve problems, even before you take that first step up the learning curve."
COMMENT: The first sentence explains that ABC has a lot of experience. The second talks about time being valuable. There is no logical connection between the two sentences. What you've got here is a complete non sequitor. Am I sounding a bit like your junior high English teacher? That's fine becase this stuff matters. Your readers may not be aware of problems with the logical flow of your copy, but your Web pages will sound weak and flabby. If this kind of thing permeates your entire site, you'll be dying a death from a thousand cuts and not even know it.
THE MORAL: Make sure your Web copy is tight, sharp and crisp!
Ivan Levison is a freelance direct response copywriter who works for companies like Bank of America, Fireman's Fund, Intel, Microsoft and many others. Levison writes direct mail sales letters, e-mail letters and ads. For a free subscription to his monthly e-mail newsletter for software marketers, visit his Web site at http://www.levison.com. He can be reached at (415) 461-0672 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.